Jeeves And Wooster, But Make It A Modern Spy Novel

Dec 2, 2018

The character of Jeeves is such a colossus of fiction that the name is actually a synonym for a personal manservant.

In P.G. Wodehouse's comic masterpieces, he was the unflappable valet to Bertie Wooster, the young English sophisticate who frequently got into capers and scrapes that only Jeeves could get him out of.

With the permission of the Wodehouse estate, there's a new Jeeves-and-Wooster novel out, this time written by bestselling author Ben Schott. He says it's a fictional world that means "everything" to him.

"I mean, it was a world that I've loved since I was a child," Schott says. "Like, I think, a lot of Wodehouse fans, the book was read to me by an aged relative. And I remember probably not understanding all of the language and not all of the plots, but just being absolutely engulfed by this wonderful world he created, and the words he used, and the glorious similes, and just the sheer joy and delight of something that was both frivolous but incredibly well-crafted."

In an interview, Schott says it is an homage — but with its own updated twists.

"These characters are such fun to work with because they're fully rounded, and they have real voices, and you can sort of take them anywhere and put them anywhere, and they just do wonderfully funny, silly things," he says.


Interview Highlights

On recreating P.G. Wodehouse's language

Schott: So, the words are the secrets of Wodehouse. There's obviously plots and there's obviously characters, but every single word, every syllable, has to ring true. And it's an opportunity to make a mistake and be anachronistic. But it's also an opportunity just to absolutely capture the moment and the time and the texture of the period.

Garcia-Navarro: Do you have a favorite thing that you wrote, like a favorite phrase that you were just like, "oh, nailed it"?

Schott: I do quite — there was a phrase: "He flicked his lighter meaningfully, like an arsonist in a hayloft."

Garcia-Navarro: Nailed it.

Schott: I tell you what I did. I read everything out loud. Every sentence, I read out loud maybe 20-30 times as I write and as I rewrote and as I edited. Because it's an oral experience. Even though you read it, it has to sound perfect, and you can only get that by reading it and reading and reading and I could polish pebble you shave off all the sharp edges. So every word glides and elides into the next, and before you know it, you're — I hope you find something funny without realizing you're being led down this comic path.

Garcia-Navarro: It sounds like it was so much fun to write.

Schott: It's the most fun I've ever had with words. I mean, it's my 12th book. it was actually I handed it in early two months early because—

Garcia-Navarro: Said no author ever.

Schott: I know, partly because it was such fun to write that I just wrote it and I was scared that if I carried on poking at it I'd sort of break the gossamer spell.

On the glossary at the end

So P.G. Wodehouse is used by the Oxford English Dictionary to define 1,525 words. But he's also the first cited author for 26 words, as in: He's the first person, we think, who wrote these words down or used them. So everything from, you know, "crispish" to "whiffled" and of course, famously, "oojah-cum-spiff" — famous in my world. This is a Wodehouse original. And so all of these 26 words are secreted into the book, hidden there as little Easter eggs, amongst many Easter eggs for fans of Wodehouse.

On how this project came about

Well, like all stories these days, it started with Donald Trump. This is true. In 2016, I don't if you recall, Donald Trump's butler, or former butler, came out and suggested that President Obama should be [killed], which is not only slightly ill-mannered but actually problematic in terms of the Secret Service. But for me, it was like: Well, this is great. There aren't many times butlers hit the headlines. And my initial thought was, "Well, what would Jeeves say." ... (Although we should be clear — Jeeves isn't actually a butler. He's a gentleman's personal gentleman, and he'd be very upset to be called a butler or a valet. But that's an aside.)

So I wrote a little short story about Donald Trump meeting Jeeves and Wooster at Brinkley Court and that was published and people didn't absolutely hate it, which is what I was expecting, and the reaction was positive and quite encouraging. So I carried on writing and I thought, "Well all right, let's write something, but let's twist the world five degrees to starboard." And in this book Bertie accidentally becomes a British spy. ...

So, you know, you can't write a book without being cognizant of the period in which you're writing. And of course, you know, P.G. Wodehouse introduced Spode as a bad character at a time when sort of fascism was stirring in Europe. And so I wanted to maybe make some subtle nods to the political situation in America, and of course Brexit in England. So there's Trumpian moments and there's Brexit moments, with blue passports, which some people and some characters take very seriously indeed.

On what he hopes readers will take from his version of these characters

Well I hope they get the joy of Wodehouse. I think people who don't necessarily know, they kind of think it's all posh twits ... a sort of good-natured and slightly foolish, but the heart's in the right place, even if sometimes, you know, they're too busy throwing bread rolls at each other over dinner. So what I try to do is to get each of the characters' voices. So Bertie has a certain voice; Jeeves, as you've heard, has a certain tone of voice and language. The only voice I didn't try to write was Wodehouse's, because you can't. There's no one who can write like him, and I didn't want to have a pastiche of him or a parody of him. I wanted to write in parallel. So that's where my voice comes in. You know, I didn't want people to read it and think, "Oh, he's trying too hard." I wanted it to feel like a Wodehouse book that was truly an homage to someone who was the greatest crafter of comic fiction, I think, in the English language.

Denise Guerra and Caitlyn Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The character of Jeeves is such a colossus of fiction that the name is actually a synonym for a man who is a personal servant to another man. In P.G. Wodehouse's comic masterpieces, Jeeves was the unflappable manservant to Bertie Wooster, the young English sophisticate who frequently got in to capers and scrapes that only Jeeves could get him out of. With the permission of the Wodehouse estate, there is a new Jeeves novel out. It's called "Jeeves And The King Of Clubs" - this time written by bestselling author Ben Schott, who says it is an homage but with its own updated twists. He joins us now from New York. Welcome.

BEN SCHOTT: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to ask you to read the first opening scene of your book.

SCHOTT: (Reading) I was idling away the precocktail ennui, flicking cards into the coal scuttle, when in buttled Jeeves with the quenching tray. Your whisky and soda, sir, he murmured, placing a perfectly judged tumbler at my elbow. I thanked him with a nod, sinking with ease the six of hearts. Be it ever so humble, Jeeves. Sir? There's no place like home. As I am led to believe, sir. I mean, Monte Carlo was all well and good. Sir. But there's only so much baccarat a man can play. Sir. So many tiny snails he can winkle out with one of those little contraptions. Pinces a escargots, sir? Before one morning, he takes a long hard look in the mirror and asks, I wonder how Mayfair is muddling along without me?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is amazing. You know, you're suddenly transported to the world of Bertie and Jeeves. I want to start by asking, what does that word mean to you?

SCHOTT: I was going to say it means everything. I mean, it was a world that I've loved since I was a child. Like I think a lot of Wodehouse fans, the book was read to me by an aged relative. And I remember probably not understanding all of the language and not all of the plots but just being absolutely engulfed by this wonderful world he created and the words he used and the glorious similes and just the sheer joy and delight of something that was both frivolous but incredibly well-crafted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, I think that is what draws us all to it. It is delightful. And I want to talk about the language. In your book, you use words like - something is described as dreadfully spoony. People say hello with a what-ho crumpets. It's not how we speak today, obviously.

SCHOTT: It's not - and most a pity, I would say.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I agree.

SCHOTT: So the words are the secrets of Wodehouse. There's obviously plots and there's obviously characters. But every single word, every syllable has to ring true. And it's an opportunity to make a mistake and be anachronistic. But it's also an opportunity just to absolutely capture the moment and the time and the texture of the period.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have a favorite thing that you wrote? - like a favorite phrase that you were just like, oh, nailed it.

SCHOTT: I do quite - there was a phrase - he flicked his lighter meaningfully, like an arsonist in a hayloft.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Nailed it.

SCHOTT: Well, I'll tell you what I did. I read everything out loud. Every sentence I read out loud maybe 20, 30 times as I write and as I rewrote and as I edited because it's an oral experience. Even though you read it, it has to sound perfect. And you can only get that by reading it and reading it and reading it. And like a polished pebble, you want to shave off all the sharp edges so every word glides and elides into the next. And before you know it, you're - you - I hope you find something funny without realizing you're being led down this comic path.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It sounds like it was so much fun to write.

SCHOTT: It's the most fun I've ever had with words. And it's...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

SCHOTT: ...My 12th book. It was - actually, I handed it in early - two months early because it was...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Said no author ever.

SCHOTT: I know - partly because it was such fun to write that I just wrote it. And I was scared that if I carried on poking at it, I'd sort of break the gossamer spell.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you actually added a lexicon at the end, explaining the terms and their provenance.

SCHOTT: Yes. So P.G. Wodehouse is used by the Oxford English Dictionary to define 1,525 words.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow

SCHOTT: But he's also the first cited author for 26 words - as in, he's the first person we think who wrote these words down or used them. So everything from, you know, crispish to whiffled and, of course, famously, oojah-cum-spiff. This is a...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Famously (laughter).

SCHOTT: Famous in my world. This is a Wodehouse original. And I - so all of these 26 words are secreted into the book - Hidden there as little Easter eggs amongst many Easter eggs for fans of Wodehouse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I want to talk about your involvement in this. I mean, how did it come about?

SCHOTT: Well, like all stories these days, it started with Donald Trump. This is true. In 2016 - I don't know if you recall - Donald Trump's butler or former butler came out and suggested that President Obama should be assassinated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Actually, the former butler wrote on social media that Obama should be, quote, "hung for treason."

SCHOTT: Which is not only slightly ill-mannered but actually problematic in terms of the Secret Service. But for me, it was like, well, this is great. There aren't many times butlers hit the headlines. My initial thought was, well, what would Jeeves say? And so I wrote a...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What indeed.

SCHOTT: Although, we should be clear, Jeeves isn't actually a butler. He's a gentleman's person or a gentleman. And he'd be very upset to be called a butler or a valet. But that's an aside. So I wrote a little short story about Donald Trump meeting Jeeves and Wooster at Brinkley Court. And that was published. And people didn't absolutely hate it, which is what I was expecting. And the reaction was positive and quite encouraging. So I carried on writing. And I thought, well, all right. Let's write something. But let's twist the world five degrees to starboard. And in this book, Bertie accidentally becomes a British spy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the villains in this book want to make Britain great again, which, of course, has resonance to this moment.

SCHOTT: Absolutely. So, you know, you can't write a book without being cognizant of the period in which you're writing. And, of course, you know, P.G. Wodehouse introduced Spode as a bad character at a time when sort of fascism was stirring in Europe. And so I wanted to maybe make some subtle nods to the political situation in America and, of course, Brexit in England. So there's Trumpian moments. And there's Brexit moments with blue passports, which some people and some characters take very seriously, indeed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think that people should get out of your version of Jeeves and Bertie?

SCHOTT: Well, I hope they get a joy of Wodehouse. I think people who don't necessarily know, they kind of think it's all posh twits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I need to, I think, translate your British slang - meaning sort of fancy - I can only think of actually slurs - fancy - a fancy imbecile.

SCHOTT: Yeah. But sort of good-natured and slightly foolish. But the heart's in the right place, even if sometimes, you know, they're too busy throwing bread rolls at each other over dinner. So what I tried to do was to get each of the characters voices. So Bertie has a certain voice. Jeeves, as you've heard, has a certain tone of voice and language. The only voice I didn't try to write was Wodehouse's because you can't. There's no one who can write like him. And I didn't want to have a pastiche of him or a parody of him. I wanted to write in parallel. So that's where my voice comes in. You know, I didn't want people to read it and think, oh, he's trying too hard. I wanted it to feel like a Wodehouse book that was truly an homage to someone who was the greatest crafter of comic fiction I think in the English language.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Will there be more?

SCHOTT: Well, I hope so. I mean, there are options. I think - I hope the plots are neatly tied up at the end. But there is a dot, dot, dot. So we'll see. I mean, as I say, these characters are such fun to work with because they're fully rounded. And they have real voices. And you can sort of take them anywhere and put them anywhere. And they just do wonderfully funny, silly things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ben Schott - his book is "Jeeves And The King Of Clubs." Thank you so much.

SCHOTT: It's a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.