The Feral Feminine: An Interview With Kristen J. Sollee | Haute Macabre

The Feral Feminine: An Interview With Kristen J. Sollee

When we discovered that Haute Macabre favorite Kristen J. Sollée’s follow-up to Witches, Sluts, Feminists was a book about cats — more specifically, about the connections between cats and women, the feline and the feminine — we eagerly awaited its release. Cat Call: Reclaiming the Feral Feminine is out now from Weiser Books and during Kristen’s promotional tour, I caught up with her about its slinky, shapeshifting contents. After you’re done reading, perhaps you want to pick up your own copy of Cat Call from Amazon, IndieBound, or a signed copy at Haute Macabre? And maybe you’d also like to follow Kristen on Instagram and Twitter? Very well. Now, let’s get started…

Cat Call was born during the writing of Witches, Sluts, Feminists, when you realized there was a strong link between femininity and felinity. Can you tell us a bit about that?

So much of my research for Witches, Sluts, Feminists was crawling with cats. Cats are an intimate part of early modern witch lore, either as familiars or the animal form witches would supposedly take to commit their evil deeds. Cats are associated with heightened and taboo sexuality, and feline symbolism has been part of feminist action for decades. So all that — combined with a lifelong cat obsession — led straight to Cat Call

OK, so this is one of my very favorite questions to ask authors. What’s the weirdest thing you came across in your research for this book?

There were so many delightfully weird tidbits that arose in my research (like that cats have a naturally kinky form of torture some behaviorists call “overflow play”), but I particularly loved learning about the things feline familiars did for their witches. In 16th century England, Elizabeth Frances confessed that her cat (named Satan, of course) showed her how to induce an abortion with herbs and how to incapacitate her abusive husband. It’s no wonder that when facing the threat of death Frances tried to shift blame for what she did onto her pet at a time when women had so little bodily autonomy and protection under the law against domestic violence. And, hey, if Frances actually had a cat who taught her these things, that’s one feminist demon cat.

Photo: Natasha Gornik

My academic background is in linguistics, and I loved the chapter where you covered the etymology of words like “cat,” “pussy,” and even “heavy petting.” Did you end up looking into cat etymology in non-Germanic languages? (There’s a 2002 study that compared the cultural associations of words that had different grammatical genders in German versus Spanish — and the word’s gender ended up dramatically altering the speaker’s perception of it!)

Ooh I really wish I had been able to go deeper — that study is so fascinating! However, since I only touch on etymology I didn’t get past the Germanic languages. But even within that language family, I did love reading about the contested origins of “pussy” and all the lengths linguists have gone to pin that one down.  

Who is your favorite famous cat?

Tough question. If you mean live action cat, it’s probably Pet Sematary’s Church or Bell, Book and Candle’s Pyewacket. If you mean animated cat, it’s Cleo from Heathcliff or Arlene from Garfield. If you mean celebrity/internet cat, I’m going to go with Butters; she is the absolute cutest! 

Cat Call goes deep into the history of the feral feminine while also involving modern takes like hashtags and pussyhats. How did you balance stories from the past with stories from the present?

In all my work, what I’m most fascinated by is the interplay between past and present — like, for example, how we can see the expression of thousand-year-old ideologies in today’s Twitter hashtags — so I sort of balance the book with a 1:1 ratio. Every time I talk about something from history I ground it in the present, or, conversely, every time I talk about some pop culture thing from recent times I trace it back to its cultural antecedents as best I can. 

Do you have any particular rituals for when you write? 

I love writing first thing in the morning before I’ve read any emails or checked social media in an attempt to catch the still lingering tails of the dream state. I also love waking up in the middle of the night and writing too, if I’m so moved. I have a writing charm that’s made of fluorite that I bought during the writing of my first book that I try to wear when possible, and sometimes I do automatic writing without trying to think my way through a passage or an idea. However, I know sometimes there is no magical feeling, there is no gust of inspiration carrying you through, so often my ritual is drinking a huge glass of lemon water and getting the fuck to work no matter how I feel. 

We talked a bit about this in person, but I worked for the company that owned for five years. One really curious thing about the Internet and cats is how that website started out with a young male demographic and eventually ended up swaying heavily female — and older. On each posted lolcat, “cheezfrenz” would gather in the comments and talk in lolspeak about their day; there were hundreds of comments per post. It was wild! What do you think about that?

First of all I am jealous of your job! I was definitely a Cheezburger fan back in the day although I was more in the Cute Overload scene myself. I’m not surprised that the engagement swayed female because there are so many more proscriptions against men and masculine folks getting down hard with animals and cute culture. I have a lot of male friends, but all day long who do I send cat memes and pictures to? Mostly women. I think you can also point to the long-running associations between femininity and cats (and animals and animality in general) as another reason why women and feminine folks feel more comfortable and drawn to communicating in that milieu. 

You adopted a new cat while working on the book, and dedicated it to her. Can you tell us more about Cherie Purrie and how she informs your writing?

Cherie Purrie is named after The Runaways’ singer Cherie Currie and I got her serendipitously when I was midway through writing Cat Call. She loves to put her paws on the edge of my laptop if I’m in bed writing or squeeze between the back of the chair and my back if I’m at my desk. I find her presence really calming yet energizing, and she inspired me to get my first cat tarot reading from Sarah Potter which I document in Cat Call as well! I spend a lot of time trading slow blinks with her trying to decompress.  

I’m personally curious about what it’s like to do scholarly work that intersects with both pop culture and the occult — two things “scholars” often deride. Is it hard to find a place where you feel like you belong? Have you found that place, and what would you call it? 

I don’t actually think I’ve found a place where I fit in really… I often feel I’m too pop or too weird for the “real” academics and too academic for “everyday” readers. Of course I am very grateful to get to combine my interests in a way that straddles academia, the occult, and pop culture, although I do feel that high culture/low culture divide (which is classist/elitist/annoying but it does absolutely exist) informs how people approach me and my work. Either my books are too “cute” or “fluffy” (ha) for the folks who love dense, complex theory that takes a lifetime of education to decipher (or too woo-woo and out there for the positivists/rationalists), or my work is too theoretical for folks who want a light read. Thankfully there seems to be a sliver of readers who enjoy my writing and I’m so stoked they do! In the end, you just have to write what and how you’re called to, so that’s what I’ll keep doing without trying to pretzel myself into unnatural shapes to be more palatable for more people.

I already asked what the weirdest thing you researched was, but was there anything that really surprised you? Something where, upon reading it, made you think either “wow, that makes so much sense” or a strange fact you still can’t come to terms with?

I think the fact that we can trace the disparagement of female cats — and, by extension, human women — back to Aristotle is pretty wild. Like, the Father of Western Philosophy took the time to call out cats for being sluts in a foundational zoological text?! Really?! I guess I’ll never get over the surprise of how you can trace so many of our contemporary ideas about cats directly to a statement made in the 4th century BC. 

Can you tell us what your next project is? 

I’m moving into the realm of travel writing, which, as a lifelong, avid traveler, is a total dream. My next book (also out on Weiser Books) will be the first exploration of the early modern European and American witch hunts in the form of an action-packed travelogue. I have spent years visiting historical sites for my own enjoyment, and now I finally get to write about it all! The book will be one you can literally use as a travel guide to significant witchy sites across Europe and the US, but is equally compelling for anyone interested in approaching the witch archetype and the witch hunts through the lens of place. There’s a lot more I could say but I will keep the rest under wraps for now…

Cat Call is available now from Amazon and IndieBound, and signed copies in the Haute Macabre Shop.