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"The Cat Who Cried for Help."

Veterinarian Nicholas Dodman, the author of "Dog Who Loved Too Much" and a recent Fresh Air guest. He has a new book about cats, "The Cat Who Cried for Help" (Bantam Books) which, among other things, is about mortifying cat behaviors like aggression, and out-of-the-litter-box wetting.


Other segments from the episode on September 17, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 17, 1997: Interview with Nicholas Dodman; Interview with Paul Auster; Commentary on slang.


Date: SEPTEMBER 17, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091701np.217
Head: The Cat Who Cried for Help
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We have some more advice on how to deal with cats who are driving you crazy, particularly cats who bite and cats who are doing their business outside the litter box. My guest, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, is the author of the new book "The Cat Who Cried For Help." He recently spoke with us about dogs.

Dodman directs the behavior clinic at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. Dodman has a different take on disciplining cats than the one we presented a few weeks ago, in an interview with naturalist and biologist Roger Tabor.

Tabor said it's difficult to discipline a pushy cat because unlike dogs, cats aren't pack animals. Cats are loners who don't function within a hierarchy or pecking order, and therefore don't respond to your attempts to exert authority over them.

Nicholas Dodman has been rethinking cats and dominant behavior. He says you can command your cat's respect, and cats do have some history of pack behavior.

NICHOLAS DODMAN, AUTHOR, "THE CAT WHO CRIED FOR HELP," PROFESSOR OF BEHAVIORAL PHARMACOLOGY, TUFTS UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF VETERINARY MEDICINE, DIRECTOR OF BEHAVIOR CLINIC: If a cat occupies a very large territory with sparse resources, it can become, you know, a solitary predator, which is our typical sort of idea of a cat -- you know, the cat who walks by himself.

But if food resources are plentiful, then cats will happily coexist in groups of 60 or 80. Frequently in my practice, groups of sort of 20 and 40 inside one household, as long as the food is copious. And instead of being an aggregation around a food resource -- just kind of by chance happening to be there -- they actually do have some kind of social organization that in the past has been described as a despotic hierarchy, with one leader or "alpha" cat who is the despot, and everybody else second in command.

But in fact, it's now regarded as being even more complicated than that -- that they have various time-sharing arrangements. They have very subtle ways of communicating their friendship with other cats. And they do have preferred associates, sort of colleagues, and they also have other cats that they will choose to ignore, as it were, enemies.

GROSS: So when a cat starts to think that it's the dominant player in the house and it tries to bully its owner, is the owner likely to be the kind of owner who is not much into disciplining the pet, who's what we call spoiling the pet?

DODMAN: Well, I think so. I can't really prove that. I've tried with dogs to demonstrate in a certain, you know, owner personality factors and, you know, bordered on significant findings in some cases, but haven't quite conclusively proven it.

But from just experience, you know, it does seem that the owners of dominant dogs and the owners of dominant cats do seem to be, you know, pretty nice human beings, really. I mean, they're sort of compliant and, you know, giving to the pet and make allowances. You know, they don't drive a hard bargain. They're pretty compliant individuals; probably nice people to meet.

But a dominant cat who by nature is dominant will take advantage of these kind of compliant people and will start insisting that it gets its own way in any one of a number of different situations. I mean, one, for example, I remember one lady told me that whenever she fell asleep in a particular armchair, her alpha cat would come up and bite her in the hand because it, you know, it had been deprived of her company and it wasn't going to allow her to sleep.

And they'll also jump through the middle of a newspaper that you're trying to read to get your attention; or sit right on the print that you happen to be reading at that time.

GROSS: Why would the cat bite you when you're petting her or him?

DODMAN: Well, for the same reason that dogs do. I mean, if, you know, there's many reasons why cats might bite you, but in the specific instance of petting-induced aggression, if it's a dog or a cat, the animal will approach you, will solicit your attention. The cat may jump into your lap and in a way is demanding, you know -- not requesting, but demanding -- to be petted.

And, you know, the owner thinks, well this is kind of cute, and slides the hand up into the petting position and pets them, but the dominant dog and the dominant cat, when they've had enough, they repel boarders. And if you're looking very carefully, you will see in a cat sort of just slight sideways glances, just a slight turn of the head -- very subtle signs that enough is beginning to be enough.

And you also see a very slight twitching of the tail. That's the time to stop because if you go on beyond that, trying to appease the cat further, it will bite you in the hand. And the message is, you know, to you is: cut it out.

So they'll demand to be petted and then demand for you to stop when they've had enough.

GROSS: So what's the solution? Obviously, the goal isn't to just be so attuned to your cat's every gesture that you know precisely when to pet and not to pet; and what your pet wants and when your cats wants it, 'cause then you become even more subservient to the cat.

How do you get control over the cat?

DODMAN: That's right. You can't win your way over a cat like that, by, you know, continued spoiling. There are several ways that you can address it, but I use a kind of modified dog dominance control program that in dogs, at least, is referred to as "nothing in life is free." Some people call it "working for a living" or "no free lunch."

And what you do is you introduce some kind of structure and everything -- all the good things in life that the cat would normally take for granted, come from you and you make a point that things do come from you, without, you know, there's no yelling; no hitting; no, you know, bad treatment of the animal.

You just simply insist that things are done a certain way until the cat has to respect you. In other words, you're not demanding respect, you're commanding respect. And one way to start this is to train your cat. And in my view a good way to train a cat is with this so-called "click and treat" training.

So what you do is you take a -- one of these, you know, $3 party favor little plastic clickers and first of all, you pair a food treat with the click, so the cat actually comes to think of the click as being, you know, almost a reward in its own right, 'cause it's going to be followed by a reward.

And then you can train your cat to sit or jump up or do whatever it does naturally, and it's good to go with the flow, and click whatever behavior you like and immediately follow it by a reward. You know, in this method, for example, I've trained my cat to sit when I feed it, so it walks up towards me and initially it was just -- I would wait for it to do some behavior that I thought was desirable, and it happened to sit. So, I clicked that behavior and rewarded it.

Later, I introduced the word "sit," so as recently as this morning, I looked at the cat, whose name is Cinder, and I said: "Cinder, sit." And I hadn't done it for a while, so she -- three seconds -- and then, oops, she sat down. And now I don't even have to use the clicker 'cause she's trained to the word "sit," and I can feed her her food.

GROSS: So the point of all this isn't just to get on the David Letterman Show with a stupid pet trick. It's to show that you're the boss and good behavior will be rewarded with food and otherwise what? No food? I mean, do you not feed the cat if the cat doesn't sit?

DODMAN: Well, not -- you don't stop feeding the cat forever, but you would, you know, to be able to use this tool, you'd need to put your cat on twice-daily feeding, rather than, you know, free choice. And when you get the morning meal, you would require for this behavior, you know -- be fair of course, wait 'til it's properly trained -- and then you would require the cat to perform this behavior before getting fed.

And if it didn't, you simply put the food away, walk away and do something else. Come back some time later, you know, not five or 10 minutes later, but a time to develop an even greater hunger. You know, maybe three or four hours later and try it again, or try it again that night.

And eventually, the cat will respond because to obey and get the food is, you know, the most powerful instinct at that time. And you know, it's almost like forcing it to respect your wishes and follow your commands.

GROSS: Now, the impulse when your cat bites you is to smack it, throw it across the room, and say: "no, bad cat." And you've said: no yelling, no hitting. I mean, why not? Doesn't that show that you're the boss, too? If you can smack your cat around and holler a lot?

DODMAN: Well, I mean, you know, I guess I felt completely the opposite view from that. I don't believe that, you know, an aggressive response to a cat or a dog or a child is really an appropriate way with dealing with a situation that, you know, perhaps is frustrating at the time. And, you know, a sort of better punishment, if you will, is sort of time out.

And that is, you know, if a cat is behaving badly, you would stand up and walk away and do something else. The punishment, as it were, is just the withdrawal of company, your company, that it was previously enjoying.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is veterinarian Dr. Nicholas Dodman, and his new book is called "The Cat Who Cried For Help: Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats."

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with veterinarian Dr. Nicholas Dodman, author of the new book "The Cat Who Cried For Help," which is a book about cat psychology.

You've talked about dominant cats and the kind of aggressive behavior that they demonstrate and how to control that. But there's also aggressive behavior that cats can display. If the cat is kind of cooped up in a very small apartment and it's just not getting enough exercise, there's a certain kind of aggressive behavior that's really just playfulness? The cat's really just playing? But he's playing by, you know, biting you.

How can you tell which is, like, kind of dominant cat behavior and which is just being cooped up or just kind of misdirected playfulness because you can't really treat it, can you? Unless you know what the cause is?

DODMAN: Well, kittens will often, you know, bite people and you know, in the book I describe, you know, numerous telephone calls that we get to the behavior clinic saying, you know, my cat is psychotic; you know, my cat is schizophrenic. And they say, you know, how old is it? And the answer is: six months old.

You know, because it's you know, having fits of the maddies and biting the people in the hand and jumping out from, you know, when you get out of the shower and biting them in the feet when they walk past a corner and so on.

And this is all sort of kittenish, playish behavior, which, you know, you need to understand, but particularly when you have a single kitten, it has a drive inside it to play. It's part of normal development.

It's a perfectly natural thing to want to do. And there's kind of social play and predatory play. And if it's the only kitten in the house, you're likely to be the subject of that.

So there are ways that you can defuse it by understanding the need for these behaviors and redirecting them away from yourself, but allowing them to express themselves, you know, towards an appropriate target. For example, a little, you know, sort of toy mouse on a string that's dragged along.

But you know, that behavior with the little kitten who might, for example, sit on your lap and bite you in the hand if you're petting it is, you know, again, my view is that this is an early sign of, you know, what could later become a fully mature dominant cat. And it should be nipped in the bud in the sense of learning when to stop petting the cat and learning to send it clear signals that you don't, you know, like that kind of behavior.

GROSS: Do you find that some pet owners become afraid of their cats?

DODMAN: Absolutely, yes. But some have very good reason to become afraid. I mean, we've been talking a lot about dominance aggression and, you know, it isn't as common in cats as it is in dogs, and you know, it is something that can be reasonably controlled.

But aggression through fear, sometimes redirected from some other source, can be, you know, just a horrific experience, you know. And people can get totally shaken by it and they can lose all faith of even living inside the same airspace with the cat.

I mean, they're -- they just feel threatened because cats are pretty formidable creatures when they get themselves riled. I mean, one example, for example, of redirected aggression was, I think I do mention it in the book, it's a lady -- a lady's friend bought a baby around, and this cat had never seen a young infant before.

Infant was sort of crying and flailing on a bed, and the cat started to sort of puff up and get into this sort of defensive rage sort of picture. Its pupils started to dilate; its tail started to puff up; it started to arch its back. And the observant owner said to the lady with the baby: "time for you to leave."

She left quickly, leaving the owner and the riled cat. So the cat then redirected its hostilities onto the owner and started to walk towards her in a menacing way. And to cut a long story short, had that owner backed up in her own kitchen with a broom defending herself for seven hours.

GROSS: Wow. Gee.

DODMAN: The next day, it was all over, but it was a very frightening incident. And sometimes cats can have this sort of hot and cold -- you know, they'll be OK for a period of time, but then they kind of get into a mode and will start to stalk and attack and, you know, it can quite intimidating.

GROSS: Well, we've been talking about cat aggression, and that's a big problem for a lot of cat owners. But the biggest problem that cat owners face is cats that urinate or defecate outside of the litter box. So, I think we need to talk about that.

Is there a certain type of litter box that alienates a cat? That a cat finds unpleasant?

DODMAN: Yes. Let me just back up just a second. That certainly is a "yes" to that question. But you know, this problem of cats not using the litter box -- I mean, if it becomes a chronic feature in your life with your cat and your home starts to smell of urine and your rugs are being ruined, I mean it is one of the reasons why people take their cat to, you know, a shelter or a pound and the likely consequence then is the cat will be put to sleep.

So you know, it's something which we definitely need to be able to give advice on and to treat. And the success rate now is very high. I mean, we have about a 95 percent success rate with this condition. And it's not really one condition. It's like three conditions rolled into one.

The first one, which must be ruled out by your local vet, is medical. And conditions like, for example, cistitis; the FUS syndrome, that's the Feline Urological Syndrome; you know, constellation of medical conditions and diabetes and such -- should be ruled out first. And vets are pretty good at doing that.

The second thing is just plain old litter box aversion, where for some reason the cat is not comfortable with the present sort of latrine arrangements within its home. And in answer to your question more directly, most cats, for example, prefer unhooded litter boxes. Most cats prefer the sort of sand-texture litters to the more granular ones which, you know, might be the equivalent of walking on a stony beach without shoes on for us.

Most cats prefer litters that aren't scented. So, and most cats, you know, you need a certain formula -- a sort of relationship -- the number of boxes in the house to the number of cats you've got. I describe one case in the book where a lady had six cats and two boxes, and that was an accident looking for a place to happen. You need one box per cat, plus one, especially when you're trying to unravel a problem.

And then there's a third category which has come to light recently of cats who really urinate outside the box as a marking behavior, and through anxiety combined with sort of territoriality. And that's one where we've made the most advances recently, and again it's a, you know, an environmental plus medical solution.

GROSS: Have you...

DODMAN: I omitted...


DODMAN: Oh, I'm sorry. I omitted to say that of course entire male cats who, you know, haven't been castrated will almost invariably mark their territory and neutering is a very efficient solution to that particular problem.

GROSS: How can you diagnose whether the inappropriate defecation or urination is a sign of a behavior problem, as opposed to -- that the cat doesn't like the litter that you're using?

DODMAN: Well, you know, just -- it's a bit of an art, but there is quite a simple way and sort of a way that I've sort of worked out for myself is: how interesting is the problem? So what I mean by that is if somebody came to me and said: "my cat is not using its litter box."

And my next question is: "well, where is it going?" And they say: "well, it goes in the corner of a room on a, you know, shag pile carpet behind the wingback chair, and it sometimes goes in the bedroom behind my nightstand."

Those kind of rather boring manifestations, you know, the cat always goes in two different, you know, maybe one or two, different places, usually on a flat surface, often on a rug, and basically chooses not to use its litter box at all, is an indication the cat is simply using the rug as a bathroom. So, I call that the more boring problems.

Whereas the marking behaviors are really a lot of fun, in a way, to diagnose, because the cat goes in a number of, you know, highly, almost amusing locations, for example, on a person's desk.

You know, they frequently go on a bureau. They go on a stovetop. They'll go on a piece of electrical equipment. They'll urinate often on vertical surfaces, you know, against the drapes which are in front of the window. They'll urinate on a -- on, you know, small volumes on a heating register we believe because, you know, there are odors carried on the updraft through the register that the cat is trying to neutralize or at least stake its claim to.

They'll go on people's clothing. They'll actually urinate on people as they're lying in bed sleeping. They'll come up and, you know, in a way of a compliment, really, they'll urinate on your face. And what they're trying to say is, whatever they're marking is "this belongs to me." It's almost like an insecurity. They feel the need to go around leaving their business card all over the place, including on people and people's clothes.

So, you know as I said, kind of an interesting assortment of places including vertical surfaces and so on.

GROSS: Say your cat is using your rug in the living room as the bathroom. What can you do to get the cat back in the litter box?

DODMAN: You definitely need to do a thorough cleanup, and a lot of people don't realize this. They're running around with, you know, ammonia sprays and whatever, which smell like urine. And the only treatment really is sort of serial dilution of the area with sort of warm water that's at best soapy.

You know, no harsh chemicals, because the harsh chemicals will inactivate stage two, which is mandatory. Stage two is to purchase an odor neutralizer -- not a masker, a neutralizer; something that contains enzymes that will break down the molecules that cause smell.

And that is vital, because a cat will be attracted back to a previously soiled spot as surely as a heat-seeking missile to a source of heat.

GROSS: Do you ever recommend sending a cat out to, like, a discipline school? A training school?

DODMAN: Absolutely not. It just -- it would be very pointless. I don't think there's much to be gained from sending a dog away to a discipline school. And with a cat, it's, you know, even less point -- you know, even more pointless.


DODMAN: Well, I always think that the problem exists in the home in the context that it's occurring, and the relationship with the person is sort of pivotal in that. Because, you know, the relationship you have with a pet is a sort of what's referred to as "diatic" -- and that's there's two sides and it's interactive.

And to separate the sort of human companion/animal bond down the middle and treat each half of the equation as a separate entity, to me, doesn't make sense.

GROSS: What if it's a school where the owner and the pet are together?

DODMAN: I guess, you know, I mean, I still don't recommend it myself. I mean, it's just not part of my practice. And I prefer, for example, you know, with dog training, to have the owners work with the dog in the home for five or 10 minutes twice a day. If necessary, have someone come to the home and show them what to do.

And for it to be a consistent sort of daily thing, the way they interact should be something from dawn 'til dusk. It's not something you can just do for an hour a week.

GROSS: Dr. Nicholas Dodman is the author of The Cat Who Cried For Help. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with veterinarian Nicholas Dodman. His new book is called The Cat Who Cried For Help: Attitudes, Emotions and the Psychology of Cats. He's also the author of a book about dogs called The Dog Who Loved Too Much. He directs the Behavior Clinic at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

You have often prescribed mood altering drugs for cats, and we talked about this a little bit recently when you were on the show a few weeks ago. But I'm interested in hearing more about how you decided to pursue that direction. We're talking here about Prozac and other mood altering drugs that we associate with people, not with pets.

DODMAN: Well, I guess my -- in a former life, I was a veterinary anesthesiologist and became very familiar with, you know, all the drugs and physiology was sort of my, you know, main bent. And so in the early 1980s, I did a sort of an epic experiment with a colleague, Dr. Lou Schuster (ph), from the medical school. And he's a pharmacologist.

And we found, for example, that in the compulsive behavior of cribbing -- which is where horses grab hold of the edge of their stall and lean back and tense their large neck muscles, and they do it over and over again -- we found that if you blocked nature's own morphine-like substances, the so-called endorphins, that the behavior was totally prevented.

And that really was what started me in -- with my interest in behavior was this, you know, black and white experiment where this behavior was so simply controlled by one neuro-transmitter or, if you like, sort of chemical in the brain.

And that was my, you know, bias was to think about problems in a -- you know, what some people would call a reductionist view. And specifically with the cats, what happened is, you know, in about 1987, I was talking to my neighbor who was practically pulling his hair out because terrible things were happening in his life. His daughter was smashing his car. His father had died. And money was short. And he couldn't sleep at night and he developed a nervous tic in his eye.

And he said he was given a particular medicine that helped him, and it was called busperon (ph). Well, I was fairly quite put out because I'd never heard of this drug or the class that it belonged to. And so I set about investigating it and found out that it was free of side effects; that it reduced anxiety; that it was non-addictive. It was one of a new group of smart drugs and you know, basically it was about as noxious as a, you know, drink of water.

So if it worked, it would be a, you know, a boon to cats. And we found out, Dr. Schuster and myself, found out that actually it did work to reduce anxiety in cats, make them very friendly and affectionate, and reduced some anxiety-based conditions like the anxiety-related marking behavior.

And we took out a United States patent on that idea, which, you know, we still have and are trying to find a company that would be interested in developing the drug for this, the number one behavior problem in cats. And that led, you know, the anxiety treatment in cats led to investigation of other drugs, including the anti-depressant family and I sort of picked up where other people had left off with the anti-depressant amitriptylene (ph), which can also -- our trade name's Elovil -- which can also help to treat, for example, separation anxiety and inappropriate elimination.

And then, you know, early in the 1990s, I don't know what -- it was 1990, '91 -- we started using Prozac because it increases brain seratonin and theoretically and in fact in practice, reduces aggression; reduces anxiety; and is just about the only treatment for one of an interesting new group of behavior problems that -- well, they're all problems with a new tag -- called compulsive behaviors, including so-called woolsucking and sort of hairpulling in cats that is psychogenic.

GROSS: The fact that you've found that cats respond often to mood altering drugs, does that say anything to you about the connections between cat and human psychology?

DODMAN: Well, it does. You know, they had a "Frasier" show on the other day where the sort of pet psychiatrist came in and was sort of really, you know, and laughed off the stage by Frasier and his brother Niles. But in fact, that isn't the situation; that a lot of the things we're doing are very interesting to psychiatrist colleagues -- and not that I would want to be one. I'm happy being a vet.

But you know, the fact that other animals on this planet show states of mind and respond to medicines the same as humans is very interesting from, you know, basic biological point of view. And we've identified a number of different behaviors that respond the same way.

I mean, I listened the other day to -- a few years ago, actually -- Dr. John Rathey (ph) from Massachusetts who wrote a book about attention deficit disorder in children, and he's an aggression expert. It turns out that he uses the same drugs to treat aggression in aggressive -- in human patients in mental hospitals as we do to treat very aggressive animals when, you know, they're extremely aggressive.

It turns out that we use the same drugs to treat anxiety, and this has developed in isolation, and it's not necessarily just because they used a human medicine. And the compulsive behaviors, like obsessive-compulsive disorder in people, also respond to the same gamut.

What it means to me is it's another store of evidence to answer that, you know, question of all time: do animals think? Do they have emotions?

And there's a fairly heavy store of evidence that says yes, in fact, they probably do experience emotions and they do have intelligence and they do think, including cats and dogs and horses and probably other mammals too. And that sometimes, you know, their behaviors can be, you know, as complicated as -- you know, and their emotional states as complicated as those in man responding to a similar array of psychotropic drugs.

GROSS: Well, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

DODMAN: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Nicholas Dodman is the author of The Cat Who Tried For Help. He directs the Behavior Clinic at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

Coming up, writer Paul Auster's chronicle of early failure.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Nicholas Dodman
High: Veterinarian Nicholas Dodman, the author of "Dog Who Loved Too Much" and a recent FRESH AIR guest. He has a new book about cats, "The Cat Who Cried for Help" which among other things, is about modifying cat behaviors like aggression, and out-of-the-litter-box wetting. Dodman is a professor of behavioral pharmacology at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts and he is the director of the Behavior Clinic.
Spec: Animals; Cats; Dogs; Education; Medicine; Veterinarians; Behavior
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Cat Who Cried for Help
Date: SEPTEMBER 17, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091702np.217
Head: Hand to Mouth
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 15:00

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our failures seem to shape us at least as much as our successes. The now-successful writer Paul Auster has written a chronicle of early failure called "Hand to Mouth." It not only details his odd and low-paying early jobs. It reprints his early efforts as a writer, which of course didn't bring in any money either.

Auster is best known for his New York trilogy of literary detective novels, as well as "The Music of Chance," which was adapted into a film. He also wrote the screenplay for the film "Smoke" and directed the companion movie "Blue in the Face."

Here's a reading from the opening of "Hand to Mouth."

PAUL AUSTER, FILMMAKER, AUTHOR, "HAND TO MOUTH: A CHRONICLE OF EARLY FAILURE": In my late 20s and early 30s, I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure. My marriage ended in divorce. My work as a writer foundered. And I was overwhelmed by money problems.

I'm not just talking about an occasional shortfall or some periodic belt-tightening, but a constant, grinding, almost suffocating lack of money that poisoned my soul and kept me in a state of never-ending panic.

There was no one to blame but myself. My relationship to money had always been flawed, enigmatic, full of contradictory impulses. And now, I was paying the price for refusing to take a clear cut stand on the matter. All along, my only ambition had been to write. I had known that as early as 16 or 17 years old, and I had never deluded myself into thinking I could make a living at it.

Becoming a writer is not a career decision like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don't choose it so much as get chosen. And once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.

Unless you turn out to be a favorite of the gods, and woe to the man who banks on that, your work will never bring in enough to support you. And if you mean to have a roof over your head and not starve to death, you must resign yourself to doing other work to pay the bills.

I understood all that. I was prepared for it. I had no complaints. In that respect, I was immensely lucky. I didn't particularly want anything in the way of material goods, and the prospect of being poor didn't frighten me. All I wanted was a chance to do the work I felt I had it in me to do.

GROSS: Paul Auster, how did you come up with the idea of devoting a book to this rocky start you had as a writer when you were making some wrong decisions and having to do a lot of other work just to stay alive, and ending up being poor anyway?

AUSTER: I think I've walked around with the idea to write a book about money for about 20 years. It's, I find, a very compelling subject. And what I originally thought would be a kind of philosophical essay -- in fact I had the title for many years called "Essay on Want."

As I began to approach the moment of seriously undertaking the project, it became more and more -- how shall I say -- autobiographical. And rather than doing it as a theoretical essay, I decided that maybe it would be more interesting to sort of tell it through the lens of my own personal experiences.

GROSS: You had a lot of jobs during your so-called "hand-to-mouth" period...

AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ... from being a teenager to, you know, through your 20s when you weren't able to really make a living through your writing. Of all those jobs, what was the most meaningful and what was the most meaningless?

AUSTER: I think the most meaningful job, at least the one that I learned the most from, would probably have been working on the oil tanker. But of course, that lasted longer than most of the other jobs I had.

It was a very rich experience, one that I continue to think about often, and this was 1970, so 27 years ago I was on that ship. And I remember it vividly -- in fact, more vividly than most little periods of my life. This was about six months of my life was spent doing that.

The least meaningful job I think would have to be some of the translations I did later. There was a period of about five or six years when I tried very hard to make my living as a translator, and there were so many books -- assignments that I took on that were so uninteresting, and the books were so dull.

And sitting at your desk, grinding out something which you knew was not worth anyone's time to read could be very demoralizing. I think I preferred washing dishes than actually translating bad, bad prose.

GROSS: You had an offer to write pornography, but you couldn't do that very long. What was your problem?

AUSTER: I tried. I tried. I just couldn't think of enough adjectives to keep going. I think I was even combing through a thesaurus to try to liven things up. But I did later, I must say, meet up with someone -- another young writer, struggling young writer, who in the course of 20 weeks wrote 20 pornography novels.

And he told me that whenever he got stuck -- he didn't know what to write next -- he would add the sentence, the next sentence would be: "then the telephone rang" and he would do the telephone conversation. If he would wake up in the morning, which -- would happy -- he'd forgotten what he had written the day before, he wouldn't look back and try to make sense of the book. He would just start a new chapter with: "everything I've written so far is untrue. This is the real story"...


And he would just launch into something else.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. But you couldn't try that yourself, huh?

AUSTER: Well, I guess I just never thought of that.

GROSS: Right.

AUSTER: I wasn't -- I wasn't equipped to do this job.

GROSS: So you were desperate for another alternative, and you came up with one: action baseball.

AUSTER: Well. Action baseball -- which, that was surely the nuttiest thing I've ever been involved in, but I...

GROSS: Tell us what it was.

AUSTER: I'll tell you what it was. It was a card baseball game that I invented. I had a friend from college who came to visit me. He had been traveling around the country and had landed in New York again and was working in a toy store as part of a -- the Christmas help; the Christmas season shopping season help.

We started talking about what was in the store, and somehow this conversation jogged an old memory which was that when I was a kid, maybe 12 years old, I had figured out a way to play baseball with a deck of cards, and had done this every now and again to amuse myself on rainy days.

And I remembered this game, and I started thinking about it and realized that if I made up a new deck and really integrated all the rules of baseball into it, it was doable. And it might be interesting and maybe other people would be interested.

And I just went off half-cocked, spent I would say weeks and weeks sitting down, figuring out the rules of this game, and then making up the cards by hand. And then I went out on this crazy quixotean journey to try to sell this game to a game company. And of course, nothing ever came of it. But I must have spent anywhere from six to nine months of my life pursuing this thing.

GROSS: At some point, you decided to try writing a detective novel. You'd read a lot of detective fiction; I guess thought you could do it yourself and that it would be saleable. Tell me more about why you decided to head in that direction, 'cause in the past what you'd published was plays, poetry, translations.

AUSTER: That's right -- book reviews, essays, but no fiction up to that point. But, well this came at probably the grimmest moment of all these struggles. We're talking about the late '70s now -- '78. I was so stymied in my own work. I really hadn't written anything much for months.

And one night, lying in bed with tormented insomnia, for some reason an idea for a detective story popped into my head. And the next morning, I thought, well listen: why don't you just sit down and do it? It's not as though you're writing anything interesting. It's not as though you have a job right now. Everything you've been trying to do is leading nowhere. Sit down, do this, see if something can come of it.

And that's what I did. I -- literally the next day, I started writing this novel. And it took me not very long. I worked very hard, very quickly. You know, two months perhaps, two and a half months -- I finished the book. And I didn't see why it couldn't get published, but here again, my own stupidity and lack of experience interfered, and I had no agent. I didn't even know how to get a literary agent. And I didn't really have any good contacts among publishers for this kind of thing.

And the book never really got anywhere. And just a few months after that, my marriage broke up, my father died -- all kinds of other things happened, and the book was put to the side for a number of years. And later on -- another crazy story -- maybe about four years later, someone I had met only once a number of years before called out of the blue and said: "I'm starting a publishing company. Do you have any books you would like to give me?" I said: "well, you know, there is this manuscript I've had in my closet for the last four years. Maybe you'd like to take a look at that."

So I sent it to him and indeed, he liked it and set out to publish it, but he was not much of a businessman either. And the book was printed, but by the time it was done, he had no money left. He had no distributor and the book was stuck in a warehouse somewhere in Brooklyn. And as far as I know, it's still there 20 years later, or 15 years later.

But at that point, I knew a little more about things, and I finally did get an agent, and the book finally was published as a paperback.

GROSS: That kind of opened up a new career for you.

AUSTER: Well, no not really. It was just a...


... just a thing unto itself -- a little adventure that I was glad to see completed, you know, for better or for worse. But this book that I had wanted to write for money, and that was the sole motive was to try to put some money in the bank and food on the table -- when you calculated everything up, I made $900 publishing that book. So, hardly a good way to solve the money problem.

GROSS: If you had decided when you were younger that the money pressure was just too much and that your responsibilities as a father were too great, and that you had to stop thinking that you'd earn your living as a writer and just, you know, become more realistic and get a full-time job that could become a career -- if you had thought that, what would your career or your job have been?

AUSTER: Well, you see just -- it's funny, at the moment when the story in Hand to Mouth stops, you see, I was trying desperately to find a regular job. I mean, I'd completely given in. I was ready to do anything necessary. The great irony of this was I couldn't find a job. I was interviewing for journalism jobs and teaching jobs and I just wasn't getting hired.

And I was on the point of, you know, doing anything necessary to rearrange this life that I had made such a mess of. And it was literally at that moment that my father died -- you know, very suddenly, very unexpectedly. And because of his death, and it's such a cruel and terrible equation, I inherited a little money and I had a little breathing room. And it gave me a little time to continue with the work I, you know, later did. And it's a terrible irony, this whole thing.

And it's not as though I figured anything out. You know, a bad family event took place, you know, my father died before his time. He was only in his mid-60s. And because of that, I was able to continue.

So I thank him every day of my life, you know, just for having thought about me and taken care of me in that way. It made all the difference.

GROSS: Paul Auster. His new book is Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure.

Coming up: "whatever."

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Paul Auster
High: Novelist Paul Auster has written a new memoir about his struggling years as a young writer, "Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure." Auster has written eight novels, including "The New York Trilogy" and the screenplay for the film "Smoke" and he co-directed the film Blue in the Face. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Spec: Books; Authors; Movie Industry; Smoke; Paul Auster; Education
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Hand to Mouth
Date: SEPTEMBER 17, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091703NP.217
Head: Whatever
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: As we all know, every age has its slang. But there's more to it than that. It also has its parts of speech. In the '60s, it was the adjective; and in the '80s, it was the adverb. Now according to linguist Geoff Nunberg, it's the interjections that are getting the attention.

GEOFFREY NUNBERG, LINGUIST, STANFORD UNIVERSITY AND XEROX PALO ALTO RESEARCH CENTER: I was talking to a young woman I know who had just returned from the "Burning Man" festival that they hold every Labor Day weekend in the desert northeast of Reno.

"What was it like?" I asked her. "A gen-X Woodstock?"

"No," she told me. "Not a bit of it. This is post-counterculture. They're people who work at Charles Schwab or Yahoo. There was a group from the Silicon Valley that came in a fleet of RVs. They walk around naked in the sun or cruise the playa in beds rigged with sails and battery-powered recliner couches. There was nude croquet, an alien-abduction camp, and a huge script neon "W" that somebody had rigged up on top of a pole."

I asked my friend what the "W" was for. "Well, what else could it be?" She said. And at this point, she held her hands into the sign of the "W" with her index fingers raised in front of her and her thumbs touching. "Whatever."

It allayed any misgivings I might have had about not going to the festival myself. I mean, if you had to ask what the "W" stood for, you probably didn't belong there.

I had to admit, though, that it's a perfect totem for the last decade of the century. It's a funny thing about slang: it isn't just the words that change from one generation to the next, but also the parts of speech. When I think of the language of the '60s, it's all those adjectives that describe the various states of altered being: far out, groovy, out of sight, funky, heavy, bum.

Then in the '70s and early '80s, we had the golden age of adverbs, with a dozen or more ways of saying "very": everything was mondo fine, or seriously fresh; way tired or totally to the curb. Or if you didn't get the adverb in at the beginning of the noun phrase, you could always exit with one of those intensifier suffixes like "to the max" or "up the yin-yang."

But over the past 10 years or so, the action's been in the interjections -- the little particles that people use to comment on the passing conversational scene. When I roll the tape of '90s chatter, what stands out is all these voices snapping pithy retorts at one another: excuse me, duh, hello, as if, not even, don't go there, not.

It's true that a lot of these have been short-lived. That "Wayne's World" "not" was already passing out of use by the time that the tape of the movie was being moved out of the current racks of the video stores, and not a moment too soon.

But a few of these items seem to have legs, like the "whatever" that signals sublime indifference to what your interlocutor's trying to say to you. Watching TV the other night, I heard it three times: First in an MTV ad; then on the new Fox show "Ali McBeale" (ph); and then finally on "Suddenly Susan." "I'll just go freshen my drink," says a guy chatting up a woman at a cocktail party. And she rolls her eyes and says: "whatever."

Of course, every age has had its slang interjections. The one word that America has given to more languages than any other after all is the affirmative particle "OK." The '50s had "solid." The '60s had "far out." The '70s saw the effluorescence of "yo."

But those were all upbeat comments. This is the first age to focus exclusively on the noises of cynicism and ennui. You think of the refrain from the Curt Cobain song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" which Nirvana made into a miniature anthem for the decade: "oh well," "whatever," "nevermind."

It's not surprising that survivors of Woodstock would find this a little wanting in warmth. What were the hippies about, after all, if not how far you could take good old American niceness if you set about it with single-minded intensity?

On the other hand, it's an understandable reaction to the other linguistic excesses of recent years. It's no wonder that one of the emblematic figures of the age is the disaffected adolescent girl of "Beetlejuice," "Heathers," "Clueless," or the MTV cartoon show "Daria" (ph). You listen to the pumped up Beamer (ph) enthusiasm of modern corporate prose, it makes you feel like an adolescent girl yourself. It seems as if there's no possible response but sardonic deadpan.

The other day, I got a message thanking me for talking to some corporate advertising people. It said: "in the debrief, it was clear that our future advertising directions have been positively challenged, and that they clearly harnessed a profound input."

For the first time in my life, I felt a "whatever" rising to my lips.

You can say this for "whatever": it opens the way to new sensibilities. I would say that the word's ironic. It doesn't have the note of self-mockery or the moral nuance that irony requires. But when you take a throwaway tag that most people say as if they barely had enough breath to get it out, and erect it in neon 50 feet over the desert floor, well, that's wit -- a sensibility that was pretty thin on the ground at Yazger's (ph) farm.

GROSS: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist with Stanford University, and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

Dateline: Geoffrey Nunberg; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: As we all know, every age has its slang. But there's more to it than that. It also has its parts of speech. In the '60s, it was the adjective; and in the '80s, it was the adverb. Now according to linguist Geoff Nunberg, it's the interjections that are getting the attention.
Spec: Language; Culture
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Whatever
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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