The Big Idea: N.M. Kelby

Inspiration is a funny thing in that it hardly ever comes as you straight-on; it comes in at different angles and sometimes what it inspires doesn’t necessarily seem to be an obvious takeaway. Case in point: Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill, a funny, Florida-soaked mystery novel (“A perfect beach read” — New York Post), whose inspiration found its home in a different clime, with an entirely different mood. In this Big Idea, author N.M. Kelby explains how the inspiration got from there to here.


Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill is a tiki-styled retelling of Macbeth set in South Florida. The characters include the last living relative of Macbeth (a Scottish clown who has a puppet circus, in addition to a set of vestigial wings), a Barry Manilow impersonator with a dog named “Mandy,” the “Queen of Scream” Danni Keene (the retired star of 1980 shockmiester horror films), FBI dropout Brian Wilson (named after THE Brian Wilson), a landlocked mermaid, and Jimmy Ray, the star of Whale Season, a 70 year old Buddhist Blues player whose advice as to how to be a good Buddhist is “Throw your heart into the world like a Frisbee.”

Did I mention that there’s also a Meticalla tribute band from Lawrence Welk’s hometown that plays “Leper Messiah” on the accordions? Oh, and there’s a couple of dead bodies and a kettle of vultures, too.

The book surprisingly began in Vermont. In winter. -5. I’m from Florida. You can only imagine. I was there because I felt that I’d lost my sense of magic in the world. So, I decided to go back and visit an old influence of mine, Peter Schumann. His work with the Bread and Puppet Theater had always been inspirational to me––and I was desperate for inspiration.

When you think puppets, you usually think of silly sock things, at least I used to. But Schumann created epics, some called “circuses”, using towering puppets, some two stories high. The work could be filled with whimsy or political themes, but it was often beautiful and shockingly magical.

So that winter, I visited Herr Schumann and his Bread and Puppet Museum. And here’s what I wrote in my notebook. When you read the book you’ll see how I used many of these passages in the final edition:

They are everywhere you look. Puppets and masks are hanging from the rafters, or set in amused repose at tea parties, or sunning themselves at imaginary beaches, or standing silent as language waiting for the moment of use. Their faces are the color of stone or rust. Their expressions are simple and kind: content as the moon dreaming of itself.

Nearly fifty years of puppets hang from every spare space on both floors in this museum––although it is not really the kind of museum that one usually visits in the dead of winter. It is not a striking building designed to illuminate the art that is contained within. It is, in fact, an ancient barn outside of the rural town of Glover, Vermont. At -5, it is the most balmy day of the week. Brittle winds are wailing through the slats in the walls that winter’s heaving has caused. The wounds of winter are everywhere. The floor longs for tropical oceans and has buckled into waves that the coming of spring will lessen, but only so much.

Desire is so powerful.

Throughout the cavernous space, puppets move in the fog of cold, animate themselves. No one is willing to give them life. Not now. Not in the bitter edge of winter.

Is this heaven? they think.

Not now, we say.

From every inch of this space––from the 20 ft ceiling to the stable that once held the team of horses that tilled this land––clay eyes watch you.

You can’t help yourself when you think of the biblical, think dust to dust. Here, in this place, it’s easy to believe that we are made of clay, animated by some unseen hand. A madonna hangs from the rafters above you, exposed as an angel, holds the Child close to her breast.

Peter Schumann is a gnome of a man who speaks in a still-stubborn German accent. He is rough-hewn. His accent is filled with wood smoke and raw wool. There is a wolf dog at his side. The dog is nearly as large as a child’s pony, but not docile–seems unwilling to give in to being tamed.

He and I shiver uncontrollably as we walk through this mad and exquisite clutter which really seems to be one man’s mind. Peter makes all the masks himself. They all seem to resemble him.

In the dark corners of the barn, somewhere in a place difficult to determine, there are the soft groans of a cow that has been too cold too long and refuses the relief of giving milk and now just stands focusing on the pain of being alive in weather so cold that it breaks metal and men.

At one point I turn to Peter and say, “When you see all of this what do you think? What do you see?”

“I see my heart,” he says this as if it’s a great sorrow.

And so that night I began to write the tale of Sòlas Mackay, the last living relative of Macbeth, a circus clown by training and disposition who suddenly believes that his life’s work, his beautiful puppets, could be the reason behind his estranged brother’s murder. But I made it funny, too.

Visit N.M. Kelby’s blog here. And learn about the BBQ sauce the book inspired.

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