Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Chris Cander

Chris Cander’s novel, Whisper Hollow, has just been published by Other Press. Her other published work includes the award-winning novel 11 Stories, and her picture book, The Word Burglar. She co-wrote the screenplay for an animated feature film, Germs!, currently in pre-production, and she has written hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers on health and fitness and parenting. She teaches creative writing to elementary school students as part of Writers in the Schools. A former fire-fighter, fitness competitor and model, Chris has a 2nd degree black belt in tae kwon do and is a certified women’s self-defense instructor. She lives in West University with her husband, Harris, and her children, Sasha and Josh.

What’s your story, Chris?
I’ve loved to write my whole life. It's always been a passion for me. I'm an introvert, and although I have become socially comfortable as an adult and have plenty of friends, growing up, I was always very comfortable being alone. I liked to read, I liked to think, I liked to write, and I liked to draw and take pictures. I also chose individual sports like swimming and martial arts, relishing the pursuit of personal challenges rather than competition against other people.

All my life I have I wanted to develop my strengths both literally and figuratively, and that has helped give me the impetus to do things that I had always wanted to do. One of these was to become a firefighter, which I did.

Chris Cander was a featured bodybuilder on an
episode of NBC's Baywatch
I'm pretty small to be a firefighter, and so I got interested in weightlifting and strength training. Around that time I met my husband, Harris, and we actually did much of our courtship working out together at the gym. He taught me the basics of strength training, and I started to see results really quickly. Given my nature to want to compete, not with others but with myself, I took it as a challenge to get into the kind of shape that would allow me to be competitive as a bodybuilder. I entered a fitness competition called the Galaxy, which was 50% athletic, and 50% swimwear, and I did well. In fact, through my involvement in the Galaxy, I was featured as a guest on an episode of Baywatch. It was so much fun, and I’ve just bought the DVD of that episode to show my kids.

After that, I continued to compete but I shifted format to bodybuilding. I'm very dense and I weigh a lot for my size, so I was always competing as a heavyweight but the upper end of heavyweight was limitless. I was up against these enormous, incredibly muscular women, and although I did as well as I could, I soon realized I could not – and didn’t want to – compete with that. But all that experience gave me a start in writing about fitness and nutrition. I became a contributing editor for Oxygen, Maximum Fitness and Clean Eating, and I wrote for many other magazines too.

For several years I combined my freelance writing with a job in software marketing. Though I published some essays in a local newspaper, I didn't really get into fiction until I was laid off from my last position during maternity leave. They reorganized while I was gone, and it turned out to be the best thing for me. I was forced to re-evaluate what I wanted to do, and so I decided to be at home full-time. I continued to write, but it was only when Josh was born that I realized I was ready to start trying longer form fiction, and I started my first novel when he was just a few months old.

That one was called One Last Time Forever, and though it got me my agent, Jane Gelfman of Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents, she wasn't able to sell it. The story is literary with some metaphysical twists, and at that time, editors weren’t sure how to position it, whether it was commercial, literary or something else that didn't have a clear shelf on the library or bookstore. Of course, I was disappointed, but I think of it now as the book through which I learned how to write books.

Once I had finished One Last Time Forever, I started to write Telling Ghost Stories, which eventually became Whisper Hollow, although my first draft was very different from the book that is coming out now.

Whisper Hollow, as it is now, follows the lives of three women through the first half of the last century in a coal mining town in West Virginia. It’s geographically remote, but culturally very diverse, full of immigrant families from Poland, Germany, Italy and other European countries. The people there have a hard life, literally scrabbling to carve out a life and a community for themselves and their families in this new country. I called the town Verra, based on the Latin root for truth, because the book is very much about the truths which these women and the people around them have, those truths that are revealed and those that they choose to bury. Those buried secrets drive so much of what happens to them, and between them, throughout the story.

My other novel, 11 Stories, came about in a very different way. Once my agent started trying to sell the latest redraft of Telling Ghost Stories and publishing houses were not sure, yet again, how it might fit into their lists, I got impatient. So I decided to write something completely commercial. What came out is 11 Stories. Apparently I'm not able to do something completely commercial! I wrote it pretty quickly, in only about eight months, and though it was a real labor of love, I simply fell in love with my characters, particularly Roscoe, the superintendent of the Chicago apartment block which has, of course, eleven stories. Once it was finished, I sent it to my agent. She liked it a lot, but since she was working hard on selling my other manuscript, she didn't want to try to sell 11 Stories at the same time. So she encouraged me to publish it on my own.

It wasn't an easy thing to do. I wanted to print it, not just publish it online, so some friends and I created our own publishing company. It took a tremendous amount of research to find out how to go about it. To be honest, I wanted to mask the fact that it was author-published, and in the end, I was really pleased with the appearance of quality and I've had an amazingly positive response.

11 Stories came out in 2013, and that year was also the year that my picture book, The Word Burglar came out. Since my daughter Sasha was tiny, she has wanted an original story from me every night. Wow, it's a lengthy process to put that kid to bed! When she was nine, she went to sleep-away camp for the first time, so I had the idea that every morning I would get up, make a pot of coffee, and give myself 45 minutes to write her an original story. The camp staff said that if I got it to them by 10am, they would print it out and put it on her bed for her to have at bedtime.

The Word Burglar was one of twenty-one stories that I wrote during those three weeks. I started posting them on Facebook and they were getting a following. This story was passed to Lucy Herring Chambers at Bright Sky Press by a friend, and Lucy decided to buy it. She also gave me the opportunity to have one of my very dearest friends, Katherine Tramonte, as the illustrator. Katherine is a very talented artist, and would send me sketches at five o'clock in the morning. It was so neat to watch her put the book together over the process of about a year.

In the meantime, Jane was working with the latest draft of what had now become Whisper Hollow and when she showed it to the editors at Other Press, they loved it and bought it. Even before publication, Whisper Hollow was getting some incredible interest. I am so blown away. The American Booksellers Association named it one of the Indie Next Picks for April out of the hundreds they could have chosen. And now I'm heading off on a multi-state book tour.

And looking to the future? Well, I’ve just sent my next novel manuscript to my agent, and I’m also working on my first movie. It’s an animated feature called Germs!, and I wrote the screenplay with some great friends. Sarah Blutt, David Eagleman and Tobey Forney. We worked on it every week for about four years. It placed well in a couple of screenplay competitions, and I am so excited that we have recently signed an attachment agreement with Cinesite and Comic Animations. So we have a producer and they are finishing putting together the funding and hiring a director. We’ve even put together a list of our dream cast voices. It’s just amazing to think that all this could actually happen. It's a really fun story for us to tell, and as a foursome, we have become even better friends over the years as a result of doing this.

Why do you do what you do?
Because I'm passionate about it. My son, Josh, asked me the other day, “Mom, if you weren't a writer what would you do?” and I said “I'd be a writer. There's nothing else that I would rather do.” I can legitimately say that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and I passionately love the way I get to spend my days. I'm incredibly lucky to be able to say that, I know. I really am doing my favorite thing.

I also teach children to write through Writers in the Schools and, although I didn't think I was going to, I love teaching those kids. Before I began, I worried that I wouldn’t know how to break down what I had learned in a way that would make sense to someone else. How could I teach these kids anything meaningful about writing? But then I realized that if teaching the craft steps of writing is not my strength, then perhaps my strength lies in encouraging people to be fearless when they write. So I created a mantra, “I am a fearless writer!” We say that at the beginning of every writing session throughout the whole year. I hope, if nothing else, they'll remember that, so that when they are confronted by a blank page, they will be able to tap into that fearlessness. I have two classes of third graders at Presbyterian School, and I love it there. I have such great support from the administration and the teachers, so I'll keep going back as long as they’ll have me.

What is your Houston story?
I got here as fast as I could. My dad was a commercial airline pilot and he was stationed in Atlanta when I was born, but my parents moved here when I was three months old. I've been here almost since the beginning, so I consider myself native. My mom’s side of the family was from West Virginia, but my dad’s side was all Texas, so I have a lot of family here. My sister’s here, and my parents, and there's lots of cousins and extended family around.

My Texan roots are deep, but I do feel a strong link to West Virginia too because of my grandmother. She lived there for ninety years and that’s what drew me to set Whisper Hollow there. It is such a distinctive place in her history and my childhood, so I wanted to honor that. She lived in the northern part of the state and I set my fictional town in the southern part, somewhere in Raleigh County, where there is a long history of coal mining. Even though I had to move it geographically to be relevant to the occupation in the story, my sense of connection to the setting remains strong.

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
This is such a difficult question because I'm almost 46 years old and I've had incredible influences all along the way, in family, friends, teachers and other writers, but I think it would have to be my children. I had to be a better version of myself to do justice to raising them. They have given me so much, they have taught me how to see the world with wonder again. When we, as adults, see something we automatically filter it through our own histories, without stopping and really trying to wonder about it. So I have loved looking at the world again through a child's eyes. What we writers do is observe and talk about our observations, so for me to be able to slow down and see things stripped of my prejudices and my knowledge and my experiences has been wonderful.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become a writer?
Be patient. Write as much as you can, and read even more than that – but also, have a life and create experiences that you can draw from. You must meet people, travel, and taste the world before writing convincingly about it all.

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
It's a discipline to be balanced and I do actually find it. I like order, so I have a natural system of dividing my day up into pieces There is a piece carved away for writing, when I can be alone and listen to my wind-chimes, and there is a piece that belongs to the kids, a great big piece. Then there's the piece where I can socialize with friends or I can go and work out, because health and fitness is still hugely important to me.

I had done a little martial arts training at college, so when Josh was old enough for pre-K and I suddenly had time to return to it, I did so with great passion. Now I'm a 2nd degree black belt in tae kwon do, and a certified women's tactical defense instructor. I teach self-defense classes to women and girls, showing them how to be aware of their surroundings, and how to make small changes to what they do to make sure they stay safe.

I don't feel guilty for making that time for myself, to stay fit, to create my art and hone my craft, or to take it to the world. I think so many women feel guilty about the time they take for themselves, but by finding that balance, they are modeling good behavior for their kids and for the community. People should celebrate creative endeavors and legitimize them. What my kids see me do, for my writing and for myself, will inform their future decisions. When they try to undertake something of their own, they will be able to say, “I'm going to do that because it's important to me, and it should be important to the people that care about me too.”

What does Houston mean to you?
It means home, it really does. Houston is such a welcoming place, our arts community is so vibrant, and there is so much that is available and accessible. You don't have to have a lot of money to enjoy some really amazing things here. I feel very comfortable here, and whenever I would go away, like when I studied overseas or when I went to live in Venezuela after college, the place I always wanted to get home to was here. Houston has always made me feel like I can breathe right.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
My home, if that's not a dorky answer. Specifically, my office in my home, where I'm surrounded by books. It's a portal to another world. I love being alone in my office knowing that my family is close by, but that I still have some quiet time. I know that sounds antisocial but it means such a lot to me.

What's your favorite place to eat or drink?
No question about it, Shiva in Rice Village – it’s absolutely amazing. My husband and I went there on our first dinner date, and we've done all our major celebrations there since. The food is wonderful, and it's very sentimental place for us.

What is your Houston secret?
I am as passionate about reading as I am about writing, and I absolutely love Inprint’s Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Eight times a year, they bring in these incredible writers and we sit in the intimate setting of the Wortham Center to hear them read from their work, answer questions and sign their books. Why doesn't everyone in the whole city take advantage of this? Well, I suppose not everyone loves reading as much as me, but it's one of my favorite things to do, such a cool thing.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
I hate the humidity, it does terrible thing to my hair, and I can't stand the traffic, but really someone needs to figure out the public transportation. I wish there were more opportunities not to use your car, whether it was on a bike or on public transport. Actually I like to walk, but trying to do it in this city, I feel like an interloper. They don't make it easy for you to cross streets and people look at you funny if you aren't in your car.

Who would be your own Inspiring Houston Woman?

There are so many women who inspire me, but in particular, I have two. 

I have always had an incredibly close relationship with my sister, Sara Huffman. She's always been my first reader and my biggest champion. She is an incredibly talented jazz singer, with a couple of albums out, but she’s also a fifth grade teacher at Hunter’s Creek Elementary School. After only three years, they chose her as teacher of the year because she really does an amazing job with her kids.

My other inspiring woman is someone I admire professionally. Robin Reagler is the executive director of Writers in the Schools. She has done so much for literacy in and around Houston, and her work and commitment bring the love of words to children all across the city. I love her spirit. She's a poet and an advocate, but also she's a mother, a wife and a great friend. I'm grateful to know her and I'm grateful to have been working for her the last few years.

For more information about Chris and her new novel, Whisper Hollow, click here.

For more information about Writers in the Schools, click here.

For more information about Inprint’s Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, click here.

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