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Interview: Esther Friesner on “The Cat Bell”

Tell us a bit about “The Cat Bell.”

I believe that we’ve all encountered a person like Cook. I know I have, many times, for which I have my sympathy. You know the sort: Firmly convinced that everything wrong with their lives is to be blamed on anyone but themselves; playing a full hand of Victim cards while showing no compassion for those who are actual victims; staunchly certain that their minds aren’t narrow, just “cozy”; unable to feel tall unless they’re standing on someone else’s face.

Earthshaking revelation: I don’t like them.

Sometimes I get the chance to relieve my feelings on the subject. For me, “The Cat Bell” has been one instance of self-prescribed-and-dispensed Comeuppance Therapy that I hope others will take a wee bit of wicked delight in as well.

If not, at least it’s a story with cats in it.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

The summer before I wrote “The Cat Bell,” I finally visited Gillette Castle here in Connecticut. I say “finally” because I’ve lived in Connecticut for over forty years and the number of major tourist attractions I’ve yet failed to see remains a monument to “Eh, maybe later.” I doubt I’m the only person who does this.  When I travel, I hunt out every single local point of interest, no matter how minor. (“Oooooh, it’s the Museum of Lint! I must see it!”) Close to home? Not so much.

William Gillette was a wildly popular actor, now best remembered for playing Sherlock Holmes. I believe he’s the one who added the deerstalker cap and iconic pipe to the image of the great detective. What I do know for sure is that he was a Cat Person of the first order. Gillette Castle is choc-a-bloc with images of cats, and the master of the house happily shared his life with a great number of real kitties.

When I peered into one display case and saw the very bell used to summon Mr. Gillette’s moggies to dine, something clicked; my Muse murmured, “Go for it,” and the cat bell begat “The Cat Bell.”


What research, if any, did you do for “The Cat Bell”?

Research for “The Cat Bell” was pretty much done thanks to the abovementioned visit, though I did resort to the internet in order to get the hierarchy of domestic servants correct. It’s a fascinating thing. I suppose I would have already known all about it if I’d watched “Downton Abbey.” On the other hand, there were probably some differences between American and British rankings for servants.


You’re known for your humorous style: what draws you to it and what do you think its strengths are, given the trend in fantasy toward gritty violent cynicism?

I was raised on humor. My father, a Holocaust survivor, had a great sense of humor and passed it along to me. His idea of a good bedtime story was to read me book after book of Walt Kelly’s collected POGO comic strips. He’s also how I came to be a huge fan of Danny Kaye, Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Marx Brothers, Victor Borge, and above all, the Three Stooges (as long as the third Stooge is Curly, or in a pinch, Shemp. Accept no substitutes!)

As I got older, re-read and re-watched all of the above, I discovered that while so-called “serious” writing works like a mallet to the head for getting its message across, humor is the ninja that sneaks up on you and delivers equally serious messages while you’re too busy laughing to notice.

None of which is to say that gritty and cynical have no place. They have been known to have a place in my own writing. Whatever works, as long as it works for what I want to say in a particular book or story.


What are you working on now?

I’m doing what I love to do, working on several projects at the same time. It keeps me busy, entertained, and virtually immune to writer’s block. I have a number of short stories coming along nicely as well as some plans for novel or two. More than that I cannot say, except that I look forward to sending at least one of the former to Fantasy & Science Fiction when it’s done.

It does not contain cats. (And what force of Nature or Humankind could ever hope to contain them, I ask you?)


“The Cat Bell” appears in the November/December 2016 issue of F&SF.

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