Today I am absolutely delighted to welcome to reviewsrevues.com Chris Whitaker who is experiencing the thrill of of having his debut novel published tomorrow on 7th April. I have already read, reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed his book. My thoughts on “Tall Oaks” can be found here. I’ve put together some questions for Chris that were niggling around after I finished his book and it is great that he has found the time to answer them.
Why does a British novelist choose to set his debut in the fictional American town of Tall Oaks?
I’ve always been a fan of books (Boy’s Life) and television shows (Fargo) set in small town America. When I first conceived of the idea for Tall Oaks I knew that I wanted to write a story that featured a really diverse group of characters, each with quite different concerns and problems. But I also wanted them to feel connected, so the small town setting seemed to fit well. I also liked the idea of this glossy, respectable facade masking all of these huge secrets. In that respect Tall Oaks is part Stepford, part Twin Peaks.
As for America, setting Tall Oaks there made some of the plot points work in a way that they might not have had I set the book in the UK. I wanted Jim (policeman) to be working the case mostly alone, which given the more autonomous nature of their towns seemed much more realistic. There’s a feeling that the case is already old news, that the media have lost interest and moved onto the next sensational crime, which felt much more plausible in such a large country with a high crime rate. And I wanted one of my characters to have easy access to a gun!
I also hoped that my publisher might fly me to California for research purposes but they told me I had ‘unrealistic expectations.’
How did the character of Manny, a great comic creation by the way, come about?
Thank you! I’m so glad that there’s been such a positive response to Manny. Whenever I meet anyone that’s read Tall Oaks the first thing they want to talk about is Manny!
The first time I sat down to begin writing Tall Oaks I started with Manny. His opening scene, walking toward school dressed head-to-toe in pinstripes, despite the sweltering heat, it still makes me smile now. I didn’t know how he’d fit into the rest of the story, but I wanted to include some teenage characters, I really enjoyed writing the dialogue between them.
I’ve read quite a few gangster novels over the years, and loved watching The Sopranos, so Manny is kind of a (warped) tribute to them. I wanted him to be funny, and fearless, but also quite vulnerable once you scratch the surface. I think lots of teenagers face a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to leaving school and trying to work out what they want to do in the real world. Though Manny’s father walking out has left him struggling more than most.
Dark Crime and Comedy – Do the two mix?
God I hope so, though I think it’s quite tricky to get the balance right. I thought about writing a straight crime novel, and did try a couple of times, but it never felt quite right.
I wanted Tall Oaks to be first and foremost a story about a town, a snapshot of life over one, hot summer. Of course everyone would be at different stages in their lives, experiencing highs and lows unique to them. Whether the lows are as horrific as having your child taken from you, or the highs as trivial as finding a date for prom, they are relative to each individual character.
I think it helped setting the novel three months after the crime, as for those not closely affected things would begin to return to normal. And normal is laughing, crying, dating, having fun, worrying about exams etc.
It was also nice to write. For every Jess scene there’s a Manny to maintain the balance.
There’s a line in the book where Jim says ‘You can’t stand in the dark all the time, because then you forget there’s daylight out there.’
From the point of view of a British author just completing an American novel what are the “great American novels?”
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The roaring twenties come to life in this classic. The American dream is embodied by the enigmatic and mysterious Jay Gatsby.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I first read this at school and have since found that Holden Caulfield is a character that lives long in the memory.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Sad, funny, and beautifully crafted. Atticus Finch is my hero! A masterpiece. (I agree – My review is here)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy: One of my all time favourites. A father and son travel across post-apocalyptic America. It’s dark and haunting and will stay with me forever.
Can I stick Tall Oaks on the end of this list?
Chris’ line-up for The Great American novel
I’ll think about that one Chris……..I thought you might sneak it in there somewhere! I’ve not yet got round to “The Road” but have recently read a new book that people are comparing it to – “Gold Fame Citrus” by Claire Vaye Watkins so may be one for you to watch out for. Totally agree about “Mockingbird”. I think you need to be the right age to read “Catcher” and then it transforms your existence – I think I might have been a bit too old when I got round to it. F.Scott Fitzgerald has never done it for me – but I haven’t totally given up on him. I’d probably swap him for Steinbeck’s “Grapes Of Wrath” but I approve of your choices…
What’s next for Chris Whitaker?
I’m currently working on The Summer Cloud. It’s a story about a cloud that appears over a small town and stays there. The chapters alternate between first person, a missing schoolgirl (Summer) telling her story, and narrative which follows the residents of the town as they try and go about life in darkness. It’s a bit of a strange one (for a change).
My kids are so noisy that I worry I’ll never get the peace and quiet needed to finish it. Maybe I should come and stay with you. I could ask my publisher to foot the bill. I wonder how much a helicopter to the Isle of Wight costs.
You would be very welcome and if the publisher is footing the bill I might even run to placing a chocolate on your pillow. I will be certainly looking forward to reading “The Summer Cloud” –it sounds fascinating. Of course, we never have any clouds on the Isle of Wight- so I’m going to have to use my imagination!
Chris coming in to land or coastguard rescue over Freshwater, Isle Of Wight?
Many thanks to Chris for his spirited responses. Also a big thanks to Emily at Bonnier Zaffre publishers for organising this. “Tall Oaks” is available to buy from Amazon by following this link.