INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER GREY
Norm Goldman, Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com
in conversation with Christopher Grey,
author of Hand of Silver, Hand of Gold
30 May, 2018
Norm: Good day, Christopher, and thanks for participating in our interview.
Christopher: It’s a pleasure, Norm. Thank you for asking me.
Norm: Please tell our readers a little bit about your personal and professional background.
Christopher: I left school when I was 17. That was a long, long time ago, of course, but the fact that I did not go on to university when I was young (for various personal reasons) has had a profound effect on my writing development - an impoverishing effect, it has to be said. I felt while I was at school that I had some nascent talent, and there was some proof of it, but once I started work, I stopped writing creatively, and I did not resume it with any seriousness for more than twenty years. It was a terrible, irreversible error on my part - you can never reclaim those lost years.
Unfortunately, I lacked sufficient self-awareness and, it has to be said, courage, to continue on my own without support or approval. So I worked. I sold jeans, worked in a hospital, restaurants, telephone selling, hotels. In other words, I laid waste to my talent; I allowed it to atrophy. Unforgivable. But I have always had a self-destructive streak, and not writing was one way of manifesting it, I guess. Eventually I started a business with a friend; it was quite successful; we sold it, and the money allowed me to rethink my life.
Norm: How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Christopher: So I sold my share in my business and decided to re-educate myself. I was now 35 years old. I went to university (the New School in Manhattan), submerged myself in the arts, resurrected my writing from its premature interment, and gradually acquired the self-confidence to believe that I could do it. I still feel like an amateur sometimes. Well, I still am - I cannot support myself with my work yet. I have never been able to reconcile my standard of writing now with what I might have aspired to as a writer had I not abandoned my art for two decades. Paradoxically, the fact that I know I can (or could) be better is what keeps me going. I want to be a good writer. In my mind, I am not there yet. Not at all.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Christopher: I am English. Raised in England, I was taught the history of England with all its glories (the abominations I discovered later), endured a schooling system that had no interest in creative expression (a poem I handed in to my English teacher when I was 14, after the death of my father, a memoriam, was roundly dismissed with the epithet “too personal”), had no one to encourage my creative expression, and too much self-pity to encourage myself. I declined from scholarship boy to below average student in the space of three years after my father’s death, with the additional blot on my CV of being an impudent joker and out of control. It was true. I’m not proud of it. But the antic persona inside me - the introverted rebel - is a large part of my writing, as is the resentment I have against myself for the lost and wasted years, the distrust of authority, the yearning for a mentor I never found, the feeling that I have never fitted in anywhere, the longing for catharsis and redemption. And so on. A writer is nothing if not a list of his resentments and regrets!
Norm: Did you read any special books on how to write?
Christopher: I have read a good number of books on writing. Although I stopped reading Stephen King’s books in my twenties, I am a tremendous admirer of his rate of production, the sheer force of his personality, the drive, the unquenchability of his artistic wellspring. His book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is very, very instructive. It always makes me laugh when he says that a writer should turn out 10 pages a day. Most of us are delighted with three. But he does it, and no book taught him how. Genius is productivity, to my mind. I also enjoyed D B C Pierre’s Release the Bats. Like the author, rather left field; stirring, iconoclastic advice. And I took some very useful nuggets from Robert McKee’s Story; he is best known as a guru to screenwriters, but his book has some excellent advice for fiction writers as well.
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing and what inspires you?
Christopher: I like to think that attention to language, enjoyment of language, humour, and voice are notable in my writing, but, it has to be said, I have little evidence that anybody else believes that too. My inspirations are many and various: Shakespeare’s use of language, Saul Bellow’s boundless brio, Nabokov’s skill with scene-setting, Chekhov’s handling of multiple characters, my need to address and redress the past, my desire to make enough money to buy my brother an apartment, the longing to connect in some way with the world, and the vanity to want to leave something behind when I go (aside from my beautiful daughter).
Norm: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of the writing process?
Christopher: Everything is difficult at some point or other in the writing of a book! You have a great idea: the difficulty lies in developing it. You write the first twenty pages: the difficulty is writing the next twenty. You lose your way in the story: the difficulty is finding your way back. You rewrite the beginning and the end continually, because you understand how important they are. You worry about subplots, about too many or too few characters, about the authenticity of your setting for the reader, about the reader’s empathy with and sympathy for the protagonist, about the originality of your antagonist. Writing a book is like cooking a banquet for ten thousand people, but inviting only one. In other words, you write for a large audience (you hope), but it is a particular reader to whom you are directing your efforts. Writing a book is also like climbing a sheer rock face: you do it inch by agonising inch, knowing that you may fall and dash your head (or your idea) on the rocks a thousand feet below at any time. It’s that hard, and everything depends on it.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? As a follow up, are you a plot or character writer?
Please summarize your writing process.
Christopher: I try to combine both logic and intuition, giving myself enough freedom to extemporise and digress, while keeping a weather eye on the development and progress of the plot, which I have already mapped out in sketch form. The plot always seems to take a long time for me to consolidate, and it only happens when my characters are sufficiently developed to begin to act for themselves. I enjoy my writing most when I am well into a book and I suddenly get an amazing idea for the story; and that only happens when I feel confident about which way I am going; and I only feel confident when I have got the foundation of the story in place. My hope is that I am neither a plot nor character writer exclusively, but both simultaneously. That is what I aim for, and what I am here for. It is not necessary to tell me I have succeeded; I know I have not yet.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for Hand of Silver, Hand of Gold?
Christopher: The primary inspiration was twofold: honouring my father and my dear friend Johnny Cooper, to whom the book is dedicated. More than inspiration, the book was driven by a compulsion to pay my debt to both of these people.
Norm: How much research went into this book and what are some of the references that you used while researching this book?
Christopher: I am somewhat familiar with the Renaissance period now as a result of the research I did for my previous book, Leonardo’s Shadow, but I regularly dipped into my small collection of Renaissance non-fiction as I wrote, among which the Cambridge Companion to the Renaissance, At Home in the Renaissance (V&A Museum exhibition catalogue), The Italian Renaissance Reader (Bondanella/Musa), The Renaissance Bazaar (Brotton), Italy in the Age of the Renaissance (Najemy), et al. I also spent some considerable time looking at maps of Bologna, old and new, as well as reading about its history. It helped that I spent a wonderful summer there in the early 90s; the sensations and memories of that time fed themselves into the book’s “feeling.”
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about its writing?
Christopher: The main difficulty for me in the writing of this book was separating myself from the waves of emotion I felt during the writing, as the strong connections I felt to the subject matter and the inspirations for the story, as well as the personal difficulties I was undergoing during the writing (financial, familial) threatened at times to overwhelm me. The most enjoyable part was in knowing that at the end I had not given in to the darker side of myself that wanted to turn the book into a tirade against the world. I wanted an upbeat ending in spite of myself. I wrote one.
Norm: How did you go about creating the character of Orlando Novi?
Christopher: In its original form, the character of Orlando Novi was meant to be a more ambitious version of me; he has my vulnerability, my insecurity, my ambivalence, my doggedness, and my lyrical sensibility, as well as my attraction to the dark side, to isolation and solipsism, and my tendency to overthink matters. From this template sprang another, more valiant form of myself; a form of self-flattery, perhaps, and a hope that I can still amount to something more than my meagre parts.
Norm: How did you create the other characters in the book such as Leon Cassini and Giovanni Bentivoglio?
Christopher: Leon Cassini was based initially on a gentleman I used to do business with in my other life (a man who called me a rogue but who was very much a rogue himself), a man whom I also respected for his total commitment to his business. Giovanni Bentivoglio, who was, as you will know, a real person, and a real ruler of Bologna, presented himself to me mainly through an old painting I saw of him; something about his face conjured up the mixture of brute power and cynicism (along with the hint of a softer, sentimental side) that greatly appealed to me. Writing his part was a pleasure, I must say. Among the many other characters in the book, I can say that some were suggested by people I have known, some by characters I have come across in art, drama, and fiction, and some by wishful thinking - people I wish I had known (such as Galatea Mistri).
Norm: What made you want to insert Leonardo da Vinci into the plot?
Christopher: Ah, yes. I wanted a very special weapon. For that I needed a very special inventor - a flawed inventor, true, but a genius of the highest echelon, nonetheless. Only one man came to mind; the only man I needed for the job.
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Christopher: My intention was to write a suspenseful, engrossing, original, literary (and if not literary, then at least literate) historical novel that completely satisfies the reader, while also exorcising (for me) the various personal ghosts haunting the material. My other goal was to sell books! No doubt I have failed on all counts except the exorcism...and even that I am not absolutely sure of.
Norm: What projects are you working on at the present?
Christopher: I want to write one more novel set in the Renaissance. I have a terrific story I want to tell. But, Norm, I will be honest with you: if Hand of Silver, Hand of Gold does not sell, I am not sure I will be able to go through with it. There is only so much banging of head against wall that a man can take, even one as thick-headed as I am.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Hand of Silver, Hand of Gold ?
Christopher: There is my website, but it is still sparsely populated; I will add to it gradually. Readers might like to take a look at www.leonardosshadow.com, the website that accompanied my previous book; there is quite a lot of info about me as well as Leonardo on that site.
Norm: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and read your work. Good luck with Hand of Silver, Hand of Gold.
Christopher: No, I must thank you, Norm, for the thought-provoking questions. An interview is a great way to learn more about one's motivations!