Herding Hemingway’s Cats

HHCKat Arney was running late, but there were three reasons I didn’t mind waiting:

  1. I had a copy of her début book ‘Herding Hemingway’s Cats’ with me, so I was being entertained
  2. I was in a restaurant in Angel that makes an excellent flat white, and
  3. She was on her way from the BBC studios, where she’d been appearing on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4. Swit-swooo!

After a general natter – comparing publisher-related notes, unpicking general life dramas, and discussing the agony of not getting enough sleep, I made her sign her book and then whipped out my trusty Dictaphone to ask a few questions. The results are below:

LW: Your book, ‘Herding Hemingway’s Cats’ has been doing fantastically well. Have there been any standout moments for you?

KA: I think one of the nicest things has been seeing photos of my friends reading my book, that’s been lovely. In terms of the reviews, I’ve been really blown away actually! Particularly the review in Nature – the book’s written in a kind of flippant style, it’s very chatty and breezy, but I really wanted the science to stand up, and for scientists to say “Yep, she’s got this right, she knows her stuff”. It is stuffed full of references too. For Nature to recognise that this is a good reflection on where the field is.. that was a big deal.

LW: I love that you asked all of your interviewees what they think is weird – such a great question to ask scientists

KA: I love talking to scientists, I love gossiping with them! The fringe, weird stuff of today is often the frontier of tomorrow. So with all of the scientists I met, I’d ask about their work, what’s cool, what’s exciting…but I’d always end with what’s weird? What makes you think “go home evolution, you’re drunk”? So many of them said the same thing, around transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. This is the idea that things that happen to you in your life (not inside your DNA) are somehow passed onto your children or even your grandchildren. At the moment, the evidence for it is pretty sketchy in humans, although there’s good evidence for it in simple organisms like worms and plants. We are just starting to see some very interesting papers coming out on this area – it’s still seen as a bit fringy though. This is something I really wanted to capture in the book – not just the historical stuff, but what we should be looking out for in the future.

… I then went on to tell Kat about the science crush I’d developed on Nobel Laureate Craig Mello, after I’d interviewed him for work, which led to me to ask the following…..

LW: Did you have a favourite interviewee? And no, it doesn’t have to be because you had a massive crush on them!

KA: There was one I definitely had a crush on, but I’m not telling you what one. People will have to work out who it is from reading the book! I spoke to so many people, more than 40, so not everyone’s story made it into the book. But every single person helped me think about or understand something, or to see it in a new way. One of my favourites was meeting Mark Ptashne in his amazing 5th Avenue apartment. He such a big guy in the field and I was terrified – every person who I’d told I was meeting him said “Oh really? Good luck!” He has a real reputation of eating idiots for breakfast. I did so much reading in advance, but I was convinced I’d still say something stupid. But he was so generous with his thoughts and with his time, and he gave me great quotes.

We go on to talk fondly about the ‘grumpy old man’ image that is so prevalent in most areas of science, which prompted Kat to say….

Deep down it is quite a grumpy book, I’m very sceptical about overblown claims. I don’t want to wonderfully hype everyone up. In the last chapter, I wrap everything up and I say that if you were hoping for a nice neat explanation, I’m afraid there isn’t one. I had to challenge my own understanding of what a gene even is by the end – I’m not even sure I know any more!

LW: I’m so proud of you, so glad that things are going well for you because you deserve it

KA: What’s really crazy is that I talk to people and post stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and people are like “Where did all this come from?” And I find myself thing “Overnight success that has only taken me 10 years of absolute graft – working for free, working all hours, using all of my holidays to do freelance stuff and music stuff, coming home from work and working all night, taking unpaid leave….” It just means that it’s all suddenly hit at once. It’s been quite overwhelming actually. But I had my book launch on 14th Jan, my birthday on 15th Jan, and then on 16th, my flatmate reminded me that it was my turn to clean the toilet. So there’s always something to bring you back to earth!

 LW: Would you write another book?

KA: Like a shot! The idea for a second one is gestating. I really enjoyed the process of writing – I took three months off work unpaid to get the bulk of it done and just loved it. I’ve now quit my day job to try to be a writer full-time. There have been a lot of changes in my life lately, including leaving the job I’ve had for 11 years. I’m very excited about where this could take me… or I could just end up in penury… So basically everyone needs to buy my book! Writing a best-seller is now my entire life’s plan.

So, there you have it… please buy Kat’s book! It is suitable for scientists and non-scientists alike, and available everywhere. And this “I haven’t studied biology since I was 15 and even then, just barely” reader is thoroughly enjoying it 🙂