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Caleb Carr's new book is a memoir about life spent with his beloved rescue cat

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Much of the story we're about to hear will be delightful, and some of it will be hard. Caleb Carr is our guest. He's written a memoir called "My Beloved Monster." It's the story of his life over 17 years with Masha, whom he calls his emotionally remarkable cat. They share play and jokes, affection and, finally, the challenge of cancer. Caleb Carr, bestselling novelist, author of "The Alienist" and "The Angel of Darkness," joins us now from his home in upstate New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CALEB CARR: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: How did you and Masha kind of pick each other out at the animal shelter outside of Rutland, Vt.?

CARR: She picked me out. I sort of turned around. I sensed something, and I turned around, and there was this cat in a little cage, and she had decided already that we were at least going to have an interview together. And then when we had the interview, she really decided that I was going to take her home.

SIMON: You found out she'd kind of rejected everyone else, hadn't she?

CARR: Well, she had been abandoned in an apartment and locked up when the people moved, which is, unfortunately, a very common thing in this country. And she'd made so much noise, breaking things and kind of banging around, that she got taken into a shelter. But at the shelter, that experience, I think, largely had just made her very distrustful. And she had attacked the staff. She had attacked people who tried to adopt her. But when I went into the interview room with her, she was as sweet as could be. And the one attendant sort of grabbed me by the arm and said, you've got to take that cat.

SIMON: She was a Siberian forest cat, I guess you discovered.

CARR: She was a breed that I - until then, I had never heard of. They really are ferociously physical and just fascinating cats, really smart. They really have this wild intelligence.

SIMON: Living in the country, you gave her a lot to react to. Let me put it that way.

CARR: Yes, yes. As I say in the book, there is a big debate about whether cats should be allowed outdoors these days. But when you live in some place that's as wild as this - and it really is just a house on - in the foothills of a mountain - I couldn't have stopped her from going outside. It would have killed her. She took one look out the door at the trees that start right at the back porch of the house, and she just was home, and she patrolled that with a dedication and a fierceness that I have never seen before. And Siberians are known for that.

SIMON: May I ask you about your childhood, Mr. Carr?

CARR: Sure.

SIMON: And I'll take the license to call it a horrible childhood. Your father was often drunk and violent. How did a cat named Zorro (ph) and your love of history help you survive?

CARR: Well, I was the child in my family that noticed things and commented on them. When you're dealing with alcoholics, it doesn't earn you any points. And so I experienced a certain amount of violence. And because of that, most nights I was up most of the night and watching and listening what the adults were doing just in case it was coming my way, basically. And Zorro was the first cat that I really chose that was mine. She would come out and lie down next to me as I sat on the top of the stairs. And she had this remarkable capacity to make me feel safe and sort of understood.

SIMON: Cats are really good at companionship, aren't they? They're just there for us.

CARR: Yeah, they are really good at companionship. It's a distinctly different kind of companionship than you get from any other animal, but once you accept it on their terms, it's really amazing. They are always there, often without being there. But they're beside you. They're not on top of you the way that dogs are.

SIMON: Can you tell us about Masha's taste in music?

CARR: Masha had a very refined ear for music, and it's not as weird as it sounds. Cats are very sensitive to the upper ranges of sonics, and they don't like high-pitched sounds, which means that most of the popular music, you're going to find that cats don't really enjoy. But when I discovered that she liked classical music, I would experiment with playing different composers for her while I was working. Before long, it was clear that she had a particular affinity for Wagner. And I know it sounds crazy, but it was true. And I eventually made her her own CDs of orchestral selections, and particularly the prelude to "Das Rheingold."

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD WAGNER'S "DAS RHEINGOLD")

CARR: She would just come shooting in from wherever she was. She would hear it going on in my study. If she wasn't already there, she would come shooting in, throw herself on the floor and just start rolling in absolute ecstasy. And I asked a musicologist friend of mine about it, and he said, well, that doesn't surprise me at all. It's probably the most primal piece of classical music that there is.

SIMON: After almost 17 years together, you and Masha just grew sick in astonishingly similar ways, didn't you?

CARR: Yes. And that's part of the most astonishing part of the story. Masha had - certainly had arthritis from the time she was very young. We never really knew what exactly caused it, whether it was trauma or abuse or just having the genetics for it. But she had arthritis in her back legs and her hind legs, and I ended up coming down with peripheral neuropathy quite badly. And then, eventually, we both ended up coming down with cancer.

And it was part of the amazing - the most amazing details of our story that our illnesses were so similar. Because of that, we knew we were tied in even more in terms of knowing what to do for each other and knowing what was going on with each other. And she made it possible - really possible for me to survive. I like to think - I hope that I did the same for her.

SIMON: What do you think that cord is between us and the animals we love, as you've experienced it, and especially strongly with Masha?

CARR: There are so many things that are difficult and lacking in human life that are provided by animals. And there are so many things that we've gotten away from in our civilized human life that are so basic to being alive that animals provide. And it's just that it is so much more basic. And to use a word I used in reference to Masha's musical taste, it's so much more primal that it takes us to a place that kind of defies all of the complications that we've put on life in our own species.

SIMON: Caleb Carr - his book, "My Beloved Monster." I'm so glad you wrote it. Thanks so much for being with us.

CARR: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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