The Big Idea: Karen Heuler
Cats and witches are a duo as old as time. But when the cat is a frenemy rather than a familiar? Now that’s a little more unique. Come along in Karen Heuler’s Big Idea to see the dynamic she created between a witch and her most unusual co-worker in The Splendid City.
It was 2017, the United States was fractured, nothing seemed believable, so of course the solution was to write about an absurd political situation. In the U.S., there have always been states or cities that threatened to secede and I thought, What if a state or two actually did it, led by a president who was more or less ridiculous?
It also seemed to me that we as Americans are much more interested in entertainment than we are in information—or even justice.
The first completed version of my novel was rejected roundly because it was, in fact, too topical. It was obviously tied to a certain person, and that would eventually change, and the book would basically hit an expiration date. The politics we saw would be replaced by a different set of politics soon enough. So I went back and redesigned the original Liberty as a place that was more of a demented Oz than Big Brother. And it was fun. It was a lot of fun. How can you not like parades, unexpected giveaways, people swimming in the moat around the president’s castle, periodic showers of nougats, and mechanical presidential heads that asked after your welfare? Wouldn’t you want to live there?
Stan, for one, loves it. Stan has been turned into a cat by Eleanor, a novice witch who one day got pushed too far by her manipulative coworker Stan and transformed him into a cat—without her coven’s permission. It was impulsive. It was regrettable. The head of the coven exiles them both to Liberty, with instructions to mend their ways, and Eleanor is directed to search for a missing water witch. Stan the cat finds his life not at all a hardship, since he loves to eavesdrop, scandalize, eat fish tacos, and generally cause trouble—and it’s remarkably convenient to be the cat no one suspects is listening. But then the president starts a treasure hunt, which Stan obviously can’t resist, just as Eleanor discovers a possible reason for the stolen river and the expensive and metered drinking water.
What I love about Liberty is that it’s all interconnected, it’s all rigged, most people don’t care if it’s rigged, and there’s very little difference between a parade and a protest because most of the protests are fake. Who cares as long as it’s fun? Who cares who stole the water as long as the people you hate get blamed for it? Liberal scum!
Hidden inside all the nonsense, though, is Eleanor’s search for community, which happens over time and which serves as a counter to the cartoonishness of Liberty. Eleanor has long been an outcast, and the witches become family—a real family with different generations, abilities, cultures, and trials of their own.
The coven she joins wants Eleanor to search not only for a missing witch but also for a way to counteract the merry dystopia. There’s a possible explanation for it, and the explanation isn’t good. In politics, as in life, the threat may actually come from within.
Stan is happy as a cat and takes advantage of every new twist in Liberty, He uses everything and everyone that comes his way, and quite frankly, he has the best lines. He’s totally self-involved and amoral and challenging and he’s having too much fun. Stan and Eleanor have some lessons to learn, but lessons can be wonderful. There’s flying, of course—my personal favorite—and learning how to cast spells (which is an awful lot like cooking) and learning to live with your enemy. That goes for both of them, even if they’re happiest when the other person isn’t around.
Stan is a snarky, audacious character and he takes over most of the time—as we’ve seen in politics, no? That bullies can charm a lot of people? That lies are unimportant if you like the liar? That the feeling a population has that they’ve been passed by, that people who look down on them are deciding their lives—that makes them ripe for accepting lies to level the playing field for them. It also encourages them to believe in delusions.
Liberty has so much fun going on that the population doesn’t really care about missing water, doesn’t even care if those messenger vans that scream through the streets and give cars away also sometimes take away people. The rumor is that the people who get taken away just won a great vacation. It’s a very convenient rumor.
The Splendid City is a wonderful place to live, if you’re the right kind of person, or the kind of person who doesn’t really care what’s right or wrong. But if you do care, Eleanor and the witches have a spell or two up their sleeves.