Category Archives: Uncategorized

Christopher Walker: Dreamers, Seekers, and Malcontents

In The Amnesiac and Other Stories, Christopher Walker presents thirteen engaging, beautifully told short stories about a diverse collection of dreamers, seekers, and malcontents. Be it a photographer recalling a young woman he almost loved, a coffee shop owner unwittingly caught up in an assassination plot, or a group of young English writers in search of a legacy in Spain, Walker paints a delicious series of portraits alternately tinted with pathos, danger, and humor. It’s a diverse collection, too, mostly mainstream fiction but with a smattering of fantasy and science fiction, that romps all across Europe.

Walker’s storytelling is straightforward but thoughtful, punctuated by great imagery, as in this excerpt from “The Castle,” in which a young girl looks out on her climate-change altered world where nonstop rain and rising sea levels have reconfigured the land:

Sarah was peering out of the window again, her forehead pressed up against the cool glass. She imagined the feel of the rain on her skin, and she thought about how whenever they got out of the rain some of it always seemed to linger like a memory on her clothes. (p. 252)

I felt the editing might have been a bit inconsistent. Some parts of some stories don’t quite have the smooth texture that typifies the collection. However, that doesn’t distract much from the engrossing character of each story. You’re walking alongside these people as they traverse their world and their lives, sharing in their joys and sorrows. The Amnesiac and Other Stories earns five stars for both story and writing. Well done, sir!

 I recently asked Christopher Walker about the collection and his writing. Here’s what he said:

Are the stories in this collection appearing for the first time, or have they been published elsewhere?

​Most of the short stories I write are targeted either at writing competitions or calls for submissions from various literary journals. Quite often there are story requirements that help me to frame the tale I want to tell, but most of the time there’s a word limit and nothing else. Still, having somewhere to submit gives me a lot of motivation to get down to some serious writing, and when I’m successfully able to place a story I really appreciate the positive feedback that that brings. I love publishing my own books, but seeing my name on somebody else’s collection has a certain charm to it, and I’m fortunate to be able to credit two literary journals with printing stories of mine before I launched the collection. WOLVES magazine ran “Six Photos of a Girl I Nearly Loved,” and The Nabu Review took “The Castle.” I’m indebted to both for their editorial feedback, as well as for supporting me as an independent writer.

I enjoyed the lead-off story, “Six Photos of a Girl I Nearly Loved,” but the one that really hooked me was ​t​he second, “The Assassination of Norman Wisdom.” I had the eerie feeling that I was there in Albania, accompanying the group of angry young men determined to gun down the celebrity they despised. Where did that story come from, and were any fragments of real people sewn into it?

​The Albanian story had an interesting genesis. I found a short story competition in England — the Yeovil prize perhaps, or the Bath one, I can’t quite remember — and they had an open entry where anything goes. The judge was Tony Hawks, a name I recognised from his books and TV broadcasts. I thought that by targeting something directly connected with him I might stand a better chance of getting noticed (I was wrong). Back in the early 2000s he made a TV show — and later a book — called One Hit Wonderland, about taking the ageing comedy legend Norman Wisdom to Albania, where he was popular, in order to get a pop song into the charts. I think he’d wanted to win a bet or something like that — it was weird in a way that he’d be picking on the poor Albanians for this vanity project, and that feeling of weirdness gave birth to the idea of some local youths wanting to shoot Norman Wisdom. A lot of what happens in the story is true — Norman Wisdom did indeed give a short concert in the middle of a football match in Tirana, and Tony Hawks was there too. The rest of course is sheer fabrication.​

The ultimate story, “Seville: Or, Failure” follows a trio of young aspiring writers seeking the perfect place to become inspired and write. Yet their journey ultimately leads to their separation and very little real writing, although the failure of their experiment leads to victories of other sorts. Do you see this tale as an allegory for the writer’s journey?

​In a sense, yes. The germ of an idea for this story came from a friend of a few years back. She often went on about wanting to be a writer, but that she wouldn’t start actually writing until she’d found a classic typewriter to work on. That struck me as an unusual approach, and made me wonder if it was perhaps the allure or social cachet attached with being a writer that she was after, and not the long hours of hard work that the role really involved. Although I realise I’m as much a part of the problem as anyone else, I do honestly feel like there are too many would-be writers out there. It’s not for everyone. I’m often not sure if it’s for me; but when I go a short while without writing I start to get enormously frustrated. I need the catharsis. The characters in ‘Seville’ are looking for catharsis; it’s only that it takes them a while to figure out what form that should take. ​

What else have you published?

​I’ve been working at a feverish pace over the last few years, ever since I discovered how simple the world of self-publishing was to enter, and how rewarding it was to see your own name on the spine of a book on your bookcase. I started with a children’s book called The Man in the Mango Tree — the first draft was written in a single sitting, from beneath a tree in Nigeria as it happens, though not a mango tree sadly. From there I went on to write a more grown-up book called Hit the Bottom and Escape, based on my adventures in Ghana and Nigeria. Most recently I put together a collection of short stories set in my adopted home of Poland, called Sara the Writer.​

What are you working on now?

​That rarest of things happened to me a few weeks ago — a whole story presented itself, as if it was shown to me as a movie in my head. My job seems to be just to write it all down before the threads of the memory begin to fray. I’ve got a title for it, though: The Stars Too Can Die of Sadness. It’ll be a novella, and I’d like to have it finished by the end of the summer.​

What advice do you have for writers or readers?

​My advice for writers is to re-read. I think we all do a good job of reading — it’s probably what motivated us to get into writing in the first place. But the first time you read a book, you don’t tend to do a critical job (or at least that’s my experience). The second time around you start to pick the story apart, see how the sentences were put together, how the characters get their individual voices. It can take multiple re-readings. I’ve read By Night in Chile about four times now and I’m still finding new things to learn from Roberto Bolano. I’m sure that my own work will be infected by his voice and his style, but I can live with that. I don’t see it as a problem.

As for readers — well, they are the lifeblood of literature, aren’t they? All I can ask is for them to continue existing, for being who they are. It doesn’t much matter what most people end up reading — I’m happier living in a world full of people who read John Grisham than of people who don’t read at all. If there are enough readers, you get that wonderful “long tail” effect, and that means that somewhere out there, there must be a person who will find my book, read it, and enjoy it. I’m happy to lock myself away for weeks on end, struggling to get my story just right, as long as there are even a handful of readers who will appreciate the effort.

Where can readers find you?

At closelyobserved.com, which currently redirects to my Amazon author profile, and on Twitter.

A Serious Influence

To the extent that I’ve been consciously influenced by any writer, it would be Ray Bradbury.

When did I first encounter Bradbury’s stories? I don’t exactly recall, but it was a long time ago. I read his short story “A Sound of Thunder” in either eighth or ninth grade. That was during my family’s brief stay in Sacramento, California, and is the earliest clear memory I have of his work.

Also about that time, my English class screened the 1963 TV documentary Ray Bradbury: The Story of a Writer, which in part follows the author through the development of a short story called “Dial Double Zero.” That story never appeared in print, but the documentary provides a solid glimpse of it through Bradbury’s musings, dramatic presentations of portions of the story, and his reading of the ending.

When I grow up as a writer, I’d like to be Bradbury. That thought has been stuck in my head for many, many years. Of course, in a literal sense it’s impossible. Authors have to find their own voices, their own styles. We each have a unique life, a unique set of experiences upon which we draw, so none of us writes exactly like anyone else.

But if I write even a third as well in my own way as Bradbury did in his, I could be pleased with the results. Sometimes I think I come close. Example: in October 2015 a story called “In the Butcher Shop” spilled out of me in a single hour. I suspect he might have given me a bit of help that day.

October, anyway, was his time of year…

Up the Middle

In last week’s post, I talked about story structure–beginning, middle, end–and specifically about beginnings. A beginnings is a short thing. Once the main characters arrive on the scene, the setting is established, and people run into problems, it’s over. Then the characters plunge into the story’s middle, where they spend the bulk of their time.

In the middle, the characters seek to resolve whatever their problems are, but it’s never smooth sailing. Things have to get worse before they can get better, because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a story. Tension equals interest. To avoid loosing the reader, tension has to be not only maintained but increased until the point when matters are resolved and the story ends.

Tension is generally increased through complications, unforeseen occurrences that make life harder for the characters. By way of illustration, let’s jump from literature to film. In the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is faced with a formidable challenge: find and recover the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. An oversimplified review of the plot shows several key complications:

  • As soon as Indie finds and recovers the Ark, the Nazis take it from him and seal him underground with his old flame, Marion.
  • As soon as Indie escapes, he learns the Ark is about to be flown to Germany.
  • As soon as he demolishes the airplane, he learns the Ark is about to be taken away by truck convoy.
  • As soon as he recaptures the Ark and gets it onto a ship, the Nazis intercept in a submarine and recapture it, taking Marion with them.
  • As soon as he ambushes the Nazi procession on their way to open the Ark and demands Marion’s release in exchange for not blowing up the Ark, his nemesis Belloq hits him in his weakest spot: he refuses to release Marion and dares Indie to destroy the artifact.

Tension escalates through this sequence of events. Although not easy, neither is it excessively difficult for Indie to recover the Ark in the first place. But once it’s been taken from him, he only recovers it through a major fight. And when it’s taken from him the third time, it’s hopeless. He ultimately succeeds through divine intervention.

Moreover the stakes are upped each time it’s taken from him. With each reversal of his fortunes, the Nazis move closer to their goal. The first time he loses the Ark, Indie and Marion are left to die. The second time, Marion is captured as part of the prize. The third and final time, Indie and Marion are both captured.

Along the way, a series of other events play out. New characters are introduced, both helping and opposing Indie. Smaller conflicts play out, including the conflict between himself and Marion. Crises arise and are resolved, but each time relief is short lived; another, larger crisis looms to take the place of the previous one.

These subplots play several roles. They help define the characters in ways that the main conflict does not. Without Marion and Marcus and Sallah and Belloq, Indie would be very two-dimensional as he battled the Nazis for possession of the treasure. Moreover, smaller conflicts and complications help sustain interest while the main conflict builds and when it falls into its inevitable lulls. The humorous interaction between Marion and Indie on the ship sustains interest between their escape with the Ark and the appearance of the Nazi submarine.

We’ve been examining a film, not a written story, but the principles are the same. The differences are largely of complexity: a film offers much less space than a novel, so novels are almost always more complex. That’s why a film based on a novel inevitably leaves out a lot of material, even when faithful to the book. The same can be said in comparing novels to short stories, which often don’t offer room for subplots or much character development. In all cases, however, the middle of the story maintains and increases the tension, which builds through a series of events until it reaches its climax.

And then it’s time for the end.