You can read Cameron L. Mitchell’s story “Big Cat Head” in our Winter Issue. Cameron grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Oyez Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Jonathan, ImageOutWrite, The Queer South anthology, and a few other places. He currently lives in New York City, where he works in archives at Columbia University’s medical school library. He’s hard at work on his first novel. Check out his blog, which includes information about some of his work. You can also find him on Twitter: @CameronLMitchel.
What inspired you to write this work?
I wrote ‘Big Cat Head’ after a particularly lonesome few days I had in New York. I started thinking about how isolated one can feel in the city at times despite the fact that there are always people around and countless things to do. I think a lot of people experience that, being lost in this massive crowd. The process of writing the story was a way to cheer myself up. It felt incredibly funny to me, which is kind of a weird thing to say about your own work. It’s also weird because I’m not sure it’s really a funny story at all.
But it all started with that image of a person with a big cat head, which just came to me. I wondered, what would one do if they found something so bizarre in their house?
Are there any authors, artists, books, etc. that you feel influence this work or your work in general.
There are numerous authors and books that I love. My biggest fear is dying and not being able to read anymore. If there’s an afterlife, I hope it’s a library filled with an unending supply of books.
Everything I read is influential in some way, in a general sense. As for this particular story, I was much more experimental than I normally am. Much of my work is very straightforward, so it was fun to play around. There’s a book of short stories by Yoko Ogawa that I go back to again and again called ‘Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales.’ It’s the perfect collection of stories. They’re dark, they’re mysterious, and strange things happen. I don’t re-read many books, but I could read this one over and over again. While I wasn’t thinking of these stories during the writing of ‘Big Cat Head,’ I’m sure they had some influence.
Is there anything in particular that you hope readers will understand, gain, or experience from this work?
I hope readers enjoy the story. That’s all I can ask for.
Describe your typical writing process.
I’m at my most creative in the late morning/early afternoon. I love brewing a pot of coffee and sitting down to write. I need total quiet while composing first drafts, but it’s fun to take myself out into the world when it’s time to revise. On weekends, I often print a story out and bring it to a favorite coffee shop to work on. I like having something physical in my hands to read over and revise – it helps me see the work in a new way and catch things I might have missed otherwise.
If you could choose to be any nonhuman creature, what would you be and why?
Can I be a nonhuman creature for only a little while? The idea of permanently turning into something nonhuman makes me nervous. I like being human. I’ll assume I can be a nonhuman creature on a strictly temporary basis. In that case, I’ll say a bird of some kind – a large bird. I hate the idea of being a sparrow or some tiny, frail thing. Maybe an eagle? I’d love to know what it feels like to fly, mostly because I often have dreams of being able to fly. In every single dream, it’s like I have this hidden talent that I forgot about. I’m so happy when I remember that I can fly. I take off into the sky, and it’s magnificent. But then I wake up, crushed to discover that I can’t fly.
We loved how the absurdly fantastical in this piece moved into very serious and unexpected territory. Was it a challenge to balance the tone of this piece? Do you feel that absurdity is useful when writing about difficult subjects like death?
I didn’t think much about the tone of the story while writing it. I started with this image of a person with a big cat head and took it from there. The writing was very quick, like the story was already there and just needed someone to write it down. My best stories are the ones that insist on being written. That’s not to say I didn’t take lots of time revising it, but the basic story didn’t change very much.
Death is absurd – the things we do to avoid thinking about it are absurd. I really don’t like thinking about death, honestly. When I was a child, I remember praying for whatever god might be listening to take thoughts of death away. For me, I looked at it in two distinct ways: you die and blow out like a candle; or, there’s an afterlife, and you just go on and on for eternity. Both options terrified me. I didn’t want to blow out like a candle, being gone forever. I also didn’t like the idea of being conscious in some way, going on and on and on – till when?
I should stop now. I’m sort of freaking myself out. But yes, maybe the absurdity in this story is a way for me to work through some issues. Thinking there could be this other world after death that’s unlike anything we’ve ever known or would expect – perhaps that’s comforting to the child burying his face in a pillow, praying to just stop thinking about the whole thing.
All that being said, I’m not sure my story is in fact about death at all. Not in the way readers might think, anyway. The original version of the story actually continued for another paragraph or two, concluding in a far less ambiguous way. Ultimately, I decided to chop those paragraphs off and let the reader come to their own conclusion.
Many of our editors are very fond of our cats and find them influencing our writing, so we felt a particular kinship to this piece. Assuming you, too, are a cat person, please feel free to use this space to tell us all about your cat(s) and their influence on this story.
Though I don’t consider myself a cat person, I had one up until recently. I like cats, but if I were to get another pet, I’d prefer a dog. Dogs are full of love and fun to play with. Cats are weird and not always the most loving creatures. They do their own thing and come to you only when they want. I had cats and dogs growing up, as well as numerous other animals.
My cat was a big influence on ‘Big Cat Head.’ Some of the cat-specific details of the story are lifted from my life. I often wondered what my cat was thinking. Sometimes, she couldn’t get enough attention, demanding to sit on my chest; other times, she hid in the closet, perfectly content without me. While writing this story, I still had my cat, but she was getting older, so I was thinking about what it’d be like once she was gone. She’s still alive, but I had to find her a new home when I moved. It worked out really well since a trusted friend took her in. She has more space now and is happy, though I do miss her.
Cats are kind of absurd creatures. They’re funny and highly entertaining. I like the idea that there’s this world out there with cats walking upright, chatting away. I bet they’re wise.