Christopher Moore is the author of eleven novels, including the international bestsellers, Lamb, A Dirty Job, and You Suck. His latest novel is The Serpent of Venice, his second novel featuring Pocket, King Lear’s Fool.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.
Your new book is called The Serpent of Venice, and it features the return of your character Pocket, who first appeared in your 2009 novel, Fool. Tell us about Pocket.
Well, Pocket is based on the fool from King Lear. Anybody who’s familiar with King Lear knows that the fool disappears more or less in the middle of the play. But otherwise, he’s pretty prominent, and of all of Shakespeare’s fools, he is the one who speaks the most truth to power. He’s in the most actual danger for being the fool, which was what I was going for. I originally wanted to do a book about any fool, a generic fool, because of that very reason. I met with my editor in New York and said, “Look, I want to do a book about a fool, but I don’t know whether to do just any fool or Lear’s fool.” She said, “Oh, do Lear’s fool,” which sent me into three years of learning Shakespeare’s canon. Pocket is tiny, he was raised in a nunnery, and he’s extraordinarily foulmouthed. So not only is he not very powerful politically, he refers to himself physically as a bit of a soggy kitten. There’s that contrast of him being very articulate and the master of any conversation because he’s so witty, but pretty much being the least powerful character on stage at any time.
When you say that he’s foulmouthed, could you give us an idea of the sorts of things that he might be prone to say?
God, I love the internet. If this was radio, you’d be standing on the delay button. When I wrote this, I wanted to use a lot of British slang, and the Brits are much freer with words like “twat,” the c-word, and “bloody buggering bollocks.” A word I coined was “fuckstockings.”
At any given time, he will go off on an obscene rant at any given character. In the first book, he calls King Lear “dog-fuckingly old,” and in this book, that’s his mentality. It really would have been how fools in the Middle Ages would have behaved. They may have been very smart and very quick, but they were not high-minded and the sense of humor was not high-minded. That’s about the best I can do off the top of my head, but there’s profanity all over the place in this book.
You mentioned that Fool is your take on King Lear, and now this book is a mash-up of Shakespeare’s plays Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado.” How did you get the idea to combine those particular stories?
Essentially, I started with the premise. I was in Venice; I had gone to literary festivals to do an appearance, and I stopped over in Venice and while wandering through the city, I thought, “This is the perfect setting for a monster story.” I always make a note of everything because you never know when something’s going to be an idea that can develop. When it came time to come up with a new idea for a book, I thought, “Well, maybe I could set a monster story in Venice.” I always try to see what stories have been told that were set in Venice because you don’t want to step on someone’s toes. Immediately, I thought of a horror story set in Venice—“The Cask of Amontillado,” where a fool is walled up in a dungeon. I thought, “Well, I have a fool,” and then I thought, “Well, what Shakespeare plays are set in Venice?” And it’s The Merchant of Venice and Othello. It took off from there. It started with the setting and moved into what I could do with these other works. Then there has always got to be some weird supernatural thing going on, and therefore, the serpent. So it was just trying to figure out how to make all those elements come together.
History really worked to my advantage because I had set Fool in the late thirteenth century and what was happening in Venice in the late thirteenth century was really interesting. Politically, the Venetians had made a lot of money by being the facilitator for the Crusades. They became the power of the Mediterranean because they could ship soldiers, goods, and weapons to the Holy Land. In the Fourth Crusade, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, they really became a maritime power. There were a lot of things going on that resonate with our time, what with wars in the Middle East being perpetrated by people who are going to make money on them, as well as the element of a black general, a black Moorish general. He was the head of a navy and a military force that was about to go to war against a Muslim force. Then a Jewish moneylender. So to have all those things in one story in that time period was the best of all worlds when you’re trying to foment conflict.
Why don’t you talk a bit about what sorts of changes you had to make to the respective stories, even if just to fit them in to the same chronology?
Shakespeare doesn’t give a specific time, but if you look at the events that he mentions, particularly in Othello, it’s happening in about mid-sixteenth century. That’s when the Venetians were at war with the Turks, and that’s where Othello, as the general, is sent to Cyprus to fight the Turks. Cyprus and Rhodes, I think. Setting it two hundred and fifty years earlier changes that quite a bit, and at that point, the Venetians are at war with the Genoans. Toward the end of twelfth century, their navy was almost completely wiped out by the Genoan navy—down to forty ships. If you’re the maritime power of the Mediterranean, that’s really not enough ships. I was able to wonder, “How does this Moor, this outsider, become the general?” I was able to explain it in that he was hired as a mercenary, and he distinguished himself in defending the city of Venice because in that war, the main islands were never attacked. They were able to hold the Genoans off; otherwise, Venice would have fallen. I just give that credit to Othello.
By the same token, taking The Merchant of Venice, which sort of focuses on the merchant world of Venice, and this moneylender, Shylock, I was able to move that into the thirteenth century. Jews had been persecuted in Europe back to the first century. That’s a theme you’re going to have in any play or in anything you set if you have Jewish people in it. But it was a bit harsher in the thirteenth century than it is in Shakespeare’s sixteenth century. Moving Shylock to be a moneylender at the time when there was a holy war with the Muslims, I thought there was a great conflict going on there.
Making the plots work together—it was difficult. There were a lot of sliding pieces, but I don’t think that’s very interesting to talk about. There is an enormous number of characters; I think there’s thirty-eight named characters in the two plays and that’s way too long for a comic novel. As I started to see who I could cut and who I could keep, I could see that Shakespeare was writing for a troop of actors. You go, “Well obviously whoever played Portia is also Desdemona, and whoever played Antonio is also Iago.” In each of the plays, there’s a counter-character that would obviously be performed by the same person. So in many of those cases, I was able to make those characters a single person.
You said that Venice is the perfect city for a monster story. What is it about Venice that makes it so perfect for monsters?
Well, it’s very old, and some of the streets are so narrow that I literally had to turn sideways to get through so my shoulders didn’t hit either side, and yet it’s a marked street. The buildings are buttressed to keep from caving in on each other at the top. Then there are these wellheads everywhere you go because Venice is often below sea level. The fresh water wellheads are these raised concrete or brick things—some of them are as high as six feet—and they have big iron lids on top of them. That is for when Venice floods every winter, so the salt water doesn’t get into their fresh water supply. And I thought, “Well, something creepy is going to come out of there for sure.” The idea that if there was something in the water, it could go anywhere in the city unseen and pop up, attack somebody, and then be gone again, and no one would know because the water in the canals of Venice is not clear. You can’t see six inches underneath the water there.
So that was what really made it so creepy. Also, it maintains this Byzantine-medieval look to the city even though most of what’s left was built in the Renaissance. There was a point where Venice was part of the Byzantine empire or basically owned the Byzantine empire because they took Constantinople. That part of the architecture is maintained there. You don’t find that in other Italian cities. It’s a city of water, and if you’re going to have a monster in the water, he can get around pretty well.
The monster can show up anywhere, so for example, the book opens with this scene we mentioned out of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” where Pocket is chained to a wall, except in your version, this monster comes up out of the water and performs sex acts on him. How did you come up with that idea?
This is what happens when you never throw anything away as far as ideas go; I’m a hoarder as far as notebooks go. Years ago, a woman named Michelle Schlung asked me to contribute a story to an anthology she was doing of sexy horror stories. I came up with the idea of a guy who was chained in a dungeon that the tide came in and out of. Something had come into the water, which he couldn’t see, and it got him off. At the end of that story, he realizes that this is just a baby creature in the water and it’s going to grow teeth, and that’s the end of the story. I never wrote the story; I had a nice exchange with the editor. I was on deadline for a book, and I said, “I don’t have time to do this. I don’t know if it’s even a good idea.” But when I started writing about a fool being walled up in a dungeon, I thought, “That’s really not enough. And I want a monster in this.” What made it occur to me was just going back through my old notes from the late nineties for a short story that I’d never written.
I imagine that when you start off a book with interspecies bondage sex, you expect to maybe lose a few readers. Do you think that’s the case?
Don’t care. The way I look at it is there’s really a genre now of monster sex. That whole paranormal romance thing—there is a lot of intermonster boning going on. I had been told this because I’m sort of on the edge of that. I did a series of vampire books that I started in 1994 before, evidently, vampires were a thing, and it was normal people trying to date a vampire and dealing with normal lifetime things like who does the laundry and “wait, I don’t use toilet paper, why should I have to buy toilet paper?” I wanted the whole comic aspect of it. But I picked up this audience, probably about 2004 or 2005, of these romance people, and having not been to that section of the bookstore, I didn’t know the whole paranormal genre of romance had arisen. They said, “Well, yeah, our book club is reading your book this weekend.” I did a couple of events with Romance Writers of America and stuff like that, not that I had ever intended to write romance, but people said, “Oh yeah, monster boning is the thing now.”
It’s as tastefully done as you can do interspecies bondage porn. I wrote a book in the late nineties called The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove where it’s a hundred foot sea monster and this retired B-movie actress. They have a thing in which she uses a weed-whacker as a sex toy (for lack of any better term). That was way weirder than what goes on in this book. That was nearly fifteen years ago. I already lost those people a long time ago; I’m not worried about losing them now. In that book, we just know that something happened, the weed-whacker was used, the monster got off, and they were both lying side-by-side, smoking cigarettes. It says right in that book, “What happened right after that was just none of your business.” That’s sort of the way this one works, too. There’s no graphic description of what’s going on. You just know that something really bizarre has gone on.
Speaking of that kind of bawdiness in Shakespeare, when I was in college, Shakespeare in Love came out and one of the girls in my class said, “There’s a random scene in that movie where Christopher Marlowe walks in on the theater owner having sex and they have a casual conversation. It’s so out of place to have this random sex scene in a story about Shakespeare.” That seems completely wrong to me. To me, it seems totally appropriate to have this sort of bawdiness in Shakespeare because Shakespeare was a really bawdy author.
I tend to not apply too much history from Shakespeare’s time, but when we’re having this conversation, I think it helps to realize that Shakespeare is basically writing in a time where there are Pilgrims [Puritans] becoming a dominant political force in England. They are going to be so straight-laced and so freaked out by anything that they’re going to get thrown out of the straightest, most Christian nation in the world and sent to the U.S. where they can turn into school boards in Mississippi. Shakespeare was working within a pretty strict format. His practices and standards were tougher than they are at NBC, and yet he got away with a lot. There’s a couple of scenes in Love’s Labour’s Lost where the character Rosaline keeps going on about a fool who needs to “hit it, hit it good.” Clearly, they’re talking about spanking and bawdy, light S&M sex. It’s only if you have closed your mind to that possibility at all that you would miss that as part of what Shakespeare’s having fun with. In the beginning of Othello, even Iago yells out, “Even now, the black ram is topping your white ewe,” and screaming to Brabantio, who is Desdemona’s father. There’s a lot of “stallion in your white horse” and all this “black guy boning your daughter” kind of screaming among the crowds, which at that time was probably about as bawdy as you can say it.
I did want to mention that Othello and Merchant of Venice are the two Shakespearean plays that deal with prejudice. Could you talk about how you chose to deal with that in your book?
I wanted to enlighten the reader a little bit about the medieval history of the persecution of Jews all through Europe. Just prior to the setting of this book, all the Jews were expelled from France and England. This is in the eleven- and twelve-hundreds. With all these different countries where Jews were forced to not live, they ended up in Venice because they had no land. Venice was not a fiefdom; by the twelve-hundreds, they had already been a republic for four hundred years with representative senators from each neighborhood. That’s pretty progressive for the times, and they prided themselves very much on that. Even though they weren’t that great to the Jews, they were much better to them than other countries had been. You see that in the play. The characters in the Merchant of Venice are real dicks to Shylock. That’s happening almost three hundred years after my book takes place.
So I wanted to give details to that; I wanted to show that even in those times, the Jews were forced to wear yellow stars sewed on their clothes—the thing that we think originated with the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazis, didn’t. It originated in the Middle Ages, and Jews were often accused of poisoning wells in England. Jews were not allowed to own property, and so one of the reasons that you have the prefix “gold” in a lot of Jewish names is because they became jewelers and held gold—they couldn’t hold real estate. They became moneylenders because they couldn’t hold real estate. I didn’t know that before I did research on this, and despite it being a comic novel where the biggest concern is to entertain and to make people laugh, I thought it would be interesting to them to see how Shylock became a moneylender. Well, he became a moneylender because he didn’t have any choice.
In Othello, there’s a conventional scholarly wisdom that it is not a story about race. It’s a story about an outsider where the person who refers to Othello’s color most often is Othello. Iago and Roderigo, who are the bad guys of the play, are blatantly racist. Later on, Iago develops his hatred toward Othello, and he is the most mustache-twisting villain in all of Shakespeare. He and Richard the Third are the two worst sociopaths in the entire Shakespeare canon. It makes it fun. Othello may get the name of the play, but most of the lines go to Iago talking about all the people he doesn’t trust and how specifically he doesn’t trust Othello. It’s almost incidental that Othello is black. So, it’s addressed, and I just underline it a little bit.
I try to say less about the race and more about the complete, ridiculous lines that people draw. Pocket, because he’s in the midst of the action making fun of everything, takes advantage of that. He points out to the Venetians their own prejudice, and at one point, he has one of Antonio’s men convinced that out on the Judaica—which is the island where all the Jews are not exiled, but forced to live; it’s called the island ghetto of Venice, and it’s still there—he convinces Antonio’s men that he’s trained thieving monkeys that only understand how to communicate in Hebrew. They completely buy it because it’s so foreign to them. No gentile would ever set foot on the Judaica, so whatever goes on out there becomes almost mythical.
That’s the most important thing to the play; the prejudice is always about the other, and it parallels what we’ve just gone through in America. I originally wrote Fool because I thought I wasn’t hearing any political truth from anybody except comedians, and I thought that’s what a fool does. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher—those guys are fools, the ones that will tell you “Oh, no one really gives a fuck about Flight 370 and nobody really cares about Benghazi.” That’s true, but you’re not going to hear that from people whose interest it is to foment these stories and froth up all these things that aren’t really true.
So you say that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher are speaking truth to power in their capacities as comedians, and you are in that same position. Do you feel that your books change people’s minds at all on these sorts of issues?
I don’t think so. I think they are a little bit too far removed, to be honest with you, and I’m okay with it. I don’t want to say a lot, but I have quite a few readers who will say, “I love your books but I don’t agree with any of your politics,” because I’m more outspoken in social media about my politics than my books. I’m fine with that. It’s not so much that I don’t want to address those issues; there’s just no shelf-life to political humor in fiction. My first book came out in 1991, and all my books are still in print. If I had really focused them on contemporary politics at the time, they would be sort of meaningless at this point. I know a lot of your listeners are into science fiction. It’s the way the Twilight Zone used to talk about McCarthyism and racism in the early 1960s. If you remember the episode where everyone looks like a pig—the girl we would think is gorgeous, she’s different, and the whole “not one of us” theme goes through the body snatchers. That’s basically science fiction commenting on current politics, but you can still watch these things today because they’re still enjoyable. They’re not specific to the time. As the people who were writing those, like Matheson pointed out, they could do that when nobody else could. Shields were going to go up as soon as somebody started to talk about something that they disagreed with, which is much more manifested in people like Maher, Stewart, and Colbert than it is with people who write fiction. Basically, I don’t want you to have to have read Shakespeare to enjoy these books, but if you have, it enriches it. You get some of the inside jokes, but if you don’t get them, it should still be a fun story. That’s how I feel about any political commentary. If you see parallels in there, if you get a perspective because you’re coming at it from an oblique angle, that’s great, but if you don’t, you should still be able to enjoy the book.
I’m just curious—what do you think about Colbert taking over for David Letterman?
I think it’ll be interesting. I haven’t seen Colbert out of character very much, but I’m old enough to remember when Letterman first started showing up and doing guest hosting on Johnny Carson. He seemed so harsh compared to Johnny Carson. Then as time went on, he seemed like the goofy guy who lives next door to you and swims at the Y. I think the seminal part of what Letterman was good at was he never stopped enjoying being a goofy guy. I think he’s an ethically nice guy, and I think Colbert is as well. He’s clearly very talented, and if he can bring that talent and apply that talent in a format like The Late Show the way he did with Colbert and The Daily Show, I think it will be terrific. Look, we could have ended up with Carson Daly or Ryan Seacrest or some haircut doing it. I’m grateful that there’s somebody who has got some talent. I don’t get to see Letterman very often, but I like him a lot. I don’t know what the politics were behind it. I don’t know if they looked at Craig Ferguson, who I love, but he’s almost meta. He’s so self-referential and talks about the process a lot. I like that, and he’s fun, but that show needs to be a little more show-y than that. We’ll see. I hope Colbert does well. I’ve had friends that have gone on the show and said that he just couldn’t be a nicer guy when you meet him in person. I always hope for a lot of success for people who are decent human beings.
Well, you mentioned Richard Matheson. I actually saw that when you were first starting out, you wanted to be a horror writer and were influenced by Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and authors like that.
Absolutely. Those were the guys I learned from. When I was first getting the idea that I wanted to be a writer, those were the people whom I read constantly. Everything I could get my hands on by Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, and then the guys who were writing stuff on the edge of the Cthulhu mythos like Frank Belknap Long. I really liked Fritz Leiber, but it was the short story guys who wrote those twist ending stories like Bloch and Matheson that I really cut my teeth on. Then Ray Bradbury, of course. Every time there would be an anthology and one of those guys would have a story in it, I would be over the moon about it. As craftsmen, they were brilliant, and if anything speaks to how brilliant Matheson was, he’s got to have sold more short stories into film and television than anyone ever. I don’t know how many Twilight Zones he wrote, but it had to be close to half of them. He was a brilliantly talented guy that understood structure and convention, and he took you into it in a really economic way. When you’re trying to learn your craft, that was a great thing. The problem was that people laughed at my horror stories when I would read them at conferences, and I thought, “Wait a minute. Maybe that’s what I do.” But I did, I really thought I was going to write those types of stories when I was coming up.
Do you still read much in the way of fantasy and science fiction short stories?
Not much. It’s really a time thing. If I was just left to my own devices, and I was doing some other job like I’ve often done, I probably would read more. I don’t read that many short stories just because I don’t seek them out, and I don’t write them for economic reasons. I quit writing short stories a long time ago because I thought if I was going to make a living off of this, I had to write novels. I don’t compartmentalize or multi-task well; if I’m working on a novel, I’m usually not working on anything else. Coming up with a short story takes just as long, so I tend to read things that are either research for my writing, of which there is a lot, or novels. I probably should read the “World’s Best” every year, I used to really enjoy those. They do a great job of finding the gems and I miss reading them, but that’s not their fault or the writers’ fault. I just don’t get to it. I’ve almost lost my vocabulary for short stories and that was so critical in learning how to write.
We have some listener questions for you. Jason Wells asks, “What is the best use of the phrase ‘heinous fuckery most foul’ you’ve ever heard?”
I don’t want to be self-aggrandizing, but I think since I’ve had it in my vocabulary before anybody else, it probably had something to do with Congress. It doesn’t get used that much outside of me using it. It’s not like you’re flipping channels and all of a sudden, Ellen is going “Well that’s heinous fuckery most foul.” You probably couldn’t get through a good episode of the nightly news without finding a very appropriate place to put “heinous fuckery most foul” in there. To answer the question in the short manner, you really don’t hear it used that often, but I’m all for promoting the phrase.
Kelly C.A. says, “If you could be any Viking, living or dead, real or fictional, which one would you be and why?”
I can name maybe three Vikings. I would say the head guy on the show Vikings; I don’t even know what the character’s name is. He seems to rock the hatchet pretty well. Hagar the Horrible, I don’t know. Tony Curtis in The Vikings, from whenever that was made.
I think I would say Leif Erikson because that’s the only Viking’s name I know.
Exactly, it’s the only one, and Erik the Red. He was old school, so you want the rocking revolutionary Leif Erikson Viking. Unfortunately, the fact that their written language didn’t survive too much means there’s not a lot of famous Vikings.
Marissa asks, “Fuck socks? Why three? I mean, why not five?”
For the uninitiated, when I was writing a book called You Suck: A Love Story, I was going to have this goth girl character, and at the time, it was the golden days of MySpace. What that meant was that everybody was writing blogs because the format of MySpace was the blog. All over the internet were these specific sites that were goth blogs. A few of them still exist, but they’re not nearly as prolific as they were in those days, so I would pick up the idiom from them. I didn’t want to be the creepy old guy hanging out where the goth kids were and eavesdropping, although I did that a little bit. I would lurk like a creepy old guy on these goth blog chat sites and pick up the vocabulary. The thing that cracked me up was one day, a kid wrote, “Oh, fuck socks, I got to go to the PTA meeting,” or something like that. So I had my character use that.
People wanted me to start making merchandise, and I said, “I’ll do it but only for charity because I don’t want to be in the t-shirt business. What should I make? What do you guys want?” Everybody said, “Make fuck socks a real thing.” I happened to have a friend who had this company called Throcks. His idea was to sell socks in threes so that when the dryer ate one or wherever your socks disappeared into, you always had a spare. I have to tell you that never works; I have a bunch of pairs of throcks, which are these three socks in a package, and always two of them are lost now. When it came time, I thought, “Well, okay, if I make fuck socks, I don’t know how to make socks. I don’t know how to contact anybody to make socks, and I’ll talk to Edwin Heaven, who invented throcks.” I said, “Can we make fuck socks?” He says, “Yeah, but I’m only going to do it if it’s throcks.” That’s how they ended up being three of them. He would only make them in threes even though it was not economical really. When we were selling them, all the proceeds went to MS research. I was always encouraging people if you buy two, you end up with three pairs because there’s three in a package.
I just got a whole bunch of the medieval version, which is what Pocket came up with—“fuckstockings”—and I just bought the last of those that were left. I’m going to try and give them away at my events for this book tour.
After this interview, I’m going to be discussing the recent movie Noah with two Bible scholars. You’re practically a Bible Scholar yourself as the author of Lamb, which is being taught in seminaries now. I was wondering if you had seen that movie, and if you have any opinions about it?
No, I really dislike Russell Crowe in the extreme. I’m sure he’s a lovely Easter-bunny-like person, and bless his heart. I just don’t like watching him. So I didn’t go to see Noah. Let me say this: I’m somewhat skeptical about the flood. I’m even more skeptical that all seven million species of animals were put in a box of which the dimensions are incredibly specific in Genesis. My thought on the rough math is it wasn’t a big enough fucking box.
Yeah, it would need to be at least twice as big for that story to be plausible, right?
Yeah, having written about a lot of religions that sort of start up, or having introduced myself into them to see if they make sense (Lamb’s certainly is the most specific), I’m okay with it. A long time ago, I said to somebody, “A myth is just someone else’s religion you don’t believe in.” What we look at as Greek myths or Norse myths were somebody’s religion at one time. You just don’t believe it. That’s how I look at Noah. I’m sure these guys you talk to this afternoon are going to tell you that prior to whatever existing copies of the Old Testament we have that have survived, there were Greek myths of mass deluges. Those themes occur through history over and over again. It was Joseph Campbell’s life work to identify those themes, and Nietzsche and Jung said these are themes that are hardwired into us. I think Jung called them archetypes.
The entire science of folklore talks about motifs that exist in cultures that have never had any contact that we know of or couldn’t have possibly had contact historically, and yet they have the same myths, like Lot looking back and his wife turning to a pillar of salt. The Chinese have one where a guy is told “Don’t look back”—he looks back and his wife turns into a mulberry tree. Those motifs reoccur.
In short, I’m sure it’s fun to watch people get washed away by a giant flood, just like it is to watch them be crushed by giant sandworms, but I don’t believe in either one of those things as having really happened.
Do you want to talk about any other recent or upcoming projects you’ve got going on?
I can’t really think about much other than the fact that I’ve got about six weeks to tour for The Serpent of Venice. I’m adapting the play of Fool for the stage with Joe Disher, who’s a prominent stage director and actor. The next thing I’m going to be doing is a sequel to my book Dirty Job, which is where the guy gets the job of being Death, and he runs it out of a secondhand store in San Francisco. I want to apologize that this interview wasn’t that funny. I leave it all in the books; it’s all in the books. The books are much funnier than I am.
Best of luck on your six-week book tour, and I really want to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me, David. I really do appreciate it.
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