Article published on April 21, 2016.
Chris, was there a book from your childhood which triggered off a love of reading?
When I was a child, maybe nine or ten, my dad left a copy of Stephen King’s IT lying around. Intrigued by the cover I asked him what it was about and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was far too scary for a child to read. Naturally I read the entire book over the subsequent weeks. It was the first adult book I’d read, and I couldn’t comprehend how words on a page could be so vivid, so gripping, and so utterly terrifying. I’d hide IT under my pillow, then turn each page with a shaky hand long after I should have been asleep. I was hooked. I’d go to the library every week and quickly worked my way through Stephen King’s back catalogue. Though I went on to wet the bed until my mid-twenties, it was a price worth paying as it was my love of reading that led to a love of writing.
That may very well be just a little too much information! Perhaps you should sue Stephen King for bringing about impaired bladder control! How did this love of books morph into a desire to write?
I wrote my first story when I was eleven. It was about a man with a gun for a hand and had the kind of macabre ending that saw me blipping on the child psychiatry radar. I didn’t actually write anything ‘serious’ until I turned thirty. I guess life got in the way a bit.
The first time I opened a blank Word document there was an element of what-the-hell-do-I-do-next. I had no relevant qualifications, no experience, no writer friends and I’d never been in so much as book club let alone a writing group. But mustering the kind of misguided determination that once saw me apply to Embry-Riddle after watching Top Gun (sad but true), I began to write what can only be described as total shit. Page after page of it. I meandered through a hideously complex plot, dropping in the kind of random ‘literary’ words that even Collins would struggle to define. I toyed with the reader, led them up a dead-end before playfully showing them the way again with a wry smile on my stupid face.
This writing lark is easy, I thought. I’d be published in year, lauded in two. And I might have got away with it, if it wasn’t for those pesky agents.
Many of us have desires to be a writer which fizzle out because of the effort involved. How did you take it to the next stage?
I did some research, found a couple of potential victims, and then decided to read some of the authors they represented. I picked up Bed by David Whitehouse. It’s the kind of wonderfully original story that sent me straight back to the drawing board. I incinerated my piece of shit and started again.
This time I gave some real thought to the type of story I wanted to write, and the type of writer I wanted to be. I like to read crime, but also love any book that can make me laugh. With that in mind I began working on Tall Oaks.
Tell us about how that came about. It reads as if the whole thing was effortless. Was it easy to write?
I wrote it quickly, then spent an age editing it, paying particular attention to the humorous lines. I came up with a system, if they didn’t make my wife laugh then I rewrote them. Sometimes she fake-laughed just so she didn’t have to sit through another ‘explain to me why that isn’t funny’ conversation. (I know this because I once overheard her tell a friend that she’d become quite good at ‘faking it’ with me.)
Once I was happy with the plot, the pacing and the structure, I began to work on the smaller details. Tall Oaks is set in America, which presented some unique challenges, perhaps the biggest being the language barrier. To counter this I became a method writer (like method acting only even more embarrassing.) I spoke with an American accent, making sure to substitute words like garden, trousers, wardrobe, for yard, pants, closet. Whilst my wife thought American Chris was a bit of a pervert, mainly due to a ‘your fanny looks great in those jeans’ misunderstanding, I found it was a good way to ingrain the dialogue in my mind.
Congratulations on getting Tall Oaks published. Any advice for aspiring writers?
I know don’t give up is a bit clichéd, but I think it’s the most important. My writing journey was a long one, I’d written entire books that will never see the light of day, hundreds of thousands of words before I found a style that suited me and a plot worthy of pursuing. And I found it in Tall Oaks.
I’m blasé about it now, and sometimes deflect compliments, but in all honesty I absolutely love Tall Oaks. It landed me my dream agent, and also a publishing deal with the amazing Twenty7. I’m incredibly proud of it, and I hope that one day someone out there forgets to hide it from their child and the process can begin again. It’s what I like to call the ‘circle of life.’ *Cues music from Lion King… wipes tear from eye.
Many thanks for this, Chris and best of luck with the debut novel.
Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker, published by Twenty7 on 7 April, 2016 as an eBook at £3.99
The Dos and Don’ts of Crime Writing by Corrie Jackson
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