Chris Priestley was born in Hull in the UK. His father was in the army and so he moved around a lot as a child, living in Gibraltar for a few years. He spent his teens in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, before moving to Manchester, London and then Norfolk. He now lives in Cambridge with his wife and son where he writes, draws, paints, dreams and doodles (not necessarily in that order). Chris worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for twenty years before becoming a writer. His artwork appeared in lots of newspapers and magazines, including The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal.
Chris has written many books for children and young adults, both fiction and non-fiction and has been nominated for many awards including the Edgar Awards, the UKLA Children's Book Award and the Carnegie Medal. In recent years he has predominantly been writing horror. The critically-acclaimed Tales of Terror series for Bloomsbury feature chilling stories rooted in the tradition of M R James, Saki and Edgar Allan Poe and are available in several languages.
What attracts you to writing horror?
I always feel a bit of a fraud being described as a horror writer. I do like stories with an uncanny aspect to them - as a writer and a reader. That strange or uncanny lilt may contain horror, but I think there is a real difference between writing horror and writing chillers - which is in essence what I've been doing for the last few years. Horror can be a bit like slapstick - it can be great in its way, but a bit simplistic. I prefer stuff that's a bit more deadpan if you'll excuse the pun. If in fact that is a pun. What I mean is that it seems quite easy to revolt the reader (or viewer, in movies). It's harder to unsettle them. That's what I want to so. I want to unnerve the reader. I want my stories to have barbs that get stuck in their minds.
Where do you find your inspiration?
From everything I've ever read or watched and everything I've ever done or heard stories about. Inspiration is a fascinating thing. Things are firing my imagination all the time. I have far more stories going round in my head than I could ever have time to write down.
Do you have a favourite character from your books?
I'm very fond of Uncle Montague. But I do have some unlikeable children in my books. Michael in ‘The Dead of Winter’ is a character I grew to really like during the course of writing the book.
Tell us more about ‘The Dead of Winter’ …
‘The Dead of Winter’ is a story about an orphaned boy who goes to stay with his eccentric guardian in a cold and inhospitable house in the Fens one snowy Christmas. The house seems full of secrets and haunted by the ghosts of past crimes. Surrounded by a snowy wasteland and encircled by an icy moat, the house becomes an increasingly dangerous and frightening place.
Does writing a novel differ to writing a series?
I'm not sure it does really. That is I think that each novel in a series should be able to stand alone. ‘The Tales of Terror’ books are only a series in the sense that they are all compendiums of creepy stories. They don't have repeated character (although Uncle Montague does pop up in all three).
Is it difficult to create the suspense and terror needed to instil fear in the reader but at the same time keep them reading?
Well I think that if you have created the suspense and terror, then the reader will have no choice but to read. At the beginning of ‘Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror’ I have Edgar follow Uncle Montague down a dark corridor lit only by the candle Uncle Montague is holding. I wanted that to be a metaphor for the whole series. That to me is what a writer does - and not just a writer of horror fiction - he takes the reader off on a journey that he only illuminates a page at a time. Getting the reader to follow you is the key.
Have you ever had a supernatural experience?
Like everyone, I've seen things I couldn't quite explain. But I have a feeling everything is natural – it’s just that we don't understand it all yet.
Do you have a special place you write?
I wish I could say yes to that, but at the moment I write in a very unsatisfactory bedroom-cum-study. I dream of having a purpose-built study/studio in my garden when I get round to buying a house.
If you had to choose between writing and drawing, which would you pick and why?
That is a horrible question! I have done both for as long as I can remember and for a long period in my life art was the thing I did every day and which paid my mortgage. I have tried to consider giving drawing or painting up, but I just can't seem to do it. In fact in the last year or so I have had a real urge to do more art.
Who are your literary idols?
There are many. I have always loved short stories and so I like the writers who are good at those - everyone from Raymond Carver to Franz Kafka by way of Poe, M R James, Ray Bradbury etc etc etc. I've recently got round to reading H P Lovecraft and he's great in a crazed kind of way. Richard Matheson is good too – ‘I Am Legend’ is a great book - very scary indeed, but also fascinating and it really stays with you. Shirley Jackson's ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is a wonderful, creepy book. But another day I'd write another list. I suppose, if there is a common thread, it is that I like writing where the writing shows. I like painting where the brush strokes are there and I'm the same with writing - I want to hear the voice. I also like writing that surprises me - not in an obvious page-turning way, but in the creativity of its composition.
With a critically acclaimed series, do you have any writing ambitions you’d still like to fulfil?
More than I'd care to mention. I'm not aware of fulfilling any writing ambitions yet, save for the one of getting published - that's the one ambition that really counts. My ambition is always the same - to write something really good. Of course I wouldn't mind winning the Carnegie, having a major motion picture deal and selling millions of books either. But oddly - I have a slight nightmare that I'll write something really bad and that will be the one that gets the movie deal!
What advice can you give budding young writers?
Don't write to be rich or famous. Most writers are neither. Writing has to be a need, a compulsion. You are no less a person for not having it - but you probably won't survive the many disappointments and frustrations of writing. Keep notebooks (and try to remember where you last put them!). Try writing some short fiction. Don't start things and never finish. Finishing is crucial. Read lots of different things.
Do you have a website?
What do fans of Chris Priestley have to look forward to for the rest of the year?
Well there is a new novel out in October – ‘The Dead of Winter’ - as well as the paperback of ‘Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth’. I will be whizzing about the country in my horse-drawn carriage, promoting both books. In March next year all three ‘Tales of Terror’ books are being re-issued with new jackets and additional stories and I am doing a World Book Day flipbook with the great Philip Reeve. This will be another Tales of Terror book.
Can you sum up ‘The Dead of Winter’ in 3 words?
A ghost story
The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestly
Published by Bloomsbury
Published 4th October 2010
RRP £10.99 hardback
(Reviewed for you by Katy Hawkins, Young Writer contributor)
‘The Dead of Winter’ is a story about an orphaned boy, Michael Vyner. After the death of his mother, Michael is taken in by a mysterious and wealthy benefactor whose life was saved in war by Michael’s father. The boy soon arrives to spend Christmas at Hawton Mere, the mansion home of his new guardian, but before he even arrives at the house, an encounter with a strange figure leaves Michael wondering if all is as it seems ...
Soon enough, the ghostly figure of a woman appears to Michael and bizarre images show themselves to him in the mirror. The mental health of Michael’s host, Sir Stephen Clarendon, is rapidly declining and only the friendly servants and Sir Stephen’s kindly sister Charlotte make the house inhabitable. The ghost is soon revealed to be that of Sir Stephen’s late wife, who fell from Hawton Mere’s tower some time before Michael’s arrival. But what does she want with Michael? What are the secrets the house is keeping? And what else is haunting Hawton Mere?
The story is told by an adult Michael, looking retrospectively at his experiences at the house. I found the epilogue to be the most interesting part of the book, and it was all too brief. What happened to Michael after his time at Hawton Mere and the effects of what had occurred there were fascinating. Written in Dickensian-style prose, the story moves along at a good pace and at just over 200 pages, you don’t have to wait too long to find out what happened to Lady Clarendon. Overall, ‘The Dead of Winter’ is a good read and I would especially recommend this book to those who like traditional ghost stories or Victorian thrillers.
Recommended for readers 12+