Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Guest Post: My Novel Is Not About Eating Legumes. Really, It Isn’t.

By Author Paul Tremblay

As everyone learns when they are knee-high, Mucana pruiens, the velvet bean, are also known as donkey eyes.

I must confess that I only learned about the velvet bean as I’m writing this. What I mean is that I’m writing this while at the same time cruising the Internet via search engines, searching for the meaning of the title of my own book. 

Wait, let me clarify, or re-clarify: I know what the title and my novel means, but I’m still a bit shaky on the meaning of the title’s source of inspiration. While swallowing the velvet bean would be a tremendously uncomfortable experience (apparently the bean is toxic unless rigorously prepped, and the plant itself gives you a major case of the itchies if you come in contact with it), the bean was not a direct inspiration to my novel.

You can listen to the inspiration/source of the title here. It’ll make good background reading music for you, and you’ll likely be done reading this before the strange instrumental “Pree -Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” by Neutral Milk Hotel finishes.

For the uninitiated, Neutral Milk Hotel was a short-lived but influential indie band from the 1990s. With their eclectic instrumentation, experimental spirit, and imagery-heavy and obscure lyrics, think of NMH as the precursor to The Decemberists and Arcade Fire. “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” appears on NMH’s first album, On Avery Island, which isn’t as focused, ambitious, or as accessible their masterpiece; the dark, wonderful, strange ode to Anne Frank, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Still, On Avery Island has more than a few moments (see “A Baby for Pree” and “Song Against Sex”) that hint of the greatness to come. “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” just isn’t one of those moments.

The instrumental (Let’s not get picky. Sure, if you listen closely, you can hear synthesized vocals of Jeff Mangum perhaps saying, “I love you,” repeatedly in the background, but let’s agree it’s an instrumental, okay?) certainly gives a sense of unease, of implosion, or apocalypse. At least it does to me. But the fifteen minutes of aural experimentation is not something the general listener will gleam deeper meaning from during repeated listening sessions, at least not without pharmaceutical assistance. I bet.

Anyway, what I latched onto wasn’t the song, per se, but the title, or half of the title. The phrase “Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” captivated me in its weirdness, vividness, and, at the time, meaninglessness. It was sometime in 2005 that I decided to try writing a story by that title, and figure out what “Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” meant to me and what it could mean to everyone else.

It wasn’t the first time this music geek has gone looking to his favorite musicians for inspiration. My two short story collections are both titled after songs (“Compositions for the Young and Old”—Bob Mould, “In the Mean Time”—Helmet), and my second novel, No Sleep Till Wonderland is a riff on the famous Beastie Boys tune. But all of those previous titles were retrofitted. Those books and their stories, plots, characters, and ideas existed before the titles did. This donkey story, which grew into a novel, was one of the first and only times I had a title and nothing else to go on.

So what the hell does the donkey title mean, anyway? Well, if you’ll let me play a little bit coy initially, I’m compelled by the novelists’ cabal to say that it took me the entire novel to fully and adequately explain what the title means. That said, I used a literal and unappetizing interpretation as a jumping off point, or at least, the image of a real donkey with a missing eye and I asked how did it get that way? After more than a few brainstorming sessions, my novel eventually opened in Farm, the corrupt mega-conglomerate that runs on the backs of impoverished indentured labor. Farm is the sole food supplier for the technocratic and equally-corrupt City, which was built hundreds of feet above the coastline on the wooden shoulders of Pier. Pier is where City deports the homeless. Hopefully hilarious and poignant shenanigans ensue when my Farm-employee narrator fears his mother has been deported to Pier and decides to do something about it.

With this story I attempted to follow in the grand tradition of political dystopian satire. While I’m certainly no Kafka (but I am wearing a baseball shirt with his name on it right now), Orwell, Vonnegut, Burgess, Atwood, or Saunders, I wound my way through this donkey story using recognizably ridiculous and plausibly tragic cultural images and symbols, which are the language and soul of social satire, to communicate my ideas.

All well and good, right? But I guess haven’t even really hinted at what the title means. So here’s a little taste. Besides the appearance of literal donkeys throughout the novel, according to one of my characters, Jonah (an angry dude with two faces, one real, the other a tattoo version of his real face on the back of his head), here’s what it means, colloquially, to swallow a donkey’s eye:

"My mother used to call a shit-job, 'swallowing a donkey's eye.'  Anything that you had to do but was the last thing you or anyone else wanted to be doing, she'd say, 'I guess you just gotta swallow the donkey's eye.'"

Do note: Farm administrators want it made clear that no legumes (many of which are grown naturally and then lovingly hand-picked at Farm!) were harmed in the writing of this novel or guest-blog post.  We are currently investigating what happened to the donkey. 


About the Book:  FARM WANTS YOU!

Farm is the mega-conglomerate food supplier for City, populated with rabidly bureaucratic superiors, and sexually deviant tour guides dressed in chicken and duck suits. City is sprawling, technocratic, and rests hundreds of feet above the coastline on the creaking shoulders of a giant wooden pier. When the narrator’s single mother, whom he left behind in City, falls out of contact, he fears the worst: his mother is homeless and subsequently to be deported under City to the Pier. On his desperate search to find his mother, he encounters ecoterrorists wearing plush animal suits, City’s all-powerful Mayor who is infatuated with magic refrigerators and outlaw campaigns, and an over-sexed priest who may or may not have ESP, but who is most certainly his deadbeat dad.

Whether rebelling against regimented and ridiculous Farm life, exploring the consumer-obsessed world of City, experiencing the suffering of the homeless in Pier, or confronting the secrets of his own childhood, Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye’snarrator is a hilarious, neurotic, and rage-filled Quixote searching for his mother, his own dignity, and the meaning of humanity.

To pre-order your copy, visit


  1. Great stuff and as I'll be interviewing Paul as part of this tour I'm really thrilled to see this post and Jonathan take part himself.
    When I was first approached if I'd like to be involved in the tour the email header was Interested in Swallowing a Donkey's Eye? and all I could think was wow that is the weirdest sex spam ever. Cant wait to read the book myself and the tour got me so interested in Paul's work I recently ordered In The Mean Time for myself. Can't wait to read that one too.

  2. That book sounds so interesting! All right, the hook is in. Can't wait to read the review! :)

  3. Haha I like it when author's explain their wacky titles and this one has a good story behind it! Interesting post! x