Jon Blake writes:
I began”The Last Free Cat” in 2000. The basic idea was simple: what if cats weren’t freely available – what would people pay to have such amazing creatures in their homes? And what would happen if a law-abiding girl got hold of a cat she wasn’t supposed to have, but didn’t want to let it go?
In a world where practically everything is seen as a source of profit, these were not such far-fetched ideas. So I set the novel in the near future, in a world not that different to the one we live in.
My first attempts to write the book wound up in dead-ends. Jade, the heroine, lost Feela and went on an adventure to retrieve her. But as soon as Feela went out of the book, it died.
I’d more-or-less given up on the novel. But a few years ago I taught a course at Ty Newydd, the residential writing centre in North Wales. I read an extract from the book, and my co-tutor, the playwright Liz Lochhead, absolutely insisted I carry on with it. So I changed the plot, it began to work, and the novel was finally finished early in 2008. Special thanks to Rachel, my editor, and all the great people on Writewords who gave me invaluable feedback in the early stages of rewriting.
Sadly, my own cat died in February 2008. She was the beautiful and rather wild model for Feela, and in her memory, for the first time ever, I put a dedication in the front of a novel.
I really believe “The Last Free Cat” is the best book I’ve written. It deals with most of the things I believe to be important, but though it is a novel of ideas, it is also about a human relationship, and, of course, the love of those humans for the amazing creature that is Feela.
When I was younger there was one writer who dominated my literary landscape: D.H.Lawrence, the Nottinghamshire miner’s son who is generally thought of as the UK’s first great working-class author. He had many faults, and occasionally some very backward ideas, but at his best, no-one wrote with more sympathy and sensitivity about the world of nature. Like Lawrence, I’m not interested in sentimentalising animal life. Cats should be appreciated for what they are, not made cute or ascribed human emotions.
As I’ve said, The Last Free Cat is set in the near future but draws on the reality of life today: the increasing surveillance of people’s lives, the scares about diseases and terrorism, and the way we are kept in fear so that we can be manipulated by those in power. I wanted to write a book in which one character is in touch with her feelings but ignorant of the way in which we are manipulated, while the other knows what’s what but cannot handle human relationships.
I can’t see the reason for writing a book which does not leave people with a positive message. But I am totally against false happy endings. The reason the book has hope is that I have never lost mine. Not stupid, vague hope, or belief in God, or fate or whatever, but the absolute certainty that the problems facing the world stem from the type of society we live in, not some terrible flaw in human nature. It remains in our power to change that.
Below: diary entry for May 16 2000, when I first got the idea for the novel. Two things are uncanny about this. One is that it’s almost identical to the publication date, totally by chance. The other is the title. All the while I was writing the novel it was called Feela. When the publishers wanted a more descriptive title and I finally came up with The Last Free Cat, I was completely unaware that this was what I’d originally called it.