Chris Whitaker, WE BEGIN AT THE END

Chris Whitaker, WE BEGIN AT THE END

“Basically, Zibby, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just winging it and hoping for the best.” Author Chris Whitaker talks to Zibby about how writing saved his life twice and how the main character in his new book, We Begin At the End, played a part in that. By the end of this interview, you’ll be rooting for both Duchess and Chris.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Chris. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Chris Whitaker: Thank you for having me. I’m very excited.

Zibby: We Begin at the End, but actually, we’re going to begin at the beginning today. We’ll just start right in by talking about your amazing novel. First of all, tell listeners — this is your third novel — what this is about and what inspired you to write it, please.

Chris: The book, We Begin at the End, it’s a story that follows a year in the life of a thirteen-year-old girl named Duchess as she tries to protect her family in the wake of a convicted killer moving back to the small California town that she lives in. In doing so, she sets off this chain of events that kind of wreck everything around her. It’s hard to describe. I describe it as a coming-of-age crime story. Some people say it’s a mystery. Some people say literary fiction. It’s a book about sacrifices that people make for those that they love. It’s about making mistakes and learning how to move on from them. It’s a book about life. That’s my pitch.

Zibby: That was a good one. I like it. Way to bring in a lot of different things.

Chris: I cover all the bases.

Zibby: Who does that not appeal to now? There you go. If you’re interested in life, you will like my book.

Chris: Yeah. I’m going to use that as a blurb now.

Zibby: There you go. How did you start writing to begin with? Let’s go back to that. I read in your bio, you’re in finance.

Chris: I was in finance, yes. I’m going to take you all the way back.

Zibby: Good. Let’s go.

Chris: I messed up at school. Didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was always jealous of — my friends knew. Some wanted to be doctors, lawyers, things like that. I just had no idea what I was going to do. The night before my economics exam I got really drunk and woke up in hospital, so I missed the exam. I completely wrecked all my chances of advancing in university. My parents were thrilled about that. Then I bounced from job to job. I worked in a bakery and a supermarket. I loved working in a bakery. I worked in a supermarket. I sold electrical cable. I was working as a real estate agent. I was out dropping leaflets through people’s doors. Someone came up to me and asked if they could borrow my phone. You know when you kind of get a bad feeling? This is going to go badly. Then they asked for my wallet. I put up a fight because I’ve always been a massive boxing fan. I thought, I’ll fight him. Just because you watch boxing doesn’t mean you can box, as I found out. I kind of held my own for a while. Then he pulled out a kitchen knife and stabbed me in the side a few times. It was really bad. I dropped the phone, dropped my wallet. He picked up everything and ran off. I was left standing there bleeding and got myself to the hospital. They stitched me back together again. I was okay physically.

I’ve still got the scars and stuff. I make up different stories to my kids about what happened all the time like a shark bite and things like that, something really cool. Then I had a really tough time after that. I didn’t know anything about PTSD. My friends, my dad slapped me on the back. You did well. It was a brave thing to do. I couldn’t handle what had happened. I went through a really tough time. I remember sitting down to read a book and being stuck on the same chapter, the same page for hours on end. Watching TV, just couldn’t focus on anything. I’d go out running. I’d run so far that I’d have to get a bus back home. It was this really strange time. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. I kind of projected that I was okay because everyone expected me to be okay. Things got really bad. You know when you haven’t slept for ages and ages and you don’t feel yourself? You can be a room full of people and you just feel like you’re not there. You’re not connected to anyone. I felt like that for ages. I felt really depressed. I’d look in the mirror and not recognize the person that I saw. I didn’t want to be that person. I started hoarding pain killers. I thought, I’m just going to take a load, just end things. Then I sat down and I was going to write a note to my parents just to explain how I was feeling and what had happened.

I had read something about, writing is therapy, how you can take the thing that happened to you, the traumatic incident, and you can change the characters involved. I gave it a try. I sat down that night and wrote. I wrote the character of Duchess who’s in We Begin at the End. Obviously, I didn’t know she was Duchess. I just wrote about this girl that had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Everything was going wrong for her. She looked like a victim. Then that night, I slept for the first time in ages. Then I wrote some more the next day, some more the next day. It was a long process. I felt a bit better. I was able to deal with things. Probably, a year or two passed of me just writing bits and pieces. It was kind of disjointed. It wasn’t the beginning of a book or anything like that. It was just this girl and her life and her troubles and things like that. I was kind of projecting everything that was happening to me onto someone else. It helped.

Then I read an article about a stockbroker in the newspaper. There was a picture of him. He had this Ferrari. It was this dream life. I thought, I’m going to be a stockbroker, which is ridiculous because I’m terrible at maths. I had no qualifications or anything like that. I went into the city, printed my CV, which was terrible, marched into the city, managed to talk my way into a job. I don’t know how. I think they took pity on me. I really do. I think they looked at my CV and felt sorry for me. They gave me a job. I worked my way up. Loved it. Loved working in the city. I was a stockbroker for ages, but I really wanted to be a trader. I wanted to work on a trading desk. Eventually, I was twenty-four, my boss called me in and said, “We’re going to give you a chance on the trading desk. If you lose twenty thousand dollars, stop trading. We’ll talk about what went wrong.” I said, fine. Then the next day, I came in and lost two million dollars.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Chris: I know. I know. I didn’t tell anyone again.

Zibby: Oh, no.

Chris: I know. One of my friends worked in the back office. I said to him, “Don’t tell anyone about this. I will make it back,” which is ridiculous again. It’s two million dollars. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I lost a bit more. Carried on trading. I went into work one morning. The bosses were sitting around a boardroom table with lawyers and things like that. They sat me down. I had started to make money at this point. I went on quite a good run. They sat me down and said, “We know what’s happened. We know everything.” They kind of said, “We can go to the police or you can sign a contract and you can pay us back half of it out of your own pocket. We’ll let you carry on trading.” I signed it. I went home that day as a twenty-four-year-old with a million dollars in debt. I was getting married. I was engaged at the time. My wife thought we were doing really well. I was projecting this image again that I was really successful, and so the wedding costs were spiraling. I had this terrible secret. I felt like a complete screw-up. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I went back to writing again. We were looking at churches in the day. In the evening, I’d be checking my life insurance policy and stuff because I just couldn’t — I was back how I felt when I’d just been stabbed and all that happened. I felt like that again. I can’t cope with this. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to tell anyone about it. On our honeymoon, I was writing, writing more of Duchess, more of that character. Then I went back to work, worked for years, worked very hard, paid it off. Got to just before my thirtieth birthday and was about to get a promotion.

Then I read a book called The Last Child by an author called John Hart which I loved. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book. Then I read an interview with John Hart. He talked about how he turned his back on a career in law, a successful law career to write his book. Right there and then, I quit my job. My boss called me in, offered me the promotion. I said, “I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m miserable.” Quit my job. My wife was pregnant at the time and a student, so we had no money. I came home and said to her, “I’m going to write a book.” She didn’t know I’d ever written anything. It sounds completely mad. She was really supportive. She knew I wasn’t happy. I suppose it’s kind of striking that balance, isn’t it, of doing something that makes you happy and doing something that you love and supporting your family? We sold our house, car. Changed our life completely. Moved to Spain for a while where I wrote my debut book, Tall Oaks. I didn’t even know that you needed a literary agent or a publishing deal or how any of it worked. I just knew that I wanted to write. I wrote this book. Came back to London.

Luckily, got an agent, got a publishing deal. The book was published. We got nominated for an award, this fancy award ceremony we went to. I was completely out of my depth. It was all big-name authors in black tie and things like that. Then my book won against — it was the longest of long shots. We got back to the hotel and my wife just burst into tears. It had been really tough for her as well. She had been watching me go through all this stuff. That almost brings us up to date. Then I wrote another book. Before, I thought about going back to Duchess again off and on. It wasn’t a story that I ever thought I’d share. I didn’t think it would be a book. I had some help from Amy Einhorn, my editor, and the team at Holt. They’re amazing. I gave her a very rough draft of this story. She helped me to get it into the shape it’s in now. There’s a finished book, which I have here. I know no one can see this, but I’m holding up the book. It’s been a long journey from then to now. Now I get to talk to you about it, which is really cool.

Zibby: Whoa. Oh, my gosh, that was amazing. I don’t want you to stop talking about that. Wait, go back to the second book. I feel like you skimmed past the second book. Tell me about that one.

Chris: The second book, All the Wicked Girls, is a book set in Alabama. It’s about twin sisters. One of them goes missing. It’s this small town in Alabama. This cloud appears over it. It’s not supernatural in any way, but it just stays there. It gets darker and darker until it’s nighttime twenty-four hours a day. It’s kind of a metaphor for what’s going on in the town. There’s a lot of religious connotations and things like that. That came out. I had this book, I had We Begin at the End kind of there. I fought the urge to write it for years and years because I knew it would be difficult. It was difficult. Probably, of the years it took to write, most of those were Duchess, the character of Duchess, and getting her dialogue right. Probably, a solid year spent just writing and rewriting her dialogue. It becomes that agony. I’d draft a paragraph and then delete it and then rewrite it and change a single word and then lie awake at night just worrying that it’s not as good as it can be. I just refused to send it. I had to feel like I couldn’t write a better sentence in that book before anyone could read it, which is madness because I could read it right now and change loads of stuff. I’m like that. It’s been a long, strange journey. I feel like I’ve just talked at you for ages. I’m really sorry.

Zibby: I loved it. That was great. Thank you. I was totally in the mood just to listen. I’m listening to my own podcast. It’s perfect. Wow, what a story. The funny thing is, you would never know anything. First of all, why are you writing stories based in the US? What is that about? Before I knew anything about you and I was just reading the book at first, I kept looking, I was like, is he American but he’s living in London? That must be it. Then I was like, no, it looks like he’s actually British. What’s going on? It’s like an Americana, almost.

Chris: When I’m reading a book, I like to escape totally. I like to move to a different area in my mind. Partly, that was true for writing when I sat down because I was having such a tough time. I needed to set a story a long way away from my life. I went to America when I was a kid with my dad. We did the theme parks. My parents split up when I was quite young. I missed seeing my dad quite a lot. He took me and my brother to the theme parks in America. It was the best time I think I’ve ever had. I look back on it fondly. If I’m looking for a happy memory, I go back to that place. We watch a lot of your TV shows. I grew up reading Dennis Lehane and Stephen King and John Grisham, the masters of their genre. It felt right. We Begin at the End is a massive story. It didn’t start out that way. It spans a year in the life of this girl and a policeman. I needed this big canvas to tell it on. America was just — it’s such an amazing country. It feels like a world within a country. There’s a point where Duchess goes on this big road trip at the end of the book. She starts in Montana. She ends up in California. It just wouldn’t have worked anywhere else. It’s hard, though. I do a lot of research. I feel like I set out to make it as difficult as I possibly can for myself. I succeed. Again, I have an amazing copyeditor and team that catch my mistakes. I work in a library as well a few days a week. The resources I have there, I’m forever looking at maps and reading books and travel guides. I get obsessive about it. It needs to feel authentic.

Zibby: So have you not actually been to these places in the book?

Chris: No, I haven’t.

Zibby: You haven’t been there? Oh, my gosh.

Chris: I know. The towns are fictional, but the locations they’re in are real places. I would build my town in my head and on the screens. Then I’ll plunk it down somewhere real. You have this beautiful town called Cape Haven on the coast in California. The cliffs are eroding, so every now and then, part of the town slides into the sea. There’s a character called Walk, a police chief. He’s not very well. He was happiest when he was a teenager. He lived in this perfect town. Now everything’s changing. He can’t handle it. I loved writing that. Duchess goes to Montana for a big chunk of the story. It was so much fun writing it. I’d have a really tough day, then get back to my office and sit down and escape to Montana. When I was a kid and I was at Disney World, we were in the line in a queue to go on a ride. We were behind this family. We got talking to them. My dad was talking to their dad. He was telling us we had to visit Montana. He said it’s like switching from portrait to landscape. That stuck in my head all these years later. I had always wanted to write a book set there. I do want to visit as well. I’m supposed to be in New York in a couple of weeks, but it’s not happening because no one can go anywhere, really, can they? I’m hoping later in the year. I haven’t been to America since I was twenty-one, which was too long ago now.

Zibby: Wow. I recently went to Montana, not that recently, for the first time. I can send you some pictures if you would like. My brother spends a lot of time there.

Chris: I would love that. I would really love that. Is it beautiful?

Zibby: It’s gorgeous. It’s really gorgeous.

Chris: I can imagine. I’m doing an interview with the Montana Press people later this week. I think they’re going to get me for something. I think they’re going to test me on there.

Zibby: Switching from portrait to landscape, I love that. I can’t believe you even remember something said in line at Disney World when you were a child. That’s crazy.

Chris: I don’t remember much else. I just have these certain things that you don’t know why you’ve remembered something.

Zibby: When I was reading it, I was so struck by the way — I was trying to figure out what you were doing in your writing to keep the reader so on the edge of their seat, what tools you were using. I feel like it’s because you had such short paragraphs. It was like every line was a new paragraph. It just kept going like, boom, boom, boom. It was in page two hundred or something that you first had a really long, dense paragraph. Then I was like, wait, there are no paragraphs. Everything is very short. The pacing of it, it makes it very rapid. Was that intentional, or did that just happen?

Chris: It’s something I’m not aware that I’m doing. It’s something that gets pointed out to me now by the editorial team and things like that. I just sit down and write. I work across three screens. I build the scene that I’m going to write on the screens with photos and things like that. I want to feel what they’re feeling before I write anything. It’s a long process. As for the actual writing of it, I don’t know. It just is the way that I write. I have author friends that have done courses and things like that, creative writing courses. I always feel like they know a lot more than I do about how to do it and how to plan and how to execute a novel. It just happens. I’ll probably write the book twice over, hundreds of thousands of words before it starts being cut back again. Basically, Zibby, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just winging it and hoping for the best.

Zibby: Nobody really knows what they’re doing. You just have to either admit or deny it. You might as well come clean. I feel like your entire narrative is, it’s against all odds or look what happened to me by mistake.

Chris: Kind of fell into it.

Zibby: It’s like you were trying to not be successful in some way. You kept hindering yourself.

Chris: It does feel like that. I think I wrote Duchess in that way. You’ve got this girl that keeps screwing up all the time and making these terrible decisions. You keep rooting for her. She’s the sole carer to — her mom’s an addict. Her young brother is kind of in her charge. She has to cook for him and care for him. She can’t really do that for herself. She doesn’t really know childhood. She has nothing like that in her life. Reading about a child struggling is quite an emotive thing. You’re rooting for her the whole time, that she, against all odds, is going to get her happy ending that she deserves.

Zibby: You had this scene where her mom was being attacked. You said her mother was screaming. She’s trying to figure out how to handle it. Should she call the cops? Darke is stealing the phone from her. It is so intense. She’s debating. You’re in it with her. What is she going to do? Is she going to escape? There’s this big, strong man terrifying her. The mother, is she going to come fight for her? This is massive tension and a lot to put on the shoulders of a child. Then of course, how can you not then go on in the book or in Duchess’s life without all of that heaped on? That’s just one little scene.

Chris: She has a tough time. Her mom teaches her at a young age that selfless acts are what make you a good person. That is the one thing that her mom teaches her. It sticks in her mind throughout the story. She spends most of the book looking for her selfless act and a way to prove to herself that she’s not bad. She’s not a bad person though she does these terrible things. She’s got a foul mouth. She curses a lot. She’s just a kid trying to get by. She’s just been dealt a losing hand. She doesn’t even really care about herself. It’s her little brother. She wants the best for him. She wants him to have his happy ending even if that means she doesn’t get hers.

Zibby: Do you have a little brother?

Chris: I have an older brother. I’m the youngest. I have stepsiblings as well. They’re older as well. I’ve always been the baby.

Zibby: Interesting. Would you ever write a memoir of your experience? Have you written about it?

Chris: I wrote something similar to the story I just told you. It ended up in The Guardian over here. My parents read it. That was the first time they’d ever heard any of that story. I got a call from my dad. “What is this? Is this true?” It was a strange time. You think you know your children. Me as a parent, my kids are quite young, but I would hate to read something like that in the paper and feel like they couldn’t come to me about something. I felt like it was mine. It was my problem to deal with. I had got myself into this mess, not so much the stabbing, but the trading side of it. I got myself into this mess. I needed to find a way out.

Zibby: I think that should be a book. I think you should write that. Pick whatever place in the United States. You could pretend. That story was riveting to me. The book was also riveting and amazing. The fact that it’s a true story, I’m a sucker for .

Chris: A lot went into it. A lot went into that book. It feels like it’s been twenty years in the making. It is a book about families and about not having anyone there you feel like you can talk to and how that can change as you get older. It was a long time coming.

Zibby: Do you have another book in you? Are you working already on another one?

Chris: I’m about to. I’m about to start work on the new book that I’m supposed to deliver I think at Christmas. It’s not going to happen. I’ll use this platform, Zibby, to tell my editor that I’m going to miss my deadline. She can find out on the podcast.

Zibby: I’ll just email her the transcript ahead of time. Give her a little heads-up or something.

Chris: Yeah, do that. I’ll switch my phone off for a while. That’ll work out perfectly.

Zibby: I’ll BCC you. I’ll let you know. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Chris: I clearly don’t know what I’m doing, but I will tell you one thing that’s helped me. My agent, right at the beginning when I signed with her, she said, “If you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing something wrong.” That’s stuck with me. Say you get a level of success with a book and people want to read it. You start to feel the pressure of writing another book and delivering something. You get deadlines. You get PR commitments and things like that. I think it’s easy to forget why you did it in the first place. It’s something that you do because you love. I try and remember that all the time. When I’m in the eye of the storm, it’s hard to see out sometimes. I forget how much I love it, how much I love telling stories and entertaining people. That’s why I do it.

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie, by the way?

Chris: When does this go out, the podcast?

Zibby: I don’t know. I have to look. I think in two weeks. Two weeks, maybe.

Chris: Okay, that’s fine then. It’s not announced until tomorrow, but Disney have just bought the rights.

Zibby: No, way!

Chris: I know. I had this crazy time where I was meeting all these Hollywood studios. I live in a small town in the UK and work in the library, so this is a world away from my life. I’m a believer in heart over head in general and gut feeling and things like that. It’s Tommy Kail who directed Hamilton. I thought Hamilton was a masterpiece. He’s such a lovely guy. We just hit it off. It felt right. Him and Jennifer and their team, they’re amazing. It’s very exciting.

Zibby: It’s so full circle with your theme trip to Disney World. It’s perfect.

Chris: I just need for them to pay to send my kids to Disney World. I need to put that in the contract.

Zibby: I’ll take your kids to Disney World if you really want. I have four kids. You could just throw them in the backseat. I wouldn’t even notice they were there.

Chris: If you could raise them as well, that’d be nice. We’ve got a seven-month-old. Her first tooth has just appeared this morning. All of a sudden, she’s turned into a monster. She was very sweet and loving. Now she’s angry and aggressive.

Zibby: You have to rub a little Jack Daniel’s on it or something.

Chris: Yeah, some for her, some for me.

Zibby: Thank you so much, Chris. This was so much fun. Thank you for this fantastic book. Congratulations on bringing Duchess into the world, really. Now to see her on the screen, that’ll be so cool. Congrats. This is amazing.

Chris: Thank you very much for having me. It was fun.

Zibby: It was my pleasure. Sorry to your editor for the delay. Bye. Thank you.

Chris: See you.

Zibby: Bye.

We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker

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