SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"Catnip: A Love Story" by Michael Korda is a book drawn from scribbles that amused in a time of anxiety. Michael Korda's wife, Margaret Korda, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She went riding most days of what turned out to be the last year of her life. And each day, Michael Korda sketched cartoons of their cats on the back of old manuscripts in the tack room - cats cooking and dining, cats in cowboy hats and book clubs, cats playing musical instruments and dancing the cat-can. Margaret shared photos of those cartoons drawn in love and intended to distract and delight, and they're now this book.
Michael Korda, the best-selling author of several histories and former editor-in-chief of Simon and Schuster, joins us now from Fishkill, N.Y. Michael, thanks so much for being with us.
MICHAEL KORDA: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.
SIMON: A lot of love in these cartoons - for these cats and for you and Margaret.
KORDA: (Speaking in foreign language). Absolutely. I should make it clear - and to be perfectly honest - that I'm fond of cats, but I'm not a natural cat person. Cats were introduced into my life when I married Margaret because she always had a cat - or more than one cat once we moved up to the country. And I've gotten used to cats and even been very fond of some of the cats, though they were...
KORDA: ...Not always fond of me. And so when it came time to find something that would amuse her, I decided to do little cat cartoons.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the characters. Kit Kat, George, Ruby 9-11 - what can you tell us about Ruby?
KORDA: I can tell you that Ruby 9-11 ate breakfast today because I observed that myself. But Ruby 9-11 was named because she appeared on our doorstep on 9-1 and is the most gentle and kind of cats. Margaret had a big bruiser of a male cat called Mr. McT., who was boss of all cats. And when he fell ill, Ruby literally nursed him and would lie with her front paws around him keeping him company. Kit Kat was always a cat hostile to me - not because I (laughter) did anything in particular but just because she was passionately devoted to Margaret and resented anybody coming between herself and Margaret.
SIMON: Did the cats help you get through this tough period - help Margaret get through this tough period?
KORDA: Oh, I think so. Margaret, once the first two brain surgeries had failed to halt the advance of the brain tumor, elected - very strongly desired - to die at home in her own bedroom and in her own bed. And I made that possible, supported that decision. And the cats knew she was dying, and they absolutely were supportive of her 24/7. There would always be one of them lying next to her in the bed, even though most of them resented the presence of a 24/7 nurse. But one of them always stayed close to her to the very end.
And I was very impressed by that because, you know, you don't necessarily always think of cats as being warm and sympathetic, and cats do tend to be aloof in character. But Margaret's were not. And I wanted to somehow convey in this short book the feeling that was going on between the cats and Margaret.
SIMON: I remember when my late stepfather reached the final stages of his illness and was very frustrated by the fact that everything seemed to be breaking down. His cat, Ulysses, didn't ask for him to be anything other than just, you know, a warm lump in the bed (laughter).
KORDA: Yes. (Laughter) Ulysses is a wonderful name. Is he not named, by any chance, after Ulysses S. Grant? I wrote a biography...
SIMON: No, absolutely. Yes, I know. That's why I mentioned it to you.
SIMON: My stepfather owned the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago and definitely...
KORDA: Oh, how wonderful.
SIMON: ...Named his cat Ulysses. Yeah.
KORDA: How wonderful. How wonderful. And you wrote a wonderful book about your mother's death, I believe.
SIMON: I did the best I could. Thank you. Yes.
KORDA: Well, it's difficult, I think, to write a book about the death of somebody you love, and it's difficult to do that without being either grim or lachrymose. And I think "Catnip" tries to avoid both those things. It's - you know, it's not possible to write a funny book about death, but it is possible to write a book about death that in some way pays tribute to the living and to life, even if it's through cats. It's a tricky thing to do, and I think the book is one that Margaret herself would've appreciated. And she would've gotten, I think, a big kick from seeing the drawings in the book on a daily basis.
SIMON: Michael, may I ask how you're doing?
KORDA: I'm doing OK. But it's been very difficult, as I don't need to tell you. I'm not sure I will ever adjust to the loss of Margaret. And I'm trying to do the things that would have pleased her or that I know she would have wanted, like look after her horses and look after her cats the way she would've wanted them looked after.
SIMON: And I must ask, how are the cats doing?
KORDA: The cats are doing just fine. But, you know, it's very interesting. They know Margaret is gone, and they miss Margaret. Ruby, for example, always liked to sit next to Margaret in the bathroom in the mornings while Margaret put on her makeup. And she'll go and sit in that exact place every morning at exactly the time Margaret put on her makeup and wait. You know, you can't ascribe to animals feelings they don't have, but clearly she knows that Margaret is gone, and she misses her, and she goes to that place. You know, I think cats know more than we think they do.
SIMON: Michael Korda's book "Catnip: A Love Story." Thanks so much for being with us.
KORDA: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF GENERAL FUZZ'S "THOUGHT PARTNER")
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