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A Chat with Christopher Moore
by Catherine Book
Christopher Moore writes funny, real funny.  He’s also unashamedly funny in person, almost a stand-up comedy act.  So I asked him if that is who he really is.  He answered that his response to the world, by default, is humor, so in that sense, that's who he is. It doesn't mean he doesn’t take the craft seriously, nor does he believe he has the performance chops to do stand-up, but he tends to react to things in a way that he finds funny, and, fortunately, so do other people.

Can he write funny if he’s not feeling up to par, funny-wise?  What does he have to do to get in the right frame of mind to write funny?  He says that you really have to go to the characters on a day to day basis to find the funny. Very often, the funny stuff is written or thought of in advance, and he has it in his notes, so on a day to day basis, he may just be plugging in those jokes and observations that occurred to him before. Where humor happens as he writes, it's usually coming from the characters talking to each other, which is why it's fun to have a character or two who is a little bit broken, and may say anything at any time. That said, Chris remembered that for about two weeks after 9-11, he found it nearly impossible to write humor, and for that matter, fiction at all. He commented that it all seemed so trivial compared to what had happened in New York and D.C. The feeling passed after a month or so, but it was hard to put out of his mind for a while. As for getting into the right frame of mind to write funny - he says he just has to dive in every day and hope that the comedy muse shows up. Sometimes she does, and sometimes that fickle bitch stands him up.

How important is social media to his success?  That's really hard to measure. He thought that it’s fairly important in communicating to people where his tour or appearances will be, and is definitely instrumental in getting people out there to come to signings. But he had ten books in print before social media was really relevant, and a couple of books were already bestsellers, so Chris thinks social media came as an adjunct to his career, more than his career taking off because of social media. In other words, he thinks more people come to follow him on social media because of his books, than find his books through social media. It's hard to say how it will play out going forward.

I asked him how his books were usually shelved.  How important is that positioning to his sales?  They are usually shelved with general fiction. He thought it's been important over the years because a wider audience has found his work than might have if he'd been shelved by genre. In the UK, he was shelved with science fiction and fantasy for the first twelve years or so of his career and the books haven't taken off over there like they have in the U.S.

Chris has been writing since he was twelve or so, starting thinking about writing as a career when he was 16, but didn't sell a story until he was 27 and didn't sell a book until he was 33, after which he went to writing full-time for a living. He was working as a night auditor in a hotel when he sold his first story, a humorous horror story which sold to a Men's magazine he picked out of the Writer's Market. To this day, he told me, he’s never seen a copy of the magazine, nor has he ever seen the story in print.  It was called The Cleanest Game in Town.

I was curious as what influences he had that might have contributed to his success as a humorous writer.  He replied: early on, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne, as he got older, Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, and John Steinbeck. (An interesting mixture – I don’t get Steinbeck…)

Then I wanted to know how he writes and how long and what it takes to complete.  He told me he tries to write every day when he’s working on a book. He also tries to start first thing in the morning and work for about three hours. He said he can work longer than that, but often if he does then what he writes isn't funny.   So, if he wants to continue to work then he plans, plots, or polishes stuff, rather than trying to generate new material.  A novel generally takes him about eighteen months to research and write. Some bigger, more research-intensive books like Lamb or Sacré Bleu, may take longer. Some shorter books, sequels or books set in familiar settings, like The Stupidest Angel or You Suck, may take as few as six months to write.

I wondered what he felt was most important in his writing:  plot, setting, characters?  Characters, he replied emphatically. Characters generate the story and emotion. Setting can be an important starting point, and he’s begun there, and plot is the skeleton on which you hang the story, but the involvement of the reader and the real engine of the story is character. Having read almost all his books, I have to agree; characters are most significant to all his novels.

Fool is a popular character with his fans, according to the comments I heard from his audience at a signing.  I asked him how he came to write this character. The book was based on Shakespeare's King Lear, which is set in a very non-specific period in British history that seemed to reflect the middle ages. The historical King Lear is said to have lived around 400 BC, which would have been a tough period in which to set the story, since the hierarchy of royalty that Shakespeare uses hadn't developed then, plus Britain was still occupied by the Romans at the time. So, Chris decided to set the book in the late 13th century, which allowed him to use big, Norman castles as settings, and helped in the on-site research, since many of the structures from that time still stand (most notably the Tower of London and the various Cathedrals). He spent about three weeks on a historical tour of the U.K. and parts of France to get a feel for the spaces and landscape in which the story would take place. Most real history had to be abandoned, of course, to allow for the sort of world-changing events in the story. Of course…

I asked him about short stories – did he ever write them, does he get asked to contribute to anthologies?  He does get asked to contribute to anthologies all the time. He used to write short stories before he started selling novels, but at some point in his twenties, he realized that if he was ever going to make a living as a fiction writer, he was going to have to write novels. There was simply no market for short stories in the late 80s, early 90s, and not even an internet on which to distribute stories free. He guessed that he probably wrote one short story between his first and second novels, and that's the last short story he’s finished in twenty-five years or so. Since his second book, Coyote Blue, sold, he’s always had a deadline for the next novel. While coming up with a new story and sort of tracking down its essence, trying on new voices and styles is great fun with short stories, it's terribly hard, he mused, to structure any kind of discipline around writing them. If you're making your living by writing, you have to be practical, and all the time to get into a story, craft it, finish it, polish it, only to be caught flat-footed and sitting before an empty page with an idea only buzzing on the periphery is highly unproductive time. Even during the MySpace era, when blogging was the way one did social networking, Chris found on days that he wrote a decent blog post, he wouldn't get anything done on the novel he was supposed to be working on. Like his mind would tell him, "Well, the writing is done for the day. I've written something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it's time to goof off!" Short stories were always that way for him, and that's not even taking into account trying to sell them after they're written. Discipline had always been the hardest part of writing, he confessed, and with a long project, it's easier to establish your discipline, even if you have several false starts and a couple of delays at the end, you know what you're going to be working on each day. If you have time to let your mind wander during the day, say while exercising, you can think about the book you're working on, work out scenes in your head. With short stories, it's always mining for new ideas and looking for the best way to tell it, only to have to start over in a few days.  He loves short stories, and even likes writing them -- especially being able to play with a voice or style without committing your life to it. But short stories don't work with his writing life, which is lived in two major stages: finishing a book or getting ready to start a new one.

Any real possibilities on any of his optioned titles?  You know, actually casting and filming? (Everyone always asks him this so I figured – why should I be different?)  He laughed, some have gone as far as casting and renting studio space, only to have financing fall through. Having gotten that close without the movie happening, he’s reluctant to predict what might be happening. As his agent told him in their first conversation, twenty-four years ago, "It's not a movie until it opens in a thousand theaters. Until then, it's just a promise."

When I last interviewed Chris, back in 2006, he had told me that Lamb was the one of which he was most proud.  Had that changed?  Probably not, he explained, except that more time has passed and he’s written more books. In some ways, Sacré Bleu was harder to pull off than Lamb, and perhaps, he wondered, because of that he should be more proud of it, but he also had more tools when he wrote Sacré Bleu. He'd already written two historicals by that time, where Lamb was his first attempt at historical fiction. Yes, he supposed, Lamb is still the high bar, but as time passes you're always looking to the future, the next book, and really the only time you take time to even think about whether or not you're proud of something is when someone asks you for an interview.

Right now, he’s working on a sequel to his 2007 novel, A Dirty Job, which is about a guy who gets the job of Death, and runs it out of a second-hand store in San Francisco. No title or publication date yet.  He’s also three drafts into the stage play of Fool, which he’s adapting with director Joe Discher. They hope to have that on the stage by 2015.  That’s a pretty cool thing, Chris!  And thanks again for your time.  We’ll keep up with you between the covers of the next one – until then, be funny.

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