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Interview with Panama Oxridge

UK Bookselling Series

by Claire Main

#93, 23 April 2007

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!

BOOKTHINK: I imagine that took some meticulous planning.

OXRIDGE: At times it felt like writing two or three books in one. [Voice enthusiastic]. Justin Thyme is a complex multi-stranded whodunit with more than its fair share of legitimate clues and red herrings, but there are also those hidden elements, some of which are specific to the first book, while others relate to later books in the series. As Justin himself discovers: Everything is Connected to Everything Else! Therefore, I needed to know every single detail of the plot right down to the final page of the last book. I know some authors find such discipline a tad stifling, but personally, I think planning pays; it shows in the writing and reassures readers that the author has a specific destination in mind!

BOOKTHINK: Your work has also been compared to that of Dan Brown [The Da Vinci Code].

OXRIDGE: Hmmm ... I imagine that's only because of the ambigram design on the front cover. Like Mr Brown, I first discovered ambigrams through John Langdon's amazing book "Wordplay." The artist in me recognised at once that this was something I had to try for myself. Initially I considered creating some original ambigram designs for a picture-puzzle book but couldn't find the right project. When I started Justin Thyme, I saw at once that an ambigram would illustrate perfectly how there's far more to this book than first meets the eye. It's a design-concept that's certainly captivated target-age readers.

BOOKTHINK: As an established author - and with such a fantastically marketable idea - I'm curious why you decided to publish the book yourself.

OXRIDGE: It just sort of happened. I'd grown tired of the eye-straining illustrative work and had long been considering a change of direction. Shifting into full-time writing was one option, but I was also tempted to establish a small publishing house. I had not planned on doing both simultaneously, but as I completed my final draft of Justin Thyme, I realised that I was going to need an editor I could trust implicitly or those carefully concealed clue trails could be destroyed by the simplest bit of editing. For similar reasons, I needed a sympathetic typesetter and a layout designer I could take into my confidence. And being the only person to know exactly where all the clues are, only I could give the proofs the final stamp of approval. In the end, the simplest way to ensure the integrity of the hidden elements seemed to be by doing all the jobs myself. So I made a conscious decision not to offer the manuscript to any publishers.

BOOKTHINK: It sounds like you took on a monumental amount of work.

OXRIDGE: Yes, especially if you consider that I did the illustrations and cover graphics too. I suspect there aren't many authors who can claim they've created the complete book, doing absolutely every stage of the work entirely themselves, apart from the actual printing. [Looking suddenly uncomfortable]. Sorry if that sounds horribly smug!

BOOKTHINK: Most people who self-publish a book are actively looking for mainstream publication; are you planning to remain independent?

OXRIDGE: That was the plan initially, but to be perfectly honest, I can't continue doing the jobs of about six different people. Right now I'm busy dealing with marketing and publicity, handling orders, running the JT website (which I designed and built), not to mention packing and mailing endless boxes of books. I'm not complaining, but it does make it almost impossible to find any quality time for writing. I'm desperate to press on with part two of the series, but it needs my total concentration; for that reason alone I'd seriously consider a contract from a mainstream publisher, now that book one's clues are securely in place. And lately I've had emails asking me about foreign rights, who the US publisher will be, and I've even had an enquiry from a film studio. I have to admit I'm starting to feel a bit out of depth; I suspect I'm going to have to decide whether I want to be a publisher or an author - or clone myself!

BOOKTHINK: What would Justin do?

OXRIDGE: Well, he has a time machine, and he's far cleverer than I am ...

BOOKTHINK: You seem to have much in common.

OXRIDGE: Really? [With a ghost of a smile]. Well, as a child I was mad about inventing things. My bedroom was full of home-made Heath Robinson-style mechanical contraptions; my parents used to call me the absent-minded professor. I could recite the periodic table of elements or memorise a pack of cards but rarely noticed what day it was! Like Justin, I've never celebrated my birthday, have always disliked my name, and both of us avoid wearing watches - even though I must have a dozen of them stuffed at the back of my desk drawer!

BOOKTHINK: Why's that?

OXRIDGE: I suppose I don't feel the need to live my life by the clock. Why eat at five, go to bed at ten, and rise at eight-thirty, just because that's what everyone else does? I eat when I'm hungry, sleep when I'm tired - and work in between! If that means writing until dawn if I'm feeling inspired, then I just sleep until midday. Justin's pretty much the same but, being thirteen, his parents prefer him to be on time for his breakfast!

[The rain eases off as we arrive at an old wooden bench in the shelter of some moth-eaten pine trees. Panama Oxridge dries the bench with a large white handkerchief. We sit down and I gaze despairingly at my heels].

BOOKTHINK: Ruined! [Sigh]. Okay, one last question, Is Panama Oxridge an anagram of your real name?

OXRIDGE: [Almost laughing]. Nearly everything's an anagram of something, I suppose. [Stares for a moment or two across the loch with a glazed thoughtful expression, then withdraws a shiny thermos flask from his mackintosh pocket]. Fancy a cup of hot cocoa?

Three days later, the postman delivered a small brown paper parcel. On the outside were three words:


Inside was a fabulous high-heeled shoe made entirely out of chocolate and a small white card which said, "Nearly everything's an anagram of something, I suppose ...

"Best wishes from the paradoxical Panama Oxridge"

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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