Authors / Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A With Chris Cander

Bloom: How did you come to choose rural West Virginian coal country as the setting for your new novel, Whisper Hollow?

Chris Cander: My mother’s side of the family is from West Virginia, and we visited them frequently when I was growing up. I love Texas, but there was something magical about the natural beauty of West Virginia: the colors, the mountains, the creek that ran behind my grandmother’s house. Those memories wove themselves into my imagination, and so when I had the idea to write about a coal mining community, setting it in my mother’s home state gave me the opportunity to explore that magic again.

Bloom: You started your own publishing company, Rubber Tree Press, with friends, in order to support the publication of your award-winning novel, 11 Stories. Tell us how you came to decide to start your own publishing house. What was that experience like overall, as both publisher and author?  What would you say to authors who are considering self-publishing?

CC: I credit my literary agent (Jane Gelfman of Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents, Inc.) with the decision to self-publish. At the time, I was working on a new draft of Whisper Hollow and she thought that if 11 Stories were successful, it might help convince a cautious editor to take a chance on that book when the time came. As it turned out, my editor at Other Press bought Whisper Hollow on its own merit, but nevertheless, I was—and am—proud of the success of 11 Stories. I was concerned that doing it myself would diminish the book’s perceived value, so it was important to me not to just print it but to publish it. Having done that work as well as I could with my limited experience, I have new respect for those who do it exceptionally well. I’m not pandering when I say that having Other Press as my publisher has been a terrific experience. There’s an entire team of experts who have helped the manuscript become a book, and I believe Whisper Hollow is better because of it.

Bloom: Tell us more about your experience as the writer-in-residence for the Houston-based Writers in the Schools. How does teaching others, especially children, affect your own work or writing process?

CC: I never thought I had it in me to be a teacher, but working with these kids has been one of the greatest joys of my life. We have a mantra that we recite every class—I am a fearless writer—because if they remember nothing else, I hope that they retain the wonder, courage, and creativity with which they encounter a blank page. Watching them develop as writers reminds me why I became one, and inspires me to keep trying to be better at it.

Bloom: You are a writer and a fighter! Does your taekwondo practice influence your writing?

CC: Martial arts and creative arts both demand discipline and regular practice in order to be meaningful. When I was younger, I was drawn to activities for which I had a natural aptitude, but discovered that I couldn’t feel really passionate about something that didn’t require more of me than I thought I was able to give. I’ve learned a lot about how to be brave and vulnerable, fearless and reverent by fighting and writing my way forward.

Bloom: You are also well known as a writer of health and fitness articles for a variety of magazines. How do you manage multiple projects and multiple genres?

CC: I depend on and am comforted by structure and rhythm. When my kids were younger and went to bed at a reasonable hour, I divided my writing time into two big chunks: non-fiction during the day and fiction at night. Now that they’re older (12 and 9), I still segment my time, but have had to learn to go in and out of those mindsets in smaller increments during school hours, because starting at 3 PM and until bedtime, my attention goes mostly to them.

Bloom: Your writing has been described as literary, yet you have also won awards for popular fiction. What do you perceive as the differences between these two genres, and how have you successfully combined or integrated the two?

CC: In simple terms, literary fiction can be described as character- or theme-driven while popular or mainstream fiction is considered story-driven. But such strict delineations seem to be breaking down. I’m thinking of Emily St. John Mandel’s gorgeous Station Eleven, which examines a post-apocalyptic North America using language and insight that makes it deeply satisfying to both types of audiences. I hope that my work appeals to readers in a similar way. Why should consumers of popular fiction be denied a literary experience? And why should readers of literary fiction be denied a good story?

Bloom: Whose work inspires you lately?

CC: In addition to Emily Mandel, I’ve read some incredible books lately by a variety of authors. To name a few: Marilynne Robinson, William Maxwell, Joseph Boyden, Peter Stamm, Don DeLillo, Tony Doerr, and Tony Marra. I’ve also recently developed the habit of reading poetry before bed (Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Pablo Neruda, and Seamus Heaney, for example) with the hope that the density of emotion expressed in their poems will have an impact on my prose.

Bloom: You made a very insightful comment on your blog about independent booksellers – that finding the right one is like finding a favorite hairstylist. Why do you think a book (and buying books!) is such an intimate thing?

CC: I love my hairstylist. He knows my style, what I’ve done before, and how far outside my comfort zone I’m willing to go. I don’t have to explain myself every time, and I trust that I’ll be happy with whatever he does. Developing a relationship with a bookseller works much the same way. While the best predictor of future reading experiences is past reading experiences, algorithms alone can’t replace hand-selected recommendations by a trusted reader who understands you.

Bloom: Talk to us about the importance of word count – you currently have a word count widget on your Web site that shares your writing progress with your visitors! How does setting a goal help you move forward with a project? Does it ever interfere with your progress?

CC: Family and friends have always said that I’m goal-driven, but I’m really more progress-driven. Word count is simply one way for me to measure my momentum on a work. 11 Stories was around 43k words, and Whisper Hollow was around 105k, so I picked a target in between those counts that felt realistic for the book I had in mind. In the same way that there are immediate and tangible results for tasks such as cleaning the kitchen or crossing items off a to-do list, it is satisfying to record my output at the end of a writing session. That it happens to be on my blog isn’t a factor; I’d still do the work whether anyone else knew about it or not.

Bloom: Tell us more about your novel-in-progress, The Weight of a Piano. You mentioned in an interview on “W3 Sidecar” that this is the first time you’ve centered a novel around an event rather than a character. Can you talk more about this distinction?

CC: I’m happy to say that I’ve just completed The Weight of a Piano. Unlike my other books, which came to my imagination on the shoulders of their protagonists, the idea for this one came from a story. I was invited to speak at a book club discussion of 11 Stories, and afterward, I overheard one of the readers mention to another that she had finally found a meaningful home for the piano her father had given her when she was a little girl. She said she’d never learned to play, but felt terribly guilty about getting rid of it. I was immediately invested in that idea—the event of letting go of a treasured object—and asked her if I could borrow it. She said yes, and a book idea was born.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read an excerpt from Chris Cander’s Whisper Hollow.

Feature photo credit: Sara Huffman.

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