Writer, producer, Random House Studio publisher and creative powerhouse Peter Gethers is best known to readers as the author of three memoirs about life with his cat Norton. His new novel, Ask Bob, delves into the complicated romantic life of a New York City veterinarian.
Tell us about your pets.
I was always a dog person. But when I got Norton—a gift from a girlfriend—I instantly became a cat nut. Now I have two Scottish Fold cats: an 11-year-old (whose ears didn’t fold) named Harper—a girl—and a 1-year-old boy named Mitch, a total devil. Truth be told, I love all animals, and the menagerie that Dr. Bob has is my fantasy.
What made you decide to carry over the pet theme from the Norton books to your fiction?
This novel didn’t start out with a pet theme. It started out as a novel about human relationships.I wanted to write about someone who had what he thought was a perfect relationship, only to have it yanked away. I then wanted to write about his new relationship—and about the difficulty of competing with “the ghost of perfection,” a phrase once said to me by Roman Polanski.
As I began writing, it occurred to me that by making Bob a vet, I could deal a bit further with the complexities of human relationships. Not only must he compete with the ghost of perfection, he must learn to deal with a "real" relationship—a human one, and a difficult human one—rather than a simple human-to-pet relationship. I think my book is all about celebrating the difficulties of human relationships—romantic and family. Things that come easily are not usually satisfying—nor do they last.
By the way, I’m not in any denigrating human/pet relationships. My relationship with my cats is extraordinary, and I love them deeply. I just think we have to keep some perspective.
How did you end up writing a relationship story about a man who isn't good at relationships?
Well . . . um . . . I have been accused in the past of having better relationships with my cats than I do with people. So it was kind of a natural leap. I don't think I’m too bad at either—but it seemed like a good topic.
You also write thrillers under the pseudonym Russell Andrews, and you’ve worked in TV and theater, most recently with the off-Broadway hit Old Jews Telling Jokes. How does writing a novel differ from a play or screenplay?
I think writing a novel is the hardest thing I do. I think it's one of the hardest things anyone can do—taking several hundred blank pages and filling them up. Screenplays are much, much easier—they're basically blueprints for directors and actors (movies are not a writer's medium—if a screenwriter can turn in something that's well structured and has some character development, his or her job is basically done). TV is about dialogue. Film is about structure. Novel writing is about a lot more. Writing a good play is at least as hard as writing a novel, although it’s a very different skill set. It requires a huge amount of discipline. I can say this because I don’t consider Old Jews Telling Jokes a play—it’s really a revue. I like it, and I’m not putting down how hard it was to do—but it was a lot like writing a sitcom. It’s not exactly August: Osage County.
Do your processes differ when you pen different types of books?
Yes. Not so much the thought process, but the voice. I think novels are a lot about voice and, obviously, the voice I’ve chosen to use in Ask Bob is a lot different from the voice I used in the thrillers. Writing those thrillers, though, helped me a lot. They are very plot driven—which my first two novels were definitely not—and as a result, Ask Bob is a much more satisfying novel. Plots are hard. I often say, somewhat snidely, that all too often, when critics use the term “literary” writer, they’re referring to someone who doesn’t know how to tell a story.
Which of your books would you most like to see adapted to a different medium?
I’d love to see my last three thrillers—Aphrodite, Midas and Hades—done either as films or as a TV series (they all have the same character and I’m convinced he’d be a great TV character). My deep, dark fantasy is to do a one-man show using the three cat books. I’m a good talker, and I’d love to try that. I’ll never have the nerve to do it, however, especially now that I know how hard it is to get a play going and make any money.
What’s next for you?
I have a lot of stuff going on. In fact, it's gotten a bit out of hand. We’re shooting our first TV series for Random House Studio. It’s based on The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen, and airs in September on the Food Network.
We also have several films with my partner, Focus Features, which are on the fast track. So I hope to have three feature films in production within the next 12 months for Random House Studio. I have a pretty solid list of books that I’m editing and publishing, too.
Away from Random House, I’m working with Stephen Sondheim and Wynton Marsalis on a seven-show performance at City Center. I’m also working with my writing and producing partner, Dan Okrent, because Old Jews is opening in Chicago in October and in London in March 2014.
Finally, I have another book to write for Holt. This one's nonfiction. I can tell you the tentative title right now: Into the Fire: The Search for the Meaning of Food, Wine and Life.
Sometime soon I hope to get some sleep.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Ask Bob.
Editor's note: The version of this Q&A that appeared in our August 2013 issue was condensed for print.