Chris, you're a successful writer in both the literary world and the world of journalism and newspaper reporting. I've been reading your blog for a while now and I always enjoy what you have to say about writing and being an author. I have your novel, Song of the Sea God, but have only dipped into the first few pages so far. It already looks compelling, but I promised myself I would finish another book I'm reading first, so it's waiting for me! Still, you seem to have been writing for some time and have won some important short story awards, so I have a heap of questions to ask.
* My first question is when did you start writing fiction as opposed to the factual pieces you had to write as a reporter, and why?
I remember writing creatively as a child - maybe even as early as junior school. I used to write scraps in the back of old school notebooks - not proper stories or poems, but attempts at fiction certainly. I can’t remember why I started but I always loved reading and I suppose it grew out of that. Writing as a journalist came along later.
* Maybe I should have put this first, but I'm curious about your career as a journalist. Who did you work for and as what kind of reporter? And did you enjoy journalism?
I worked on regional newspapers in England. I started out as a reporter after university on my home town paper in Barrow-in-Furness and I was a crime reporter for some time, which was exciting when you are young, chasing round with the police, going to murder scenes and so on. I did a bit of shifting on some big city papers like Liverpool Post and Echo and even a few on the Daily Express in London then later I moved to Gloucestershire where I still live and I was news editor of the evening paper in the city. It was just at the time when the Fred and Rose West, House of Horrors, case was going on. They were a lovely couple who assaulted and murdered a large number of women and girls, including some of their own children. Working on a story like that certainly makes you question your conception of man as nature’s final word. Later I was editor of a weekly newspaper in Gloucestershire.
* Oh my, I remember the West case! That must have been pretty grim, but now I'm wondering whether you need to put on a very different writing 'hat' for fiction from the one you would as a journalist.
Quite different yes, but there is some cross over I would say. I think the discipline you learn writing news and features helps when you are writing fiction for example. But there are differences too - for example, in fiction you are often hinting at and implying certain truths about the characters and the story - when in journalism the trick is often to say things as clearly and plainly as possible so there’s no room for doubt.
* Ha, yes, the whole four C's thing! A different approach to the craft altogether. Chris, I've read a bit of th e background to your novel, Song of the Sea God, but could you tell the readers here why you decided to write a novel after being a successful short story writer, and what inspired this novel set on an island off the coast of England?
I suppose I always saw myself as a novelist in waiting, even while I was writing stories. I’ve actually written three novels now - this one is the second I wrote and I’m hoping my most recent one might make an appearance at some point if I can find a publisher whose list it fits.
The reason the book is set on and island off the coast of Northern England is that I grew up on just such an island - Walney which is off the coast of Cumbria. I set the book in a kind of imagined version of Walney as I felt it was easier to write about somewhere I knew. I only borrowed the geography though - I’m always careful to say that the plot and the characters in the book are not related to the people I grew up with on Walney! Having this place I knew well as a solid bedrock to build on meant I could embark on my flights of fancy and create my not quite real world, whilst still anchoring it to something which truly existed.
*That's interesting. A blend of keeping to what you know for the background with having the freedom to be creative within a familiar sphere. But, Chris, according to your blog, you now work in communications. That's quite a broad term these days and I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about what you do?
I’m communications officer for UK children's charity called WellChild. I handle their PR, website, social media, publications such as magazines and so on. it’s a brilliant job as I feel I’m working for an organisation which does real good. They provide children’s nurses for example, whose job it is to get very seriously ill children out of hospital, where they can spend months and even years, and organise for them to be cared for in the family home with the right care and support. It transforms families and gives hope and quality of life to people who really need it.
* Wow! That's fantastic. You must go home every day with a great sense of fulfilment. Another thing I'm curious about is whether you find your experience as an editor helpful when it comes to writing a novel.
I do indeed. I think being able to self edit is one of the key skills you need as a writer. You need to be able to go back to the text afresh, almost as though somebody else has written it, and take a clear sighted view of what works and what does not. Having said that we all need another editor in the end I think - my publisher found a couple of real clangers in my book for me which I had missed despite, or perhaps because, I had rewritten it so thoroughly.
* Yes, that's happened to me too. Now about the book: from what I've read of it, it's quite edgy in its tone. The descriptions are sharp, vivid and quite raw. There is a bite to it and I sense it is going to be quite a moody book that speaks to us in some way. In fact, it feels like literature. Would you agree with that impression?
I guess that’s a fair summary in some respects. What’s surprised me about the reaction to the book so far is that it seems to be different things to different people. If you take a look at the reviews it’s had on the UK an US Amazon sites you’ll see what I mean. Some people say it’s dark and menacing, others that it’s funny, others that it’s lyrical. I’m delighted with all this because what I really wanted was for it to be rich and layered and hard to pin down. I’m hoping the fact that people hold a range of opinions on it means I might have gone some way towards achieving that.
* Well, I'll let you know what my final impression is when I've finished it...maybe all of the above! Chris, you are quite a presence on Twitter, and you come across as a very cheerful, easy going and friendly soul who does all the normal, family stuff that we all do. Is your literary side a reflection of another kind of Chris, or is Song of the Sea God's central character a complete creation?
Well thank you for saying so and I’m sure my wife would describe my personality in precisely the same glowing tones as you have! I am reasonably cheerful as it goes but I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t have different aspects to their personality. We’re like Russian dolls us human beings I think, all different character traits in one.
The other thing I would say is that characters in literature are pure creations rather than mirrors of their creators, and often they are there to make the wider novel work or create an effect for the reader. Bes, the narrator of Song of the Sea God is its beating heart of the book and in some ways its moral compass I would say (though a often a faulty compass). The main character John Love is charismatic, driven and focussed on his strange and wonderful obsession.
* Yes, I can see that these characters would operate on a wider stage than a personal reflection would do. But Chris, this is the question every aspiring writer wants to know (of course): how is the book doing, and are you close to being able to give up your day job?
Absolutely nowhere near it I’m afraid. My book seems to be doing ok for a literary novel by an unknown first time author but let’s be honest, it’s never going to sell like Harry Potter. I’m just glad people are reading it, and, because of social media they are reading it around the world - in the USA, Canada, Australia and so on as well as in the UK. Only in very small numbers though! If you want to add to this select, but growing, group of readers you can find it on Amazon here.* Well, I hope my blog can help contribute to that growing readership. I don't have a big following, but the ripple effect might work! Anyway, now I've grilled you and satisfied all my nosy curiosity, are you writing another book now, and if not do you have plans for any more books in the near future?
I have another one waiting to go. It’s lighter, funnier - and probably not suitable for my current publisher’s list - so that’s me looking for another publisher - and they are quite tricky customers to find. I’ve been having a rest from writing but I’ll be starting another novel as soon as I find an idea I like enough to motivate me to do it.*Oh and just one more! Do you have any short story collections available? I'd love to read some of them as I'm quite a short story fan.
I have lots of short stories - enough for a decent collection I would say. I used to write them a lot and still do quite often. I’d love to get a collection published at some point.
* Oh do let me know when you have! Chris, thanks so very much for coming on to Watery Ways. It's been really great to have you here and I'm even more impressed about what you do than I was already - which was a lot!
Hey, thanks for interviewing me Val - it’s been really fun!You can read Chris's blog here too. It's always a really interesting read and he has plenty of good ideas and thoughts to share for readers and writers both.