Chris Paling is the author of The Repentant Morning. Born in Derby in 1956, he was named after his great uncle who worked in the theatre and the fledgling television industry in Manchester. Chris was educated at a grammar school some miles north of Derby. He did not excel in any area, and failed his English A Level! He has been writing since he was fifteen. His first novel, After the Raid, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1995. He has since written several more novels, all of them on the train between Brighton, where he now lives with his wife and two children, and London Victoria. The Repentant Morning is his sixth novel. He has just completed his seventh, which Jonathan Cape will publish in 2005.
Mark Thwaite: You quote Patrick Hamilton in your novel's epigraph, indeed your very title (The Repentant Morning) comes from Hamilton. He seems to us to be a part of forgotten group of (London) writers (e.g. Maureen Duffy, Alexander Baron, Gerald Kersh, Julian Maclaren-Ross) - are they (any/all) favourites of yours?
Chris Paling: I’m afraid, of the writers you mention, I’ve only read Patrick Hamilton although Julian Maclaren-Ross is on my ‘writers-to-read’ list. I’ll add the others now you bracket them with Hamilton. I’m glad he’s a favourite of yours, he’s always been a favourite of mine and I think that slowly people are beginning to discover him for themselves - certainly one of the first noir writers. Hangover Square is one of the great masterpieces of 20th fiction, but the Gorse Trilogy and 20,000 streets under the Sky are absolutely compelling. It’s good to see that most of his works are still in print. There’s no doubt that Hamilton has a direct influence on Graham Greene, and, through him, many others. I live in Brighton, and I’m sure that reading The West Pier and the Brighton sections of Hangover Square influenced this decision. When you start writing a new novel you look for a mood or a colour to hold in your head that will dictate the feel of it. The Repentant Morning owes a great deal to the desperate lives of Netta and the others in 20,000 Streets.
MT: I've recently read a number of novels that have referenced the Spanish Civil War (the excellent Soldiers of Salamis, Lizard Tails). Do you think that that conflict has particular lessons for our times? More than other conflicts?
CP: Yes I do. And I’d add The Carpenter’s Pencil to your list. The Spanish Civil war was an ideological conflict between left and right - which had huge implications for Europe. One of the big lessons was that those nations who chose the non-intervention path had as great an influence on the outcome as those who sent in arms and supplies.
MT: Following on from that, what made you want to write this particular story?
CP: It’s never easy to pinpoint what makes you choose a theme for novels. What I remember about this one was that I sat down early one afternoon and wrote the first ten pages straight off. The characters arrived fully formed. It was almost like taking dictation. I could see the Soho pub, the rain outside, Meredith sitting between the two men at the table by the door, and then another man coming in and joining them. Unfortunately, when I realised the implications of the setting and the period, I knew I’d spend the following year in research - which indeed proved to be the case. It then took a further 18 months to write.
MT: How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer? How much research do you do?
CP: I write straight onto a laptop. I work in London but live in Brighton, which means much of my novel writing is done on the commute home. In terms of research it depends on the period and setting. My first novel After the Raid was set in London during the blitz and involved quite a lot of work. Ditto the RM as I mentioned above. I also wrote a novel called Newton’s Swing which had an American setting - and it was important to get the details of that right. The central character lived in New York City - a place I’d visited some 16 years before, so it was important to get the feel of the place. The web is an excellent resource for writers - for Newton’s Swing, the NYPD website was a gem - it detailed which force had jurisdiction over the area where the action took place, I found in it the process of ballistics analysis which was an important plot point, and I found out when the Yellowstone park campsite opened (the holiday destination of one of the characters). But all novels need some research. The authenticity always lies in the details.
MT: What is coming next?
CP: I’ve just finished a short novel which may be called The Town By the Sea. This one also has some elements of the Spanish Civil war in it in that the central character is a refugee from that conflict who ends up wandering around a Suffolk coastal town. Jonathan Cape have just bought it and it will be published in 2005.
MT: What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer? What are you reading now?
CP: Favourite book changes each week. Usually it’s something by Graham Greene or Patrick Hamilton, or possibly Raymond Carver. All three count among my top 5 writers. I’d add Philip Roth, Samuel Beckett to the list along with Anne Tyler and Guy De Maupassant depending on mood. I’ve just finished reading a memoir The Longshoreman by Richard Shelton which is getting deservedly terrific reviews. On my bedside table is The Collected John Cheever (Vintage). I can manage a story each night before I drop off.
MT: What book do you wish you had written?
CP: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
MT: Do you have any advice for the aspiring writer!?
CP: Stick at it. Everybody has about 250000 words of crap inside them they have to write out before they start to find their voice. Write for yourself and if you’re lucky other people will find it interesting. Don’t show anything to anybody until you’ve finished it - both praise and criticism destroys work in progress.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
CP: Thank you for listening.
MT: Thank you, Chris