Monday, March 5, 2012

Interview with John Kenworthy - The Missionary and the Brute

            I am very excited to announce my first ever interview. John Kenworthy who co-wrote my favorite animation book, The Hand Behind the Mouse: an intimate biography of Ub Iwerks (get it here) and also Bungee Jumping & Cocoons (get it here) was kind enough to grant me an interview on his blog tour for his latest release, The Missionary and the Brute (see links after the interview).

In Tanzania, East Africa the most dangerous predator walks on two legs. In a land where death is a constant, a serial killer is on the loose. The authorities believe the Missionary Jadwin Ross to be that beast. Even he is not sure if anyone is truly innocent – least of all himself…

Set in modern Africa, THE MISSIONARY AND THE BRUTE is a literary novel that follows the twisted path of the Missionary’s recollections through the past three – or was if four? – days as he nurses a concussion in a Tanzanian jail cell after having been beaten by the guards who brought him in. Constantly professing his innocence, memories return to Ross in ever-clarifying flashes. Colobus monkey howls. A stalking hyena. A machete stuck in a stump. He recalls with haunting disbelief a stream of army ants dragging what appears to be a human ear across a mountain trail and wonders what sort of beast would kill such as this.

He prays it is not him.

It is my pleasure to introduce to you, Mr. John Kenworthy.

1.    In your book, The Missionary and the Brute, the main character Jadwin Ross believes in the duality of human nature. He struggles with his own feelings of good and evil throughout the book. Is that your belief as well – that humans are simultaneously sinners and saints?

I do. We aspire to be good people, but I believe we are by nature fatally flawed. Literally. The natural instincts for self-preservation – and species preservation often run counter to our moral code. Not to go theological on you, but Martin Luther referred to this duality as “Simul iustus et peccator” or simultaneously saints and sinners. He felt that scripturally there was evidence that we as frail human beings could not help but fall again and again. As much as we might desire sainthood, we sure didn’t deserve it. And furthermore and even more importantly – we were granted God’s love anyway. There was absolutely nothing scripture-based that showed we could ever truly ‘win’ that love, but it was given to us as a gift.


In literature one of my literary heroes is Frank Norris who expanded on that duality in his novels. In McTeague, the main character is constantly torn between civility and animal instinct. Time and again he faces those challenges as do we all. In “The Missionary and the Brute” that question is put to the test. There are many situations that pit that inner voice of goodness (the Missionary) versus what comes naturally (the Brute). It is how the characters traverse that thin line – or don’t – that enlivens the plotline and thrusts the story forward.

For me, this is a huge, multi-layered theme and it pervades every chapter before being resolved (in my mind at least though I know others may react differently) at the thrilling conclusion.

2.    Godsend is an interesting character. She is a ray of light in all of the darkness around her. What does she represent to you in the story?

Godsend is one of those ethereal characters that you don’t really know what to make of. I wanted her to be a symbol of the goodness and hope that is the Tanzania I know from my work as Executive Director of Brick by Brick for Tanzania!, Inc. So much of the book is extremely intense and dark, and yet she remains this little pure light amidst it all.

It is no act of blithe fortuity that we see her as one of the first Tanzanians outside of the airport and is one of the final ones we see as Jadwin prepares to leave. She is in many ways like Beatrice of Dante’s “Il Purgatorio” – a figure of pure goodness that pops in and out and propels the narrative forth bathing all she encounters with her radiant spiritual light. 

Sometimes you envision characters in  your own writing that totally transcend the fantasy. Godsend is definitely one for me. I knew when I wrote her role in the funeral of the baby scene that it was a singular moment of transcendent goodness. That little scene was imbued with such distinct poignancy and gentle intensity that I myself still get a little choked up reading those passages.

And I’m the one who wrote it!

For as much as I used her as a symbol of hope and light, I also based her character on so many young girls I encounter upon my journeys. With names like Gladness, Godsblessing, and Vickie – there is an innocent joy to so many beautiful children and I hope that I captured that in Godsend.

3.    In one of the groups I am in on Facebook, an author brought up the idea of research versus experience. The authors were debating whether or not a writer could capture the essence of a place he/she had never visited and had only researched. Do you think you would have been able to write a book like The Missionary and the Brute if you had never been to Africa and specifically Tanzania?

I once had a professor at college who threw out a manuscript I was working on because it was set in New York City and I had never been there. I was devastated. I thought I was writing a gritty street drama with really intensely realized characters. Years later I came to understand that while the characterization was rich and full, the setting did not truly play into any sort of real life New York experience. It wasn’t a caricature so much as it simply didn’t add any resonance of setting. It was my vision of a large urban city with no intricacies of detail. It wasn’t even wrong, per se but it wasn’t realized as part of the fabric of my life enough to enhance the storytelling.

That being said, storytellers all the time create fantasy worlds to which no one has ever traveled. I’m fairly certain that George Lucas had never truly traveled to Dagobah – or at least not often. But it was a fully realized fantasy from his imagination. So I guess for some writing, it’s not really a hard and fast rule for me. In general I think though that it is indeed important for most novels set in a contemporary naturalistic environment to have a modicum of research and familiarity of place before even beginning to put pen to paper.

In “The Missionary and the Brute” I placed the story in the Tanzania, East Africa that I know and love. You will note that the characters in the book did not travel to Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar or any of the areas that I have not gone. I don’t know those cultural details as well as I do the poverty-stricken rural regions around the mountains. This familiarity has kept me from making too many glaring faux pas’ in the manuscript.

But for me, research is not merely about weeding out anachronisms, but actually serving a higher purpose as well. The setting itself can provide the myriad nuances that help reveal character. I have experienced the guttural cries of Colobus monkeys many times on my treks through the banana-tree lined foothills of Mt. Meru. I knew that if I had my characters walking on similar trails that they might encounter that same chillingly mournful sound. From there, my imagination leaped forth and took my own initially fearful reactions to those sounds and let them come alive within my characters. This provided not only a sense of observed naturalism but also helped to build some menace into the scenes as well as subtly building some structured symmetry to some of the important events of my story.

(Fun trivial fact as you read my book – notice how and when the various wildlife appear in “The Missionary and the Brute” and what occurs chronologically at that self-same moment. It is not coincidental.)

4.    What is your ideal writing environment? For example, do you listen to music; write at a particular time of day; have a preferred place to write; a favorite drink; etc.?

My writing environment can be quite varied actually. My only steadfast requirement is a need for an almost absolute lack of distraction – no conversation, no television, no internet. All the rest can be negotiable with myself. That being said, it is often that I find late nights work by far the best for me. I wrote “The Hand Behind the Mouse” almost entirely after 11 pm at night. So too did I write all of the scripts I did for a Danish animation studio – which actually worked wonderfully for another reason. I’d submit my beloved pages to the producers when I went to bed and when I awoke in the morning I had  a message awaiting me telling me that they liked this, they didn’t like that, and please more fart jokes.

As to music, I will tend to put on a set of headphones and listen to CDs played through the computer. Mostly I gravitate toward sounds that won’t put me to sleep but won’t make me want to dance either. I don’t really do too much classical but music that evokes an emotional memory or has nice melody tends to work. I have gone through various phases - Waterboys, Tom Petty, Enya, Out of Africa Soundtrack, Miles Davis, Aaron Copland, the Pogues, Lucinda Williams, Gram Parsons… each has a distinct place in the background of my mind while writing my various books. None has directly informed the scenes I was working on at the time as far as I can tell, but I’m sure rhythmically they must have some influence on cadence and pacing.

I don’t tend to eat or drink while working. Lots of coffee maybe if I write early in the morning. Maybe some tea in the cold Wisconsin nights. Pretty much, my consumption is not of interest to me at the point of writing. I am too obsessed with maintaining that rapid flow of words that happens when all the elements converge on the confluence of my mind.

5.    Ok, you know I am a big animation fan, so I have to ask at least one animation question. You co-wrote The Hand Behind the Mouse: an intimate biography of Ub Iwerks and you have interviewed many of the world’s greatest animators. Are there any great stories that didn’t make it into the book?

As with any non-fiction project of this scope, there is always so much more than can be used for one reason or another. I interviewed over 250 animators, directors, artists, actors, historians – each one talked at length about what they knew of Ub Iwerks and his studio. Not every story could be used.

Sometimes it’s not even stories that are omitted, but emphasis. I sourced the bankruptcy documents from Ub and Walt Disney’s first studio in Kansas City. Contained in the pages upon pages of text were descriptions of the assets of the fallen studio. In the inventory were listed two distinctly separate line items – one for the cartoon, “Jack and the Beanstalk” (which historians knew about) and another for “Jack the Giant Killer” (which they didn’t).

The two fables are actually quite different tales coming from culturally distinct sources (most of us know Jack the Giant Killer as “The Brave Tailor”). To this point, most historians had assumed they were the same film, but it was clear from the documents that these were two separate entities. This was a major discovery for animation but you can’t really stop in the middle of a chapter and point your finger at yourself screaming – “Hey, I found this! This is new!!!” So it slides by in context and is thus downplayed historically.

Some peripheral tales were simply not pertinent to our story. One of these was Ollie Johnston bemoaning that the new ‘improved’ color palette on the new video releases of the Disney Classics were not like the originals. He was most disturbed about “Snow White” using what he referred to as a “Beauty and the Beast” palette. There was no purple in Snow White! Interesting, but it wasn’t part of our story.

Some other stories were sequestered because of family politics. There was one engineer who told some great stories but I had to excise almost all of them from the book. It was a shame. He was a great guy. Just the wrong guy.  

Other times that familial sensitivity arose around seeming innocuous but fun stories. Chuck Jones, the great Warner Brothers director worked at the Iwerks Studio in the 1930s and told me a lot of great stuff, but one story in particular got cut from the final edit of the book. He was talking about how animation during that era was a fairly fluid, unstable industry. The character they were doing at the time, Flip the Frog, had gone through several iterations during his three year career and was only mildly successful regardless of what design was used. It’s important to note that to be even mildly successful during the Great Depression was a great thing, but the Studio wanted more. So they started designing new characters and concepts. One evening the animators all gathered at one of their apartments and were having a grand time of it.

Chuck recalled how there was a ceramic statuette of Flip the Frog upon the mantelpiece and that when a large earthquake rumbled through the region it appeared as if Flip was walking across the fireplace top. He vibrated precariously toward the edge as the animators watched, drink in hand. With one final desperate plunge, the statue of Flip tumbled off the edge and shattered into pieces. For the animators in attendance, they joked that Flip had committed suicide and took that to be a symbol of his imminent demise.

It was a cute and harmless story that would have served well as the ending of the chapter on Flip the Frog, but it was decided that a cartoon character committing suicide was too edgy for the book and was edited down.

I would like to thank John for giving me the opportunity to participate in his blog tour. For information on the other stops on the tour, please see John Kenworthy’s blog.
You can pick up your copy of The Missionary and the Brute at:
Amazon (paperback)
Amazon (ebook)


  1. Michelle, what a wonderful first blog interview! So wonderful to "meet" John Kenworthy!!

    I agree...aspiring to be good...but only through grace are we saved.

    I'm intrigued by the characters Jadwin, Godsend and have "The Missionary and the Brute" now on my to be read list!

    I would love to have been there listening to Chuck Jones!!

    Again, thank you very much for the top notch blog interview!!

    1. Thank you so much River! Appreciate you taking the time to read the interview and leave a comment!