Interview with Christopher Richardson

Interview with Christopher Richardson

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by The Com­mu­ni­ty Writer in 2019. Inter­view by Oliv­er Phish­er.

What are three books that have great­ly influ­enced your life? 

1) The Gospel of John: My father was an Angli­can chap­lain, a fierce intel­lect, a com­pas­sion­ate heart, and a man of broad and lib­er­al inter­ests. For much of his career, he worked at the Roy­al Prince Alfred Hos­pi­tal in Syd­ney. Dur­ing my child­hood, Sun­day morn­ing meant sit­ting among the sick, the dying, and the bereaved in the hos­pi­tal chapel. One morn­ing, a patient abduct­ed my sis­ter whilst she slept in her bassinet. She was returned. It was, to say the least, not the typ­i­cal Syd­ney Angli­can child­hood. I am grate­ful for that each day. Chris­tian­i­ty remains at the core of my sense of self and under­stand­ing of real­i­ty.

I read the Bible often, but always in the King James Ver­sion. It nev­er fails to sur­prise, hor­ri­fy, delight and thrill me. On my mother’s side, I am relat­ed to Ralph Hutchin­son, one of the trans­la­tors of the Epis­tles for the KJV. That Ralph died before fin­ish­ing his con­tri­bu­tion to the project some­how fig­ures. Since the Bible is a library, rather than one book, I will choose The Gospel of John. For a writer, what could be more pow­er­ful than that open­ing verse? “In the begin­ning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” As all writ­ers know, or at least some­times feel, words and sto­ries are the very sub­stance of the uni­verse. Cer­tain­ly, they are the sub­stance of how we seek to under­stand it.

2) Gilead by Mar­i­lynne Robin­son: I con­sid­er Robin­son to be the great­est liv­ing writer in the Eng­lish lan­guage. When­ev­er I read her nov­els, speech­es, and essays I am remind­ed of the descrip­tion of God in 1 Kings, echoed cen­turies lat­er in these words of Quak­er poet and abo­li­tion­ist John Green­leaf Whit­ti­er: “Speak through the earth­quake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!” After my father’s slow and painful death from Parkinson’s Dis­ease, read­ing Gilead was the balm that saved me. Robinson’s writ­ing is pow­er­ful beyond mea­sure.

3) The poet­ry of Edward Lear: With­out Edward Lear, mod­ern Eng­lish lan­guage children’s lit­er­a­ture would not exist. Or, at the very least, it would have walked a dif­fer­ent evo­lu­tion­ary path. Before Lear, Eng­lish lan­guage children’s lit­er­a­ture was fun­da­men­tal­ly didac­tic. Lear offered some­thing new. From his dark­est nas­ti­est most vio­lent lim­er­icks (rich in pro­to-Sur­re­al­ism and Freudi­an imagery) to his non­sense songs of bliss­ful escape by star-crossed lovers (“The Owl and the Pussy-cat”, among oth­ers), Lear defied the con­ven­tions of Vic­to­ri­an soci­ety. Lear always under­stood that children’s lit­er­a­ture is deeply polit­i­cal: either it chal­lenges the sta­tus quo, rein­forces the sta­tus quo, or acqui­esces (which is, arguably, the same thing). A Book of Non­sense took fif­teen years to find an audi­ence, yet went on to draw the admi­ra­tion of the Ten­nysons, Ruskin, Wilkie Collins and oth­er Vic­to­ri­an titans. As W.H. Auden lat­er wrote in his poem about Lear: “chil­dren swarmed to him like set­tlers. He became a land.” In my aca­d­e­m­ic life, I am a researcher focused on the expe­ri­ences of chil­dren in North Korea. They are still wait­ing for their Lear.

What pur­chase of $100 or less has most pos­i­tive­ly impact­ed your life in the last six months (or in recent mem­o­ry)?

In Tainan City, I ate noo­dle soup at a street stall pre­pared by an elder­ly man who informed me with a smile that he has been mak­ing the same recipe in the same place for fifty years. It cost $1.50 and tast­ed like a sto­ry.

How has a fail­ure, or appar­ent fail­ure, set you up for lat­er suc­cess? 

One of the rea­sons I love read­ing about the lives of my favourite writ­ers and artists is to learn about their fail­ures – real and per­ceived – not from Schaden­freude, but in sol­i­dar­i­ty. Often­times, fail­ures are mere­ly a ques­tion of per­cep­tion and time. A decade of suf­fer­ing in the life of a writer becomes one line in the pref­ace to a new edi­tion of their work a cen­tu­ry lat­er. Unless he or she is watch­ing from above, they will derive no solace from this, alas.

We live in fraught times for artists (and for every­body, frankly) – char­ac­ter­ized by unhinged sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism, glob­al­iza­tion, eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty, dig­i­tal theft and an often-total­i­tar­i­an online cul­ture. This makes it increas­ing­ly hard to be hon­est about fail­ure and yet eas­i­er to fall. Some dare ques­tion the struc­ture of the sys­tem, yet the fun­da­men­tal dog­ma remains engrained: let the mar­ket decide … and let it decide now. To which I always won­der: what would Van Gogh say?  

One answer is to recal­i­brate our under­stand­ing of suc­cess. I spent twelve years work­ing on Empire of the Waves. It received great reviews in the hand­ful of places in Aus­tralia to review children’s books, but was hard­ly a best sell­er. Is that suc­cess or fail­ure? When­ev­er I fear the lat­ter, I turn to cor­re­spon­dence from my read­ers and think again. Here is one of the most delight­ful: “My fam­i­ly has just fin­ished Empire of the Waves while lay­ing in our tent. My wife has devel­oped quite a range of voic­es to bring your char­ac­ters fur­ther to life. [My chil­dren] have enjoyed your book thor­ough­ly and are des­per­ate­ly look­ing for­ward to the next one … I love that our kids ask often to be read your book.” What could be more won­der­ful than that? Apart from a mil­lion dol­lars for the next vol­ume … but not every­one can be Dan Mal­lo­ry.

Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?

My favourite line from Mar­i­lynne Robinson’s Gilead helps me to main­tain a cos­mic per­spec­tive on life’s joys and sor­rows, whilst nev­er dimin­ish­ing the impor­tance of the every­day. Robin­son writes: “In eter­ni­ty this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the uni­verse, the bal­lad they sing in the streets.”

What is one of the best invest­ments in a writ­ing resource you’ve ever made? 

Time. The idea for Empire of the Waves came dur­ing a long bus ride from Thred­bo in 2003. For hours I sim­ply gazed out the win­dow and scrib­bled in my note­book. A decade lat­er, I would have spent the time scrolling through social media. Time to day­dream and mean­der (men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly) is the best invest­ment any­one can make in the writ­ing life.

What is an unusu­al habit or an absurd thing that you love? 

The most absurd thing I love is Doc­tor Who. When I was a child, the show was my sec­ond reli­gion. It still is. Like all things absurd, it is close to divine. I have a signed por­trait of Tom Bak­er loom­ing over my writ­ing desk.

In the last five years, what new belief, behav­iour, or habit has most improved your life? 

I quit Face­book in 2018, after a decade on the plat­form. The intro­duc­tion of the “like” but­ton was the begin­ning of a long and slow decline for me. Before then, it was nec­es­sary to engage more mean­ing­ful­ly with peo­ple, if one wished to engage with them at all. I think Jaron Lanier is right. Social media has pro­vi­sioned the world with many tan­ta­liz­ing things, and yet – on bal­ance – has not been good for the world. At the very least, not the good that we were promised. I bought myself a ukulele and decid­ed to prac­tice when­ev­er I felt the urge to check social media. I learned fifty songs quick­ly.

What advice would you give to a smart, dri­ven aspir­ing author? What advice should they ignore? 

It is impor­tant to lis­ten to advice, but far more impor­tant to ignore it … unless it comes from your edi­tor or soul mate, in which case con­sid­er it, at least for a while. The road to suc­cess is paved with rejec­tion, but it is also paved with the twitch­ing corpses of well-inten­tioned advice. Who doesn’t chuck­le read­ing T.S. Eliot’s let­ter from Faber & Faber about Ani­mal Farm? I’m sure Orwell didn’t. Every writer has such scars. One emi­nent pub­lish­ing fig­ure told me to kill the first half of Empire of the Waves, yet praised the sec­ond, whilst anoth­er said pre­cise­ly the reverse. Even my best friend once took me aside and coun­seled it was time to give up on the book and try some­thing else … per­haps gar­den­ing.

There is no mas­ter­piece so great that it does not have its detrac­tors, and no trash so tox­ic that it does not have admir­ers. Ulti­mate­ly, all you can do is write, write, write and per­sist until you suc­ceed or don’t. In the mean­time, cap­i­tal­ism being cap­i­tal­ism, there are whole indus­tries of peo­ple who will sell you advice for a fee. Many are smart and informed peo­ple who will dis­pense fine wis­dom. Many are not. So caveat scrip­tor!  

What are bad rec­om­men­da­tions for aspir­ing authors that you hear often? 

Rec­om­men­da­tions are often thin­ly veiled ter­ri­to­ri­al­ism, so tread care­ful­ly. Art is like sci­ence: few see a par­a­digm shift before it comes. Sys­tems of entrenched inter­ests will do every­thing to reassert them­selves before bend­ing or crum­bling. Read the crit­i­cal his­to­ries of the great­est books and films and paint­ings and see how their cre­ators strug­gled against “bad rec­om­men­da­tions”. I’m con­stant­ly astound­ed by what I read can and can’t be done in children’s lit­er­a­ture. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, this comes not from chil­dren them­selves, but self-appoint­ed gate­keep­ers and cul­tur­al police. So what can you do? Read and write­what you want to read and write and throw your mes­sage in a bot­tle out to sea. The rest is up to time and tide.

In the last five years, what have you become bet­ter at say­ing no to (dis­trac­tions, invi­ta­tions, etc.)? 

I love talk­ing to read­ers and writ­ers, espe­cial­ly stu­dents, so will nev­er turn down an oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it schools or libraries or fes­ti­vals. Young read­ers are a con­stant source of inspi­ra­tion and delight.

I watch far less TV than I used to. We talk about today as a gold­en age of tele­vi­sion, but there is so much to keep up with it now feels like a chore. Instead, I have redis­cov­ered the joys of cin­e­ma. I rarely watch a great film and think it would be improved by stretch­ing the sto­ry out for five years and a hun­dred more hours.

What mar­ket­ing tac­tics should authors avoid?

I’m ter­ri­ble at mar­ket­ing, so I’m not the best per­son to offer advice here. Like many authors, I remain deeply uncom­fort­able with self-pro­mo­tion, espe­cial­ly online. From a mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive, this may be an irre­deemable fault, yet there is a grow­ing ambiva­lence among many writ­ers about the role of social media in our pro­fes­sion­al lives. It is chal­leng­ing to walk the line between authen­tic­i­ty and pres­sure to max­i­mize one’s “mar­ket poten­tial”. Every­one today, from school­child­ren to adult job­seek­ers, faces this real­i­ty, and it will get worse. Grow­ing up in the ‘90s, we used to talk apoc­a­lyp­ti­cal­ly about the ills of adver­tis­ing, ask­ing whether too many com­mer­cials on tele­vi­sion were cor­rod­ing our sense of real­i­ty. Yet we’re all mar­keters now.

In the not-too-dis­tant future there will like­ly be a great dis­en­gage­ment from social media and we will wake with a col­lec­tive hang­over of bewil­der­ment and shame, assum­ing we don’t destroy the plan­et first. But what to do in the mean­time? After all, there is noth­ing wrong with pro­mot­ing one’s own work. It’s just a ques­tion of how it should be done. My sug­ges­tion? Like alco­hol, social media should be used judi­cious­ly, and is best enjoyed with friends, or with those who might become your friend. And by friends I don’t mean those you agree with about every­thing. That’s a com­rade, not a pal. Hav­ing said that, many of the most pop­u­lar accounts on Twit­ter do seem to be those quick to trade in barbs and cul­ti­vate an in-group.

Offline, though, what is real­ly pos­si­ble? Like many authors, I watch with envy those whose books arrive with the full might of a publisher’s mar­ket­ing team behind them. And yet, as any­one who reads nov­els or watch­es movies knows, even this is no guar­an­tee of suc­cess. Some of the biggest bombs in his­to­ry have been heav­i­ly pro­mot­ed. In my expe­ri­ence, my phys­i­cal pres­ence at a store has been a good dri­ver of sales, but we are talk­ing about 50 or 60 units, not thou­sands. That said, even for an extro­vert, it takes a lot of endurance to sit for hours out­side a shop try­ing to catch the eye of passers-by, and some book­stores have refused out­right my request to do such sign­ings. Mar­ket­ing is a rough and lone­ly busi­ness.

What new real­iza­tions and/or approach­es helped you achieve your goals? 

I am strength­ened by the lib­er­at­ing real­iza­tion that noth­ing mat­ters except the art itself. Like life, the mean­ing is in the doing. I am hap­pi­est when I am writ­ing. And that’s that. I loved this recent Conan O’Brien inter­view in the New York Times:  

NYT: Is this how you want to go out, with a show that gets small­er and small­er until it’s gone?

Conan: Maybe that’s O.K. I think you have more of a prob­lem with that than I do. [Laughs.] At this point in my career, I could go out with a grand, 21-gun salute, and climb into a rock­et and the entire Supreme Court walks out and they joint­ly press a but­ton, I’m shot up into the air and there’s an explo­sion and it’s orange and it spells, “Good night and God love.” In this cul­ture? Two years lat­er, it’s going to be, who’s Conan? This is going to sound grim, but even­tu­al­ly, all our graves go unat­tend­ed.

NYT: You’re right, that does sound grim.

Conan: Sor­ry. Calvin Coolidge was a pret­ty pop­u­lar pres­i­dent. I’ve been to his grave in Ver­mont. It has the pres­i­den­tial seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think’s that what sep­a­rates me from the oth­er hosts. I had a great con­ver­sa­tion with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stam­mer­ing. I said, you make movies, they live on for­ev­er. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re nev­er seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talk­ing about? None of it mat­ters.” None of it mat­ters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, peo­ple said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Cen­tu­ry. Who [exple­tive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t mat­ter. You’ll be for­got­ten. I’ll be for­got­ten. We’ll all be for­got­ten.” It’s so fun­ny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walk­ing on air after that.

When you feel over­whelmed or unfo­cused, or have lost your focus tem­porar­i­ly, what do you do? 

Walk for hours, see my friends, call my mum or sis­ter, read poet­ry, pray, watch old Doc­tor Who, lis­ten to the Pet Shop Boys, take a show­er, sleep.

Any oth­er tips?

None.

Ganges, India

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