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Chris Killen interview

30 October 09 words: James Walker
Canongate debut novelist Chris Killen discusses the internet, cats, and hanging hats off of an erection...

The Bird Room is the debut novel from Chris Killen, a Manchester based writer who was in Nottingham recently for a book reading. After interviewing Chris I felt a weird sense of guilt at not offering to take him home with me. He’s a bit like a stray dog that needs taking for a long walk, patted a few times and given plenty of sticks to fetch. If his writing is anything to go by he has nothing to worry about because he has just written a very clever debut novel about a character who finds it difficult to take part in his own life. I don’t know where he got the idea from...

Most first novels tend to be autobiographical. Have you ever ‘hung a hat off your erection’… or been in similar circumstances to the characters?
No, I’ve not done a lot of the things described in the novel. I would say The Bird Room is maybe 40% autobiographical. I don’t know. I’ve been in situations that I have later used as ‘starting points’ for things described in the novel – moments where I thought, ‘What if I did/said this?’ and then gone on to write about what might have happened had I done so. I hope that makes sense.

Is the internet as big an influence on your life as it was on the book?
The internet is ruining my day to day life, I think. I waste so much time clicking things, repeatedly, and not really doing much else: thinking or writing or even sometimes reading what I’ve clicked on. I feel simultaneously scared of and angry at the internet.

The internet has been useful though, such as writing your 15,000 word ‘chapter a day’ Untitled-Supermarket-Nightmare Novel
Part of the idea behind the ‘supermarket nightmare’ novel – posting a chapter a day, every day, for a hundred days – was to make sure I kept writing every day, and exert some kind of discipline. I’m not very disciplined, so it was an experiment. 
Without wanting to sound too cold about it, I also thought it might be a good way of attracting readers to my blog. It was pretty much the first thing I posted there, with the idea that once it was finished the readers of the novel might stick around and see what else I did.

Judging from your blog you love cats yet choose to write about birds. Which do you prefer most and why?
I do like cats an awful lot. This probably has a lot to do with me having a cat when I was a child. I like how even if you dressed a cat up as a witch, or balanced it on a large ball or something, it would still look very serious.
Your narrative style is short, sharp and punchy and worked very well in offsetting the complex structure of the book (which avoids a linear path, blurs reality, characters changing names and becoming the same character etc)? Was this the reason you chose this style?
I think this is just the style that seems to come most naturally to me. I don’t have a huge vocabulary, and the writing I tend to enjoy most is written simply whilst still being interesting or ‘experimental’. I read a lot of prose by American writers when I was first starting; I think that might also have something to do with it.

Do you think you are a new breed of ‘twittering’ author (given the short, sharp style)? I say this as there have been some interesting arguments from James Harkin about how the internet is affecting our psyche
As I said above, I’m becoming increasingly scared of the internet. It’s wasting way too much of my time. I have certainly used it productively in the past – to promote myself and my writing for instance – but these days I just seem to watch videos of cats falling of things and read emails without replying to them. 
The book deals with voyeurism on many levels. One character’s eyes are even described as ‘huge black lenses recording me’. Do you think this is a particularly modern problem?
There’s all sorts of things about watching/being watched in the novel, yes, but I wasn’t really trying to address a general problem. I was interested more in the reasons why an individual felt he was unable to act or take part in his own life – what the reasons were for something like that. 

Pornography is also at the heart of the book and damaging to the characters. Do you think it’s dangerous?
I don’t think pornography itself is across-the-board dangerous. Obviously there are issues of exploitation which are awful, but most of the pornography described in The Bird Room is amateur porn. I found that kind a lot more interesting – why people would do it. And in terms of watching pornography, becoming addicted to it (like Will), I think that is more to do with personality types – people can become addicted to anything: pornography, nicotine, You Tube videos of cats, whatever.

Did you have any input on the cover design?
Not a huge amount. I didn’t really like the cover at first – it was slicker and sexier looking than the cover I was imagining. I wasn’t expecting it to be so photographic, either. I should mention that I’ve warmed to it now.  

How did you find the editorial process at Canongate?
The editorial process was fantastic. I never felt like I was pushed into doing anything I didn’t want to – tacking on a happy ending or padding it out or anything like that. I felt I was free to try out different things and see what worked. That said, Francis (my editor) really helped shape the novel, too, simply by the questions he’d ask after each new draft.

How have you found book readings?
The most exciting thing I did, I think, was the reading at Crossing Border in Holland. Crossing Border is a music and literature festival and I read the first chapter of The Bird Room, before it had come out anywhere. I was expecting no one to listen, but I went on before a band and the waiting crowd actually listened and laughed and no one threw anything at me.
The Watford experience I found funny. (No one turned up) I liked the people that put the event on, and I got to go to the pub with them for a bit afterwards, so it was okay. I think the worst experience so far was reading to a local book group, who’d read The Bird Room the week before and – pretty much unanimously – disliked it. I read three excerpts, answered lots of questions, and sat there while they talked about it. It lasted about two and a half hours. 

Why are Metallica the best band ever?
One of the characters in The Bird Room thinks that – it’s not an opinion I share.

Morrissey or Metallica?
Morrissey, without a doubt.

You wrote a story for the Smiths inspired anthology Paint a Vulgar Picture. Are you a fan of them or was it more about having an appropriate story for the collection? 
Yes, I like the Smiths very much. I’d already heard about the anthology, and I was cheeky and emailed the editor, Pete Wild, asking if he would read a story if I sent him one. I hadn’t written the story at that point, but Pete said yes, and luckily there was still time to submit something.  
The main character in your novel, Will, is consumed by self-doubt, maybe self-pity, and in some ways reminded me a little bit of a younger modern day Morrissey. How do you feel about this comparison?
I like the comparison, but I think Morrissey is a lot more knowing and witty than my narrator.  

Will, at least by my reading, finds it pretty hard to grasp reality and ‘get with the programme’ as it were. Do you think he represents the insecurities of modern men or perhaps modern men who obsess about technology?
When I started writing it, it wasn’t my intention to address a ‘common problem’ or anything. My idea was to focus on one person’s specific insecurities, to make the narration incredibly subjective and stifling if I could. But yeah, if you are a jealous, insecure person it is easier than ever to feed those insecurities using modern technology – Google, Facebook, etc.

Is writing a coping mechanism (self-help) or pure escapism from everydayness?
A mixture of both, I think – escaping from ‘everydayness’ is a kind of coping mechanism, I think.

Maybe readers would like to escape at one of the spoken word events you put on. What can they expect and how does it differ to other events in Manchester such as Zoe Lambert’s Verberate?
No Point in Not Being Friends is a night I help organise with my friend, Sally Cook. It’s on hiatus at the moment, but we hope to start it up again this Autumn. It’s free, it’s once a month, and hopefully works as a place for people in Manchester who write to be able to meet each other and hear interesting new stuff being performed. We’ve had readings from some bigger names, some complete first-timers, and the quality of the night has been really good so far, even though we don’t really vet things beforehand. I guess there’s more of an emphasis on prose than any of the other Manchester-based readings. We also try to make everything as informal and approachable as possible.   

Chris Killen's blog

James Walker's website

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