The idea that our imaginary friends are real is not new. Just ask Big Bird. But the idea that our imaginary friend has, in his retirement, become a detective who lives in a world with other imaginary friends who’ve also been forgotten…well, that’s just crazy enough to work. Hence we have The Imaginary Corpse (paperback, Kindle), a new fantasy mystery tale from writer Tyler Hayes. In the following email interview, Hayes talks about what inspired and influenced this tale of “howdunit,” and why he didn’t give it a cheeky name like Dinotown.
To begin, what is The Imaginary Corpse about?
Plot-wise, it’s the story of Tippy, a plush dinosaur, detective, and ex-imaginary friend, and the case that puts him on the trail of the first serial killer to stalk the Stillreal, the land of unwanted ideas. Heart-wise, it’s about trauma and recovery from trauma, and relearning who you are in the wake of a tragedy.
Where did you get the idea for The Imaginary Corpse, and how did this idea evolve as you wrote the book?
The seed of the book was a game of Let’s Pretend I played with my dad all the time, “Stuffed Animal Detectives.” We’d gather up all my stuffed animals and my dad would do funny voices for them as I narrated them trying to solve cases — or, more accurately, as we had them get into ridiculous situations that my dad could riff off.
I started from the idea I wanted to write a Stuffed Animal Detectives novel, and I went, okay, that’s fun, but how do I make that something engaging and not just indulgent or nonsensical?
From there I went to The Velveteen Rabbit, and the quote from the Skin Horse: “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.” What if a person can love a toy or an idea so much that it can become Real, capital-R. What if there’s some imaginary realm those ideas then dwell in. But then, what if someone loves an idea Real and decides to abandon that idea, for one reason or another? That’s how I came up with the Stillreal, a kind of purgatory adjacent to the realm of the imagination, where those rejected ideas go to live.
The serial killer plot was inspired by Who Framed Roger Rabbit?: What if these ideas, not being full, material beings, are more or less immortal, but something showed up that could kill these ideas permanently? How would that affect things?
The thing that evolved the most is the heart of the book. When I was outlining and zero-drafting, this book was a little bit grittier and darker, but in the process of writing, I realized that what wasn’t quite clicking with the idea was that emotional core. I have PTSD, and my efforts at recovery have involved learning to be empathetic and forgiving to myself and to others. So, it stands to reason that at least some of these traumatized ideas would be going through the same thing. So I decided to make the Stillreal a world where it’s okay to be kind, and that elevated this book to where it is now.
The Imaginary Corpse has been called a noir fantasy mystery. Is that how you see it, or are there other genres that either describe this better or are also at work in this story?
Fantasy: Hands down, yes. There’s nothing else I could call it except to get more specific about subgenre.
Mystery: The mystery drives the plot but the question is different than a typical mystery novel. An early reader called it a “howdunit” rather than a whodunit, and I think that’s perfect.
Noir: It plays with a lot of noir tropes and a noir voice, and calling it a noir fantasy gives you a very good idea of what to expect, but the book rejects the cynicism of noir. In The Imaginary Corpse, not everyone is secretly awful, the status quo can change, and innocence and kindness are there to do something besides get tarnished.
Which brings me to the genre I would add to the mix: The Imaginary Corpse is hopepunk. Hope and healing and kindness are the core it’s all built around.
Tippy is a plush triceratops toy. Why did you decide to make the main character a plush doll as opposed to an action figure, a dinosaur as opposed to some other animal, and a triceratops as opposed to some other kind of dinosaur?
Because Tippy is based on my childhood stuffed animal, a sunflower-yellow stuffed triceratops toy that I named Tippy. I wanted my main character to be an idea that had a lot of personal attachment for me, that would feel lived-in and loved, and that would stand out more than, say, a teddy bear or a toy soldier or like, a Todd McFarlane resin-cast Rorschach.
I actually still have the original Tippy. I’m planning to bring him with me on the book tour so he can hang out with me and the book version of him.
Obviously, there’s some humor to this tale. But is the humor situational or is The Imaginary Corpse more jokey?
The humor is very much situational. Tippy’s narration is wry, and some of the situations and scenes are silly on the face of them, but the book is pretty earnest. Think of it like a Pixar movie: Yes, there’s humor, and it will run with its premise all the way to the logical end, but it’s also liable to make you think and make you cry. That’s The Imaginary Corpse.
Did you ever consider giving it a less serious-sounding name, like maybe The Stegosaurus Always Rings Twice or Kiss Me Fuzzy or The Maltese Collectible Action Figure With Certificate Of Authenticity?
There was a brief period during drafting where I tried to give chapters those sorts of names; there was a “Farewell, My Soda” and a “The Triceratops Who Walked Through Walls” and a few others. I decided they didn’t fit the actual tone; I wanted the title to reflect that while there’s some humor, this isn’t a “funny book.”
Given that, who then do you see as the biggest influences on the humor in The Imaginary Corpse?
Raymond Chandler, off the top of my head. He’s one of my favorite authors, and re-reading his wit and wordplay were a major part of me finding Tippy’s voice. Sir Terry Pratchett’s wry humanism is in there, too, that way of writing an absurd, flawed character with affection and empathy.
Aside from the people you just mentioned, what writers or specific stories were the biggest influences on The Imaginary Corpse?
Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Crime books were both a major source of inspiration for how to handle the kind of patchwork nature of the Stillreal. I owe a lot to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman for the inspiration to go a little big and a lot weird. Also Stephen King; there’s more than a little of The Dark Tower in there. There’s also a healthy dose of inspiration drawn from Ryan North’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl in terms of how the characters approach their world and how the world reacts.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on either what you wrote in The Imaginary Corpse or how you wrote it? You mentioned Roger Rabbit and Pixar’s movies already…
TV show-wise, I have to call out Steven Universe, which has a very similar emotional core, along with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, though B99 is maybe a little more absurd than Imaginary Corpse. Leverage also hits a similar mix of noir, levity, and social justice.
Video games are a huge part of The Imaginary Corpse‘s literary DNA. The ancestry there traces back to Sam & Max Hit the Road, Grim Fandango, and The Longest Journey.
Now, one thing that fantasy novels and mysteries have in common is that they’re not always stand-alone stories; sometimes they’re part of a series. What is The Imaginary Corpse?
Right now, the book is stand-alone, but Angry Robot and I have discussed possible sequels, and I have at least two more stories about Tippy and the Stillreal on tap.
My intent is for each book in the series to stand alone, like a mystery novel does, but also to build upon the events of the previous one, sort of how Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels do. He’s retired in The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, back from retirement in The ABC Murders, etc. The throughline between books is a little more obvious than it is in Poirot, though; each case Tippy takes has a tangible effect on himself and the Stillreal at large, so there is a clear reading order. My goal is for Tippy and Co. to grow and change and, yes, sometimes regress from book to book, for there to be more concrete and lasting consequences from book to book rather than a vague sense of What Was Lost or a return to status quo.
It’s the way it is because, honestly, that’s how Tippy’s stories come to me: each case takes place one after the other and the characters change along with the experiences they have, for better or worse. I chose Poirot as a model because it tickles me to see Poirot at different stages of his life, a little wearier or a little more cynical but still indisputably Poirot. And the same way Poirot has to cope with aging, I want Tippy to have to deal with healing and growing up.
Given that the book just came out, you probably haven’t gotten any offers to turn The Imaginary Corpse into a movie or TV show yet. But if that happens, should the movie or show be animated or live action or a mix, who should be the voice of Tippy, and who else would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I think The Imaginary Corpse could absolutely rock as a movie. My first choice would be a mix of styles, sort of like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but with a larger range of styles working together — like, not just cel animation, but also CGI, stop-motion, claymation, etc.
If I can get absolutely anyone in the world to voice Tippy, I want Joseph Gordon-Levitt; his kid-noir style in Brick and the more world-weary style he used in Looper are both perfect for the triceratops detective. As far as other major characters, I want Clancy Brown [Hail, Caesar!] as The Man In The Coat, I want Matt Mercer [Critical Role] to voice Spindleman, and I can’t hear anyone but [Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s] Stephanie Beatriz as Miss Mighty.
Lastly, if someone enjoys The Imaginary Corpse, what similar noir fantasy mystery novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I’m going to reach a little and say you should read the City Watch sequence of Discworld novels by Sir Terry Pratchett, starting with Guards! Guards! They are comedic books, but they are bristling with noir sensibility, inventive fantasy, and a ton of heart. There’s no direct analog to Tippy there, but he and Sam Vimes have a lot in common.