The MacArthur Foundation named 67-year-old Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott a 2016 Fellow -– an honor that comes with a $625,000 "genius grant" and international recognition.
He’s a little John Steinbeck and a little bit Jules Verne; a smidge Shakespeare, and a heaping helping of Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, and Douglas Adams. His irreverent novels include comedic takes on death, Shakespeare, marine biology, and the life of Jesus Christ. His latest tale is a romp through nineteenth-century Paris in the company of the most famous artists of the time, all seeking fame, fortune, and an elusive and coveted pigment known as “sacred blue.”
- Christopher Moore author, Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D'Art (William Morrow)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Imagine the muse that inspired artists for a millennia was the spirit of a single woman inhabiting the bodies of many women, and, naturally, she's in Paris in the late 19th century. It is she who is responsible for the greatest works of the famous artists who thrive there. Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, all are inspired by this muse.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd in this version of events, the muse is also responsible for their downfall. Christopher Moore's latest novel is part fantasy, part historical romp. And, as with all of his work, there's a heavy dose of irreverence and humor. He joins us in studio. The novel is called "Sacre Bleu." He's also the author of 10 other novels, including the bestselling "Lamb" and "A Dirty Job." Christopher Moore, welcome. Thank you for joining us in studio.
MR. CHRISTOPHER MOOREWell, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that this book was initially inspired by a Monet painting in Chicago.
MOOREWell, it was inspired by looking at all the Monet paintings in Chicago, more or less. The Chicago Art Institute has a huge impressionist collection. And when I'm on book tour, I spend my time wandering in museums because that's a good place that it's not about me and the rest of the time.
MOOREI get a bit tired of it. So, yeah, it sort of occurred to me at that point that I was going to write a book about the color blue, and that was a predominant thing among the impressionist paintings.
NNAMDIWhen I was a kid, my favorite color was blue. What is it about blue that just made you want to write a book about it?
MOOREI don't know. I think it was -- I think, you -- I could make up a mythology for you. But I just came up with the idea. I think I'm going to write a book about the color blue because that sounds like a hard thing to do. And then, you know, it naturally followed that -- having looked at a lot of this art that we're fortunate enough to have in America, that I would write it, you know, include the impressionists in it, and...
NNAMDIIt boggles the mind when one thinks that, OK, I'll write a book about the color blue because the first thought is, blue, simple. But, as you said, it would be really very difficult using that as a starting point to write about the color blue.
MOOREWell, and it was. And I think that that's the sort of thing -- that's the sort of thought that you have as a novelist, you know, late in the evening, and it sounds good to you. And then when you wake up, you think, that may not have been the best idea. But as I started to connect it to the artists in France in the late 19th century, it started to gain a little dimension because, you know, as I say early in the book, I don't know if what I see -- when I say the word blue and you say the word blue, that we see the same things in our minds, you know.
NNAMDIWhat got you writing about that period in particular, was seeing the Monet painting?
MOOREI think it was seeing the Monet paintings, and then what really set off the time -- when I started reading about art because I had always experienced art firsthand, but I didn't have a good -- I didn't know history of art, and I didn't have a background in it.
MOOREAnd reading about the death of Vincent van Gogh set the time period for what I was going to write about because, you know, he -- I grew up with, I think, the assumption that all of us who saw the movie "Lust for Life," that he had killed himself in a corn field. And when you read about the circumstances of his death, it's very obvious that he didn't kill himself.
MOORENo one shoots themselves in the abdomen after finishing a great painting and then walks a mile to the doctor's office, to their friend doctor's house. So I thought, well, that will be the beginning of the book, and then I'll go back and forth to cover what I want to cover.
NNAMDIBut in addition to Van Gogh, there was Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, all appearing as characters in this novel. What did you know about them when you started your research?
MOOREI knew their work. I didn't know that much about their history, and I knew that they had exhibited together. It was the process of researching that I found out how these, you know, what we consider to be sort of soft paintings of fields of flowers and pink-cheeked little girls really had a revolutionary edge. And you have to know the history to see what that edge is. And so that sort of made it compelling to me to write that story, even if -- though it was in retrospect to the murder of Vincent van Gogh.
MOOREAnd Toulouse-Lautrec was a student in a studio with Vincent. And so -- and they were close friends or at least friends enough that Toulouse-Lautrec once challenged someone to a duel over criticizing Vincent's art. So I, all of a sudden, had a cast of characters. And they all -- I focused on the impressionists who lived on Montmartre, who were not the wealthy ones.
MOOREDegas had money. Caillebotte had money, but Monet and Renoir did not. Pizarro did not. And so those became the main characters, and it revolves around Montmartre in Paris.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Christopher Moore about his latest novel. It's called "Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art" and he joins us in studio. We're asking you to join the conversation, if you'd like to, by calling 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments for Christopher Moore -- I was about to say, or if you have any other favorite comic writers that you'd like to talk about, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. How did you go about writing in each of the voices? Was it intimidating to channel all of these great artists?
MOOREIt was a little bit, but they -- fortunately, they wrote about each other. Their letters weren't that useful because they tended to be very formal in those days. Toulouse-Lautrec's letters, most of the ones that exist, are to his mother or his grandmother, and they're very formal and sort of writing home from college for money type letters, or I'm working very hard, and I perhaps should see a dentist, can you send 50 francs?
MOOREBut when they wrote about one another and when they wrote in the magazines and there were all these little art magazines that were published in Montmartre in the Belle Époque, and they would give accounts of their lives and so forth. And Renoir's biography, which he dictated to his son in about 1919, was filled with detail about their lives. And so they sort of told their own story, and I was able to create their voices from there. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, despite the fact that I speak only Tarzan French, only pure mono syllables, present tense.
NNAMDIThere's a lot of historical detail in "Sacre Bleu," from the clothing to the cafés of Paris. How did you do your research?
MOOREWell, I spent a couple of months living in Paris, which was rough work. And, you know, I just read everything I could get my hands on until I could get my head around -- one of the great things about doing a book like this is that Paris looks very much the same as it did. I mean, when you tear a city down in the 1850s, as Louis-Napoleon did, and rebuild it, it looks the same as it does now, the same way San Francisco looks very much the same way it did in 1906 after the earthquake leveled it. So if you can imagine horses where there are cars now, it wasn't that hard to get the historical details right.
NNAMDIAt the end of this book, you also anticipate the reader's reaction, which is to ask, what's true and what's made up? How much did you draw on the painters' real lives and their personalities?
MOOREWell, probably the impressionists themselves, Monet, Renoir, I didn't -- Cézanne doesn't appear a lot in the book because he didn't like Paris. He stayed in Provence most of his career. But the Parisian impressionists, I mostly wrote from anecdote, from things that Monet, going into the Gare Saint-Lazare, penniless painter saying, I am the painter, Monet, and I am going to paint your station. Now, fire the engines up and let the steam go. And the manager was beside himself and did it.
MOOREAnd there were so many of these great incidents of the artists during their life that I've used those. And those are very true, of course, the dialogue between, you know, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Because Lautrec is a devotee of the impressionists, as was Van Gogh. And so these are like their gods walking around on Montmartre at the time. But Renoir knew Toulouse-Lautrec as did Degas, and so the younger generation speaks to the older generation. And I create those conversations.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We'll start with Anthony who is at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYHow you doing today, Kojo? Great fan of yours.
ANTHONYWas it -- and Christopher Moore, even more a fan of yours, unfortunately -- sorry, Kojo. Was it...
NNAMDIAnd you're getting cut off right away.
MOOREI don't do much radio, so I'm OK with that.
ANTHONYI heard you were on, and I missed you, unfortunately, two years ago when you were at Borders for one of your books. And I had to just come on and say, you know, how much of a fan I am, everything like that.
NNAMDICan catch him at Politics & Prose tonight at 7:00, but go ahead, please.
ANTHONYWell, but I've been reading your stuff for years, "Lamb," was it "Melancholy Cove" and (unintelligible) ...
MOOREThank you so much.
ANTHONYAnd I'm looking forward to actually -- my wife, she got her bachelor's in fine art. So I'm hoping that I can kind of craft her over to your literature as well through this. So I wanted to say how much I look forward to reading it.
MOOREWell, you should bond as a couple over "Sacre Bleu." Thank you so much for your kind words.
ANTHONYAnd that is what I am hoping to do.
MOOREThank you so much for your comment.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call, Anthony.
ANTHONYThank you, thank you.
NNAMDIWe move onto Greg in Falls Church, Va. Greg, your turn.
GREGI just wanted to say I'm a huge fan of Christopher Moore, and I was actually -- I love Kojo, a little more Kojo than Christopher Moore, but I just wanted to say...
MOOREIt's not a competition. No wagering, please.
GREG..."Dirty Job" was -- has to be one of my favorite books. And I just wanted to know, what inspired you to think of a character with such detail of the alpha male personality?
MOOREOh, the alpha male and beta male. Well "A Dirty Job" is sort of -- I'm glad you brought that up because it plays into this idea of I'm going to write a book about the color blue, and it's going to be funny. And "A Dirty Job" was -- the sort of mission statement for that was I'm going to write a book about death and dying, and it's going to be funny. And the main character -- I thought, wouldn't it be funny if there was a hypochondriac who got the job of being Death?
MOOREAnd that was the character you're talking about, Charlie Asher. And at that time, I was deciding that there were so many of us that weren't the biggest, strongest, fastest in the world, but we'd done pretty well, and so the beta males who depended more on their imagination than their size, strength and aggressiveness might actually be the dominant species. And the trailing edge of being a beta male is that you have an imagination that makes you a little paranoid, the very gift that gives you survival.
MOOREAnd so that's where that came from was having this character who was dealing with death and dying and the fact that he was a little bit afraid of almost everything. And that -- and sort of I built it up from there. And the whole beta male theory came -- I did a lot of evolutionary biology work when I did my whale book, "Fluke." Kojo, I jump around a lot.
NNAMDISo it would appear.
MOOREYeah. So I...
NNAMDI(unintelligible) San Francisco, Hawaii, but it's a lot more.
MOOREYeah. Yeah, so sometimes I get the evolutionary biology that was left over from the whale book, ends up in my death and dying book.
GREGWow. Phenomenal. Thank you very much.
MOOREThank you so much.
NNAMDIPhenomenal, indeed. Greg, thank you very much for your call. I'd like to build on what Greg said because you like to write comic tales about things that, well, are not very funny. How do you find humor in serious subjects?
MOOREI just think that's the way -- you know, to use a computer term, that's my default setting. I found that I react that way to life in general. I fancied myself, early on, a horror story writer. And I took my horror stories to writers' workshops. And I would read them, and everyone would laugh. And I thought, well, I guess this is what I do. And so I sort of have just gone with it.
MOOREAnd because it's how I react to the world, I hope that I can put myself in a situation where it's working with marine mammal biologists or whether it -- or working with the impressionists in historical Paris that I will be able to find the humor in it. And sometimes it's more difficult than others. This one was more difficult because they knew so much about these guys that there weren't that many holes in history that I could fill in, which I've done in previous historicals that I've written.
NNAMDISo you write horror stories, and you take them to groups and people laugh. And there are people who are trying to write comedy material, and they can't get people to laugh at it. And they're anxious, and they get depressed. How about the flip side of this? Is this hard to be taken seriously as a writer when you write comic novels?
MOOREI don't really care whether I'm taken seriously as a writer or not.
MOOREPeople ask me, are you worried about being taken seriously as a writer? And my answer would be, can you do this? Because I think I can do what you do, but I don't think you can do what I do. And I want to add to that that there's not a competition, you know, between Kojo and Christopher Moore or myself and another writer.
MOOREI don't like when writing is spoken of or art is spoken of as a competition. It doesn't -- I don't think that we always rise to competition, specifically in the arts. And so I don't -- and it's funny when readers come up to me, one of the first things they say is, I'm not sure what my favorite is. And they always seem like they have to...
NNAMDITo have a favorite.
MOOREYeah, they have to have a favorite. They have to put them in order and so forth. And I don't care. You can like one one week and one another and not like one at all. I mean, I prefer that you like them. But I don't see it as, you know, if I'm not taken seriously, it's probably a person I'm not communicating with effectively. And that's not my audience.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll see if Christopher Moore cares enough to hang around for the rest of this interview. In the meantime, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. His latest is called "Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D'Art." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Christopher Moore. He is the author of the novel, "Sacre Bleu." He's also the author of 10 other novels, including the best selling "Lamb" and "A Dirty Job." At the end of this book, there is an afterword where you joke that you have ruined art for everyone. And, indeed, it would be hard to look at the works of these great artists without thinking about your characters and their antics after reading this book. Why?
MOOREI always have that sort of address in the book thinking that if you've gone into an academic study of a subject with this very dire outlook, then perhaps I've ruined it for you by adding -- and I find -- I've run into a couple of art history majors since I wrote this book who apply all manner of philosophical meaning to various things that I know from what I've read that the decisions were made on where could we get our bread for the day.
MOOREIt was not made upon -- on an artistic statement, although I do admire the impressionists pursuing an ideal over their own survival. But that -- I just -- it's a way of sort of apologizing for the fact that I have just made fun of icons for 400 pages.
NNAMDIThere's a fascinating tidbit we learn, a little bit history, a little bit art, a little bit economics about the color sacred blue from which your book gets its title that we associate with the cloak of the Virgin Mary.
MOOREYeah. It turns out that in about the 12th century when -- and I apologize to the faithful who will object to this term. But when the cult of the Virgin rises as a powerful movement in the Church, the Church dictates that her cloak should be always portrayed in this ultramarine blue. Well, ultramarine is made from crushed lapis lazuli which only comes from Afghanistan. So you can imagine in the 12th century how difficult it is to get this mineral from Afghanistan.
MOOREAnd then it goes through a very complex process to make it into ultramarine. And so, because it is applied to the cloak of the virgin, it is sacred blue or sacre bleu. Now, long since then, that's become a French invocation and, as I'm finding out, a hockey term. But, you know, for up until the 19th century when the French were actually able to synthesize the chemical formula of ultramarine, ultramarine blue, sacre bleu was worth more than its weight in gold all though history. And it was a sign of the wealth of a church or a nobleman that they would have a painting that included that color in it.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here now is Susan in Silver Spring. Susan, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANThank you, Kojo. I was privileged to review your book for The Washington Independent Review of Books. So I've read it already, and I loved it. I just thought it was wonderful.
SUSANBut there is a character.
NNAMDIKind of critic are you anyway? You loved the book.
MOOREShe said but. Give her a chance.
NNAMDIOh, but. There is a but. Go ahead.
SUSANIt happens. It happens every now and then.
SUSANI picked a couple of nits, but I don't want to talk about those right now. One of the characters in there, you have many who are real painters. But Lucien Lessard, who is a baker and a painter, was so convincing that I Googled him and found out that other than there being a Canadian politician by the same name, there was no such person. How did you decide on this character? Why did you make him a baker? And how did Lucien come to you?
MOOREWell, I wanted to -- I'm from sort of a working class background. My father was a highway patrolman and, you know, sort of self-trained. And I wanted to have an artist who inspired to be a great painter but had come from humble roots, as was Renoir. Renoir's father was a tailor. And he grew up in the slums that used to be the courtyard of the Louvre. But there was a baker in the 1860s to '80s named Edward Murin who actually was a patron to the impressionists.
MOOREHe would show their work. He would feed them when they were hungry, which was very often. And, in fact, when I talk about Lucien's father, I said that Montmartre was where you went to if you were going to be an artist where you went to starve. And it was Père Lessard's job to keep you from it. And so I wanted to make him a baker because he's the son of someone who wants to be a painter. And he grows up as a little boy with Renoir and Monet and Pizarro as his sort of kind uncles around the bakery.
MOOREAnd that allowed me, time-wise, to have him be a contemporary of Toulouse-Lautrec who I wanted to be a lead character because of the Van Gogh murder. But it also allowed real-time moments and experiences with Renoir and Monet and Pizarro. So a lot of it is the mechanics, the inside baseball of working on a book that covers over four years of history. But it was based -- his father was based on a real person.
SUSANOh, OK. Thank you.
NNAMDISusan, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Max in Woodbridge, Va. Max, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAXHey, Kojo. I just wanted to say, first of all, that I moved here from Texas two months ago, and I found my new favorite place to spend my lunch hour on the radio. So thank you for doing what you do.
MAXAbsolutely. Mr. Moore, I wanted to tell you, first of all, that I read your -- my first interaction with you was when I was 10 years old and I wandered across a copy of "The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove."
MOOREThat's a little frightening, but, please, go on.
MAXBut I think it was informative because it kind of let me know what was possible and permissible in good literature, you know. And I know it was something that you buy, sort of modern, but it kind of opened my eyes to what was OK to put in a book, we'll say.
MOOREWell, thanks. I didn't know that at the time, but I'm glad that you felt that way. You were 10 years old. How would you know any better?
MAXI guess my real question is the historiography aspect again. You know, when did you feel safe enough in the amount of research you had done to put down your pen and pick up your typewriter, so to speak? You know, when did you feel like you knew enough about a subject that so many people care about to start taking liberties, you know, with the history and with their lives and sort of inserting things?
MOOREWell, you know, with this particular book, as I mentioned to Kojo earlier, when I -- I've done two historicals earlier, "A Fool," which is set in the 13th century England, and "Lamb," which is set in first century Palestine. And there were huge holes in history that I could fill in. With this one, they knew what every one of these guys had for breakfast every day. So it was really an arbitrary decision when to stop doing research. And I based that decision on when the book was due because I knew if I didn't start writing it at a certain point, I would be unacceptably late delivering it.
MOORESo I started researching it four years before now. And I had to, in fact, stop and write "Bite Me," which was a vampire book in a series I wrote in order to deliver a book on time. And then I came back to "Sacre Bleu." But, really, when you have as rich a topic as this and, as you said, one that so much emotion is tied up around, you just have to make an arbitrary decision. You just have to pick a point in time when you're going to stop. Otherwise, you could spend the rest of your life researching this.
MOOREAnd the, in fact, researchers, historians wrote a book, I think, that came out in September about the murder of Vincent Van Gogh. Fortunately, "Sacre Bleu" was finished by that time. But they had actually gone back and written as history, rather than as fiction, sort of circumstances of Vincent's death. And, you know, if I had continued to research, all of a sudden, I would have had to change the book again. So you just have to pick a point in time and go.
MAXAnd my last -- it's a two-part question. I'll hang up after this. A, do you get nervous when books come out that are similar subjects like that or do you consider it, you know, kind of a good cross-over? And, secondly, are there ever any periods in history...
NNAMDIHe doesn't care.
MAXAnd are there any other periods in history that interest you, that we might be, you know, something coming out in the future from you? And that's all I got. Thank you so much, sir. Appreciate it.
MOOREI do care. Not that much. I usually -- it only bothers me if I feel like I'm, you know, we're overlapping in a way that might be unflattering or if someone uses an idea that I have come up with independently but now their book has come out and I have to change mine, which actually happened with my book on death, "The Dirty Job," as I was in the process of writing it. And a series came on television that used the same conceit, the same sort of mechanical device that I used, which was getting the names of those who would die on Post-It notes.
MOOREAnd I thought, well, I've got to completely change that now because somebody else has used it. So sometimes it's just annoying. But you have to pay attention to it. I don't think the Van Gogh book does anything but enrich the experience of people who read the novel because they know this is a novel that has a little more base in reality than it did before these guys, these historians wrote about it.
NNAMDIWhen you mentioned earlier, "Fool" and "Lamb," we got an email from Vicky who says "Please ask what inspired him to write 'Fool.' Seeing King Lear from the fool's perspective allows the reader to have a greater appreciation for the era, the politics, the dysfunctional family dynamic and the genius that was Shakespeare. Moore did the same for Jesus in writing 'Lamb,' made the man come alive, made his sacrifice all the more meaningful, Many thanks for mind-expanding literature." But I guess the initial question, what inspired you to write "Fool?"
MOOREWell, I was -- I came about the idea of writing "Fool" at a time when I felt like the only people who were telling me the truth about politics were comedians. And I thought that had always been the role of the fool in ancient societies. They were the only ones who could speak truth to power.
NNAMDITruth to power. Mm hmm.
MOOREExactly. And so I had breakfast with my editor in New York one day, and I said, look, I want to write a book about a fool. I'm not sure whether I should just do a generic fool or whether I should do the most famous fool in literature, which is King Lear's fool. And she said, oh, you have to do Lear's fool. And that was the end of her commitment to it at that point. But I had to go learn the canon of Shakespeare.
MOOREAnd so -- but the original intent was inspired by the politics in the U.S. and feeling like voices weren't being heard about truth except by those people like, you know, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and various other comedians that were actually saying what we were all thinking. But nobody was admitting what's true.
NNAMDIOn to the phones, Tim in Baltimore, Md. Tim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TIMHi, Kojo, love your show.
NNAMDIThank you, Tim.
TIMI have a comment for Christopher Moore.
TIMMy girlfriend broke up with me. And over a six-month period, I read all of your books. And then my girlfriend and I got back together. So I'm not saying Christopher Moore saved my relationship, but I feel like I owe you a debt of gratitude for enlivening my spirit with your humor. So thank you.
MOOREI'm glad that's working for somebody.
TIMYeah, there you go.
MOOREYou're very welcome.
NNAMDIWhat drove you to Christopher Moore's books after breaking up with your girlfriend?
TIMWhat drove me to it?
TIMMy mother gave me "Lamb." And I read it, and I loved it. And then I bought all of the books and read all of them. And I don't know if she saw it different than me via Christopher Moore's humor or, you know, if the randomness of life just turned out that way. But, either way, I feel like your books were involved in the process.
MOOREWell, thanks. I'm glad I could help.
NNAMDIAnd thank your mother for us, please.
TIMI will. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIAll right. Thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Christopher Moore. His latest is called "Sacre Bleu." He is the author of 10 other novels, including the bestselling "Lamb" and "A Dirty Job," both of which we talked about earlier. You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. In this novel, the sacred blue was precious, and it was created in a very peculiar way, having to do with the artist's muse. Tell us about that.
MOOREWell, that's really what's revealed as the novel goes on. And what I observed when I was doing the research is that each one of these artists that I was studying, you know, their sacrifice beyond what I said before where they didn't take the obvious path to how they would make a living, which would be to paint through the French salon was that each of them underwent some sort of tragedy or, in some cases, madness.
MOOREWhistler plays a part in the book, and he has a complete incident of madness where he throws his brother-in-law through a restaurant window. And I thought -- and it lined up nicely. I hate to speak of somebody else's tragedy as being, you know, a plot device, but it really did. And I thought, well, there is always a trailing edge, a double edge to a creative gift.
MOOREAnd so I thought, what if I portrayed a muse that basically exacted the price for the talent that she brought in some form of tragedy? And that's how it sort of manifested in the book. And then she's tied up with this ancient color blue that -- I don't know if we -- you know, it takes 400 pages to tell the story, Kojo. I don't know if I want to go into all of it.
MOOREBut that's basically what it is. She's sort of the delivery agent for irony, as are many of my supernatural characters.
NNAMDIAs in much of your work, there's a heavy dose of both humor and fantasy in this book. How did you come up with the idea of the muse and the color man?
MOOREWell, a color man is based on somebody who was real. Another thing that you discover when you do researches that a lot of the assumptions that you had are wrong. And I had always thought that painters like da Vinci and Michelangelo and Rafael went out into the hills of Italy and gouged their own colors out of the hill. I mean, it's -- the town of Siena, that would be where you get Siena, correct?
MOOREAnd as it turned out, many of the colors that they used -- like, for instance, crimson was made by crushing cochlea beetles that come from, you know, outside of Budapest growing on cactuses and had to be hand-plucked. And all these -- and, you know, purple came from Syria, from snails. And so, from far-flung areas of the world, especially in Renaissance times, you had to get these pigments. And no one would ever get any painting done if they had to collect them themselves.
MOORESo there were these tradesmen, these color men who wandered through Europe, you know, with a wagon or a donkey, and they sold these pigments, usually raw, dry pigments because they would be used either in egg tempera or oil painting or fresco. And they sort of were the gatherers of all these different pigments. And so I thought, well, it would be interesting if there was a character that had survived history as a color man and had been the color man to all of the greats.
NNAMDIColor men. But beyond the fantasy, beyond the comic aspect, what you really got from your research on the impressionists, Renoir, Cezanne -- well, I might be pronouncing the names incorrectly. Let's go to Paul in Arlington, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULYes. I just wanted to add some notes about French names and terms. Well, first of all, it's Renoir, not Renoir. And also, it's Degas, not Degas. And it's Toulouse-Lautrec, not Toulouse-Lautrec. And I also was a little puzzled by the whole question of the phrase sacre bleu because I haven't read the novel, and I haven't had a chance to do any quick research on this. But I was always under the impression that sacre bleu is a distortion for the sake of delicacy of the phrase sacre dieu, which means Holy God.
PAULAnd I would have thought that if there was a name for a sacred blue color, it would be le bleu sacre because in French, there are nuances of meaning of whether you put the adjective before or after the noun. I'm wondering is the author absolutely sure that the phrase sacre bleu was used to describe this color in history?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call.
NNAMDINow, how much do you care about the pronunciations that we just heard here, Christopher?
MOOREI have tried.
NNAMDIYou've tried your best?
MOOREYeah. But I hate to take the satisfaction from people who actually took the time to learn the correct pronunciations of correcting me, so...
NNAMDIThat's what happens when you come on this show. They correct your French.
MOOREAnd I -- it is not just this show. It is everywhere I go. I have a tin ear for French pronunciation. As far as sacre bleu being the name and the color, grammatically, that's probably not correct. I am the one who put it there. That's why this is an original concept, but, you know, it -- whether it has meaning in actual French history, I don't know. But it is the sacred blue, and that is the familiar French term wherever it came from but -- the etymology of it. And it doesn't matter to me 'cause it's a story.
NNAMDIWelcome to public radio.
MOOREThank you so much.
NNAMDIWe correct grammar in all languages.
MOOREI'm OK with that.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, more grammar correction and conversation with Christopher Moore about "Sacre Bleu."
NNAMDI800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking in studio with Christopher Moore. His latest novel is called "Sacre Bleu." He's also the author of 10 other novels, including "Lamb," the bestseller, and "A Dirty Job." The question I was asking before our pronunciation was corrected was, beyond the fantasy and the comic aspect, what you really got from your research on the impressionist Renoir, Cezanne and Gauguin, and this comes through in the book, you mentioned it earlier, is a deeper understanding of just how daring and pioneering their work was.
NNAMDIThese were not just girls with pink cheeks we're talking about.
MOOREExactly. I don't think I appreciated that so much because a lot of people who like modern art sort of dismiss the impressionists because their images appear soft. And let's face it. After you've seen your 10,000 Monet tote bag, it does seem to dilute it a little bit. But because the French Academy and the Salon was dictating how paintings should be and they had strict rules about that, for these men to paint -- and women -- to paint what they saw, modern life was -- they wanted to paint what they saw.
MOOREAnd that's why you see this blue cast to a lot of what they do is because they were outside for the first time because paint was in tubes now and you could go outside. It wasn't in sheep's bladders that had to be kept in the studio. And there was no way to make a living if you didn't go through the Salon as a painter. There were 18,000 painters in Paris in 1850. So it was a completely legitimate way, you know, to -- thing to do as a vocation, but your way of making a living was to exhibit with the Salon and then get commissions and sales through the Salon.
MOOREAnd if you were rejected by the Salon, you couldn't do that, and the impressionists pursued this idea of painting modern life and painting what they saw as it happened. Monet was very much concerned in capturing the moment. At the detriment of, you know, their own survival, they knew they wouldn't be able to make a living. And that really puts an edge to the creative risk that they took, and what I really admire about the history behind the work that I don't think I appreciated before by, you know, just looking at the work.
NNAMDIQuestions or comments for Christopher Moore. Do you enjoy fantasy novels? What books do you put in that category? You can call us at 800-433-8850. Or if you've ever tried to write a humorous speech yourself, how difficult did you find it to be funny on the page? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Here is Gregory in Reston, Va. Gregory, you're on. Go ahead, please.
GREGORYHi, Christopher. My name is Gregory Nelson. I think we are friends. I -- did you write some books in Bangkok, Thailand?
MOOREI did not. That is the other Christopher Moore, Christopher G. Moore.
GREGORYOh, gotcha. Well...
MOOREBut we can be friends anyway, Gregory. I'm fine with that.
GREGORYLet me let you get off the air and let somebody else -- I'm enjoying the interview and...
MOOREThanks for your call.
GREGORYThe -- all the information about the paintings (unintelligible) was something I never heard before. Quite interesting. Thank you very much.
NNAMDII've heard those drinks in Bangkok can get pretty strong, Gregory. Thank you very much.
MOOREThere are five novelists named Christopher Moore, by the way, that I know of.
NNAMDIOh. Thank you very much for your call. On now to an email we got from M.K. who says, "Your guest remarked that when I say blue, we can't be sure that you are I both imagining the same color. In that regard, it's interesting that Homer mentions the Sea, the Mediterranean, about 473 times in the "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," yet never calls it blue, often wine dark, sometimes gray, but never blue." Is this an observation with which you were familiar?
MOOREWell, the thing is the -- there's a book by a man named Eric Ball called "Bright Earth," and he writes about the history of color in general. And when he talks about blue, he said that the Greeks did not regard blue as a color. They regarded it as a shade of darkness. I think he uses the phrase a breed of darkness, which I thought was lovely. I would have loved to have swiped it, and I think I just paraphrased it instead. But the Greeks didn't acknowledge the color blue as being part of the spectrum, and so that may be why Homer doesn't refer to it.
MOOREAnd there are all sorts of these -- I don't go into all of them in the book because they were too far afield. But there are many sort of mystical things. For 1,100 years blue is not mentioned at all in the church liturgy. And then suddenly it becomes the color of the virgin's cloak, but it's not mentioned at all in hundreds of thousands, millions of words. And it was the same with the Greeks. It didn't make the cut to be a color among the Greeks.
NNAMDIMaybe they saw "Blue Velvet," too, but that's another story.
MOOREProbably not. Probably not.
NNAMDIThat could stop you from using blue. You moved to San Francisco a few years ago. Are you part of any kind of writing community there at all?
MOOREI'm involved a little bit with the Litquake people which is sort of a literacy and promoting literacy group and writers. As far as a community of seeing other writers, I basically see my writer friends who come through town on book tour, and we have lunch. But the local writers, when I'm in San Francisco I'm usually writing, and socializing very much is a bit of a luxury for me. I know a few writers in San Francisco. I'm friends with Lemony Snicket, but I don't see him very often, and -- so yes and no, more or less.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to aspiring writers who ask your advice about being funny? Is there a trick? Is there a way of thinking about the work that opens that door if you will?
MOOREI think that you're -- I think you're funny or you're not. You can learn comic timing, but I don't think you can learn to be funny. And I've taught some master classes in fiction, and that always seems to be the case. The people who come in funny, you can help them perfect their comic timing and delivery because comic timing even in prose can be learned. You just use punctuation rather than beats as you would on the radio. But I can't teach someone to be funny, and maybe there is somebody who can.
MOOREBut I don't know, and it may -- perhaps physical comedy. Clowning you could do, but I don't think that it's something that can be taught. I think it's just a way of viewing the world and juxtaposing things that automatically sort of people react to. And I just happen to have a sense because I don't have an audience when I write.
MOOREI tell a joke, and then, 18 months later, I find out whether it was funny or not, as opposed to doing radio or doing live audience performance. So you have to have an inner sense of it, and I don't remember ever sitting down and saying this is something I'm going to develop. As I told you, I was surprised by it. I thought I was writing these scary horror stories, and just the way I phrased things made people laugh.
NNAMDIDo your editors ever say, Christopher, this just is not funny?
MOOREThey don't because they're a little afraid of that, yeah.
NNAMDII was about to say, 'cause you could say, what do you know?
MOOREYeah. They're a little afraid of that, and I have to say, you know, some books are funnier than others. Some subjects are harder to address in humor than others. This was one of them. This was very difficult to address in humor, and, fortunately, Toulouse-Lautrec was such a bon vivant -- and someone can call us and correct my pronunciation on that -- that I had that person to be sort of the comic engine of this book.
NNAMDISay si bon -- si bon, like that.
MOORESi bon. OK.
NNAMDIHere's Jay in Olney, Md. Jay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAYHey, thanks for taking my call, Kojo. Christopher Moore, it's an honor to hear you. I loved the book "Lamb" and wondered if you could tell us anything about some of the research you did for that or some of the inspiration for the missing years of Jesus and his trip to meet the three kings in their various homelands. Thank you.
MOOREThat book came out of the idea -- sort of one of those holes in history we talked about. I was watching a PBS documentary called, "From Jesus to Christ," and they had all these theologians and historians on. And they said, well, there's 30 years of Christ's life that isn't covered in the Gospels. And I said, well, someone should write that. And I don't know anything about history or theology, so I should be that someone.
MOOREAnd I set about learning about what I could about the time and taking the, you know, going with the conceit that perhaps Christ being human wasn't born with the knowledge of how to be the messiah. He had to learn, and so he's sent by the great Rabbi Hillel -- and you can call with the pronunciation correction on that -- to go -- he says, your mother always talks about these three wizards that were at your birth, go ask them how to be the messiah. And so that becomes sort of the journey part of that book, but it was just basically trying to tell a comedic story of those missing years of Christ's life.
NNAMDI"Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Friend." On to Stephanie in Fairfax, Va. Stephanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEPHANIEOh, hello. Hi. I just wanted to correct the pronunciation of the very pompous person who called in to correct the pronunciation of the author.
NNAMDIWe're getting corrections of the corrections?
STEPHANIEThat's just it. It's actually Renoir, not Renoir as he said. I just thought that would cheer you up.
STEPHANIEYeah, not Renoir as he pronounced it. So I just thought he'd like to know that.
MOOREThank you very much. As I tell people...
STEPHANIEYou're very welcome.
MOORE...all consonants in French are silent. It's just -- especially in Paris. It's just a single vowel movement, and anyway, that's how I speak French.
NNAMDIStephanie, thank you very much for your call.
MOOREThank you very much.
NNAMDIYou should be interested to know that before this conversation even began, Christopher Moore admitted to me that his French pronunciation would not necessarily pass muster with certain people. We didn't know, however, that certain people would call. Stephanie, thank you very much for your call correcting the corrector.
MOOREThanks a lot, Stephanie. And she sounded English. We should talk about "Fool," and then she can call back and say that's not how you say that.
NNAMDIExactly correct. Here is Alana in Arlington, Va. Alana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALANAThank you for taking my call.
ALANAI was so captured by your comments on impressionism, and I saw a connection to your San Francisco as well, in that the tonalist American impressionists were very, very moody and quite different than most Americans think of impressionism. And there's such great stories to be told about their amazing lives. They were truly dramatic and amazing people, and I just wonder if you have any interest in them or have looked into them at all.
MOOREYou know, the research opened up the whole world of art for me as an art history student rather than as someone who just appreciates looking at the pictures, which I very much did for years and years. And there are -- there's such a wealth of stories of the different schools and the different movements that go forward. I think I'll take a break and go write about something else for awhile, but nothing -- I don't have any rules about not returning to write about artists again if I find something compelling. And I'm not aware of the tonalists. But now I am, and I will look them up. So thank you for that.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call Alana. We got an email from someone who says, "I understand you live in the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco." We got an email from Elizabeth writing from North Beach, Md., who says she cannot wait to read the new book. "I love the way you see the world. Go Catch," she says. We got another email from someone who says, "I understand your book "Practical Demonkeeping" was optioned for the highest sum ever paid for a not-yet-published novel."
NNAMDIWhat's the status of that project or other movie project? If I'm not misunderstood, despite a lot of options, I don't think any of your books have actually made it to the screen yet, but it's my understanding -- and this is not the emailer, this is me -- that all of your books have been optioned for movies.
MOOREThey've ether been optioned or bought outright. "Practical Demonkeeping" was bought outright. I don't think it was bought outright for more money than any unpublished novelist. But it was certainly enough that I was able to quit waiting tables, and that was 22 years ago. And it's still not made, and...
NNAMDIAnd you have apparently not -- you have apparently chosen not to dabble in what they call development hell in Hollywood.
MOOREI had an opportunity when I wrote "Practical Demonkeeping." They came in and offered me a screenplay deal, as they say, and I think I decided I wanted to be a novelist at that point because then my work would get finished and people would see it. And I wouldn't have people looking over my shoulder telling me what to do.
MOOREIn retrospect, that was the right decision because I've been able to produce a lot of stories since then without anybody telling me what to do. But, yeah, they've all -- I really don't have much involvement other than they say we'd like to option this or buy it, and now we're going to go put it away somewhere where no one will ever find it.
NNAMDIDo you think about cinematic possibilities when you're writing?
MOOREI only -- only in that I think visually, and I sometimes -- a short book I will write in three acts, which is how a screenplay is written because, you know, the best way that you can divide up a project is easier on the writer.
NNAMDIChristopher Moore. His latest novel is called "Sacre Bleu." You can catch him at Politics & Prose tonight at 7:00 p.m. That's 5015 Connecticut Ave. Northwest.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Burney, with help from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. The engineers are Andrew Chadwick, Timmy Olmstead, and Kellan Quigley. A.C. Valdez is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. To share questions or comments with us, email email@example.com, join us on Facebook, or send a tweet to @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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