Paul Koudounaris on tracing the secret history of felines in A Cat’s Tale
For those familiar with the work of writer and photographer Paul Koudounaris, his most recent book might come as a bit of a hard left turn. Koudounaris is best known for The Empire of Death, Heavenly Bodies, and Memento Mori, three books which all document the use of the body in art–and that’s actually using things like human bones and skin to create art, not just pictures of dead folks. It’s a body of work frequently referred to as macabre, making his latest, A Cat’s Tale, a delightfully different read, although no less visually-enticing.
A Cat’s Tale uses the voice of Koudounaris’ cat, Baba, to tell the history of cats, using amazing photos of the feline in a wide array of historical costumes. It’s entertaining, informative, and beyond cute. It’s exactly the sort of book you start reading and find yourself giggling and reading portions aloud to anyone within earshot while holding open the book to show off the amazing photos.
I hopped on the phone with Koudounaris last month to discuss A Cat’s Tale, which is out today from Henry Holt & Company.
The Pitch: This book was likely a long time in the creation, but it seems like releasing it right now is very much something that people need. As I’ve been reading it the last few days, it has done a remarkable job of putting me in a better mindset. How long this has been in the works?
Paul Koudounaris: I don’t mean to take what should be a simple question and make it complicated but it always is complicated with books because I think, in a way, they’re always with you. It’s hard for me to say when something that was a hobby and something that I was doing for fun and doing the research and doing the photos with my cat–when did that go from being a project to an actual project?
I will say this: I started doing the photos with her about five years ago. She’s almost 10 now. I thought about this the other day–it’s weird. She’s been working on this book for half of her life, so there’s a very convoluted path to this book, which is why it’s so hard for me to answer your question. If you looked me up online at all, you’ll find that I’ve written three other books and they’re all about the history of death. There’s a fair question that you can ask: “How do you go from a history of death in this macabre stuff to a book about cats?”
After my last book came out, I had planned to write a book about the history of pet cemeteries–which I would still like to do because it’s a fascinating topic that no one’s ever really done and no one’s ever really realized the importance of them – but in the process of doing all that research, I started compiling a lot of collateral material about animals and especially about cats and realizing they’ve never really received their due, historically, which has to do with a lot of things, especially with the way that dogs were always kind of gendered masculine and cats gendered feminine, and so they just never really got credit for the heroic and important social contributions that they had made.
At the same time, I had also started doing this costume series with my cat and at some point in time, I just realized the pieces were all there for a completely different project. It’s like, “Forget the pet cemeteries. You can do that later. They’re not going anywhere. Do a book about the history of cats. Let the cat tell it and use these cosplay photos to illustrate it.”
So, I’d say that I’ve been working on all the pieces of it for at least five years, but it really only came together as a project about three years ago.
What led you to use this particular voice in the book to tell it, where you let Baba tell the story?
If you’ve ever read a book about animal history, they’re always really really jerky because only the animals know the stories and they’re not telling, because they don’t leave an oral or written history for us. Like I said–in doing this pet cemetery research, I had read pretty much every book about dogs and cats and other animals that exists and it’s always a really bumpy ride. Ut’s like driving down a road with speed bumps: just a bunch of stories kind of connected together, but they go, “Bump bump bump,” and they’re not smooth.
I realized that I could never fully overcome the speed bump feeling in telling feline history. I can never fully overcome that, but I can gloss over it a little bit by changing the voice from a human narrator to a feline narrator, so the narrator’s voice is telling you the story becomes as much of the subject as the stories themselves.
In choosing that voice I’m really trying to distract you from the bumpy nature of the material because I’m hoping that you’ll follow her and you’ll go with her tone and not really realize how bumpy the material is. There’s really nothing I can do about that.
I feel like everyone has a certain voice and diction for their cats whenever they’re interacting with their pets. Was the voice created for A Cat’s Tale or did this grow out of the voice you already had in your head for Baba?
Well, it’s got to be a combination of both, right? Because I do. You are 100% right: everyone has a voice for their animal in their head because we all hold those conversations with them. Either verbally or mentally, we all hold a dialogue with these animals, so I already had that intuitively with her but, in terms of a full speaking voice, it had to be developed for the book.
Of all the aspects of this book, that was the absolute hardest part for me, because I’m not an actor and I’m not even a good liar, either. It’s really hard for me to play a role other than me, so developing that character and holding on to that character was very tough. It made me realize why so many actors crack up after playing certain roles because there’s only so long you can live with another voice in your head.
At the time, I was living in L.A. and so I was going out every night, seeing bands, or hanging out with my friends, and sometimes people would start talking to me and I’d start answering in the cat’s voice (which is not that dissimilar to me) but it is a distinct personality. They’d kind of look at me strangely and I’d have to snap out of it. It was hard because I didn’t want to lose that voice. Sometimes, I’d sequester myself away from people while I was writing because I didn’t want to snap out of that voice. I didn’t want to lose it, because it was so hard to get it back.
Given the fact that there are so many photos of Baba in so many costumes–who creates those costumes? They appear to be bespoke, not off the rack.
Nothing’s off the rack. I started this doing them myself, but towards the end of the book, I came to a point where there were certain costumes that I just couldn’t do. I could not make the samurai armor. I sew a little bit but not enough to do stuff like that. My go-to for a long time in costumes was scavenging either old teddy bears costumes – because a lot of teddy bears will come dressed up in some pretty nice costumes and I can go out to a Build-A-Bear and get a fake leather biker jacket or something – or from doll shows.
Doll shows are a whole other world of 90 year-old women who collect these fancy old dolls. There are all kinds of amazing costumes they have for these old dolls, so I would hit up doll flea markets and I’d get little bits of teddy bear costumes and then I would modify them. I’d cut them up and I’d tailor them for the cat, and that’s not that hard.
Towards the end of the book, though, I had a list of things that I just can’t do. I couldn’t do that Napoleon costume. It’s a very difficult costume to make. I couldn’t do the Cardinal Richelieu and I couldn’t do that samurai armor but, fortunately, while I was still living in L.A., I had a lot of friends who were in the film industry and doing costuming and those people are out of work more than they’re in work.
A very good friend of mine named Desiree I called up because she just likes weird projects. I showed her what I was doing and I hired her to make the last set and she did a hell of a job. That Napoleon costume, if you look at that, take a look at what she did: she took a piece of fur and she bent the arm in and made it look like it was [Baba’s] paw going in. That’s way beyond my skill level.
As you are a photographer and have taken many of the photos, did you travel to get the photos of many of the locales and monuments that are in the book?
I shot all those myself and it’s important for two reasons. First of all, there’s the copyright reason. I don’t want to have to pay someone else for their photo. Would I rather pay someone for a photo of New Zealand or would I rather go to New Zealand and take the photo I want?
The other aspect of that is, yes I could have gone to a stock image company and found a lot of those location photos, but they wouldn’t have been the locations that I need. I know a girl in New Zealand who is a photographer and I thought of asking her to go take that photo of the Mrs. Chippy statue on the grave and then I was like, “I gotta do it myself, because I know what this book needs,” so towards the very end, I actually sent a letter to the editor and I said, “Hold everything for two weeks. I’m going to Japan. I’m going to Australia. I’m going to New Zealand, and I’m going to do these photos myself and get the ones that touch people,” because that’s what I needed. I needed photos that weren’t just of the statue on the grave. I needed photos that expressed the cat’s vision.
A lot of these photos are from a cat’s eye view: they’re all taken at a very low perspective.
They’re all taken with a super wide-angle lens and they all really focus on the feline aspect which – if I hired a human photographer to do it, that’s just not how they would do it. I visited these places after the text was done, but they did give me–and I think this is very important–they did give me an empathy, and I’d like to think that empathy comes across in the photos.
There’s a real love for the material. It’s not just you acting the part of Baba: it seems like this is something that you really got deep into.
I don’t think you can get into these projects unless you really love them. It’s cliché to say, but don’t get involved in art or literature or photography or any of these fields unless you absolutely have to–unless it’s a compelling calling–because they’re not financially rewarding, except for maybe 0.1 percent of people. Like I said: everything was already done. We could have turned the book in as-is and I told the editor, “Give me two weeks. I’m going to Japan and Australia and New Zealand,” so obviously, it was a compulsion that everything had to be exactly right.
A Cat’s Tale is out today from Henry Holt & Company. You can find more information at Henry Holt & Company.