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An hour-long chat with Chris (C.C.) Humphreys, actor, playwright, and author of twenty historical and fantasy novels, including the Immortals’ Blood series for Gollancz and the new Tapestry Trilogy.
Sign up here for Chris Humphreys’ March 6 online workshop, “Fantasy Worlds – And How to Build Them,” part of the new Paper Covers Rock literary festival on Salt Spring Island.
Chris (C.C.) Humphreys has played Hamlet in Calgary, a gladiator in Tunisia, and a dead immortal in Highlander; he’s waltzed in London’s West End, conned the landlord of the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, commanded a star fleet in Andromeda, and voiced Salem the cat in the original Sabrina.
A playwright, his plays have been produced in Calgary, Vancouver, and London. He has published twenty novels, including The French Executioner, The Jack Absolute Trilogy, Vlad – The Last Confession, A Place Called Armageddon, and Shakespeare’s Rebel. His novel Plague won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel in Canada in 2015. He is now writing epic fantasy with the Immortals’ Blood trilogy for Gollancz; the first book, Smoke in the Glass, was published in 2019. Book Two, The Coming of the Dark, has now been published in the UK and Canada.
He has just published The Tapestry Trilogy, set around—and through—the fabulous medieval Unicorn Tapestries in New York’s Cloisters Museum.
He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Chris, welcome to The Worldshapers!
Thank you very much for having me.
We were just talking—we know we’ve been at the same place at the same time, but we didn’t actually talk to each other at the time, because we were both at When Worlds Collide, the great literary conference that’s held in Calgary every year, a few years ago.
That’s right. Well, we might have, though we might have been drunk, and that’s why we don’t.
Entirely possible. So, we’re going to talk about specifically the Tapestry trilogy as an example of your creative process. But first, I will take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, and ask you about—well, your biography, you have an interesting upbringing—and how you got into both the acting side, which really interests me because I’ve done, nothing on your level, but I’ve done some professional stage work over the years, and then how the writing came along. So, just take me through your life and how you got interested in writing and especially on the fantastical side of things.
Right. Well, so I always really defined myself as a storyteller because I do I tell stories in all these different ways. You know, I began telling other people’s stories as an actor. I was blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it, because my dad was an actor and all four grandparents were actors. They also wrote, some of them. Both grandfathers wrote. My Norwegian grandfather particularly wrote. He was quite a well-known writer in Norway. And I was avoiding all the acting thing. My mother, who was not an actor but obviously grown up with one, married to one, daughter of one, did not want her dewy lamb to be an actor with all the hassles that a career in an industry like that can bring. So, I was being steered away from that. I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do. And then, you know, when I was about seventeen, I got cast in the lead in the school play, and suddenly all those genes kicked in. And I thought, That’s it. And I went to drama school in London, the Guildhall School, and then embarked on a pretty healthy acting career.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of very . . . well, you listed some of them. You know, I’ve done a huge amount of screen and stage work. But the writing side began because I’d always wanted to write. I mean, you know, like a lot of people, I had a way of thinking, Oh, that’s what I really, really want to do. And I’d always had such a wild imagination. I was the kid telling stories. I was the five-year-old organizing all his friends into knights and Vikings and pirates and, you know, playing out these elaborate games, which everyone does on screen now, of course, but we didn’t have screens in my day. And so, that was me. And I always wanted to tell stories. And I particularly loved historical fiction. That’s where I lived. You know, I loved swordplay, especially. And I indeed ended up as a fencer at school, it was my main sport, and a fight choreographer later on, and essentially became an actor so I could jump around with bladed weaponry, which I managed to do an awful lot of, which was great.
But the writing side, you know, I knew that . . . you know, acting, I love acting as a pure essence of a craft, I absolutely love it. I still need to do it periodically. But the business of acting is a pain, you know, always submitting yourself for approval, you know, things so out of your own control. You can give the best performance but be an inch too tall or have the wrong colour hair, and you just don’t get the role. So, even though I did well and, you know, ended up in Hollywood at one stage and on the West End stage and played, as you said, played Hamlet, I was frustrated by the gaps, particularly the gaps between creativity. And I wanted to write, and I got into it the normal way, tried a few short stories. I didn’t understand something which I now teach, because I do quite a lot of teaching of writing now, and what I really teach is process. I thought things had to be good straight away and didn’t realize that it was a process of . . . you know, good and bad actually aren’t in my vocabulary, really, in any of the drafts I write. It’s just about what works and what doesn’t. So, a bit of craft there. I didn’t understand, but I gradually got into it, and then, I started—I actually won a twenty-four-hour playwriting competition in Vancouver, and they produced my play and gave me 500 bucks. And it was like, “Oh, I’m a professional writer now.” And so, I carried on writing plays because they felt, you know, like a small enough chunk. A novel, which is truly what I wanted to write, seemed like a mountain, whereas a play seemed like a hill to climb.
But then I had this idea for my first novel, The French Executioner, about the man who killed Anne Boleyn. And even though it’s historical fiction, it’s really got huge, fantastical elements, not least the ghost of Anne Boleyn wandering around without her head tucked under her arm, actually, which is as the old song goes. But I didn’t have the courage really to jump in, knowing I most wanted to do that. I found ways to avoid doing it, researched the absolute backside off the thing for six years, only then discovering that research is a form of procrastination, and finally jumped in and started writing it.
When I did, it just took off, and I wrote it in ten months, showed it to an agent. She took me on, she had it sold within a month, and suddenly I had a two-book deal. And then I was being published professionally by Orion in the UK. The fantastical side came a bit, actually came fairly early on, in that another agent who had taken me on my first agent lunch . . . of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. And she came up, she said to me, “Have you ever thought of writing young adult fiction?”
And I went, “No,” because I’d written three adult historical novels by that time. And anyway, she said, “This type of stuff, you write action-driven, character-driven family stuff. You know, it would work really well, if you’ve got any ideas.”
And I went away and thought about it and I thought, I only write what I love anyway. And I was very interested in the sort of Norwegian side of my family, which is, to put it mildly, a little spooky. It has a sort of ghostly/psychic element to it that I always found interesting. And so, I delved into that and I came up with this idea for a book called The Fetch, which is a term for, like, the doppelganger or that that sort of thing. You know, the other you that we all have inside and that can go out. Certain cultures have it. Corsicans have it. Italians have it. Indonesians have it, surprisingly, because they bought the books in the end. And I came up with this idea, dashed off a chapter and a very skimpy treatment. My agent took it to New York. They went, “Yep,” and had it sold in ten days. And suddenly I’m writing a trilogy for Knopf in New York called The Runestone Saga. So that began my fantastical journey. It’s more earth magic, I would say, than fantasy. It’s all about Runic magic and the fetch and time travel and all the stuff I love.
Before we get too far into what you’re writing now, I just want to go back a little bit back into your bio, because I did want to establish that . . .you’re thought of as British, I think. But of course, you’re actually from Canada originally, aren’t you?
I was born in Toronto, yeah. Born in Toronto. Left when I was two. Grew up in Los Angeles till I was seven because my dad was an actor having his shot in Hollywood. And then I moved to England when I was about seven. And hence the accent you’re hearing, which was laboriously crafted from years of English private school, followed by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, getting rid of my lazy Rs, my Canadian, my American, Rs that I still had. So, then I became quite the Brit actor. But I’m not—I mean, I am. And I played that. But I’m—but it’s funny. I’ve played so many different things and I play American and Canadian. I’m making quite a career at the moment, actually, my sort of pivot in these turbulent times is to be an audiobook narrator and I’m doing a lot of that and I’m doing that American, Canadian, whatever it’s called for, you know. So yeah. So, that’s the background on the accent.
And I wanted to talk a little bit more about the acting and how it ties into the writing. Now, you said you started writing, writing plays, and you actually—you know, I think people who are naturally novelists or short story writers would think a play is the daunting task as opposed to the novel. The novel would come easy; the play would be hard because you have to tell everything strictly through dialogue and action on the stage. But how did the two things tie together for you? I mean, I often try talking to people who are involved on the acting or directing or playwriting side, that one thing they bring to their fiction writing is a very solid sense of what’s happening in the scene in a physical sense, like where characters are in relationship to each other, and you don’t have the sort of amorphous space where people suddenly seem to teleport from one place to another, which I’ve run into in some people’s writing. How do you find that the two things tie together, the play side and the prose side, the novel side?
Well, yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, my books, people always say, “Oh, I can see the film,” you know, and I go, “Well, I wish you would because obviously, I’d be much wealthier if they did.” And a number of my books have been optioned for TV or movies, but none made so far. In answer to a question, the playwriting, it was a natural progression for me, having done so much theatre. I love dialogue. I love the use of dialogue. My books tend to have a lot of dialogue because I always find dialogue is very active, and I like to keep scenes active. Obviously, the opposite is passive, and who wants to read that? So, I like to move action. And I think dialogue is particularly useful for revealing character, concealing character in some ways, because people usually don’t say what they really mean or often don’t. And yes, that sense of dramatic action, I always say that what I write really is character in action. And obviously, that’s three words rather than two, because character inaction would be really boring, but character in action. So, you know, I don’t do a lot of interior monologue. I like my characters to reveal themselves by what they do and how they react to circumstances, which actually helps me in my writing because I, you know, I very rarely get stuck because something is able to happen. I can just take my character into some situation, and things will evolve.
And that’s kind of how I write things. I, I don’t know necessarily that much about the whole book. I don’t plot, really, I have an idea where I’m going. And then I let the characters take me there by doing stuff they need to do so. So, I think that’s the acting side. It’s almost, you know, Acting 101. You’ve done some of yourself, Ed, you know that when you as an actor, what you’re always taught and what you learn is that rather than dwell on, “Oh, do I remember my lines,” or whatever, you trust that they’re there and that you’re going to react spontaneously to what happens. “What do I want?” is the key question for me. “What does this character want?” And then take that character into a scene and run into an obstacle that prevents you getting what you want. So, how do you deal with that? So, I do that a lot. And that’s a definite, that’s the most direct correlation between my acting/playwriting side and my prose side.
Yeah. And that’s something else, when I’ve talked to other actors who are also writers, as an actor, you’re trying to inhabit a character and make that character come alive. And that’s exactly what you’re doing as a writer. The only difference is that as a writer, you have to make up the dialogue. It’s not given to you by somebody else.
This is true. This is true. And that can be both good and bad. You know, if you’re doing Shakespeare, you’re relishing the fact that you’ve been given this amazing dialogue. If you’re doing some terrible television show, you’re thinking, “How do I make this work? I can’t even begin—this makes no sense at all.” So, I’ve done both, obviously.
Well, now, let’s go back to the books you were going through, the ones that you have had written. You have this . . . I can’t remember where you left off when you were talking about that, but you have the fantasy novels from Gollancz that were coming along there somewhere, I think.
Yes. Well, I’m currently I’m in the midst of those right now. I’m doing something that’s quite interesting, and I think a lot of your listeners might relate to. I’ve become what they call the hybrid author because I’m both being published by the big houses still, but I’m also doing some self-publishing, getting my—
Yeah, of course, getting the backlist back, reissuing those because, as you know, often a writer will feel that they’ve laboured for a year over this, or a year or more over a book, and then it barely registers before the publisher has moved on to another book. You know, you’re hot for about three days, and then they’ve moved on, and you think, “Well, they didn’t really. . .” You know, they expect some magic to happen, you know, so you always get frustrated because, let’s face it, we write to be read. And if people aren’t aware of your books being out there, how the hell are they going to be read? So, I’m quite interested in the whole . . . I’m not the world’s greatest. I have to tell you, I’m not a great marketer or a publicist, but I’m doing OK. And my plan is just to get all the books out there again. And so, that with the . . . Gollancz, of course, you know, they’re doing whatever they do. I don’t think they’re making them as known as they could, but, you know, there’s very few writers that aren’t going to complain about their publishers pushing their books. However, it’s . . . to write epic fantasy like that is quite interesting to me, because my other fantasy, even though I don’t really believe in marking between YA and adult, I just write a good book. And a lot of adults have read my so-called YA fantasy and vice versa. But my epic fantasy is, you know, it was an agent who actually said, you know, “Epic fantasy is kind of big right now, have you got something?” And I just thought, No, but I did what I do, which is, I sat down with a notepad, I wrote a word in the middle of the first page, and the word was “immortality.” And then I just started riffing off that and within two hours had a five-page treatment
So, I’m sure that’s going to offend a lot of your listeners, I’m sorry. It sounds too pat, but it’s that feeling of which I was talking about before, about process, and that initial process of just letting your mind go and riff and relate and word association, and all that stuff helped me come up with the idea for the Immortals Blood series, which Gollancz then, after a few hoops I had to jump through, bought, and the two books, as you said, were already out. I think it’s very different. I mean, of course, I would say that. But it’s not . . . I mean, there are battles. There are swords. There are, you know, there’s all this. But there’s nary an elf maiden with a lost king in sight. You know, it’s about immortality, and it’s about the corruption of basically the one percent, what the elites can do to a world. And three very different worlds, one kind of Viking, one kind of Greco Roman, and one kind of Mesoamerican. And what has immortality done in those three respective cultures. So that’s . . . I’ve loved writing those. I’m just about to receive book three, which is called The Wars of Gods and Men, which is the concluding book of the trilogy, back from my editor. And then that’ll be out probably until early next year.
And then that brings us to the Tapestry trilogy, which, yes, we’re going to focus on a little bit more as an example of your process. We’ve talked quite a bit about your process already, but we’ll go through it anyway. So, tell me, first of all, before we start talking about it, tell me about it.
The Tapestry trilogy. So, this is a good example of how the hybrid world works. So, I wrote—when I’d written the Runestone saga, my editor asked me to write another book. I hadn’t thought of writing so-called YA fantasy fiction at all. So, I was a little bereft of ideas. And then, as you mentioned in the bio in the intro you gave, I suddenly looked at the ring on my finger, the rampant unicorn that I’ve worn since I was 18 years old. The family crest, no less, though, my horse-auctioneer great-grandfather was the one who came up with it. So, it’s . . . I’m not hidden nobility or anything like that. Anyway, and I thought, “What does a unicorn mean?” And I started delving, and various things happened. Unicorns could only be tamed by maidens. Unicorns are indomitable, unconquerable, apart from the maiden in the mirror, actually. And they could also cure illness and poisons and, dare I say, viruses, and heal and cure pollution as well. They calm a stream to make it drinkable, that sort of thing. I was fascinated by that.
And then I discovered the Unicorn Tapestries, these amazing medieval tapestries, which are in the Cloisters museum in New York. And the great thing about—-one of the great things about them, apart from their sheer stunning beauty and, you know, no one knows exactly who made them or when they were made, like, late fifteenth century is the best guest and Flanders is the best geographical get. But no one really knows anything about them, who they were made for, who made them—someone very rich because they’re very, very expensive to make, gold, red, and silver thread, but they are stunning, absolutely stunning, you know, this whole journey of a unicorn, the hunt of the unicorn in five tapestries.
And so, I immediately glommed onto that and came up with the idea that maybe a New York young lady called Elayne or, full name, Alice Elayne, is told by her father, who’s dying, actually, he’s got leukemia, that there’s a family history. And there’s this book he reads to her that tells of the original tapestry weaver, who was their ancestor, and who had woven a gateway for a unicorn to travel back to his world because unicorns, magical beasts, were in our world, but then basically it got too hot, man got too good at killing them, so they all went back to the place they were from, which is Goloth, the land of the fabulous beast.
And so, the tapestries became a portal, you know, kind of like the wardrobe in Narnia between our world and this medieval world, Goloth, where all our myths live. And she is summoned by a five-hundred-year-old unicorn called Moonspill through the tapestries because he needs her there, he needs her help. And it’s her adventures in Goloth and how they have a complete misunderstanding because she thinks, What do I know? Because he wants her to tame him because he needs to not go mad. He needs to rescue his mate, who’s held by the tyrant king. And she goes, you know, “I barely passed calculus. What do I know about unicorn-taming anyway?” I won’t tell you the story, but there’s a rapprochement and an adventure.
And then, I was asked to write this . . .I didn’t think of writing a sequel. I thought it was a pure one-off. But as you know, unless you actually kill the characters off, they’re there. And I started wondering, you know, after all the extraordinary and terrifying adventures, what would happen to someone like that? I mean, how do you go back to your normal life in New York? How do you go back to—two years later, she’s actually at Columbia—but how do you go back to a normal life when you’ve done all these incredible things? You know, there’s probably a touch of PTSD, you know. And so, I revisited. . . and then, of course, the other thing was, I really thought, Well, I’ve had a unicorn, I’ve got to do a dragon. So, I came up with this idea, The Hunt of the Dragon, and wrote that. And then, you know, that was only published in Canada. So, I thought, now I want to take this further. But then I thought, I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a third book, because, of course, there was more. And I discovered this thing about dragons. I decided not to stick to one sort of medieval European wyvern or something like that. I incorporated all various aspects of Eastern dragons as well. And Chinese dragons particularly are able to be shapeshifters. And I thought, Wow, that’s cool. A dragon that can actually turn into a human being for a couple of hours and then wreak unspeakable havoc when it does. Because my dragons are not cozy dragons, my dragons are killers. And so, I wrote The Hunt of the Shapeshifters, which is what happens when some dragons manage to get their way back to Earth and start killing. So, serial killer dragons, I thought, that’s going to be good. So, I wrote that as the conclusion of the trilogy, a completely new book for that whole saga, and then brought them out myself and called it all the Tapestry Trilogy.
Well, you talked a little bit about the Gollancz trilogy, starting with a single word and then building out around from that. In this case, it seems like you started with a ring, but did you use a similar process? And how much planning and outlining did you do? It sounds like you don’t do a lot.
I don’t do a lot. No, I. You know, with The Hunt of the Unicorn, I mean, I suppose . . . it’s a while ago since I wrote it, actually the first iteration of it, but it would be my normal process. I tend to . . . I mean, it depends how much research I needed.
There’s, you know, there’s a misconception that that fantasy doesn’t require research. You know, they say, “Oh, it must be so much easier for you now. You’re not writing historical fiction.” And I go, “You have no idea. I mean, you know, researching weaving for a start and tapestries and then and fabulous beasts, because, of course, it’s not just the unicorn and even the dragon. There’s griffins and manticores, and each has their own mythology around it and therefore their own way of behaving.
So, there was all that. But what I tend to do is, I take . . . you know, it’s, again, another misconception that I don’t plan anything. I just don’t write out a chart or a plan. I’ll have a rough idea where I’m going. What I do is . . . what I often say is I liken it to an alphabet. The book is an alphabet, A being the beginning and the Z being the end. And, you know, I’ll have an idea of both those things. You know, what will be the, “Well, what’s the start of this journey?” The summons basically, but the set up of her life and her ancestry, which she doesn’t believe in, and her father being ill and all that stuff in New York.
And then, I know she’s going to get summoned through, and I know the unicorn is going to be facing this. So, back to the alphabet. I’ll know A, and I’ll probably know D, the summons, and I’ll know G because that’s when she meets the unicorn, and I’ll know M and then T and then, you know, W or whatever. But I don’t know how I’m going to get between them necessarily and that’s what I then write you know how and then because, I really, I believe in the process of writing, that it actually happens while you’re writing and so that the ideas I come up with in my logical mind are probably not going to be as good as the ideas that I come up with when I’m actually writing the story, you know, physically sitting there writing it.
So, all sorts of things happen. You open yourself to serendipity. You open yourself to inspiration. You literally, I mean, without being too sort of, you know, you solicit the muse. You know, I don’t make it all sound super-mystical, but it’s you know, it’s that’s part of the process for me. And so, when I get to the end of the first draft, that’s when I do a plot. That’s when I become a little nerdy and get my pencil and ruler out and literally write out this chart on butcher’s paper, which I pin to a chalkboard, which has the chapters, the rough action, and then notes about, well, you know, if this happened in Chapter 24, I’ve got to plant that in Chapter 15, that sort of thing.
On the character side, because you described your fiction as characters in action . . .
Yes, yes. Well done.
. . . how do they develop for you? Like, do you have them clearly in your mind when you start? Do they also develop through the process of writing?
Oh, no. They very much develop through the process. Yes. You know, I always say that they’re, you know, I need them to tell me who they are. I will start out with an idea of who they are. But then by putting them through the action, I will then discover, you know, who they are, how they react to circumstance and what they say to people, and that way, when I go back into the second draft—because I’m very big on separating out the different needs of each draft, you know—by the time I got to the end of the first draft, I know them so much better. So then, I go back and start writing the second draft and some of the early stuff. I think, “Oh, no, because she’s proved to me that she is this. Therefore, she wouldn’t do this in the beginning.” And that’s when my rewriting comes in.
It’s a bit like the rehearsal process on stage. You start off with a rough idea of the character, but it develops as you as you play it and bounce off the other characters in the piece.
Yeah, that’s an interesting analogy, actually. Yes. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. But you’re right. That’s exactly right.
Because the character you end up with in performance is not the way you started when you were sitting around the table for the first time reading the script.
Yes. Well, I know. . . you hope. You hope. I mean, that’s the point of rehearsal. And often there are, you know, there are instinctive choices you make that are very good and will appear in the final performance. And there are others that you’ve gone, “Oh, that’s that,” and something one of the other actors gives you or director, you know, sometimes gives you, you know, gives you a different way of approaching and you rethink it. You rethink how you can do it, or you try something different, and you think, “Ah, that works.” So yes. So, it is similar. It’s a good analogy for the writing process as well.
What does your actual writing look like? Do you write, you know, longhand? Do you just tap on a laptop? Do you like to work in an office or out somewhere?
Yeah, no, quill and inkpot, you know, on old vellum . . . no. I’m not a very good typist, and I’ve often thought I should correct that and become a speed typist, but then I actually don’t mind because it sort of slows me down a bit, which I quite like. You know, I’m quick enough, but I do a lot of writing what I call off-piste. I have notebooks, I have these brown notebooks that I favor made by a French company called Clairefontaine. And I’m always writing stuff in there. Often, it’s research stuff. And then it’ll be, you know, I’ll say, oh, yeah, I’ll discover some interesting fact, and then I’ll put N.B. underneath it. The unicorn Moonspill could do this now because of that aspect of unicorn lore or whatever. And sometimes, though less often these days, sometimes I go off-piste entirely if it’s a particularly tricky passage and just write it longhand. I only ever wrote one book longhand, and that was Vlad – The Last Confession because the material was so dense and tough, and I tried to do what I do, which is essentially write thrillers, historical thrillers, fantastical thrillers, in a subject that was so layered and so complicated by politics and religion and myth. Actually, I thought now I need to connect the head in the heart and the hand here. So, I wrote longhand. Never do that again because it’s so bloody labour-intensive to then put it into the computer. And also, my writing is scribble. So, I go, “What’s that word? I can’t even read that anymore.”
I wrote longhand in high school, and I haven’t done it since. I still have . . . actually the first book I wrote is right here on my desk.
Yeah. I would never do that again. My writing is also really bad.
I love the feeling. I’ve got a great pen, but I keep that for sort of a bit of journaling or a bit of riffing, you know, but yeah, it’s not ideal. So, no, it goes in the computer, and then it gets revised.
OK, and that brings us to revision. What does that look like for you? Do you do start to finish? Do you do a rolling revision as you go along? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like you’re going start to finish
Absolutely. Yeah, I . . .one of the classes I teach is called “The Mountain.” I came up with this concept of the mountain, the novel as a series of accents. And so, you know, it’s three different climbs up the mountain. I mean, there’s more probably than that. You do some bits, you do more, you work hard and do more drafts on than others perhaps, which come more naturally. But so, the first ascent up the mountain for me is that free climb. It’s like climbing a mountain. You forget the summit. You need to reach that handhold there, that foothold there. And that . . .if you free climb up the first time, that’s the exploration for me. That’s finding the best way up the mountain. And so, you know, one of the rules of mountain climbing, apparently, I’m not really a climber, but is, “Don’t look down,” right, and so I don’t look back, very rarely will I go back. Sometimes I go back to check eye colour or something, but even then, I don’t because I know I’ll pick it up next time. And often, if I’m . . . especially with the historical fiction, if I hit a point where I go, yeah, well, you know, I’m writing World War Two at the moment, “How did the Heinkel bomber . . .” you know, I put a question mark in rather than actually go back and look it up at the time, because I don’t want to stop the flow of the inspiration.
So, yeah, no, I don’t revise as I go. I get to the end, and then I go back to the beginning, and then I read it and . . . well I do my chalk first, actually. And then I just start again. As I’ve done it more and more, I find that my first drafts have become cleaner and cleaner. There’s not a huge change now as there was before, probably. You know, when I started out, I overwrote, I think, and now I don’t do that nearly so much. I find that the first draft is pretty clean, some passages will need reworking, obviously, something I discovered will have to go in, but there’s not a huge amount of revision on the second climb up the mountain. And the second climb is much more, “Right. I’m going to fix a route that someone could follow me up.” And then the third draft is, you actually take the editor up with you, and they go, “Yeah, look at that. That really worked. But why did you go over there? Why didn’t . . .?” And that metaphorically and then literally becomes the third draft.
Do you use beta readers of any sort, or you just going straight to the editor once you’ve got it finished to your own satisfaction?
You know, I don’t normally use beta readers. I did for Shapeshifters because I was writing it entirely for myself. And so, I got five fantasy writers, no, three fantasy writers, to have a read of it and give me some notes, which was great. Sebastien de Castell, Kristi charish, another, more screenwriter, Beth Stewart, who’s a friend of mine. They all read it and gave me notes, and then I use their stuff. So, I didn’t, actually, apart from the copy edit, I didn’t run that by an editor. So, that’s the only time. But normally, no, I don’t. It goes straight to the editor because that’s the advantage, of course, of working with a big house.
Yeah., I’ve never used beta readers either, partly because when I started writing, there just wasn’t anybody else around who read the stuff that I was writing
And once I got to being published by DAW, well, I have one of the best editors in the business, so I’ll let her tell me what needs to be worked on.
Exactly. Exactly. You’ve got to trust your editor. Yeah.
So, what kind of notes do you typically get from your editors? Are there certain things that you always find yourself having to do?
No, not really. There’s nothing that springs to mind. You know, I mean, I always say . . . again, when I’m teaching this stuff about the different ascents up the mountain, you know, the editor’s job is not to write your novel for you—as they say in England, you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself, right? Their job is not to say to you, “Yeah, you should do this, you should do that.” Their job is, I think . . .it boils down to clarity. What is the writer’s vision? And is this passage of writing helping in making that vision clear? So, for me, it’s about clarity. You know, the best question an editor can ask really is—which applies to theatre as well, actually, you know, you can say to a director, if you’re assisting a director or whatever, “OK, so we’ve just watched that scene. This is what I see. Is that what you want?” And if an editor says that to me, I’ll go. “Ah, “because it might be clear to you as an author, but you might not have made it clear for a reader.
So, it’s getting you, know, those are the sort of notes I like from an editor, you know, and then being able to say, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. That is unclear.” Or, “You know what, you’re not right because it’s ambiguous. “And I’m big on ambiguity. I like ambiguity in character. I don’t like lack of clarity. And there’s obviously a big difference between those two things.
But it’s interesting, and I often make the point, that writing and, for that matter acting, is actually a collaborative art form, but I mean between you and the audience, because what you . . . especially in writing, you’re putting something into their head. What they see in their head is not necessarily what you see in your head.
It doesn’t mean it’s not working. It just means they’re bringing themselves to it and getting something different out of it than perhaps you thought you were putting in there.
Totally. Totally. I mean, two people make a book. The writer and the reader. I mean, leaving aside the editors and all that. But, you know, you . . . and I was saying this just this morning to my girlfriend because a young lady in Russia has written to me. She loved the Runestone saga, which only the first two books of were translated into Russian. She now speaks very good English—and this is ten years ago—suddenly writing to me and saying, “My grandmother and I really want to know how that story ended. We can’t get that book.” And I said, “I’ll send you one.” So, I literally just sent off a copy of Possession, which is the third book of the Runestone saga, to her in Moscow today. And I said to my girlfriend, I said to her as well as in the inscription I wrote in the book, you know, this is, all books are a journey and a journey between, you know, we take it together. And that’s why I annoy people who are reading my books by saying, “Oh, where are you up to? Where are you up to?” You know, because I like to remember that journey then and I’m part of it and get their feelings of the journey, which, as you say, can be quite different from what you might have intended or whatever. But I think that’s an important thing to remember as an author. You know, you’ve got to leave space for the reader to be in your story. I think explaining everything is not necessarily the way to go.
You’ve talked about teaching writing, so I wanted to ask you about that. But first I wanted to ask you, because I often do with authors, did you have any formal training yourself on the writing side?
No. I mean, I know people will go, “Well, wait a second, you got an MFA. “But I got that after I’d already written nine novels, I decided I needed to get a . . . I’d never gone to university. I’d gone to drama school. And I kind of felt cheated of that experience. Plus, I thought, you know, anyone who’s trying to teach in Canada today needs a master’s degree. So, I thought maybe, you know, if I want to teach at university, which really, I did, but I thought maybe that’s an idea now. So that’s why I went and got my MFA, which would be another podcast to tell you what I actually think about creative writing training, and it’s not necessarily all good. But anyway.
I get that a lot from writers.
But I took, you know, I remember taking a short story class long before I was, you know, I was just a wannabe. And this is probably ten, twelve years before I even before I turn my hand to writing. But no, and I’m not a great manual reader either, though I’m actually considering writing one right now because of all the stuff I picked up along the way, the experiential stuff I like. But what got me writing was reading a book called Writing the Natural Way, and it was very much about left brain, right brain. And it was . . .I mean, it was maybe a little over-heavy on that side, but it really did emphasize the separation of the process. And I read that book, and that’s when I started. That’s when I wrote my first play.
Well, have you found now that you are teaching other people to write, do you find that that comes back to help you in your own writing? I certainly do. I’ve taught writing, and I’ve been a writer in residence at the public libraries in Regina in Saskatoon, working with a lot of writers, starting up writers. And I find that focusing on other people’s writing often makes me see my old work clearly. Is that your experience?
Yes, I would say that’s true. When I teach, I tend to teach in a fairly, you know, I’m not very rigid. I like to see, you know, I’ll have a series of bullet points that I’d like to work through. It’s kind of like my alphabet for writing the novel. I know I want to get from A to D, but I’m not sure where B and C are going to be or what. They’re good. So, you know, I’ll riff on stuff. Other things will come up, and I’ll come up with a phrase, something I’ll go, and I’ll stop, I’ll say, “Excuse me a second,” I’ll stop and write it down because it does apply to my writing, but, oh no, absolutely you do. You know, especially when you can clearly see someone who’s got talent but maybe doesn’t know, doesn’t have the craft and how to channel that talent. So yeah, that does definitely help.
Do you find it rewarding when people advance as a result of your teaching?
Yeah, absolutely, and I love it. I do love it. I mean, I’m you know, I never seek teaching work. I’m often asked. I’ve been doing quite a bit online this year, actually, of course. And I’m actually teaching—I don’t know if this podcast is going to go out by then, but you might want to share this.
Oh, right. OK, well, I’m teaching a fantasy writing workshop for a literary festival that’s starting on Salt Spring Island. And, of course, you know, terrible timing for the poor woman who’s tried to start this. So, it’s all online at the moment. But I’m going to be teaching a fantasy writing workshop a week on Saturday, March 6. And if people want to go to Paper Covers Rock, which is the website, they might even be able to join in if they want.
Well, unusually, we’re recording this like three days before it will go live. So that will work out. That’s a week in the future or thereabouts when this goes, so . . .
Fantastic. Well, Paper Covers Rock, which is clever because Salt Spring is known as the Rock. And so this and this woman deserves the support because she’s trying to do what had never been done before establisher a literary festival in Salt Spring, which is crazy, and then tried to do it during a pandemic. So, I’m going to be teaching that class and hopefully get a few people out. And I’ll talk very specifically about writing fantasy.
One of the things I found teaching and being a writer in residence, in particular, is telling somebody very strongly, you know, I think this is very important, and you should do this and thinking to myself, “Just don’t look in that book that I wrote where I didn’t actually do that.”
Yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly. Exactly. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s the . .
Do what I say, not what I do.
Exactly. That’s the motto of the teacher.
That’s what we’re getting into the last few minutes here. So, I want to . . .you thought it was a little early for big philosophical questions, but I’m going to ask you. OK, there are three, really. Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes, in the big picture of human experience? And then, why write fantastical stories in particular? You don’t just write that, but you have recently written quite a bit of that. So, those are the three questions. But the first one is, why do you personally write? You’ve been doing it for a long time.
Why, why, why? Why, why this madness? You know, yeah, I . . . there’s a wonderful . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a book called The Unstrung Harp. It’s an Edward Gorey book. Mr. Earbrass writes the novel, and there’s one . . .it’s a fantastic book for writers because it’s all about the process. And at one point, there’s this gorgeous Edward Gorey picture of this man, his hand across his eyes holding a manuscript. He’s rashly decided to revisit an early draft, and he goes and he sees it for what it is, dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. Why does he go on writing when it all turns out rubbish? You know, why endure “the unexquisite agony?” Why didn’t he become a spy? “How does one become one?” he says, it’s just wonderful, you know, and sometimes you do feel that. Of course, I write because I need to tell stories. You know, I’ve done it since I was a child.
I’ve told stories, you know, just getting my mates playing games. I love stories. I think stories are important. I think that what makes us human. If you’ve read the book Sapiens by Uri Yuval Harari, he posits the theory that what allowed sapiens to become the dominant, in fact, the only hominid, was our ability to gossip, i.e., tell stories. And that’s what draws us together as humans. So, I suppose that that furthers into your other questions of why does anyone write. I think we’re trying to make sense of the world, we’re trying to share our little viewpoint. And I’ve often likened us to, we’re all little mushrooms, and we’re popping up and giving our little view of the world there. You know, there’s a wonderful Wim Wenders film called Wings of Desire. I don’t know if you have ever seen it, but it’s set in Berlin, and it’s about these two angels. And their job is to go down and listen to people. They literally just sort of fold into them. They can’t be seen. And they hear what the people are going through. Very mundane stuff often, but they kind of testify. And I like that image, the idea that one’s testifying to the world and to, you know.
Fantastical stories. Yeah, I don’t know why particularly. I know I always enjoyed fantasy without reading it exclusively. I think it can be in the right hands so imaginative. I think it can shed light on our current situation, I mean, you know, I don’t write message fiction per se, but I do, you know, I’m always aware, even with my historical novels, people say, “Oh, you are an historical novelist.” I go, “No, I’m a modern novelist. I just happened to write historical fiction. You know, the books are relevant to today, are being read today. My fantasy fiction, I mentioned before, particularly the Immortals Blood trilogy, does deal with the world as it is now. It does deal with climate change. It does deal with the elites, the one percent, without trying to spell out a big message. You know, I’m more a depicter than coming up with answers, but I love the fantasy fiction that really looks at the world in a very different way. I just recently read for the first time, shame on me, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Have you read that, Ed?
Yes, I did a long time ago now, when it first came out.
Oh, my goodness. Reread it. But just that worldview, that ability to take something so different and yet make it also accessible to humans, I think it allows us to explore, yeah. Explore ourselves even when we think we’re reading something that’s so different from ourselves. So it’s, you know, a human wrote it. So, therefore . . . I started my book, Vlad, which I realized . . . I was writing about Vlad the Impaler, right? And I was worrying about, was I going to whitewash this guy? Was I going to excuse him? And I didn’t want to do either. And then I realized, no, that’s not my job at all. My job is to depict him. And I literally wrote a prologue that said, “I’s not up to me to decide. You decide. You’re the reader. You decide what you think of this guy.” And I came . . . I found this quote by a Latin writer called Terence, who said, “I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me. “And I think that’s a good sort of motto for the for us in the world. And perhaps particularly as fantasy writers, you know, let’s explore, and everyone is probably, if you do it well and with integrity, going to be able to find something that they can relate to or something that’s going to make them think about their world slightly differently.
And what are you working on now?
Well, switching hats entirely, I’m back into historical fiction, though, not my more medieval stuff, which is where I’m probably better known. I’m writing a World War Two saga. Fascinated by World War Two. It is loosely based on my parents’ story because, I mean, you wonder why I grew up a storyteller, my dad was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. My mum was a spy. So . . . she was a spy in the Norwegian resistance. So, I’m writing a story about, it’s loosely based on them, about a pilot and a spy meeting and various times they meet during the war and what their different wars look like. You know, I’m not . . . given my you know, that I don’t set out knowing the huge amount, I’m not quite sure what it is yet. I’m just writing and having a hell of a time, actually, I’m really enjoying it. It’s very close to my heart in lots of ways. I feel I’m shaped by the people who shaped me, who were shaped by World War Two.
Did your parents tell stories of those times or write them down?
My dad was a storyteller, you know, being an actor and a writer himself, and, to a certain extent. My mum . . . my dad was very gregarious and, you know, one of the lesser-told stories of the war is that for many people, it was their best time, no matter how terrible it was. You know, how do you beat being a glory boy? You know, a fighter pilot? How do you beat . . . does the world ever come close to that again? My mum not so much. You know, Norwegian, you know, saw the Germans marching down her high street on April the 9th, 1940, lost a lot of friends to it all, just escaped with her life when they bust her cell. She didn’t talk about it much at all. But I’m finding out a lot more now.
With my little publishing company I started for my own publishing purposes, Shadowpaw Press, one of the first things I put out was the First World War memoirs of my grandfather-in-law, my wife’s grandfather. And he set out to write his memoirs very late in life, and he wrote very complete memoirs of the First World War. And then it kind of petered out. It’s like he intended to go on through his life, but the rest of his life just obviously wasn’t as vivid to him as that time he spent as a truck driver at Vimy Ridge and then as a navigator on a Handley Page bomber and prisoner of war and all that stuff. It was quite a little set of war memoirs. And I was very happy to be able to bring it into the world.
Yeah. Fantastic. Well done you.
So that brings us, I think, pretty close to the end here. Just let people know where they can find you on mine.
Well, my website is AuthorChrisHumphreys.com. Chris Humphreys. People often misspell Humphreys. You can follow me on Twitter @HumphreysCC. I’m on Instagram @CCHumphreys. I have a Facebook, professional Facebook page, Chris Humphreys. But the best place to start is my website for sure.
OK, well, thanks so much for doing this and for being on The Worldshapers. And yeah, unusually, this one’s going to go out almost right away, so it’ll be very fresh.
Great! Well, fantastic. I mean, obviously, send me all the links, and I’ll publicize.
I will do that. So, thanks again.
Thank you. I really enjoyed our chat.