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The Wag Chats with
J Milligan

J Milligan discusses his experience working with Sesame Street's Big Bird and tells us his future plans for Jack Fish, his first novel's title character.

WAG: You’ve got what may be a unique résumé for a novelist. Could you tell us about your work in the Sesame Workshop’s Interactive Media department? And what was it like working with Caroll Spinney on The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch)?

J Milligan: I’ve worked for Sesame for almost ten years, mostly designing and writing dialog for interactive games—CD ROMs, Web stuff, video games. The best part of the job is directing the recording sessions—I get to work with all the Muppeteers. That’s how I met Caroll, who, as you might guess, is incredibly cool and generous.

The writing was challenging on that book because Caroll has a rather non-linear style of storytelling. It makes for great dinner conversation, but can be hard to form into chapters. But working with him was a pleasure. We’d meet every week at his favorite Italian restaurant, have some wine and risotto and he’d share his life with me, these incredible stories.

He’s been all over the world in and out of the Bird suit. He’s got this funky house he designed himself, he works a couple of months a year and enjoys himself the rest of the time. He really knows how to live. I hope I’ve learned a bit of that from him.

WAG: How do you go from the Sesame Workshop to writing a novel about an operative of the Elders of Atlantis? (On second thought, it may not be such a big jump…)

Milligan: The subway…? But I don’t think that’s what you’re asking me.

I guess I guess the answer is that my work at Sesame has been a job. A job that I’ve tried to do well, but a job nonetheless. It’s being part of something bigger, both in terms of what Sesame Street is, the history and legacy of it, and the fact that the company is a corporation and any project has ten people to answer for it.

The book, well, the book is all mine. I wrote it to write it. The two things are entirely different, like being a pastry chef who also skydives. It’s hard to make a living skydiving even if that’s what you really love to do. And everybody loves pastries, right? Not a bad way to make a buck.

WAG: Jack Fish might be called a genre-bending, postmodern noir-comedy with sci-fi elements. How would you describe it? And why did you decide to let the novel wander so happily over genre borders?

Milligan: Is kick-ass a genre?

Honestly, I never really thought much about genre. I had been watching a lot of Hong Kong action films from the 80’s at the time I started work on Jack Fish, and I wanted to get the same kind of pace and energy into my book. “Noir” comes up a lot about Jack Fish, but my noir is more 80’s Hong Kong movie noir than Jim Thompson or Ellroy—Technicolor noir, as Jonathan Ames put it.

I was going for a style, I think, a mood. I wanted the book to be funny most of all, exuberant, surprising, fast.

Also, practically speaking, when I started on this book, I could only write for short periods of time, like from 6:00 to 6:30 in the morning, and I wanted to walk away smiling each time I wrote something. So no long expository passages, no connective narrative, just cool stuff, high points, action, dialog and punchlines. A Paul’s Boutique spy novel if you will.

Also, I wanted to do a Waugh-ish plot in the sense that it would unravel and leave the “hero” flummoxed. And I wanted a kind of Gonzo HST sense of wordplay.

But Genre? Once I had Soho interested in publishing it, Bryan, my editor, told me, “You have a spy. So make it a spy story.” And that brought the genre into better focus, or at least gave it a semblance of a plot. I was just trying to write the coolest book I could. I figured if I did it right, the readers would figure it out for themselves.

WAG: You do a particularly good job presenting Jack’s take on a strange world in which he struggles to breathe air and has to endure the view from high up in skyscrapers. You also write especially well about his traveling underwater. How did you go about visualizing a character from an underwater kingdom?

Milligan: Not to be flip, but that’s the writing part, ain’t it? I mean, that’s what you have to do, visualize.

I’m glad you liked the swimming-the-East-River bit. When I got to that point in the story I realized that thus far, Jack had basically gotten his ass kicked. He was ostensibly a spy with some skills, and I realized that the one thing he could truly excel at was swimming. So I had him swim from one part of Brooklyn to another.

I used to live near where this stuff takes place, so I went back over there and spent a couple hours walking around, getting the smells back. Then I went home and wrote it. I love the rivers around NYC and of course the stuff that has been dumped in them is legendary, so it wasn’t too hard to get that scene together.

As for the skyscraper bit, I worked on the fortieth floor of a building near Times Square for a while. You don’t have to be from Atlantis to get freaked out when the only thing between you and a long fall is a thin piece of glass. I only had to take it a little farther for Jack—me being from sea level and he from the sea floor.

WAG: Jack is a great character, and Jack Fish doesn’t seem to exhaust his potential. Have you considered turning the novel into a series?

Milligan: Um…well, actually now that you ask, yes. I’m working on something quite different now, but I am really hoping that Jack Fish finds enough of an audience to demand a sequel.

I’ve got plans for the next one. It’s called Joe Blow Fish. and it’s about Jack’s younger brother. While Jack had such a hard time breathing and dealing, Joe will waltz out of the water and find a drink in one hand and a girl on his other arm.

Jack will have the job of running his mission from Atlantis. Of course, he’ll have to come up and take care of things when Joe blows it. Without ruining the end of Jack Fish, I can say that I left myself plenty of loose ends and living characters to pick up the story again. I think it would be cool to write a trilogy of these. Maybe even a four-book trilogy like Hitchhiker’s Guide.

WAG: Finally, two related questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

Milligan: I can’t say that he’s neglected, but the writer who made me finally start writing is Terry Southern. The Magic Christian and Blue Movie are so sharp, funny and mean they hurt. As for the most underappreciated writer working today…sadly, I probably don’t know about him or her because he or she is underappreciated. I’m still catching up on my 20th century lit.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted March 1, 2005


Photo Credit: Amy Yang

J Milligan has been published in The New Yorker, XXL Magazine and on word.com. He is co-author of a nonfiction book, The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch). Jack Fish is his first novel.

Visit j-milligan.com to see what he's been up to lately.



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