“Okayletstrythis”: Carla Gunn and Anita Roy Dobbs discuss Amphibian, clones, and getting started

When narrator Anita Roy Dobbs emailed Amphibian author Carla Gunn about conducting an interview for this blog, she received in response a wonderful disclosure.  Apparently, when Ms Gunn was first informed that we would be making the audiobook of Amphibian, she misread the name of our company as beginning with an L, and her brain perceived in our name something delightfully obscene that I almost printed here, until I consulted the Urban Dictionary.  Because while it’s hilarious, in the way that a young sheep’s specific anatomical organs is hilarious, it might open us up to an audience that we’re not prepared for.

In her response, Ms Gunn continued with the following expression of enthusiasm:

I’nm so glad you enmailed. NMy dog spilled coffee all obver nmy laptop and I lost all of nmy enmail fronm the last year. I nmanaged to get the laptop going again, but as you can see, the keyboard is f”ed and the keys are nmessed up. Anyway, I LOBVE LOBVE LOBBVE your recording!! (ýou know what I nmean – when I hit bv, I get a b too). You captured Phin’s bvoice so well and I couldn’t be nmore pleased. I also lobved your bvoices for Liza, NMrs. Wardnman and the others – all bang on!

I would be happy to participate in the interbview – sounds like fun!

I can’t be the only one who’s somewhat disappointed that Ms Gunn’s keyboard was apparently successfully decaffeinated when she sat down to answer Anita’s questions.  Fortunately, what she lacks in typographical speech impediment, she makes up for in quality.  Here’s Anita and Carla:

Anita Roy Dobbs: True/False — Phin is sort of the amphibian of his social circle: more sensitive to his environment, unable to block out what’s really going on.

Carla Gunn:TRUE. A CBC interviewer, though, asked if it was also a fitting title because these creatures live both on land and in water. He suggested Phin was like this, straddling childhood and adulthood. I liked that idea so much, I stole it. In time, I’ll forget the source and attribute it to myself.

Carla Gunn

Author Carla Gunn

ARD: Which description has not appeared in a review about Amphibian?
a. A Top Five Debut Novel of 2009
b. Features the best precocial kid narrator of all time
c. One of this year’s most original literary creations is Phineas Walsh
d. Amphibian is a blockbuster bestseller
e. Eco-anxious Phin Walsh guaranteed to become your new favourite fictional character

CG: Ha! Oh, but I wish it was a bestseller.

[Editor’s note]: The December 2009 issue of the Quill & Quire listed Carla Gunn’s Amphibian as one of the ‘overlooked books’ of 2009 – a list of titles that, in a just world, would have been blockbuster bestsellers.

ARD: Who was the *most* surprised to find he/she was having an impact on the world? Phin or Carla?

Anita Roy Dobbs

Narrator Anita Roy Dobbs

CG: That would have to be Carla. Phin knows he has an impact on the world: “I figure everyone changes the world every day. For example, if Gordon kills the spider that has its web in the corner of the window, then that spider won’t be able to eat all the fruit flies that hang around the rotting banana in Kaitlyn’s desk and that would mean more fruit flies in this world. This would mean Gordon changed the world all by himself. It also means that everything happens for a reason.”

ARD: Phin loves the Green Channel and pretty much anything it airs. What programs are your personal favorites?

CG: I rarely watch television, but my sons keep me up to date on the latest in science and animal news. For example, did you know that the shape of the universe when it was formed largely determines whether it will continue expanding infinitely or collapse in on itself and end up as a black hole? And also, did you know that the #1 animal collector (after the hoarding human, of course) is the packrat? It piles up found objects and binds them together with urine, preserving them for over a thousand years. The packrat will take an object (like a watch) from sleeping human and – because it can carry only so much in its mouth – drop something else in its place (like a pretty rock). No? Well, now you do.

ARD: Do you listen to audiobooks?

CG: Not so much. But this is changing now that I have listened to the amazing Anita Roy Dobbs and I inherited my very first I-pod from my son.

ARD: Phin doesn’t say “my cat” — he says Fiddledee is his companion animal, so they share the equal status of companion to each other. I think it’s a great example of reframing relationships to make better sense of our world. Can you give another example of your own reframing of things?

CG: In our house, when someone, horrified, points out an indoor spider, I say, “Yep, he lives here too. Give him a name if it helps.” Right now we have two who live above the kitchen window. I call them Margaret and Eddie.

ARD: Do you know whether Amphibian is marketed pretty exclusively to adults? Has its marketing expanded to include young adults, too?

CG: Initially, it was marketed to adults but pretty quickly it got picked up by young adults and even children. The most charming emails I received were from kids who told me that they are like Phin. I’m not surprised since recent research reveals that a lot of preteens think there won’t be an earth left by the time they’re adults.

ARD: I find this adage can soothe a hurt or lend perspective on something unpleasant: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” If ignorance won’t explain it, try “incompetence,” and failing that, “stupidity.” (It’s a graduated form of Hanlon’s razor.) What adage/insight do you find helpful in facing the kind of painful truths Phin refuses to turn away from?

CG: I find I calm down when I read Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, “… to use a computer analogy, we are running 21st-century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago. This human inability to see long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering.” And also, Anita, have you ever watched George Carlin’s talk about how he’s given up on his species? He argues we’ve squandered our gifts of a big brain, binocular vision and opposable thumbs for trinkets and gadgets and that we’re now circling the drain, as he calls it. They’re a bit fatalistic, but I find George’s truths mighty helpful when facing Phin’s.

ARD: In your Chronicle Herald interview there’s one of my favorite bits: ‘One of my sons once asked why plastic bags are even legal if they cause so much pollution,’ Gunn says. ‘I tried to explain that it’s because when they were invented they weren’t known to be so harmful to the environment and that, combined with the fact that they’re so convenient, has made it difficult to get rid of them.

‘He just didn’t buy this argument. After all, lots of other things — like peeing on the street — are convenient but we don’t permit them.’ Can you share another ‘that doesn’t make logical sense’ anecdote?

CG: When one of my kids was in third grade he came home and told me about a lockdown drill – what to do if a dangerous stranger comes to the school. He wanted to know why the kids were instructed to huddle all together in a corner of the classroom. “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to hide under our desks so that we’re not all lined up for the shooter?” he asked, all wide-eyed. If the goal is to prepare children for danger, it makes more logical sense to teach them to self-administer the Heimlich or even how to execute a safe parachute jump since the likelihood of a fatal landing – at 1 in 200,000 jumps – is higher than being accosted by a gunman at school. What makes no logical sense is to scare the bejesus out of elementary school kids by getting them to practice scenes out of Mortal Combat. Yeesh.

ARD: The Calgary-based theatre troupe, Downstage, is in production with a play adaptation of Amphibian, yes? How are they casting for such young characters?

CG: Downstage is approaching Amphibian in a very creative way, representing the internal world of Phin rather than the external. This will work well, I think, because the novel is largely an internal dialogue. So instead of an actual physical Phin, we hear Phin’s voice accompanied by incredibly original props of the creatures of Reull and the other inhabitants of Phin’s mind. Dr. Barrett, for instance, will be represented as two disembodied hands. I met with Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths in Calgary recently and I was impressed with the screenplay and with the puppets they’ve created so far. I am super-to-infinity excited about this adaptation and honoured that Downstage chose Amphibian for this project!

ARD: I know that if my clones ever show up, at least one of them will record audiobooks as her full-time job. What would you set your clones to if they were to show up tomorrow morning?

CG: I asked my partner what I should write for this one and he looked at me astonished and said, “Tell her you’d get them to grab brooms and rags and clean up the house.” It’s true that he does a lot more cooking and cleaning than I do, but in my defense, it’s partly because I have a much higher disorder threshold than he does. He has to learn to care less. But, okay, for Chris – as mundane as it is – I would get my clones started on the house first. I know for a fact they won’t stay at it for long, though, because if they’re truly clones they’ll starting mouthing off and unionizing or something. So I have to think this out and assign them to chores they will at least somewhat enjoy. With that in mind, I’d like three: Brainy, Bossy and Bored. Brainy will be the research assistant who will set about finding out things nobody knows nor cares to know; Bossy will deal with the kids and their lazy habits; and Bored will post random bits of amusing nonsense on Facebook so that my main avenue of procrastination is effectively cut off.

ARD: Meanwhile, going solo in a no-clones world, if I could make it so, my days would be equal parts visiting with friends and family, learning, teaching, cooking, gardening, sketching, recording audiobooks, knitting (etc.) while listening to audiobooks/bbc podcasts, dancing, playing games, reading, and sometimes a movie. That’s roughly one hour each after you subtract sleep and add necessary etceteras. What would be your ideal assortment of endeavors for the rest of your (cloneless) lifetime? (Condition: wishing makes it so.)

CG: Except for the recording audiobooks, cooking and dancing parts for which I’d substitute writing, eating and napping, I’m with you, Anita. Just a second…am I your clone?

ARD: Aside from the (very nicely printed) book (and the audiobook, of course), what do you think would be the coolest medium for Amphibian? Graphic Novel (gets my vote)? Animation? TV series? Movie?

CG: How about an App? I have no idea what apps do or even what they are (I just had to Google it to make sure I was spelling it correctly), but based on overheard bits of conversation, I’m thinking they’re darn useful, no? They’re in those gadgets that do your laundry and scratch your balls like Carlin says, right? I’d like ‘Amphibian’ to be useful in some way or another, so I’ll go with the App.

ARD: I extremely look forward to reading your next novel, Nuts. Great title! Could you give us a peek into your writing routine? (My son, Eddy, is a writer and loves to hear how other writers manage page after page.)

CG: With Amphibian, I started with one scene and named the file Okayletstrythis since I had no idea if I could write a novel never having actually written fiction before. That one scene spawned another and then another and another. About 40,000 words in, I had a mishmash of scenes and took a few days to knit them all together in some sort of coherent fashion. Then I kind of had a framework with which to work. I am doing roughly the same thing with this new novel. As for my writing routine, like most things in my life, there isn’t a routine. I’d like one, though – is there an app for that?


Carla Gunn’s Amphibian, published in print by Coach House Books, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99.  You can also buy it as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 3 of 6 titles for $29.99.

And if this doesn’t convince you, you should have a listen to Anita’s reading of the first chapter of Amphibian below.

Have questions for Anita Roy Dobbs, Carla Gunn, or any of our team?  Email Miette, and I’ll try to put something together for you.