Christian Moerk has always told stories. Born into a family of actors, he realized when he was quite young that he’d rather tell the tales himself than interpret other people’s words on stage. But he sucked in the words. From Richard III to Faust.
At 21, he left his hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark, and moved to southeastern state of Vermont, deep in the Green Mountains, where he stayed long enough in the mud and the cold to graduate summa cum laude in History and Sociology from Marlboro College, 1991. They gave him the Margaret Mead Prize for the best social sciences thesis, which dealt with the British Empire in India. He didn’t want to be an academic, though. He wanted to write a book. But didn’t feel the time was right yet. Vermont was too cozy.
So he next went to New York City, where he spent enough time riding along with the police department and the ambulance services, and scouring the darkest alleyways he could find to attain his master’s degree in 1992 from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He was awarded the Henry N. Taylor Award as the best foreign student in his class for his thesis “Alien Nation,” which dealt with the lives of illegal Irish immigrants in New York. He began formulating ideas for a book. But it still wasn’t ready to tell it.
Before he could work on it, he got a job at Variety, the entertainment industry’s trade paper of record, where he first covered independent and European film before moving to Los Angeles. Once there, he was quickly headhunted by Warner Bros. Pictures then-President of production Bruce Berman, who gave him the chance to learn the movie production trade. He was given an office on the Warner lot, and couldn’t believe it.
For the next several years, Christian was awash in stories – but they were still other people’s stories. He was involved in the production of small art pictures, such as Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy, and also held a hand in the making of bigger blockbusters like Eraser, The Devil’s Advocate, and Outbreak.
Christian moved back to New York City, and began to write stories for The New York Times, interviewing directors like Wes Anderson (Darjeeling Limited) and Bennett Miller (Capote), while preparing to make the leap from journalist to novelist.
A story kept tapping him on the shoulder. He rummaged through his old files and found a yellowed newspaper clipping he’d kept from years back. It was an article detailing the strange and mysterious death of three nieces and their aunt, who were found in their suburban house in Ireland after months of living like shut-ins.
From there, Christian imagined a different story, in which the tragic end in that house was merely the conclusion of a gothic love story that began in a tiny fishing village on Ireland’s ragged, beautiful western coast. And he finally began to write his own words.
Darling Jim swept the Danish critics in September of 2007, selling more than 38,000 copies there to date, with rights sold to thirteen other countries, so far. It reached number four on the local bestseller list. His genre is best described as intelligent suspense with an emotional core.
Where are you from?
Who are your favorite writers?
Tim O'Brien, Michael Herr, Paul Watkins, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, Beryl Markham, Karen Blixen, Rudyard Kipling, Roddy Doyle, John le Carré, William Vollmann.
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
I remember reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried for the first time and being struck by what I had never seen before - a lyrical, but also reportorial style in describing his own place in the Vietnam War. He elevated small vignettes about boredom and cruelty into poetry. He made dead people live again. I was deeply moved. I didn't know people could write like that. I feel the same about Michael Herr, whose Dispatches takes the ugliness of that same conflict, turns it inside out, and makes the people in it appear so alive and real that I had to put the book down to remind myself that I wasn't actually looking through a camera lens and staring at them.
For language and having the ear for how people talk, there is none better than Annie Proulx. That Old Ace in the Hole and Close Range taught me a lot about really listening to the local people you're writing about. Each passage hums with the music of regular people's voices. I often go back and read random passages from each book, just to gobble up the pure enjoyment of someone who delights in the human detail.
Beryl Markham's West with the Night describes her time as a bush pilot in Africa in the 1930s, and is so precise, so foreboding and mesmerizing in its simple, unwavering style, that I was sucked in completely, reading the book in one sitting. Only Kipling has described the painful colonial experience with the same complexity. It's another one of those books I go back to frequently whenever I want to revisit the unblinking eye of someone whose engagement never flags. It gave me confidence to write about people in very foreign milieus.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
No matter where I go, I always have a camera handy. And since I'm always researching a new novel, I shoot alleyways, rivers, and faces whenever I can. It's almost an affliction, at this point. I also travel a lot, always trying on new places like an overcoat to see what it would feel like to live there - another research habit. So in a way, my hobby is my job, and vice versa.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
An oft-repeated axiom known in many military circles: "The important things are always simple. The simple things are always hard. The easy way is always mined." I keep it on my fridge to remind myself not to ease up on the throttle as I write. Because there is nothing worse than taking readers for granted.
What is your favorite quote?
"Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn't be done" -Amelia Earhart.
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
People mostly ask me: "I know it's fiction, but isn't there a little bit of Jim in you, too?" To which I always answer: "No, there isn't. It's fiction." I always add, however, that since I wrote the book, the words on the page aren't random. I chose them, not someone else. I just want people to try and separate the writer from the characters. Dreaming fictional qualities into a real person can be a dangerous thing.
What inspired you to write your first book?
I couldn't help it; it was like an illness, or a fever. I just sat down to write and literally sat there for the better part of a year, interrupted only by sleeping. The figures on the page appeared as if they were standing behind my shoulder, tapping me on the head. I really had no other choice.
Where do you write?
Everywhere. Mostly in my apartment - at my desk or in bed - but lately in hotel rooms, airports, and parks. The only place I refuse to write is in a coffee shop. There's nothing sadder than sitting screen by screen, deliberately trying to act cool and sending each other that "Well, here we are in the laptop army" glare.