Peter Gethers

Peter Gethers writes:

Ask Bob grew out of my interest (some might say obsession) with various things: the meaning of family, the often insane problems that families create, the importance — and the extreme difficulties — of making romantic relationships between human beings work, the complications that stem from our own pasts when they run smack into the complications of the present. But the novel really began to take shape once I decided that, at its core, it had to deal with perhaps my greatest obsession: the relationship between humans and their pets.

“I’d always had dogs growing up and I loved them; from the Irish setter that showed up when I was about five years old to the cockapoo, Snoopy, we had during my teenage years, to the slobbering golden retrievers my parents got once I left the house to go off and become an adult, to the half cocker spaniel, half tiny sheepdog my brother had — a genius of a dog named Yossarian, whom I was lucky enough to have in my care one year when my brother was abroad. Yossarian would walk next to me, leashless, in the streets of Greenwich Village, and he would wait patiently for me in front of laundromats and bodegas and bookstores while I conducted my necessary human transactions.

“But my obsession with and deep, deep connection to our four-legged friends soared to a new level when I became entwined with my now-famous (and extremely handsome) Scottish fold cat, Norton. I won’t go into too much Norton detail here, but suffice it to say that he walked miles with me without a leash (this is a cat we’re talking about) and went to restaurants with me (sitting in his own chair), came to the office, traveled around the world by my side on every form of transportation imaginable, had an unerring sense of who was the right female human to include or not include in my life, and taught me extraordinary lessons throughout his entire life and, ultimately, even while he was dying (in some ways, especially then).

“So I guess it’s not surprising that more than ten years after my last book about Norton, I decided to return to writing about the interaction between humans and animals — but this time using fiction to explore the themes I wanted to explore. Thinking about my favorite books that use animals as central characters and metaphors, it turns out that it’s fiction (with one crucial exception) that best defines the human being/animal relationship, at least for me.”

My Family and Other Animals
By Gerald Durrell

“This is the exception. This nonfiction book is not just one of my favorite books about animals, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. It was the inspiration for The Cat Who Went to Paris and, as I write this, I realize it was probably a key inspiration for Ask Bob, since Durrell’s brother seems to see little difference between the animals he loves and the family he has to cope with. The publisher and I had a lot of trouble agreeing on a title for Ask Bob and I also realize now that the perfect title would have been Durrell’s, but it was already taken. It’s brilliantly written, extremely funny, very smart, makes you desperately want to go to Greece, and is a deserved classic. Why this book isn’t much more famous totally bewilders me.”

It’s Like This, Cat
By Emily Neville  

“When I was in the first grade (through the fifth grade, when I moved to California and switched schools), my school librarian took me under her wing and gave me first crack at every Newbery Award winner that came across her desk. One of the first ones she passed on to me — I had each book exclusively for a week before I had to return it, although I usually handed it back to her within forty-eight hours, having devoured it as soon as I got it — was this book, about a troubled teenager who can only relate to a stray alley cat that wandered into his life, until the cat helps him understand his family and find his first love. I went wild over this book. When I was on tour with one of the Norton books, someone heard me talk about this novel as an early influence and sent me a first edition. I read it as quickly as I did when I was a kid and loved it just as much.”

Flowers for Algernon
By Daniel Keyes

“In a way, this is a perfect book about animals and pets because it’s not really about animals or pets, it’s about people and human relationships. This book illuminates perfectly the value of animals in our lives — and how that value is really shaped by (and in most ways created by) human perception.”

Charlotte’s Web
By E. B. White   

“Creating this list, I’m realizing for the very first time how all of these books really did play a huge part in my writing career — even though I read this book when I was probably seven or eight years old. Ask Bob is very much about grief. It’s also, I hope, very funny. Well…um…I don’t think there’s a better book (with animals in it, I mean) that’s ever been written about grief — that’s also so funny — than Charlotte’s Web. And I guess that combination really stuck with me all these years.”

The Yearling
By Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings  

“It was a borderline tie between this and Animal Farm. But I decided Animal Farm was so blatantly about people and not really about animals that this subtler version won out. Also: Just thinking about Jody’s relationship with the fawn makes me burst into tears. The bigger question, I suppose, is why books about the ties between people and animals — when they all have to do with the animals dying — is so attractive to me. And so emotional. I guess you’ll just have to read all of the above books to find out.”