A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Murmurs and Titters and Gasps does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Judith's most recent novel, A Reunion of Ghosts.
Release no. XIV:
Murmurs and Titters and Gasps by Judith Claire Mitchell
Judith initially told me to meet her at ‘The Sneeze Factory’, which I assumed was a Madison comedy club, but when I looked it up it didn’t exist. I asked for an address, which she gave, and which ended up taking me to a Starbucks. When I got there she pointed to her nose. ‘Get it?’ she asked, her eyebrows lifted hopefully. ‘Okay, Judy,’ I said, causing her to laugh for all of the time it took to order and receive my Skinny Strawberry Shortcake Frappucino® blended crème. Below are excerpts of our conversation.
I'm here with Judith Claire Mitchell, in discussion of her latest and greatest, Murmurs and Titters and Gasps, an honest title if there ever was one. The mark of a first rate writer is rarely the ability to rephrase human exclamations, but it also doesn't preclude greatness, and it's something that Judith not only excels at, but is willing to wield whenever and however she pleases. And so we get characters that, in so many words, whoop, gulp, heave, pant, puff, wheeze, blow, chort, snort, choke, sniffle, buzz, hum, rumble, babble, drone and grumble. Sabrina Haines of The Dallas Morning News called it a "muttering, susurrating masterpiece." Luigi Unger at The New York Times said the book "sniggers and twitters and teehees to the very last page." Kirkus' Ines Toth was too busy cackling, hee-hawing and guffawing to put together a review. An audiobook narration gig has never been more sought after. Judith—what brought you to drag fiction to such an inordinate, sensory place?
Ahem. Haaaack. Hello, Andrew…Hmmmmmmmggggggghhhhh-aack. You know….grrrrrrreeeeeeecch…I’m really not….ah ah ahchoooo…sure. The muse is a mysterious thing I guess.
No pressure Judith. Let's just use our words here and we'll be all set. What was your starting point in this one? An image? A character? A sneeze?
As you know sinus conditions have played a compelling role in great literature throughout the ages, ever since Heathcliff and Cathy caught that terrible cold on the moors. And who could forget the brilliant conclusion to Ulysses: Gesundheit, and my nose was running like mad and gesundheit she said, gesundheit, gesundheit, gesundheit. But actually, no, in M & T & G sneezes did not propel (ha ha ha ha) the story. Rather it was my dear husband’s laughter. A sort of snorting guttural exhalation of truly annoying noise that gave me no choice: either I make art from it or I sneak up behind him while he’s watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and strangle him.
As I tell my fans, inspiration is everywhere. One must only listen for it.
Your book starts with a sneeze and ends with a sneeze and there's plenty in between—but so much more. Is it right to assume then that Charlie is based on your husband? Is your husband also a chimney sweep?
Ah, you see, this is where your critics and interviewers go wrong. The fiction writer may be inspired by actual life, may even base a character on an actual person as she first starts a project, but fairly quickly the character takes on a life of his own, becomes an entity beholden to none. In the case of Charlie, he really has little to do with my husband. And certainly my husband Harley is not, nor ever has been, a chimney sweep. That he is covered with soot and ash most of the time is not due to his vocational choice. It’s simply that he eschews (eschews! gesundheit! ha ha ha ha) bathing. A completely different thing, I’d say.
Okay, fine. Sorry for prying.
Let's talk the nitty gritty of the book now, which, despite your obsession on the micro and the sensory, survives on a very satisfying, arching plot arc, and is carried through by scenes painted from the middle distance. I don't want to put words into your mouth (I've tried, and you've sneezed them out; gesundheit! ha ha ha ha). How would you describe the central conflict?
The central conflict of Murmurs and Titters and Gasps, as the title suggests, pertains to tittering. You can tell that’s the central conflict because it’s central in the title. Or centered in the title. (While writing is my life, I really don’t care all that much about words.) But, yes, the heart of the book is the dilemma Charlie and Megan have regarding her competing with him for the role of Ko Ko in the local production of The Mikado—which comes down to their dueling auditions of the song “Tit Willow” is which, as the casting director murmurs and gasps, both Charlie and Megan perform so brilliantly that said casting director decides—SPOILER ALERT—to cast them both, splitting the role so Charlie plays the first Ko in Ko Ko and Megan plays the second Ko in Ko Ko. It’s all very tense and romantic and Gilbert and Sullivan, I daresay, would have loved it.
Even the most erudite junior copywriter at Publishers Weekly couldn't have put together a better synop. Phew, thanks.
And your use of sensory detail did not fail in the more intriguing scenes between Charlie and Megan, I'll say that to recoup any interest that might have been lost from your spoilers. Are you used to writing scenes so...heavy on the breath?
First of all, I’m wondering if I might borrow your “phew” for my next project. It is a wonderful visual representation of sound. The use of the “ph” to suggest the force of the initial exhalation is stunning. The way you navigated between “whew" and “few” and “pharaoh” (I assume) to coin the startlingly effective “phew" leaves me breathless.
Speaking of being left breathless, that’s a constant state of affairs for me given the asthma and apnea and also that little tweaking of the nose I had done resulting, in increased adorableness but, alas, collapsed nostrils. (Oh, vanity, thy name is blah blah blah.) Accordingly, breath is something I think about with great longing and nostalgia. I suppose my personal relationship with breathing (or with not breathing—ha ha ha ha, gasp) may have colored the scenes in my book a wee tad.
There's of course the concluding scene of Ko Ko, or rather Charlie and Megan's version, in which the two had a contest to see who could hold their breath for the longest. This was, of course, narratively impactful, but even more so when you consider the great metaphor(s) it gives life to. What are those metaphors?
And don’t forget that Charlie’s temporary cessation of breathing leads, when he gets carried away with what appears to be a certain victory, to his death (oops, I forgot to SPOILER ALERT there), while, as you noted earlier, Megan erupts in a sneeze...and so ends the book. Not to sound too “authorish,” but I did, indeed, mean this to be realistic, but also to have great metaphorical resonance. Charlie’s death, to my mind, is a metaphor for show biz (they turn out the lights when the theater is empty; that’s death-ish, I feel), whereas the concluding sneeze symbolizes the human drive to go on, come staggering loss, hay fever, or whatever other travails one faces. The show must go on! That’s what I’m getting at.
Oh brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Speaking of the show and it needing to go on, I'm already fifteen minutes late to my elocution lessons. Why don't you help us fade to black and make up for the fact the entire book is spelled out in this interview. Why should someone, even knowing all of the facts and metaphors of M & T & G, still pick up the book?
Hmmm…now that you mention it, they probably shouldn’t. Maybe they should just go out and get Franzen’s latest. That’s what I’d do.
And I have to run, as well. I’m having issues with breathing again and am turning the most charming yet alarming shade of blue. Ta ta, my dear.
Thanks for your time Judith, and your words, and, of course, your sounds.