Josh Malerman Interview: ‘Inspection’s Mad Scientists

malerman photo by brian rozman.png

Who needs monsters? Ferndale-based author Josh Malerman has been able to scare the wits out of his readers with four (going on five) books that excavate full horrific potential in not-so-fantastical fabrications. Here be believably-rendered dragons! Or maybe it’s just fantastical enough… We’ll never know what drove the characters of Bird Box to madness, but we understand the dreadful implications of adapting for survival’s sake to such a reality where capricious eyes are hazardous to your health. And in a rare case of a movie honoring its source material, the hit Netflix adaptation (starring Sandra Bullock) creatively kept the blindfolds on its viewers, so to speak.

So, then, taking a cue from the godmother of horror, Mary Shelley, Malmeran’s latest, Inspection (out March 19) appreciates that the scary part is not the lurking, growling monster, but instead exploring the real world ramifications resulting from such a seemingly fantastical proposition. “I’ve long thought of Inspection as the mad scientist’s tale. It’s definitely more Frankenstein than 1984.”

Malerman joins a collaborative launch party for Inspection at the Masonic Temple on Tuesday, March 19th, with a theatrical performance of voice-actors reading sections from the new novel (published by Del Rey/Penguin Random House).

His latest story imagines a world where 26 boys and 26 girls have been raised by parent-like administrators, separated by their sexes and assigned single-letter names to make up two mirroring alphabets; they’ve been institutionalized from their birth into two dorm-like towers in the deep, secluded forests of northern Michigan. These mad-scientist like principals are known as D.A.D. (overseeing the boys), and M.O.M. (overseeing the girls), devious enough to create a counterfeit attachment and trust with their experimental brood, but weary of ‘the delicate years’ of puberty. Thus, they are subjected to regular ‘Inspections.’ Any shred of awareness of the opposite sex sends an Alphabet Boy or a Letter Girl “to the Corner…” Never to return.

“It’s funny what a book looks like to the author when they start it,” Malerman recalls, “and how you never really shed that (starting) idea. While writing Bird Box, I rarely thought of it as a ‘post-apocalyptic’ story. I just looked at it as one small supernatural problem on one street in America. Obviously there’s more than that, but it’s good for me to see it in a simpler, focused light. The same thing happened with Inspection: I had no intention of adding to the dystopian cannon. It came to me more as a mad scientist’s terrible, misguided vision. And that was scary enough for me.”

As we read along, we meet one boy, J, and one girl, K, as they each independently come into a broader awareness of what it means to be “spoiled” by exposure to a thing called a “boy” or a “girl” or a “man” or a “woman.” If the implication of meeting your opposite means a not-so-uncertain death, how terrified would they be if (and when) they meet? “How monstrous would a woman appear to J? As he could only imagine her to be a variation of a boy… My goodness, they’d be downright vampyric to each other, just without the fangs!”

After the 2018 film’s success wound up launching the 2014 printed source material high up on the New York Times Bestseller list, think-piece editorials on Bird Box appeared on film sites reading into its deeper metaphorical meaning. That doesn’t mean that Malerman everovertly responds to or comments on real world events or issues. “I wrote Inspection before the #metoo movement, and before what’s become a seismic shift in how we regard gender. And here I’m sitting on a book that says a lot about how I see all of this and how all genders are not only equal, in the end, but also actually serve to enhance one another…to inspire one another. But it’s also becoming harder not to be aware of the world, as you write. How can you, as an artist, not feel the pinch of the modern world? Or pretend not to hear it? That’s not to say that my newest book must be political—but the writer must be aware of how much he or she is including of the modern world, otherwise you’re just pretending right now.”

Malerman is a lifelong fan of “scary books” and horror films; he started writing his signature thrillers right out of high school, stocking up dozens of ideas and manuscripts before getting a publishing deal in 2013. He admits that the “…real world’s making it harder for us supernatural-lovers to scare you with a made-up story. But, despite the tension in the world outside my office, somehow, I’m still able to ender the world of ‘horror,’ realistic or not. And I’m able to play in that world, like always.”

The Alphabet Boys and Letter Girls are reared in mostly identical boarding-house designs, where a faculty of adults known as “The Parenthood” oversee daily classes (and, of course, “Inspections.”) “I suppose the child in me hasn’t ever quite let go of the idea of the big scary parents. I’ve prided myself on a certain arrested development, something I think that’s integral to most horror authors.”

Recalling, in a way, Victor Frankenstein’s strife against the rebelling creature, D.A.D. and M.O.M. are similarly obsessed with controlling their creations, however futile or shortsighted that proves to be. It continues a trend of Malerman’s novels featuring somewhat morbid exaggerations of parental efforts. This is just fiction though, folks, as Malerman was raised by sweet, normal, nurturing parents. “But you’d think I was raised in a chicken-wire crib, under a blanket, the way I write parenthood in these books,” he says with a mystified chuckle.

josh malerman photo by brian rozman

And if there’s a secret to his success, he says it’s “focus.” The Bird Box success “didn’t mess with me… No matter what’s going on around me, I’ve always been able to give my absolute-all to each new book I’m working on. Sometimes I think I could be standing in the middle of a war, bombs exploding around me, civilization crumbling, and I’d be cognizant enough to rewrite a dispatch that was sent to my side. Like, ‘Yes sir, Sergeant, I’m on it…But…, did you think how the Commander could’ve worded it this way, instead?” With a stack of drafts in his office building up after the Bird Box movie, the only worry he had on his mind was: “which book ought to be next?” Answer? Inspection.



For those who have read Inspection, we’re taking things further with this uncut Q&A with the author.

I asked about a kind of zealotry. I, as a reader, started seeing, albeit a stretch, a parallel to our current political state. The Letter Girls as Democrats, the Alphabet Boys as Republicans, the “leaders” of the party being so orthodox and pure so as to say that even BEFRIENDING someone of another party these days would invite shame and outcasting. The towers are walling both factions in. There is a tunnel of hope, but it’s underground and obscured. Tell me about building this world and specifically the channeled-off emotions and thoughts of each character, each letter, each gender. 

For starters, I absolutely love your reading of it. You just blew my mind. It’s funny to think of the Alphabet Boys as the republican side of things but I get what you mean: first off they appear to be the ones in the White House because we got their story first. Second, the Letter Girls seem to have more fun.  They’re certainly more adventurous. One thing I was definitely aware of was that, fifty-something twelve-year olds, I knew I wanted the girls to be more advanced than the boys. And what a fun way to show it: begin with these seemingly genius boys, only to be outdone by the girls their age. While writing the rough draft I included scenes of giant Plexiglas cribs in the Yard. The Baby Days. I struggled over what was going to be in the Corner. Sometimes, as a horror lover, I find myself trying to jam something supernatural into the story. Only because I love those elements so deeply. But at some point I had to give up with the Corner. I simply couldn’t have a ghost or a demon in the freakin basement of the turret. It felt like a defeat at the time! But I get it now. And thank God I didn’t force that. One of the real “world building” moments for me was coming up with the actual Check-Up rooms. The dogs behind glass. The men with magnifying glasses .D.A.D. at a desk unseen by the Alphabet Boy being inspected. For me, the whole book bloomed out of those Check-Up rooms.

I don’t know if it’s a huge spoiler to say that these children eventually “revolt,” but what I particularly found chilling is the awe, the pride, that these parental figures have when the children demonstrate that they’re advanced enough to revolt by age 12, rather than 20. Talk about building their psyches, and navigating around potential typecast/stereotypes of “cult leaders

It’s as if D.A.D. and M.O.M. intentionally raised fifty-something time bombs. I think it’s safe to say they’re both smart enough to know what they were getting themselves into. Delusional or not. It’s almost like you can imagine them making eye contact in the Glasgow Tunnel, both wondering, When is it going to happen? Today? Will our experiment explode in our faces… today? Obviously a lot has to do with them “failing” to achieve what they wanted to achieve in life. But I don’t see them as wholly pretentious people with penchants for dark philosophy. I almost don’t even see them as megalomaniacal as much as I see them as unfathomable overcompensaters.

And what about the delicate matter of writing about two class-sized groups coming into puberty…

I intentionally lowered the age of the Alphabet Boys and the Letter Girls to avoid as much “sexuality” as I could. In the original draft they were 15 years old and it became unruly, haha, how often sex must come up in that scenario. I realized I didn’t want the book to be about sexual urges as much as gender equality and, for what it’s worth, there was a small part of me that wanted to see how the experiment would pan out.

At what point, as the writer of a horror story, were you aware of how this would end?

I think I knew what was coming the whole time. How could I not? What other end could there be here? I think D.A.D. and M.O.M. know what’s coming, too. And boy does it feel good, the moment K suggest to J what must be done…! Feels like someone reached into the book and finally armed them. But not only with knowledge…, with tools, too.



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Spring Break Boredom Busters for Kids: Olivia Millerschin, Chelsea Koziatek, Gordon Russ & More

Families Doing Staycations for Spring Break can Bust Boredom at Ferndale Library
Featuring singer/songwriter Olivia Millerschin, magician Gordon Russ & musician Chelsea Koziatek


For parents preferring a staycation during spring break, the Ferndale Library has a packed lineup of programs just in case other entertainment options for their homebound students start to run out.  The Ferndale Library’s Spring Break Boredom Busters is a week-long series of cool events and fun activities for kids of all ages, with unique programs each day, including a chance to build a blanket fort, attend a magician’s workshop, Oreo taste-testing (for teens) and indie-phenom singer/songwriter Olivia Millerschin presenting her picture book for children, inspired by a song she wrote.


Boredom Busters at the library attracts a lot of enthusiastic youngsters, coming in for games and crafts that can engage their imaginations while they are away from the classroom. The last three days of Ferndale Schools’ spring break week can be filled with laughs, creativity, and a whole ton of fun for those students spending those days at the library.

More on Olivia Millerschin:
Millerschin is a rising indie folk singer who recently wrote her first book, “Cactus on a Ledge.” She’s won the Great American Song Contest, had her songs featured in films and television shows and was a finalist for an Independent Music Award. While she’s working on her third album, she’s currently making stops to promote her new book, where she not only tells the story but sings the song that inspired it.



More on Gordon Russ:
One of Metro Detroit’s leading magicians, Gordon Russ has an extensive list of credits dating back to his 1988 professional debut which saw him embark on an extended overseas tour. Traveling through Europe, Australia, and China, Gordon brought his unique brand of illusion to thousands of people across the globe.


chelsea koziatek

More on Chelsea Koziatek:
Dr. Chelsea Koziatek is a performer and flute teacher in the southeast Michigan area. She’ll perform music along with a theatrical reading/performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale & the Rose.”





Full Schedule for Ferndale Library’s Week of “Spring Break Boredom Busters”

Monday April 1st:  10:30am – PIWI Playgroup  // 6pm – Fort Night (12 & Under)

Tuesday April 2nd:  10:30am – Uprooted //  2pm – Tree Buds // 6pm – Olivia Millerschin  // 6:30pm – Animaniacs

Wednesday April 3rd:  10:30am – Tree Sprouts (18m-36m)  // 2pm – Gordon Russ’ How to Make Magic Workshop

Thursday April 4th:  10:30am – Uprooted (Music & Movement for ages 1-3)  //
Also Thursday, April 4th:  2-4pm Drop-in Gaming (ages 8-12)  // 4-6pm Drop-in Gaming (12-18)

Friday April 5th:  2pm – Oreo Taste Testing (ages 15-18)

Sunday April 7th:  1pm – Live Music & Storytelling: The Nightingale & the Rose


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Evan Condron – New Works – March 31 – May 11

Reception April 28

Condron flyer

flyer art by Heather Earnley

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Ann Arbor’s Ambient Folk Singer Chris DuPont Performs at Ferndale Library, April 5

flowerbomb2-webThe Ferndale Library’s monthly live local music showcase continues on Apr. 5, with an after-hours concert featuring the cinematic sounds of ambient folk auteur Chris DuPont. The First Stop Friday series is a testament to the Ferndale Library’s ongoing effort to highlight and support artists and bands from the local music scene and give them opportunities to reach a diverse audience. Doors will open 90 minutes after the library closes on Apr. 5, at 7:30 pm, with music beginning promptly at 8 pm.

Chris DuPont started making an impression around the Michigan music scene with deeply evocative lyrics and poignant productions that fused ambient folk with melodic baroque-pop. He’s got a soft, lilting voice that might betray his upbringing in the realms of punk and metal. You could draw sonic/stylistic comparisons to groups that feature delicate vocal styles mixed with orchestral arrangements, like Sharon Van Etten, Weyes Blood, or Big Thief. His lyrics are relatable and weary words of stock-taking, mirror-gazing, soul-surveying catharsis, inhabiting a musical architecture enriched by pianos, upright bass, soft jazz drums, syrupy guitars and ineffably memory-cueing atmospherics.

The Ann Arbor-based singer/songwriter/bandleader has spent the last seven years re-imagining the folk aesthetic with a devastatingly soft brush of baroque strings and pianos under autumnal wistfulness strummed across his guitar, with lyrics that punch the gut in slow motion and cathartically pluck the heartstrings (snapping a few, sometimes, after the third chorus). DuPont’s debut album, Outliers, developed a state-wide fan base that was further expanded to a national level with the 2017 release of his live album (recorded at the Ark in Ann Arbor). This fall, he’ll be putting out his next album, Floodplains.

First Stop Fridays are sponsored by The Friends of the Ferndale Library, a Michigan nonprofit organization assembled to engage the community and raise funds for the library. The First Stop Friday series aims to give music lovers an early alternative for live entertainment.

More info:

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Synthesizers In The Library – March 24

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Synthesizers are coming back to the Ferndale Library this Spring.  Local musician Henry Birdseye’s lifelong fascination with analog synthesizers kicked into high gear later in his life and he’s spent the last couple years introducing audiences at libraries to the intricacies and endless possibilities of generating and harmonizing electronic signals into “a new kind of music.”  Ferndale Library’s first “Synthesizers in the Library” event was last summer, but when Birdseye brings his elaborate, polychromatic-wired music-making machine back on Sunday, March 24th, he’ll be joined by another pioneering synth-centric composer, Steve Greene (of the local synth-rock band Voyag3r).


Greene and Birdseye will bring their respective synthesizer rigs in to the library’s Community Room to celebrate the magic/science of transferring audio signals into celestial melodies, be it digital processors or analog circuitry! There will be some moderated Q&A with the synth-wizards hosted by local music journalist Jeff Milo, followed by a trippy and transcendent jam session. After some musical improvisation, the program can become interactive, with audience Q&A and a chance for attendees to get a closer look at the keyboards and components.


But that’s not all! Vintage King Audio, a Ferndale-based supplier of professional grade audio recording equipment, live sound, post production and musical instruments, will be providing the library with a synthesizer to giveaway to 1 lucky raffle-ticket holder in attendance.


Birdseye’s enthusiasm for the world of synthesizer music is infectious.  If you think that electronic music isn’t your thing, it’s likely you’ll be switched on with Birdseye as your informative guide. His passion to give these musical presentations heightened when a heart attack in 2012 effectively underlined an imperative to utilize his golden years to the fullest. For Birdseye, that meant curating his collection of synthesizers for educational and interactive purposes. He instructed 8th graders a few years ago during a Summer Camp at Henry Ford/Greenfield Village, and then went on to present at the Maker Faire, where he became more enmeshed in the culture of analog synthesizers.


Greene, an electronic composer and producer, released his first solo album, ELECTRONIC DREAMS FOR A HOLOGRAPHIC EXISTENCE, last winter, an all-hardware, all-analog instrumental, synthesizer-driven album that was followed up on March 15th with DISTANT TRANSMISSIONS, the first installment of a series where Greene travels to a remote location and sets up a minimal synth and recording rig. You can ask Greene about the creation process for that album AND MORE at “Synthesizers In The Library,” March 24th.

Synthesizers In The Library March 24 final

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The Biography Section

bioDarlene Hellenberg

Darlene is the Assistant Director of FADL and she has held every single position possible in this library, from page to Interim Director. These days, you can find her at the Adult Reference desk, where you might see her colorful and artistic bullet journal spread open in front of her. Darlene brings a certain quirky joy and laughter to the staff and she brightens everyone’s day with even the smallest exchange.


How long have you worked at FADL?
I worked here when I was in high school, and then I took a break to go to college out of town. I came back in 2006 and have been here ever since.

What do you love about working at FADL?
I love that our job is different every day. You get different questions, interactions with people, it’s just never boring. Also, books!

Best or favorite part of your job?
My favorite part is getting to recommend books for patrons. My super favorite part is finding out that they really liked the book I recommended. This happens often enough that it makes me really happy.


Posed here with fellow librarians for a Harry Potter Escape Room

What is most misunderstood aspect of your job?/What do people get wrong about your job?
People still think we can sit at our desks and read all day. That’s not something I ever have time to do. We are busy, busy, busy with various projects around the library! Ordering books, planning programs, and answering patron questions.

Favorite collection or thing we circulate at FADL?
I think that my favorite collection to buy for and that we have is our graphic novel collection. I think that we have a pretty well-rounded one, and I personally love adding to it and reading from that collection. I’ve read a bunch in a row at the end of last year and they were so good, but one that sticks out to me is Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (you can find Saga in our collection).

Best book you’ve ever read?
That’s such a good question…All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (also in our collection).

What do you love about Ferndale as a community/city?
Oh my god, I love Ferndale. It’s just overall such an inviting and accepting place, of all walks of life. It feels diverse because it draws people in, whether they’re coming for dinner or for a show. It’s like a revolving door in a good way.

How do you spend your days off?
I like to catch up on TV and movies. I like shopping, and I like going to dinner, and visiting or hanging out with friends.

What are you watching right now?
I just started Bodyguard on Netflix. It’s about a cop who used to be in the army who has to guard the Home Secretary in London and she might be up to no good. It’s very intense. I’m only two episodes in! It has Rob Stark in it.

If you were stuck on an island, what would you take with you?
I would obviously take books. My snorkel set. And my boyfriend.

If I gave you $100, what would you spend it on?
I would probably spend it on clothes. I really want to go shopping, so it’s all I’m thinking about right now.

What is the best meal you’ve ever had at a restaurant? What’s your favorite home-cooked meal?
I think I just really love spaghetti to make at home. One time I got to go to a tasting meal in Traverse City, like a five course meal with beer from Short’s Brewing. It was amazing.

You are known among the staff as the premiere Bullet Journal expert. What prompted you to start using this method of organization and what is your favorite page spread that you’ve created?
It all stemmed from Ashley who used to work here (former Head Youth Services Librarian). She went to a meeting, learned all about it, and came back and told me I should do it. My favorite page spread is the page I made when my girlfriends and I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s real cute. It has all the must-dos at each park and little checks for things we got to do. And all the different kind of butter beers we tried.

Favorite song to sing at karaoke?
Wannabe by Spice Girls

Chocolate or vanilla?

Beach or woods?

Favorite season?

You can find Darlene wearing her power blazer either at the Adult Reference desk or running around the library making it a better place for both patrons and staff. Feel free to say hi to her, talks books and favorite TV shows, or anyplace YOU love around Ferndale.

As part of the Biography Section, we invite other staff members to give their kudos to Darlene. Here is what they had to say:

Kerrie: Darlene is a librarian of many talents. In addition to her excellent programming and reader’s advisory skills, she’s great with staff morale and general workplace improvements, and she has a great sense of humor. Her service as interim director was greatly appreciated.

Jeff: Darlene is my hero. She’s done so much in her time here at the library: served as Interim Director, co-lead the wildly popular Adulting 101 series, coordinated city-wide (and then 4-city-wide) Community Reads Events, arranged for several exciting Author visits (including one from the UK), lead Summer Reading programs for adults, and facilitated the Book Parties at the Emory… Whenever I’m in need of inspiration, I just look at what Darlene’s doing…

Jasmine: Darlene reminds me of the character, Matilda. Not only because she looks so much like the actress who played her, but because of her personality. You just get the feeling that she is rooting for you, in the same way Matilda rooted for her peers. Darlene is very much for the underdog. I have shared this with her, but it mattered to me to have her order me a personalized name tag. I was told that I my name tag would just reflect that I was “Staff,”  because I was only a Sub at the time. When I was given my own personalized name tag, it brought such joy to my heart. My employment back into the library was a challenging one, so that small gesture of seeing my name, and the title of Librarian on a name tag, boosted my confidence. I will always love Darlene for that-that’s why she’s so special. She doesn’t even try to go out of her way to be kind or thoughtful, she’s just being herself.

Ed: I could go on and on about Darlene’s contributions to the library.  But I’m just going to say that she’s a great person to laugh with.

Susan: Darlene  has an eye for what needs to be done to make our work lives easier around the reference desk.  She plans awesome programs (especially the adulting series) does an fabulous job ordering ALL the fiction for us, hosting Book Party, and expanded outreach.  She’s even developed the puzzle collection which is a lot of fun. Overall, I think that her attitude about how to make the library the best it can be helps all of us do a good job.  Kudos, Darlene 🙂

Gideon: Darlene is always cheerful and always willing to help me with any problem, or answer any questions I might have, no matter how dumb they are.

Michelle: Darlene wears so many hats at this library, and she wears them effortlessly. She knows her community well, so her programming ideas are just the right mix of quirky, fun and informative. She recently had a major role in the renovation of our staff area, and she did a great job managing the logistics of moving all of our stuff out and back in again, while keeping everyone informed of the different stages of the project. Dar is pretty low-key, but very on top of things. She’s also excellent at maintaining our adult fiction section. Pretty much the ideal person to work for and with.

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Photos from the Movement: Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, Youth Services Librarian Jasmine Parker coordinated a photo shoot to recreate two iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement.

Ferndale Student Mumtaz S. ~ Angela Davis Re-Creation Photo
Originally, I intended on having Mumtaz recreate the mug shot for Rosa Parks. I wasn’t completely sold by that idea, so I went to speak with (Library Page) Cheryl (Vaughn, pictured below). She mentioned Angela Davis and I thought, Angela was too provocative; plus I thought about trying to find an afro wig, and how hard that would be…but the more I thought about it the more it made sense to recreate the photo of Davis. The Civil Rights Movement was a time of a lot of displaced anger and disappointment for many people of color, and understandably so. When I approached Mumtaz about the idea she loved it. She wears her hair natural (free from any chemicals or straightening) for the most part, anyway. It’s always twisted up, but I knew she had a lot of hair…enough to wear a natural afro. And so it came to be…

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The Group Shot^
This picture says it all as far as teamwork is concerned. So much of life is about how well you can work with others, and rely on one another to reach the finish line. I enjoy doing things alone, I am a loner at heart, largely because I am the only child, but as I grow older I appreciate having people to the front, sides, and back of me. I am grateful to be supported by a team of others, which teaches me the importance of being humble. This project was not an easy project to birth because many teens dropped out. Things didn’t go according to plan, but each of my co-workers present in this photo found some way to encourage me. And thus…here we are…

Jasmine & Mumtaz-
Again, we didn’t have enough teens to volunteer for the project this year, so I created a Black History Matters sign to draw direct attention not to just this month, which I have learned is so much more than the talents and contributions of African Americans, but also reflecting on our American history and how being American, and living in America has helped and hurt to shape our blackness.
Individual Staff Photos w/Books-

I love that some staff wanted to share books about different African Americans that have resonated with them at one time or another. I love that it mattered to them to share this with others, visually.

Olympic Podium-

This photo came to be because two male teens who committed to recreating a photo of Malcolm X dropped out. In effort to still have a recreated photo, it occurred to me to use this one but with all women. I think it turned out really cool given the amount of time I pitched the idea to when it was taken. I love (Youth Services Librarian) Elissa’s facial expression. It’s so stoic. Though her arm is not raised her pose and focus is just as strong. I love how it sets a tone for the photo. It’s amazing to me that her facial expression matches the strength of our fists. I don’t get that from the original picture, but I think it adds a nice touch to the recreated photo.

Visit the Youth Services Desk to find more resources related to Black History Month and more materials that document the Civil Rights Movement.

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