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Elegant sentences: An interview with Chris Killen

Interview by Lee Rourke.

Chris Killen’s The Bird Room is everything a debut novel from a young British novelist should be: mesmerising and authentic. With a prose-style that sits somewhere between Richard Brautigan and Knut Hamsun The Bird Room is a stylish and breathtakingly unhinged narrative of an existence turned sour: a modern tale of unrequited love brimming with sharp one liners and deadpan wit. Chris Killen is more than a Myspace Generation poet laureate his voice is alarmingly original, tender and above all, intelligently funny.

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3:AM: The Bird Room is completely embedded in the modern; it feels like it was written only yesterday. How was this pared down style of writing created? Is it something that comes naturally to you, or have you spent a long time perfecting it?

CK: I am very conscious of ‘style’, I guess. The narrative voice in The Bird Room — the short sentences, the repetition, etc. — came quite naturally, but it took me a while to get to it. I remember, I had lots of notes and ideas for scenes in the novel, and I made maybe one or two failed attempts to start, and then I wrote the first chapter, pretty much as-is. It was a very fun and exciting evening writing that first chapter. The rest didn’t come as quickly, or in order, but after I had that chapter I knew I could go back to it and try and sort of ‘get into’ the style of it again. Like, if I felt unsure, I would just go back and look at that chapter. I think the style came about as a kind of ‘spewing out’ of all the writing I liked and had previously ingested, all mixed together. It felt very natural, but wouldn’t have happened, maybe, if I hadn’t spent a long time reading lots of things that I found exciting, and writing a lot of short stories which were not very good.

3:AM: Speaking of beginnings (and the beginning of The Bird Room is very memorable): is a book’s beginning important to you?

CK: Yes, the beginning was the most important thing, I think. It’s been the main problem in writing the second one, too — starting off with a certain ‘tone’ that I can then go back to whenever I feel unsure about how to continue. I feel I have that now, but it took a while to get it right. And yes, I mean in terms of reading something else, I will usually feel very positively or negatively towards it, depending on the first few pages. I know that sounds a bit dreadful, and like I have a short attention span, but usually my favourite novels have ‘captured my attention’ and made me think ‘wow’ by the first page or two.

3:AM: You mention that you ‘ingested’ writers and writing prior to completing the novel; would you care to mention any influences, if any? And why?

CK: The main three, in terms of the writing of The Bird Room, were Richard Brautigan, Knut Hamsun, and Lorrie Moore.

I like how Brautigan seems unafraid to write down things which people might call ‘silly’ and ‘odd’ but (to me) feel like they have come directly from his imagination — like he has a very good imagination and it was not too hard for him to turn his odder thoughts directly into good, interesting, funny writing. I don’t see him as gimmicky or ‘throwaway’; I know a lot of people do. I think he was just being honest and the way his mind worked was quite strange and interesting.

When I read Knut Hamsun I felt like I learned a lot about how to present characters, and how to show their feelings through their actions — also I really liked and agreed with the idea that sometimes a character will do a strange or irrational thing on a whim.

Lorrie Moore — who I came to quite late on, maybe during the expanded rewrite I was doing after I signed with Canongate — was someone I liked a lot in a similar way to Brautigan. She seems to chase odd ideas and turn them into interesting, very elegant sentences.

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3:AM: Your style is quite similar in tone (although I would say still intrinsically your own) to the laconic, deadpan of Brooklyn-based writer Tao Lin. Do you feel you share a similar vision?

CK: When I first came across Tao Lin’s writing — I think it was his e-books on Bear Parade — I thought something like, ‘Wow. Here is modern writing that is doing (very successfully) what I would like to be able to do but can’t really yet, for some reason.’

I think there are a lot of differences between our writing — I think Tao has a much more ‘solid’ ‘overall aesthetic’ with his writing. I feel mine is quite scattered and patchy. I don’t know. But yes, I certainly liked his stuff a lot when I first read it and felt like I really ‘got it’.

3:AM: Is there a new literary voice emerging in Britain? Do you see yourself as part of something new?

CK: I wouldn’t say Britain, exactly. I think there is a new-ish thing happening with ‘internet writing’ and blogs which I guess I am a part of. That is now happening in Britain, too, whereas when I first started reading that kind of stuff, it seemed mostly to be going on in America.

One of the reviews of my novel (by Max Dunbar) made reference to a ‘Manchester’ style of writing, which I thought was odd but interesting.

3:AM: Which contemporary writers interest you?

CK: I mentioned Tao Lin already. I like a lot of people who write things on the internet: all the people I link to on my blog.

I guess I’ve always been drawn more to ‘cult’ fiction, and things where people are trying to push writing to interesting new places. Recently, or recently-ish, I’ve been reading and enjoying Gordon Lish, Lorrie Moore, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis. People like that.

3:AM: You have built a huge, solid following and foundation on the internet, via your blog; do you see the end of traditional in-house marketing strategies and foresee an individually-author-led marketing force that creates its own potential demographics and hype completely on its own terms?

CK: I think that publishers are still playing catch-up a bit, with things like blogs and even websites. And I think it is now considered a good thing to ‘build an internet presence’ — that new writers are often encouraged by agents/publishers to start a blog if they haven’t already got one.

I have no idea what is going to happen in the future. It seems kind of sad, in a way, that maybe someone who is writing good stuff, but is not that ‘internet savvy’ is going to find less readers, due to being bad at publicising themselves, or just not wanting to do so. But then on the flipside, it’s certainly easier than ever to create an actual ‘readership’ — to get your stuff read by people outside of your immediate friends and family — without submitting to agents, publishers, competitions, big literary magazines, etc.

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3:AM: Like me, you are obsessed with cats, why is that? I cried with laughter when I clicked on some Japanese cat website you recommended recently, what is it about cats you like? And cats on the internet in particular? And cats in hats?

CK: I had a cat from the age of 9 until about 15. I don’t know. I think I like cats because they are quite ‘serious’. Even if they are dressed up as Anne of Green Gables or Santa Claus (Claws?), they still look quite sombre. I think the cat obsession would go away if I got a cat again. I am trying hard to become someone who has a cat.

3:AM: ‘Manchester; so much to answer for’?

CK: My friend was talking about The Fall (in particular) and other Manchester bands like The Smiths and Joy Division, and how they were maybe borne out of Manchester being (then) quite an aggressive, depressing place; that the city created insular, neurotic people who made good music because they were a bit insane. I think we both kind of nodded our heads at that. But then, he comes from Bath, and I come from Kenilworth (near Coventry), and Manchester now seems quite ‘nice’ most of the time.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Lee Rourke is author of Everyday and the forthcoming The Canal and a co-editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 5th, 2009.