Rhode Island College Professor Pens ‘Pyg,’ the Fictional Memoir of an 18th-Century Swine

Posted by Soren Sorensen

For the better part of 20 years, somewhere between theory and practice, Dr. Russell Potter has been unveiling media culture and theory, Victorian literature, the history of Arctic exploration, hip-hop culture, linguistics and literary theory to his Rhode Island College students.

He can now add “novelist” to his impressive, if unpredictable, curriculum vitaePyg, Dr. Potter’s first novel, is the fictional memoir of a gifted, charming, distinguished (and lucky) pig who was born at the end of the 18th century.

Dr. Potter was kind enough to talk to New England Post about the new book.

Where did the idea for a book about a sapient pig come from?

RP: Many years ago, in the historian Richard Altick’s book The Shows of London, I’d read about a pig in the 1780s who answered questions put to him by spelling out his replies with lettered cards.  Some time later, in a book by the master card magician Ricky Jay, I read more about this pig, whose name was “Toby.”  One of the details about this “Toby” in Jay’s book was that a purported autobiography had been published, filled with bad puns in which Toby’s favorite play was said to be “HAMlet,” his favorite philosophers “HOGG” and “BACON,” and so forth.  It occurred to me that, had the pig himself actually written an accurate account of his life, how different that would be!  And then, it seemed, if such a book were to come into existence, I would have to write it myself.

NEP: Obviously, the memoir is in Toby’s hand (or cloven hoof in this case) and you are the memoir’s editor.  As an author, was there any hesitation about not taking full credit as the man behind the pig?

RP: Well, this is the conceit of the novel.  Many of the greatest novels in history have—by their author’s own accounts—not been written, but found.  Cervantes got the second half of Don Quixote in an Arab market; Umberto Eco discovered the manuscript of The Name of the Rose in a medieval library; Tolkien merely translated a text he called “The Red Book of Westmarch.”  So while yes, of course, I wrote the novel, I also at the same time found it—and this in fact was my experience.  When I first “heard” Toby’s voice in my head, I began to transcribe it, and throughout the compositional process, with all its fits and starts, that voice never faltered.  I had work to do, of course—how did one travel from Oxford to London in 1784?  Was there a theatre in Belfast that same year where a sapient pig could have appeared?  So I did have to tend to quite a few historical particulars, even as Toby himself seemed almost to dictate his memoirs to me.

NEP: With much-celebrated children’s novels like E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep Pig, which inspired the Babe film franchise, did it occur to you to write about another animal?

RP: Well, I have never much liked those pigs—apologies to their fans.  E.B. White actually did raise pigs, and wrote a rather plaintive essay in the New Yorker where he described his futile efforts to nurse a sick pig to health.  The Babe movies are entertaining, to be sure, but to imagine that a pig could speak requires a great amount of “magical realism.”  Whereas I myself, though I did wish to see what would happen if a pig gained self-awareness, did not want to require anything which exceeded the documentary record: a pig spelled out answers to audience questions—why might he not spell out his memoirs as well?

NEP: You are published on a wide variety of subjects, including but not limited to Sir John Franklin’s 19th century Arctic expeditions and hip-hop music.  What led you to create Pyg and what does the book have in common with your other writing or teaching?

RP: I am afraid that, much like some of my academic forebears, I have been a rather secretive writer, at least when it comes to fiction.  I remember reading that when J.R.R. Tolkien was to be given an honorary doctorate by Oxford, that some of his longtime colleagues were heard to remark, “So that’s what you’ve really been up to all these years!”  I have been writing novels since I was in my early twenties, and although Pyg is my first published novel, it’s actually the fourth I’ve completed.  The others are—for now—in a sort of mothball storage; perhaps someday they can be known.

NEP: Where is Pyg coming out November 3rd and when does it come out in the States?

RP: The November 3rd date is for the United Kingdom.  Pyg will be out in the United States in a paperback original edition from Penguin Books in August of 2012.  There will also be translations into Italian, Swedish and perhaps more depending on how well it does.  The most exciting development so far, from my point of view, is that an audiobook, featuring the mellifluous voice of Simon Callow (A Room with a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls) is being released in the UK simultaneously with the book.

NEP: Had you basically finished Pyg before seeking a publisher?  How did Canongate find you or did you find them?

RP: I began writing Pyg just two years ago, in November of 2009.  The original draft took a little over a year, with one or two false starts (from which I was saved by friends in my reading group).  I’d known of Canongate, being an admirer of Alasdair Gray, whose brilliant novel Lanark they’d published back in the early 1980′s.  I was lucky enough to find a really talented agent who loved the novel, Malaga Baldi, and she too thought Canongate might be ideal.  And, just at the end of March of this year, we heard back from Jamie Byng, Canongate’s managing director, that he loved the novel and was prepared to publish.  I’ve had many amazing days in my life, but that was certainly the most stunning so far.  After writing fiction for nearly 30 years, it felt like the breaking of an enormous dam.

NEP: Are you working on something else that you’d care to share a bit about?

RP: Well, there’s more in the hopper, though I can’t get into details just yet.  The novel I completed just before I began Pyg is one possibility, though I’m also working on an entirely new novel, to be collaboratively written with my life and writing partner, Karen Carr.  I’m just hopeful now that Toby will win enough friends that publishers will be wiling to take these other novels on.  It’s a risky business these days—but I have always been convinced that readers are out there for the sorts of books I write, and it’s been a real delight to find in Canongate, a publisher who agrees!

For more information, visit Dr. Potter’s Pyg blog.

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Posted by Soren Sorensen on Aug 2 2012. Filed under Entertainment, Featured - For home page featured article. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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