About the Author and His Work (In His Own Words)
My name is Christopher Griffith and I have been writing across different genres of fiction for a number of years now; Temples of a Fantasy Revenge and its companion piece Corin’s Chronicle are teenage moving to Young Adult fantasy –
Rick with a (Bipolar) View is an autobiographical novel about the time in my life when I was first diagnosed with mental illness:
Shakespeare’s Secret Knowledge is my stab at conspiracy theory writing – I’ve always loved the Bard’s plays but like many people I’ve also been stupefied that the historical Shakespeare we learn about who signed documents with a cross was able to pen Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth:
My supermarket love story, Champagne Jealousy comes next:
And then there’s William Ottoway’s Utopia which is the novel I talk about for at least the first part of these interview questions:
As well as fiction, I also write poetry and stage plays; I’ve got a postgraduate qualification in scriptwriting but I was never able to really settle in to that genre; the buzz word for film, television, radio and stage writing is subtext in which characters say one thing but mean another. That doesn’t suit me at all – what’s the point of saying what you don’t mean? I tend to steer clear of people like that in real life so why would I want to include the like in my creative writing? I’ve also got a soft spot for poetry, but I think that genre is even more niche; a lot of people don’t like it at all and I must say I find much modern poetry weak, soulless and flimsily constructed, but of course that’s just my opinion on the matter!!!
And on to the interview…
Have there been any authors who have influenced your work? If so, who?
In relation to the above book, William Ottoway’s Utopia, there were four authors whose work influenced the novel – Alex Garland’s The Beach definitely guided me in my choice of background, a society cut off from the rest of civilisation that purports to be paradise but in the end turns out to be its exact antithesis; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein influenced the literary style of the piece and to some extent the structure regarding its epistolary beginning and end; Sir Thomas More’s Utopia which of course gave me the idea for the book in the first place; and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies that encouraged me to narrate a story in which really there was no redemption at close, and one in which human nature’s own corruption was to blame for the demise in relations between the people sharing space on the island. However, on this last point I was slightly at odds with an admittedly titanic writer in that I have a more optimistic (perhaps more dreamy) view of humankind. I do understand the lure of savagery, and goodness knows our race has succumbed to it over the centuries, but I wondered if the catalyst to our becoming like beasts might in this instance owe itself to an object rather than straight debauchery of our nature, here of course the humble, versatile and rather perennial item otherwise known as the television set. In an instant, I was sold. I still very readily bore in mind my four influences, and in composing my own story I still reflected heavily upon them, but I was keen to tread my own path and so I conflated the quartet (stepping carefully not to plagiarise) to produce my own piece of writing. To broaden scope for a moment, this is actually pretty much the same process so undertaken for each of my novels – I think it is very important to use source material, but of paramount importance is not to slavishly follow its particular dictates of tone, plot and character. Other authors and works I have revered in these instances are Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy – you’ll have to read my other pieces to try to see which has influenced me in each regard! The only non-source novel I’ve written is Champagne Jealousy, and even then you could argue it’s big nod to humorous fiction like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and gentle crime works on the Marple-Poirot spectrum, though I stress not of their ilk! Assimilation is key – what I read, I tend to digest and then regurgitate in my own way.
Out of all the characters you’ve written, who is your favorite? Why?
It’s got to be William Ottoway, if only because he represents that kind of naive idealism I so miss in my own nature these days – William genuinely believes he can up and run to somewhere else in the world which will somehow provide him with 100% safe and secure haven. The unravelling of his realisation that this is just pipe dream really tugs at my heart, but it’s no use tugging at mine unless it tugs at yours also! Of all the characters I have created, William is for me the most vulnerable, and that includes Rick in Rick With A View who suffers from bipolar disorder, Emily in Champagne Jealousy whose anxiety is off the scale, Norman in Temples of a Fantasy Revenge whose inferiority complex makes both Rick and Emily seem the very paragons of stability, and Thomas in Shakespeare’s Secret Knowledge who simply hasn’t got an iota of clue what on earth is going on around him, and to him. All these characters have human defects in their personalities, but William’s whole personality is the human defect – he simply misunderstands that there are bad people out there like the Usurper, and that people like this, in a fallen world, are the very sort who will find their way to a Utopia and wreck the enterprise. Bound with this is of course the appliance, television, and the fact that it is this, an object, which hastens the protagonist’s demise. I like the idea, although it terrifies me to consider, that it’s not just up to us to cause our own, and each other’s, misfortune but that we live in a world in which inanimate tools and trade can bring us to serious harm – there’s a scene in the film Anaconda in which Jon Voight says the river Amazon can kill you in a thousand ways, well that’s the kind of world of which I think William Ottoway has no conception, but one which dawns and grows upon him as the narrative continues. Of course such a world would be depressing beyond measure, the kind of world which say a particular series of broadcasts blasting out round the clock from a particular appliance might detail and encourage us to think the norm, but rather than accept our home planet holds both good and bad for us at different times William’s hamartia is that he firmly believes the bad can be extirpated leaving the good our warm companion forevermore. Even when the falsity of this dream has been laid bare for him, our idealistic Ottoway still clings to the dream, and that refusal to admit defeat even when defeated cements him as my favourite created character to date.
Are there any types of scenes you find more difficult to write? Which ones and why.
I find descriptive scenes an absolute nightmare, mainly because I feel as though I am cheating my readers of their imagination if I detail too greatly what is in my own head. This is quite a complicated concern of mine so I shall elaborate by saying that, as a writer, when I have a scene in mind it is pretty much fixed in my psyche; now I don’t want to impinge on your innate ability to conjure pictures in your imagination and I think it is remiss of me to try to alter whatever image you may have created when for example I set my scene on a desert island. I don’t want to encourage you to see that desert island from my point of view; I hate it when writers provided detailed description of a location because my imagination has already done most of the job for me when the writer gave me the nature of that location in the first place. As a reader, I like to be involved in doing the work of the writer also, it helps me cement that bond between the two of us into which we enter when I take up the novel in the first place. Of course, and in William Ottoway’s Utopia, I do outline certain features of the island to which the characters journey but overall I feel it more effective for you the reader to create that image of the place in your own psyche. The same, I believe, can be said for character description – I simply think that it’s a more productive exercise for the reader to flesh out features of a protagonist whether physical or emotional because it then makes that fictional character more real for the person making their way through the novel. All that hokum you learn as a writer about flat and round, two dimensional, three dimensional characters, in my opinion that’s not up to the person who’s crafting the story at all; remember again that the writer and reader are bonding over the course of the narrative. The soulless call it a contract but it’s not that at all – it’s not business nor cold jointure but a warm and friendly relationship struck up for however many pages in which the reader says ‘tell me a tale’ and the writer replies with their offering; the reader gives of their time, and the writer gives of their time, and both hope to benefit one another. All this business of description simply muddies the waters and gives the writer undue power in the process. I tend to steer well clear of books which instruct me in this regard and give my attention instead to an author who allows me to breathe my own life into the particular plotline unfolding before me.
What would you say the most rewarding part of being an author is?
Escaping into creating – it really is the most incredible jump to make from the real world into that of the imagination, and the more freedom in this regard you allow yourself as a writer the greater the sense of fun, responsibility and effectiveness you experience. Alas, I’ve been on courses in which plot synopsis in full was required before the act of writing even took place; this is anathema and gets the whole process of composition the wrong way round. For me, you’ve got to be swimming on the surface of consciousness or everyday life, and then plunge down beneath the water into the subconscious, the realm of the psyche, of imagination, of archetypes and of the really profound elements of storytelling. It can be a dangerous place, a little like the dreams within dreams of that wonderful film Inception in that there is every possibility of diving so deep into Limbo that you can find it difficult to return. But as ever with life, the weight of risk is linked to that of reward – if you can swim amongst the sharks of this underworld and navigate your way through their threat to dry land then your novel will be all the better for it. Planning the whole enterprise in advance is a bit like reading the instruction manual before you make up an object; it’s much more rewarding to have a go at construction yourself, particularly when you get it right and produce the finished piece without much preparation beforehand. Of course, the problem with such endeavour is that you might never achieve what you set out to do, and injury might even result; I once wrote a novel with which I dove too deep, got stuck in Limbo, hunted round for the instruction manual I’d flung aside at the art of composition, and only just managed to return to the surface and to safe haven. Feeling relieved and a bit too pleased with myself, I suddenly realised I bore the metaphorical teeth marks of those sharks who had bitten into me on the way down and then back up. But the whole point is that I learnt from my error of judgement, I matured as a writer, and reward came when I escaped to create again, producing work of more merit. This was progress for me, and there’s nothing that makes us feel more satisfied in our lives than feeling that we have moved on, improved, evolved, shed the slough of our former selves and crawled on to greater output. One more element – reading back over a piece and realising that I’ve said what I want to say, that’s rewarding and harder to achieve than it might sound!!
What advice do you have for authors just starting out in their journey?
Read, read, read! It’s possible to write novels without having read much, but for some reason the more input you’ve absorbed both from life experience and books the easier it becomes to write deeply, profoundly, and therefore authoritatively. I have a tremendously tense relationship with reading and it’s because of this rather awkward confession that I don’t actually enjoy it greatly; I studied English Literature at tertiary level, and after three years of prolonged examination, dissection and analysis of many classic works I found it hard to return to the simple act of reading for pleasure. What my training had afforded me though was the ability to rip through texts and pull out the salient features, skim reading if you like so that now I can study more pieces and extract from them promptly their plot, character and theme. This isn’t a particularly special skill, it’s just practice in a trade whose repetition makes the task easier, more effective; and so I encourage you to read as broadly and as deeply as you are able because the words which are absorbed by the mind are placed upon its parchment, kneaded, doughed, leavened, baked and then returned by way of your imagination, your individual imprint, back on to the page or screen upon which you are writing. The process by which this happens continues to amaze me even as it defeats my ability to explain it, but as life is a mystery we would do wisely not to try to solve in its entirety so this amorphous conversion shouldn’t really bother us, as writers, to understand too much or too greatly. The same really can be said for the input of opinion on our work; when I first started writing, just the fact that I was considering being an author drew detraction, scorn and mockery from people I considered friends. I felt as though no one supported me in my chosen pursuit, and I simply couldn’t understand the hostility towards my practicing a craft which I considered nothing other than benign in operation. The problem was just that though in that I attempted fully to understand this behaviour towards me; once I realised I’d never discover the reasons, an incredible sense of empowerment lifted my pen to compose far more courageously, and freely. This process extended to feedback from those who had taken the time to read my work – when the same novel draws adulation from one person and condemnation from another, well it’s simply enough to draw on the reserves of the only person who really understands your work – you!!
Do you have a writing ritual? If so, please explain.
I actually don’t have anything as formal as a writing ritual or a superstition to which I adhere in the hope that I can compose well; however, I thought it might be helpful to provide a quick rundown of the processes involved in planning and writing each of my novels because they have changed over time and the evolution may, I hope, be of some interest to other writers and readers out there. In essence, I’ve moved from a position of rigidity to that of relaxation – for Temples of a Fantasy Revenge, I created the story framework largely by drawing on personal interests in both Pandora’s Box and Halloween. I was very disciplined with myself, setting aside certain hours in the day to compose, and I retained control of the novel’s direction pretty much from start to finish; that is to say that whenever I felt the plot moving away from me, I didn’t wait too long before I pulled on the reins and brought it back within my charge. Rick With A (Bipolar) View was much more stream-of-consciousness in that I let the horses of my creativity have great freedom whither to travel. The result is that the narrative moves at quick pace, and I certainly enjoyed the feeling of words pouring from my pen to the page during its composition. The research I undertook for Shakespeare’s Secret Knowledge was so voluminous that I found myself editing very heavily as I proceeded with writing that novel; every time I finished a scene I trawled back through it for any evidence I’d been writing from the history books rather than through my characters. Champagne Jealousy saw me drawing heavily on my own experience of retail and with this book I allowed myself to give vent to years of frustration with the trade – this is a novel as much about anger as anything else, but I hope it doesn’t obscure the fun I had in creating the world of Sheila’s. The rigidity I’ve mentioned had, ironically given the emotion permeating the book, by now given way to relaxation, and so I created the novella Corin’s Chronicle as companion to Temples which starts as separate entity before becoming adjunct, the first time I’d really played around with convention and enjoyed the freedom that came from such enterprise. With William Ottoway’s Utopia then, and despite some of the subject matter, writing in a slightly more in elevated, literary style I found enjoyable, liberating and effective. Ritual is for me then to experiment and progress, to grow more comfortable as my writing life continues with each book completed.
Was being an author something you always wanted to do?
Not at all! I’ve always had dreams and plans to do something outside 9-5 office routine though – when I was a child growing up in my early years, I wanted to be quarterback for the Chicago Bears American Football team. Once that dream had been swallowed up by reality, I wanted to be a racing driver; I loved Formula One in my teenage years and felt it would be a short step to emulate great drivers such as Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Once that plan had been subsumed by reality, I decided I was going to be a star rugby player for England; the theme continued as I realised I probably wouldn’t be good enough to take to the hallowed turf at Twickenham! And then I wanted to be a superstar DJ but I’m too introverted for that kind of life and so I became a writer – even that though was a long time being decided in my mind. At school, I was really good at English and I took the entrance exam to get into Oxford to study the subject but I came up short although I did go on to have a tremendous grounding in the discipline at Bristol. It was in my second year there that I first envisaged I might become a writer; I was growing stifled by the incessant study of novels and poetry, much of it very depressing to absorb if truth be known, and simply felt that I’d like to add my own voice to the oeuvre. I didn’t for one moment think I could outdo the great titans of literature but I did think that I could balance the negativity a little with my efforts. And then I began to write, and realised how difficult it is actually to complete a project without its being affected even a little by the dark side of human nature. Now that interested me, and held my attention – what was it about writing a story which ineluctably drew one to the night in our souls? It wasn’t for years that I understood when reading a wonderful book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker; the argument within its pages too lengthy to summarise here, except to say that Mr Booker believes a great change came over storytelling right around the time of the French Revolution and has affected our pages ever since. For me, it’s no coincidence that my favourite story Frankenstein was written just thirty years after that event by an author who I simply can’t imagine still at such tender age could produce something so profound without there being a seismic shift in the society in which she lived also. I write now because I want to understand this focus, and help storytelling heal its self-inflicted wounds.
If you could have a conversation with any one person, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
I’d like to speak to Frankenstein’s monster because I think he is an incredible creation and sums up so well what so many human beings have felt through the ages – why was I created? Why was I created so imperfectly? Why was I abandoned by the creator who created me? Why did my creator loathe me so much he sought to pain me? My creator created me, and with that act of creation comes surely the responsibility to look after me, protect me, at least love me? I have often thought about the loneliness and sense of isolation to which Frankenstein’s monster gives such great voice, and emotion, and wondered whether Mary Shelley was in fact tapping in to some part of the human psyche, or indeed our history, of which she may not even have been aware. The ancient alien hypothesis, for example, suggests that humankind was created and then for some reason abandoned. How much more bearable, if still agonising, would this realisation be for Frankenstein’s monster were I to sit down with him and explain that Victor persecutes him because he himself is flawed, fallible, and fated to live out his days not knowing the reason either why he has been born; that, for me, is the monster’s curse, that he is so miserably hurt by not comprehending why Victor is repulsed by him and so seeks to kill him. He is in a state of ignorance, but no more so than the man who created him. Would that make him feel better knowing that he himself has been formed by an imperfect creator? This, inevitably, leads to the centuries old religious and spiritual awareness that anything designed by man is necessarily corrupt, and that by putting our faith in men and women we do ourselves grave disservice and sometimes unimaginable pain when they in due course let us down. Victor Frankenstein has the tools at his disposal to genetically engineer but he lacks the compassion, love and empathy to create a being in which he can imbue his soul. I would tell Frankenstein’s monster not to worry about securing the love of men because he already possesses the Creator’s care and concern for every living element in the world – if Victor wants to ditch him, so be it, but don’t fight fire with fire and seek to kill him first; ignorance, superficiality and detestation can only be overcome by love, not by some misguided redirection of them against themselves. The monster’s condition is our condition too, and we would do well to learn from the increase in his misery that hate must be returned by faith, hope and charity.
Would you care to provide an excerpt from one of your books as a sample of your work?
I was about to call him out, tell him how predictable his actions had been since first we had pulled him from the boat, but then Manou’s almighty scream from the direction to which Dan had pointed set my hair from my head and I turned to see the mud covering the Usurper’s grave being pushed up from within. First one hand, then another broke through the earth, the right fist clenching the air, vital, pulling its torso and legs up and into view, head emerging last, shaking itself free of mud and dust, standing rather sullenly as we all watched in terror and many crossed themselves at sight this undead resurrection. And it was him. Of that there was no doubt. Momentarily, he looked back down at the grave from which he had emerged, bent over to pick something up and in one movement somehow swung it round to strike Manou hard on the side of his head. It was a corpse, the half-rotting skull smashing into Manou’s temple with a force that sent him sprawling in that sick sort of motion which immediately made me fear the worst. Then the Usurper threw the body towards us and it landed face up on the table, spread-eagled, half a dozen melons squashed beneath it and the same number of Utopians backing away feverishly crossing themselves still.
It was Emily.
I gawped at my nemesis.
Death, not even death, had contained him. Somehow he had transcended it, returned back through the gate, by what soul-killing magic I knew not, so that here he now stood, commensurate with his new condition, strong, mighty, immortal, and ready for the last time to harrow our paradise to extinction. I glanced at the Utopians sitting rigid in their seats and Dan who continued to eye me with disdain. Then I looked back at the Usurper. In the instant he nodded, I felt searing pain as my arm was twisted back behind me, forcing me to bend to the table where my face smacked hard upon the wooden top, Dan’s laughter increasing as he lifted my arm to breaking point before suddenly letting go, his choking the only thing I could hear as I fell back to the ground and cradled my injured limb. Through the fog and tears in my eyes, I saw him struggling against an assailant, a heavy length of rope coiled about his throat. It was Tom, strangling him to death, but not with rope, a snake, holding it at both ends and pulling it tight. Dan fought against him, kicking out with flailing legs, reaching with his right hand for one of the candle holders we had set by the table but he fumbled and groped thin air instead…