How It All Began

I was down in Florida with my family, visiting a zoo that harbors a variety of reptiles and other exotic animals. We were part of a small audience watching a zookeeper demonstrate how to put an alligator to sleep by stroking its upturned belly. Something about that man fondling that alligator amused me so much that it struck me with the force of a revelation: I had just met one of my characters. Not long after that I sat down at my keyboard and began to wonder what kind of voice this embryonic character might have—and what he might want to say. After a while I found myself typing the following sentence:

A sink had fallen on the Komodo monitor and busted up its head pretty bad.”

After that sentence appeared on my computer screen, the zookeeper Lemuel Lee Frobey and his Uncle Earl started walking around their family-owned reptile park named Lizard World.

I wrote a half-dozen pages, but then put them aside and tried to forget about them. They just seemed so strange, that I couldn’t believe that this was the novel my capricious Muse was asking me to write.

But after several months, I found that I simply couldn’t write anything else. “Take it or leave it,” said the Muse. And so I said, well, okay, I’ll take it. Hesitantly, I went back to my pages—and the words started flowing again. And that is when the dentist, whose acquaintance I had made in an earlier little book I had written, suddenly found himself in this new book, driving down at night into the heart of the Florida swamps.

After that I had a number of other hunches. Each one was an idea I found myself so drawn to that I just couldn’t leave it out.

For example, I had long wanted to write about a Poe-obsessed horror novelist who murders editors: one day I realized that this psychopath had to be my zookeeper.

I was also thinking a lot about alligators – and it occurred to me that perfume might be manufactured from the secretions of their musk glands. I was so intrigued by this idea that I phoned the Bronx Zoo and was told by one of their experts that he, too, had long been fascinated by that possibility. And that’s how the perfume factory came into existence in my novel.

Another plot element that intrigued me was the idea of a brain transplant. It dawned on me that the kidnapped dentist was going to be the brain donor, but I didn’t know who was going to get his brain until I started experimenting with the voice of a 17th-century English Lord. Whenever I had an irresistible intuition, I knew I’d found something else I had to stir into the soup. After a while I’d stirred in so many curiosities that my story seemed like the brew in the Weird Sister’s cauldron:

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
 Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
 Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting ,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing. . ..”

By now the potion had begun to bubble and steam—and out of it, gradually, the monster arose.

 

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