Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig is Russell Potter's wildly imaginative new novel told from the perspective of a pig in eighteenth-century England that begins in a sideshow and ends up in Oxford and Edinburgh, where Toby studies. Along the way, he meets the likes of Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, and William Blake. How did Potter write such an clever, charming novel? We talked with him to find out.
Who was the real “learned pig” who formed the basis of the novel?
The original pig, named (as were nearly all his successors) Toby, first appeared in England in 1783, spelling out answers to audience questions using letters printed on cards. By 1785, he had made his way from the provinces to London, where he quickly became a subject of considerable interest, inspiring political cartoons and satirical poems, as well as a slew of rival pigs. In 1787, he made a Scottish tour, ending his days in Edinburgh, while a series of latter-day “sapient pigs” kept the act going in Britain and the United States well into the nineteenth century.
How did you go about writing the novel from the perspective of an animal? Did this present any challenges?
Yes, especially since I wanted to avoid the usual clichés of animal narrators -- Toby had, from the start, the ability to see -- and to judge -- humanity from a distinctly non-human vantage point. At the same time, having been plucked from among pigs to live his life in human company, he was shaped by their world as well, and quite naturally acquired some of the attitudes of his day. At certain points, I could almost forget he was a pig, until some ordinary feature of the human world -- such as a steep flight of stairs -- impeded his progress. But once I tuned in to Toby’s voice, I had only to follow it -- while tuning out some of my own too-human ways of thinking -- to discover his porcine perspective on each new turn of events.
Toby meets some 18th century literary heavyweights in the book, including William Blake, Anna Seward, and Robert Burns. What influence did the literature of the period have on the novel?
All of those writers, and many more, were essential to the novel’s style. I think it may have been somewhat easier for me, as an English professor who teaches these works over and over again over the years, to evoke something of the underlying tone and feel of the period. Some of the biggest influences -- Defoe and Swift -- were, alas, dead by the time of Toby’s fame, and so I could only have the pleasure of “encountering” them by way of the deeper structures of the novel. And, since Toby himself would have been shaped by the kinds of narratives he read, it made perfect sense that he would draw from them in penning his own story.
What do you think of the current state of satire? Who are our greatest contemporary satirists? How has satire changed since Toby’s time?
I think satire is alive and well, though some of it these days is of so crass and cynical a sort that I find it rather off-putting. My favorite variety of satire is what 18th-century writers would have called a “conceit” -- some single, large improbability which, once swallowed, lends sense and plausibility to all manner of delightful nonsense which follows. Twain had the knack for this -- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a perfect example -- he was able to use each historical period as a satirical foil for the other. I see the same sort of thing today in writers such as Colson Whitehead and Michael Chabon.
What are you reading now?
I’m afraid I’ve never shaken the bad habit of reading more than one book at a time; at the moment I’m dividing my time between Patrick Madden’s collection of elegant essays, Quotidiana, and the Library of America’s new edition of Novels and Stories by Shirley Jackson.