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What a fool believes

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An interview with author Christopher Moore

Making a reader laugh is one of the most impressive accomplishments a writer can achieve. Eliciting honest-to-goodness out-loud laughter is something that only the most well-crafted comedic writing can manage.

Author Christopher Moore has been doing just that for over 20 years. Over the course of 14 novels, Moore has mined laughter from sources both likely and unlikely. Whether he's showing us the tiny town of Pine Cove, a vampire-infested version of San Francisco or the lost years of Jesus Christ himself, Moore proves himself again and again to be one of the most gifted comic novelists of his time.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Moore is one of my all-time favorite authors. His stories have amused and captivated me for years; he's one of the most entertaining contemporary writers going. For example, his 2002 book 'Lamb' the story of Jesus Christ as told by Christ's childhood pal Biff is easily one of the funniest books I've ever readif not the funniest.

Moore's latest is 'The Serpent of Venice,' a sequel to his 2009 novel 'Fool,' which was a comedic retelling of Shakespeare's 'King Lear' from the point of view of, well, Lear's fool. This time around, the crass and clever master of mirth known as Pocket makes his way to Venice, finding himself embroiled in a mash-up of 'The Merchant of Venice' and 'Othello' with a generous helping of Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado' thrown in for good measure.

Mr. Moore was kind enough to offer up some of his thoughts about his new book, his connection with the Bard and writing in general in a recent conversation with The Maine Edge.

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TME - Between 'Fool' and 'Serpent of Venice,' you clearly have a deep and sincere affection for the works of Shakespeare. Is that affection something that came from working on the books or have you always loved the Bard? Is 'King Lear' your favorite Shakespeare or is it a deep cut like 'Pericles' or 'Timon of Athens'?

CM - I've been fascinated with Shakespeare's work since about grade nine, when I learned 'Friends, Romans, countrymen,' from 'Julius Caesar' for speech class. My favorite is probably 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' and of course, Hamlet, but when I set out to write a story about a fool, 'King Lear' was the one that came to mind. 

TME - What drew you to the story of Lear's fool? What made you think the character would make for such fertile comic ground?

CM - Well, I think he's the most well-known of Shakespeare's fools, although he doesn't have the biggest part, compared to others, but he is the most pronounced in a tragedy, and his place in 'King Lear' is to speak truth to power, which is something that I wanted to focus on.

I wrote Fool toward the end of the Bush administration, when I was starting to feel that the only people who were telling the truth were comedians, so that element was foremost in my mind when choosing a character.  I didn't know whether I would create my own fool, or use the fool from King Lear, and my editor said, 'Oh, you have to do King Lear's fool,' so I went that direction. 

TME - You have shown a willingness in the past to revisit people and places from previous books. Are you ever surprised by which characters demand more time than you have allotted them? Or do you know going in that a single story won't be enough? In particular, what caused you to revisit the character of Pocket?

CM - Well, in the past, characters seem to pop up because I need a certain type of character and I think, 'Oh, I know that guy already. He was in my second book.' So I will figure a way to work a previous character into the story. With Pocket, I just like writing him. He's the apex cheeky monkey, wildly clever, and always a bit naughty, so putting him in danger and having him have to get out is always a lot of fun.  

TME - In that vein, do you have a personal favorite character of yours?

CM - It is very possibly Pocket, but I also quite like Biff from my novel Lamb, who is cast as the childhood friend of Jesus. Sometimes it's some of the more minor characters who I enjoy writing, or like how they manifest themselves in the scenes, but it's not really fair to point to them because people often don't remember them by name. In this book I really like Nerissa, who is Portia's maid, and Emilia, who is Iago's wife. I write them as I think they should have been in the plays, and almost nothing like they are. Shylock's daughter, Jessica is great fun in Serpent, too.  

TME - How does your typical writing process play out? From whence do you draw your inspiration? What's your daily writing routine? And roughly how long does a book tend to take you, from typing the first word to sending the final draft to be printed?

CM - Well, first to last, from start to finish a book is usually 18 to 24 months to write, as long as four years from conception to publication. Often, though, I'll have had an idea years ago and only figured out how I wanted to use it later. The idea of chaining someone up in a dungeon and having a creature come in from the sea occurred to me perhaps fifteen years ago, but this was the first chance to really use it. My inspiration comes from all over the place. From Shakespeare to a small news story I read in the paper. From art, to drama, to poetry. Inspiration comes from living life and paying attention.  

TME - You have written a number of books (Lamb, Fluke, Sacre Bleu, Fool) that seemed to demand significant amounts of research. How does the research process typically play out for you?

CM - I will often start the research for my next book before I'm finished writing the current one. I may only have the foggiest notion of what I want to write, and I'm doing the research to see if it's feasible. If the premise seems workable, then I start looking for inspiration in the research -- the academic research.

At some point, I want to go to the place where the story takes place. Even if I'm writing about that same place in a different time, Paris in the 1800s, or Palestine in the first century, I will always see something that I didn't expect and that enriches the story.  There's always some salient detail that I'll experience that will help coax the reader to come along with me on this adventure.

I remember going to Jericho when I was researching Lamb, and thinking it was the most monochromatic place I'd ever seen. Everything was brown. So in the book, when Josh (Jesus) heals two blind guys, as he does in the Gospels, they look around and go, 'I really thought there would be more color.' They keep asking him 'What's that color?', and he keeps saying, 'Well, that would be brown. That? Yes, also brown.'  Without going there, I'd have never had that moment. 

TME - Which proves more challenging for you: creating narratives and characters from scratch or adapting your stories from extant source material?

CM - Probably adapting narratives from extant stories, because I don't have the total freedom with the characters and settings that I have with the stuff I make up from scratch. That goes for sequels, too. I think they're harder because you have to meet certain expectations of the reader, put in things that they want and are expecting, without writing the same book all over again. I don't think writing a novel is ever easy, but I feel more constrained when I'm just not making stuff up from scratch.  

TME - What project or projects are you currently working on? What's your next book? And is there any chance we see any of your works making the leap to either the big or small screen in the near future?

CM - I'm working on a sequel to my 2007 book, A Dirty Job, which is about a hypochondriac type of guy who gets the job of being Death and runs it out of a thrift shop in San Francisco. I'm also adapting my novel Fool for the stage with Joe Discher, who is a theater director and has tons of experience with Shakespeare on stage. As for movies or television, all of the books but three, I think, are currently under option or are owned outright by film companies, but I don't think any are in danger of getting made any time soon. 

TME - What books do you yourself like to read? Who are your favorite authors, past and present?

CM - I like to read funny novels, as you might expect. My all-time favorite author is Steinbeck, especially his comic novels like Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Currently I like Carl Hiaasen, Nick Hornby, Mil Millington (another Brit, not so well known here), Jess Walter is frightfully talented, Jonathan Tropper, Max Barry, I'm sure I'm missing some. I try to read everything that comes out by David Sedaris or Dave Barry, not usually fiction, but truly funny writers. 

TME - A case could be made for you as the most creative user of cursewords in literature today you're certainly in the conversation at the very least. So and I fully expect an unprintable answer what's your favorite swearword?

CM  'F--kery,' as in 'this is heinous f--kery most foul'. It sounds so Shakespeary, although I think I coined it. 

TME - If you only had one word to describe your fiction, what would it be?

CM  Funny. 

TME - What advice would you offer writers seeking success?

CM - Always remember you are writing for an audience and the question the reader must never ask himself is, 'Why am I reading this?'   

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