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January 08, 2018

This week's column features Toni Zantz, whose short story, Cat Food Person, went viral online after being published in the New Yorker.

Thanks for reading Author Talk. This week we’re here with Toni Zantz, whose short story, Cat Food Person, went viral online after being published in the New Yorker. With millions of hits, Toni’s story has taken the internet by storm. Welcome Toni.

Thanks for having me.

What inspired you to write this story?

To me, it’s both an excruciating bad-date story and a kind of commentary on how difficult it is to really get to know the person you’re dating. On the surface, it’s just another story about a college-aged woman and a man with an insatiable appetite for cat food. But there’s a familiar dynamic between Claudette, who does not eat cat food, and Ron, whose seems as if his sole purpose for existence is wolfing down as much cat food as humanly possible. It’s very relatable.

When we first meet Ron, he is sitting alone at a park bench, scooping handfuls of cat food into his mouth from a greasy paper bag. Today’s modern woman might recognize this as something of a red flag- but Claudette doesn’t.

I think this speaks to the often conflicting emotions we experience when dating. Claudette is only 22, so deep down, she doesn’t really understand that a man who shovels cat food down his gullet like Slimer from Ghostbusters might not be the best fit for her. I’ve found that level of insight doesn’t come until your late twenties.

So much of the story takes place through dialogue… which is an interesting choice, because Ron has a mouth full of cat food in every single scene of the story.

Well, I wanted to put the reader in Claudette’s shoes. She could never understand what Ron was trying to tell her, so it makes sense that the reader, like Claudette, can only assume that he’s frantically gesticulating for more cat food.

As popular as your story has been, it’s worth mentioning that it’s been heavily criticized by the #NotAllMen crowd.

I’ll say that most of the reaction from my story has been positive, and I’m really grateful for that. Most of the men who criticize me insist that *they’re* not the ones eating cat food… but if you look at their Twitter profiles, they all say things like “I am a large, skittish animal,” and, “Please feed me cat food.” It’s hard to figure out.

Back to the book. You paid a great deal of attention to capturing specific sensations Claudette experiences… the smell of tuna on Ron’s breath, or the guttural gnashing and slurping sounds he makes when he feeds. But we never find out specifically what brand of cat food Ron eats. Is that intentional?

I wanted to capture the uncomfortable moments and lack of context that a modern woman feels when she’s dating, so I decided it was best to keep it vague. I had spent a lot of time arguing with myself over what type of cat food Ron gorges on until he swells up like an engorged tick. Should it be wet or dry? Meow Mix or Fancy feast? Chicken Blend or the Mariner’s Catch? But I realized it was best to experience Ron’s cat food addiction through Claudette’s eyes. As someone who has never eaten cat food, she can’t immediately identify the brand based on sight and smell. Only Ron has that ability. Excuse me—that power.

Did you want the audience to feel any sort of sympathy for Ron at the end of the story?

Well, Ron only becomes hostile to Claudette near the end of the story—when she places her hand too close to Ron’s face while he’s feeding. In fact, I’m willing to bet there are hundreds, if not thousands of women who have heard a man growl at her like that. It’s just one of those things women have to look out for.

I have more sympathy for Claudette, but I’m also frustrated with her. She keeps trying to explain away Ron’s cat food obsession—she tells herself that the grocery store must have been out of human food, or he must have thought he was eating tuna—but by the final scene, when she sees that Ron has gorged himself on wet cat food to the point that he mutates into a half-man, half-cat hybrid, the reader realizes Claudette has been deluding herself somewhat. She keeps telling herself that he’ll change, but she doesn’t realize that change for Ron means mutating into a fur-covered cat monster.

Thanks for a lively conversation, Toni. So what’s next for you?

My next project is a book of poetry.

Any topics in particular?

Cat food.

Sounds great. That’s it for Author Talk. I hope you join us the next time, where we’ll be discussing the Trump Hall of Presidents Robot’s new autobiography, “What Happened.”