Nothing could be farther from our collective coronavirus nightmare than the Stillreal, where Hayes’ protagonist, Tippy (the aforementioned triceratops), runs the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency. Which is not to say that the book doesn’t have its own nightmares or traumas; they’re just softened by the fact that all the characters are imaginary friends created by people (“actual people, out there in the real world,” as Tippy explains) who are forced to abandon them after suffering a horrible trauma (domestic violence, child molestation, and fatal car accidents, to name a few).
So even though Tippy is a cheery sunflower yellow, his nature is informed by a violent incident that led his creator, eight-year-old Sandra, to surrender him to the liminal world of the Stillreal. There, he solves crimes that happen to other imaginary friends, like his roommate (a disembodied hand), or the hotelier (a towering eagle in a stars-and-stripes apron) whose inn serves as a rest stop for new arrivals.
The Imaginary Corpse is a mashup of fairytale, comic book, noir and science fiction, making it thoroughly unclassifiable.
“I set out from the beginning knowing this was a book for adults,” Hayes tells me. And yet it’s a noir with soft edges. “The choice to make the book kind was one of my biggest driving goals… This is a kinder world than a lot of fictional worlds, than often our world is. I stuck hard on that, on the idea of community, the idea of compassion, the idea of empathizing and accepting people where they are.”