As for where the individual plot-threads came from: Stephen George is, pretty obviously, a semi-autobiographical character. The story of Luther and Blackjack comes from my childhood fascination with the “Dog” and “Cat” entries in the World Book Encyclopedia—World Book had these pictorial layouts showing all the different dog and cat breeds, and for some reason this just stuck in my imagination; then when I got to Cornell and heard the legend about dogs being allowed to roam free on the campus, I thought it might be neat to have a college for dogs. The sprites likewise spring from a childhood interest in “little people” stories, in particular the 1973 TV adaptation of The Borrowers (this also explains why, despite their Shakespearean names, the sprites talk and act like mundane human beings rather than otherworldly creatures of faerie). The Bohemians’ tale was inspired by my real-life adventures living in Prudence Risley Hall.
The very last plot element to fall into place was the framing story involving the Greek god Apollo, aka Mr. Sunshine. In the early drafts of Fool on the Hill, Mr. Sunshine’s role was filled by a character named Old Nick, and the framing story concerned a bet between God and the Devil. But this never really worked; it didn’t mesh well with the various subplots, and it also dragged in a load of personal religious baggage that had no business being there. So as I began to revise the manuscript for submission to publishers, I gave Old Nick his walking papers and looked to Mt. Olympus for a more suitable antagonist.
Matt Ruff’s Fool on the Hill remains one of my absolute all-time favorite books, and one I think every writer should read at least once, because at its heart, it’s all about what makes being a writer so special.I’ve enjoyed all of his subsequent books, especially Set This House in Order, but Fool will always be my favorite.
I was working a second job, part-time, at a Doubleday Book Shop in Manhattan in 1989 when I first discovered the paperback, and I’ve devoured it at least five times since, each time reminding me why I write. I even have an autographed copy that my wife got me as an anniversary present about 5-6 years ago, and I keep a separate (newer) copy in my office, too.
I’ve found myself thinking about it and referencing it often recently, which must be the dormant wannabe-novelist in me stirring, possibly in response to NaNoWriMo, which I absolutely DO NOT have the time for this year!
DO. NOT. HAVE THE TIME!
But, maybe if the muse calls…
Either way, I think it’s time for another visit with S.T. George and Ithaca, NY.
PS: Interestingly, the movie version of Inkheart comes close to pulling off a similarly inspirational feat, but the book isn’t nearly as compelling from that perspective.