"The Quest for Creeping Charlie" by James Powell
James Powell, whose story "The Quest for Creeping Charlie" appears in the January 2008 issue of F&SF, said in an interview that the story is about a man who sets out to find a creature called the megamensalopes. "In the early 1950s in Toronto George Muir, a university student, finds this quotation in a book: ‘When asked to name the smartest of all the animals an ancient wise man replied, "Surely the megamensalopes, because they have avoided discovery by man."’ Then and there Muir decides that he will set out on a quest to find the megamensalopes," Powell said.
Muir joins the Toronto branch of the Explorers Club and pores over maps of the remote corners of the world where he believes the creatures must exist. "Then he has a revelation. Perhaps the creatures needed to live close to man where they could learn from him while, at the same time, avoiding discovery. Perhaps they were right there in Toronto," Powell said. "So he begins his search closer to home, using all his free time to find the creatures. He decides they graze on the common ground ivy Canadians call Creeping Charlie and because ‘megamensalope’ is too much of a mouthful and because we are what we eat he names his quarry ‘Creeping Charlie.’ His search costs him his marriage and his life in more ways that one."
For Powell, it is often very difficult to tell where a story idea comes from, but not in this case. "Frequently they come in several pieces. But as it happens in this case I can tell you the exact source. George Orwell, of Animal Farm fame, uses almost the exact quote about the smartest animal in one of his journalistic essays. Only the word ‘megamensalope’ was my invention," he said. "I hoped to be able to tell you the exact essay but after skipping through the four volumes I couldn’t come up with it. In any event they are fine reading and I would recommend them to everyone. Orwell was a very intelligent human being."
The most difficult part of writing the story was the fact that obsessed characters tend to be one-dimensional, Powell said. "I hope I was able to overcome this by showing Muir’s sympathy for the creatures he is searching for and his determination to protect them when he found them and hopefully becoming their spokesman," he said.
George Muir is a bookish and rather thin-skinned man, Powell said. "When he first decided to find Creeping Charlie and told his friends over beer they laughed at him and he resolved never to tell anyone again. But he is also a modest man. He does not see himself as a rocket scientist and hopes that will help him communicate with the smarter among his quarry. But he is methodical and determined," he said. "I was going to the university at the same time as Muir and during the construction of the Toronto subway. Other than that I don’t think we had anything else in common. I may be bookish but I am not modest."
Powell didn’t have to do any research for the story, he said. "However I do monitor the Toronto newspapers on line and a while back I read an item about the phantom subway station under the Queen and Young St. station which I was happy to use in the story," he said.
As noted in the header notes to this story, much of Powell’s output in his career has been in the mystery field, but he notes that a fair number of his short stories have a fantasy element. "One of my most popular, ‘A Dirge for Clowntown,’ involves Inspector Bozo of the Clowntown police investigating mime-bashing and the murder of a clown struck in the face with a poisoned custard pie," Powell said. "I’ve also written about the theft of the hen that lays golden eggs, Santas murdered and murderous and most recently about a slain jack-o’lantern."
The January 2008 issue of F&SF is on sale now. To learn more about James Powell, visit his web site.