Laurie: How did you start your writing career?
Christopher Meeks: Sometimes the right teacher can inspire. At the University of Denver, I happened to take a required writing course for my major, mass communications. The course looked dull—I assumed it would be—so with a writing assignment to “Write About Your Hobby,” something in me rebelled. I wrote that my hobby was kicking chunks of snow that built up on bumpers in the winter. Denver was famous for not plowing its roads, and giant stalactites would grow on car bumpers. My hobby, I wrote, was to find the perfect ones and slam them off with my foot.
My instructor, sober-faced, said, “I have something to read to you, class,” and he read my paper aloud. He looked mad, so I figured I just received an F, but with the class laughing so much on my every point, I was going down in a blaze of glory. When he finished, he said, “This was the only A. All the other papers were dull—coin collections, stamp collections, and aquariums—all very boring. Nothing says you have to write in such a boring manner. Mr. Meeks didn’t.”
He then urged me to take a creative writing class, which I did. It started me writing short stories. After college and during a stint working in a camera store and in other low-end jobs such as running a mini-mart in an Alabama trailer park (colorful!) and selling tile in Los Angeles at Color Tile, I kept writing. Then I went to a graduate writing program at USC. I’ve been writing professionally ever since.
Tell us about your current release.
Love At Absolute Zero centers around 32-year-old physicist Gunnar Gunderson, who with tenure at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, feels he’s ready for a wife. As with everything he puts his mind to, he’s focused and serious and knows he can find one in the time he has off—three days—by using the Scientific Method. Things go hilariously wrong.
Where did you come up with the idea for the book?
If lawyers and plumbers and pediatricians can fall in love, why not a physicist? I’ve always loved hard science. I’m from a generation where science was a huge promise. After all, John F. Kennedy promised we’d get a man on the moon by the end of the decade (the sixties), and we did. Thanks to the space race, science brought us many things including transistor radios, personal computers, and freeze-dried ice cream.
My wife, Ann, a librarian, had been first working at Caltech in the astrophysics library, and I came to know some scientists. I love science. I’d once been a chemistry major. Still, as I came to know Caltech scientists, I saw they could be clueless when it comes to relationships—which gave me the notion of wonderful comic possibilities. Really intelligent people can think of themselves as infallible. Throw them into love, and they become human quickly.
I adore Gunnar Gunderson. One reviewer wrote that even though he felt like grabbing Gunnar and shaking him sometimes, he couldn’t help but love him.
One of my huge challenges is that I knew I wanted Gunnar to get to Denmark, where I’d spent my junior year abroad. Gunnar has never traveled, and Denmark would be a huge shock. For Gunnar, an American, to work there, he’d have to have a unique job that no European could fill. Denmark is huge into physics.
At first, I thought he’d be a nuclear physicist as there had been a nuclear research facility near the small town, Roskilde, that I’d once lived in. I had spent my junior year abroad in Denmark, and I’d come to treasure the country and the family I lived with.
Danes, however, banned all nuclear reactors in the country in the eighties, so I learned the hottest physics research there now is in the ultracold, in what happens to matter near absolute zero. That’s when atoms become what’s called Bose-Einstein condensates. Gunnar is in a race to make a certain element, strontium, into a Bose-Einstein condensate. That’s all in the background, though, as he’s off speed dating and other things.
Has someone helped or mentored you in your writing career?
While I was in grad school for an MFA in creative writing, I made money reviewing books and writing articles about writers. I interviewed the playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (Inherit the Wind) for Writers Digest, and I became great friends with the two. I was writing plays then, and they urged me to add humor to my serious plays and make my comic plays about something serious.
I use that idea in my fiction, too. I’ve come to see a story is a story, and no matter what medium or genre I write in, there has to be “a motor,” as they called it. The story has to have drive as well as a central core that does not get lost, and a story needs humor somewhere.
Another article I wrote for Writers Digest was on Thomas Thompson, who’d not only been my professor at USC but also a best-selling author of nonfiction and fiction, such books as Blood and Money, Serpentine, and Celebrity. He was the first one to recognize me as a serious writer and took me under his wing. He died in 1983.
What is the hardest part of writing your books?
Easily the most challenging and difficult part is in marketing. This isn’t to say writing comes easily. I am obsessive about it, and it takes many drafts to finally get a book right. I happen to love rewriting, though, because it’s the most fun. Still, the world isn’t waiting for the next great novel from Christopher Meeks—or most writers. Heck, there are easily 400,000 new titles coming out each year. The question I always have is, “How is mine going to stand out?”
I happen to think I have a unique voice, and I have something to say about this strange life we live, but it’s difficult to find easy sales. It’s clear to me that genre fiction sells much more readily than literary fiction. Big publishers are not rushing to publish anything literary, and small publishers and self-publishers are discovering it’s near impossible to find a market for literary novels.
The people with the biggest success in self-publishing at the moment are writers such as Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, John Locke, and Bob Mayer. They all write in popular genres such as paranormal romance and thrillers. I haven’t found a single best-selling self-publisher in literary fiction. Perhaps it’s me with my short story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, which is nearing 3,000 in sales—great for short fiction but nothing to get rich over.
Still, when you pop into Goodreads or read about fiction, it’s certain literary novels that are on people’s tongues. I love such books as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan. They had big publishers behind them. I know my work can fit in among that group.
Do you hear from your readers?
Hearing from readers is one of the wonderful surprises I’ve had. After all, when I reviewed books and theatre for a decade, people didn’t write me. My reviews sometimes were quoted or ended up in ads, but no one wrote to say, “I took your recommendation and experienced something great.” Now, however, someone occasionally writes out of the blue.
It happened to me last week from a reader named Patricia who wrote, “A long time ago, I purchased The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea but didn't start reading it until last night. I'm a slow reader, so I'm only a few stories in -- but already I can tell that I've found a wonderful writer. Before I close my Kindle for the night, I had to get up out of bed and come to my computer to tell you how much I appreciate the care and talent you pour into your stories.” She continued on with specifics and to tell me how deeply and wonderfully my stories have hit her. She ended, “You're the real deal, a genuine writer. There aren't many of you, you know.”
How can I not love something like that? It makes persevering a little easier.
What book are you reading now?
I’m reading Patti Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids, about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe before they made their own connections to the world, his in photography, hers in rock and roll. I normally don’t read such things, but I’m glued to it after a friend recommended it. I am in awe to see how they struggled in the art world yet found such sustaining love in each other that the rest was bearable. I’m someone who believes in the power of love—which can happen even to a brilliant, clueless scientist such as Gunnar Gunderson.
Is there a writer you idolize? If so who?
Besides those who mentored me, I’ve learned much in reading several particular authors. Tim O’Brien (The Things The Carried) showed me that the great strength of fiction is that by making things up, you can get to deep truths about life.
Short story writer Lorrie Moore (Birds of America) reinforced the idea that the funniest stories can also be the saddest ones, such as her story of a mother whose infant is found to have cancer.
Short story writer Jhumpa Lahiri (Unaccustomed Earth) reinforced the idea to write what you know and with great honesty. It doesn’t matter that she’s writing about people from India living in America because they are us. We connect.
The novels by Hosseni, Gruen, Stein, and Egan mentioned above have shown me that stories can be about the remotest things (Afghanistan, a circus, a dog, and record producers) and be gripping and interesting.
Causes Christopher Meeks Supports
Associated Writing Programs