The Common Good

Tim Burton and Belief

091120-big-fishWhile touring the press preview for the Tim Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), I felt transported to a mythical land of whimsical horror and fantasy. This exhibit brought up memories of my Wittenburg Door interview with Daniel Wallace, the novelist whose book Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions was transformed into a movie by Tim Burton. This film, which focuses on a son returning home to his dying father, had a transcendental quality that enticed me to travel with Burton on an unexpected and rather twisted spiritual journey. For those who can't make it to New York City to see Burton's magic in person, consider reeling in Big Fish --albeit in book or DVD format, or better yet -- go out and catch a lost loved one.

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What did the title Big Fish symbolize?

My father said to me every single week of my life that he didn't want to be a big fish in a little pond and that's why he left the little town he was from. I had the title, Big Fish, on my office wall for years before I ever had the book to go with it. I didn't want to go directly into all the silly fish metaphors -- the one that got away, he's a big fish meaning he's a very powerful man, he's also very slippery and you can't get your hands on him. When I start to talk about them it makes them seems really stupid; but when you present them as images they're much stronger, and I think that's why it works in this book.

What myths inspired you when writing this book?

I drew from lots of Greek myths and if there were copyrights on them I'm sure I'd be sued. I can point to the ones I stole from. For instance, Edward Bloom has got to find a girdle, which references the Amazons and the golden girdle. Then there's the old lady and the eye and Hercules with his twelve labors.

Your work brings to mind Flannery O'Connor, another Southern writer, who had a lot of religious themes in her work but you wouldn't really notice them because they weren't that overt.

Exactly, I think she had the perfect balance, and when you read her letters all the different levels she was working on become much more clear. She had some very big ideas that she was working with that to the average reader wouldn't necessarily be that clear.

What's the significance of Edward offering himself up as a human sacrifice to the giant?

That was another story where the giant was actually just a bully that the father had to confront. I liked this idea of the father using his charm; he realized that when you have something that is that hard to battle, you use other weapons.

What does the mythical town of Spector, Alabama, represent?

That's one aspect of the movie that's a lot different from the book. I realize that every hero has to have a journey through hell or Hades. Spector is like a shadow existence, a shadow town that in the book represented failure. It's where people go who have attempted to do something great, but simply didn't do it. This is the town that you have to get out of in order to go to the bigger world. In the movie it's actually heaven.

But in some ways it was a bit of a hell in that it had that "too perfect" look about it.

Well the idea of everything being great all the time with nothing to want and nothing to strive for, that's kind of hellish to me.

In the final scene in the movie, William and his mother go to Edward's funeral and they see the actual characters from his stories. What does that teach us about the relationships that we make in life?

You see these characters you thought were invented when in fact they're not. They actually existed, except they were exaggerated in the tales that Edward Bloom told. So what we actually saw was that he wasn't this guy who was a liar. He had real human relationships, and people loved him. That's what it was about to me.

portrait-becky-garrisonBecky Garrison is featured in the documentaries The Ordinary Radicals and Nailin' it to the Church.

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