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Interview: Chris Walley

[Photo of Chris Walley]Chris Walley is the author of the Christian science fiction series, Lamb Among the Stars. The first volume, The Shadow and Night, was originally issued by Tyndale as two paperbacks; the second volume, The Dark Foundations, released October 2006. Chris took part in the list during November 2006. Shannon McNear, Diane Joy Baker, and Dawn King asked the questions and made comments, and this is an edited version of the question and answer sequence.

SM: Tell us about your background, birthplace, where and when you grew up, what your childhood was like, etc.?

I was born in north Wales but our family moved to Lancashire in northern England when I was just four. One result of this is that I never really felt either Welsh or a Lancastrian; even now after twenty years living in Wales, I still feel like an 'adopted' Welshman. I can't say that it was a particularly happy childhood. I was very bookish and very insecure, two factors that created a gulf between me and my school colleagues. It was all made worse by a stunning error of judgment in which I got sent to secondary school a year earlier than everybody else and so struggled for many years. Retreating into books was something of a consolation. One curious feature, which I only found out a couple of years ago, is the area where I spent most of my childhood was the area that provided Tolkien (who was at a boarding school just round the hill from where I lived) with much of the background for 'the Shire.' Intriguingly, when I read Lord of the Rings, I envisaged the Shire very differently from where I lived. I suspect we like to distance fantasy from our real world.

SM: Where did you go to school?

Aah, an Americanism that trips up Brits. 'School', of course, in British English means something you leave at 17 or 18 when you go to university. I did a first degree at Sheffield, a PhD in Swansea (starting a long link with the area), and a postgrad teaching course at the University of Keele.

SM: What did you take in school, and why?

I took geology at university. There were, I think, two reasons for this, both linked to books. The first is that I liked the heroic, romantic idea of travelling the world and being in exciting locations. As a cautionary tale, I ought to say when I did at last go to far-off exotic and exciting places I found that often they were really unpleasant. It turns out I preferred the theory of adventure rather than the practice. The second reason I think I did geology is also literary. Geology requires a great deal of imagination. A typical exercise is to look at some sequence of dull grey rocks with tiny little fossil fragments and from them extrapolate back to some warm coral sea full of light and colour. I enjoy doing that and seem to have been pretty good at it.

SM: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids? 1.7 dogs?)

I am happy married to Alison and have been for over a quarter of a century. We have two adult sons, both of whom read books and are very much involved in church things. But it is just us at home now.

SM: How did you get started writing?

I was working as an oil company consultant in the 1980's and did a lot of globetrotting. I would tend to pick up books at the airport bookshop and very soon decided that, in many cases, I could do better. Then for a number of years the oil price was so low and there wasn't much to do in the office. So I started writing a contemporary thriller Heart of Stone, under the pseudonym of John Howarth. This, and its sequel, Rock of Refuge and were picked up by the States, where they sold tolerably well. At the time, I assumed that this was par for the course rather than me being extraordinarily fortunate.

SM: What works have you had published? (not restricting yourself to SF/F titles) Articles, short stories?

Lots of science papers! Two thrillers which are now astonishingly out of date: nothing dates more quickly than the contemporary thriller. The present cycle of the Lamb among the Stars, which if we are to go on the definitive hardbound books, is The Shadow and Night and The Dark Foundations and (when I finish it) The Infinite Day. I've also done quite a bit of ghostwriting and co-writing. When we came back from Beirut the second time in 1998, there were no geology jobs, so I ended up first editing and then writing. One book The Life, a Portrait of Jesus I did with J. John is, I think, really good. But I rather despair about the way in which it has not really made it into the secular bookshops, where it is badly needed.

SM: Of your works, which one is your favourite? (including works in progress)

I am rather pleased with The Dark Foundations; but then, it took me a long time to write.

SM: Who are your influences as a writer, and why?

A major influence is Arthur C. Clarke, although his sometimes rather rabidly anti-Christian attacks irritate me. One other influence is John Buchan, who probably is little known in the States. He wrote a large number of books in the early decades of the 21st century, including some excellent thrillers. His sense of atmosphere, his style, and his enviable ability to dash off a book while doing such jobs as managing Canada is a real challenge.

SM: What was the first exposure you can remember having to SF/F as a genre?

I seem to remember my father buying me a John Wyndham book. When I was very young, I think that set me off.

SM: What is your personal all-time favourite SF/F work, and why?

I'm afraid it's hard to avoid Lord of the Rings. It is everything we want an alternative world to be: heroic, vast, frightening.

SM: What is your faith stance, and how does it affect your writing?

I was converted to a living Christian faith while doing my PhD and have always been pretty involved with Christian things. By British standards, I am a conservative evangelical. I think by some American viewpoints, I would be somewhat suspect, especially when it comes to both Genesis and Revelation, where I think it probable that both the start and end of this creation may be further away than some of us think! I am currently an elder in a Baptist Church in Swansea and do a reasonable amount of preaching and teaching. In some ways, I wish I could remove my faith from my writing, as books with any sort of a Christian basis are hard to market in the UK. But I can't. Faith issues are very real to me and I think I tend to work out some of my struggles in my characters.

SM: What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

In terms of Christian fiction, I think that C. S. Lewis's science-fiction trilogy had a great impact. It made me realise that you could write about such things. Mind you, I'm not sure that the Narnia series isn't more successful. Relevance to my current project – the Lamb Among the Stars – is a book I read 20 years ago, called The Puritan Hope by Iain Murray. In that, he pointed out that the Puritans and the founding fathers of the United States held to a post-millennial view of the future and foresaw a glorious future of the church. Although I am cautious about adopting this as a dogmatically held doctrinal position, it opened such an extraordinarily entertaining vista on what would happen when this long, glorious period ended prior to the Second Coming that I thought it would be fun to try writing something.

SM: What NON-Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

I owe the great debt of gratitude to Boswell, and his Life of Johnson. I once spent three weeks on a pretty epic expedition in Africa with some rather difficult geologists and read Boswell in the evening. Dr. Johnson, who comes utterly alive in the book, kept me sane. It is one of the most extraordinarily real pictures of a human being in writing that I know of.

SM: When you write, have you ever come across theological "puzzles" you had to sort through to your own satisfaction before you could continue with the story?

All the time! My concern is that I have got some still to resolve before I can finish this final volume. Actually I think I have sorted them out. But new issues do come up. One of the interesting things about writing in the SF genre is that often the treatment of very difficult issues has been handled rather shallowly. For instance, what would it really be like to be an artificial intelligence? How would you learn? How would you relate to ordinary human beings?

SM: What do you do when you aren't writing?

Sadly, at the moment, I have another job which pays enough money for me to live. I am a lecturer in a local college teaching 16 to 18-year-olds Geology and Environmental Science, which I rather enjoy. So my writing is condensed into evenings and holidays. Of course, if anybody wants to buy the film rights, that will free me up!

DJB: Could you say a little about your conception of the series, and your vision of eschatology?

Diane – thank you for your kind words. I will answer your questions, but I have just spent a happy hour writing the full interview for the website. Could I be terribly rude and offer to an answer these in a few days time?

In the meantime you may find some comments on my beliefs on end times in an article I have appended to my website, called 'Puritans in Space.' (Great film title isn't it? Imagine lines such as 'I pray you, Master Spock, by God's grace we must strive for Warp Five and trust to Providence for more dilithium crystals.') It's at www.chriswalley.net/puritans.htm.

All being well Tim Lahaye will read it and demand my books be burnt. :-)

DK: I enjoyed reading your article on the theological background of your book. I've never heard the post-millennial view put so clearly. It's given me a lot to think about and you have some great points. Right now I consider myself a pan-millenialist. It'll all pan out in the end. LOL

Three days a week I'm pan-millennialist too!

SM: What sorts of things stir the pot of creativity for you? Music, artwork, certain films, etc.

I think there are two things here: ingredients for the pot and stirring the pot. With respect to the ingredients for the pot, I think that has to be life, whether that is in other books or in reality. Ironically for fantasy, I think some of the most stimulating things are say, National Geographic articles or reports about some particular, long forgotten culture. I find it rather pathetic when a writer introduces what he or she considers to be an exotic alien or human society and you realize that it is nothing more than a faintly veiled 21st century Los Angeles or London. Sometimes ideas can hit you in the most extraordinary of places: in The Dark Foundations there are major chunks that would very definitely not have been written if I hadn't visited Mont St Michel in France or the ethnography section of the Field Museum in Chicago. (Readers may guess which chunks I am referring to.) On stirring the pot, I think music really helps, because I know nothing quite so transports me as much as music. I think I would perhaps rather have written a really good piece of music than a really good book.

SM: Do you have a favorite place for writing?

We have a garden shed, with the sea view and a nice table. I think from the moment we got it three years ago, I have done about two hours of writing in it! I have a corner of an end room with bookshelves and a computer and I slump down in a chair there when I find time and hammer away on the keys.

SM: Do you try to work each day until you're "done," or do you have certain hours, or daily word count goal?

The problem is that I had a busy teaching job, which from late August to mid-May is pretty demanding and I treat it very seriously. (There is a danger of saying to yourself: 'teaching (or whatever) is second best; it's not my real job: my real job is being a writer.') I'm afraid I can't work like that. The writing has to get dropped into spare spaces and often when I am tired, but I try to write something every week, because if I don't, it can sometimes take me a day to really get back into the swing of where things are. I would love to be a full-time writer, but realistically, I don't think it is that likely. I often remind myself that my two great heroes, Tolkien and Lewis were part-time writers. I less often remind myself that their fame largely emerged after their death.

SM: Do you tend more toward outlining, or do you work with just a general idea of where the story is going, and the characters just tend to take over on the details?

Oddly enough, from someone who is science trained, I tend to come up with mental pictures and scenes first and these rarely get significantly changed. If you think of writing as throwing a bridge across a wide river, then these visual elements act as rigid islands that you can build from. The rest of the book, which may be much of it, is the hard graft of getting Character A to Place X so that he can fight with Character B.

The issue with characters is very interesting, and I feel sure that it has some bearing on the great Calvinist and Arminian debate on free will. I create characters, often for a specific purpose, and then, suddenly, they seem to wriggle in my hands and do what I hadn't expected. I am gratified to say that it is often villains I have created, who without my conscious desire, suddenly start to do noble things. It's a nuisance!

SM: You've shared a bit of how you came to write Lamb Among the Stars (fascinating! and yes, I'm starting to sound like a broken record) ... could you tell us something of your journey toward this series being published?

Well just to make it little bit more fascinating, what I didn't say there is that I really started to think about the issue of the future when I was living in Beirut in '81, and the Civil War got so bad that in an evening you couldn't do anything else but sit inside with the doors locked, reading and hoping that stray bullets wouldn't fly through. In that setting, the Puritan vision of the Church glorious was peculiarly attractive. I really got Book 1 going in the mid 90's in a flush of manic enthusiasm without really considering how many thousand words lay ahead. Incidentally, for future reference, this was well before the Left Behind books: the shape of my trilogy was pretty much cast in stone ten years ago.

When I came back to the UK and took up writing, I was working for a Christian publisher, Authentic, who were interested in taking a risk with fiction. In the UK there is a horrendous divide between Christian bookshops and secular bookshops, and it is rare to find anything Christian in the big secular chains. One of the many problems this brings is that the sort of people who go into Christian bookshops do not go in to buy fiction. So sales were slow. But I had a friend who knew someone at Tyndale and the first volume ended up on his desk and he pushed it. At the time Tyndale were not doing fantasy, but they were trying to have a go with the young adult market, so they figured I would fit in that. I was so glad to be published in the States that I didn't quibble. But it didn't really help that these were labelled as young adult books or – even worse – children's fiction. They aren't in the slightest, although youngsters can read them.

SM: Could you share three bits of advice you'd offer to new writers?

I often get emails on this (mostly from young people) and have compiled some comments which I am happy to have posted. Others could do better! So here are more than three!

Let me pass on some of the guidelines I have learned, in no particular order. If you find them helpful, good. If not, don't worry.

1. Read good books. Don't read trash or you'll end up writing trash. If you find a book you really enjoy, read it once for enjoyment and the second time looking carefully at how the author achieved the effects. Have a notebook and perhaps copy down some tricks of the trade. Oddly enough, I would also recommend that you read lots of good poetry because it is "crystallised prose" and makes the most of every word.

2. Practice writing. Short stories, fragments, anything.

3. Read aloud. Develop a good ear for what sounds right.

4. I'm afraid this has to come here: learn the basics of English. Sentence structure, punctuation, grammar. Yes, great writers can break the rules, but you need to know the rules before you can break them!

5. Find someone who will be a friendly faithful critic. You want someone who will not be hurtful, but who will encourage you to develop what is good.

6. Look out for competitions and try to enter them.

7. Read good books on writing. Two that my contacts at Tyndale recommend are: Stein on Writing – a great resource for writers starting out and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott – a classic on Christian writing. More cautiously, I would also suggest Stephen King's book On Writing. Whatever one thinks of his novels, he is undeniably a very able writer, and On Writing is a very sensible guide to the craft.

8. Learn to touch type if you don't already. You need to be able to sit down and commit your prose to disk with speed and fluidity.

9. Try and fall in love with a wealthy and saintly guy or gal who will marry you and fund your writing habit.

10. Avoid multivolume epics unless you have achieved guideline 9. :-)

11. Don't neglect the Bible. There are lots of plot ideas there and most translations are in good English.

Hope this helps! Thanks for this; it's been fun.


Chris Walley

[Home][Creativity][Genres][Resources][Links][About Us]

[Audio][Biographies][Books][Events][Film][Interviews][Mailing List][Publications][Store]

[David R. Beaucage][Kathy Tyers][James BeauSeigneur][Jefferson Scott][Walker Chandler][Alton Gansky][Ray Hansen]

[Emily Snyder][Randall Ingermanson][Theodore Beale][Steve Laube][Laura Lond][Frank Wu][Donita K. Paul][Brenda W. Clough][Bryan Davis][John Granger]

[Karen Hancock][Miles Owens][Robert Liparulo][Bryan Davis, part 2][Chris Walley][Kathryn Mackel][Gene Wolfe][Sharon Hinck][Wayne Thomas Batson][Lars Walker][Christopher Hopper][Jeffrey Overstreet]

[Home] [Creativity] [Genres] [Resources] [Links] [About Us]

[Audio] [Biographies] [Books] [Events] [Film] [Interviews] [Mailing List] [Publications] [Store]

[David R. Beaucage] [Kathy Tyers] [James BeauSeigneur] [Jefferson Scott] [Walker Chandler] [Alton Gansky] [Ray Hansen] [Emily Snyder] [Randall Ingermanson] [Theodore Beale] [Steve Laube] [Laura Lond] [Frank Wu] [Donita K. Paul] [Brenda W. Clough] [Bryan Davis] [John Granger] [Karen Hancock] [Miles Owens] [Robert Liparulo] [Bryan Davis, part 2] [Chris Walley] [Kathryn Mackel] [Gene Wolfe] [Sharon Hinck] [Wayne Thomas Batson] [Lars Walker] [Christopher Hopper] [Jeffrey Overstreet]