A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String


An interviewer once asked me this question: If you were to be stranded on a desert island, what three items would you take?

I gave this frivolous answer: A cat, a hat and a piece of string. Partly because I liked the jaunty, careless bounce of the phrase, and partly because each item has many potential uses, on its own or separately, which makes my choice more than the sum of its parts.

I’d bring the cat for company. The hat for shelter from the sun. The piece of string has multiple purposes, including to amuse the cat, or to keep the hat on in a high wind. There’s also a scenario in which I use the hat and the piece of string to make a simple fish-trap (presumably to feed the cat); or a less appealing one in which I strangle the cat with the piece of string and cook it for lunch, using the hat as a makeshift tureen. (To be fair, I can’t imagine myself ever wanting to eat a cat, but who knows what might happen if you were stranded for long enough on a desert island?) It occurred to me that I could probably think up a hundred similar stories featuring just those three items.

The stories in this collection are a little like that too. Though seemingly unconnected at first, you’ll find they are linked in all kinds of ways to each other and to my novels. Some take place in locations you may recognize; others feature characters with whom you may be familiar. Some stand alone – for the present, at least – which does not mean that they always will. Stories are often so much more than the sum of their individual parts; to me, they exist like unfinished maps to as-yet-undiscovered worlds; waiting for someone to pencil in the connections as they find them. As I said in Jigs & Reels , short stories do not always come easily to me. Sometimes they drift like flotsam to the shores of that desert island; at other times I bring them home from my travels around the world; or sometimes they rattle inside my head for months – and sometimes years – on end, like coins trapped inside a vacuum cleaner, waiting for me to release them.

In any case, I hope that these may take you a little further into that unexplored territory. Maybe you’ll meet some old friends – as I hope you’ll find some new ones. Don’t forget your cat and your hat – and, with a long enough piece of string, you’ll always be sure to find the way home.

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