Chris Killen - The Bird Room

Chris Killen

Room at the top

A slice of luck and a lot of graft have resulted in Chris Killen getting his debut novel published. David Pollock talks to the Waterstone’s worker hitting literary paydirt

As with many readers of a certain young age, Chris Killen made formative connections with the cult fictions of Charles Bukowski, John Fante and Richard Brautigan. When he started writing seriously at the age of 18, though, he imitated his heroes with what he describes as ‘a quite corny version of the American low-life vernacular’. Yet now, the 27-year-old Killen has managed to subvert their style to his own insouciant and particularly British will. Like all the best cult novelists, there’s also an element of good fortune to his story, of talent winning through against the odds. Or, if not the odds, certainly the fact that his debut novel The Bird Room is being published thanks to a chance bookstore discovery, despite Killen not having an agent.

‘I met the author Steven Hall while I was at work in Waterstone’s in Manchester,’ he says. ‘He had just published The Raw Shark Texts through Canongate and we got chatting at an event to promote it. Then he came in again as a customer, when he kindly offered to read my manuscript, liked it and passed it onto his editor at Canongate, who is now my editor.’ There’s a certain fait accompli to that tale, although Killen has years of hard practice and study behind him, first at Nottingham Trent University in his home city, and then on the creative writing MA at Manchester University. ‘I always felt a certain frustration,’ he says of his earlier attempts to write. ‘I never quite got it right. There were loads of times where I’d start writing, go for about two or three thousand words and just give up, unable to express what I wanted to say. Looking back, though, it’s certainly been a process of development, where all the mistakes I made led me to write this book. The MA was a great help too, not necessarily in terms of the teaching, but because I was surrounded by other writers for the first time. That’s where I started writing The Bird Room, and I knew when I’d hit the right tone; the first chapter I wrote is still the first chapter in the book.’

The Bird Room consists of two distinct narrative threads, the first an out-of-sequence account of a young couple’s relationship and how, from the boyfriend’s first-person perspective, ‘it’s destroyed through irrational jealousy and paranoia’. Elsewhere, a young woman called Claire reinvents herself as Helen, having dyed her hair and ‘started telling herself she’s an actress – even though the work she’s getting involves answering ads on adult contact sites and meeting men who film her doing seedy things for not very much money.’ Killen happily says he’s used that first novel method of drawing heavily on his own experiences and emotions within the book, although taken to extremes in places.

Currently he’s working on his second novel, provisionally entitled Indoor Fireworks, which concerns two awkward, only-child cousins forced to act like siblings for a summer. Then he has designs on work in film, a completed sitcom script, and a monthly reading night in Manchester and anything else which will keep him involved with, and learning, the business of writing.

The Bird Room is published on Thu 22 Jan by Canongate.

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