Perfect for fans of Twin Peaks, FARGO, and The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, Chris Whitaker's stunning debut novel is dark, hilarious and heartbreaking. It also almost never happened. Here's how he quit his city job and became a full-time writer. 

"I’ve always been a bit impulsive"

Tall Oaks

I remember the first time I held a proof copy of my novel, Tall Oaks, in my hands. It was a surreal moment, the culmination of a lifelong dream, though a dream that got seriously sidelined over the years.

I’ve always been a bit impulsive, and a bit all or nothing. When I was 19 I read an article about a stockbroker in the newspaper and decided that’s what I wanted to be (he had a Ferrari). I paid for my FSA exams, then headed into the city, CV in hand, resplendent in pin-stripe suit and braces. I’d like to use the excuse that it was the 1980s, but it was actually 2001.

 

 

"I was blessed with a cavalier attitude to my family’s financial security"

 

 

I hit the streets, ignoring the rumble in my stomach (lunch is for wimps) and general laughter at my expense, then found a company that saw my potential/took pity on me and offered me a job. Within a week I realised I’d made a mistake. I’d been writing in my spare time and working as a stockbroker leaves you with no spare time.

I stuck with my day job but also continued to write, snatching the odd hour here and there and never giving it the attention it needed. There were lots of half finished stories, lots half-arsed attempts at plotting. Looking back now I know it was because I was trying to emulate writers I admired, rather than trying to find a voice of my own.

I reached a crossroads when I turned 30. After ten years in the City, I’d had enough. Thankfully I was blessed with a cavalier attitude to my family’s financial security, so I quit my job and sold our flat and car to lower the monthly outgoings.

 

 

"This is a terrible way to write a novel"

waste paper bin

I’ve always been an avid reader and my tastes lean toward crime, with Dennis Lehane and John Hart amongst my favourite authors. But I’m also a fan of any book that can make me laugh. It was with this in mind I sat down and wrote the first draft of Tall Oaks. It took me four weeks of 5,000 words a day. I’ve since discovered that this is a terrible way to write a novel.

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 wrote until the early hours, finishing the final paragraph an hour before my wife went into labour.

The editing, much like the first weeks with a newborn, was particularly unpleasant. I was up to my neck in faeces, and most of it was sitting on the screen in front of me. Tall Oaks was a mess, from the plot to the pacing to the grammar. It took a further six months to get it ready to go out.

I sent it to a few (thousand) carefully selected agents. The submission process is tough. 

 

 

"I was up to my neck in faeces, and most of it was sitting on the screen in front of me"

 

 

Everything I’d written before had been awful, but something clicked with Tall Oaks—I'd finally found a style that suited me. I had faith, but still, nothing quite prepares you for the moment when an agent offers to represent you.

You might think that the hardest work is behind you once you land a publishing deal, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I slowly watched it turn into the kind of book I’d always hoped it would be—part crime/thriller, but still full of humour. It’s been likened to Twin Peaks and Fargo, which I think means it’s also a bit strange. I took that as a compliment. Who wants to be normal?

I often joke about quitting my job and following my dream, like it wasn’t a big decision. I think I do this because it felt like such a selfish thing to do, especially with a young family to support. But now, sitting here with a stack of final copies beside me, I can safely say it was totally worth it.

 

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker is published by twenty7

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Feature image: Chris Whitaker

 

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