Christopher Wakling has worked as a farm hand, teacher, and lawyer. He wrote his debut novel, On Cape Three Points, while he took time out in Australia. He returned to London, and Beneath the Diamond Sky followed. The Undertow, his latest work, came out in July of 2006, and he is working on a fourth novel. He has been published in the UK and the US, and his work is available in translation for Dutch, French, Spanish, and Italian readers.
I got to know him through the Arvon foundation, where he is a creative writing tutor. We met up to do this interview on a dark November afternoon in a café in the British Library, London, UK.
CD Congrats onThe Undertow, Chris. I've just finished it, and it's great.
CW Glad you liked it.
CD And last night, thinking about this interview, standing in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil, I was flicking through a magazine and came across something Francis Ford Coppola said that reminded me of your books: that if you don't ever take the risk, you won't ever get the reward. I've been thinking how you started out, in law, in a fairly safe career, and then switched to writing full time. And there are plenty of risk takers in your novels. So I'm wondering, Chris, is there a gambler in you—a risk taker—you want to tell us about?
CW (Laughs) It's not been pointed out before in those words... but I'm interested in those questions, in what makes people do the safe thing, in normality, and what happens when it's pricked. My Dad's a good gambler. He's a small business owner, but he's never frightened of taking big risks. There's an element of him in me. Starting writing and leaving the law sounds like a braver move than it really was. I could see the ceiling of my legal career, and I really wanted to write.
CD By ceiling, you mean how far you could go there?
CW The level to which I was committed to that kind of law, corporate law—I didn't want to do it much longer. I was far more passionate about writing. It's a sketchier way to exist, but I quite like that, and I've been lucky so far.
CD So there are your characters in their safe-ish conventional lives, and then it all goes to pot—they have it all, and then they throw it up. On Cape Three Points begins: "Thirteen days ago I made a mistake," as a young lawyer, Lewis Penn, is launched "into freefall, a life unravelling in my wake." And in Beneath the Diamond Sky, there's Kate, holidaying in India, who takes off for Kashmir, one of the world's hot spots, for a little R & R (as you do), risking all, and who's subsequently taken hostage with other Westerners:
...she was shocked to find, alongside her panic, a definite seam of excitement. Not only was she incapable of running, but a part of her seemed not to want to try. This was interesting. It would be something for the notebook, something important to relate.
Self-sabotage, in a positive sense?
CW In my books, if I was trying to pick out a common theme, it's this veneer of normality that my characters start out with; the stories are about puncturing that, and how little things or bigger things throw them off course, and how they react to this. Wilson (The Undertow) works in a risk business, reinsurance, where "Improbable things happen and I take care of them. There's always room for hope." That's his background, and he's used to dealing with statistics and making them say the things he wants them to say. So he can't accept a very brutal and simple fact at its face value. And Lewis (in OCTP) is forever trying to work out the odds, the probability that he will succeed in his deception.
CD That's another theme in your novels, deception and truth and self knowledge, but, before we leave how you made the transition to writing full time, I'm sure people reading this will be working away at various jobs and wondering—could I make the jump? It's a serious life issue: what am I meant to be doing?
CW Oh, absolutely.
CD If you're not happy in your work, every day...
CW There has to be an element of compulsion to write. It was more important to me to do it than a simple matter of career choice. Even if I was doing something else to support myself, as I was before, I'd definitely be writing. I'd be doing it either way.
CD One of my favorite passages from The Undertow is Anna (daughter of Wilson) recalling how she fought fear as a small child:
...but what I learned was the beauty of random focus—the strange power to be gained by concentrating hard on anything at all. Those nights spent swaying in the dark were my first projects. They were physical prayers and they were answered.
The child's viewpoint is done so well, and those "physical prayers." I love those words. In a child, there's so much intensity in what they want to happen. She just wants to feel safe.
CW Her mother has left—and what Anna does, touching certain objects—that makes things all right.
CD Something you used to do?
CW In OCTP Lewis counts things obsessively, ceiling tiles etc, to steady his nerves, and that struck a chord—people ask: Do you count things too, to steady the situation? and, no, I don't. But that's something I used to do as a child, those "physical prayers."
CD Was there anything early on that showed you might be a writer?
CW l was an avid reader, but I didn't write huge tracts—I wasn't one of those. I was a sort of observational kid. I enjoyed looking at things and the detail in things. I think a lot of writers start out with that sort of basic interest in what's going on around them.
CD The observer?
CW As opposed to the participator... a self consciousness, watching myself in the scene. Then through reading more I wanted to enter into a dialogue with the books I was reading. I studied English, developed those necessary critical muscles, and it took a while before I felt confident to flex some creative counterpoint to that, to get over looking at things critically. It was into my late twenties before I started writing hard. I went off and became a lawyer, having done a conversion course. But I studied English, and I always was passionate about that.
CD Other writers you admired?
CW I was enthusiastic about diverse stuff. It didn't seem to matter—a world distilled, a world view, and that appealed to me. It made me want to create one of my own.
CD You do creative writing tutoring in Arvon?
CW It's another sort of dialogue, helps make me critical of my own work. I'm hyper-critical when I'm there, and when I come back and look at my own stuff—the pot calling the kettle black!
CD I recall an aspiring writer asking you the "Tell me: AM-I-WASTING-MY-TIME?" question, wanting to know their chances of being published. In other writers' groups I've heard people say they'd only write a couple of chapters of a book and send it off to literary agents to see if it had any chance of success, as if they'd proceed only with a guarantee. So that brings us back to the risk thing. Do you think writing a book—is that something to do with going out of a comfort zone, taking a gamble?
CW I don't think it's the place of a creative writing teacher to say do or don't, because people are doing it for different reasons. If the question is, am I publishable?—it's not the right question. That's a limiting, damaging question for a writer starting out. You need a certain amount of hubris to think if you stick at it long and hard enough you will make something which will be good enough. The flip side is I'd be suspicious of anybody who thinks their work is entirely adequate. I'm not happy with any of my books, unequivocally. They're always lacking, and with each new one, I want to do something different as a result of what I've learned. I'm nervous of those absolute type questions.
CD You say writing is a compulsion, so if somebody asks that type of question, do you think they don't have the drive?
CW Sounds a bit careerist, doesn't it, wanting to be published and earn the advance? You've got to want to write.
CD And to be determined?
CW Oh God yeah, in the face of all sorts of rubbish.
CD That line from Anna—"All he (her dad, Wilson) ever wrote with our fridge magnets was 'Never Give Up.'"—is that one of your characteristics?
CW Yes, but not quite as psychotically as Wilson! The "Never Give Up" thing's said in the context of a character who's deluding himself—there's an element where you could be just deluding yourself about anything. Wanting to be a windsurfer, it's a lot harder to delude yourself: if you're no good, you keep falling off. Writing's a hard one. It's extremely difficult to be self-critical. It requires a certain amount of gusto to do it in the first place, and then you've got to switch gears and look back on it and ask, is it any good?
CD Gusto? So, determination again, keeping going... On that subject, Natalie Goldberg (Wild Mind) writes about getting "permission" to write from another writer, like a blessing—so, Chris, who gave you permission?
CW I was in a writing group at one time, and there was one woman in the foothills of a publishing career who thought the stuff we were turning out was as good as the stuff she was trawling through on the slush piles at work every day, so there was a bit of an endorsement in that. Before that, I had teachers who were encouraging in school. At no point did I have any epiphany from somebody specific.
CD No epiphanies, just those little encouraging noises so you felt, I can do it. There has to be something to help you to go on.
CW Yeah, whether it's arrogance or something more... (laughs)
CD So what did it feel like when your first book was published?
CW Good. (laughs) It felt great when the book was accepted.
CD You got the message by phone?
CW I was in Australia, and a message came through in the middle of the night when I was asleep—I played that voice message quite a few times! But the moment of real air punching was when I was accepted to be published because that's when it all seems very real: you see all that hard work's going to come to something. And when it's actually published—I went to the printers and saw the books shooting off the end of the press—that was very exciting. But it's a daunting feeling when it gets out amongst all the other books, that flip side when you go into a bookshop and there's loads of yours, and you think: Why haven't they sold them? and if you go into a bookshop, and there's none, it's: Why haven't they stocked up?
CD Bookshops are never the same?
CW I used to enjoy them, used to very naively think the "3 for 2" meant they'd just bought a few too many, and they were trying to get rid of them. You feel very different when your own books are out there. But now that I've had a few published, I'm a bit more sanguine about all of that. I don't get too wrapped up in it.
CD Well, you've been successful—you're on your fourth.
CW I wouldn't go as far as to say I've been really successful (laughs), but enough to have them published. Again, if you're looking for an endorsement the whole time, whether through sales, or reviews, or your mates coming up and patting you on the back, it's a dangerous thing to depend on. You've got to depend upon something more "inner" to continue doing it.
CD Is the title "The Undertow" a metaphor for fighting against something, when we resist something happening in our lives?
CW The central image is the idea of swimming against an impossible current.
CD And that swing to the right, literally, that Wilson experiences as he swims in the ocean, is the idea that if you surrender to it, is that the way to get through?
CW Wilson creates a mystery to solve because that's more palatable than facing up to the truth. You see the situation through his eyes, and although you don't truly believe him, he's sane enough to bring the reader along, hopefully, asking questions with him all the way. And then we're into levels of deception and self-deception.
CD There's a lot about truth in your books. Identity and truth. On the identity subject, your characters are often thrown into alien landscapes. I liked some of the descriptions of the Australian outback: grey parrots and kangaroos bumping into cars—and the characters themselves become minute: "...at night, the cavernous black sky belittled the city in a way it does not back home."
CW The ocean and the outback are dwarfing Wilson. The idea I had was he'd be tested by water—the sea—in his re-enactment of the drowning, and by fire/ land in his quest inland, where he gets marooned. He's puny there, in the same way he's puny in the face of what's happened to his daughter. And he's railing against something far bigger than himself. He tries bringing his material success to bear against the problem, but...
CD He even predicts how people will react; he thinks he's in control.
CW Always calculating the odds and trying to assign "culpability" and "liability."
CD On that point of alien landscapes, you travelled yourself a lot?
CW Australia, where the book is set, I've lived there. The landscape seemed appropriate for that story, putting Wilson somewhere he couldn't really argue against on scale alone. And extreme heat.
CD You've been to Kashmir as well. Are all your books set in foreign places?
CW Yes, although the one I'm working on is set "un-movingly" in the South East of England. So there's this coming home. (laughs)
CD Tell us about number four.
CW He's a man turning sixty who decides he's lived his life by certain principles which haven't worked, and he has a kind of late crisis where he tries to put right the things that dissatisfy him.
CD Is it a thriller?
CW It'd be hard to term it "thriller," but, who knows?—publishers tend to classify things as they see fit. There's no ticking bomb, apart from the fact that he becomes quite anarchic. There are petty stands he makes after having lived a life where he sat back and let his kids do as they please. Now he wants to wade in and start dishing out all sorts of advice. There's more comedy.
CD Is that a different book for you?
CW I was interested the way I'd been classified as a Mystery/Crime/Thriller writer on my first book. It was published in Italy with a handgun on the cover, and there's no gun in the book at all. It's to do with sales, obviously. I'm found right across the genres: my books have appeared in general fiction, and in the crime sections, too. The one I'm working on is more domestic in its scope and a bit of a departure for me.
CD In your books, there's a concern with love in all types of relationships—whether it's sibling rivalry: brothers in the first book, sisters in the second, and all that competition and jealousy between them; or flawed parents. Flawed love, you're quite compassionate with that, with whether the love your characters experience is honest, and how it crashes into that whole area of deception, self deception and truth. So the next book is more to do with that?
CW It's more character driven. This man experiences a shift, considers he's been deceiving himself all along, and starts to see things more plainly. He's falling in love, too, through the course of the novel.
CD So love is there in all the books. It's a big subject. And to do it well...
CW Really hard to do it well, I'm not sure I've done it well, yet.
CD What's the Wakling novel process?
CW They've varied. I've known the story to a greater or lesser degree, but I generally do know how it's going to end. I build the plot as I go, scene by scene, developing it quite filmically, I suppose. And I start at the beginning and go right to the end.
CD Nervewracking, if you don't know what's going to happen?
CW You need to take a lot of time to think it through. I sort of feel my way. You have to acknowledge when you take a wrong turn. I want certain things to happen, to develop the characters and the story in a scene, and if I sit down to write, often it veers off. I've become more nervous of that, I no longer press on—undoing work is always hard, and badly written stuff, the more there is, the harder that is. So—sounds a bit contradictory—it's better to go back straightaway.
CD Do you have an instinct where you know—this isn't working?
CW I do, but I wish it was better... the ability to have a good bullshit detector is very prized.
CD Is it essential to trust the process? I'm thinking of an article I read by Jeffrey Eugenides about how life seemed to conspire with him when he was writing one of his books: coincidences that helped him in the most amazingly detailed ways: something flashing up on TV, or the phone ringing from someone with just the right information.
CW Certainly things happened that sparked something up in the book, or pushed me in a direction. You mentioned the child's thoughts in The Undertow. That's a book about the child/father relationship, and it's no coincidence I started to write it having had my first child. Parental responsibilities—that's at the heart of that book: where does it end, the limit of influence over a child, how well you can know somebody that you've created... those were themes knocking around in my own head when I came to write the book. What it's like to have a very young child—
CD Thinking you haven't a clue?
CW Yeah, all that was tied into my own experience.
CD I've written my first book—do you think endurance comes into a big project like a novel?
CW Writing has a huge amount of endurance in it. The troughs along the way, moments of self doubt—all jobs have that, but there's a large element of it in the creative process. Recently, I've been doing up my house, and I enjoyed the straightforward physical nature of it: you can see what you're doing there... but the uncertainty of wondering if what you're doing is any good or important enough to be written about, if it's flawed in conception, or execution—all the way through there's an element of having to endure that.
CD The not knowing, "risk" thing, again. That includes battling self doubt, too?
CW It does.
CD Does anybody care about this? Does anybody care what I write, on a bad day—
CW On a bad day, do I care? (laughs)
CD Money and the Struggling Artist, can you give us a word on that? At yoga recently a trainee teacher whose "slant" is Mindfulness was chatting about her plans for making a living, including some free work (hospitals), but she said: I want plenty of money, too! From the belly a fountain of GOLD arises... (laughs)
CW Money matters. And it's not necessarily the case that writing is poverty-making. I was fortunate enough to make some money out of it so far, but that doesn't mean there's not a worry going forward. It's a lot less certain than it would be for a corporate lawyer.
CD In your novels you seem to challenge materialism.
CW I do. I'm probably a hypocrite, 'cos I rely on material stuff as much as anyone, but I'm not a hugely materialistic person.
CD Is it where money becomes the priority, like a drug for some people?
CW That's a bit risible—mind you I think there are things I prioritise that others might consider laughable. I want to be paid well for what I do, but it's not the main reason for doing it.
CD Are you more confident these days with all you've learned, the craft and all that?
CW With each book I realise how much there is to know, so day to day I wouldn't say I was more confident in what I m doing, but hopeful I'm doing a better job of it. Yeah.
CD I saw Smokey Robinson on TV, recently.
CW Tears of a Clown. Number one the week I was born!
CD O-kay! Well, Smokey said he felt lucky to have found song writing, the thing he was meant to do, that he was good at, and whatever the ups and downs, he felt blessed to have tapped into that. Does that have any resonance?
CW I saw that. He was phrasing it in a religious sense, and I'd resist words like he used. I certainly wouldn't see myself (laughs) as having any massive talent in any God-given sense, but I've found something I'm passionate about and I'm extremely lucky to be able to spend a lot of time at the moment doing it. That breeds positive things: the ability to get better at it—because you're doing what you like to, it's not a problem doing it 24 hours a day. I never wake in the middle of the night thinking about my book, the way I used to about a legal case, waking up, thinking: Why are you worrying about that now—you're supposed to be going asleep? I never feel it's an imposition upon my private life. And that's nice. I like that seamlessness between what I do and who I am.
CD It's nice to see you relaxed about it all, but you better get to that car of yours (at a meter). Good luck with number four, Chris.
CW And you. Oh, and—keep writing.
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