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Friday, July 13, 2007

Interview with Nicholas Christopher

Official Nicholas Christopher Website
Order “The BestiaryHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s REVIEW of “The Bestiary

I love reading books by authors that are new to me. Whether its debut novelists, a writer I’m aware of but haven’t read yet (for whatever reason), or someone I’ve never heard of, it’s just a rewarding experience to try something fresh. Nicholas Christopher falls in the latter category, and I’m very happy that was I introduced to his works, especially his latest novel “The Bestiary”, which will no doubt end up as one of my favorite releases of the year. So, it was only a matter of time before an interview would follow and thanks to Mr. Christopher’s cooperation, readers will get to learn about the making of “The Bestiary – the author’s inspiration, the facts separated from fiction, the themes, etc., – as well as future releases, film adaptations and much more! Thanks again to Nicholas Christopher for making this interview possible and enjoy:

Q: You’ve been writing for a while now, not just fiction, but also poetry and non-fiction, and early on you actually contributed to such magazines as the New Yorker, Esquire, etc. Where does your love for writing stem from and what events led you to pursue a career as an author?

Nicholas: I was taught to read before I went to school, and I was given books, then found my way to them. Like most writers, I came to be a writer, first, because I love to read. I still contribute to the New Yorker. They published my first poems when I was in my early twenties. Soon afterward I sold my first book. Why I began to write seriously in my teens is a mystery to me; but, then, any writer’s origins are an amalgam of mystery, magic, and accident. There were things I could express in no other way than the written word. I began to lead a parallel, internal life. That’s the best explanation I can give.

Q: It seems like your works are very well-received critically, but commercially, Nicholas Christopher is not exactly a household name. What are your thoughts on the whole “mainstream success vs. literary accolades” debate?

Nicholas: I have published fourteen books in three genres and have had both critical and commercial success. I have been blessed in that I have made a good living as a writer, that I live where I want to live, have a great deal of independence, and the time and wherewithal to travel where I like. I think the goal of any writer is to produce work that is well received in both domains. I began my writing life strictly as a poet, a world in which the accolades are far more significant because the audience for even the best known poets is very small – or so we (poets and publishers both) have convinced ourselves. In some quarters, I was considered a mainstream poet because I published work in over 30 issues of the New Yorker, always had large trade publishers (Knopf, Viking, Harcourt), and became a professor at an Ivy League university. Other poetry readers thought of me from the first as a “magical realist” or cutting-edge writer, a downtown New York poet, someone who wrote poetry heavily influenced by European and South American surrealists. I have been fortunate to have had success with my fiction, to have novels that reached a devoted audience, garnered film options, and was translated and published in numerous foreign countries. So I am known in a great many households, hopefully that number will keep expanding. I think it’s a fallacy that one cannot sell fine literary work; the audience is there to be tapped. A novelist can strive for that while maintaining his or her strict literary standards.

Q: I stand corrected :) So, for someone who has never read one of your novels, how would you describe your writing style, what book of yours would you recommend first picking up, and what kind of stories can the reader expect with your works?

Nicholas: I would let the books speak for themselves, and for the style in which they are written. I would suggest picking up THE BESTIARY first, because it is the newest! But if you look at my VERONICA or A TRIP TO THE STARS, you will get a pretty good idea of how I operate as a novelist. I learned long ago that any literary work is an explanation in itself; the author can only speak around that explanation, providing footnotes, which are often a tangle.

Q: Your novels are universally praised not just for their writing from a technical standpoint, but also for their storytelling. In your opinion, what makes a story work successfully?

Nicholas: The fact that a reader not only wants to know what happens next, and why, but realizes, however subliminally, that the dynamics of the story at hand will change some portion of his or her inner life. Maybe not right away, but it will happen. The characters and their actions should touch us deeply enough, and powerfully enough, that during the time we’re immersed in the story there is nowhere else we would rather be. Just as it is when we are with a person, or in a place, that we would not trade for any other at that particular moment in time.

Q: Let’s focus on your fifth fiction novel, the recently released “The Bestiary”. In it, readers are transported back to the 1960s/70s to such locales as the Bronx, Maine, Vietnam, Hawaii, Paris, Italy, Africa & Greece, while the story weaves historical fact with fiction. Obviously a lot of time & research was put into the writing of “The Bestiary”. Can you tell us where the idea for the book originated from, what kind of research was put into it, and how the story has evolved from when you first started on it?

Nicholas: It is difficult to trace the inspiration behind a novel. Like any author looking back, I might reconstrue — might even have forgotten — the elements that impelled me to write the book. Even those sources that seem most evident now have inevitably been distorted —amplified or diminished — during the five years of writing and rewriting. Yet I have a clear picture of the evolution of THE BESTIARY, which feels as if it was gathering force in my imagination for a long time before I put a word to paper. From the first, I was aware of the crucial elements that fueled the storytelling: my curiosity about the hidden metamorphoses, and accompanying projections, that are the essence of a man’s life; my love of animals, and my anger at the way they are treated in nearly every human society; my horror over the accelerating rate of animal extinction; the importance each of us assigns to the things we lose — people, places, things — and the illusions that enable us to endure those losses; my passion for mythology and mystery, and my fascination with the hazy borderline between history and myth.

Two particular myths lie at the heart of THE BESTIARY. I encountered them thirty years apart, and know now that only the combination of the two could have set in motion the creation of this book. They were like a chemical reaction waiting to happen.

The first is a Native American myth that altered the way I looked at life, and which I incorporated whole into the body of the novel. We hear it early on from the grandmother of the hero, Xeno Atlas, a woman with a gift for communicating with animals: “Before men started their killing ways,” she tells Xeno, “they spoke the same language as all the other animals. There were no boundaries between them. Then the worm of cruelty burrowed into man’s heart. The animals needed to protect themselves, so they made up their own languages that only their own kind could understand. The same thing happened when men started killing other men.”

The second myth was central to the cosmogony of those early Christian heretics, the Gnostics. It stipulated that the Holy Ghost authored two books: the Bible and the Book of Life, which was the first bestiary, lost long ago. The man who read both books in their entirety would achieve universal gnosis, ensuring the salvation and immortality of the soul. Accomplishing this would be difficult, at best, for many reasons, not least of which the fact that, for the Gnostics, the true Bible included the Apocrypha — for example, the secret Gospels of Thomas and Philip and the Book of Jubilees — and a host of other “lost” texts that have still not been recovered. It occurred to me that, by this standard, a truly complete bestiary must include, not just the sixteen thousand animals on Noah’s ark, including those chronicled in the first bestiary (called the Physiologos) and all the fragmented bestiaries it spawned, but also the hundreds of creatures who were refused passage on the ark (griffins, manticores, basilisks, hippogriffs, perytons, rukhs) and had to survive the Great Flood and make their way through history, right up to the present day, by way of the human imagination. These are animals whose images continue to appear all around us, gorgons and gargoyles, nagas and centaurs, the phoenix and the chimera. They dwell in all parts of the world, and are depicted in every medium — paint, marble, bronze — in both secular and sacred settings, but their touchstone remains the human imagination, where they can be found at all times. So long as there are men walking the earth, these animals will flourish. I thought they must certainly have their own book, which would be the earliest offshoot of the original Book of Life. I called it the Caravan Bestiary. It is a lost book, which must be reintegrated into the Book of Life, just as the complete Apocrypha must be appended to the Bible, and read in their entirety by anyone, Gnostic or otherwise, who would attain supreme gnosis. Or as another of my characters, a teacher who changes the course of Xeno’s life, explains to him: “The complete Bible and the intact original bestiary comprise a universal history which is, in fact, the only true history of the world; if read in tandem, in their entirety, they would offer up the same knowledge a man could otherwise acquire only by reading all the other books ever written.”

Q: “The Bestiary” seems to share a lot of similar themes with your previous fiction novels, including the coming-of-age tale, characters having issues with their fathers, the books set in a past era, the exotic globetrotting, and the blending of history with imagination & magic with reality. What is it about these themes that fascinate you so much that you keep exploring them?

Nicholas: Again, I can only let them speak for themselves. I don’t set out to write around those themes, and others. As the characters come to life, and the story asserts itself, some of those themes become the imaginative vehicles that carry the narrative. They are like elements in a recurring dream, and as such, my private associations, even if I were inclined to share them, would not be of much use to the reader; in fact, they would be distractions.

Q: Apart from making up the Caravan Bestiary, can you enlighten readers as to what other historical parts are factual, what were fiction and how you came up with the methods in which you bridged the two?

Nicholas: With the CARAVAN BESTIARY, I used facsimilies of the Revesby, Hertford, and other bestiaries, many of which I found in libraries, and some on the Internet.

I did this because my story, and the story of bestiaries, and of the CARAVAN BESTIARY in particular, stretched across many centuries, involved numerous historical figures, and was important to various important, even cataclysmic, events such as the Black Death. It was necessary to provide this historical material, not as colorful background, but as an integral part of my novel. In all my novels, I try not to stretch facts to make them fit fictional circumstances; rather, I present the factual or historical reality as such and weave into it fictional elements that enhance or explore that reality without distorting it. For example, the episodes involving the lives of Lord Byron and Doge Dandolo are based in reality; the circumstances in which I have them encounter and handle the CARAVAN BESTIARY are otherwise left completely intact. I strive to make those parts of the novel plausible and satisfying. History is essentially a retelling of infinite numbers of stories, their variations and permutations, around established facts. (In this case, we can state with certainty that there was a poet named Byron who compiled the first Armenian grammar in English at San Lazarro in the Venetian lagoon, and a mid-fourteenth century doge named Dandolo who ruled Venice during the Black Death). In the end, a novelist must be sure his common sense informs his use of history and animates the exchanges between his historical and fictional characters.

Q: Staying on this subject, ever since the overwhelming success of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, it seems like there’s been a veritable flood of likewise novels that have been released hoping to cash in on the trend. Did you have any reservations about publishing “The Bestiary” at a time when it might be lumped in this same category and what are your thoughts as a whole on the ‘historical thriller’ rage?

Nicholas: No reservations at all. I began writing THE BESTIARY in 2002, before THE DA VINCI CODE and its offshoots were published. I watched those books come and go, but didn’t think they had much to do with what I was attempting, for better or worse. I had no hesitation in publishing because I felt that the book I was attempting to write was unique, and would not just involve a quest, but a set of fully developed characters and character-driven plot that was not propelled by gimmicks or cliché. I was pleased to think that I might have been plugged into the zeitgeist early on in the writing of this novel. But that’s not something one things about too much when trying to construct a novel. As for historical thrillers, I think history, and the use of historical figures and situations can be used successfully or be utterly flat and forced. As a reader, I only care that a book is powerful enough to take me into its world and slowly but surely change the way I see the world at large. I don’t believe in segregated genres of fiction. I love science fiction, mystery, adventure, the philosophical novel and the fantastical novel, and so on. I love when a writer can blend elements from many different sources and schools of fiction. All I demand is that a novel offer inspiration and sustenance — emotional, spiritual, or philosophical.

Q: How does “The Bestiary” compare to your other novels, and how do you feel that you as a writer have evolved from your earliest published works? Is there anything else you want to improve upon as a writer?

Nicholas: I think it continues working the vein I began mining in A TRIP TO THE STARS. This book has had four fictional predecessors, several novellas-in-verse, and a lot of stories and narrative poems. Hopefully it has evolved by incorporating the best elements of its predecessors. As to improvement, I always want the book I am writing to be the best thing I’ve ever done, to be that much more powerful and revelatory than the books that preceded it. Any writer who doesn’t think he or she can improve is — what would be a good word — misguided.

Q: Xeno Atlas is a fascinating character and the end of “The Bestiary” leaves room for a possible follow-up. Will readers get to see anymore of Xeno in future volumes and if so, what can we look forward to? If not, could you perhaps speculate on where Xeno’s story might take you if you were to continue writing him?

Nicholas: I would leave the ending as it is. That is where I wanted Xeno to be when the story ended. As for a sequel, that is difficult to consider now, because in the months after completing a novel, one always misses the characters he has been living with for years. That said, because Xeno is still a young man at book’s end, and because he was a character I enjoyed inhabiting, I can see him returning at some point with the next part of his story. He has come to a crossroads at the end of THE BESTIARY and it would be fascinating to me to discover which road he takes from there.

Q: You’re working on a new novel called “It Was Freddie Moran Who Betrayed Me” and a book about the mythography of islands. Can you tell us anymore about these works?

Nicholas: The novel is in its earliest stages, pieces being assembled in notebooks, scaffolding being erected. I have twenty pages that I believe are opening of the novel. It is about betrayal, in its many permutations, emotional, spiritual, and material. The book about islands is one that has been continually shunted aside as I have become enmeshed in my recent novels. I wrote a book about film noir and the American city, SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT, which has just come out in an expanded edition on its tenth anniversary. That book arose from my deep interest in the films, most of which I had seen (about 300 films) before I ever thought of writing the book. I am also passionate about islands and their myths, but I need to do quite a bit of research before I begin writing the book in earnest. And I am now about two-thirds of the way through my new book of poems, which I hope to hand in late this year. Working in two genres comes naturally to me; when I move to a third, things get more hectic. And I don’t want them to be that hectic just now.

Q: As mentioned before, you’re also a prolific poet. How different is it writing poetry opposed to writing a novel, and how does one format influence the other?

Nicholas: I was a poet first, and I was publishing my poems in magazines and journals while still in college. When I began writing fiction in my mid-twenties, I thought at first that I must keep the two disciplines separate. I wanted to write fiction that was borne along by strong narratives and fully rounded characters. I did not want to write a beautifully wrought, but narratively aimless, novel — pejoratively called “a poet’s novel.” But I soon realized that the precision and imagistic facility necessary to produce a vivid poem are among the tools required when one is constructing an extended narrative line and delineating character. My training as a poet, and the fact I write and publish poetry as steadily as I ever did, have helped me to strive always for precision and economy in my novels, no matter how dense or complex the subject matter.

Q: Nowadays it’s not uncommon to see books adapted into movies, comic books, television or other formats and you already mentioned film options. Can you give us any details on these projects?

Nicholas: VERONICA has been optioned by Michael Birnbaum of Empire Pictures. A wonderful screenwriter, Harley Peyton (Twin Peaks), and a terrific director, Yann Samuell, are working with him. Their conception of the film is quite amazing, and is now being taken to the major studios. My first novel THE SOLOIST has been optioned several times, and the current optioner, Ken Marino, has written a first-rate script and is putting together his cast. I think THE BESTIARY would make for a very interesting film, and there has already been interest in it, so I expect it will be optioned soon. I’ve been told my book A TRIP TO THE STARS would make for a very fine long film or mini-series – and I agree!

Q: Let’s fantasize for a bit. What would be your dream adaptation?

Nicholas: My dream adaptation would be the one I listed above for VERONICA, with the people who are now working on it.

Q: What about you as a writer? You said earlier that you have enough on your plate at the moment, but would you ever consider trying a different medium (comic books, television, movie scripts, videogames, etc.) or genre (horror, sci-fi, suspense, etc.)?

Nicholas: I would love to do a comic or illustrated novel sometime. As for genres, as I said above, my books already cross lines and are read in very different ways. I would want to try whatever genre worked for the story I was telling; if one genre — sci-fi, suspense — began to dominate the novel, wonderful, I would go with that and consider myself fortunate.

Q: As someone who’s had a wealth of experience teaching and is currently a professor of the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Nicholas: Write every day without fail. Be true to your vision. Be open to everything. Read anything and everything that whets your appetite. Pay no attention to distinctions between “high” and “low” culture; take in everything and use what you need and want. Be very careful about who you listen to when it comes to your work. Know that the work will absorb huge portions of your life; if you can’t or won’t rejoice in that, you shouldn’t write. That’s the long answer; the short is: write every day without fail.

Q: Do you happen to have a favorite book or poem that you’ve written?

Nicholas: I have no favorites. THE BESTIARY and A TRIP TO THE STARS, and my poetry collection emerged from my imagination exactly as I hoped they would. VERONICA set my fiction on an entirely new road. Each of my books carried me forward, to the making of the next book. Each of them has its own meaning for me. But the meaning they have for my readers is what’s important to me once they’re completed.

Q: What about a least favorite story, something you wish you could go back and change or fix?

Nicholas: Not really. I might change a line here or there in a few of the poems in my first collection, which consisted of all the poems I wrote between the ages of 18 and 28. Maybe one of the subplots in my first novel. I don’t say that with hubris; I simply respect the books as they were written. I’ve managed not to publish things that, later on, gave me grief. I’m lucky in that I’ve written exactly what I wanted to write and had the very best publishers bring the work out. I have never written anything I did not want to write. As a poet, that’s a given; as a novelist, it’s a choice.

Q: What would you consider to be some of personal favorite authors or books?

Nicholas: Too many to list… All of Dickens and Tolstoy and the other Russians, Proust and Musil, Zbigniew Herbert, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, all of James Salter’s fiction, Borges, Marquez, Calvino, all of Charles Nicholl’s nonfiction, the late trilogies of Céline and Burroughs’, Ondaatje’s IN THE SKIN OF A LION, Bellow’s HUMBOLDT’S GIFT, much of Hemingway, Nabokov, THE TALE OF GENJI, THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, the poetry of Ritsos, Montale, Hecht, and Stevens, Olaf Stapledon’s science fiction. Donne and Blake. Too many to list…

Q: Are there any up-and-coming writers that we should know about?

Nicholas: Darin Strauss, Diane Vadino, Dana Spiotta, Dana Goodyear

Q: Obviously you love to travel. What are some of your favorite places to visit and where would you recommend traveling to?

Nicholas: The outer Hawaiian Islands, the Greek islands of Hydra and Naxos, the Grenadines, Paris, Venice — especially Venice. I like islands and I like real cities. Manhattan is both, but when you are in Venice you know you are both in a city and series of islands.

Q: Anything else you would like to share with your readers?

Nicholas: Everything I really want to say, I’ve tried putting into my books. I hope they bring any reader pleasure and joy. I still think Nabokov’s definition of a successful poem is the best definition I know: he said it should send a tingle up your spine. A novel should send a whole series of tingles – a burst of imaginative energy. I hope THE BESTIARY takes you on a journey that leaves you fulfilled.


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