Born in 1968, Chris grew up in New York City, and attended Midwood High School in Brooklyn and Cornell University, where he majored in government. He worked at a number of publishing houses over nearly two decades, most notably as an editor at Clarkson Potter, where he specialized in cookbooks. In the late nineties, he also wrote a little book called The Wine Log.
The father of twin schoolboys named Sam and Alex, Chris is also the husband of Madeline McIntosh. They have an old cocker spaniel named Charlie Brown (he’s brown). He’s lived in New York City his entire life, except for college and a year and a half in Luxembourg, where he started writing The Expats in the cafés of the cobblestony old town. He now lives in Greenwich Village and the North Fork of Long Island. His new book, The Accident, is out March 2014.
We met for lunch one day in Zürich.
Which was your favourite childhood book?
Winnie the Pooh. I was named after Christopher Robin.
Where do you write?
At a members’ club called Soho House. I use it like an office and go there after dropping the kids at school. I don’t have a desk, it’s more like a hotel lobby, with comfortable chairs. There’s a sense of community, as a lot of other people are doing the same thing. We can take a break and chat for a few minutes, but we’re all there for the same reason. To work.
Which was the book that changed your life?
Not really one book, but one writer. I only used to read what I considered high-quality fiction, the kind of books that won Nobel prizes, and I looked down on popular fiction. When I was working at Doubleday, our biggest writer was John Grisham. I dismissed his books as not important because of their success. Then I started reading them. I realised the craft of writing a page-turning thriller is a real craft. There’s something great about any book you can’t put down even if it doesn’t contain a single beautiful sentence. I realised that some books are a form of entertainment, a way to pass pleasant time and maybe learn something you didn’t know. That’s what I tried to do with The Expats. Just write an entertaining book.
You certainly succeeded. I devoured it in one weekend.
You mention you used to read only high-quality fiction. Can I ask for examples?
I still do prefer to read those kinds of books in which nothing happens but it happens beautifully. The books I’ve enjoyed this year were Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency and King of the Badgers. I liked Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an Ending, The Art of Fielding by Chad Hardbach and I guess my favourite writer would be David Foster Wallace, and his book Infinite Jest. But Foster Wallace committed suicide. I wouldn’t trade a happy life for his genius.
Do you have a word or phrase you most overuse?
I did. ‘Chuckle’. But after someone pointed it out, it got eradicated.
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t?
A Prayer for Owen Meany.
What have you learned from writing?
That I’m not as smart as I think I am. I’m not as good a writer as I want to be. It’s been a long painful process making the transition from editor to writer.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss. It has a wonderful rhythm and has fun with words. It’s enjoyable to say and hear. Rhythm of writing is so important. Whether it’s the long sentences of Foster Wallace or the short snaps of Hemingway, they understand the rhythm.
Are there any books you re-read?
No, I don’t re-read. I’ve read Infinite Jest twice, but that’s all.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a new book, but I don’t know where it’s going yet, so I’m not going to talk about it.
What’s your favourite wine?
L’Enfant Perdu. It’s a wine made on the French/Spanish border. I drank it in a restaurant in Barcelona and have never been able to find it again.