Interview with Christopher Vanier

Chris Vanier
 Christoper Vanier is the author of a rich new memoir, “Caribbean Chemistry: Tales from St Kitts” (Kingston University Press). Chris and I were in several writing workshops together, and he was one of the best editors of my early work. Here he discusses his writing process and living in France.


What brought you to Paris?
I came to Paris in 1970 from Syracuse, New York, shortly after marrying a French visiting professor at Syracuse University and completing my PhD in engineering. The US immigration authorities were happy with my continued residence as a British citizen but objected to the extension of my wife’s exchange visa. One week before leaving the USA for France we were advised that both could stay, but by that time we were fed up with the administrative hassle and very keen for me to explore the French culture. We thought we would live in Paris for two years and found ourselves still there, thirty-nine years later.

What keeps you in Paris?
At first, the challenge of learning the French language and learning to work with the French in an all-French company (Spie Batignolles); later, the charm of the city, the country, and the joys of bringing up two thoroughly bilingual children; still later, the long holidays and the comprehensive welfare system; and later still (unfortunately), the efficient medical and hospital resources. Finally, the generous pension system.

What books have changed your life?
A tough question: many writers have influenced me though none have really “changed my life”. I don’t like the image of life changing because it implies that one is not in control of one’s ideas and is waiting to be “transformed” in some obscure but mystical way. In my memoir of childhood, I relate that several books (on Hypnotism and on Poisons, for example) led me into adventures; Tolkein was another easy favourite. However, I came to regard each good book as a little building block to reinforce my intellectual edifice, not as an earthquake capable of shaking the structure. As an engineer and scientist I was deep into fantasy and science fiction; I have just picked up at random from my bookshelf Stephen King’s “The Dark Half”, Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, and Iain Banks’ “Use of Weapons”. With respect to my own memoir, I have had Caribbean influences such as George Lamming’s “In the Castle of My Skin”, Maryse Condé’s “Le Cœur à Rire et à Pleurer”, Jamaica Kincaid’s “Annie John” and “The Autobiography of My Mother”, and V.S. Naipaul’s “Miguel Street”, and Andrea Levy’s “Small Island”; South African influences with J.M. Coetzee’s “Boyhood”, “Youth”, and “Disgrace”; Indian influences with Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”; Sri Lankan influences with Michael Ondaatje’s “Running in the Family”; English influences with Jonathan Coe’s “The Rotters’ Club”, Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty”, William Horwood’s “Skallagrigg”, and R.F.Delderfield’s “To Serve Them all my Days”; and American influences with Pillip Lopate’s “Getting Personal”. As text books, by far the most interesting were Tristine Rainer’s “Your Life as Story” and Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating with the Dead”.

What books are on your nightstand?
Steig Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”, Iain Bank’s “Transition”, J.M. Coetzee’s “Summertime”, and Janet Skeslien Charles’ “Moonlight in Odessa”. I’m quite faithful to the authors I have liked. Oh, I almost forgot – I always have the most recent two copies on “The Economist” at hand.

What advice would you give to struggling writers?
Get a day job.

What is the best advice you have ever received?
It may take 7 years – persist!

How does living in a foreign country affect your writing? What does it add to your writing?
Feeling foreign is an intellectual stimulus, something about being “above the fray”. You can criticise the country that you are in and the country(ies) that you came from with equal facility. I feel myself a citizen of the world, only occasionally regretting that my vote in elections is virtual. Each additional country gives me an additional literature. In particular living in France provides distance from jaded Anglo-Saxon modes of thought.

At what hour of the day does inspiration strike? (Or what time of the day do you feel the most productive?)
I work in the morning, after breakfast and coffee, for new writing. Evenings after 23:00 and up to 2:00 are better for editing. I do not hold myself to a very regular schedule such as the proverbial “500 words per day”.

What is your favourite Parisian café?
None. Parisian restaurants are fabulous, but I prefer my own brew of coffee. The Hemingway hangouts have no appeal for me, though I do have dinner regularly on Rue d’Odessa with writer friends.

What’s next?
A second memoir, jointly with my sister, based on the situation of a handicapped person in the modern world: education, work, and love for someone with cerebral palsy.

Carib Chem Vanier Draft Jacket


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