Ken Jennings


August 3, 2006


After blogging about The Ultimate Alphabet last week, I shot an e-mail to its author, Mike Wilks, asking if he’d mind being interviewed briefly for the site. I was confident I’d never hear back from him. (You know these sensitive artist types.)

Instead, he responded immediately to my questions. Some of the responses were a bit sketchy–”Forgive me if my answers seem incomplete but this was all twenty years ago!” he apologized–but there were still some interesting tidbits in his replies. Wilks had already discussed his painting techniques and artistic aims in introductions to The Ultimate Alphabet and The Annotated Ultimate Alphabet, so I focused more on the book’s puzzle elements than its aesthetic ones.

So here you go: A Brief Interview with Mike Wilks.

Ken: How did the Ultimate Alphabet contest come about? Was it always integral to your concept of the book, or was it a sales gimmick dreamed up after the fact by the publisher?

Mike Wilks: The idea of a contest was mine and in from the start. The publisher liked this idea and commissioned the book on the strength of it. It seems a natural and created interest in an otherwise “difficult” book for an author to sell. Everyone involved hoped it would go on to become an “evergreen” title and remain in print for a long time.

K: The book was quite successful, especially in Britain. What about the contest? Do you know how many entries were actually received?

MW: I can’t quote the exact number of entries. I do remember that one week before the closing date the publisher had received less than 100 entries and on each successive day until the contest finished the mail deliveries got larger with several bulging mailbags arriving on the final day.

K: Do you know who won and/or how many of the advertised 7,777 words they found?

MW: Again, I can’t recall who won. Interestingly the winner was the one who identified the least number of false words. I think there was some scoring system where an incorrectly identified word attracted a minus penalty. I seem to remember that the contest was expanded with the paperback edition to include extra prizes for a younger age group.

K: This book must have been a research nightmare. Do you recall any of the specific books that you found most useful for finding definitions and visual reference?

MW: I remember reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Shorter Oxford Dictionary (two volumes), Webster’s Dictionary and an Australian dictionary to represent the breadth of English worldwide. This provided me with my long-list of words for possible inclusion. Subsequently I consulted hundreds of specialist books to research the appearance of the items. Inevitably the final choice of words reflected how interesting they would be for me to paint. The criterion was always artistic rather than inclusiveness.

K: Are there any hidden items in the book that you’re particularly proud of, ones that you though were especially devious and designed to trip up solvers?

MW: My favourite is that I built up the dots representing the Braille letters with acrylic medium. A blind person can actually identify these with their fingertips. Naturally, you can’t tell this from the printed image. Another amusing story is that my spelling has always been on the creative side. In the painting for the letter ‘H’ I wrote my name (phonetically) in Hindi and, of course, misspelt it.

K: To facilitate the original contest, the book came with a 12,000-word workbook. Did you personally choose the workbook’s 4,000+ “incorrect” words as well?

MW: The words in the workbook included all of the things I actually depicted. The false words were selected from those words in my long-list that I didn’t get around to including.

K: In 1986, as a teenager, I never got very far at solving the contest. Recently, with the help of the Internet, I took another stab at it. I had a lot of fun, but found that I would have been quickly disqualified from the contest for all the “false positives” I thought I had found…solving each painting involved a surprising amount of tricky judgment calls and semantic hair-splitting. (Does a cannon and stack of cannonballs truly count as an “arsenal”? Should the secondary definition of “aureole” count or not? Et cetera.) Was this intentional? Did it lead to problems in judging the contest?

MW: In fact, contestants found even more words than those I consciously put in. I published a revised edition in 1992 that recognised this. I suspect that there are even more words.

K: Do you have a personal favorite among the book’s 26 paintings, and why that one?

MW: Several of the paintings are more successful than others. From an artistic point of view I like the letter ‘P’ – the perspective was done the hard way. (Note: ‘P’ is on the book’s cover, above.) From a sense of achievement point of view , the letter ‘S’.

K: The Ultimate Alphabet looks to be out-of-print in both the US and the UK at the moment, judging by Is this in fact the case? Are there any plans to bring the book back into print?

MW: Sadly, all of my picture books are out of print. I have long wanted to issue a digitally updated edition with, for instance, up to date flags of nations. Also, computers barely existed in the everyday world in 1982 when I began the paintings. I would love to include such recent items in a new version. However, there is no enthusiasm in the publishing world of today for this kind of book as they are costly to publish and a lot more bother than the staple diet of today’s lists.

K: Since Ultimate Alphabet, you’ve also written and painted two follow-up books. Are there any other puzzle books in the pipeline among your future projects?

MW: My “Ultimate Trilogy” comprised The Ultimate Alphabet, The Ultimate Noah’s Ark and The Ultimate Spot-the-Difference Book. Because of the economic climate in publishing and because creating, originating and printing such books are so costly, it is unlikely there will be any more. I think the economics would preclude similar books by other authors too.

Recently my career has taken a new and intriguing direction. Last year I submitted a partial fantasy novel. To my surprise and delight no less than seven houses were interested in it and it went to a publishing auction. The winning publisher commissioned the book and another two in a three-book deal. The first will be published in 2007 with the others following in subsequent years. I have been told that I have achieved with words what I had hitherto with pictures. I hope others think so too. In an ideal world any success will revive interest in my back-catalogue.

So there you have it. The day of the lushly painted puzzle book is apparently over, but look for Mike’s (so far untitled, as far as I can tell from his website) first fantasy novel next year. And I’d like to thank him for taking the time to answer these questions.

Posted by Ken at 11:09 am