Tall Oaks author Chris Whitaker on adapting to life as a debut novelist
We first fell in love with Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s witty crime debut, when the unpublished manuscript was longlisted for last year’s The Bath Novel Award. Shortly after the longlist announcement, Tall Oaks was snapped up by Twenty7 Books (Bonnier) and is published today, 8th September 2016, in paperback. We catch up with Chris on what’s happened inbetween…
Congratulations, Chris, on Tall Oaks paperback publication day! Debut novelists often describe a mix of excitement, pride and fear. Where are you at?
Thank You! Excitement, pride and fear sounds about right. There’s also an element of disbelief. I still can’t quite believe it’s real.
Your blog tour looked fun. Any favourite moments?
It’s been so much fun. I had a huge blog tour (17 stops) and wrote about everything from my road to publication, to 5 books I wish I’d written, to the making of Manny. There’s such a supportive community of reviewers out there, and if they like a book they’ll do all they can to help promote it. Liz Barnsley has been hugely supportive, and recommended Tall Oaks to Between You and Me author Lisa Hall, who went on to give me an amazing cover quote.
Favourite moment was revealing the secret of David Young’s success:
Blogger: Do you have a book trailer? What is the link? What do you think book trailers achieve?
Me: I don’t have one, and wouldn’t really know where to begin. I’ve seen David Young’s trailer for the brilliant Stasi Child, but it was just him, dancing naked, holding a copy of the book over his privates. At least, the version he sent me was. Stasi Child is now a bestseller so I may have to give it a go.
Least favourite moment was constantly getting into trouble with my wife… I wrote it quickly, then spent an age editing it, paying particular attention to the humorous lines. I came up with a system, if they didn’t make my wife laugh then I rewrote them. Sometimes she fake-laughed just so she didn’t have to sit through another ‘explain to me why that isn’t funny’ conversation. (I know this because I once overheard her tell a friend that she’d become quite good at ‘faking it’ with me.)
Tall Oaks is set in America, which presented some unique challenges, perhaps the biggest being the language barrier. To counter this I became a method writer (like method acting only even more embarrassing.) I spoke with an American accent, making sure to substitute words like garden, trousers, wardrobe, for yard, pants, closet. Whilst my wife thought American Chris was a bit of a pervert, mainly due to a ‘your fanny looks great in those jeans’ misunderstanding, I found it was a good way to ingrain the dialogue in my mind.
How have you found the marketing side of being a debut novelist?
I’ve been so lucky. Emily Burns (head of PR at Bonnier) has been masterminding the Tall Oaks campaign and she knows all the best people to bribe. Tall Oaks has been in The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday, Heat, and will be in The Evening Standard soon. There’s also tons more lined up for the coming months, so I couldn’t be happier.
For my part, I keep offering to sleep with the buyers at Waterstones, but so far no takers.
I’ve also been into local book shops and arranged signings. The regional sales person for Bonnier delivered proofs to them a while ago so that made it easier for me to go in and introduce myself. I’ve found everyone has been so eager to help. It’s been great.
Your @whittyauthor twitter feed always makes us smile. How much of your time do you find needs to be devoted to social media?
Too much. It’s really addictive. I was talking to Alex Caan (author of the brilliant Cut to the Bone) about it and he’s been trying to limit himself to an hour a day as it’s really eating into his writing time.
It’s a necessary evil though. I follow agents and publishers, booksellers and bloggers. And readers. It’s the best feeling when a reader sends me a message saying they enjoyed Tall Oaks. I also like to know what’s coming out, what books everyone is talking about and when the next big events are.
As well as doing the social media thing I’d recommend going along to literary events. There’s loads of them.
I went to the Harrogate Crime Festival this year and took a couple of copies of Tall Oaks with me. One of them found its way to the fab Sarah Hilary (again thanks to Liz), she read it and then asked me to be on her panel at the Killer Women Festival in London in October.
There’s also First Monday Crime, held monthly in London. The panels are brilliant, and you can pick up loads of tips. And then afterwards everyone goes to the pub across the road. There are authors there, and agents, and editors. It’s a great way to meet people in the industry in an informal setting.
How did you feel about Tall Oaks being selected for this month’s GQ Awards goodie bag?
I knew Emily was pitching for it back in June, but there’s serious competition so I also knew the odds weren’t great. I found out GQ had picked Tall Oaks a couple of weeks ago. After making a quick joke about having always dreamed of being held by Hiddleston, I called everyone I’ve ever met and told them. My mum thought I’d been chosen as the GQ Man of the Year.
What have you got planned for the paperback launch. What will you be doing on the day itself?
Writing! My deadline is the end of September so I have to get on with it, no excuses. My book 2 editors, Joel and Bec, have said if I don’t deliver on time they’ll give the rest of my advance to charity. I can’t let that happen.
There’s a Tall Oaks booktube tour beginning on Sunday, so I’m really looking forward to that.
And the Tall Oaks launch party is next Friday, where I plan to get s*!tfaced and tell everyone how much I love them.
Describe Tall Oaks…
Tall Oaks follows the residents of a small town in America three months after the abduction of a child. Everyone is a suspect, everyone has a secret. I’ve found it quite difficult to sum up Tall Oaks without making it sound like a straight crime/ thriller, which it definitely isn’t. It’s as much a story about the quirky characters that make up the town as it is the police investigation that links them.
I first started writing it a couple of years ago. I’d written bits and pieces before, all of it dreadful, but in Tall Oaks I found a style that suited me and I really started to enjoy the process. It took me four weeks. 5,000 words a day. This isn’t a great way to write a book. In my defence, my wife was due to give birth in a month’s time and I knew that if I didn’t get the first draft finished before the baby arrived there was a danger it would fall by the wayside. So I stayed up writing until the early hours each night, finishing the final paragraph an hour before she went into labour. I’m pleased to say that my baby has gone on to make me very proud (my son too).
It’s being marketed as ‘for fans of Twin Peaks’ – have you watched the series?
It was my agent that first made the comparison. I’d never seen an episode at that point so ordered the DVD and was immediately hooked. Both Tall Oaks and Twin Peaks have a fictional small town setting, and a police investigation at the heart of the story, who took Harry, and who killed Laura, respectively. And both towns have an air of respectability, it’s only once you scratch the surface that you realise what the facade is hiding. I did worry a bit about the mix of crime and comedy in Tall Oaks, but watching Twin Peaks made me feel much better!
We all especially loved Manny’s witty gangster banter and sparky dialogue…
Whenever I talk to anyone that’s read Tall Oaks the first thing they mention is Manny! Manny is the fearless, foul-mouthed wannabe gangster, with grand plans to shake up (and down) the small town of Tall Oaks. Following his father walking out on the family he’s been having a bit of an identity crisis, much to the despair of his long suffering mother Elena, and new love interest Furat. He recruits reluctant best friend Abe, and then sets about trying extort money from local businesses.
After writing some of the darker scenes in Tall Oaks, I always looked forward to returning to Manny, Abe and Furat. I spent a long time working on the dialogue between them, drafting and re-drafting. Manny swears a lot, and can come across as quite aggressive, but to counter this I always made sure that Furat gives as good as she gets. If banter is a bit too one-sided then I think it stops being as funny. Also, Manny’s ridiculous appearance (he wears an ill fitting suit and fedora, despite the sweltering summer heat) helped to take the sting out of some of his more scathing comments.
You pull off a huge plot twister of an ending. Did you have this set in stone from the start?
I did. I always knew how it was going to end and at no point did I think about changing it. There’s a lot going in the story though, and I wanted to make sure that even if the reader saw one or two of the twists coming, there would still be another couple to surprise them.
Tall Oaks packed with quirky characters and told from multiple viewpoints. How did you approach this structurally?
I split the story up according to character. I cut out each section and pasted it into a new document, then read it back as if it were a standalone story. It really helped to manage the timeline. I also looked for any inconsistencies in dialogue, behaviour, arc and plot. It was really useful to see how each separate strand held up against the central story.
Tell us your “how I found my agent” story…
I went down the old fashioned slush pile, fingers crossed, ignore the stats route. I targeted agents carefully, submitting only to those that I thought might like Tall Oaks based on the authors they represented. I personalised each cover letter but kept it really short (I didn’t have much to boast about having not been on any courses etc). And then I prepared myself for an anxious wait.
Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long as within two weeks I had requests for the full manuscript, and within three weeks I had quite a few offers of representation. Though all the agents were amazing, I held off on accepting an offer as the full was with Cathryn Summerhayes, my dream agent, then at WME and now at Curtis Brown. The day I met with Cathryn (and her brilliant assistant Siobhan), and subsequently signed, was a day I’ll never forget. As a writer I’d always dreamed about it, but still nothing prepares you for that I HAVE AN AGENT feeling. It’s right up there with the I MADE THE BATH NOVEL AWARD LONGLIST feeling!
How much did the novel change after representation?
Nothing was changed. There was some proofreading done, but aside from that it went out to publishers exactly as it did to agents.
Which was easier? Finding an agent or finding a publisher?
If getting an agent is like winning the lottery, then getting a publishing deal is like winning it twice. It’s a tough process. Not only that, finding the right editor is equally tough. But when I first met with Joel Richardson from Twenty7, a new imprint at Bonnier, I knew straight away that I wanted him to be the person to edit Tall Oaks. He had such brilliant ideas for the book that I couldn’t imagine working with anyone else. Thankfully Twenty7 offered later that same day, and I haven’t stopped smiling since.
How much did Joel ask you to rewrite?
Loads. When I got the first set of notes for Tall Oaks I remember thinking that I’d written the worst novel in the history of the world! Manny survived unscathed, but the rest of the story had a huge makeover. The plot was tightened up, some of the characters were changed, others dropped altogether. I had complete faith in my editors (Joel, and Claire Johnson-Creek) and now Tall Oaks is infinitely better in every way. I’ve learned to trust the people around you. Everyone is working toward a common goal – making your book the best it can be. If that involves dropping a character you’ve grown to love, then so be it. You can’t afford to be precious about anything. In WME / Curtis Brown and Twenty7 I have a team of incredibly talented people supporting me in everything from the story itself, to the cover design, to the marketing plan. It’s a really steep learning curve, but I’ve loved every second of it.
You made a big career change than going from being a city trader to writing full time…
I quit my job to find more time to write, it was a scary decision to say the least. I still trade now, but do so from home. I’d love to give it up completely and write full time but my kids developed a taste for caviar when I was working in the city. Until I wean them onto a more writer-salary-friendly diet of beans on toast, I’m stuck.
What are you writing now?
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). It will be out sometime in 2017.
Tall Oaks is published in paperback by Twenty7 Books from 8th September 2016
Follow Chris on Twitter @WhittyAuthor