Sarah Gerard on “The Butter House” and the Challenges of Writing About Cats

Sarah Gerard

I’d been eager to read something new from Sarah Gerard ever since I finished their 2020 novel True Love. Imagine my happiness when, earlier this year, a package arrived at my apartment containing a new chapbook by Gerard, titled The Butter House. Have I mentioned that I’m a huge fan of single-story chapbooks? Short version: I am. And The Butter House, about a human couple living in Florida and the cats that surround them, is both an engaging read and part of what seems like a literary trend for 2023: humans imagining the lives of animals. I spoke with Gerard about the book’s origins and what sounds like a truly singular release party, among other topics.

You did an event for The Butter House at AWP at a cat cafe and I’m curious — what is it like to do a book event at a cat cafe?

Oh my god, it was so cute. It felt like it wasn’t even a book event. We were just having a little party, a cat party. The cafe was so lovely about hosting, and flexible. I’m glad people got to go into the cat room; the cafe was very welcoming in that way. Everybody had a great time. I gave a brief reading, but it was really just more about the celebration of this thing. And I got to see some of my friends.

The bartender was my favorite part, actually. She has this amazing way of peppering her language with cat terminology. Instead of saying thank you, she would say thank meow. It was very cute that way. If you ordered a drink, she would ask you if you wanted to open a tabby. If you asked her where the bathroom was, she would say, oh, the litter box is over there. So, in keeping with the theme, it was a perfect place to host such an event.

It was not my idea, by the way, it was James’s idea, from Conium. I want to give them credit because they have so thoughtfully, every step of the way, just done right by the story. The cover was their idea. There’s a point in the story where the text layout…

The section from the cat’s point of view, where the spacing changes?

Exactly — the spacing, that was their thing, they did that. They’re definitely cat people. I was really lucky to stay at their house after AWP. We drove to Portland together; James and their partner and I all drove to Portland together and had a little event the same night. They have two cats in their house; I got to meet their cats. 

It was a really wonderful opportunity to connect with them as a publisher and as an editor and as fellow writers and fellow cat people. Their cats are really cute. They’re lovely. One of them is quite old as well. So we talked about that. Franny, our cat, is 18. She’s ancient in cat years and she’s kicking, but you know, there are sad challenges that we deal with on a daily basis in keeping Franny comfortable as she ages. So yeah, James and I talked about that too. They do a lot for their cat as well. James came up with the cat cafe idea because they’re quite a cat person themselves and a very creative and thoughtful publisher.

How did you come to work with The Conium Review on this book? When you wrote it, did you initially think of it as a standalone work?

No, I wrote it for fun, which is not something I normally do. I normally give myself a big project and work on it for a long time and get really serious about it. But this was, I think, a really necessary outlet for me as I’ve been working on a couple of really heavy projects, big projects.

I met James a few years ago when they signed up for a LitReactor class that I was teaching. This must have been in 2016 or 2017, I think. They’re also a writer — they write really wonderful fiction and have published some works of their own in chapbooks, and they’re now working on publishing a novel and a story collection actually.  So I met James in a class as a student; it was really funny because you don’t see anybody’s face when you teach for LitReactor. You just read. 

I really liked their work. And then they reached out to me afterward a couple, a year later, maybe two years later, and asked if I would blurb a chapbook of theirs. And I said, yeah, absolutely. And we just became friends and kept in touch on the Internet. Then one day I tweeted that I had written this story about cats. I wrote, I’ve written a 25 page short story about cats, everybody. You’re welcome. I was totally joking. Didn’t expect anything to come of that, because why would it? But then they tweeted back at me and said, “Oh my god, can I actually read this?” And I said, “Hell yeah.”

I knew that they were running Conium and they told me they’ve been looking for some stuff to publish this year. They publish a literary journal, of course, and then they also publish some books. They were pretty selective about the projects that they published because it’s a one person operation, one and a half if you consider the help they get from Uma, their partner, who is a really lovely person and contributed to some of the editorial on this story. Uma is a forensic psychologist and the protagonist of the story majored in psychology and just finished her psychology degree. So Uma contributed some to the believability of that character, which I’m very thankful for. And she’s just a lovely, very thoughtful, very literary person as well.

James tweeted back at me and said, can I read it? And I said, yes. And then we discovered that we were both cat people and they asked if they could publish it as a chapbook. I said, heck yeah. I didn’t think anything would come of this at all. I kind of, I thought, maybe someday I’ll collect it in a story collection or something, which is a thing I’ve been working on in the background for, like, 20 years. Someday I’ll publish a story collection, because I don’t write short stories all that often anyway. Although I really like them and I really like writing them. I actually find them really difficult, more so than a novel, because they’re so much smaller. A novel you can kind of spread out and experiment a lot more than in a short story. 

Do you feel like parts of The Butter House are in dialogue with your first novel, which also addressed the interplay between humans and non-humans?

I’ve always been fascinated with animal life and our relationship with animals, because I think we frequently forget that we’re animals. My first novel is very pessimistic and angry; it’s very dark. But this may be a response to that, a bit more optimistic about our capability of caring for ourselves and others and, in particular, animals.

I’ve gone in and out of being vegetarian or vegan or pescatarian over the course of my life and have also battled with an eating disorder. So restrictions at different times have been motivated by different things. I guess now I’m much more health-focused than I was when I wrote that novel. And also when I was writing from the perspective that I was writing from in that novel; it’s very autobiographical. So I was writing from the perspective of myself in my early twenties when I was in a really abusive relationship and politically vegan, and also vegan because I was anorexic.

I should also say I was raised vegetarian. My parents are still vegetarian. They’ve been vegetarian for almost 40 years now. And I take it really seriously, for political and environmental reasons. I don’t eat a lot of meat, period. Anyway, I eat chicken and that’s pretty much it. Except if I go out to a restaurant, sometimes I’ll order a burger. But at home, we mostly eat vegetarian anyway, or we eat white meat if we eat meat at all.

Part of it is politically motivated because we don’t want to eat pigs or cows because they’re very intelligent creatures. and very emotional sentient creatures. All creatures are sentient. But also, I have Crohn’s disease and Patrick has his own health regimen. I have Crohn’s disease and I also have high cholesterol. So I try to consider all of that in crafting my diet. So I don’t eat a lot of red meat at all for health reasons and for political reasons. (This is going way off of the topic of the question that you asked me.) But anyway, I’m always considering the relationship between animals and the animal kingdom and us as a part of the animal kingdom — and also thinking politically about the choices I make, with my wallet and with my lifestyle, especially considering the fact that we eat animals to survive. We are evolutionarily omnivorous creatures, although we don’t have to eat animals to survive.

I’m frequently thinking about that. Whenever I can cook or eat vegetarian, I do. But because of my health, my own personal health issues, I feel like I need to eat some animal protein. This book is one aspect of a larger set of questions that I’m asking about care in general and our relationship to the natural world. It’s coming at it from a different angle than Binary Star. Although it’s certainly grappling with a lot of the same issues.

In The Butter House, you refer to the humans as the boyfriend and the girlfriend. Did you always know that they were not going to necessarily be named and you were going to have control over who had  a name and who wasn’t, or was that something that arose from the as you revised it?

That was a really intentional choice, because I wanted the animals to really be the main characters here, the ones that emerged as really three-dimensional characters. I’m a human, so writing from a human perspective, it’s hard not to make that character a real character on the page and also hard to get readers invested in animals. If there’s a story full of animals and no human characters that would be an additional challenge. But I did want to play with that, because I wanted the animals to, to be really  visible and realistic, with big personalities. 

There’s a Garfield cat in the book, and that’s a pre-existing character in our culture that we already know as three-dimensional. It tells us what that cat looks like. So I don’t have to say, “Oh, he’s big fat and orange.” Obviously we know what a Garfield cat and a Sylvester cat mean. The two cats inside the house were a playful way of sending up our relationship with our cats, because we have 150 names for our cats. I was keeping a Word document of all of our nicknames for each of them. I think each of them has 100 entries on that document. It’s pretty ridiculous. We were laughing at ourselves and I wanted to immortalize that somehow. And I wanted to show that these little nicknames that we make up for our cats describe their personalities, but it also shows the reader something about us as characters and the fact that we talk like this and interact with our cats like this and how real these relationships are. 

How much of writing about cats and their behavior is intuitive and how much of it comes from observing cats and trying to find veracity in that behavior?

I don’t know. I don’t know that I was intentionally studying cats to write about them. I think I was observing my own behavior when I was among them. I guess that’s intuitive because unless I decide to become metacognitive, I’m not really conscious of doing that — so it is pretty intuitive. And then in this case, I decided to become metacognitive and just observe how ridiculous I was acting while continuing to do so. 

I was reading The Butter House in close proximity to Henry Hoke’s Open Throat, so I’ve been thinking a lot about books where animals are front and center. Are there other examples of sort of books by humans about non-humans that have really resonated with you over the years? 

Oh my god, so many. When I was vegan, which I’m not right now, but when I was, I was very politically invested in my veganism. I read a lot about the meat industry and about animal products and about animal psychology. One book that I read during that time was called The Bonobo and the Atheist — an absolutely fascinating book about altruism and how it’s not specific to humans. Animals practice altruism as well and altruism is not necessarily what we think of it as. I’ve read a book called The Meat Racket that I would not recommend to anybody with a sensitive stomach. 

A Language Older Than Words, by Derek Jensen. Beautiful book. Absolutely. Everything by Derek Jensen is beautiful and it’s not specific to the animal kingdom, but to the natural world. Loren Eiseley, he’s a nature writer, long dead, but I really love his writing. He writes a lot about animals in the natural world as well. The Sixth Extinction — I mean, that’s kind of a different thing.

There’s one book about evolutionary storytelling, an evolutionary theory of storytelling. I think it’s called On the Origin of Stories. It’s a book that really shaped the way I think about storytelling and about evolution and about why we tell stories — it’s because we’re animals.

When I was younger, Shiloh, that book fucking made me cry so many times. Where the Red Fern Grows — get the fuck out. That book is so fucking sad. I can’t; I just can’t. Black Beauty really affected me. I think when we’re children, we really like reading about animals because we relate to them. They’re the same size as us. They are of similar intellectual levels for a long time. They play, they have a lot of energy, and we get that affection of having a surrogate sibling. I’m an only child. So when I was little, my cats were so important to me when I was younger. And I wish I had a dog when I was a kid, but I wasn’t allowed. My parents were too busy to walk a dog and train a dog and I was not responsible enough to do that myself. 

Those books really affected me. And like I said, I was raised vegetarian. My parents went vegetarian when I was four for religious and political reasons. I actually wrote about this for the New York Times too. The essay is called “Earthlings, Anarchists and Other Animals.” I remember when I was 10 years old, I decided to go vegetarian. My parents didn’t make me. They let me decide on my own that I wanted to be vegetarian. And when I did, I remember it was because somebody at school had handed me a PETA pamphlet, a PETA flyer, and I realized that all of the products in my house had been tested on animals.

I remember calling up Procter and Gamble and asking them if my Colgate toothpaste was tested on animals, and the lady on the other end told me that it was. I hung up crying. It was because I suddenly had a vivid mental picture; I had seen the pictures in the PETA pamphlet of what happens to animals, and I felt so complicit. I was really angry and I was really aggrieved that I had been involved in this cruelty. I’ve always been a really sensitive person, especially when I was a kid. So I felt really connected to the animals that I was reading about in nonfiction and fiction, you know?


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