Interview With an Author: Christopher Huang

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Christopher Huang and his latest novel, Unnatural Ends
Author Christopher Huang and his latest novel, Unnatural Ends

Christopher Huang grew up in Singapore, an only child in a family tree that expands dramatically sideways at his parents' generation. He moved to Canada after his National Service, studied architecture at McGill, and settled down in Montreal, apparently for good. His first novel, A Gentleman's Murder, was named a 2018 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year and is in development for television. Unnatural Ends is his second novel and he recently talked to Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Unnatural Ends?

I was challenged to come up with a horror story without supernatural elements, and I settled on the following idea: what if you resorted to lies and perjury to achieve what you thought was justice, only to discover you were wrong? If you operated on the principle of the ends justifying the means, what if the ends were not what you thought they were? But if you've read the book, you'd know that this is not how the story goes. The original inspiration was a road to damnation, which got written out of the story. And that's terribly amusing for me since one might say, on a meta-level, that my ends were not what I thought they'd be. You might even say that my ends were… unnatural.

Are Sir Lawrence, Alan, Roger, Caroline, Iris, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

No, I can't say any of them are. There's a little bit of me and my own experience in Alan, Roger, and Caroline, I suppose, but perhaps that's true of every writer and their main characters. My inspiration here was plot-related, and so the plot came first, with characters created to fill the roles required. This is the reverse of what happened with A Gentleman's Murder, where the inspiration was character-related, and the plot came after.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The original draft alternated between Roger's and Iris's points of view, with Alan, Roger, and Caroline actively trying to destroy each other. They were not nice people, originally, and that vicious back-and-forth of each of them trying to frame the other for the murder just didn't work. It distracted from the gradual discovery of the truth and ended with something that felt uncomfortably like a deus ex machina. I have to say I'm glad to have moved away from that.

Iris's glamour and attention to fashion was originally a result of her association with Roger, and there used to be a scene with her brother Isaac reminding her of her roots. I am a little sorry to have lost that scene, but not to the point of wishing I'd kept it. The present version of Iris is someone who dresses up to please herself rather than to please Roger, and I like her much better for that.

Your previous novel, A Gentleman's Murder, was also set right after WWI. What draws you to set your novels in this period?

Bright lights and joie de vivre. There's just something I really like about the imagery of the period: the fashions for both men and women, the art, the architecture, the sheer sense of liberation. It's an intriguing mixture of the Victorian with the modern day, and there's something fascinating about the idea that all that light was born out of the darkness of the First World War.

You make several Shakespearean references in Unnatural Ends. Do you have a favorite of Shakespeare's plays or poems?

The plays I know best would have to be King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and Romeo & Juliet, but I wouldn't call any of them "favourite." The thing about Shakespeare that sticks with me is actually the five-act dramatic structure, which I consider a more rigorous and useful way of looking at how stories work than the so-called three-act structure, even if they are functionally identical. I mean, everything has "a beginning, middle, and end"; that's obvious to the point of redundancy. At least the five-act structure says something about how to manage the middle section of your story.

Any news regarding another possible adventure with Eric and Avery from A Gentleman's Murder?

That's got to be my next project. I tried outlining something back when A Gentleman's Murder was first released and when Unnatural Ends was still a proposed horror novella and not a written mystery novel. But right now, all I have are possibilities: there's the idea of doing something in a more female-dominated milieu, the reverse of what I had in the gentlemen's club in A Gentleman's Murder; and alternatively, there's the idea of following up on one detail that some readers have taken as a sequel hook but which, when I wrote it, had been intended only as a general idea of the show going on. Or I could combine the ideas. At this point in time, I can't say I know. It's a little hard to focus on this while I'm still high on Unnatural Ends.

In the novel's Historical Notes, you mention a trip you took on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Yes! You can get a pass that allows you to hop on and off the train throughout the day, and it winds through the Yorkshire moors from Pickering to Whitby on the North Sea coast and back. Both the trains and all the stations along the line have been refurbished to what they were in their heyday, and it's like stepping into another time. I spent two days riding that train and exploring the environment around the various stations and would have loved a third.

What's currently on your nightstand?

A candlestick? Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide is my current read. I've only just started, but so far it's proving to be street-smart and savvy in a way that I rather envy. After that, I’m looking forward to getting into Martin Edwards’s Gallows Court and Kwei Quartey’s Death by His Grace.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass! I enjoyed it immensely despite having been completely spoiled before I began. I'm a sucker for ensemble pieces and Catholic iconography, and this was a beautiful masterpiece that delivered both in spades.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

"If the sun is on fire, how come there isn't any smoke?"
That question was mixed in with several more serious ones on a troubleshooting guide included in the documentation for the 1986 video game, The King of Chicago. To this day, that's still the question I'm thinking whenever someone asks, "Are there any questions?" And the answer, according to that troubleshooting guide, is "Huh?"

What are you working on now?

There’s a TV adaptation of A Gentleman’s Murder to consider. I've got a pilot written, and much as I would prefer to focus on writing the sequel instead and leave the screenwriting to someone else, I have an inkling that I might be called on to write further episodes. Until that happens, though, I'm taking a short break from writing to focus instead on thinking.

Book cover of Unnatural ends : a novel
Unnatural Ends
Huang, Christopher

In Unnatural Ends, Christopher Huang uses elements from the golden age of mystery, pitting siblings against each other for the family estate, as the foundation of his story. Sir Lawrence Linwood, the Lord of Linwood Hollow and a tyrant of a father, always pushing his adopted children to meet unreasonable demands. When Sir Lawrence dies, his children return home, as expected, to find not only that their father was murdered but that the latest version of his will declares that the child who solves their father’s murder will inherit his estate.

Huang takes a Shakespearean style family drama, weaves in the mystery surrounding Sir Lawrence’s death, and then adds elements from the works of H.G. Wells or Robert Louis Stevenson cautioning the potential abuse of science and knowledge, all of which tie directly into the novel’s surprising, and in some ways horrifying, conclusion.

Unnatural Ends is a Gordian knot of a novel that moves beyond simple issues of innocence or guilt for his suspects and into unsettling revelations about the society in which they, and we, live. Christopher Huang is a writer to watch in Mystery fiction.