The Bestiary, Nicholas Christopher's fifth novel, is a book about Xeno Atlas, a young man raised by his grandmother in the wake of his mother's death during birth. Atlas' father is shipman with a murky and often absent influence on the child's life. Xeno, who reports always feeling a close connection to animals first fostered by his grandmother, sets out on a world-wide adventure to find missing texts with mythical creatures. The book is magical, filled with characters you can't help but find sympathy for and mysteries you can't wait to be solved.
Kelly Hewitt: As a reader I really connected with Xeno, the central character of the book, and I think it had to do with the way write his internal monologue. Xeno's is stark, brief, but unbelievably honest. You writing style is rich and yet brief as well. Would you say that you and the character are as similar as you might seem?
Nicholas Christopher: As it is with any novel, I had to connect with Xeno myself before his story could be told. I inhabited him, and he me, for the five years it took me to write this book. If I were to look, I might logically see some part of myself in many of my characters. But I am not Xeno. I bear some slight similarities to him. My parents did live in the Bronx when I was born (in a Manhattan hospital), and I grew up in and around the city and later attended Harvard. I had a grandmother who raised me for a while who put great stock in her dreams and told me fairy tales and legends, some from books, and some (the most striking ones), I am convinced, she made up herself. The sights, sounds, smells of New York from the 1950s and 60s are all vivid to me still, and were constantly in my mind as I wrote this novel.
Kelly: How did you come decide to write a novel based around the Caravan Bestiary? Do have an interest in mythical/historical animals.
Nicholas: I first learned about these animals in high school. I was interested in the beauty and artistry of illuminated medieval books, and when I came on bestiaries-with their descriptions and illustrations of fantastical beasts like the manticore and the hippogriff-I was hooked. Growing up in New York, I had always been fascinated by the gargoyles and griffins that adorned the façades and rooftops of buildings, and suddenly I had an idea of where they had come from-via the human imagination-and what their cultural ramifications were.
I made up the CARAVAN BESTIARY. When I read that the Gnostics believed complete enlightenment could be achieved if one read the entire Bible with the Apocrypha and also the complete Book of Life, which is the original bestiary, it inspired me, for purposes of my novel, to invent an equivalent of the Apocrypha for the original bestiary. That is, a book with all the beasts, real and imaginary, banned from Noah's ark and lost to history. I used facsimilies of the Revesby, Hertford, and other bestiaries, many of which I found in libraries, and some on the Internet.
Kelly: Just as Xeno traveled the world looking for sacred texts and lost books, you too spent a good deal of time researching around the world. Did that parallel experience help you or motivate you to write the book?
Nicholas: I love to travel. And I did travel a lot in researching this book. You're quite right to pick up on the fact that the research I was doing -- the act of searching for unusual, often hidden, information -- in fact helped inspire some of the similar situations in the book. The motivation for writing the novel goes back farther than these specific travels, however; the story's origins are a confluence of so many factors. The clearer the book when I am done writing it, the less certain I am -- or want to be -- about where it came from, exactly.
Kelly: When I was in Hawaii I happened to pick up a copy of the Honolulu Advertiser and saw a big feature article on the front page of Island Life about you! You talked about the importance of Hawaii in your books and the fact that it's featured in The Bestiary. The article mentioned that you would someday have an entire novel based in Hawaii. Was that a general prediction or is there already something in the works?
Nicholas: It was a prediction. A large portion of the novel I have just begun is set in Honolulu in the late 1950s. And a big part of my novel A Trip to the Stars is set in Honolulu and Kauai. I love Hawaii. I travel there whenever I can, though I live quite far away, in New York, and I cherish the fact I have been able to do so many times in the last fifteen years. I deeply appreciate the reception my books have received in Hawaii, and the warmth that has been extended to me personally. I do plan at some point to write a novel set entirely in the islands, and will probably be living there when I do so.
Kelly: I am one of those people that find their shelves loaded with books, movies, and CDs. What loads down the shelves of Nicholas Christopher?
Nicholas: Too many books -- and not enough shelves, it seems! Certainly too many to list. All of Dickens and Tolstoy and the other Russians; Proust and Musil and Balzac; a dozen shelves of poetry books, including Zbigniew Herbert, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Mark Strand, Eugenio Montale, Anthony Hecht, Walace Stevens, Donne and Blake; many shelves of ancient history, many of them Penguin and Loeb translations of Tacitus, Livy, Suetonius, and the like; all of James Salter's fiction, Borges, Marquez, Calvino, Potocki and Nabokov; all of Charles Nicholl's nonfiction; the late trilogies of Céline and Burroughs'; Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, Bellow's Humbolt's Gift, Hemingway, Tanizaki, Kawabata, The Tale of Genji, The Thousand and One Nights, a lot of atlases of ancient and modern maps, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, Olaf Stapledon's science fiction. In 1997 I published a study of film noir and I have a large collection of noir DVDs -- none of which, unfortunately, were available when I was writing the book. Also hundreds of CDs -- Bach, hard rock, lots of jazz, tons of non-Western music, from the amazing Senegalese guitarist Touré to the master oud player from Tunisia, Anouar Brahem. Brahem's Barzakh is one of the great recordings of all time. Too much of everything to list...