Soon After First Light: Nicholas Christopher
BY Nicole Saldarriaga, November 19, 2020
Soon After First Light is a series where we talk craft, process, and pandemic with Columbia's accomplished writing professors.
Here, we talk with Professor Nicholas Christopher—author of seventeen books—about establishing routines, keeping notebooks, and finding your voice.
Nicholas Christopher received his BA from Harvard College. He is the author of seventeen books: six novels, The Soloist, Veronica, A Trip to the Stars, Franklin Flyer, The Bestiary, and Tiger Rag; nine books of poetry, On Tour with Rita, A Short History of the Island of Butterflies, Desperate Characters: A Novella in Verse, In the Year of the Comet, 5° & Other Poems, The Creation of the Night Sky, Atomic Field: Two Poems, Crossing the Equator: New & Selected Poems, 1972-2004, and On Jupiter Place; a nonfiction book, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City; and a novel for children, The True Adventures of Nicolò Zen. He has also edited two poetry anthologies: Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets and Walk on the Wild Side: Urban American Poetry Since 1975. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Paris Review, Granta, Esquire, The Nation, and Best American Poetry. His books have been widely translated and published abroad, and he has received numerous awards and fellowships: from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among other institutions. He just completed his seventh novel, which is slated for publication in 2021. He is also the Co-creator, Writer, and Executive Producer of a television series now in pre-production, based on his novel Veronica, that will consist of thirteen episodes.
Our conversation begins—as do most interactions over Zoom these days—with a discussion about Christopher's cats. Christopher, whose impeccably neat office is visible behind him, is openly adoring of his three adopted cats that were rescued on the streets of Queens. At several moments during our conversation, they hop into the frame to greet him or ask to be let in and out of the white-walled office, which Christopher has had specially soundproofed to otherwise limit distractions.
"I always ask my students," he reminds me, "Do you have a door that you can close?"
For Christopher, having a door to close and a space in which he can devote all his energy and focus to writing is an integral part of his process, which he sums up in a single phrase: "The inspiration will come while you are working."
"It doesn't mean you can't be walking through the park and get a great idea," he says, "but that's not the same as writing. I think when you're sitting down doing it...you're focusing; and if you're focusing, then you can be inspired by the simple fact that you're writing. There are so many things to get past when you write...if you have to work your way to your desk, you're already spending a lot of energy."
When Christopher isn't teaching, he makes his way to his writing desk seven days a week. By his own admission not a morning person, he will typically start writing at 11am and work for at least four hours. After a break, he returns in the evening to print and go over what he's written. At the end of the week, he'll go over the whole of what he's produced that week. With this kind of discipline, Christopher asserts that there are no "good and bad days." He's never believed in writer's block. Instead, he says that there can be "slow days, days where you write less but you've figured things out, solved problems"—in the writing—and he says he prefers days like this to days where the writing comes easily and abundantly, but needs a great deal of polishing.
"There's always something to do with the novel,” Christopher tells me. “It's like building a big ship. There's always something that needs work. It may be what you think of as drone work, but I don't ever let myself not work on it once it's started, because if I'm waiting to be inspired or to feel good, that could take forever."
When asked to share his advice for young writers who might struggle "getting to their desks," Christopher recommends thinking of a writing routine as including the tasks you complete before the writing. In Christopher's case, he feeds his cats and reads a bit (as long as it is not fiction, which he says could distract him endlessly from his own writing); but incorporating something to the beginning of your writing routine as simple as making a pot of coffee, or sharpening 17 pencils (as Hemingway used to do) can act as a kind of signal to your brain that it's time to prepare for writing.
This type of routine didn't always come easily to him, however. After graduating from Harvard University, where he studied poetry under Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht—the latter becoming a lifelong friend—Christopher's writing life was more about "catching whatever time [he] could," because his writing time was bracketed by other responsibilities and obligations. It was in his mid-twenties, after his poems appeared in the New Yorker and he published a book of poems, that Christopher dedicated himself to working on his craft "every single day." When he shortly thereafter began writing fiction, he managed to write his debut novel in six months, revise it in three, and sell it almost immediately. From that moment on, he's stuck to his regular writing schedule.
Despite the apparent strictness of his routine, however, Christopher's process, much like his work itself, can have a magical and whimsical quality about it. His second novel, Veronica (Dial Press, 2008)—widely recognized as the first example of Christopher's signature prose style, which is suffused with nearly hallucinatory images and favors what we might call magical realism over straight realism—was also written in six months, almost by accident.
"That was a magical book, in a way," he says, "I wrote it by hand. I was writing something else and I wasn't happy with it. So when my regular writing time was done, I started writing something in a notebook just for myself, by hand. The other book never saw the light of day. I didn't even finish it. Veronica, I finished and sold immediately. That was the book I was meant to write, but I had to kind of fool myself."
In Christopher's mind, Veronica came so easily to him because he fooled himself into writing the novel by writing for himself, for fun, and with no expectations. He now says, with great conviction, "the only expectation should be to entertain and please yourself—to write what you want. If you start thinking what will work in the marketplace, what will be more intellectually satisfying for critics...that's just a dead end."
In the same vein, Christopher tries never to sterilize the writing process by focusing on numbers like word count. "We're not machines," he says, "it's not an industry. Days when I might write 200 words on a really compressed page that leads me somewhere are much more valuable than the day when I write 800 words and have to keep going back to it." Routine, for Christopher, is about discipline and sticking with the work, but it's not an automated or robotic process.
When asked how he came to combine his poetic voice with his prose novels, Christopher refers to his debut novel, The Soloist, about a piano soloist who's hit a wall in his life and his career. According to Christopher, The Soloist is the most neo-realistic of all his books—a style which did not necessarily come naturally to him.
"I was young," Christopher says, "and the last thing I wanted to do was write a 'poet's novel'—you know that pejorative term for gorgeous prose that goes nowhere, has no plot. So I decided to write a very plot-driven novel; but I remember my next editor said 'my god, you barely used a metaphor in the whole book.' And it was true—I was really rebelling against my true self."
With Veronica, the young poet-novelist found his true voice—the voice he would continue to explore in his next six novels—resulting in a sexy, noir tale peopled by eccentric mystics and imbued with illusions. "Veronica just released the energy I had as a poet," says Christopher, "and it still has a plot, characters, all kinds of things happening, but with much more freedom. When I wrote the book, part of my attitude was 'I don't care if anyone else likes this,' and that was a great lesson to me."
Despite the creative freedom that Christopher feels when he imbues his fiction with fantastical images and other magical elements, he is a big believer in research and enjoys incorporating facts in his novels not just to enhance the realistic elements, but also to heighten the elements that, at first glance, seem speculative or invented. He brings up the common cliche that life is often "stranger than fiction," and we discuss facts which he's collected through research that end up taking on the flavor and tone of magic. In A Trip to the Stars (Dial Press, 2000), for example, Christopher presents a type of spider that navigates by the stars. In Christopher's unique voice, the spider seems like a too-good-to-be-true, poetic invention—but in truth, such a spider exists in 'real life'.
"I don't think anything is beyond the imagination," says Christopher, "and when you integrate it and make it seem real, whether you call it magical realism or futurism or whatever name you give it, there are few writers who don't do that on some level."
When asked whether he keeps a kind of repository of facts—where he might jot down an odd factoid he comes across or think of a line he wants to save for later—Christopher gleefully holds up a stack of notebooks, some of which have post-it notes marking specific pages. He keeps one for facts and ideas, one for the poems he's working on, and one for whatever novel he is working on at the time. "Most of our minds don't work much faster than we can push a fountain pen. Unless you were a robot. Even if your fingers are flying on the keyboard, you're usually typing over or something. I find that it's very relaxing too, to have it be just you and the words, not have to look at the screen." According to Christopher, many of his books were first written by hand in a notebook, on a legal pad, or a clipboard. At the end of each week of writing, he'd type up what he'd done by hand that week.
Keeping notebooks has been a habit of Christopher's since college, when he played varsity soccer and baseball and kept a small notebook with him to write poetry while traveling on the bus to away games. It was after graduation, however, that Christopher tapped into what he credits as the biggest influence on his writing: travel. After driving through Europe and eventually settling in Greece for a few years, he returned to New York but continued to travel regularly.
"The more you can travel, the better," says Christopher, emphasizing the importance of discovering different parts of the world—though he acknowledges that the current COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed not just our ability to travel, but also the daily rhythms of our lives.
"I live in New York for a reason," he says, "it's not to be isolated. What I've always liked about New York is that you can be as anonymous as you want. You can not see anybody for a long time or you can go out all the time. You have a choice. Now we don't have a choice. I haven't been on the subway since January. I haven't taken the kind of long walks I like to take. A friend of mine from Oregon came here and said, 'wow, I see why you live here—the landscape is faces.' We get to see all kinds of people—this is why writers often live in cities. It's the lack of that. When I look out the window to see the street, there's nobody. It's like a ghost town."
The sense of isolation has made it harder for Christopher to write, as it has for many, and he's glad that he finished his latest novel just before things got really bad. "People have said to me, don't you do this all the time?" he says with a laugh as he pets the cat that is tenaciously trying to get his attention. "They imagine I'm just a hermit, and I say no, I don't do this all the time where I can't go see my friends. I can't go to dinner. I can't go for a walk without wearing a mask. I found writing hard because of everything going on, especially in the spring, with all the death. I was glad I had finished the book."
As for his advice to young writers, Christopher says adamantly that the only way to form a routine is to pick a time when you're free and then "don't let anything get in the way of it." Even if it means picking an odd time, as he did when he was younger and could only write at night. "It's figuring out a time that you would rarely have to cancel—and then reading everything you can get your hands on and just believing in yourself when you write."