For me, sometimes it is an absolute joy to write for fun without planning out the entire story in advance. I can allow my imagination to run a wild and as free as I want without having to make sure that everything connected just perfectly the way I wanted it to. I think any writer can easily do such an exercise. What I find difficult to do is to write a story with a specific purpose, other than entertainment. There has to be a delicate balance between keeping your reader drawn to the story, but at the same time wanting them to have a strong takeaway.
Today, we have with us an amazing writer who has a calling to writing and teaching about writing. Andrew J Chamberlain, whom you might remember has guest blogged for us quite a few times, is an expert at maintaining that delicate balance.
Michael: Andy, glad to have you with us again! Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Andrew: I was brought up in Rochester, in Kent, England. As a child I attended the Cathedral school there and sang in the Cathedral choir. My journey to faith took a big step forward after school and I started to attend a local youth church club. From there I went to University in the coastal town of Portsmouth, met and married my wife Ruth and then pursued careers in banking, the tech industry, and most recently working for the University of Cambridge. I’ve also worked in a pub, as a film extra, and between 2000 and 2007 Ruth and I led the Vineyard church in Cambridge.
I am the father of two adult children and now spend most of my free time supporting my family and working on some aspect of my writing and writing tuition.
Michael: Wow, seems like you had a run at quite a few different industries. So now you’re focusing more on your writing. Where and when did your writing journey actually begin?
Andrew: Like a lot of authors I enjoyed writing stories as a kid; lots of enthusiasm but not much technique! I think a lot us start writing young because there’s a story in our heads and it needs to be told. You can try telling your story to the adults around you, but there aren’t many people in the adult world who listen to the stories that children want to tell, so as a child you tell your stories to other children, or, if you are blessed with being able to write, you write it down – and so you become a writer!
Michael: I can definitely relate to that. I remember finding a short story that I wrote in the fifth grade. The plot was interesting enough, but the writing was simply awful! Thank goodness that I had years to learn from other writers before I published my first book. By the way, who are your favorite authors and how have they influenced your writing?
Andrew: I have an eclectic range of tastes. Iain M Banks was a brilliant writer. I also enjoy the work from writers like China Mieville and M John Harrison. For sheer story enjoyment, I enjoy a range of writers – Peter F Hamilton, Joe Abercrombie, Alastair Reynolds, and then from the more literary end of the spectrum I read Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, and Sebastian Faulks, I’m also partial to some Hemmingway. I also enjoy reading work from writers who are very honest, so for example, I think Anne Lamott is excellent.
Michael: That is an “eclectic range of tastes.” So you have a wife, two kids, you were leading a ministry, you’re working for the university, you’re writing, and teaching about writing. You’re a very busy guy. What does a typical day in your life look like? And how does your writing routine fit into your day?
Andrew: If it’s a weekday, I am probably working for the University. Weekends are a mix of walking the dog with Ruth, writing, and reading, church and family activities. For me ‘writing’ covers a multitude of pursuits. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘writing ministry’ but I think that’s probably what I have in that I think my writing and creative writing tutoring is part of what God wants me to do, it is a duty and a joy, to borrow from the words of the Anglican Communion service, to both write and to talk to others about writing.
Michael: I think that it’s amazing that you feel so inspired to write and to teach others about writing. Talking about inspiration, how did you come up with the idea for your short story, Traveller’s Blues?
Andrew: I am fascinated by the generation ship setting, or at least the idea of a contained group of people having to work together, live and survive together. If you throw that into the mix with the power of immersive virtual games you have the seeds of a story. Early on I had the image in my mind of Tash waving goodbye to Blake and disappearing into the void. From there the story becomes both sci-fi and a mystery. So I then had to work out what kind of mystery this would be, what happened, why, and who did it!
Michael: A crew living on a spaceship sounds pretty familiar. What do you think sets your short story apart from other space fantasy stories?
Andrew: Well for a start it’s a murder mystery in a sci-fi setting, so it’s mixing those genres. For another thing, it tries very deliberately to conform to the traditional story style. I am strongly in favour of writers learning and appreciating the principles of commercial fiction. Learn the rules first, then you can break them. In that sense “Traveller’s Blues” unashamedly follows an outline and classical approach to the craft. It also acknowledges the high calling that writers have to entertain their readers.
Michael: Sounds almost like you want your short story to be a learning experience. What do you hope for your readers to take away after reading your short story?
I had two objectives with this story. The first, as always, is to entertain and capture the reader. That’s always the main objective, to hold the reader. That’s as true of scripture as it is of fiction.
My second objective is to use the story to illustrate some of the principles that I talk about in my podcast. So I refer to points in the story in my podcasts, and also use it as an example of my six-stage story process.
Michael: As the creator of this interesting genre mash-up, who is your favorite character in the short story and how much of yourself is reflected in that character?
Andrew: Although I have a strong affinity for Blake, the protagonist, I think my favorite character is probably Derek. He’s so gloriously on the edge of competence and insanity. I felt as if I knew who he was immediately, and I also tried to add a dash of vulnerability to him. I wanted readers to be repelled by him and feel sorry for him.
Michael: Which scene in your short story did you have the most fun writing?
Andrew: The one where Derek and Blake meet in the mess. That was my chance to show how frayed Derek was, and although Blake doesn’t fully realise it, this is a conversation that keeps Derek going for the last leg of their journey.
Michael: You mentioned you also have a podcast on Creative Writing called the Creative Writer’s Toolbelt. Please give us some more details about the podcast.
Andrew: When podcasts became more ubiquitous, I looked for one that would give me some clear, practical insights into the craft. There were a few out there, “Inside Creative Writing” by Brad Reed, which is now discontinued I think, was very good.
What I discovered was that there were some very good podcasts out there presenting stories from different genres, a number that focus on publishing, and some that feature accomplished authors talking about their work. Very few actually present insights and examples on the craft. So eventually I decided to start one for myself. What’s important with CWT is that it’s practical and accessible, that it is helpful to people. So there are a lot of examples, and although it’s quite intense I hope it makes sense. The approach I take, essentially, is the one that I would want if I was trying to learn the craft – which in a way I am as I present each episode. If it doesn’t work for me, I won’t release it.
Michael: So from all the episodes you have recorded so far on your podcast, what would you say is the best lesson or advice given and why?
Wow! That’s a really difficult question. There are so many important things for writer’s to remember. I guess at its core, excellent writing is honest; it is authentic. Everything else flows from there. If people want to access the podcasts but are daunted by starting at episode one (I’ve just released episode thirty nine) then I recommend working through my discussion on the six stage story process – episode thirty six onwards. I hope all of the previous episodes are useful, but the podcast might work better as a reference resource than something to work through from beginning to end.
Michael: Sounds like I’m going be busy listening to those three episodes tonight! All right, back to you. So, I understand that you used to be a pastor at your church. How has having Jesus in your life molded or directed you as a writer?
Andrew: I used to think that being a Christian would steer me towards writing “nice” stories about nice people doing nice things. As I’ve matured as a writer and a Christian I have almost gone in the other direction. Jesus’ presence in my life forces me to be honest, authentic. I want to bring Christ’s incisive reality to the work I do.
Michael: Many people would claim that Christian fiction is a very difficult genre to succeed in today’s market, what are your thoughts on that?
Andrew: I’m not sure that the term “Christian fiction” is helpful. I think we should be writing excellent stories that are informed by a Christian worldview; but to answer your question, yes, Christian fiction is a difficult genre to succeed in. That’s partly because every genre is difficult to succeed in – because writing something that people will pay time and money to read is hard to do.
But there are particular problems for Christians who want to express their faith in their work. First, I think we are too prone to presenting the world as we’d like it to be; to talk about nice things, and Godly things. That’s very worthy, but the problem is that it’s not very interesting, and not very authentic. Secondly I think Christians can be too quick to try to teach a lesson. There’s too much writing out there that’s a vehicle of teaching someone something, especially in children’s writing. You have to earn the right to teach someone something; you have to earn it, as much with children as anything else. Forget teaching people something, entertain and enthrall them first; otherwise it won’t matter how valuable your lesson is, they won’t listen.
Michael: I agree with you 100%. As a Christian, I wouldn’t have a lot of problems reading a novel that was all about teaching me something about Christ and what it means to be a Christian. But form the standpoint of a non-believer, such novels often comes off too preachy. Okay, so back to your writing. You published your short story very recently this year, what are you currently working on? What do you have in store next for your readers?
Andrew: I’m working on a novel that I’ve had kicking around for a few years, and I really need to get down and write the thing. It’s going to be a story about a small group of young people surviving against the odds on a new Earth-like planet. They’ll be facing enemies of both the human and alien kind. Hopefully I’ll follow my own advice and make sure it’s a cracking good read before I start making any moral points.
Michael: That sounds like it’s going to be a very interesting novel. I look forward to it when you finish writing and release it! Thank you so much for sharing with us your story and your perspective on writing.
To find out more about Andrew, please go to his webage at http://www.andrewjchamberlain.com/
And make sure you tune in to his podcast at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/creative-writers-toolbelt/id806349794?mt=2