#GuestPost by Chris Chalmers – Travel Broadens the Plot @CCsw19
I’m delighted to welcome Chris Chalmers to Short Book and Scribes with a guest post. His latest book, Dinner at the Happy Skeleton, was released on 2nd November. Chris is going to be talking about how travel broadens the plot but first let’s see what the book is about:
Dan is the kind of gay man for whom the Noughties might have been named. Warm, witty and serially promiscuous, his heart melts at the sight of a chocolate brown Labrador – but with men, it’s a different matter. He’s thirty-nine and as single as ever, not counting the couple he just met online. An arrangement that looks oddly like it’s going somewhere until Dan gets fired from his job in advertising. With time out from his career and a payoff in his pocket, the summer presents a world of possibilities; just as the memories surface of the ex he blames for the thinly-veiled chaos of his life.
From London to Ljubljana, a yen for closure sets Dan on the trail of the man who fed his ego into a shredder. Through an eerie encounter at the home of the Olympiad and a sleepover at the Dutch Embassy, run-ins with a fading porn star and the celestial manifestation of Margaret Thatcher, he ultimately confronts his past. Until, with his Big Four-Oh rapidly approaching, destiny beckons from where he least expects it.
Travel broadens the plot
As a rule I only write about places I’ve been to. I’m lucky to have travelled to 40-odd countries, a hit rate that went up a notch in 2002. That’s when I met my partner, a concert pianist for whom travelling all over the world is part of the job. This in turn coincided with me being made redundant; cue six months of unexpected trips to the US, Argentina, Uruguay, Iceland, Croatia and more.
It’s also when I started writing my first novel. The previous year I’d been to the Galapagos Islands, a trip of a lifetime for a natural history geek like me. Such an extraordinary place — with its blue-footed boobies and iguanas expelling salty pellets from their nostrils like Sunday morning footballers — cried out to be put into a book. I did it in Five To One, the story of the day a helicopter crashes on Clapham Common. Not an easy fit you might think, but it’s amazing what you can do with a bit of back-story. I sent one of my characters to the Galapagos on a gap-year jaunt, as a setting for an engagement proposal that plays an important part many months later, one sunny afternoon in London SW4.
Gap years are wonderful, whether you’re doing them or writing about them. It’s a device I used again in my next novel, Light From Other Windows. I was careful to plot Josh Maitland’s pre-university trip around the world so that it only featured places I’d visited myself. Everything we hear about his travels is related through the blog posts he’s writing for the folks back home. That’s another reflection of my own experience, in as much as I’m an incorrigible diary writer and have been since I was 12. Josh’s posts come to an abrupt end on the last leg of his trip, when a tsunami hits the Canary Islands. Strange as it sounds, that’s really where the story begins.
Which brings me to my latest novel, Dinner At The Happy Skeleton, just published by J.Mendel Books. Here there’s also a travelogue woven loosely into the plot as our hero, Dan the promiscuous advertising man, embarks on a jaunt around Europe in search of the figure from his past he blames for the sorry state of his life. Helsinki and Trieste feature prominently, as does the master bedroom of a Dutch Embassy for reasons you’ll discover if you read it. But it’s in Slovenia that the story comes to a head, at an extraordinary Gothic restaurant in old-town Ljubljana. It’s a real place, by the way — or was when I ate there a few years ago. A fruitless Googling in 2017 suggests it may have served its last apricot sorbet.
Certainly Lake Bled, with its beautiful fairy-tale church on an island, is still there. It’s also in the book, and one of those magical places that no one with a creative soul can help but want to immortalise. When you do that, and people like what you’ve written, it feels wonderful, but there’s a downside too. As an author you spend so long mulling, re-reading and redrafting your work, that after a while the way you’ve described somewhere becomes more familiar than the place itself. Ask me about the Galapagos now, and I’m not sure which memories of the iguanas and penguins I snorkelled with, or the Smart Car-sized turtle I glimpsed in a breaking wave, are for real and which are me remembering my own fiction.
It’s sad in a way. But then memories do fade as we get older, so writing them into a story is at least a way of preserving them. As a novelist, perhaps I should be grateful for that.
Thanks so much, Chris. You’re certainly well-travelled!
Chris Chalmers was born in Lancashire and lives in south-west London. He’s been the understudy on Mastermind, had lunch with Donnie Brasco and swum with marine iguanas. His first novel, Five To One, was the winner of a debut novel competition and nominated for the Polari First Book Prize. He’s since had two more novels published as well as Gillian Vermillion — Dream Detective, a book for children. Chris has written a diary for 41 years and never missed a night.