The Bookseller: Joanne Harris pays tribute to her friend and cheerleader, the late writer Christopher Fowler.
Monday 27th March 2023
Confession: I’ve never done this before. To write a person’s obituary seems like a very final act, and I don’t want this to be final. Christopher Fowler has been in my life for over 30 years, and the space left by his passing is something I still have to understand.
We met at a publishing party, my first: a celebration of my publisher’s “autumn list” in which dozens of soon-to-be-published books were displayed on a library table – including my début,The Evil Seed – and where people who knew each other drank wine, while I hid alone in a corner. My agent introduced me to Chris. I was painfully awkward, not least because I’d just read and loved his hit novel Roofworld, and he was a Real Author, whereas I was just a schoolteacher who happened to have written a book about vampires in Cambridge. But he was warm and funny and kind, and I came away feeling I’d made a friend. After that I wrote to him, and we started a correspondence that was to last nearly 30 years.
This was typical of Chris; as I came to know him, I realised how welcoming he was to new authors. His letters were always funny, sincere, authentic and peppered with little cartoons, as well as accounts of what seemed to me an incredibly glamorous lifestyle – parties on yachts, movie premieres – always presented with the same self-deprecating humour. His three-volume memoir – Paperboy, Film Freak and the final instalment, Word Monkey – all feel like an extension of his letters to me; rarely does an author convey their authentic voice as well as he does. Readers of his blog know that voice; as do the readers of his clever, quirky Bryant and May detective series. He loved to talk about films and books; loved London with a passion; was the most well-read person I know, as well as being an inexhaustible source of little-known facts on all kinds of subjects; loved to have leisurely breakfasts; knew every café in London; every alley; every roof garden; every comic shop and hardware store.
He was incredibly generous. He wrote my very first review, for Time Out; words that meant far more to me than any publisher’s advance. (Later, I tried to return the compliment by writing a blurb for his fantasy novel Calabash; I wanted so much to do justice to the book that I wrote a three-page essay). And when, my third book failed to attract a publisher, he was the one who cheered me on; found me a new agent, and when Chocolat finally became, first a bestseller, then a film, he was the one cheering hardest, and with a kind of brotherly pride.
I’ll never forget that. The way he cheered. Anyone else might have felt slightly envious – especially someone with a long career in writing, an equally long career in film, and yet who never became a household name in the profession he loved the most. But that was one of the things about Chris that made him unique in the business: he genuinely cared about others. If someone treated him unfairly, he tended just to shrug it off: but if the same thing happened to someone else, he was furious on their behalf. He had the same self-effacing attitude to his work, calling himself “word monkey” rather than “author,” in spite of a peerless talent that spanned many genres and media, and in spite of his many awards in the world of fantasy and crime.
He was born in Greenwich in 1953. His first memoir, Paperboy, describes a humble, solitary childhood filled with a passion for comics and films. The jacket shows him as a little blond boy of 10, in round glasses like the Milky Bar Kid, grinning at the camera. The grin stayed the same throughout his life, and so did the humorous outlook. His second memoir, Film Freak, outlines his journey into the film world: he began his career as a copywriter, and aged 26 he founded The Creative Partnership with his business partner, Jim Sturgeon. It became a hugely successful UK and international film marketing company, and Chris spent 25 years creating movie posters, trailers and documentaries. You’ll know his film work, even though you may not be aware of it: he was the one who created the famous tag line from “Alien”: “In space, no-one can hear you scream,” as well as the iconic campaigns for films like “Reservoir Dogs”, “Trainspotting”, and “Moulin Rouge”. He wrote for everyone from Kenneth Williams to Michael Caine, the Spice Girls, Pierce Brosnan, Leslie Nielsen, Julie Walters, John Cleese and Eric Idle.
During that time, astonishingly, he also wrote successful novels of his own, as well as many, many short stories. The short story form especially suited him. It gave his mercurial temperament the chance to show its brilliance. And he was as prolific as he was pitch-perfect, with hundreds of stories published in dozens of collections and anthologies.
When Jim died, Chris left The Creative Partnership to concentrate on his writing. By the end of his career, he had authored over 50 books, was a five-time British Fantasy Award-winner as well as winning countless other awards, including the CWA 2015 Dagger In The Library for his body of work. His books had been optioned by everyone from Guillermo Del Toro to Jude Law. His short story The Master Builder became the film Through The Eyes Of A Killer, starring Tippi Hedren.
Anyone else might have allowed his success to go to his head. Instead, he always downplayed it, portraying himself as an accident-prone, Norman Wisdom-style figure of fun who had somehow accidentally found himself in a Hollywood movie. His letters to me were filled with stories of misadventures in glamorous surroundings; fingers trapped in limo doors on the way to Cannes premières; hotels disappearing into sinkholes on exotic foreign holidays; spectacles left on Concorde, or dropped into the sea from the deck of a celebrity’s yacht.
On his blog, he describes himself thus: “Christopher has achieved several pathetic schoolboy fantasies, releasing a really horrible Christmas pop single, working as a male model, writing two London stage shows, posing as the villain in a Batman graphic novel, running a Soho night club, appearing in the Pan Books of Horror, and standing in for James Bond.”
And yes, of course, it’s all true. But no list of achievements really conveys the breadth of his talent, his humour, his zest, his intelligence. None of those things can portray a life. I remember him most through his stories: through long walks through the West End; through many years of breakfasts; through comic shops and theatres; from his terrace house in Kentish Town to his glass cube over Regent’s Canal; through the death of his business partner and friend; through his marriage to Pete, and their loving, often hilarious partnership; through their shared love of Barcelona, where Chris and Pete bought a beautiful flat (which Chris referred to as his “writing shed”); through the letters that finally became emails and texts and Twitter DMs as we met more regularly.
Over lockdown, both of us were diagnosed with cancer. I got better: Chris didn’t. Throughout his treatment and mine, he supported me from afar; made me laugh; swapped chemo tips and Netflix recommendations; made jokes about those people who come out of the woodwork to sell you patented cancer cures based on crystals and whole foods. He died on 2nd March, just a few weeks from his 70th birthday.
Typically upbeat till the end, he told me in a text message that he was hanging on for 70, because “I don’t want to go down in history as an unfashionable sexual position”. When I last saw him, he was housebound, but still writing at a furious pace; blogs, short stories; letters; tweets. He wrote because he loved it; told stories because that was his way of interpreting the world. And he did that so very well. His insight was extraordinary. His love of his people and of his world shone out from everything he wrote. His stories made me love London – in spite of the fact that I was a country mouse who worked from a shed in her garden. He taught me that books last forever, that the world is an adventure, that sleep is for lightweights, that words can be knives, or swarms of bees, or fireworks. He has been the most enduring influence of my career, both as a writer and as a friend. He was there at the start of everything, and it feels all kinds of wrong for me to have to write his obituary. I’ve probably made a hash of it. I don’t have his aptitude with words. If only I could ask him for help. Because Chris would have done it better.
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