by Claire Main

#93, 23 April 2007

Interview with Panama Oxridge

UK Bookselling

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Since reading Justin Thyme, I've had the pleasure of corresponding with Panama Oxridge; yet when I've analysed those few brief emails, I realised they told me little about their mysterious author. So, when offered the chance of a rare interview, my curiosity got the better of me ...

I travelled north to our rendezvous (Loch M*****), where I found a solitary hunched figure waiting beneath a large black umbrella and an even larger black cloud.

As I trudged forward, the figure turned towards me. The face was not as I'd imagined, but everything above it - the furrowed brow, the dark hair with its distinctive silvery forelock in the shape of a question mark - suggested I'd found the right person.

OXRIDGE: What Ho! [Quiet voice; examines me with serious eyes, but there's a reassuring hint of a twinkle as they notice my unsuitable shoes]. Shall we walk along the shore?

BOOKTHINK: Mmmm ... yes, er ... is it okay if I record our chat?

OXRIDGE: [Glancing at the bulge in my raincoat pocket]. I assumed you already were. [Shares umbrella with me; I notice the handle is also shaped like a question mark].

BOOKTHINK: So ... Panama ... if I may call you that?

OXRIDGE: You can call me anything you like ... except my real name.

BOOKTHINK: Why's that?

OXRIDGE: I've never liked it. [Gazes across loch]. I cringe when I hear it; avoid saying it out loud. Always use one of several nicknames. [After a pause]. You must have noticed how I sign my e-mails ... with just a single initial.

BOOKTHINK: Is that why you decided to use a pseudonym for your latest book?

OXRIDGE: Partly. My previous titles, mostly children's picture-books, have all been written and illustrated under my own name. Justin Thyme is my first full-length novel, and I felt I needed to distance myself from my illustrating persona.

BOOKTHINK: Hasn't that made things much harder for you?

OXRIDGE: I guess so. But I had my reasons. I'd gained a reputation for devising complex picture-puzzle books; they were published by a big international publisher, with one title selling over a million copies ... so utilising my name as an established author might have seemed the logical route. However, with this particular project, I didn't want readers approaching it with the inevitable preconceptions my name implied.

BOOKTHINK: Then it's a ... puzzle?

OXRIDGE: [Frowning slightly]. It is, first and foremost, a novel. I want it to be read as a story, the first of a four part series.

BOOKTHINK: Okay, so it's NOT a puzzle?

OXRIDGE: Hmmmm ... I'd prefer to avoid that particular word. [A long pause as we walk several muddy yards in silence.] The truth is, I've long wanted to create a sort of, well, [after a deep breath] puzzle-novel, I guess, with hidden clues woven into the text, but I knew it had to work primarily as a stand-alone story. Putting my own name on the cover or, worse, marketing the book as a puzzle would be disastrous. People who don't like puzzles may not buy the book, and true puzzle fans might ignore the story. Downplaying this aspect sidesteps all of that. It allows each reader the potential thrill of discovery, yet without making those who find little or nothing feel like they've missed out.

BOOKTHINK: So it's not designed to be solved by every reader?

OXRIDGE: No! In a sense, there is no definitive solution. Think of it more as a four-part interactive whodunit. Everything you need to know about the suspects is there - in one form or another - but you needn't find all the clues to make a deduction. Those that are easiest to decode are fun but of no great importance; the harder they are to decipher, the more valuable their secrets, even hinting at plot elements in subsequent books. Actually, it wouldn't surprise me if some clues are never discovered. It's designed to be an ongoing quest. Reading is usually a solitary occupation, but I like creating books that prompt interaction between readers. If you can get people talking about your books, they do your publicity work for you! That's why some of the most popular children's titles have fan-based web forums.

BOOKTHINK: Like the Harry Potter books?

OXRIDGE: That's a good example. Many people tend to assume their recipe for success is merely a combination of wizards and magic - which is probably why the market has been flooded with so many Harry Potter clones. However, each book is a stunningly efficient whodunit, and I've always suspected that their escalating popularity is largely down to JK Rowling's consummate skill for seeding subtle clues in one book to something that turns out to be pivotally important later in the series.

BOOKTHINK: I noticed that MuggleNet gave Justin Thyme a very favourable recommendation. Are you hoping for similar fame and fortune?

OXRIDGE: Hardly. [Wry grin.] I'm a realist; that kind of meteoric success only happens once in a generation. However, the huge popularity of the series confirmed my suspicion - that clues prompt debate, which, in turn, consolidates reader loyalty. For the most part, JK Rowling's clues are woven seamlessly into the narrative, but that hasn't stopped her readers probing deeper. Desperate to guess what happens next, I wondered if some were finding clues that didn't really exist. On one forum I noticed someone proclaiming that "Ollivanders" was an anagram of "Ronald lives" - with another person replying that it was also an anagram of "Ronald's evil." The final consensus was that both are probably pure coincidence, but if some readers are actively engaged in that level of analysis, I thought, why not give them something worth finding!

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