When Nicholas Christopher was 11, a strange woman lived in a yellow house a few doors down his street. She always dressed in yellow and gold, and as a boy he thought she might be a magician's assistant or a Rockette. When her house was sold, he recalls in a poem, an extraordinary thing happened -- the new owner found "that no matter/ what color tulips and roses he plants in the garden,/ they always come up yellow, as do/ the cherry tomat s on their tangled vines." With an eye for facts that are stranger than fiction and a talent for fictions that range into the realm of myth, the author of seven volumes of poetry and three novels -- including 1996's mystical noir Veronica (Dial Press) and the forthcoming A Trip to the Stars (Dial) -- has proved himself an able guide to worlds outside the ordinary.
It is just such a guide PW requires on a rainy day in December, five minutes before a scheduled interview with the writer. Attempting to find Christopher's downtown Manhattan studio, PW is hopelessly lost in his labyrinthine building, a former hotel. But finally, behind a brown door labeled "exit," past a gray stairwell, at the end of a truncated passageway, Christopher appears wearing blue jeans and an affable smile. With his black shirt, black-rimmed glasses and dark hair, he has the look of the hip Greenwich Village writer down pat, but his conversation is marked by a lack of posturing. And there is evidence of an avuncular streak: he fusses over the little bowls of nuts and grapes set out for snacking during the interview; he is transparently fond of his cat, Houdini, who likes to curl up on the desk next to his laptop as he writes.
A Trip to the Stars is one of two Christopher titles appearing this spring. The other, Atomic Field: Two Poems, his seventh book of poetry, will be published by Harcourt Brace in April. As respected as he is prolific at the relatively tender age of 48, Christopher has been extravagantly praised by the likes of Harold Bloom and James Merrill, who declared Christopher's noir-ish novella in verse Desperate Characters (Penguin, 1988) "a kind of liqueur of Pynchon which I couldn't put down." Nonetheless, commercial success was somewhat more elusive. Though Christopher's first novel, The Soloist (Viking, 1986), a realist portrait of a pianist's tumultuous preparations for his comeback tour, garnered excellent reviews, it was not until the publication of Veronica that the author imbued his prose with the hallucinatory descriptions that characterized his poetry.
The result was a sexy cult classic about a freelance photographer who is lured into the underworld of New York City by a mysterious woman. Coming out right before Christopher's nonfiction study Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (Free Press, 1997), Veronica is really the noir novel transubstantiated into a new form by its emphasis on idiosyncratic scholarship: instead of gangsters, Christopher's underworld is populated by a group of rival magicians who specialize in Tibetan Buddhism, astronomy, British history, time travel and feng shui, leading one critic to call it "the thinking man's Batman."
Despite Veronica's critical success, however, Christopher has shed its urban, noir trappings for A Trip to the Stars. He explains: "I took it [noir] as far as I wanted to go, and though there will always be elements of noir in my work, each thing I do has to be different." For the source of Christopher's new inspiration, one need only look around his sparsely decorated studio. Aside from two book cases and a smattering of Lichtenstein postcards, the only color comes from a large bamboo plant, a pair of long, tropical-print curtains and a topographical map of Hawaii, where Christopher vacations every year. Even the cloth covering the old Selectric typewriter he used to write Veronica evinces a hint of the South Pacific. Under fire, the author admits: "If I were to do another nonfiction book, it would be about islands, island mythography."
A Trip to the Stars is set partly in the Hawaiian and Greek islands and partly in the desert of Nevada. Told in alternating chapters, it follows the intertwined lives of two orphans: a 10-year-old named Loren and his 20-year-old adoptive aunt, Alma, a student of ancient Greek and Latin (another of Christopher's passions). The pair are thrown together after the death of Alma's mother, but before they can sort out the implications of their unusual relationship, Loren is kidnapped. Unable to find the young boy, Alma is devastated -- she drops out of college, and after a stint as an arachnologist's assistant in New Orleans, she joins the Navy and serves as a radiologist in Vietnam, from whence she begins another cycle of loss and wandering that leads her through the South Pacific and the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Loren is whisked to Las Vegas, where, blissfully unaware of Alma's predicament, he grows up with his eccentric Uncle Samax, a charismatic ex-gambler who made a fortune at the tables using his exquisitely cultivated memory. At its heart, the book is a story about the things people lose and the ways in which they try to find them. Christopher explains, "I wanted to come back to a book that was really character grounded, that took as wide a journey [as Veronica] but that had to do with fate and destiny much more than just otherworldliness."
Yet fans need not fear that Christopher has reverted to straight realism -- there are still plenty of unusual elements. Uncle Samax's extravagant mansion, the Hotel Canopus, for example, houses a large collection of scholars in pursuit of arcane knowledge, including a chess grandmaster who is a devoted follower of Pythagoras, an "Atlantologist" who is reconstructing the history of the lost city of Atlantis, and a meteorite hunter who acquires antiquities for Samax. Elsewhere, the author uses astronomy, astrology, arachnology, space travel and Zuni beliefs about the afterlife to establish ties among his characters.
But if Christopher's novels contain strange confluences and intersections, he bristles when he is classified as a magical realist. "I don't like being described that way because I don't know what it means anymore. As a fiction writer I think it's become a catchall for things that don't quite make sense." And Christopher works hard to ensure that his novels make sense. He spends a lot of time doing research -- reading books and poring over the science section of the New York Times. "I read three books on trapdoor spiders," he says with a smile, "I know more about them than most living poets." The upshot is that many of the fantastical elements in A Trip to the Stars are actually true -- there does exist, for example, a type of spider that navigates by the stars. "To me," says Christopher, "the fantastic... is a way of getting at what's most real, at the essence of things. How else do you explain miraculous events? And the world is full of miraculous events on a daily basis."
A Charmed Life
Perhaps this fascination with the serendipitous is not so illogical, considering that Christopher's own writing career has been peppered with fortuitous events. Born in 1951 to a housewife and an engineer who worked as an assistant on the Manhattan Project, Christopher lived briefly in New York City before his parents moved a few miles north to suburban Westchester County, where he attended public schools. At 12, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the private school Horace Mann, where he became a three-letter athlete. Christopher was first turned on to literary pursuits in high school, when he took an English class with the poet Robert Cullen, to whom he dedicated his fifth book of poety, 5° & Other Poems (Penguin Poets , 1995). Cullen had the adolescent reading Milton, Blake and Shakespeare, and Christopher began bringing his teacher his first poems, which Cullen taught him to revise. Christopher is still stunned by the luck of finding such a mentor. "I realize now that I had someone then who was completely invaluable. The notion of inspiration, of romantic ideas of poetry, were not things he entertained. He told me you work on a poem, you write 30 or 40 drafts. This was something one would hear in graduate school, but to hear it at 16, in your sophomore year of high school...."
That early training led to Christopher's second big break. In 1969, based on a submission of poems, he was the only freshman accepted into the last class Robert Lowell taught at Harvard. Although university administrators protested that he had not yet taken the required preliminary courses, Lowell overcame their doubts when he signed a scrap of paper on which he had written three words: "Let him in." So sitting around a table with nine other students -- including upperclassmen Jonathan Galassi and James Atlas -- Christopher listened to Lowell discuss the merits of the poets Raleigh and Marvell, and occasionally critique the poems of one of his rapt students. (Even there, the bizarre made its appearance: a blind poet from Boston would often sit next to Lowell, who would smoke all the man's cigarettes during the course of the class.)
By the time Christopher met Anthony Hecht four years later, he was already publishing poems in small quarterlies and literary magazines. Hecht, who was at Harvard as a visiting professor, took the young man under his wing, meeting with him for an hour on Friday mornings. "Every week," says Christopher, "I'd saunter over with whatever unformed and crazy work I had at that time, and some good poems, meet with him and we'd have coffee and he would go over them with me." And though the two lost contact after Christopher's graduation, they spoke again after the publication of Christopher's first book of poetry, On Tour with Rita (Knopf, 1982), and remain good friends to this day.
After graduation, Christopher was "busting to get to Europe." He bought an Austin Cooper Mini in Paris with a roommate who was a painter, and drove through a dozen countries before settling down in the Greek Islands for a year and a half. The idea of going to a writing school never occurred to him. Because of his unusual early training, he says he "always saw writing as very solitary... I had very little idea of communality." Instead, when he ran out of money, he took a job as a bricklayer, then as a film projectionist in a small movie theater.
From Greece, he sent a batch of 10 poems addressed to "the poetry editor" of the New Yorker, and by another stroke of luck, it ended up on the desk of the late Howard Moss, who became the last important mentor of Christopher's career. Moss eventually published nine of the poems in On Tour with Rita, which Knopf brought out as part of its series on young American poets. Not long afterward, Christopher returned to New York, working part time as a film researcher for Time Inc. before coming home to write every night: from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Nowadays, he keeps a saner schedule, writing in the mornings before teaching afternoon writing classes at Columbia's School of the Arts or at New York University.
Christopher has almost been as fortunate with his editors as he has been with his mentors. He has nothing but praise for his editor, Susan Kamil at the Dial Press, where he moved after his fiction and poetry editors at Viking/Penguin left the house. Kamil, he says, is "incredibly prescient and accurate at pointing out those sections of the book that after four years and 500 pages and endless drafts you have blind spots to. She leads you back to what your vision of the book was to begin with and shows you where you may have strayed, and that's a real gift." He seems equally content with Andre Bernard, his poetry editor at Harcourt Brace, and Anne Sibbald of Janklow & Nesbit, who has been his agent since 1991. In fact, his next two books -- Franklin Flyer, a novel about an inventor in the 1930s and 40s, and Indigo, a collection of poems about the color and the history of the dye -- have already been sold to Dial and Harcourt, respectively.
Christopher himself is not averse to engineering pleasant surprises. Just when one thinks the interview is over, he invites PW to visit his apartment, which it turns out lies behind the nondescript door across the hall. Its walls are covered with the brilliantly colored paintings and photographs of his wife, Constance, to whom he has been married for 19 years. Herself a novelist, Constance rises from a writing desk tucked in a corner to show PW the kitchen, which is painted entirely in sunflower yellow, as is the bathroom. The contrast between this jewel box and the stark white walls of Christopher's own studio brings to mind the words Christopher used to describe the principle guiding his own work: "I believe in incredible transformations," he said, "in the notion that there are things beyond our ken that can come into our lives and alter them."
Valdes is a freelance writer based in New York City.