Home > Newsletter > Beasts, Boy Scouts, and a Kitty Named Jacko

Beasts, Boy Scouts, and a Kitty Named Jacko

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Bill Willingham

Down the Mysterly River came about chiefly because of my love of talking animal stories: everything from the old French “beast tales” of Reynard and Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, to the more modern tales like Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, C.S. Lewis’s tales of Narnia, Orwell’s Animal Farm and all the way to Richard Adams’s Watership Down. It was inevitable I’d try to do my own talking animal story someday.

No book has a single origin, though. I was thinking how long it had been since a story was done that casts the Boy Scouts in a favorable light, along the lines of James B. Garfield’s wonderful Follow My Leader. As so often is the case, two ideas that might not ordinarily fit together were combined, solely because they happened to both be on my mind at about the same time.

So, this story would be a talking animal tale that also had a Boy Scout in it.

Then of course, any good adventure book has to have good villains. In a fantasy setting the villain, or villains, have to be recognizable to readers. The frustrations they create for our heroes in the story also have to be frustrations that would bother the readers. Once again I drew upon things that were on my mind: in this case those who, for whatever reasons, can’t leave a good story alone. You know the type I’m talking about—the nameless, faceless studio bigwigs who decided their movie version of Moby Dick had to have a happy ending, with Ahab in a nice restaurant, with his wife, overlooking the harbor; or whoever decided Beowulf had to be stripped of his might and undaunted valor, and remade into a hero with feet of clay, who lies about his past deeds and forswears his oaths, thus sowing the seeds of his own doom.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good happy ending, and I’m fine reading tales about heroes who turn out to be less than they claim, and thus bring about their own downfall. But I bristle at the need to change existing stories, wonderful and unique, to fit those tired old molds—to fit into the whims of the moment. Then there are the huge mega-media-entertainment corporations who strip-mine the works of others for stories, which are then homogenized, transmogrified, and rendered down into a tasteless pasty substance called, “valuable corporate properties.”

Thus, we had our villains for the book, the feared Blue Cutters.

But we weren’t done yet. In talking animal stories, just as in tales about real folks, it isn’t enough to have a selection of different types of animals. Each character, man or beast, has to have a different, distinct, and (one hopes) entertaining personality, and to act in ways true to that personality.

Because I like noble characters with an unshakable sense of honor and duty, we have Banderbrock the Badger. Because I like affable dunces with hidden depths, we have Walden the Bear. And because an unapologetic, rogue agent of chaos is always fun to throw into the mix, we have McTavish the Monster—the only one of our cast who was based on a real animal—our very first family cat.

When we first got him as a new, cute kitty, our littlest sister insisted he be named Jacko (pronounced Jaw-ko). But as he started to grow big and tough to the point where a cute kitty name simply wouldn’t do anymore, he turned into Jughead, who ruled all the other animals in our Newport Hills neighborhood with an iron hand. About the time Jughead killed his second of three local dogs, our next door neighbor, Scotty Givan, started calling him McTavish the Monster, which stuck. And so a legend was born.

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From the Tor/Forge September newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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