Russell Hoban began his writing career telling gentle children’s stories about a badger named Frances. As he went on, however, he became the oft-spoken-of, rarely seen writer who’s impossible to pigeonhole. His works have included classic children’s novels like The Mouse And His Child and The Marzipan Pig, as well as adult works that dance between genres, including Pilgermann and Kleinzeit. He even wrote the book that was the basis for Jim Henson’s Christmas special Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas. Hoban’s most famous work, however, is the slim post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, the subject of this week’s Wrapped Up In Books discussion. Via phone from his home in London, Hoban recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the process of writing Riddley Walker, why he’s drawn to mythological figures, and his advice for new writers.
The A.V. Club: In the expanded edition, you talk about the process of writing the book, which took something like five years.
Russell Hoban: Five and a half.
AVC: Were you working constantly on the book during that time, or were there periods where you set it aside and said “I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this”?
RH: No, I think it was pretty constant. I would have to check with my diaries, but it was pretty constant.
AVC: What were some of the bigger challenges in the process?
RH: The first two and a half years, I ended up with 500 pages, and it was spread all over the place. It wasn’t concentrated enough, so I had a lot of stuff that I liked, but it wasn’t working as part of a whole. So I discarded that, and I started again, and I made the whole thing tighter and worked within a more narrow compass.
AVC: Do you still have that 500-page draft?
RH: I have it somewhere, I suppose. I don’t remember.
AVC: Do you remember in particular some of the things that were changed and whittled down?
RH: Well, I remember that there was quite a substantial section on a paper mill, which accounts for how they got their cigarette papers and so forth. And that took quite a few pages, and I decided that it wasn’t pulling its weight, so I got rid of it.
AVC: So when you made the decision to switch from a straight story to the devolved language you use throughout the book, was that a gradual process?
RH: Gradual—well, fairly gradual. I started writing in straight English, and little by little, as I tried revising the opening chapter, the language began to change, and I saw that really, the language wouldn’t be the same a couple of thousand years ahead of our time. So I went with it, and that’s what I got.
AVC: Did you have an internal voice that said when a word was maybe too devolved or too hard to understand? Did you run it by other people?
RH: No, I didn’t. I didn’t run it by anybody. I just winged it. I just trusted my inner ear.
AVC: Did you turn to any other dialect novels for inspiration?
RH: Well, there weren’t any other novels that inspired me, but a long time before I worked on Riddley Walker, I read a story by Gerald Kersh, called “Voices In The Dust Of Annan”—“Annan” being a corruption of “London”—and it tells the story of an explorer in a future time who fell through some rubbish in the place that used to be London, and found himself underground with small people who hunted rats for a living and who still sang corrupted versions of songs that had been passed down to them. So they sang “Who Killed Cock Robin” and “Bless ’Em All.” And that intrigued me. I’ve often tried fooling around with words, and the sound of that, as I say, caught me, and I was waiting for a chance to do something like that. So with Riddley Walker, I had that chance.
AVC: And you decided to set it in the district of Kent. What prompted that choice?
RH: It was set in Kent because the Archbishop of Canterbury was from Canterbury, and my original inspiration came from a visit to Canterbury Cathedral, where I saw the legend of St. Eustace.
AVC: Your books often follow a recurring theme of the role of myth or storytelling in a society. Often, everything ultimately boils down to storytelling or myth.
RH: It’s nothing I think about. I hadn’t even been aware that it crept in.
AVC: Do you think it just comes from your role as a storyteller?
RH: No, I’m very fond of myth and legends. I have a book coming out in November called Angelica Lost And Found, and the Angelica in my story is based on Angelica being saved by Ruggiero in a painting which lives in the El Paso Museum Of Art in Texas. And this painting by Girolamo da Carpi shows the hero Ruggiero riding a hippogriff to rescue Angelica, who is naked and chained to a rock and being menaced by a sea monster. My story deals with the hippogriff’s longing to possess Angelica for himself, and he manages to break through the membrane of literary reality into the world of mortal humans, and so a meeting happens between the two of them, and they fall in love, and the story develops from there.
AVC: What draws you to mythic or legendary figures?
RH: Don’t know exactly.
AVC: Have they been interesting to you since you were young?
RH: It’s something that has always interested me, long before I became a writer. I remember in high school, in the library, I used to look up the stories of Siegfried and how he slew Fafnir the dragon, and so forth. And heroes and legends have always fascinated me.
AVC: Your work is unusual in the post-apocalyptic genre in that it doesn’t treat man-made spaces as horrors. They’re filled with a sort of natural wonder. Was that a conscious choice? Did it just seem to you that your characters would be that impressed by these old relics?
RH: That was not a conscious choice. When I write a book, I don’t have a plan or an outline. The characters move the action, and the action develops the characters. When I write a book, I become an actor, really, taking the role of the person who is speaking or acting at the time, and so their reactions to whatever they see are my reactions.
AVC: Did you have conscious places in mind, other than Canterbury Cathedral, for when the characters see the great shining wheels and such?
RH: It was just a general imaginative description of long-abandoned machinery. I had never seen anything like the great shining wheels I described.
AVC: Did you ever consider revisiting this world?
RH: No, when I finished that book, that was it. I had nothing more to bring to that subject.
AVC: How did you arrive at puppet shows as the form in which Goodparley and Orfing send out their political and religious messages?
RH: Well, that’s part of what I suppose academics would call the creative process. Years before coming to London, I read in The New Yorker Magazine, I think, one or two articles by Edmund Wilson in which he talked about Punch and Judy shows, and they stayed in my mind. I had never seen a Punch and Judy show, and when I came to London, I arranged to have the great Percy Press come to my house and put on a Punch and Judy show. I had seen him in Richmond, which is an outskirt of London, and I invited him to come to the house and perform a Punch and Judy show for a small audience there, which he did. The puppet show, the puppets combined with the legend of St. Eustace when I saw the reconstruction of that painting in Canterbury Cathedral. The two of them came together, and that gave me my start.
AVC: You adapted this book for the stage. How did you approach that when so much of the book relies on seeing this language on the page?
RH: Well, none of the effect is lost, because when you speak the words that are on the page, they don’t sound all that far out. So the stage adaptation lost some of that strangeness, but it was faithful to the book.
AVC: Here in the United States, you’re most famous for this work and for your children’s books, including The Mouse And His Child. Do you see any connections between those books?
RH: The story of The Mouse And His Child starts out when the clock strikes and the toys can speak. The child says “Where are we, papa?” and the father says, “I don’t know.” The child says “What are we, papa?” and the father says “I don’t know; we must wait and see.” So there’s the search for identity coupled with the search for self-winding in The Mouse And His Child, and in Riddley Walker, there is also the search for identity and the search for the self-winding that is the freedom from the forces that have kept Riddley and his people imprisoned.
AVC: Another novel of yours, Pilgermann, is also interested in issues of identity. Why do you keep returning to that?
RH: Well, because it’s the big question. What are we? What is reality? In Angelica Lost And Found, the characters go into this idea of reality in one way and another and in a painting, which has a great effect on several of them. The title of the painting is The Tiny, Tiny Dancing Giants In The Dim, Red Caverns Of Sleep; this is something that Volatore, the hippogriff, encountered when he went through the eye of the Great Raven and went all the way back to the beginnings of everything. So this painting, when some people see it, it seems to thrill them with an immensity of comprehension, which includes the gleam of reality that is the world.
AVC: It seems that you’re often inspired by a painting or a visual image. Is this something you’ve done your entire writing career?
RH: Usually my starting point is something that I’ve seen. It might be a painting, it might be an object. I’m trying to think of other examples. But they always start from a definite sensory experience.
AVC: Are you reaching a point where you’re thinking about retiring?
RH: No, I’ll never retire. They’ll have to take my computer out of my cold, dead hands. Along with the novel coming out in November, I have another book, I guess you would call it a young-adult book, coming out in 2011. The title of that one is Soonchild. And I’m trying to get a new thing started. I only have a few pages, and I keep going back and forth trying to move them along. I’m addicted to writing. I feel physically unwell if I’m not doing it.
AVC: Do you have any advice for young writers?
RH: The first thing I would say is, “Don’t do it, unless you can’t stand not to do it.” And the second thing I would say is, “If you do do it, and get into it, the constant rule you should have in mind is to explore your material.” It sounds simple, but it isn’t, because people often want to get from A to B, and they don’t stop to look at what is in the material.