One of the most enjoyable things about this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival was meeting author Chris Hill and having a most enjoyable conversation with him. I thought that you, too, would enjoy meeting Chris, so here goes …
First of all, Chris, let me say congratulations on winning one of Britain’s biggest story awards, The Bridport Prize, and on the publication of Song of the Sea God, your first full-length novel, which has already been shortlisted for two national awards including the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year prize.
Thanks for having me, Liz – lovely to talk to you on your blog having met you recently at the Chipping Norton Lit Fest!
Song of the Sea God has been described as ‘a visionary and delightfully bizarre novel’. Where did the idea come from for the book?
I suppose the honest thing to say is that the idea evolved. The book is about a man who washes up on a small island off the coast of England and tries to convince the local people he is a god. Perhaps it began with wanting to write about the nature of god and religion in people’s lives – what faith means to them. I’m not particularly religious myself and I guess I’d describe myself as agnostic – but saying that I don’t know the mysteries of the universe is not the same thing as saying I think there are no mysteries. So I wanted to write a book about the god shaped hole in people’s lives – with jokes.
The research for a novel that takes the reader on a ‘microcosmic wild ride’ must have created particularly challenging problems. How did you set about your research?
Well, I made some of it easy for myself by setting the book on the island where I grew up – Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria. That meant I knew where everything was, the geography of it was second nature to me which gave it a basis in reality.
But the characters and the plot are nothing to do with Walney or the people there. There was a lot of research went into the rest of the book – everything from how to do psychological magic tricks like cold reading, through to the beliefs and traditions of ancient religions.
I’m flattered that since publication I’ve had experts in some of these areas tell me they think it rings true. That’s down to reading lot of library books, plenty of research on the internet and so on. I think as far as research goes, it’s always best to know more than you put on the page – it should inform what you write, rather than cause you to regurgitate information like a school essay!
Which did you find the hardest part of the novel to write, and how did you overcome any problems?
The ending is pretty intense. The way I structured it, the book starts out quite calm and even light-hearted, then gets gradually darker. There are some genuinely disturbing scenes which I think work for the reader partly because of what’s gone before. I just had to go for it, in the knowledge that what I was describing was backed up by research and in the hope that my readers would be invested enough in the plot and characters by that stage to ride the tiger with me.
What is your own favourite novel, and are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?
Hard to name just one isn’t it? I suppose my first love was the work of the American novelists of the last half of the 20th century – now recently deceased. People like Updike, Heller, Vonnegut, Bellow. They combined fabulous writing, great narrative voices and amazing plots and characters.
The novels that Sea God most often gets compared to are different ones though – all great works of course and I’m very flattered. People have said Lord of the Flies, they’ve said Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, then there’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, The Magus by John Fowles, the list goes on. I can see what people mean with all of those. A curious one I had was someone telling me I wrote a lot like Magnus Mills in The Restraint of Beasts – but I’d never read the book. I have now and love it. How can you write like someone you’ve never read? I guess perhaps we had similar influences?
What is the worst thing anyone’s said to you?
I’m guessing you mean in terms of writing here rather than say, romantic rejection? I’m going to assume you mean writing. The first novel I wrote was a kind of thriller – it was me trying to be liked, trying to be conventional and popular. One agent who rejected it said it was too ‘safe.’ I thought right – next time I’m going to give full vent to my imagination, and nobody is going to get to call it safe. So I wrote Sea God – my tale of a would be god told by a dwarfish mute on an island full of magic. And nobody has said it’s safe!
Would you tell us something about your next novel?
It’s called the Pick Up Artist and it’s lighter and gentler than Sea God. It’s a kind of rites of passage book about a young man’s attempt to attract women using the PUA system of ‘psychological techniques’ which he hopes will persuade them into bed with him.
And lastly, a question I’m sure that readers will be asking, Where can we buy a copy of Song of the Sea God?
It’s published by Skylight Press and the simplest way is probably through Amazon. Just click here.
Thanks very much, Liz – great to talk to you! If people want to link up with me they can find me here: