After reviewing countless books full of ghosts, ghouls and gore, I decided it was time to give my horror-filled brain a break and look for a story that didn't involve disembowelment or razor sharp teeth. I wanted something different, something deep and thought-provoking.
Always looking to broaden my horizons, as far as authors go anyway, I began looking through my small press catalogs and came upon Michael S.A. Graziano’s novella, The Love Song of Monkey, published by Leapfrog Press. Not sure what to expect as I began reading, it quickly became evident that this book was everything I was looking for. I enjoyed reading Monkey so much that I decided I had to meet the man with the creatively quirky imagination. I was quite surprised at what I found.
Michael, tell us a little about yourself.
You’re almost a contradiction. The topic you teach is quite serious, but your books show you have a humorous fun side. What do the students think of you?
Ah, interesting question... Psych 258 is the introductory class on the brain, for all undergrads who want to continue on in neuroscience, or who have any interest in the brain. I took it over a few years ago, when it had about 50 people… by my third year, it had 230. It's one of the most popular classes on campus. By all reports, students love it. Some of them say they are swayed into neuroscience by that class. So I am very happy with the way it has turned out.
In my lectures I try to get across the deeper picture, the fundamentals of how the brain works, and the fundamentals of how science itself works. The material itself is intrinsically riveting. I mean, how do you think and see, and move, and feel emotion? I describe the crazy ideas, and shot-in-the-dark methods people tried, that gave some insight into that. I'm not exactly a joke-a-minute teacher, but the stories I tell about discoveries often have a lot of humor to them, so I often get laughs.
Very interesting. I never would’ve guessed that about you – you have a great writing style. What are you currently working on?
In addition to The Love Song of Monkey, I have two more of what I call "metaphorical" novels. The Divine Farce is a new story scheduled for publication in 2009 and The Seclusion Zone, which was a finalist in the “2007 Faulkner-Wisdom” competition, is scheduled for 2010 (Leapfrog Press). I'm quite excited about both of them.
How did Love Song of Monkey come about?
The Love Song of Monkey, was in my head for a long time. Two lines from the famous poem by T. S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, got into my imagination somehow. "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas." I started wondering what it might be like to be those claws in total isolation at the bottom of the sea. Then I wondered what psychological state would justify a person going down to the bottom of the sea into emotional isolation, and what state the person might be in when he came back up.
As I was writing the story, I was reminded of the seventeenth century Chinese novel, Monkey: A Journey to the West. It's one of the great eastern novels, and is about a monkey god and what he chooses to do with his immortality. In the end, the two stories, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Monkey: A Journey to the West, meshed together in my head and my own story came out.
What can you tell me about the use and meaning of the metaphor in Monkey?
As to the meaning of specific details -- I never comment on that, because I don't write that way. If I contrived specific double meanings for the details, as in "This symbolizes this, and that symbolizes that," the book would be a dud. Symbols always work better if you let them grow on their own, like the weird images in a dream that are ambiguous and hint at many different possibilities. They're meant for readers to think about. They're not meant for the writer to dictate. Often I can see several possible connotations, and sometimes I wonder myself, but I know I have it right when the parts fit together properly and resonate with each other.
How would you summarize the book as a whole?
In the most abstract, I'd say the book is about self discovery and about the vastness of the inner universe of thought. Most of us, most of the time, live very reactive lives and we're shaped by what's directly around us. But people have this remarkable capacity to sit down alone somewhere, look inward, submerge ourselves in the deepest part of our own thought and change who we are and how we see the world.
So Jonathan begins, one might say, as a part of the sickness and the dense confusion of the post-modern new-age new-century world, and he can't see what's fundamental. He has no honest connection to the people around him. His journey allows him to find his center; it gives him a chance to simplify and clarify his mind around unconditional love. This is really what the story is about.
Most people are either left brain or right brained. However, if quirky fiction wasn’t enough to throw us off the science trail, you also write very creative children’s books.
Yes, in addition to the "metaphorical" novels, I also write children's novels. I write these under the pseudonym B. B. Wurge. I'm not at all secretive about the pseudonym. The purpose of it is to label the books clearly. I didn't want kids accidentally picking up an age-inappropriate book. The kids books are written by a giant super-intelligent orangutan named B. B. Wurge, who lives in an elevator shaft in New York City.
Oh, so that wasn’t a teamster I saw in that building the other day, it was just B.B. Wurge. That explains why he wasn’t as hairy and unusually polite. Does B.B. Wurge have any special meaning?
The name B. B. Wurge doesn't mean anything in particular. I don't know what the initials stand for, he keeps that a secret; but you are welcome to visit his web page www.bbwurge.com where you will learn more about him. He likes to write and to draw.
I also liked the idea of a super-intelligent orangutan lurking in Manhattan. Otherwise writing kids' books under a pseudonym might seem kind of creepy.
I know what you mean; but as luck would have it, most of us at BookFetish are kind of creepy, so we don’t have a problem with it. Which genre do you enjoy writing the most?
Of all the work that I write, scientific and otherwise, I have to say, I get more satisfaction out of the letters from children than out of anything else. I recently received an entire envelope full of notes from a third grade class that read Wurge's first book, Billy and the Birdfrog; his second book, Squiggle, will come out later in 2009, and his third book, The Last Notebook of Leonardo, is slated for 2010.
That’s quite a prolific orangutan. I want to thank you, Michael, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with us. I've truly enjoyed it.
Thank you, Renee, for such an interesting discussion! The best part about writing is engaging with the audience, the public who reads the books and thinks and wonders about them. So thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and your readers.