Coffee klatch with Chris Chelser
Once upon a time, Chris was a lawyer and business consultant. Then the monsters under her bed insisted the lifetime habit of writing horror stories should be a full-time one.
[Anna]: Hello Chris, thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to speak with me.
[Chris]: For you, anytime.
[A]: Let's start from the beginning. What inspired you to start writing?
[Ch]: That’s so long ago, I can barely remember, haha! I was about 7 years old when I wrote my first real story, about astronauts who were sucked down a black hole and discovered a terrifying new world on the other side. From the very start, every story I wrote had a dark side to it, often involving serious injury or death. Young as I was, children’s books didn’t ring true to me and happy-ever-afters felt like cheap cop-outs. I suppose that is why I started writing: to create the stories about a side of life that, as a kid, I wasn’t supposed to know about.
[A]: What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
[Ch]: Consistency. Just because you’re making it all up doesn’t mean you just get to do anything you please. Readers only become immersed in a story when it is credible. Not credible as in realistic, but as in making it easy for them to suspend their disbelief. A clear example is that a novel set in a historical period needs to be consistent within that setting. Likewise, a fantasy world will have laws of (magical) physics that have to be consistent. But it goes much further: character development, plot, timing, pacing, etc. Whenever something about a story is inconsistent and that inconsistency isn’t addressed as part of the story, that can jar the audience and break the spell.
[A]: You’ve published 4 books to date: The Devourer, a collection of short stories Res Arcana, and two novels from The Kalbrandt Institute Archives. What was your inspiration to write them?
[Ch]: Any project has to be a challenge to me, or I will lose interest very quickly. Tarot always interested me, so the Res Arcana stories I wrote for fun. When I had a collection of them, the challenge was to self-publish them. That worked out, so why not do it again?
The challenge of The Kalbrandt Institute was to combine my deepest loves - history, mythology and the paranormal – with an unusual story format. The Kalbrandt Institute books are one overarching story that spans four books, but every book contains files from the archives. These are stand-alone short stories that are still tied into the main story arc, as well as each other. It’s a massive and quite complicated puzzle. I love that, but it is not easy to write because, well, consistency!
The Devourer was a different challenge altogether, hehe… It’s a surrealistic, suspenseful ghost story that takes readers into the world beyond this one, but beneath the action, it is also a reckoning with my personal demons. I deliberately created a story to give a visual shape to depression. Describing those visuals in a way that was comprehensible to other people was a challenge on both an artistic and a personal level.
[A]: In your books, you write about ghosts, monsters, history, and the human soul. Which of the stories did you find the most difficult to put on paper?
[Ch]: When a setting, subject or event is not (well) documented, it takes much more effort to write it well. You can describe a fictional land, and readers can imagine that without a hitch. Even monsters can usually be visualised by means of well-known elements, like limbs, scales, fangs and whatnot.
But when you take your readers into the mind of a character who is hallucinating, they are in uncharted territory. Writing any form of surrealism, like the non-physical world in The Devourer, means showing them things that are nonsensical by nature. You balance a fine line between giving the reader an unsettling and bizarre experience, while still providing them with enough sensible information to remain invested in the story.
[A]: Having this in mind, what comes first: the plot or characters?
[Ch]: Characters. I’ll be living in their mind for a long time, so a rough idea of the main characters is the first step. Then I brainstorm plot ideas and settings, tweak the characters accordingly, etc. I go back and forth a lot before deciding a project is worth writing. And then the plot may change several times during the writing process, but the characters won’t. They will develop, as they should, but I don’t make any major changes to them once I start writing.
[A]: The Devourer is breaking the mould of the classic paranormal horror and touches on difficult subjects of abuse, depression, and suicide. What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
[Ch]: It breaks my heart to see how much of a taboo still rests on mental illness. I have been chronically depressed and suicidal all my adult life, but countless misconceptions, even from medical professionals, prevented me from receiving the help I needed. After more than 20 years, I managed to fight my way out of that darkness myself, but so many people suffer in silence, get misdiagnosed or maltreated because their pain isn’t recognised for what it is. Within the safety of fiction and between the lines of a ghost hunt, The Devourer shows the damage caused by that stigma. We have come a long way since the 19th century, but the casual acceptance of domestic abuse, the silence surrounding depression and the outright condemnation of suicide is still prevalent. I hope that this story can contribute to peeling away the taboos on depression and suicide, or at least the very least offer someone the recognition they seek.
[A]: What is your next project?
[Ch]: I usually have multiple projects at the same time. Novel-wise, they are the last two books of the Kalbrandt Institute series and a dark story about the alienated crew of a ship that tries to sink itself. Except that last one turned into something much, much bigger and far less fictional.
It was meant as a novelisation of the psychological model I created to understand and survive my suicidal episodes. However, as I wrote that story, the model turned out to work for others, too. So well, in fact, that a novel wouldn’t do it justice. The result is a video course I released recently: When Ships Want To Sink, A Guide On Surviving Depression & Suicide.
[A]: What is the best place to start for someone who would be interested in learning more?
[Ch]: Best place is the website: www.ship-psychology.com, and specifically the monthly Questions & Answers sessions. These are free webinars that anyone can register to join and ask all kinds of questions
[A]: And finally, because I just have to ask: tea or coffee?