Ernest McLeod: You’re an established visual artist whose work has been widely exhibited but “Cats vs. Cancer” is your first fiction publication and, I believe, the first story you’d ever sent out. The material seems to come from a very personal place. Has your writing been personal in a different way than your visual artwork because, up until now, it’s been held in a more private space?
Valerie Hegarty: “Cats vs. Cancer” is my first fiction publication and I probably sent out one or two stories before this, although I didn’t ever hear back from the publications and/or write down who I sent them to. So this story was the first one I was more intentional about sending out. I used to write on a daily basis in my twenties and took a few continuing education creative writing classes at City College in San Francisco at that time. I was pursuing making art at the same time and at a certain point in my thirties the art making took over my time, although I continued to write here and there, filling up notebooks but never sending anything out.
Some of my writing is based on my personal experience and some of my writing is about art making in some way. My artwork comes from a personal place but it’s more metaphoric. At the same time I was writing “Cats vs. Cancer” I was making artwork based on still-life imagery in the Vanitas genre of art history, being works that talk about mortality, the fleeting nature of life, the impermanence of material possessions, but I was using art history imagery, not imagery that might illustrate my specific experience more directly. I think it’s true what you say, that it’s been easier to be more directly personal in writing since I often don’t share it with the world. It was a little unsettling to share this story as it reveals personal information about the main character that one might normally keep hidden, such as having addiction issues, mental health issues, cancer, and two cats! I also find I can express myself more directly in writing; it’s easier to tell a specific story—that language allows for this—where painting and sculpture pulls me in a more metaphoric direction.
EM: “Cats vs. Cancer” follows the narrator as she navigates a cancer diagnosis, one that grows more concerning as the story unfolds. This isn’t obvious subject matter for humor, yet the story is often very funny. Do you think the humor is natural to your artistic sensibility or was it also more deliberate than that?
VH: I think humor is a big part of my personality so it came out in the storytelling naturally. I am fond of dry wit and dark humor and I think it’s easier to express the nuance of this in writing. There is humor in my artwork also, but I think it doesn’t always translate for everyone. I was thinking that my story is about two things you should never talk about to the person sitting next to you at a dinner party—that you have cancer and two cats! But it would be funny if you did start talking about it. I know someone who always says, “Don’t quit until it gets funny,” and I subscribe to that philosophy also.
EM: As the title suggests, the story is about cancer and cats. The narrator reluctantly adopts an alley kitten and then must try to establish peace between the new kitty and her older cat, a process that—to say the least—does not go smoothly. The title is a riff on the Cat vs. Cat book the narrator is reading to “better understand cat behavior.” I liked how the cat drama both paralleled (the new kitty even has a surgical scar) and provided a counterpoint to the cancer drama. How did you see the cat narrative functioning in the story?
VH: I liked the cat narrative as you described both as a parallel and counterpoint to the story. I feel an affinity to stray cats as an artist—cats and artists need to have tenacity, an ability to adapt, to make use of scraps, to live and work in fringe areas. I also read when I was doing research that cats live in colonies and adult cats will take care of kittens that are not their own. This reminded me of the addiction recovery groups that form communities and will help anyone in their community that is in need of assistance. Often the group helping you is sort of a motley crew with a spectrum of life experience but everyone unites for this common purpose. So the kittens in the story and the main character are trying to get by as best they can with their own resources and the kindness of strangers. I liked the cats having a peaceful resolution at the same time the main character is feeling more at peace at the end of the story.
EM: It’s such a universal thing to feel vulnerable in an institutional medical setting. It’s like this whole other world where you don’t know any of the rules until you’re faced with them. Your deep, precise dive into the torturous diagnostic procedures and surrounding atmosphere opened my eyes. Was getting that information in there (including the beloved floral stretchy pants) as essential to you as it felt to me as a reader?
VH: When I first wrote the story I think I was just trying to get down on paper everything that happened in a very tumultuous month. It’s probably not a surprise that this is a lightly fictionalized retelling of what I went through. I think the medical procedures were important to me because I was aghast at how grueling they were. Even the MRI was a surprise; I had never had one before and I was shocked it was so insanely loud. I also couldn’t believe the medical tables are so crazy uncomfortable. I kept thinking, Isn’t there some grad student at RISD in product design that can make a better table? One of the biopsy tables didn’t even have a hole cut out for your head so when you lay on your stomach you had to crank your neck to the side and I thought my neck was going to break. The nurses said everyone has a really hard time with that and I was incredulous that this hadn’t been addressed in the table design. It is also a big deal as someone in recovery to try to negotiate the pain without overstepping the use of painkillers so this felt important to try to express also. The floral stretchy pants seemed like a huge win when I realized I could wear them in the MRI (they don’t tell you ahead of time that you have to take off your pants if you have a zipper). I felt like I had some control over my body by wearing the pants and getting to keep them on in the MRI. Getting high off the valium was what they call in recovery “a freebie”—sometimes you need to take a valium or painkiller for a medical reason and you get a little high with hopefully no negative consequences.
EM: When we’re in the throes of a personal crisis (such as an unforeseen illness), it’s natural to be consumed by it. Yet, life goes on all around us. Can you talk about addressing that in the story? I’m thinking of the bored medical staff (what’s momentous for the patient is routine for them) and also of the narrator’s friend, who’s hit with a tragedy right in the midst of the narrator’s cancer scare.
VH: Yes, it can be comforting that life is going on as usual around you and also overwhelming. It was terrible my friend’s boyfriend died that same night I got the cancer diagnosis. There was so much shock. There was a whole other community of people that surrounded her and took care of her. I was so grateful that our artist communities and my recovery community were large and strong.
I was also interviewing for full-time teaching positions at the same time (this didn’t make it into the story). I had to go to DC right after all the biopsies for five interviews. And after surgery I had two full-day interviews on a trip to Boston where I had to ask strangers to help me with my suitcase. It seemed impossible when I thought about everything going on, but this experience really forced me to stay in the day, in the moment, and approach one thing at a time. I felt like it was a huge accomplishment every time I finished an interview. I would never reveal what was happening in my personal life so to them it was just another day. I was talking to a friend who recently had a mastectomy and treatment and we were saying how there was a bit of nostalgia for the days of crisis because, being forced to live in the moment, we both felt very “awake” and “alive.”
EM: There’s a scene near the end of the story where the narrator gets a call from a male nurse to go over her medical history in preparation for the “to be determined” surgery. As the narrator answers the questions she’s “overcome with shame.” Then there’s an unexpected turn in their conversation I found so poignant. Was this always a pivotal moment, or did it emerge as one during the writing process?
VH: This was always a pivotal dialogue. There is so much fear in navigating all the tests and waiting for results, while being scared about triggering an addiction. I also have on my medical records that I am “allergic” to alcohol as I told a doctor this when I first got sober and it constantly causes confusion no matter what doctor I go to (now I say “recovering alcoholic” to avoid confusion). To have someone in the medical field reveal their medical records and tell me I was going to be okay was a tremendous act of kindness. I believed him that I was going to be okay because he had what I had.
EM: What’s it been like seeing your first story in print? Does it feel like a new chapter in your artistic life?
VH: It’s been fantastic to see my first story in print. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was probably in fourth grade. I remember writing down my dream to be a writer and an artist back then and I remember practicing my signature since I thought I would need to have a good signature for both careers. It definitely feels like a new chapter in my artistic life. It has made me feel like things have opened up; I dug up some old stories from twenty-five to thirty years ago that I am retyping (I can’t find the digital files) and editing, along with working on some new stories. By writing more, I think I’m seeing more openness in my art: both in form and content.