Chris Killen Interview Part 1 of 2

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by Mike

The View From Here Interview: Chris Killen

Chris Killen was born in 1981. He currently lives in Manchester. The Bird Room published by Canongate is his first novel.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself.

Hi. My name's Chris. I'm twenty seven years old. I'm quite slim, with brown hair and brown eyes. I currently live in Manchester and have been single for about a year. I guess I'm looking to meet someone easy-going, funny, a bit silly. Nothing too serious at first, just getting to know each other, and then see where it goes from there ...

What's your ideal night?

I think it would be hanging out with someone who made me laugh a lot, who also maybe wanted to kiss me occasionally -- someone who wasn't repulsed by the idea of that. We would lie in bed without clothes on and smoke roll-ups and drink red wine, maybe, and whisper things and try to make each other laugh. There would be lots of laughing, sometimes turning into that silent heaving/crying kind of laughing. Something like Mazzy Star or M. Ward would be playing quietly on a stereo. There would be fairy lights in the corner of the room, or maybe candles, and it would not be warm or cold -- the temperature would not be any kind of 'issue'. Maybe there would be a TV and DVD player, too, and a remote control near the bed, so we wouldn't have to get out if we wanted to turn it on. But mostly we would just create lots of new in-jokes and things, and by the end of the night we would have developed a whole impenetrable world of things which if we tried to describe them to other people, they'd probably not understand, or just go 'oh, that's nice' blankly, which would be fine – we wouldn't really care about their opinion, anyway.

What is your favourite book?

Pan by Knut Hamsun.

What is your favourite bird?

The Crested Norwich Canary.

I wrote a short 'wikipedia' entry about the Crested Norwich Canary on my blog a while ago. Here is an excerpt:

the crested norwich canary doesn't have a head. once i looked at a video on the internet of two crested norwich canaries sitting on perches in a birdcage, trying awkwardly to move around without being able to see. one managed to hop in an ungainly fashion onto another perch.

the 'design' of the crested norwich canary eschews 'practicality' and 'survival' instead focussing on 'the absurd' and a 'dada-ist approach' to being a small bird. the crested norwich canary has transcended function and the ability to see/move around properly.

I especially like the paintings of the Crested Norwich Canary by the artist J.W. Ludlow -- here is a good example.

How did you get your publishing deal with Canongate and how did that feel?

It felt amazing. It still hasn't really sunk in. Or it has maybe just started to sink in, now that I've actually seen it in a few shops and things.

I've wrote about how I got the Canongate deal quite a lot in previous interviews. In brief, I met Steven Hall (author of The Raw Shark Texts) in Waterstone's, while I was working there. He offered to read my novel, then passed it on to his editor, Francis at Canongate, who is now my editor.

There was about two years prior to that, though, of sending it out to agents, being rejected, pestering other authors, etc., with no great results. I had just about given up on The Bird Room when Steven read it.

Did the rejections lead you to question your ability to write and did you ever consider self publishing during that time?

I never really questioned my ability to write; I remember at that point being very happy with what I was doing, being very confident about it, but just thinking that maybe it wasn't something suited to 'mainstream' publishing.

Yes, I was considering self publishing. I had a 3-step plan for The Bird Room.

1. Send out to agents and any 'large' publishing house that accepted unsolicited manuscripts.

2. Send to smaller presses / maybe try places abroad (?).

3. Publish it myself.

I was about halfway through step 2 when the Canongate deal happened. I'd had some interest from Social Disease -- who I liked the look of -- but at that point I believe they were waiting on Arts Council funding, so couldn't commit.

Can you tell us a bit about the book?

I think of it as a black comedy. It's had very mixed reviews. Someone in an Amazon customer review complained about not being able to give it 0 stars (1 being the lowest). But people that like it seem to really like it. It is about a relationship destroyed due to irrational paranoia and jealousy. It is also about internet porn. When I wrote it, I wasn't thinking it would end up on 3-for-2 tables in Waterstone's. Most of my favourite authors are 'cult' authors. I was just trying to write something that people like myself and my friends might like to read.

Do you find yourself checking through reviews and amazon ratings a lot? And how do you deal with the ones like above that hate it?

Yes, I have spent the past few weeks 'frantically' checking the amazon page for new customer review, sales rank figures, etc. In a moment of weakness -- it was very late at night, I was a bit drunk -- I even wrote a comment in reply to a particularly scathing review.

That said, I feel 'okay' about the mixed reviews -- I wasn't expecting everyone to like it. What frustrates me more is when a review is just a complete plot synopsis. That seems to be pretty common, it seems a bit lazy somehow. The Guardian one even described the ending and finished with the last line. That was kind of strange.

What research did you do for the book?

I just had the compulsion to write 'lots of wanking'.

I don't know, there wasn't much 'research' as such, more just things that I liked -- books, films, etc. – that I feel maybe 'informed' it. Early on, when I was making the first notes, I was watching a lot of foreign films; Pierrot Le Fou by Jean-Luc Godard, and Persona by Ingmar Bergman where two particularly influential things at that point, I think.

How many edits did it go through?

It took around three years to finish. During that time, there have been at least 7 or 8 edits, but maybe three 'major' ones.

There was a 35,000 word original version.

Then there was a 19,000 word edit where i cut out a lot of 'extraneous, embarrasing shit'. (This was the version Steven Hall and the people at Canongate saw; the version that got me the book deal ...)

Then there was a 35,000 word 'expanded' edit -- which is the final, published version.

For many people that would put it in novella territory, did that effect the reaction you got from publishers and agents?

Yes, I was aware that the length would make it harder for me to find someone willing to take it on. I don't think any agents or publishers actually mentioned that in their rejections though. It was mostly just standard letters; 'Dear _______, We are sorry to say ...' etc.

I like to think of it as a 'short novel' as opposed to novella. The word 'novella' makes me think of something 'twee' and 'floral' -- like a book wearing a little frilly skirt or something.

Richard Brautigan's novels were always around 28,000 words. Amelie Nothomb's novels average about 18,000 words. I got quite obsessed with word counts around the time I was sending it out places.

Do you find it easy to write sex scenes, or do you worry what people will think?

I didn't find the scenes themselves hard to write. There's a lot of writing about sex in the book, I think, but only one or two actual 'sex scenes'.

I did worry, occasionally, what my mum might think. She finally read it, a couple of weeks ago, and described it as 'strong meat'.

Tommorow part 2 where Chris gives some advice on writing and getting published.

Read TVFH review of The Bird Room here.

Go to the bird room's site here.

And read Chris' blog here.

Photo credit: Sarah Lee

For Part 2 click here.

For a printed edition of this interview go here.

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