All the Wicked Lucky Ghost’s (or something) with Chris Whitaker and Matthew Blakstad

So in another of my author match making modes I recently put the brilliant Matt Blakstad together with the equally brilliant Chris Whitaker and asked them to have a chat about their respective novels – Yes I’m sorry about that I should have known better – so to offset that which you are about to read you could also read my review of All The Wicked Girls and Lucky Ghost which, frankly, are a lot more likely to sell the books to you. Be afraid, be very afraid…

Over to them then. It’s their title by the way…


Chris: I recently read the brilliant Sockpuppet and thought it was one of the most accomplished debuts I’ve come across in a long time. Now, I know that you have a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from Oxford, which has had me worrying I may come off as a bit of a simpleton during this discussion, so with that in mind I’ve worked hard on coming up with a number of intelligent, thought provoking questions…

Have you always been interested in puppetry? If you could slip your hand inside any puppet, living or dead, who would it be?

Matthew: Bless you for your kind words. You know that I am – like every other vertebrate on the planet – and a number of the more literate invertebrates – a huge fan of Tall Oaks.

Anyway, thank you very much for your perspicacious and well-thought through questions. My interest in puppetry began at an early age when I realised that, by simply sticking a hand inside my sock and attaching two buttons, I could have a friend who’d actually talk to me and never pants me in the boys’ toilets. Even if he couldn’t say his ‘G’s very clearly. Sadly, even my sockbuddy turned against me when he began a dalliance with a pair of orange boxers, but we’ll draw a veil over that episode. Let’s just say, there’s a reason why I have gone sockless since the age of 12.

If I could slip my hand inside any puppet today, it would be Donald Trump who is a puppet of Vladimir Putin ha ha did you see what I did with my sharp political satire – oh hang on I just imagined what it would be like sticking my hand in Donald Trump excuse me while I apply wire wool to my entire right forearm.

While I’m doing that, tell me: why this obsession with tall oaks particularly? Why not Oak Saplings? Or even Medium Sized Oaks? Why do you continue to put out this heightist propaganda?

Chris: Ah thanks, pet. Actually there was one particular guy that hated Tall Oaks so much he gave it a good old savaging. That was the first really bad review I got and I remember feeling quite down about it. Generally I’m thick skinned, and always tell my editor to be brutal as I can take it, so I really hated the fact that I was bothered by this. But looking back now I suppose it’s because writing a book, no matter the subject, is intensely personal, just you and a page and a million hours of agony. So an attack on the book felt a bit like an attack on me, which I can now see is totally ridiculous. It’s not possible to write a book that appeals to everyone, and I’m certain I wouldn’t want to. Tall Oaks mixes crime and humour, which I always knew was a bit of a risk. Rough with the smooth and all that.

I also turn to my Twitter group (made up of fellow Bonnier debutants) for support and we’ve since started a 1-star club, each 1-star is a badge of honour. I’d invite you to join but I’ve checked your reviews and you don’t have the necessary credentials. Congrats (I suppose).

I know as a writer failure/criticism is par for the course, but have you found it tough? How do you cope with it?

I think my heightist propaganda is actually more a general sizeist propaganda, and I guess it stems from my own insecurities. I wanted to call it Giant Cock Oaks but the sales department weren’t keen.

Matthew: I guess one-star reviews are a fact of life. Even Shakespeare and Jane Austin have them. And if you think I don’t have any, you haven’t looked at my GoodReads. My favourite? ‘Couldn’t finish it. I hated all the characters. Bleurgh.’ Which is at least clear and to the point.

And I have an UNPOPULAR OPINION about this. I think it’s good to read all your reviews, good and bad. Yes, of course it’s hurtful when people slam the book you’ve sweated over for years, but they’re entitled to negative feelings about a book they paid good money for. Reading the stinkers gives you a thicker skin, and sometimes an unexpected insight about your work. We write for an audience, and it helps to know what people think – even if they sometimes express it in the rudest way you can imagine. And of course NO WAY should we change the way we write, on the say-so of some random on the internet.

It’s not easy, though, facing the slings and arrows. Writing’s an insanely lonely pursuit. Even the amazing things – like getting published – bring a dose of the terrors. I guess it’s fear of being exposed as a fraud. NOBODY tells you about all this angsty stuff in advance. Maybe published writers don’t like to complain about their good fortune in case everyone who wishes they were them all decide to punch them in the nuts. Which would be fair enough.

As you say, other writers are life-line. I’ve met some amazing people since I was published. You and Liz, of course (phew: very glad I remembered to say that before I got in trouble). I’m also part of a fantastic collective called the Prime Writers. Mainly, the group of people I studied with at Faber

Academy have been a constant source of support. We still meet up once a month, 4 years after the course ended – to bitch and gripe and comment on each others’ work. Several of us have publishing deals, including the excellent Molly Flatt, who you know because we all share an agent. Her The Charmed Life of Alex Moore is coming out next year from Pan Mac and it’s going to be MASSIVE.

Which leads me to an actual question: what book are you most eagerly anticipating in the coming months, and why?

Chris: Bleurgh! Welcome to the club, Matt. I totally get what you mean about being exposed as a fraud. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like a ‘real’ writer, whatever that means. Whenever I’m amongst a group of authors I always feel like the least qualified there, so I do lots of nodding and smiling and drinking. I lie about having read the classics, and by classics I mean any book over five years old, and I know it’s only a matter of time before someone calls me a charlatan and burns one of my books.

I’m about to begin thinking about book 3, which leads me to thinking about the writing process. I still don’t plan at all, which I’m going to try and work on. I tend to just sit down and start writing. I’ll know the end, where I’m heading, but how I get there is the part I most enjoy, fleshing out characters and feeling like I know them a little better each time I sit down to write. I find the process difficult though, especially so with book 2. I find it hard to switch off, I don’t sleep well and will often lie in bed running over the story, which can be exhausting. I also find the balance tricky, having a day job and a family and trying to prioritise my time. It’s something I aim to get better at, I’m just not sure how.

How do you do it? There’s some masterful plotting in Sockpuppet and Lucky Ghost, so I’m guessing there’s some detailed planning involved. How do you balance work and writing and relaxing? (I’m really hoping you have a magic formula, and that it involves recreational drugs.)

As for a book I’m really looking forward to, The Confession by Jo Spain, which I believe is out in January. I’ve heard very good things and am a huge fan of hers. I also wait patiently for John Hart to write another. It takes him a while (lazy/rich) but I love him so much I’d happily rummage through his recycling box, I imagine even his shopping list is a thing of beauty.

Matthew: Ooh, I’ll check that one out, thanks.

You’re very kind to complement my plotting. I wish I could say I had a magic formula but I really don’t. I usually start with a rough outline – 2-3 pages covering what I think the main beats of the story will be, plus some character notes – but this always turns out to be wrong. I seem to need this kind of starting point, but for me (and it sounds like for you, too) the true magic of writing fiction comes when you start to improvise and surprise yourself. I love throwing characters into situations even I don’t know the way out of, or pitting them against one another, and simply seeing what they’ll do. They invariably end up taking the story in a far more interesting direction than I could have plotted out in advance, and I have MUCH more fun along the way.

Of course this means my first drafts are alway a steaming, toxic mess, but that’s the point of a first draft. And it’s why novelists really, really need to enjoy editing. Because that’s at least 50% of the process.

Speaking of writing a draft, what stage are you at on the next book? Any teasers you can share about the book?

Chris: Yes on the dog shit first draft, mine are so bad that I usually get the urge to start something new when I’m nearing the end.

As for book 3 I’m not sure. I have a couple of ideas and they’re both quite big in scope, I just need to psyche myself up to get started as I know it’s going to be tough again. There’s something terrifying about staring at a blank page, but equally it’s the part I find most enjoyable. Sometimes I still can’t believe I get paid to write stories, it’s genuinely my dream job and if it wasn’t hard I’d worry I was doing something wrong.

How about you? Next up?

Matthew: You know what, Chris, I reckon the fact that you agonise so much is a big part of why your writing has so much rawness and fizz. It’s a shame the gestation has to be so painful, but take it from me, they’re beautiful babies. I hope you get to feel like a proud Dad once they’re out in the world.

For myself, I have a few irons in the fire at the moment, and it’s taken me a while to figure out which of them to work on next. There’s more to come in the series that started with Sockpuppet, and I thought that one of those would come next – but instead I’ve found myself compelled to write a standalone book about the fake news phenomenon, and the way we’re being slyly targeted with information designed to mould our feelings and beliefs. It’s shaping up to be a very different kind of book, though I’m still not 100% sure which direction it’s taking me in. Still, I’m excited to be here for the ride.

In the meanwhile, very best of luck with the launch of All The Wicked Girls. I know it’s going to be YUGE, as The Donald would say.

Follow Matt on Twitter HERE and Chris on Twitter HERE

Purchase Sockpuppet and/or Lucky Ghost

Purchase Tall Oaks and/or All The Wicked Girls

Happy Reading!

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