How did you come to write this book, and how did you get it published?
I figured out I wanted to be a writer when I was five years old. Traditionally you’re supposed to start with short stories and work your way up to longer fiction, but I guess I never liked the thought of using up a good idea in only ten pages, so from the beginning, I worked almost exclusively on novels. My early attempts weren’t very good, but since my parents were still paying for my room and board at that point, it didn’t matter. I kept trying, and got a lot of practice.
By the time I went away to college I was ready to start working on something that might actually be publishable. I wrote Fool on the Hill between my sophomore and senior years at Cornell, and submitted the first draft as my senior thesis project in Honors English. Then one of my professors, the novelist Alison Lurie, encouraged me to submit Fool on the Hill to her agent, Melanie Jackson. Melanie liked the book and agreed to represent me. By the end of the year, she’d sold it to Atlantic Monthly Press.
How did you come up with the idea for the story?
I actually had a bunch of different story ideas, none of which quite amounted to a novel on its own. One day I decided to throw them all together in a single book and see what happened. As one of Fool on the Hill’s reviewers later noted, this kitchen-sink approach should have been a recipe for disaster, only it turned out I had a knack for integrating multiple storylines.
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.
I attended Cornell at the same time you did, and I knew you/slept with you/passed you on the Arts Quad one time. Which character is me?
Most likely none of them. Only a few minor characters were actually inspired by real people:
Jed Cyrus, the constable of the town of Auk, where we first meet the Bohemians, was named after Ed Cyrus, who was Resident Housing Director of Risley from 1983 to 1989. (Though the constable is portrayed as something of a buffoon, Ed was a very competent and very tolerant guy—when I consider all the mischief I got up to in the dorm, it’s a wonder he never used his master key to murder me in my sleep.)
Joe Scandal, mentioned in passing as the RHD of Ujamaa, was named after Joe Scantlebury, the real RHD of Ujamaa.
Myoko and Fujiko, the Grey Ladies, were based on Mia Korf and June Sassa, both Risleyites. After graduation, June ran off to Tennessee with an artist named Tom; Mia became an actress, and has had a pretty successful career so far, although she may have missed her shot at superstardom—according to Risley rumor, she was the runner-up to Marina Sirtis for the Counselor Troi role on Star Trek: the Next Generation.
When I first met them, Mia and June used to hang around with a guy named Rich Carbin, and because of this I tend to mentally associate Rich with Lionheart, even though he has almost nothing in common with the character.
Evan Evanson, another Risleyite, swears I once told him that he was the inspiration for Skippy the Beagle. While I don’t actually remember this, there is enough of a resemblance that it’s probably true.
Finally, while most of the dogs and cats in the story are as fictional as the human characters, Gallant the St. Bernard was based on a real St. Bernard that belonged to one of the Cornell fraternity houses.
Will there be a sequel?
No. I’ve said all I have to say with these characters, and though I know there are readers who would love to go back and see how George and the gang are doing, I don’t think nostalgia alone is enough to justify or sustain a new story.
Will there be another book like Fool on the Hill?
Probably not any time soon. My new hometown of Seattle reminds me a lot of Ithaca—it’s this hilly, damp, green, enchanted city that could easily serve as a character in its own right—and for a few years after my wife and I first moved here, I flirted with the idea of a novel called King of the Cats that would have been very much in the style of Fool on the Hill. At this point in my career, though, I’m much more interested in exploring styles and genres of fiction that I haven’t done before, so I never even came close to writing it.
Will there be a movie?
Over the years a number of Cornellians gone Hollywood have expressed interest in acquiring the film rights to Fool on the Hill, but being liberal arts majors, none of these people have actually had any money to spend, which my agent always finds to be a big turnoff. My guess is that the book will eventually be filmed, but for now, there’s nothing in the works.
I read a review on Amazon.com that said you had “disowned” Fool on the Hill. Is that true?
No, it’s a Net rumor. Because it was my first published novel, I can’t help being critical of Fool on the Hill—when I wrote it I thought it was perfect, and now I know it was just the best my 20-year-old self could do, and this bugs me—but Fool is still my baby and it always will be.
I read another Amazon.com review that said you told The Village Voice that Fool on the Hill was “worse than American Psycho.” Is that true?
What I actually told the Voice was that Fool on the Hill was just as bad as American Psycho.
Here’s the full text of my letter to the editor, which was printed in the April 9th, 1991 issue:
Kudos to Mim Udovitch for her fair and evenhanded treatment of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho [“Intentional Phalluses,” March 19]. Though she ultimately concluded that the novel is almost completely without merit and that Ellis should have been urged “to shelve this project for 10 years or until he grew up,” she nonetheless gave it a generous two pages and 59 column-inches of discussion.
I am enclosing a copy of my own novel, Fool on the Hill, in the hopes that you may find it equally terrible. It’s not surprising that you missed it when it first came out—NOW declined an opportunity to boycott my publisher, and Roger Rosenblatt refused to ridicule me in the Times Book Review on the grounds that my writing couldn’t possibly be as sophomoric as Ellis’s—but here is your chance to make up for lost time. Please don’t be misled by the fact that my book has characters and a plot. Written in my early twenties while I was attending an exclusive Ivy League university in upstate New York, I feel it is sufficiently juvenile and unpolished in spots to warrant a lengthy review, all the more so because, unlike Bret Easton Ellis, I didn’t have two previous novels in which to hone my bad writing habits.
I look forward to suffering extended abuse in your pages.
I thought my sarcasm was obvious, but I guess there’s always someone who doesn’t get the joke.