With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and editor/writer Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with author Chris (C.C.) Humphreys
Chris (C.C.) Humphreys is an actor, playwright, fight choreographer and novelist. Major roles have included Hamlet, Jack Absolute and the original voice of Salem the Cat in ‘Sabrina, the Teenage Witch’.
He has written eight historical fiction novels: ‘The French Executioner’, runner up for the CWA Steel Dagger for Thrillers 2002; and its sequel, ‘Blood Ties’, a bestseller in Canada; ‘Jack Absolute’, ‘The Blooding of Jack Absolute’ and ‘Absolute Honour’- short listed for the 2007 Evergreen Prize by the Ontario Library Association. His latest are: ‘Vlad – The Last Confession’, the epic novel of the real Dracula. (Sourcebooks May 2011); and the recently published, ‘A Place Called Armageddon’ (Hachette June 2011), published in the US by Sourcebooks in September 2012. He has just finished his new novel about William Shakespeare’s fight choreographer, ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’
He also writes for young adults: a trilogy called ‘The Runestone Saga’ consisting of, ‘The Fetch’, ‘Vendetta’, and ‘Possession’. (Knopf). His latest YA novel is ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’ (Knopf), runner up in the recent M Awards, Victoria BC. He is translated into thirteen languages.
Chris lives in a forest on Salt Spring Island, BC, with wife, son and cat – who is not called Salem.
Tell us about your fascinating path from working as an actor and swordsman, to becoming a successful, best-selling author with books translated in countries all around the world.
I think what links them all is storytelling – even swordfighting: a good fight should tell its own story. I come from a family of storytellers – all four grandparents were actors, both grandfathers were also writers and my Dad was both. So I grew up with people seeking to make sense of the world through large tales, extravagantly presented.
I began by telling other people’s stories, and was pretty successful at it for a long while. My initial motivation was also to spend a lot of time leaping around with bladed weaponry. I had been a fencer at school, and I never really learned to tap dance at drama school – but put a blade in my hand! This, combined with a certain look – I was a pretty youth! – led to ‘a big break’ that took me to Hollywood for a while. Played the lead in a Biblical-Roman mini series ‘AD –Anno Domini’ in the 80’s as Caleb, a Jewish Zealot who becomes Rome’s top gladiator (I’d have eaten Russell Crowe!).
But, truly, I always wanted to tell my own stories. Yet, like most people, I was crippled by self-doubt. I could never finish anything – you then have to show it to people, right? However in Vancouver, in 1992, I entered a 24-hour playwriting competition with no other objective than to complete a manuscript. I did – and I won first prize. This led to a production, two more plays – I actually earned some money writing. Still, it took me another six years to start on what I really wanted to write: historical fiction. The idea of my first novel (The French Executioner, recently optioned for film) had sat and matured in my brain while I dithered. Then it just poured out, it sold really fast. It combined everything, all my passions, especially swords and drama.
You have exclusively worked with British publishers and have recently changed publishers for your new novels. How will that be affecting upcoming publications? In what ways do you feel your novels will be impacted by these changes?
I will always be grateful to Orion in the UK for launching me, and for paying me to write for years. Editorially, they are terrific. But I was one of too many there; midlist authors who they like, hope well for, but essentially do not put too much effort into promoting. I did well enough, but never hit bestsellerdom, though my novel ‘Vlad, The Last Confession’ came close. But like a lot of long-term relationships, it had become stale. Meantime Random House, in the UK and Canada were wildly enthusiastic about a new idea I had. It felt time to tap into that ‘first love’ energy again.
I think the impact will be huge. Random House is such a massive and successful company. They have amazing editors, marketing people, and publicists. And they’ve promised a huge rise in my print runs. So I think they will back that with a promo that I haven’t had as yet.
I should also say that my US publisher, Sourcebooks, is also wonderful. They bought my entire backlist after their success with ‘Vlad’ last year. They make me feel that the whole house is behind me for this new launch – and they have backed that up with a beautiful hardback of ‘A Place Called Armageddon’.
As an author of eight historical novels, what can you tell us about the rewards and challenges of writing in your particular genre?
The rewards? Oh, so many! I think one of the main ones is the experience of time travel one gets, surely my ultimate fantasy. Not just reading about past times and exciting places but immersing yourself in them – through character. One of the joys of being an actor was to ‘live’ as someone else. Now I live as scores of people, doing incredible things, having adventures, enduring heartbreak… and perpetrating evil. The characters truly do possess me, and I miss them badly when they are gone. Yet I am a bit of a slut – for there’s someone new to fall in love with around the corner, and new and exciting times to lose myself in again.
Challenges? It’s definitely the balancing of research and story. I don’t believe in giving history lessons in my novels – yet people tell me they learn so much. I love history, but the facts must remain in service of the tale I am telling, not be a side bar to it. Readers need to know the history to understand the context of the characters’ journeys, and why they make the choices they do. So I sometimes have to delve into quite arcane stuff – the schism between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity in ‘Armageddon’ for example. So, I often create characters affected by that struggle, so I can air the debate… in action. That’s my big thing – Character-in-action – not history lessons.
Your experience in portraying Jack Absolute in Sheridan’s “The Rivals” led you to write three books featuring the character. In what other ways has acting impacted your writing career?
It affects the way I write, for sure. Strong characters seeking things clash with others seeking something else. Sometimes the scenes almost write themselves! I also love dialogue; it’s a great way to move the action forward and reveal character. People always tell me when they read my novels: ‘Oh, I can see the movie!’ (To which I usually reply: I hope you do!) But I think I do have that actor’s sense of the dramatic and the visual. And there’s a part of me always thinking: I must give the actor (character) something to play here. Strong people making strong choices – its very dramatic.
How do you come up with ideas for your next title? Do you brainstorm with your agent or publisher?
Yes, indeed, a lot of brainstorming goes on. ‘Vlad’ emerged from a drunken lunch with my editor – why hasn’t the real Dracula been written about? My next ones came from a chance remark by my agent, talking about how books, as artifacts, need to look great these days. He saw flames and darkness on the covers of a book called ‘Plague’ and another called ‘Fire’. We were also looking, as everyone seems to be these days, for ‘The Big Idea’, that high concept story, easily told and sold. I took the casual remark, wrote a treatment… and now I am at Random House!
Research seems to be a key element in making your books so believable and enthralling. What is your process for researching a new story?
It begins with an idea – and that can be to do with a place, as in ‘Armageddon’ and my love affair with Istanbul, which on the first visit blew me away. Then I start to read – generally at first – the times and the people. Then more specifically on ‘the event’. I always say that research is not primarily about getting the details right. That’s useful but what the facts do is act as springboards for the imagination. How would my characters react to that event, that detail.
So I read – and if I can, I go. There’s a resonance in stones, an energy you can pick up if you pause and listen. The scent, the quality of the light, the birdsong. Stuff… happens when you are there and it textures a book.
But I don’t research everything before I start. I learned that that can just be another form of procrastination. Learn enough to start – and then the story will tell you what you need to research. My desk is awash with books and I will pick them up when necessary.
You recently started a new blog on your website. What are your main reasons for blogging? How do you feel maintaining a blog has affected the marketing of your books?
I think it’s too early to tell! Going to WordPress has made it a lot easier, and I seem to be getting a lot of new followers. But the test will come really in the next few months with the launch of my new novel in the States. I hope it’s like an energy loop and that more readers will contact me, encouraging me to write more etc. etc.
What are some other resources you have found to be helpful in promoting your books and becoming a successful speaker?
The two are linked for me. One of my main advantages is that I am a shameless old theater whore and love getting out and selling my wares! I can talk passionately about my work and know how to communicate that passion. So, the more that I am ‘on the road’, the better. Sourcebooks recognizes this and is sending me out over the next two months.
I also enjoy the teaching side. I am appearing at quite a lot of conferences these days, trying to help people with ‘the process’ – essentially how to overcome their blocks and keep writing, get selling. A nice byproduct is that I also sell some books.
Do you have any new projects or appearances coming up that we can look out for?
Yes indeed. I am touring in September and October. You can find dates and venues under ‘Appearances’ at my website. I am going to be at Kirkland Book Fest, and in Seattle, Portland, Denver and Petaluma, California during September and October. You can find dates and venues under ‘Appearances’ at my website: