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Henry Hoke on 'Open Throat', his novel inspired by Los Angeles' mountain lion P-22

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Open Throat" by Henry Hoke is a novel that opens with a singularly arresting sentence - I've never eaten a person, but today I might. The narrator, who tells us that humans cannot make the noises of his name that his mother gave him, is known by two-legged inhabitants of Los Angeles as P-22, the puma who in real life lived in Griffith Park from 2012 to 2022. Every day for him is a struggle to survive the effects of being crowded out of his habitat by floods, earth rumblings and human animals. Henry Hoke, who also directs Enter>text, the literary events group, joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

HENRY HOKE: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Help us understand how P-22 - what he has to do just to live every day.

HOKE: Well, I think that it was such an inspiration to me to be living, you know, as a contemporary of this lion, because I moved to the neighborhood of Los Feliz, right by Griffith Park in Los Angeles, around the same time that P-22 crossed the 405. And it was really interesting to think about how much P-22 became sort of a stand-in for the urban encroachment on wildlife and wild spaces and made me think of how sort of isolated you can be in Los Angeles. And I think those kind of things were always echoing for me before I left Los Angeles and thought I should write a book about it and then came to this narrator as the way to do it.

SIMON: What he had to go through to survive the encroachment on the habitat of natural wildlife, but on the other hand, were people right to be afraid of it?

HOKE: I wonder about that. I think that largely people were excited, as far as I knew, to possibly encounter P-22. I think they were probably afraid more for their dogs, the same way they were afraid of coyotes for their dogs and things like that. But there was, I feel like, a kinship with anything wild because I think we all, as Los Angeles residents, had a wild experience of nature, from everything - you know, the earthquakes, the floods, the drought, wildfires that would burn like volcanoes on the hills. And I think that to think of a - you know, a larger animal that was going through this as well, I think there was a kinship for the people of Los Angeles in this puma. So many fans and fandoms were formed.

SIMON: P-22 finds a common cause with a group of people. Please, let me ask you to read a section if you could.

HOKE: Yeah, sure. (Reading) When the sun drops below the ridge, I leave the dried-up ravine and go to town. Town is where my people live. There are four of them, and they have three tents set up just a few layers back in the trees where the hikers can't see. But I see in the dark. The people in town smell familiar to me, a smell like warmth or the woods, not the sweet hiker smell that makes my head hurt. And that's how I found them a while ago and found their pile of trash and the smaller animals that come to eat their trash and offer themselves up to get eaten by me.

SIMON: And these are human beings living in, I guess, what a lot of the world would refer to as a homeless encampment, aren't they?

HOKE: Yeah. This is a small tent group of unhoused people - yeah - in Griffith Park.

SIMON: Does P-22 consider himself the protector of this pack?

HOKE: I think so. I think there's a - and there's a symbiosis you see here. There's, like, the leftovers that P-22 can eat or taste. And then there's also this idea of, yeah, P-22 has been - and I call my cat Hecate, as sort of a - it's formed a separate identity for me, you know, from the actual lion. But Hecate feels this community in this space, these people who are living adjacent to each other in tents and, you know, sharing food, taking care of each other. Calling it town is like this is the first encounter of, like, people in place and people forming a small civilization on the cat's terms. It's outside of the horror of a freeway that it's crossed and the violent past it's had with its own kind when its father sort of, you know, rejects it and hunts it.

SIMON: The puma begins to recognize human words, which is part of the utter charm of your writing, is the wordplay. The city spread out is ellay, E-L-L-A-Y. He overhears people talking about scarcity, and that becomes scare city. What's happening to the puma that he begins to piece that together, do you think?

HOKE: Yeah. I think that these words keep storming around in its head and getting confused. You know, the idea of a therapist as something - is it prey, or is it a service, or, you know, is it sustenance? What is it in relation to people? And then scare city - right? - two words, being instead of scarcity, which it experiences very acutely, but it hears that as a place, like a place we inhabit. And I think that really - some of those things just made sense to me, I think. And so I had a lot of fun making them the ways that the cat is ordering the world.

SIMON: What do you hope we can take from a story set inside the skin of a - it hurts me, almost, to refer to him as an animal at this point, but I say this with the highest compliment 'cause we are all animals.

HOKE: Well, I guess that's exactly it, that we are all animals. You know, I think that projecting onto animals is something, you know, we do a lot - right? - whether it's our pets or as we've talked about P-22, like, the idea of a city sort of imagining this cat as a celebrity or sort of projecting our own needs and consciousnesses. And for me, it was really like - I was like, well, even, like, gender and things that this cat and, you know, I myself struggle with or am on a journey of...

SIMON: We should explain - not to give anything away - we're talking about a queer cat here.

HOKE: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. This is a genderqueer cat. This is a cat who has, you know, both homosexual feelings and a struggle with a gender identity and is both affirmed and denied that identity by various, you know, figures, animal and human, in this book. I felt as far as taking away, I just - I feel like if we can empathize with an animal, you know, in this kind of crisis situation, I think it's important to empathize with everyone who's dealing with climate change and with rampant inequality. I think just finding the empathy in every figure and in how we're all connected around what's happening to our world, I think, was really important to me as I wrote it.

SIMON: "Open Throat" is the new novel from Henry Hoke. Thank you so much for being with us.

HOKE: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.