Catherine Ryan Hyde: Author Friday

Christopher Moore

A little background for my readers. When I was a starving author…oh, wait, I still am. I mean, I am again. Let me start over.

The first time I was a starving author, Chris Moore lived here in my tiny town of Cambria. He used to work at a motel in San Simeon with my mom, but, when his big break hit, I’d still never met him. One day, post-meteoric success (his), he dropped in to our Cambria Writer’s Workshop on a day I was scheduled to read my work. Heart pounding, unable to breathe, I quickly ditched the piece I’d planned to read and pulled out a dicier, more adult, more cutting-edge short story. Chris pronounced it “as good as anything being published in the literary field.” (I might have gotten that last word wrong, but the rest of it is written on my brain with indelible laundry marker.) He later wrote me a letter of encouragement. Yes, we used paper and stamps back then. Chris and I are very old. The letter said, among other things, “Take joy in the work, for it may be all you get.” But mostly it was encouraging. I’m not sure where that letter is now, but for years it was in a frame on my bathroom wall. Hey, I’m short on wall space, Chris. Take a compliment where you can get it.

[At this point in the interview, Chris interjects: Remember that. And I remember saying “The only thing wrong with that story is that I’m hearing it in a workshop and not reading it in published form. You need to send it out.” I’m glad you did.]

And then…well, then we knew each other. If I have any more stories to tell on Chris, I’ll weave them into the questions.

Here goes:

Me: Years ago, but post-Pay-It-Forward, I came to one of your book signings (LAMB) and bought a copy. No, I don’t expect you to still be grateful. There’s a question in here. You wrote the following inscription to me: “Are we rich and famous, or what? Gotta love this author stuff.” I kept meaning to ask you if you were kidding. I’m still not that rich and famous. But I kept thinking, Maybe Chris is. And maybe it’s not a joke. But most things you say are. So…

Chris: I think the thing was, by that point, what we shared was that we had both had some breaks. We had sort of gotten to the “there” that I think we had envisioned when I was waiting tables and you were mucking out stables, if I remember right. [He does.]  I was sort of commenting on the way the “local” media treats you for a while.  “He sold a book to Disney, he’s a star! She got to go to the White House and meet the President, she’s a celebrity!”  Yes, and that’s why I was back writing in the diner until they wouldn’t let me any more because of California smoking laws (when I wrote, I smoked, in those days), and we were both going to the little co-op gym in Cambria. What was the same, for me anyway, was the work. It’s never gotten appreciably easier and you still have to do it. But everyone thought we were rich and famous.

Funny thing is, I remember the day I went in to join the local gym, and this is exactly what the physical therapist who was doing my “fitness assessment” said, “So, you’re a writer. Have you ever done anything physical, or do you just use your body to carry your head around like Catherine Ryan Hyde?”

I still explain my fitness regimen that way, by the way: “Oh no, I only use my body to carry my head around.”

Me: Gosh. How suitably embarrassing.

This one you probably saw coming. Those years when we used to see each other at the gym. And one day you told me about LAMB. And I said, “Oh, my God, Chris, don’t do it. They’ll kill you. They’ll firebomb your house.” I thought the religious right would have your head on a stake. You said, “It’s not for them.” I said, “It doesn’t matter. They’ll come find it just so they can hurt you for it.”

So, okay. I was wrong. I mean, wronger than you usually think of when you think of wrong.

Years later (and I still think this is one of the funnier author stories) I saw you at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. And I admitted how unusually, remarkably wrong I’d actually been. You said, “Yeah, that’s okay. Remember when you told me your idea for Pay It Forward and I said, ‘If it were me, I’d give the boy super powers?'”

Yes, there’s a question in here, too. I’ve been phenomenally off the mark about other things as well. Both before and since. How about you? What else have you gotten remarkably wrong?

Chris: I think only my expectations. I always have the greatest hope for a project. Well, not always, I did a fairly miserable graphic novel last year and I had a feeling during the process that it was going to be miserable, but other than that, I tend to be wrong about how well my books will resonate. For instance, when I wrote Bloodsucking Fiends (my third book), I remember sending it to my agent and saying, “This is going to sell to Hollywood. No doubt about it. I want a million dollars.” I had written the book in three acts, like a movie, it was a fall-off-a-log easy adaptation, very visual, very funny, I thought. And no one had actually done a vampire comedy that was funny. Well, there were two really bad vampire comedies released almost contemporaneous with our sending the book out to Hollywood, and both of them bombed (because they were awful). Vampire comedies were suddenly poison. It wouldn’t have changed what I wrote, because I was under contract and the idea had been chosen by my editor from a few I’d submitted, but my expectations were way off. That tends to be where I go wrong. I’ve learned to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised.

Sacré Bleu

Me: You have a novel coming out called SACRE BLEU. Which you undoubtedly already knew. It’s a very ChrisMoore-esque title. I can hear your voice when I read it. But that can’t be the most important thing that I should know about it, or that my readers should know about it. So…what else should we know?

Chris: It’s about Impressionist and Post Impressionists painters in Paris during the Belle Epoch. It opens with the murder of Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is a major character. Most of the major painters of the time play a part. But the title and the book are about the color blue. Sacre Bleu is a book about the color blue. You can check out previews of it and blog entries I wrote while living in Paris and researching it at SacreBleu.Me

Me: You once gave me some good advice about not letting a publisher stick me with a bad cover (sometimes I’ve been able to prevent it, other times not). I like the cover of SACRE BLEU a lot, leading me to believe you take your own advice. What’s the best of your covers, in your opinion? What still makes you wince? Any cover anecdotes for our amusement and edification?

Chris: This is really touchy. I told you that because I’ve lost the battle on almost every cover of every book I’ve ever written, including Sacre Bleu. I’ve been battling with the publisher for six months on Sacre Bleu, and they had decided on the derby and pince nez cover without my approval. In fact, I didn’t like it at all. This story really has too many uninteresting chapters for a short interview, but after we had a handful of designs, some I didn’t like, others rejected by sales or marketing people, I put five designs up on the blog and asked readers to vote for them. Overwhelmingly, they voted for a design inspired by an absinthe poster by an English artist called Aly Fell. The margin was like 20% above the second place and 30% above the cover that my publisher was using, yet my publisher ignored it.

Sacré Bleu (Pince Nez)

Sacré Bleu (Van Gogh)

There were over 4000 responses. They don’t do that kind of research, ever. They had just asked around. So I began a power pout. I couldn’t sabotage my own book  by just going public against them, but they were having me do a signed, first edition of 3000 copies, and I had a stamp made that read, “I’m really sorry about the cover, I had nothing to do with it.”  Fortunately, before I signed all those front pages, they came back to me and said, “We really don’t want you to be unhappy.” We worked through about ten more designs, then ended up with the compromise of having the Aly Fell illustration, but covering up the naked girl with a fold-over so the chain buyers didn’t get their panties in a bunch.

Sacré Bleu

Sacré Bleu (Art Nouveau)

See, I told you. But most of the time I lose. The two times I’ve actually gotten my way, with The Stupidest Angel, which I designed, and the leather, bibley edition of Lamb, the sales of the book skyrocketed over the last release. But what do I know?  The cover for A Dirty Job was the best cover that came to me completely out of the blue from the publisher. I’d even drawn a design for that one, but theirs was better and won some awards.

A Dirty Job

Me: THE LUST LIZARD OF MELANCHOLY COVE was set in a town based on our once-shared tiny town of Cambria. Trying to remember if PRACTICAL DEMONKEEPING was as well. Do you ever miss anything about the town, and if so, what? What were you happiest to leave behind?

Chris: Yes, Practical Demonkeeping and The Stupidest Angel were set in Pine Cove. I loved living in Cambria, and it was a great place to become a writer.  It wasn’t overwhelming, like some big cities can be, and it was also an easy place to be poor. I lived in Santa Barbara before I moved to Cambria. I know you know Santa Barbara, so you also know it’s not an easy place to be poor. Anyway, the thing I was happiest to leave behind really has a lot to do with the time I left, which was 2003. I was absolutely furious with the Bush administration and the Iraq war. As you know, Cambria has a lot of retired oil people from the central valley, who tend to be Republican and, well, assholes. I’d be driving to the post office and get behind a pick-up truck full of old men waving an American flag and brandishing signs that said, “If you don’t Support our President, you are UnAmerican.” I remember that one specifically.  I would go to the gym and get into my target heart rate just yelling at old guys who wouldn’t listen to reason. You know, saying things like, “You know wars are Federal spending too? Right?”  I just had to get out of that, and I’d been doing research in Hawaii, so I sold the house and moved to Kauai. I wasn’t quite ready to leave the country, but I needed to get away from that kind of mindset.  So, it wasn’t really Cambria, it was just a group of war mongering fucks I needed to get away from.

Me: When an author has a big backlist, it’s hard to hit on all the titles at once in an interview like this. So, we’ll let this question be a bit freeform. What are the books you still want us to know about, and why are they awesome?

Chris: I think my best books are those where I’m trying to do something that I’m not sure can be done (By me, anyway). Those would be Lamb, the life of Christ as a comedy, Fool, King Lear told from the point of view of the Fool (as a comedy, and it’s outrageously vulgar, if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing), A Dirty Job, which is a funny book about death and dying, Fluke, which is a comedy about marine mammal biologists, and believe me, trying to make evolutionary biology funny was a tough one, and Sacre Bleu, which, as I said, is a book about the color blue. The others are fun, I think, and funny, but those are the ones where I think I’ve pulled off something that you’re not going to find on a beaten path. 

Me: You once told me that 12-year-old boys are particularly in love with your work. Does that make you YA-crossover? Seriously, how would you describe your demographic? (Since I know some very old people who think you walk on water.)

Chris: My core reader is a 38 year-old divorced trauma nurse with two kids. It skews out in a bell curve from there, to 13 year old Goth girl wannabes, and 76 year old grannies. The majority of my readers are women between the ages of 25 and 40.  But I think that’s also the majority of readers of fiction in general. With Facebook, I can be very specific about my demographic, now, and it’s not what I thought when I talked to you. It’s interesting, too, that with each new subject, I bring a new group in. Actors and English teachers love Fool. Episcopal priests and recovering Catholics love Lamb. Scientists love Fluke. Teens love the vampire books. I’m really happy I decided to not write the same book over and over again.  I might have been more successful financially, but this way I’ve been able to learn about a lot of really cool and diverse things.

Me: What’s the one thing about being a rich and famous author that still, in your humble opinion, sucks the most? Though, if you absolutely must, you can name something you like about it as well.

Chris: Well, the work is still as hard and requires as much time and discipline as it ever has, yet people are under the impression that you can go play any time you want. I can’t. I have to be at my desk, doing this dumb thing I do, every damn day. And  “just this one time” for dinner or a show or a trip, isn’t just this once, because a lot of people are asking.  That’s not really that bad. I mean, if you don’t treat it like a job, you never make it, but it’s still hard to get other people to treat it like a job.  Every few years I do a couple of hours of something that would be considered real work, like shovel dirt or move furniture or something, and I suddenly become very grateful that the “worst” thing about my job is not being able to go out to lunch with friends all the time.

The thing I love the most is making up the stories, that first realization, before the words even go on the page, that “this is going to be so cool”.  It’s just the best. I love the idea that someone, months or years from now, is going to have that same sensation, maybe in bed, on a plane, on the can, whatever.  And for them, it’s going to be even more of a surprise than it was for me, because they won’t be looking for it. I like that part of my job a lot.

Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.

Chris: What are you working on now?

I’m reprising my Fool from Fool, but taking him to Venice and putting him in the middle of two other Shakespeare plays.  There’s a lot of crafting to the language, but I like writing the character. He’s such a rascal. 

Thanks, Chris. That is so the kind of in-depth I’m looking for. If you want to learn even more about Chris and his books, there’s his official website, his blog, his Facebook page…the aforementioned

For my readers, next week’s interview is a wonderfully deep look into the life of Jacquelyn Mitchard. Really, I’m blown away by it. I hope you’ll stop back and see what I mean.