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Written by Karin Salvalaggio

Imagine spotting a distant mountain range as you set off on a Sunday drive. Reaching it before nightfall seems feasible but hours later you’re still staring at the same view––no closer to your destination having covered hundreds of miles. The sheer scale of the American landscape not only upsets our sense of time and space, it takes our breath away. The views are staggering, the possibilities endless. Maybe it’s what makes Americans so restless. Maybe it’s what feeds the notion of American Exceptionalism. Maybe it’s what makes writers want to reach out and grab that mountain range in the distance and press it down onto paper. Containing it, as they do, in the confines of our modern-day fairy tales, they are that much closer to attaching their name to something so much greater than themselves. 

Chris Whitaker’s latest novel We Begin at the End is set in an America landscape I recognise as home. Cape Haven is like many of the small towns I’ve lived in or visited. Chief Walker is someone I may have known in high school, while Vincent is definitely the type of guy I dated. Star was the woman everyone gossiped about, but at some point, she could have been my best friend. We Begin at the End is a novel that doesn’t shy away from big themes, the brush strokes are wide and the lens long, but where some writers get lost in all that space, Whitaker never loses sight of what truly matters. The setting may set the tone, but the characters and their struggles are universal. We all love. We all lose. 

Chris Whitaker was kind enough to answer a few questions about We Begin at the End.

Karin Salvalaggio: It was rather pleasing to discover that We Begin at the End is set in California and Montana, two places I hold close to my heart. I grew up in California, attending university in a coastal town that has echoes of Cape Haven and all my novels are set in Montana. Your writing successfully captures themes that are unique to the American experience. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you’re originally from London. What is it about American that inspired you to set your story there? Did you travel in the states extensively for the purposes of research? If so, where did you go?


Chris Whitaker: I was kind of nervous when I knew you were reading it! I thought if it passes the Karin test then I’m pretty sure I’ve done an okay job.  


Yeah, born and raised in London. I’ve only been to America a couple of times and that was a quite a while ago so all of my research comes from books, maps, TV and the internet. I work part-time in the library so have a huge amount of resources available to me. 


As for why America, the US is a great setting for crime fiction. Guns, small town sheriffs, the FBI. There’s something inherently fascinating about it.    


We Begin At The End is a big story, and I needed a big canvas on which to tell it. America is amazing in so many ways, it’s a world within a country and I had such strong visuals of the two towns and how they mirror the characters. Duchess goes on an epic road trip, it just wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.  


KS: The seaside town of Cape Haven has an uneasy beauty. This tension is illustrated in myriad ways––coastal erosion sends homes dropping into the sea; wealthy vacationers come and go oblivious to the trouble that lies beneath; and families such as Star’s sadly fall through the cracks. Sheriff Walk has been keeping a lid on it for years, but it’s clear from the novel’s outset that stasis can longer be maintained. Walk reminds me a little of the sheriff in the film Jaws. Both are powerless to protect their towns and the people they care for from what is coming. Your writing has a cinematic quality that sets the reader down in a specific time and place but at the same time feels timeless. Please tell me a little about your writing process as it relates to your original ideas for a story. Do you see a scene in your head and start writing or does a fully-formed story come to you first?


CW: Thank you. I love Jaws! I showed it to my kids the other day and I’d forgotten just how brilliant it is. 


I start with dialogue. I’ll write the conversation between characters in a given scene and then begin to build out around them. I work across three screens. On the centre screen I’ll have a Word doc, and either side I’ll have a number of pictures that roughly fit the location of the scene I’m writing. It helps me escape into the story I’m telling. I also shut the curtains and the door and make sure the house is quiet. If I can’t feel what I’m writing then I can’t expect my readers to either.   


From there it’s all a bit of a shit-show. I’ll rewrite a dozen times before I’m happy with a paragraph. Every word in the book will change many times before anyone reads it. I can’t get to know my characters until I’ve been through this process. There’s kind of a cold feeling at the beginning, like I’ve been thrust midway into a story and don’t know any of the people involved. So, it’s gradual, and over a year or two I end up with something passable enough to send to my editor. 


KS: Duchess is just one of the many fascinating characters in We Begin at the End. As with Walk, we get to see Cape Haven and Montana through her point of view. She is troubled, loyal, stubborn, and at times, very odd. Not many 13-year-olds go around declaring themselves an ‘outlaw’, but then again not many girls her age have mothers as troubled as Star and little brothers as vulnerable as Robin. Her character arc is the most dramatic in the novel. Please tell me a little more about the inspiration behind her character and how you mapped out her often-combative relationship with Walk.


CW: I’ve never put as much into a character as I did Duchess. She is lost in so many ways, and so desperate for something tangible to grasp onto, something defining that helps her make sense of who she is. So, when she finds out a distant relative was an outlaw this gives her history. This gives her a strand of family she can relate to. 


Her relationship with Walk is everything to her, though she’d never admit it. She doesn’t know her father, and the men in her life come and go depending on her mother’s mood. Walk is her constant, as close to a good person as she’ll allow herself to see. It’s clear he loves her, but the reverse is harder to see. We don’t always like the people that enforce boundaries. There’s a scene in the book, around halfway, where Duchess reverts to calling him Chief Walker instead of Walk. And when I read it back it always gets me. Because it’s that moment when she believes she’s truly alone in the world. 


I had a clear idea of where her story was heading, but how she got there was very much organic. There’s no planning involved, it just needs to feel right as I’m writing. 


KS: We Begin at the End isn’t short of themes––injustice, redemption, retribution, unrequited love, regret, shame, and loyalty are just a few that come to mind. It is a novel that explores the true price of crime and criminal injustice whether it is paid by the families, communities, or the perpetrators. The opening scene unfolds 30 years earlier, yet all the elements that will propel the novel forward can be found in those two pages. No character in your novel has been left untouched by that initial tragedy. I find that there are writers who focus on the crime while others choose to explore the aftermath. Which do you feel is a more interesting way to tell a story and why?


CW: As a reader I’ll read anything. I love a police procedural, a serial-killer thriller, domestic noir. But give me characters I care about, and good writing, and I’m happy. And I think to truly care about a character you need some depth to the story. The crime, the act itself, it’s usually brief, but the repercussions can last a lifetime. I’m interested in how these acts change our lives, and where my interest lies shapes the kind of story I want to tell. I like a story with heart. I want my readers to fall in love with my characters.   


KS: And lastly, please tell me which American authors, aside from myself (cue the laughter), inspire you most? I know we’ve spoken about our shared love for Bill Beverly’s writing in the past, but I also sense that you may be a Cormac McCarthy fan. McCarthy has a gift for making dialogue disappear into prose and prose into setting, which is something I see in your writing.



CW: Bone Dust White is obviously my go-to! We’re lucky, right. We get sent tons of books, so we read widely, and I really believe that I learn something from every story I read. If I’m finding it hard to write, and that happens often, there’s no better way through it than by picking up a book that inspires me. The Road. Love it, everything about it. Cormac McCarthy is a wonderful storyteller.  


Dodgers blew me away, it’s exquisite and I’m so glad it got all the praise. Now if you win more than one award it’s called ‘doing a Bill Beverly’.  


John Hart is my favourite author. He’s a total gent and I love him.


Inspiration comes from everything I read. I set out with a blank canvass and I don’t strive to match or be better than anyone. I just want to tell a good story. I get messages from readers and they tell me they’ve cried or laughed or whatever, and that’s so cool. When it’s not going well, or I’m working three jobs and not getting any sleep, or not spending enough time with the kids, I’ll get one of these messages and they’ll remind me why I do it.

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Photo of Chris Whitaker © David Calvert

Chris Whitaker

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