New Ways to Story: The Museum of Cathy by Anna Stothard
Months before beginning to write The Museum of Cathy, I gutted my chaotic London flat. I drove bags of tat to the rubbish dump and Oxfam, but everything precious went to a storage unit on the North Circular. In this airless 25-square-foot tin shack I lined up boxes of moth-eaten taxidermy birds against impossibly heavy drafts of old novels, and balanced armies of toy soldiers on top. Sunglasses. Stilettos. Mugs. Champagne corks. I slipped a matchbox of shark teeth into a biscuit tin with a Polymita snail given to me by a boy on a beach in Cuba when I was fifteen and piles of my grandmother’s costume jewellery. Then I left this little museum of objects and moved to Berlin with just a few pieces of clothes and my computer.
I felt dizzy abandoning the mouse skull I collected as a child on an Essex beach and the brown suede ballet shoes I wore when falling in love during a New York summer. Away from my objects, or what would be called ‘clutter’ in my cool minimalist loft apartment in Berlin, I missed these relics physically. My fingers tingled at the absence of toy soldiers to fidget with. I ached, somewhat melodramatically, for my favourite knee high boots with the broken heel and my faded Mets sweatshirt.
As is often the case when confronted with strong emotions, I started to write. The central theme came from my sense of being in mourning for this external hard drive of memories that I’d abandoned on the North Circular. I came up with the idea of a woman who carefully curates souvenirs of her life as a way of controlling memories of her traumatic childhood and a damaging first love affair. She runs away from Essex to Los Angeles and then to Berlin in an effort to escape, but she keeps the spectacles belonging to her childhood best friend, little ballerinas belonging to her mother, bottles of Bombay Sapphire that killed her father, and the tooth knocked out of her mouth when she was nineteen by a man she thought loved her. She does not like the turmoil of memories constantly poised in her mind, synapses and chemicals shifting their weight according to new moods. With objects she believes she can exert control over her memories. Yet when her former lover turns up unannounced during a party at the Berlin Natural History Museum and stalks her through the backrooms, he uproots her carefully organised identity and shows her that memories are nothing but stories.
It was simultaneously liberating and terrifying to be free of my own story when I left London. That first summer I lived in Berlin was a hot one. I didn’t have any friends in the city and found myself constantly gravitating towards the Berlin Natural History Museum, partly because it was a place full of powerful objects but also because the basement spirit collection had air conditioning, which is rare in Berlin. I liked standing down there amongst formaldehyde bats and stingrays in the cool air. Sometimes I would ponder a problem in the novel while lying on my back amongst school groups of teenagers, watching light displays in the solar system exhibition. More often, I sat with my computer on my knees on the floor of an almost pitch-black landing at the top of a curved staircase, where nobody ever seemed to disturb me. Eventually I befriended an English girl with auburn hair who became an inspiration for Cathy and my entry-point into the crumbling, labyrinthine behind-the-scenes museum world, taking me into corridors of stuffed birds and bomb-scarred specimen rooms. The whole museum staff ended up helping me, showing me their library, their birds covered in bomb dust, their bulls, bears, misshapen penguins and their millions of bugs. I fell in love with the place, and the novel began to unfold.
As with all my characters, Cathy is not based on her author, and yet she is also inescapably a version of me. She owns the objects I own. Like her, I feel it is almost careless to simply live wonderful moments and then let them slip away: I want to seize my moments, stash them and fiddle with the objects from my memory museum when I’m sad. Now that the novel is finished and I’m back in London, when I run my fingers over my mouse skull or toy soldiers, parts of Cathy’s life rise to the surface as well as parts of my own, which is confusing. This novel is as much a collection of objects as a collection of words and characters. They’re all fiction and all true. There’s a scene in which Cathy collects her own baby teeth in a matchbox so, unsure what a baby tooth really looked like, I tried to acquire one, but apparently baby teeth are one of the few things you can’t buy on eBay! Then visiting my parents’ house one weekend I opened a little box at the back of a wardrobe in my old bedroom and there – like magic, or a story – were six baby teeth I’d hoarded as a child, a creepy example of how memory and imagination are intermingled. I took the teeth to my archive near the North Circular and inserted them into my book.
The Museum of Cathy is part story and part memory, part museum and part novel. It is a novel being serialised by the digital publisher, The Pigeonhole, with photographs of Cathy’s objects in the margins, and it is a physical book being published by Salt, which has my own mother’s toy ballerinas adorning the cover. “Remembering is not like playing back a tape or looking at a picture,” as psychologist Ulric Neisser writes, “it is more like telling a story”.
A subscription to the serialisation of the book is just £2.99 and subscribers to the book will receive a 10% discount code for LUX FIX. In addition, the first ten Pigeonhole readers to review the book will win a small object and handwritten note from Anna Stothard, while the writer of the review we deem to be most insightful will win a £50 LUX FIX boutique design fashion voucher.
Anna Stothard is the author of four novels, including The Pink Hotel, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2012. Set in Los Angeles following a young girl’s investigation into the love affairs of her dead mother, it is being made into a film directed by Academy award-winner Anna Paquin. ‘An elegant noirish mystery,’ said The Independent. ‘Completely engrossing,’ said Nylon Magazine. ‘Astonishingly good,’ said The Times. Anna has lived in Berlin, Los Angeles, Beijing and now London. She writes about travel for The Observer Magazine.