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?