MY BOOKS by an author who met his hero and wrote a book about it, and believes that the DNB is never, ever wrong
Born in England in 1964, James Christie graduated from college with a degree in creative writing as well as College Colours “in recognition of outstanding service to the student body and the college community”. After travelling around Australia for a year, he went to library school in 1992, catalogued the private library collection of a stately home and worked as a law librarian in Glasgow.
He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2002 and shortly thereafter began to take a focused interest in Dru. He wrote a quartet of fan-fiction stories (Drusilla’s Roses, Drusilla’s Redemption, Drusilla Revenant and Spike & Dru : the Graveyard of Empires) which further developed the character of Drusilla, sent them to the lovely Juliet Landau and impressed her so much they commenced an email correspondence.
In 2010, James took a historic Buffy-themed Greyhound bus trip across America with the support of the National Autistic Society Scotland in order to meet his dear Miss Landau. The story of the journey, Dear Miss Landau, which also describes his difficulties living as an autistic adult in a neuro-typical world, was published by Chaplin Books in 2012.
Reviewing Dear Miss Landau on BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read, Tim Coates (former managing director of UK booksellers WH Smith and Waterstones) said:“This is the best book I’ve read for ten years.” A stage musical inspired by Dear Miss Landau is currently in development.You can read more about James’ route to publication in this article he wrote when he was a guest on this blog in 2014.
In 2015, The Legend of John Macnab, the “Great Scottish Novel” James had spent over twenty years working on was also published. Centred on a Scots icon more splendid than the Stone of Destiny, he may have rewritten Scottish history in two places, and it is indeed the first commercial novel to publicize the Book of Deer.
James presently blogs for the Huffington Post UK and Differently Wired, an ebook compilation of around eighty of his blogs and articles (available on Amazon) has just been published.
What’s the first book you remember reading (or being read to you?)
Oddly enough, I think it was Star Trek One, the first novelization of the original (then the only) Star Trek series. It was written by James Blish, who wrote tersely and clearly, but not for children. This may have been the template for my lifelong interest in Trek, and my eventual use of the metaphor of Kirk stealing the Enterprise (Star Trek III : the Search for Spock) regarding my trip (or trek!) overland across America in 2010 to meet Juliet Landau of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. I first read it in Corpach, near Fort William, about 1969. This isn’t far from a town called Glenfinnan (where Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore and raised the Standard in 1745) which would also have a pivotal influence on my life, as shown in The Legend of John Macnab, my second book and second sequel to John Buchan’s John Macnab.
Can you name a book from your childhood that made a big impact on you? In 1974, I read the first chapter of The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett in an anthology, and was so taken with her tale of an ancient Mars into which a modern human is swept that I spent over twenty years searching for the complete novel (these were pre Google and Amazon days) only rather prosaically to find it via Amazon once the latter had been invented. Leigh Brackett, it must be said, was a darn fine writer and screenwriter who, in addition to helping the famed William Faulkner on The Big Sleep, also worked on the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back (just imagine how good you have to be even to be asked to have a go at the sequel to the most successful sci-fi film of all time). It appears her version was rejected and she died very soon afterwards, but some fans believe the finished film shows several of her hallmarks and Brackett’s screenplay itself now lies, unseen and unpublished, in the Special Collections library of Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, New Mexico.
What book are you reading right now? I’ve just finished Monica Dickens’Last Year When I Was Young. It was a favourite of my mother’s and I grew up looking at the cover at the lot, but never actually opened the book itself until last week. Now being over fifty and soon heading south from Scotland to the green fields and hedgerows of a misremembered England, Dickens nostalgically paints for me a realistic portrait of everyday life in a vanished era (the nineteen-seventies!), and though I can’t exactly go home again (no more Ford Cortinas, if nothing else…), I’ll still give it a try. Still, I s’pose the warm beer’s stayed the same.
And the one you read before that?
I think it might have been Wilbur Smith’s A Sparrow Falls, the third part of his original Courtney trilogy. I mainly remember its emotional core: the love affair between Sean Courtney’s protégé, Mark Anders, and Sean’s daughter, Storm. Smith is an unapologetically masculine writer and the questing love story echoes down the years to myself and the tale of my own trek for Juliet Landau.
Burning books is wrong. What contemporary book (written in the last thirty years) would you save from a bonfire? I’m not a voracious reader ( my usual excuse is that I’m too busy writing them to read one…), but one controversial book is Generation F written by Winston Smith (definitely a pseudonym) which details the true-life experiences of a social worker in supported housing and shows how his youthful left wing Guardian-reading worldview is comprehensively mugged by his bitter experience of feckless and bigoted youth, drivelling managers brimful of inane jargon, the utter waste of taxpayers’ money and totally witless bureaucracy. It’s the kind of wake-up call a lot of comfortably-off middle-class Lefties might well not want to hear but need to: there are a lot of injustices and inequalities in modern Britain, but there are a lot of little jerks as well. Politically-correct Snowflakes might well want to burn this book, too, but they really ought to read it first.
Same question: what classic would you save? Probably To Kill A Mockingbird. I remember being made to study it in school and even then consciously deciding to buy and keep a copy. It is a classic of modern American literature and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. However, America still hasn’t properly resolved the issue of racism, and with the 2014 shooting and riots in Ferguson, St. Louis, it felt for a brief moment to me like they hadn’t made that much progress since the Civil Rights era. Some modern-day extremists (or so I found out in an utterly brutal Facebook argument) simply consider it a work of bigotry and some schools have tried to remove it from their classrooms. So it’s important to note that it could still end up on a bonfire and even more important to say it should be saved. I considered hitching to Monroeville once (I was in Mobile at the time) and was also rather proud to write this article about Mockingbird when Harper Lee died.
Favourite non-fiction book? Here comes an odd, historic answer: I actually worked as the librarian in a stately home for three years and catalogued its rare books collection. It just so happened that a seventy-year-old copy of the Dictionary of National Biography(DNB) was sitting around on the shelves and, as I taught myself rare book cataloguing, its contribution to the research aspect of that cataloguing was both priceless and indispensable. This was its subject area, yes, but it literally never failed. Ever. However obscure the query, the DNB had the answer. Not only that, all the research work within its pages was instantly available to me despite the fact it probably hadn’t been opened since 1928 (know a computer programme still user-friendly after that long?) and it gave me a profound and humbling appreciation of both the reliability of hard-copy and its ability to deliver information from one generation to the next. Without this ability civilisation would not have arisen, at least not as quickly or relatively easily. I think of that sometimes when I see kids playing relentlessly with their smartphones, shattering their attention spans and seemingly remembering nothing from one day to the next… Some years after this surreal, mythic experience, I came across an immaculate copy of a concise DNB, nearly got down on my knees before it and retain it to this day. It remains the greatest information resource I have ever used. Nowadays I do use Wikipedia a lot, but there is always the knowledge in the back of my mind that it may not be entirely accurate. The DNB, on the other hand, so totally did what it said on the tin that there was no argument. Every time I opened it, I knew I was getting the best possible information from the best scholars of that era and no question about it. It was El Campeon del Mundo, the bees’ knees, the Alpha and the Omega, it was the best. Favourite poetry book. Or poem? Probably Kipling’s Thousandth Man, which inspired the final blog written for what became Dear Miss Landau at the end of my trek across America. After a couple of false starts, the lines “But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side/To the gallows-foot – and after!” made me ask and answer the question of why I’d done it, and for whom:
What, indeed, had made me walk 5,000 miles and more? … But that wasn’t really the heart and soul of it all, was it? What really did make me get up and go on when I wanted to stop? What made me break myself to sleeping in dorms and travelling through the night on Greyhound buses, standing up to all the uncertainty and the fear and the change?
Perhaps it was that vital spark which makes some men stand by their friends to the gallows-foot and after. That spirit which makes us all, aspie and typical alike, push the envelope of our limitations. Or maybe it was simpler than that. The need to go into battle once more before it was too late. The need of the knight to stand before his lady one last time, before accepting the fading of the light. All for you, Miss Landau! Best gal in all the world.
I hope I can make it across the border. I hope I can see my friend and shake his [her] hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. Ihope.
What book (if any) have you found yourself re-reading over the years? Bill Bryson’s compilation of US articles Notes From A Big Country was extremely astute beneath a surface film of comedy and I found myself referring to it almost obsessively as it became obvious my old Degree in American Studies would need a bit of updating…
If you were giving a book as a present, what book would you choose? Frankly and without ego, it probably would be Dear Miss Landau, but for a number of specific reasons: the book is a biography, it captures profound and personal experiences which break me to tears. It tells of the greatest day of my life, the day I met her on Sunset Boulevard. There is the virtual sonnet I wrote as I waited and the email I wrote afterwards, quoting John Steinbeck, the cost of walking away and Kipling’s words. It is all I can say.
Finally, what do you prefer; a real book with pages that move, an ebook, an audio device? A real book. Always and forever, a real book.
Would you like to take part inMY BOOKS? I would love to hear from you so drop me a line at bridgetwhelan AT hotmail.co.uk if you would like to contribute. Please put MY BOOKS in the subject line.