Published: August 20th, 2015
Nicholas Christopher is the author of seventeen books: nine volumes of poetry, including the forthcoming On Jupiter Place; six novels, including Veronica, and A Trip to the Stars; a nonfiction book, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City; and a novel for children, The True Adventures of Nicolò Zen. He lives in New York City.
Howl: What is your writing process like for poetry as well as novels?
Christopher: I write every day for four hours on fiction, and I usually have poems in progress that I really work on during my regular work time and all the rest of the day, honing and refining.
Howl: How do you edit your work and is it the same for both poetry and novels?
Christopher: A novel is like a ship, filled with components that require constant attention. Except for precision with language and originality and being true to one’s vision, the revising process is completely different. To use this simple metaphor, a poem is more like a kayak. The scale is so different and the amount of time expended. After all, my novel “A Trip To The Stars” came in at 232,000 words. It went through six drafts over four years. There is no typical revision time for a poem: it can go on for years, or be done in a few weeks. They are just not comparable in terms of revision. Also, my editor has her say in my novels, and then a copy editor comes in to find factual errors, and often has to be reminded strongly that a novel is fiction and a lot of things are imagined. With my nine books of poems, my editors have been large publishing houses; they expect a finished book, no one edits me except for the smallest suggestions, such as the order of the poems. It is a Darwinian process: if you become an established poet, you edit yourself. And that can be harder than it sounds. Everything is on your shoulders. At the same time, no one butts in to your creative process, not even copy editors.
Howl: What advice do you have for budding writers?
Christopher: The same advice I was given: read everything of quality you can get your hands on. Read, read, and read some more. That’s how you become a writer. And write every day or five days a week, or whatever. Set aside a time that you write and always adhere to it. If it is two or three hours a day, you’ll get a lot done. Wait for “inspiration” and you’re finished. You’ll get inspired by staying glued behind your desk. Ideas come to you when you are writing, rarely when you are walking around thinking about it. Thomas Mann wrote one page a day; when a reporter asked him how he got anything done, he said, “That is 365 pages a year.” Read and travel and see as much as the world as you can, and take it in.
Howl: What draws you to writing poetry vs a novel when you have inspiration?
Christopher: I write my novels every day, a piece at a time, for years. When a poem is germinating and then demands to be written, it can be with a first line or a title or a single image. There are no rules. But I have never sat down to write poetry and written fiction instead. I am also writing both, and they operate out of different places of origin. Never a choice.
Howl: How do you feel being compared to Jorge Luis Borges, as has been done by The Toronto Globe and Mail as well as The Washington Post? There must be a sense of flattery, but perhaps is also accompanied by pressure.
Christopher: I feel deeply honored and happy. I don’t feel pressure from it because it always comes in the form of a review or article that is offering up such praise or comparisons, for work I have already written and published, obviously. I am already working on new work when reviews appear because publishing follows a rather slow schedule. It does not pressure me with my new work, it spurs me on. Praise is good for a writer, especially when it is intelligent. You have to accept it with equanimity. And, again, feel honored to be put in company you would want to be in.
Howl: What are some of the joys and challenges of your extensive writing career so far?
Christopher: The joys are writing exactly what I want to write, which I have always done, as a poet and fiction writer. I have been fortunate to have had financial and critical success that has given me a good life, but I never sat down and wrote for money or to please anyone but myself and my readers. The greatest joy is that I wanted to be a writer when I was sixteen, and I succeed in (so far) publishing 17 books. The challenge is always the same: no matter how much you have written, and how much you have been given support and praise, you sit down alone each day with a blank page and write, and it never gets easier. Hopefully you take fewer wrong turns as you go, fewer detours, fewer lost highways (like spending a year on a novel and realizing when you get to p. 100 that it is actually p. 1). The challenge is always to do be at your best and do something you have never done before and hope it will take your readers on a rewarding journey.
Howl: You are very well traveled having lived in Europe and regularly trekking to Venice, Hawaii, and the Grenadine Islands. How do you feel traveling has impacted your writing?
Christopher: Immensely. Nearly all my books, and countless poems, would not have been written had I not been to various places, including the ones you mention. I am an American writer, and have been all over my own country at different times, but living in and traveling in other countries, hearing other languages, looking at America from afar, being a foreigner in someone else’s country, an outsider, an observer, has nourished me enormously. Also, the three places you mention, two of which I will be visiting in the next four months, are beautiful and filled with elements, natural and imaginative, that nourish my work.
Howl: What are your thoughts on the trends you’ve noticed in contemporary poetry and fiction?
Christopher: There is so much different kinds of writing going on. Whatever moves me, takes me somewhere with heart and soul and brains, I will enjoy on some level. I don’t place much credence in passing fads, abstract academic ideas, what critics think is happening — everything is happening. I like clarity and fiber and real content in poetry. So-called “language poetry” (a ridiculous name) in which content and meaning are abandoned and words are strung together without much purpose or discipline does not interest me. Formalist poetry always brings up the same question for me: why do you want to use a form that was common in the 18th century, for example. If there is a good a reason for it in 2015, if it enhances the poem, more power to you. Sonnets, for example, seem ageless. I have published some myself written in blank verse because it served the purpose of the given poems. But form for form’s sake seems like a sterile exercise. I was classically trained: I studied Latin for 6 years, ancient Greek, and Russian. I had an instructor who had us write in dactylic hexameter for a while. It was interesting, and I got a feeling for what Virgil and Horace were dealing with in terms of rhyme and meter. But in my real life as a writer I have never written a poem in dactylic hexameter. It would sound nothing like what I hear as an American walking around in 2015. Everything you hear and see and imagine and feel should feed into your work. Structural issues will support the expression of ideas and stories, not the other way around. As for fiction, I like anything that works, that can carry me — again, like a ship, but now as a passenger and not (when I am the author) as the captain, first mate, boatswain, sailor, cook, etc. There are no rules except to be true to your vision and construct it in words with as much freshness and power as you can.
Howl: There is debate these days about the value of an MFA vs living in New York City when it comes to becoming a successful writer. What do you believe are the essentials to a good education for a writer?
Christopher: The same answer I gave to question #3. Read, and write every day, and be open. Also that is a false comparison. I don’t really understand the question. In fact, I think it is ridiculous. I happen to be a professor in the best MFA program in NYC, at Columbia. One can do both! I did not get a graduate degree in writing. It never entered my head to do so. I got my B.A. at Harvard, where I was already publishing in magazines, and went abroad to write my first book because it was exciting, inexpensive, and I got to see some of the world while I was very young and energetic. I live in NYC, but that is my choice. I am a native New Yorker. I get a lot of work done in New York because I can be with a lot of people if I choose to, or be completely anonymous in my everyday life of writing. I don’t need to be in a cabin in the woods, though I can write there too. I can write anywhere, really. If an MFA helps you become a writer, you should go that route. I have taught some incredible young writers who have gone on to have wonderful careers through their hard work and talent. All of them, without exception, write with great regularity and rigor. Living in NY or anywhere else is its own education. An MFA might be a part of your education. The two things are not related. It doesn’t matter what road you take, so long as you arrive at your destination, the one you set for yourself, as a writer.
Howl: What’s next for Nicholas Christopher?
Christopher: What is always next. A new book of poems next March, called “On Jupiter Place.” A new novel and a novella both of which I am currently writing. A lot of travel. And enjoying as much of life as I can while I can.