daniel wallaceI first met Daniel Wallace, the author of BIG FISH, on October 26, 1998. We met at an IHOP in Richmond, Virginia, and talked about his book and the prospect of making a movie from it.

I had this interview up at the old site, but it was kind of buried. So here it is, reformatted and reader-friendly.

John: What was your original intention with Big Fish? Did you sit down thinking, “I’m going to make a novel about this,” or was it pieces that came together?

Daniel: It started with bits and pieces. Originally, the very beginning was my interest in myth. I’ve always thought of myth as being a way to explain things that we can’t understand otherwise.

John: Like, why there’s thunder.

Daniel: That’s exactly right. It’s always easier to have some sort of explanation, even when you may know it’s not quite accurate or not quite real. It satisfies something. Anything’s better than not understanding. Even untruth sometimes is better than not knowing anything.

John: Did you write it from beginning to end, or did you write in bits and pieces?

Daniel: Bits and pieces. One of the earliest pieces in the book was “In Which He Buys a Town.” That was one of the first things I wrote.

John: Did you know the character of Edward Bloom as you were writing that, or was it just the concept of a man buying a town?

Daniel: At the time I wrote that, he wasn’t a dying father, but he was a father. He was the same character, but I didn’t have the before and after in the context of the final plot. What I had was a way to explain adultery, and a Howard Hughesian character, a rich eccentric, but a warm, kind, handsome man that was almost old, but not quite old yet. Who is unsatisfied with his emotional life, and his life in general at home, and is looking for ways to satisfy that. And so he buys a town. Actually, a couple years after I wrote this, Kim Basinger bought a town. Do you remember that?

John: I do remember that.

Daniel: So much of what I wrote in this book came true. For instance in that scene he brings a woman into the swamp and sets her up in a house. He has basically two lives: the one with her there, and the one with his family back at the home. After my father divorced my mother, he met someone else and started a life with her and was with her until he died. He was always an adulterer, and it turned out — these things came out as we were going through papers and stuff — that he actually bought a house for another woman in one town. So it was a very similar thing as to what I had written about in the book

John: So you had the Edward character and the town. What made you want to tell more of the story?

Daniel: Right. I wrote a couple more scenes, and I can’t remember exactly what came after that, but eventually I had 2 or 3 together, and I could see a story developing and a beginning, a middle and an end. And eventually, I wrote the book in just myth form, no death scenes. It was basically what you see there, without the death scenes.

John: Told by?”

Daniel: Well, see, you didn’t really know. You had to assume a lot. You had to really really work at figuring out what was going on. It was clear to me what was going on, but my agent read it, and he submitted it to a couple of publishers in that form, and they didn’t really know what was going on. That so often happens when you’re writing for yourself and have to think of other people. You have to add explanation you didn’t think you needed. I’m sure you’ve found that in your work. So I went back and did the death scenes. To me, the son was always the narrator. He was trying to explain his father. To me the book is really no different, with or without the death scenes, because I know so much that I didn’t feel like I had to say.

John: That’s so much of what the book is — what’s left unsaid. It’s like a tree that’s been pruned back really tight. You can sort of sense where the rest of the tree was without seeing it.

Daniel: What stands out to you as an example of that?

John: Meeting the wife, the mother, the encounter with the father-in-law, which is clearly something that actually did happen at a certain point, but it’s being told through the prism of everything has to be exaggerated, and much much bigger-than-life. What’s so interesting is that the father-in-law is actually a person who the son can go back and verify.

Daniel: His grandfather.

John: He can see what he’s actually like, versus what the father is telling him. Yet in terms of the book, we never focus on the son trying to rectify those inconsistencies. It’s more his frustration that the father is maintaining this charade, this bravado. But before you had the death scenes, there wasn’t that ticking clock, there wasn’t that urgency about finding it.

Daniel: No, it was much more a literary exercise without the death scenes, and it wasn’t cohesive. It didn’t have the humanity. The myths are so far out, you really needed to have something to sink your teeth into, real people that these myths are based on. And you needed to have a real father, that was dying there and be able to apply these myths to him. Without the death scenes, the book did not work as a book.

John: So, in the writing, how much did you generate versus how much actually made it into the book? Was there more stuff that got dropped?

Daniel: There may be 20 pages that got trimmed, not that much.

John: Whole scenes or stuff within scenes?

Daniel: The original version of the book was darker than it ended up being.

John: Darker, in that you didn’t have the resolution, or the overall tone?

Daniel: There was this real anger and bitterness, resentment, toward the father. And in a much earlier version there were footnotes to the book. It was actually written with footnotes so that a lot of the mythological scenes were explained.

John: Were documented.

Daniel: Were documented saying, “This is based on blah blah blah, there was no actual giant. Toby so-and-so was a big guy who lived…” and there was all that explanation. “There was no ferocious dog. It was just some dog that was next door that always humped my father’s leg as he was trying come home and he would kick him off” or something. So, I got rid of those.

John: Why did you get rid of the notes?

Daniel: The footnotes were hard to read. I really love the idea of footnotes. Do you read Nicholson Baker? Or Tim O’Brien’s new book Tomcat in Love has footnotes, and they were a good idea, but they’re hard for a reader.

John: It breaks the flow.

Daniel: It really does. I love the idea of doing them, but I don’t think they really work in the long run. But the darkness was something I really had to work with my editor on. She wanted a more celebratory book than I’d written at first. She didn’t want the darkness as much as I felt like I did.

John: I think the darkness comes through. What I like so much about the Edward Bloom character as the old man, was that he’s really funny. If you met him an hour ago, and you were talking with him, you’d think he was really funny. But if you were actually his son, you’d be incredibly frustrated by him, because you can’t turn him off. You’d want to be able to stop the bullshit, but there’s no switch.

Daniel: The darkness is still there for me. The adultery scene, I think, is the darkest scene in the book. A couple of the reviewers have touched on the darkness of it, the sort of dark humor, so that’s really pleased me that they’ve been able to pick up on it, as scaled back as it is.

John: Can you talk to me about the water symbolism throughout?

Daniel: Well, as you know, I’m not one for coming right out and saying stuff. In the first draft, I didn’t realize that a lot of the water symbolism was there, but once I realized it was there, I kind of went back and played with it, tweaked it. Obviously, on the one hand I had to find some way of turning him into a fish so that the ending would be acceptable, but I couldn’t give it away. I mean, I did some stuff with his body, sort of getting scales on it at one point, but wanted to do it by sleight of hand or mis-direction. Somebody told me that if you say the alphabet from H to O a bunch of times before you go to bed, H to O, you’ll dream of water. It’s never worked for me, but it’s sort of the same idea, is that you have all this water imagery and by the time that you get to the fish, you’re going, “H 2 O fish.”

John: There are very few scenes in the myth section that don’t surround or involve water. From the rain of his birth, from the frozen water and the snow, to the Girl in the Lake — which is a whole other conversation we need to have. Movie-wise, the water’s very important. It’s going to help us distinguish the looks of the real world versus to the myth world.

Daniel: No water in the real world, I guess.

John: Water won’t play as big a part.

Daniel: There’s drinking water, though, in his death scenes, a lot, and he’s dribbling it and…

John: The two worlds come much much closer together as we move through the story, which is a nice thing as well.

THE QUEST

John: Classically, heroes have quests. There’s a thing which they need to accomplish, to do. One of the challenging things about the book as I read it now is, we don’t know what the father’s quest is, because a third person is telling it, and we can’t see where he’s going. Do you think he has a quest? Do you think there’s something he’s specifically trying to go for?

Daniel: There are a couple of times it’s alluded to, the title of the book for instance, he wants to be a Big Fish in a Big Pond, he doesn’t want to be a Big Fish in a little pond. So in a very generalized vague sense, that’s his quest. It starts in this little cabin in nowhere…

John: Starts as a raindrop. I think it will probably literally be a raindrop. The first raindrop will fall on the mother, and then the story begins.

Daniel: Right, that’s cool.

John: He wants to be a Big Fish in a big pond, which is great, but it’s really abstract. It’s not an achievable thing. It’s not a grail.

Daniel: See that’s a problem. Well, not necessarily a problem. At one point in the book one of the death scenes, the son was wondering why his father continued to work the way he did, it was this constant effort. He looked around, he didn’t see anything that they really needed. The father ran his own company — it wasn’t for promotion or money, it was like for the battle. It wasn’t for the victory, it was for the continuation. It was almost like a life force in and of itself. Moving on through battle to battle and almost — this isn’t in the book specifically — but if there wasn’t a battle, he would create one. I mean my own father would make problems if he didn’t have any, because he was motivated by problems. He was motivated by anxiety and worry.

John: And if there wasn’t a dragon to slay, you’d have to build a dragon to kill. In talking to the studio about it, they’ve been really hung up about, “What’s the father’s quest?” And I try to explain that the story’s a mystery. It’s Citizen Kane in that the son is trying to understand his father. He’s trying to understand what that quest is.

Daniel: Except there’s no rosebud.

John: That’s their question, “What is his rosebud?” So, in talking about it, I fall back on fish and water metaphors. The father is a salmon swimming upstream, trying to get to this place. He doesn’t even specifically know what it is, but he’s driven to get there, and he will go through any obstacle to do it. The father is a fish from the start. Whatever miracle that led to his birth, he is a fish. If you look at him as a man, he’s really frustrating, but if you look at him as a fish, he’s actually a very successful fish. It’s like the ugly duckling version. I can feel it, but it’s hard to put into specific words to make that make sense.

Daniel: The son wants something out of his father that he’s not getting, and in a way it’s a negative quest. That’s the real tragedy of it, is that he’s not part of his father’s life.

John: William enters the story with a goal of making his father be real for even just five minutes — treat him like a grownup and address the reality of the situation. By the end of the movie, where William needs to get, is to accept his father for what he is. He’ll never really understand his father, but he can sort of love him in spite of it. And that’s a really feasible, do-able movie. That’s not hard. The challenge is that so much of the movie will be focusing on the heroic story, the myth. If we don’t know where the hero is trying to get to - if we don’t know that he’s trying to get to X…

Daniel: Yeah, he’s got to arrive somewhere. Well, in one version of the story, you’ve got him returning to the water where he came from.

John: Which brings me to the Girl in the River. Tell me where she came from and what she is doing.

Daniel: You know, so much of what you write, you really don’t know what you’re doing. I wish I could say, “Oh, I know exactly what this was supposed to do and represent and be.” But I’m sure you’ve had the experience too, where you do something and you go, “Where did that come from?” I remember her first appearance came in the first myth that you read about, where he comes to that grove and sees her in the river bathing…

John: Yeah, with the stick and the snake.

Daniel: At that time, I was using her as a sexual initiation, in a way, without the sex, or this awareness of the other sex, whatever. And she wasn’t going to appear again in the book. I didn’t think of her as being a reappearing character. But she came back when he was leaving Ashland. When he went down to the lake, it seemed to make sense that she would be there to say goodbye to him, because she represented part of his youth — a very simple, unadorned, beautiful part — and he was leaving all that behind. And then later she comes in when the ship is sinking, and saves his life. I actually did research to find out how a boat sinks, what happens and everything. I knew he jumped overboard and went underwater, and there would be all this oil on the surface, and people get sucked under by the boat going down, and fire, and you didn’t want to get oil all over you because that would make you sink. So once he was underwater, she just came back. Then, Greek myths, heroes, usually have a goddess that watches over them and protects them, like Athena was Odysseus’ protector. I think it was Athena. You know how it goes, some of the Gods are against them, and there’s always one that is for them and saves them all the time, and that was sort of a take on that.

John: I think she’s an important character to re-appear. It’s great that she’s the same age every time. You think she’s one thing at first…

Daniel: A young girl.

John: And nothing else. But then she keeps coming back and re-appearing, and even at the end she’s the same age, and you know she’s not part of the normal scheme of the world.

Daniel: There’s no sex in the book. But she has to be it, she has to be really sexy.

John: She does, and she has to be both innocent and really sexy. She becomes an important rhyming device. Movies, I think even more so than books, need to be able to rhyme visually and thematically.

Daniel: This is a great book for that, don’t you think? Getting back to the water thing, and the girl. One of the great pieces of writing advice that I’ve gotten, always have three things. My friend called them three horses, and you ride one horse for a while, and then you get on the other one, and you move around between the three things, and you juggle them. And it can get pretty complex, but still you’re dealing with three things, and it keeps you in the story, it keeps the writer part of the story, and the reader. I guess that’s the same thing with this movie.

John: The biggest difference between movies and a book, is a book you can stop and think about things, but in a movie you’re not allowed to stop. So it’s important to create a system by which you can understand how to watch a movie, and rhyming is one of the main ways you do that. The other simple way is in the first ten minutes of the movie, you give the instructions on how the movie functions. You don’t give everything away, but you set up the speed at which the movie will happen and what expectations you should have. One of the big challenges in adapting this book is that you have two story lines, each of which has three acts, but you have to move back and forth between them as smoothly as you can.

THE DEATH

John: Talk to me about Edward’s transformation into the fish. At what point are we supposed to stop taking William literally? In the death scenes, we’ve been taking them more or less at face value, and suddenly we’re not supposed to. At the very end, magical realism sort of swoops in.

Daniel: It’s all real until right here, where he dies. [Shows John in book, bottom of page 174.] This is where everything merges. The only people who have not liked this book have not liked it because they wanted the father and son to hold hands and come to some touching conclusion, and have some real understanding. Well, that never happens. But this is where the son makes it happen, or whatever is going to happen, happens.

John: What I did like so much about the ending, is they didn’t have that “Let’s hug and cry” and “We’ve grown so much.” I like that he dies like a real person, in terms of what you actually show on screen. I was there when my father died and when my grandmother died. Death is a really strange thing, because it’s not like this event, it’s just suddenly an absence. And there’s the weird moment — do you call somebody, or what do you do next? In terms of our story, I’d love to be able to let Edward die the way a natural, real person dies. As we’re at his funeral, we start to see some people from the mythological world, but in their actual real versions. So the guy who was a giant was just this really tall guy.

Daniel: Sort of, maybe, tubby and real big.

John: Yeah. It’s not the Wizard of Oz, but there is a payoff. One thing that the studio asked from the start was, can we bring back more characters from earlier on in the story?

Daniel: Like in the town?

John: Exactly. Even if the character doesn’t play a big function in the scene, we can still recycle somebody. For instance, the wedding. The giant can show up in the background, and those types of things. As we get further into the story, we’ll see the father-in-law/grandfather, both as the mythological version and as a real person. We’ll see him in both contexts. Getting back to William, up until the last scene, he has never been part of the mythological version of the movie. He’s only in the real world.

Daniel: And then he gets to enter the fantasy world.

John: So you can have both the poignant moment — the easy sad moment of the father’s dead in the real world, then go back and re-tell the death the funny way. You can actually end the movie on an up note, on a funny. So that’s my instinct, at least.

Daniel: I think that would be cool. I think that would work.

John: Talk to me about the four takes on death, and why you chose to do it that way. If you were the reader, would you interpret them as being four different versions of the same basic moment, or four different days, four different times going into it? Because you could take it either way.

Daniel: I would like to have it both ways — I know I can’t. The way I see it now is four takes, just like you said. “Let’s give this another try, let’s see how it goes this time.” Because at the beginning each take is very similar, then it starts to mutate after that. So, it works in a lot of different senses, in that the son is constantly trying and failing. The father is as an actor, a performer. He’s performing for his son, and so in that sense, it works thematically, or organically with what’s going on in the book. When I wrote them, I wrote them one at a time. I didn’t know what I was going to write before I was writing them. I wrote the first one and it ended up basically the way you see it in the book, and the first sentence in that section was, “It happens like this.” So I tried it on the next version, I just wrote, “It happens like this,” and that propelled me into the scene, so I started each take with that sentence. And that’s actually the reason that they ended up that way is because of that first sentence. But now as I look back on it, I do see it as a kind of let’s do this, let’s try this again.

THE DETAILS

John: Let’s talk about location. The book right now is set in Alabama.

Daniel: Central to Northern Alabama. I visualize that because that’s the place that I know. I can’t really write about things until they become history of my own life. I can’t write about what’s happening here today, for instance, in the story, it’s just impossible for me to write that way, although other people do. I can’t write autobiographical, but I can take the scenes from my childhood and use them as the backdrop of my characters. The only ways that Alabama is important specifically is there is a reference to it never snowing, so you have the hot climate. Then you have the red clay, which is all over the place, and I don’t think you have that anywhere. In the book the father goes to Birmingham, he goes to Auburn for college, which is a university in southern Alabama, and a reference is made to an Alabama-Auburn football game which is a big rivalry. But, when I was starting on this tour, one of the marketing guys was thinking that in order to boost sales, we could say “Hometown boy, Danny Wallace coming to Chicago to talk about his new book set in Chicago,” and just have a different edition printed for each city. I couldn’t think of setting it anywhere else, just because I don’t know where else to set it.

John: It feels Southern, but not Deep Southern.

Daniel: Not regional.

John: And not urban, but not really rural either.

Daniel: And I don’t know how small towns in Colorado are, but when you get into really small towns where families have been for years, there’s this feeling that they’re all inter-related somehow. And that the people look different, they act different, and they’re very clannish and odd. And in a small town, if you’re odd, that’s okay in a way. You can be a contributing member of that town, being really odd, and everybody has their place. You see it in a lot of southern towns.

John: Growing up, we spent a lot of time in Missouri, where my Dad was from, and I definitely felt that. You could drive down Waverly and you know everybody in Waverly. Let me talk to you about “In Which He Buys a Town,” because that’s actually one of the tales that’s very specific. Do you think Edward actually bought the town? And if so, how did the story of Edward buying the town make it to the son? A lot of the stories are William telling versions of stories that his father told him. But buying the town…

Daniel: Is a little different. At that point, the son is getting a hang of the storytelling thing. This scene is not a mythology that his dad created. William is using the elements that his father has taught him in order to create an explanation for his dad’s absence and his dad’s adulterous affairs. Romanticizing it to a certain degree, trying to make it noble somehow, and in the end, even after all of his efforts, it still falls apart and it’s really sad.

John: It’s one of the harder aspects to adapt, honestly, in that it’s odd. I guess in every hero story you have where Hercules becomes king and has nowhere else to rule and fight.

Daniel: And in some of Odysseus’ travels he does some things like bedding up with that witchy woman for three years…

John: Circe…

Daniel: …Who turned all his guys into pigs, and then they just drank and had sex while his wife was waiting for him at home.

John: True confessions. I have a lot of background in mythology, but the first time I read through it I completely missed the Three Labors. Is there anything else you need to warn me about coming across?

Daniel: There’s a lot of Odysseus stuff, but specifically, the giant, going through the place with no name, the Underworld…

John: An Orpheus kind of concept…

Daniel: The old lady and the eye.

John: I’m trying to remember whose that is. Jason or Perseus? And was it one of Medusa’s sisters?

Daniel: They all shared an eye, and he took it from them as they were passing it back and forth, and he asked them how to defeat Medusa, and they said just don’t look at her, use a mirror. Some of them, like his legendary legs, is more folk-tale-ish. I think that pretty much gets it. And there are lots of little tip-of-the-hats to other books in here too, like The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, and Moby Dick and all these things just for fun. That’s not important to the book, I just like to throw little things in there. But the other reason the town is in there is to illustrate the father’s success and his dissatisfaction with it. That he’s not going to be happy, ever. In the very first scene he asks what makes a great man — he doesn’t know. He thought he might have known, but now that he’s dying…

John: He wants to be a big fish, he wants to be king, but you can’t buy a kingdom. The people make you a king.

Daniel: But the son feels like the father could be king. But it’s the wrong kingdom.

John: King of the Sea.

Daniel: So I had to illustrate that he was successful and he’s so successful, he’s rich enough to buy this town. Why is that a difficult scene for you?

John: Up to that point, the son is always telling the father’s stories, but in this case, the son is twisting facts all by himself. The father was buying something. He probably didn’t buy an entire town, but he had achieved a level of success and had real estate. And this section doesn’t have that happy shine on it, so we know the father’s not really telling it. Because the father would never admit anything less than perfection. This is the first time we’re encountering that.

Daniel: I think that kind of humanizes him.

John: I’m not saying it’s not exactly the right beat. I’m just saying it’s a challenge in a movie that has been so incredibly fawning towards our character. It would be like in Forrest Gump if Forrest did something wrong.

Daniel: It’s the last myth before the very final myth. Whereas all the myths before have mythologized him as a hero, this one helps in bringing the two versions together. The myth father and the real father are starting to merge.

John: I’m not saying it isn’t smart, I’m just saying it isn’t easy.

Daniel: Do you see the character of the father dying and the character of the father in the myth being the same actor in the movie?

John: That’s as I see it now, so whoever you cast as the father plays him from the age of 18 until his death. And that’s good directing, good acting and good make-up in order to pull that off. I think it’s important that he be the same person, because even when he’s being the charming bastard in bed, you still him to the young idealistic guy in the mythological world. Forrest Gump did a similar situation where they cheated it so Tom Hanks played a character that was 16-years old. And with a fable-type set up, you’re willing to go with it more. The mother is the same situation, and the father-in-law as well. Any other final warnings or pieces of advice?

Daniel: One little thing, and this is not that important, but I don’t think that the father ever actually told the myths as they’re written here to the son. The son took bits and pieces of stories similar to this that his father would tell and made them even bigger. All because of the son’s impulse. He’s working with such a bad dad, he’s really got to fight him to keep him up there on the pedestal.

John: As egocentric as the father can be, he didn’t deliberately try to make it seem like Heaven and Earth moved when was born.

Daniel: And that’s the son’s exaggeration, his gift that he was able to do that.

John: He did probably tell his son as a little boy that once it snowed so high that we had to live up in the trees.

Daniel: And we had to walk to school that day, and look at you, you’re sitting here watching TV because it’s raining a little bit outside.

John: And what’s so frustrating about the father is that he would never own up to the fact. The father sticks to the story no matter how old his son gets, and that’s annoying.

Daniel: People like the father in this book know how to be, as you were saying, really entertaining to everybody else. But when you have to deal with them in your everyday life, they drive you crazy.