Imaginative, brave and straight-talking with a fresh, ‘let it rip’ style, Christian was the 2012 Interact Reading Service’s writer-in-residence (chosen by Baroness Ruth Rendell).
His stories have been included in the Momaya Review (2011), the International Rubery Book Award Anthology (2012) and ‘Gem Street: The First Collection’ (2012) in addition to other anthologies.
His short story ‘Last Supper’ was a finalist at the Morley Literature Festival. When not writing, he works as a freelance designer and photographer. His outstanding story, ‘The friends we make’ won the Ruby Award in our latest anthology, ‘Gem Street: Beyond the Axis’.
Christian lives in Somerset, England with his wife Hayley and their four children.
How do you feel your work as a designer translates into the world of writing?
I always look for photos that suggest a narrative in my design work and I try to create fiction that stamps visual motifs into the reader’s mind, so there’s a cyclic relationship. I think that stems from the fact that concepts such as juxtaposition, rhythm and weighting are common to both disciplines.
Your stories are lush with imagery and you clearly love to play with words and unusual concepts. Is this something you’ve developed over time or was it simply a natural part of who you are?
I have to see a story in my head like a film to write it, so I aim to keep the visuals within the text. I used to write nonsense articles at school and had the great fortune of making friends with someone else who enjoyed meaningless text that sounded as if it meant something, but was devoid of all sense. It was a folie à deux partnership where we validated each other and stopped ourselves ever accepting the school’s notion that there were rules in language to be adhered to.
I was also very prone to mishearing lyrics as a child. Ironically, I used to think that the Beatles were singing, “Paint the back right round.” The only way I could make any sense of that is if the song was about trying to get your paintbrush onto the wall behind a radiator. For years I was perplexed as to why the fabulous four sang so passionately about a random DIY issue.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on more short stories, but the main focus is a new novel concerning an OCD-suffering gallery attendant who is being tormented by an evil invisible professor.
How do you begin your day?
Coffee. A lot of coffee. I’m not a morning person at all, so I have to cope with relearning many basic human functions long before any design or writing can happen.
Is writing a tonic or a terror for you and why?
Some seed of an idea will drop into my head. It might be a character or some dialogue or a scene and it slowly grows until it fills my head and I end up doing household chores in the context of the idea or seeing characters out and about in town. It takes over to the point where I start forgetting important appointments and the only way to clear my head and get my mind back is to exorcise the idea out onto paper (or the screen). In that way, I guess the writing is both the curse and the cure.
What does your writing process look like?
Something like an M C Escher drawing done by Jackson Pollock. I am not organised in my head at all (see above), so I have to find other ways of bringing order to the chaos. It’s a mix of technology and Heath Robinson mindset, so I have a spreadsheet of writing deadlines on the Mac, but also print out little laminated ‘covers’ for my short stories that I peg up on a washing line above my desk like restaurant orders. None of it works, but it looks quite cool and fools me into thinking I’m on top of things.
When were you first drawn to writing and why? What was the most useful advise you were given in the early days and also, the most useless?
I stepped out of Art College with my Apple Mac and ripped jeans and walked straight into a design job at an IT company where I was sat at a PC and had to wear a suit. I felt a bit like Scott Bakula in the sci-fi series Quantum Leap and wanted to keep running into the bathroom to check the mirror and see if I was supposed to be a man or a woman and hoping Dean Stockwell would come wandering in with that calculator thing and explain what I needed to do in order to leap out.
The business world and adult society only really made sense to me if they were supposed to be funny, but I didn’t see many other people laughing, so I started inventing my own worlds where life seemed more how it should be.
On the subject of advice, the most important advice I ever received was that writing advice is just that. It’s advice and not a set of rules.
The most useless advice that I often hear is “Write what you know.” If writers only ever tackled what they knew then there would be no sci-fi or fantasy work at all. But it’s important to know what you write, so you have to get your head around the world you invent and be true to it. Fiction writing is basically just travel writing where none of the people or places you visit are real, but you still have to make the visit and get to know them.
You are very open to and well-versed in exploring the metaphysical in your work. Can you elaborate on that?
I’ll try, but I can’t promise to be well-versed in this answer. I think it’s a good idea for writers to feel out of their depth in their work. If you’re too comfortable then you’re not in the place where fresh ideas happen. We’re trapped in the goldfish bowl and we have no means to stand outside of life in order to get an objective view of it, so we’re forced to stare through the distorting lens and imagine what it looks like looking back. Writers are people who dare, maybe foolishly, to provide answers to unanswerable questions. As long as you’re not claiming that this is the sole answer then it’s a healthy exercise. But I’m also a huge fan of science, so I am not afraid of losing any mystery when science answers some of the big questions. Writers and philosophers explore the blur at the edge of our understanding. If science brings clarity to the edge then it just gives us a new place to stand in an expanded universe with some new blur to find at the new edge.
If given the chance, would you want to play any of your characters in a film? Who and why?
I’ve just looked back through them all and realised how nasty I have been to many of them. Todd Longfellow (gallery attendant with symmetry OCD) is a particular favourite because he’s fresh, but also due to the poignant end of the book where he grasps a deeper understanding of life and his own ability to change it. I think that knowledge is more valuable than many other rewards.
Having said that, there’s a nasty self-harm scene where he balances up the graze on his right arm (from falling through the ceiling) by a single stroke of a cheese grater to his left arm. He sings ‘This little piggy went to market’ to build himself up to the moment and screams on the last line. I wince whenever I edit or even think about that moment, such as now.
Are you a conscious or unconscious plotter?
I do a lot of planning and research, but things happen along the way that take on a life of their own. I always find I hit a point where the story is crying out to move to the next level and I know I have to destroy it somehow and then rescue it. It might mean moving a chapter to another part of the book or removing a character. I never attempt to write any message or moral into a plot because I find it comes out a little contrived. If you tackle any slice of life faithfully then life will speak to people without you having to spell anything out.
What is your favourite film of all time and why?
‘The Banishment’ by Andrey Zvyagintsev. The cinematography is breathtaking. Every scene is framed like a beautiful photo. On top of that, the script, the score, the acting and the depth of themes tackled by the film are all incredible in their own right. When put together, the outcome is something transcendental and yet very gritty and earthed.
What’s the toughest criticism you ever received?
Silence. I would rather read a scathing review of a piece than have no reaction at all. To feel that you’ve poured out blood onto the page and for people to pass it by is difficult for all writers to come to terms with. Especially in the beginning, that can near finish you off. I remember with my first novel that many friends and family were very excited about it coming out and there was quite a buzz building up. When the first sales figures came back, I realised that not everyone who claimed to have bought it could have done. That hits you hard. But with something like that you either let it knock you down or you realise that your friends and family aren’t your audience and neither should they be.
Words you love.
I love the word ‘silence’ and I often throw it in as a single word sentence. A silence is a state of nothing being said and yet it leaves the possibility open for anything at all to be said in the next instant. Far from being passive and serene, it is the intake of breath before a scream.
In a similar way, ‘chaos’ is a great word. Most people envisage a mess of clutter, but the original meaning of ‘chaos’ was the name for the vast empty void before creation.
When you stop viewing chaos as an end state to be avoided and start viewing it as the beginning and ongoing default state of most things in life then that becomes something that is either terrifying or incredibly liberating.
Words you overuse.
‘Suddenly’ and ‘almost’ – even once with either of these is once too often. ‘Suddenly’ is a lazy attempt to force something to sound dramatic and ‘almost’ is a great way to make any action become dull. There is nothing striking or dramatic about anything ALMOST happening. I hate finding these words in my work.
Do you ever misplace your writing Mojo? Is so, where does it eventually turn up?
It’s always in the corner of your eye, so if you try to stare at it then it will go away. I developed a technique a few years back where I would deal with writer’s block by writing about it. When you call the block’s bluff by writing about being in the moment of not being able to write then you trap it in a Catch-22. The more it tries to take hold, the more inspiration you have to write about it. Once you’re in the flow, it’s easy to hop across onto another subject and you’re writing again.
But the best moments are when you feel completely out of ideas and then something fresh and mind-blowing just pops into your head from nowhere. It’s like a star has dropped from the sky and you feel unworthy to have caught it.
Failing that, I always turn to the children’s books of Richard Scarry. There’s nothing quite like the technical cross-section of a house being built by pigs, rabbits and foxes to break your mind out of a rut.
A lonely widow. Creation and destruction. A man of steel and the unexpected use of household furnishings. Your story ‘The friends we make’, published in this year’s Gem Street: Beyond the Axis is as fascinating as it is mind-boggling. What was at the core of your writing it? Did you have a particular goal in mind for the story?
My only aim with any piece is to keep true to the piece. I don’t want to dilute the purity of the plot with moral messages and contemporary commentary wedged in to any gaps. Many times the first idea that popped into my head, that bit of dialogue or character that started it all off, will get removed. It’s often this facet that becomes the bit that doesn’t quite work in the later edits. When you kill the seed, you cut the string on the balloon and it becomes a free object that’s self-justifying.
In one of the early drafts of ‘The friends we make’ I had a scene where the man of steel looks into the TV screen in search of news about himself. But as he can’t switch it on, all he can see is his own reflection staring back, and yet there is no more accurate ‘latest news’ on yourself than your own reflection, so it becomes self-fulfilling.
That’s probably the best analogy of my writing I can think of. The sole purpose of each story is to discover itself, even though it never existed previously.
It’s a few years down the road, what are you doing?
I’m catching up on the news headlines on the BBC and wondering why people are still doing the silly things they do. I stare up at all the images on my story washing line, pretending I can remember what they were all supposed to mean and then I give up and wander out into the kitchen to switch the kettle on.
Something about the loose coffee granules falling off the spoon will remind me of a digger lifting gravel and I start pondering that if the hole was big enough and the digger dug from one side and dumped the earth on the other side as a ramp, could you actually dig yourself out of a hole?
And so it begins again…