In his first novel, Carving Names: The Hum of Hostility, our friend Christopher Nelson has crafted a work that is both adventurous and insightful. Set in Helena, MT, the book tells the story of a young man, Sean, who has been the victim of bullying for many years. Despite his suffering, Sean remains steadfast in his convictions. He isn’t easily discouraged by his tormentors and uses his positive attitude and creativity to enact a cultural change on his high school campus. Sean’s story is a fun action-packed adventure that will surely inspire its readers.
What follows is a brief interview with Christopher Nelson.
What inspired you to write a novel?
At the heart of it all, practicality was the vehicle that drove me to write. Being a teacher at St. Andrew School for almost 18 years, my wife always jokes with me about how I have never worked a permanent job that doesn’t have summer’s off. I can’t deny this beautiful reality, nor do I want to. The old adage is, the three best things about being a teacher are June, July, and August. Although this statement may be a bit limited in its scope, as I truly love my students and my job, I can’t deny the amazing possibilities that these three months bring for people in my profession. However, as a father of four (now 16, 14, 12, and 10 years of age), my summers were pretty busy just toting children around to different activities and camps. I look back on these times fondly, of course, and feel blessed that God gave me the opportunity to glimpse my children’s growth in this unique way. At the same time, I felt a bit unproductive, or like I wasn’t using the talents God afforded me. About 3 years ago, however, everything seemed to slow down. By then, my youngest wasn’t so young anymore, and didn’t require the constant monitoring I had been accustomed to providing. And so, when I say practicality was the vehicle that drove my writing, I mean to say that I had a lot of extra time on my hands and it became very practical for me to write.
With this realization, and the need to be productive, I began kicking the idea around with a fellow colleague of mine, who actually was a former student (yes, I know I’m getting old). He inspired me just go-for-it, and so I did. I found the writing process extremely enjoyable. Yes, getting started on that first paragraph, page, and chapter was daunting, but once I got in the grove of things the book really did just “write itself.” I know you’ve heard this phrase before, and possibly are a bit cynical about 55,000 words “writing themselves,” but I assure you this was the case. The only roadblock really, was finding the quiet moments during the summer in which I could actually think. And so, starting at 4:30 AM, with my cup of coffee and iPad within reach, I began my summer days, enjoying every minute of the writing process. So, practicality became my ally and inspiration.
But besides that, I did garner inspiration from another source. My cousin, who built a catamaran and sailed around the world with her family, homeschooling from the boat, had recently written a best-seller on her experience, winning the 2010 USA Book News Literary Award. I, being the youngest and most naive cousin, and always playing catch-up to my wonderfully competitive, practical-joke playing elder cousins, thought to myself, “I can do that.” As usual, I gave it my best attempt, but must admit I enjoy her writing more.
Why did you decide to write a novel on bullying?
Attending a Jesuit school growing up, I can still hear the voices of these “Blackrobes” pounding away at my conscience. It was a normal exercise for us young men to read the great books of humanity, analyze them with a fine-toothed comb, and be lead to the conclusion that every good book has a valued and time-tested lesson behind it. Every author that didn’t accomplish this (and trust me, I can hear Father Bruschek’s monologue at this very moment), might as well check-himself-in to Dante’s Inferno because that’s where he was ending up anyhow. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite that harsh, but nonetheless, as a graduate from Regis Jesuit High School I wasn’t about to enter down the long narrow path of being an author without having a higher purpose to propel and inspire me. And so, I chose a familiar topic; bullying.
Why so familiar you might ask? Being the son of a wonderfully inspiring, deaf occupational therapist with cerebral palsy, I was exposed to the sanctity of life at a young age. Although nothing was wrong with my mother’s brain function, Denver schools equivocated her staggered walk, lack of hearing, and labored voice to a lack of intelligence and forced her to attend “institutions” for the outsiders of society. This, of course, was before the idea of mainstreaming and inclusion. My grandparents had to fight for my mother’s right to attend a “normal” school. Meanwhile my mother had to fight for acceptance amongst her peers. Cruelty and shaming is something people feed upon, unfortunately, and at no time is this truer in a person’s life than in his/her school ages. Eventually, she graduated from Colorado State University, proving her critics wrong. However, the road for her was filled with adversity, labeling, and other hardships. She had to rise above the “Hum of Hostility,” and by doing so inspired the handicapped and disabled community, whom she served as a therapist for decades. And although I too was bullied at times for having a mother who didn’t fit the “mold,” I didn’t want my book to be a sob story, but rather one that showed the power of perseverance, forgiveness, and integrity.
How has Helena, Montana influenced your writing?
Although I have taught for several decades, one particular summer while my wife was on bedrest with our 4th child, I managed to obtain a part-time job at Resurrection Cemetery. I soon became entranced with the tombstones, epitaphs, mausoleums, and monuments resurrected to pay tribute to the many colorful characters of early Montana, including priests, nuns, gold-miners, noted Native Americans, bishops, senators, governors, and laymen. It was like walking through a living textbook. And, although you may think it odd, I highly recommend visiting your local cemetery. Walk the grounds, breath deep of the silence, read the carvings of names and epitaphs, and remember. It was that experience that drove the storyline of my book “Carving Names: The Hum of Hostility.” It caused me to dive deeper, find these namesakes and their role in the community, and to contemplate my very existence.
Right around that time, Helena Catholic Radio asked me to be involved in their ministry. I pitched the idea of writing, recording, and broadcasting 35 “Montana Catholic History Moments,” which are still available today, archived at 97.3 KFM Relevant Radio. I don’t believe I knew what I was getting myself into, as each stage of the process in developing these radio spots took intense effort and time. Yet by the time they were being broadcasted throughout Montana, I had emerged enlightened about the incredible role our Catholic Church had in the development of our Queen City, our state, and our region.
Combining these many experiences, I set out to write a fun, faith-filled adventure of a youth fighting his way through adversity in the town of Helena, happening upon many of the familiar landmarks, people, and stories of our community. In some cases I stayed true to the namesakes of people and places in Helena, but in other cases I took artistic license with the characters and storylines. However, many people have approached me after reading my book, recalling their own experiences with these places and people, adding their own spectacular tid-bits and anecdotes that keep building the mystique of our incredible city and state. If only I could have known those anecdotes before I wrote my book . . . but alas, more material for my next book.
What role does Catholicism play in your novel?
Now don’t get me wrong, I am one of the proudest Catholics around, wanting to further the mission of the Gospel in this world, but in my opinion one of the most impressive ways to evangelize is to do so gently and almost covertly. General Eisenhower once said “You do not lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” And so, it became my goal to avoid the “Catholic assault” methodology—hitting the reader with theological and philosophical hammers—although I do believe there is a time and place for that as well. If I wanted both Christians and non-Christians alike to buy into my themes of charity, redemption, forgiveness, and integrity, I would have to first of all not bore them to death with another lecture on the sanctity of human life, and yet that was the very point I would have to drive home. And, aiming at an audience of young adults, while at the same time allowing for their elders to enter the discussion as well, a delicate balance had to be struck. To add to the mix, I wanted to touch upon current issues, to meet people where they are at today, and thus not seem antiquated with my dialogue. And so, the hero of my story would have to have a strong foundation in his Catholic beliefs (evident by means of his actions), be savvy with social media and technology, and have every possible advantage, save one thing–his social awkwardness, which would lead him down a lonely road, challenging his beliefs in the goodness of humanity. Would my hero be able to rise above the “hum of hostility” and “carve his name on hearts, not stone”? Would there be room for forgiveness, despite the constant bullying that drove him to believe he would never find an authentic relationship? How could he bring his adversaries close, allow them to see and experience life from his perspective, and ultimately from God’s? All of these questions would be answered in a harrowing tale of adventure, newfound love, and dar