Pearl In A Whirl: How a cat and Cyclone Gabrielle spawned a number one bestseller

Kitten Pearl was the inspiration Catherine Robertson needed for a children's book.
Kitten Pearl was the inspiration Catherine Robertson needed for a children's book. Photo credit: Supplied

It is not hyperbole to say Cyclone Gabrielle was a devastating event for Aotearoa, with large swathes of communities still now struggling to recover from the events of early 2023.

The Hawke's Bay was worst hit on Valentine's Day when powerful winds and rains walloped the region, inexorably changing lives forever.

But out of the destruction wrought by the Cyclone and the many tales of survival and heroism among the deluge, one Hawke's Bay-based fluffy-tailed animal has emerged as an unlikely icon for the region - and has spawned a number one best-selling children's book just four months later.

Pearl in a Whirl took just weeks to create and write after author Catherine Roberston caught up with friend Amy McDonald's online tweets about what her cat Pearl got up to after they had been forced to abandon their red-stickered home in the hours when the flood waters rose after the family was unable to locate her.

"Here's a story: my cat spent Monday night screeching in our lounge while the storm was raging. She spent most of Tuesday perched on a rug on top of my son's desk above the flood waters," McDonald tweeted on February 17.

Pearl was subsequently rescued from her Puketapu home by a neighbour who then themselves ended up being evacuated - with the moggy in tow.

Soon, her pictures of Pearl - a Birman ragdoll Persian cross - were being widely shared on social media and the kernel of an idea formed in Robertson's mind. 

"She put this really quite amusing tweet about what had happened to her cat. She'd done it saying this happened on Monday, this happened Tuesday. A mutual friend on Twitter said it sounds like it would be a really great kid's book," she told Newshub.

A scene from children's book, Pearl in a Whirl.
A scene from children's book, Pearl in a Whirl. Photo credit: Fif Coulston, Penguin Random House

"So on the Monday, Amy and I had a conversation and I thought, 'well, maybe we could do this ourselves as a fundraiser for Hawke's Bay Foundation'."

Having already written several other fiction books, Robertson floated the idea past her publisher Penguin Random House and it was a case of fortuitous timing. They had been looking to do something to help the stricken communities and thought this was "a great little story".

It started to come together during the days after the Cyclone had hit, and Robertson laughed when asked how she had the mental fortitude to cope with a natural disaster and an impending book deadline, saying being stuck at home meant she had no choice but to get on with it.

"My brother had flown in from London and we were supposed to go on this East Coast road trip, which of course after the cyclone there wasn't much of either - East Coast or the road. So we just hung out in Hawke's Bay and he got COVID as well, so we couldn't do anything but sit around for a week. So that's when I started writing the book."

However, Robertson had little experience as a children's author ("I got a lot of guidance from my business partner, Jane Harper"), and soon realised it presented its own challenges.

The real-life Pearl is always getting into scrapes, according to her owner.
The real-life Pearl is always getting into scrapes, according to her owner. Photo credit: Twitter - Amy McDonald

"When you're writing a novel, it's like 80,000 to 100,000 words. Whereas this one is like 600 to 800, I think. It's not quite as onerous as redrafting an entire novel. For this one in particular, I didn't want it to be seen as something that was like knocked off in a hurry and not good quality. You know, I wanted this to be a really good book."

However, she found the pieces of the puzzle of Pearl's antics really came together when the Wellington-based renowned illustrator Fifi Coulston came on board.

"As it happened, she was just between projects and she just pulled out all the stops because she knew she had to do it quickly," Roberston said.

"When you look at the amount of work that's in the book, it's not the illustrations that are telling a story, they're adding all sorts of bits to it. Basically my words went to Fi and then the next thing I saw was a whole bunch of pretty much finished illustrations for the book, which I thought was astonishing."

New Zealand literature has a habit of creating stories from adversity. 

Diana Noonan and Gavin Bishop's 2010 best-seller Quaky Cat was born out of the Christchurch earthquake and Coulston agrees there's something about these quirky tales which land with Kiwi readers.

"It's one of the reasons why we wanted to do it was because it was a happy ending, because she is so much of a character. She had to spend a night  and some of a day alone in a flooded house," Coulston said.

"Well, she did it perfectly fine and wasn't fazed by it at all and wasn't fazed by being rescued and being choppered out." 

Catherine Robertson says Fifi Coulston's artwork complements the book.
Catherine Robertson says Fifi Coulston's artwork complements the book. Photo credit: Fif Coulston, Penguin Random House

On the day Newshub spoke with Coulston, she had just come back from a morning tea where it was revealed local business Price Waterhouse Coopers had bought $5000 worth of copies of the book (around 250) to distribute to nearby schools.

Coulston said she was blown away and, given the subject matter, was humbled the book was finding its way into people's hearts.

"It is a happy story. It has a happy ending. Things worked out. But it was also true," she said.

"It's a representation of a time that people have gone through. I think people in the way that they buy souvenirs from places that they've been to, it's a weird sort of a pleasant record of a time that is historically important to a lot of people's lives."

Coulston said she has another book to get finished off now, but she laughs when she's asked if she'll be looking to Pearl for further inspiration and material, confessing she's only just recently met the moggy "in person not that long ago, actually".

"Well, Pearl is exactly the kind of cat who is likely to have more adventures. She's just so independent and she's young. She's only a year old. So she was only a kitten, really, when all this happened, which I didn't actually know until later.

"But I mean, there's the option. We'll see what happens."