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