Please Welcome...Chris Walley
This month our interview guest is Christian speculative fiction novelist Chris Walley.
Chris is a rarity, a living British evangelical Christian fiction writer. There aren't many of those these days, as according to him, it is a pretty hostile environment for our sort of writing in the UK.
More recently, he wrote under his own name what ended up as a trilogy of science-fiction/fantasy novels published by Tyndale under the generic title Lamb among the Stars.
"Great reviews on Amazon," Chris says, "modest sales…"
And now, the interview...
WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been doing lately?
Chris Walley: Well, I have a full-time job, which pays enough money for me to live. I am a lecturer in a local college teaching 16 to 18-year-olds Geology and Environmental Science, and that keeps me very busy, especially as this year my classes are quite large. So my writing is condensed into evenings and holidays.
I am also an elder in our church, do a lot of preaching, am involved with a Christian environmental trust and still get asked to advise and comment on Lebanese geology. So I am kept quite busy!
However, I have a big manuscript underway, and I am making pretty good progress on it when I get the time. Which isn't that frequently.
WhereTheMapEnds: I admire people who can write fiction while already busier than most people. What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?
Chris Walley: I’m afraid it’s hard to avoid Lord of the Rings. It is everything we want an alternative world to be: heroic, vast, frightening, and above all realistically deep.
I should say, though, that like all fantasy writers I have very much a love-hate relationship with Tolkien. He managed to pillage almost all the great archetypes and themes of classical fantasy and weave them into his own plot. The result is that, all too often when you come up with some wonderful idea, you remember that he got there first.
WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, though I think that works for us in some respects. You certainly can come up with a whole new, non-Tolkienesqe race of insectoids who want to swarm over the realm. But sometimes that is just too strange for fantasy readers. What we want usually is more of what Tolkien captured. We want a fantasy to have many of those elements as givens, almost as elements of the genre itself, and then go on with the fun from there.
But I certainly know what you mean. You can’t put in Elves or Dwarves without feeling like you’re copying J.R.R.
So, Chris, What made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?
Chris Walley: I never set out to write specifically "Christian" fiction. It's just that when I started writing for pleasure the only themes that I really wanted to address were Christian ones such as calling and redemption.
The speculative fiction idea had always been lurking in the back of my somewhat over-imaginative mind. By the late 1990s I had realised [Editor's Note: as an act of international goodwill, we’ll allow him his U.K. spellings!] that the contemporary thriller was becoming almost impossible because the pace of technological and political change meant that the manuscript was out of date almost before it was published. For instance, I actually had (and still have somewhere) a completed manuscript about a guerrilla operation in southern Lebanon. 9/11 and the rise of Bin Laden as the global enemy Number One rendered it completely obsolete.
Speculative fiction allows you the freedom to create, unhindered by reality.
WhereTheMapEnds: Very true. And the typical speculative story is not easily outdated. By divorcing these stories from our own level of technology, we can extend their shelf lives.
How was your first idea for a Christian speculative novel received (by anyone: spouse, friends, parents, agent, publisher, readers, reviewers, etc.)?
Chris Walley: My wife gets to read my manuscripts first. In general she’s probably not critical enough, but she seems to like them and certainly encourages me to the point where I have to finish them. She really encouraged me to keep going with the Lamb Among the Stars trilogy. I think at the time had we realised that it would be a journey of three quarters of a million words we might have made other choices!
I would love to have a good agent here, but the UK Christian market is not large enough to sustain one. Of course, if any international agent wants to get in touch with me about my next blockbuster manuscript, then feel free.
WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.
Chris Walley: Let me here make an appalling confession: I'm reading very little these days. What with teaching, church duties, doing a spot of editing and my geology I find that I don't read anywhere near as much as I should do. Although I watch almost no television I have a nasty suspicion that the Internet takes up the time that, in the past, I would have spent in reading.
I am finding myself increasingly interested in Alternative History; the ‘what-might-have-beens’ of life are fascinating.
WhereTheMapEnds: I often surprise people with a similar confession. Between editing Marcher Lord Press novels and doing freelance editing, I find myself disinterested in reading fiction when I have a spare moment. I’ll either read non-fiction or just go play a game on the computer or PS3.
How would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Chris Walley: I am very much the wrong person to ask about this, living as I do in the wilds of Wales. However, I will say that I find myself somewhat ambivalent. It's hard not to be negative; in the UK there is enormous pressure for dark, earthy, violent books that I (and I presume most Christians) have no interest in writing. I am also concerned that a lot of Christian writing is formulaic ("You must include a conversion," etc.).
Positively, I think that secular fantasy fiction has got itself into a rut and that Christians are probably some of the few people who are capable of breaking out of it. We have hope.
WhereTheMapEnds: You live in Wales? Friend, we have to work something out so I can come see you! It is my dream to walk the battlements of Harlech Castle. Also, I need to come to Wales to have my picture taken standing in the ruins of some marcher lord castles.
About the “You must include a conversion” thought: I think most mainstream Christian fiction here has matured beyond that. Now, the most conservative readers will want such things, but I’d say that today, authors don’t feel pressure to put a conversion scene in. Such a scene may have made it in, as religious experiences are not unusual in religious fiction, but the writer probably didn’t feel forced to include it.
What have you seen that encourages you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Chris Walley: The decline of Christianity in British culture. Within my lifetime it has gone from being a majority to a minority influence. The shift has been so monumental that I feel we are now as completely "in exile" as the Israelites hauled off beyond the Euphrates. We have seen a slow, unspectacular and (so far) bloodless Babylonian coup, yet most of our traditional churches have not recognised this fact.
What encourages me is some of the young Christians that I teach or know through our college Christian Union. They are committed to the gospel but also engaged with our culture. They have been born "in exile" and are seeking to challenge the hostile culture about them.
WhereTheMapEnds: That’s frightening, yet it confirms my perspective of things across the Pond. I think your single greatest danger now, in a post-Christian U.K., isn’t atheism, but Islam. As we’re seeing across the Middle East, when a strong anti-Islam government is toppled, Islam rushes into the void. And placating those forces doesn’t preserve anything; it seems merely to hasten the Islamic spread. Praise God for you and your remnant!
What have you seen that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Chris Walley: Let me be blunt: One problem is the preoccupation of American Christianity with an imminent rapture and Second Coming. Other views can be held, and have been held, even within North American Christianity. I would very much welcome the Lord's Return in the near future, but we need to bear in mind that we may be in for the long haul. Many Christians have no vision of the future.
A second problem is confusion between theology and culture. There is an assumption that the expression of the faith that we see in the 21st century West is normative and that Christian fiction should support such views. We need to remember that our political systems and cultures only occasionally coincide with the Kingdom of God.
A third problem is the fear of the new and strange. Why those who believe in eternal omnipotent God should fear strangeness is beyond me, but many Christians do.
WhereTheMapEnds: Good points. I’ll comment on the first one. I think some elements of American Christendom are overly concerned about the Second Coming, and perhaps those are the stories that make it to the U.K. But I wouldn’t say that such concerns characterize American Christianity. Most of us are very aware that we may be here for a long time.
What would you like to see changed regarding Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Chris Walley: I think we need the freedom to be more daring. Some of the shibboleths of Christian writing and publishing need to be examined. Far too many of them reflect traditional cultural values rather than eternal gospel values.
I can't remember who said this, or whether it’s original, but all literature either confirms or confronts what we are. It is far too easy to produce comfortable books that affirm us in what may be very wrong lifestyles and attitudes. We need to be more challenging.
WhereTheMapEnds: What do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?
Chris Walley: I think it's going to split into
two. On the one hand there will be the conventional and confirming
writing which will make you feel good; on the other will be the
challenging and confronting works which will turn you back to God. The
irony may well be that it will be the non-Christian publishers who
publish the second sort of books.
What advice would you give to
someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative
When you dream, be inclusive. Throw the door wide, don't exclude any idea however bizarre. Jot it down somewhere and come back to it.
WhereTheMapEnds: What’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?
Chris Walley: I take it that there are two sorts of fiction: that which seeks to tell a tale and that which seeks to get the praise of the critics. I know nothing about the second, and I'm not even sure that it is the right goal for the Christian writer.
With regards to telling a tale, can I annoy a lot of people and recommend Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft? I have read only a few of his books and have enormous reservations about many of his topics and language, but there is no doubt he knows how to tell a tale. This book is excellent on the art of storytelling.
WhereTheMapEnds: What’s the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?
Chris Walley: Definitely the fan mail. I love to get the sort of email that says, “I really loved your books, and they gave me a new perspective.” Even better are those that say, "I was struggling as a Christian, and your books really helped me back to faith." And I've had a few of those. That makes it all worthwhile.
WhereTheMapEnds: What writing project(s) are you working on now?
Chris Walley: Let's just say it's an alternative history in which well-known events do not happen in the way that they actually did. I don't want to say too much because I think it's a jolly good idea that no one else has had, and I want to get closer to the finishing post of my manuscript than I am at present. I am (perhaps rather naughtily) hoping that it will arouse a certain amount of controversy, which will sell books.
WhereTheMapEnds: It sounds fun. Alternative history done well is brilliant entertainment. What’s the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?
Chris Walley: I very much enjoyed reading Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, which centers on the arrival of aliens in a mediaeval German village. Unusually, the Christian characters are done well and to my mind accurately. It is even more unusual that a substantial portion of the plot, which deals with a contemporary investigation of the event, doesn't to my mind actually work very well. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, a great read.
WhereTheMapEnds: What else would you like to say to the readers of WhereTheMapEnds.com?
Chris Walley: Pray for Christian writers. In the increasingly unchurched societies of the West, we are the prophets (and sometimes even the evangelists) of our society. Tales reach where sermons can't.
That's All for This Time
Another terrific interview! Thanks again to Chris Walley for stopping by. Be sure to visit him online.
If you missed any of our previous interviews with other speculative authors, including Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins, Karen Hancock, Tosca Lee, and Ted Dekker, you can read them here.
Come back next month for an interview with another heavy hitter in the world of Christian speculative fiction.