Behind the Book with Chris Humphreys
Liz - You have an amazing career as both an actor and a writer. Which came first?
Chris - Actor. I hadn’t intended it, though I come from a family of actors. My dad and all four grandparents. So my mum definitely didn’t want that life for me. Then I was 17, got cast as the lead in the school play, and all the genes kicked in . Ditched the Uni plan, went to drama school instead.
Liz - How has your experience in one helped you with the other?
Chris - Many people who read my books say, ‘I can see the film!’ (To which I always reply: I wish you would). I write in a filmic way – atmosphere, very character driven, lots of action. Definitely draws from a life in theatre and on screen.
Liz - You obtained your MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia – do you think studying writing is essential to becoming a great writer?
Chris - When I went to UBC I’d already written nine novels. I went more for the Uni experience (which I’d missed, see answer 1). I think it’s important to read a lot and study craft, especially in the genre you write. I don’t think that needs to be too formal. There are workshops all over, great conferences, some decent books. Creative Writing programs in my experience and from what I’ve heard of other places tend to the literary and also are a bit, dare I say, cookie cutter? Also studying fellow students first drafts as opposed to great writers is a little limiting. I think the balance is off there. Reading and writing and playing is the key for me.
Liz - You write in both the Historical Fiction and Epic Fantasy genres. They’re quite different! How does your planning/writing processes differ between the two?
Chris - Historical fiction tends to involve a lot more initial research, to get an idea of where you want the story to go, and how your characters can interact with world events and perhaps real people. Fantasy you are making it all up and it is more plot driven to start – however there’s often research involved too, as much is drawn from our world – Wars of the Roses for Game of Thrones, Norse/Greco-Roman/Mezo-American for my Immortals’ Blood trilogy. You take our world and bend it to the story.
Liz - Your book Plague won the Best Crime Novel of 2015 in Canada which is such a fantastic accomplishment. Can
you tell us about the book and what inspired it?
Chris - Oh, thanks! It was one of those tales that was absolutely not there… until it was. My then agent mentioned books covers, how great a red and black one would be with the word ‘Plague’ written across it. I said, do you mean like the Great Plague of London? He replied, well, as an example of a cover… that could be red and black! I said, give me a moment, went to my hut, sat down and watched a dark man walk in and say, ‘My name is Captain Coke. But I am a highwayman so I am known as Captain Cock.’ I saw him, trying to rob some people who had been ritually slaughtered moments before he opened their carriage door. He’s blamed and need to prove his innocence. So I had the essence of what became a religious fundamentalist serial killer story set against the backdrop of the Great Plague. London also inspired it. The city I grew up in and love but am now separated from. It was a way of being back there.
Liz - Another hugely successful book from your Historical Fiction collection is Vlad – how long did it take to write and what research was involved?
Chris - Vlad was the hardest book I ever wrote. Partly the lack of unbiased source material, partly the need to wrestle a hugely complex character and period into what it is I write: historical thrillers. Partly also because I feared white-washing a man who many consider a monster. Then, when I realized it wasn’t my job to judge him but to set his life and deeds against his own life circumstances (horrendous) I had the story. Took me nearly two years to write. That was partly because I made the astonishing choice of writing the first draft longhand. Never again! And yes the research was long, because of all the contradictions. I also need to go – to Romania; and to Turkey (to learn of Vlad’s enemies). So I am very proud that the book came out as it did, and that so many appear to have enjoyed it.
Liz - So many authors strive for a traditional publishing contract, but you made the decision to switch from trad publishing to self-publishing. What drove this move and how has it worked for you?
Chris - I am still traditionally published as well – my Immortals’ Blood Trilogy with Gollancz. So I am hybrid – reissuing my backlist which I reverted from my Trad publishers. I wanted the books to have another kick at the can. I am also about to self-publish a modern thriller – One London Day - and publishers tend to want you to stay in your box, in my case hist fic or fantasy. So I thought I’d do it myself.
Liz - Would you return to traditional publishing?
Chris - As above, I still am trad as well. But I like doing both. I like the control the self pub world gives me.
Liz - I saw that you speak German and Norwegian! I learned to speak German in high-school and it was quite a challenging language. How does it differ to Norwegian and where did you learn to speak them?
Chris - I wouldn’t say I speak German too well these days - schooldays were a long time ago! I am learning Norwegian – my mother’s tongue – on Duolingo. It’s not easy – very tonal. But it shares lots of roots with German and English.
Liz - Now, I think everyone has their own interesting skills they can bring to the table, but I can honestly say I’ve not met someone who counts among their skills stage combat and fencing! What specifically is stage combat and was their much training involved? How did you get into fencing?
Chris - Stage combat is fighting arranged for the theatre or for film. I have done a lot of it (I really became an actor so I could leap about with bladed weaponry). I loved swords from childhood and was a sports fencer at school. Then at drama school we learned to fight for the stage. I then went on to choreograph quite a few fights in the theatre.
Liz - You have an impressive acting career both on stage and screen. Do you prefer one over the other?
Chris - Generally, I would say I prefer theatre as I love that immediacy, and the contact with the audience. Anything could happen! But film has given me some amazing opportunities to travel and work – I was in Tunisia for ten months once, playing a gladiator! (AD – Anno Domini). It’s also very well paid usually, and theatre is much more about love than money.
Liz - Like many Aussie’s the show The Bill was a staple growing up and it’s exciting you were a part of that! What was your role/character?
Chris - I played PC Richard Turnham. (1989-1990). I was a Cambridge University graduate, basically brought in to wind up the Cockneys. But my character was quite tough – and liked to get stuck into the villains. It was fun to be part of such an institution. If anyone’s interested, there’s a very good podcast – The Bill Podcast – where I and many others are interviewed about our life at Sun Hill.
Liz - I have to say the role I’m fangirling the most over is the fact you were the voice of Salem in the original Sabrina!? What was that like?
Chris - I was the ‘original’ voice – I did it in the 1990’s pilot. I recorded it after the film was shot, in a Vancouver sound studio, with the director on a telephone patch in LA! Quite odd to be both English and feline! Then they relocated the filming to LA so the Vancouver actors were out. Ah well, like you, it’s the credit that gets to a lot of people of a certain age (My Coronation Street appearance gets the older demographic)
Liz - You also played the title role in Hamlet on stage, which is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – where did you perform it?
Chris - Hamlet changed my life! I played it at Theatre Calgary in 1994. It is in some ways such a ‘straight role’. You use yourself, your life, your relationship with your parents etc. Playing someone who is waaaay smarter than you is interesting too.
Liz - What are the main differences in preparing for a screen performance vs stage?
Chris - It’s the difference between running a marathon and the 100 yards. You train and prepare for longer – the rehearsals, and get a chance to practice and refine. Mostly on TV you walk on the set, you’re introduced to your wife, then you have to go! Relies more on instinct. Can be quite exciting – and you can always do a retake or get fixed in the edit.
Liz - If you could have a role in any stage production or television show, what would they be and why?
Chris - I think I have one more great stage fighting role in me – maybe Cyrano de Bergerac, where my age could be concealed under a big false nose? On TV or film I’d like to play some suave and devilish Brit – like John Burgoyne in my Jack Absolute Trilogy. It would be lovely to act in something I wrote!
Liz - You’re in the process of releasing The Tapestry Trilogy. Can you tell us about these books and the inspiration behind them?
Chris - The first inspiration was the signet ring I wear on my finger, my family crest, a Rampant Unicorn. I wondered: what does this symbol mean, that I have had on me most of my life? I looked up the unicorn’s powers – to heal illness, to cleanse pollution, to be unconquerable. Then I discovered the Unicorn Tapestries in New York’s Cloisters Museum. I knew that these mysterious works of woven Medieval art would be the doorway, like the wardrobe in Narnia, from our world to another: to Goloth, Land of the Fabulous Beast, where all our myths live.
It was meant to be a one-off book, The Hunt of the Unicorn. But some years later, as often happens, I found myself missing Elayne and Moonspill the Unicorn she bonds with. And wondered: is there ever a real Happily Ever After? And also… dragons are cool! So I wrote The Hunt of the Dragon. Then rounded the whole series off with The Hunt of the Shapeshifters – serial killing shapeshifting dragons in California. Now I am definitely done. Unless…
Liz - What are you currently working on, or have planned next?
Chris - I am about 50,000 words into a World War Two saga-romance – ‘Sonata at Midnight’ loosely based on my parents’ stories - because my dad was a fighter pilot and my mum was a spy!
Liz - Where can our readers follow you?
Author Central: https://www.amazon.com/author/cchumphreys