Christoph Fischer was born in Germany, near the Austrian border, as the son of a Sudeten-German father and a Bavarian mother. Not a full local in the eyes and ears of his peers he developed an ambiguous sense of belonging and home in Bavaria. He moved to Hamburg in pursuit of his studies and to lead a life of literary indulgence. After a few years he moved on to the UK where he now lives in a small hamlet, not far from Bath. He and his partner have three Labradoodles to complete their family.
Christoph worked for the British Film Institute, in Libraries, Museums and for an airline. ‘The Luck of The Weissensteiners’ was published in November 2012; ‘Sebastian’ in May 2013 and ‘The Black Eagle Inn’ in October 2013. He has written several other novels which are in the later stages of editing and finalization. His newest novel, Time To Let Go, will be released May 15.
As you will see, Christoph was both thoughtful and candid when responding to my questions. I hope you’ll find the exchange as stimulating as I did.
Christoph, I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of your novels, ‘The Luck of the Weissensteiners’ and ‘Time to Let Go’, and even though they are set in different time periods and cultures, I was struck by their thematic similarities. Both are rich family sagas examining complex relationships. What motivated you to write these stories?
My mother’s side of the family were good Catholics and all of them had plenty of children, while my father’s side only had few and they were separated by the Iron Curtain. I experienced a vast contrast of family relationships and I guess that has made me very interested in and aware of family dynamics.
Yes, that reverberates in your writing. Your books have a sacred respect for the life force within us all. Don’t want to give too much away, but there is a scene in one of your books that brilliantly illustrates this when a character commits suicide and the response by his friends is not pity but disgust that he threw this most precious gift away while they were all fighting daily to preserve it. How did you go about creating this powerful scene?
Thank you very much. I felt some restlessness in said character and admittedly the circumstances for him and his surroundings had been very unnerving. It was inevitable that someone/something had to break under so much pressure, so I let him give in to his urge. His choice, but the tragedy is always for the others, left behind. In this case the question was: how could the others sustain their morale, if not by judging him? Compared to many of his contemporaries he was extremely lucky, yet didn’t see it. It probably reflects on my own opinion about suicide. Unless you have a terminal disease I believe it is a grave mistake. There is always something to live for at the other end of the tunnel.
What attracted you to writing?
I came to writing purely by chance. I had an idea and spare time to dedicate to the ‘experiment’. I only meant to write down a short story but it turned into a full novel – a hobby was born. Two years later I decided to publish one of the books. Writing for me is escapism, an intellectual exercise and emotional inner healing and all of it is important and helps me grow as a person.
If you gave yourself a pen name that none of your friends or associates knew you by, what kind of book would you like to write?
I would really like to try and write a comedy. I would love it if I could make people laugh with my stories but it just doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. I seem to be more comfortable with drama, so a pen name for any comedy would be a good idea.
Here’s hoping you give it a try, Woody Von Bustergutt. Meanwhile, describe Christoph Fischer to us when he is writing.
He is very enthusiastic and excitable and writes away feverishly on his first drafts, forgets to eat and runs late for appointments: just one more paragraph, just one more dialogue, just finish that train of thought; then he re-writes the drafts, turns away in self-doubt and comes back with new ideas and fresh perspectives. My partner gave me a cuddly toy in the shape of Oscar the Grouch from “Sesame Street” which says “Go Away”. That sums it up perfectly.
Maybe you should collaborate with your partner on that comedy. What writers have inspired or influenced you most and why?
Christos Tsiolkas and “The Slap” was a great influence on me with his great use of varying perspectives. My first novel was told in chapters each of which focused on a different character. I have changed that now, but it was a fantastic exercise to get into the heads of all people I write about instead of using them as plot details. Lionel Shriver has a sharp and cutting writing style and includes some uncompromising and well observed details. That has given me confidence to be very honest and to write more controversial characters that sometimes change their minds, just like people in real life do.
What person has influenced your life most and why?
My German Literature teacher from 8th grade had a lot of confidence in me and encouraged me to write. My aunt, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and who is a little bit like Biddy in “Time to Let Go”, had a wonderfully positive and life affirmative attitude. I am nowhere near that sadly, but her attitude stays with me to this day. When I am down, I try to picture what she would do and it often gets me out of my misery.
Yes, when I was reading Time To Let Go, it was very clear Biddy was based on someone near and dear. How do you feel about the world of indie writing/publishing in its current state?
I feel very good about it. Self-publishing is giving the big players a run for their money. Many smaller publishing houses ask the writer to do much of the promotional work themselves, so I am quite happy to be doing it all alone. I feel there is more recognition amongst readers. Publishers and agents seem to be flooded with books, but the readers seem to find us, so we are cutting out some middle men. You are in film, you must remember how the Independent Films challenged Hollywood and how their success has positively shaped the cinema landscape and even the kind of films produced. I hope for a similar effect in book publishing. There are many deserving authors out there.
True. The indie film market exploded when a wide diversity of markets suddenly emerged, from cable TV to home video to the internet, along with the technology to support it. It concerns me that currently one corporate giant dominates and controls the indie publishing world. How do you think indie publishing could be improved?
We probably need a little more organisation, indie awards and indie book festivals to showcase our work. E-magazines and other tools to get the word about us to the readers need to grow in numbers. Recently, at The London Book Fair a woman told me that the agents present only wanted to speak to authors that were already self-published. That is a sign that we are getting our foot in the door and are making progress.
What other fields or professions did you work in before becoming a writer?
I am a trained librarian, I worked for the British Film Institute in the Information and Research department and also at the Film Festival Office. I spent the last 15 years working for an airline.
I worked for an airline as well – a ramp rat, but not nearly as long. It illustrates the winding paths many of us take to becoming storytellers. Am I right in assuming your airline experience was the foundation for the lead character in Time To Let Go?
How very interesting. Yes, my airline experience was the foundation for the lead character, although not for the plot.
Tell us a little about how you formulate your plots.
With the historical books I had a non-negotiable time frame of events and a basic idea for the plot. In “Time to Let Go” I also had a battle plan for key scenes and major events. However, as I write the story a lot of what I had in mind suddenly becomes cliche or predictable and the characters start having their own ideas. So I adjust and let the plot develop dynamically. It is much more fun that way, but incredibly difficult to find inconsistencies in the story later on.
How do you strike a balance between maintaining historical accuracy and developing a compelling storyline and characters?
Historical accuracy takes absolute priority. If the storyline does not fit with the facts then it has to be dropped or altered. Occasionally a plot hole or error in my planning can be a blessing in disguise as it challenges me to think: what would the character do now?
Are your characters drawn from life, fabricated from the needs of the story, or developed in some other manner?
The key characters in my historical novels are a little bit of both: Greta Weissensteiner is based in parts on the life of my grandmother and how I imagined her and her sister’s life during that period, but the sisters took on their own character that was different from my family, so they are also in parts at least fabricated from an idea for my story. I’d like to think that none of them are created to fit the story, but many grow with the story as it unfolds for us all. I begin to picture them as I write them and often find that I modelled them on people I know. I do that more than I thought. It took my sister to point some of these occasions out to me and I had to admit that she was right.
Greta is a terrific character, so strong, yet big hearted. So many times I wanted to give her a bear hug and tell her everything’s gonna be all right. So, of all the characters you’ve created, which is your favorite and why?
Jonah Weissensteiner is a tribute to my father, whom I lost almost twenty years ago. His jovial, artistic and liberal nature was a light in my childhood and I tried to let that live on in this character. Like Jonah my father was a widower, so I let him find love again and be witty and gregarious.
Loved Jonah, too. He hammered home the message that family is most important of all. What’s the funniest or most bizarre thing that’s happened to you as a writer?
All of my books have gay characters in them. Non sexual supporting cast mainly who just happen to be gay and illustrate some points but do not take over the story. An Amazon reviewer accused me of promoting homosexuality. Oddly enough, the book in question features a not very likeable, selfish lesbian couple.
Talk to us a little about writing good dialogue.
That is difficult and I am still learning the craft. Realistic can be equally boring and mundane but too fancy can be artificial and unconvincing. As a reader, I want a good compromise. Lifelike dialogue does often take too long and does not come to the point of a conversation fast enough. Since reading one of your interviews, I am painfully aware of the ‘remote control’ effect of TV: people might switch channels if I don’t keep it interesting. I have a personal dislike of writing in ‘dialect’. It is realistic but it takes me out of the experience. Sharp, witty and fast in my opinion is best.
If money was no object, what would you do with your life beside write?
If there were a lot of money I would like to run a charity: a caring facility or an orphanage in Africa. There are so many good causes that need our attention. Theatre work would also interest me.
Glad to hear that. I think playwriting is not fully appreciated in the writing world. What has been your most disappointing experience as a writer?
I would have to say a personal attack on a dear writer friend that was carried out by trolls. It was undeserved, negative attention by people who had probably not even read the book. There was a bias against self-published books in the reviews that was not justified by the work in question at all. All of her hard effort in marketing her wonderful book was almost killed in an instant by thoughtless and hateful people with too much time on their hands. It was disheartening.
Do you think there is anything that could or should be done by Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, etc. to control anonymous ‘drive-by’ or malicious postings, or reviews by people who have clearly not read the book?
I know of several postings and reviews that were taken down after being flagged or complained about by the authors or other readers. It shows that, at least in principle, the companies in question are taking measures. I wish they would devote more resources to this but their business models run on ‘cheapest offer’ (Amazon) or free services (FB and GR), so I doubt that this will ever happen. I hope someone clever will come up with a good solution, but I can’t think of any, despite having given it a lot of thought.
What do you think are the biggest pitfalls for aspiring writers?
There are so many, it depends on the individual and their knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses: lack of confidence, lack of research, lack of editing, lack of appropriate marketing…. Currently, I am thinking about the balance between letting your book go and giving it just one more re-write; the longer you wait the more afraid you get, but if you let the book go too soon it backfires from the errors that you let slip in creating an impression of poor work.
As an indy writer/publisher, what marketing techniques have worked best for you?
I notice that most of my sales seem related to my twitter activity. If I stop tweeting, my sales drop significantly. Giveaways have led to good “follow on sales”, so they were worth the effort. As avid reader and ‘book consumer’, I respond better to soft sales rather than hard sales. I try to do the same in my marketing and I believe it helps, although this is not based on statistics or evidence.
Is it true you never sleep?
It is almost true.
Thank you, Christoph. I’ve enjoyed this exchange immensely and appreciate the time and effort you put into participating. Best of luck on the roll-out of Time To Let Go. I’ve already read it and written a 5-star review, which can be read by clicking here.