About Chris McCully
Chris McCully is a freelance writer and academic who retains strong interests in angling and in the natural world. He has published over twenty books including six collections of poems (Selected Poems will appear from Carcanet in 2011), a memoir on addiction (Goodbye, Mr. Wonderful) and several book-length works on angling. In 2007 he moved with his wife and labrador to Groningen, in the north-east of the Netherlands – and wrote about what he found there.
See also Chris' website at www.chrismccully.co.uk
Praise for Outside
'Imagine a Yorkshire WG Sebald, with flashes of wit and briefly allowed lyricism ... The value of these pieces lies in the bleak, grey-gleaming beauty of their prose, the illumination of lowly, unconsidered aspects of the world, and the underlying existential enquiry ... Rather wonderful.'
Andrew Greig, Literary Review
'[McCully] has a miniaturists' eye for detail. He's interested in patterns, topography and the intricate history of words ... [He] writes uncommonly well, and proves a most agreeable companion. At large in the Great Outdoors, he gradually adapts to the unfamiliar landscape of polders and canals, somewhat wistfully concluding: "But wherever home once was, it's no longer there."' Country Life
'A truly outstanding collection of essays by an angler with his eyes wide open – witty, deft and evocative, this is nature writing at its coruscating best.’ David Profumo
‘In Outside, Chris McCully shares an odyssey in exile. On real and imaginative journeys to wherever “home” might be, McCully invites the reader to witness a delicate balance between nature and culture. The short, self-contained texts which make up the book are subtle, provocative, humorous, revealing the unique voice of the author – a voice that has a classical tone and poise.’ Agmar van Rijn
‘Chris McCully’s observation is exact, his curiosity fathomless, and his prose has a poet’s sensuous exactness, as sharp in focus as his modestly excellent photography. His reflections on language, people and the living world take us, with the lightest possible touch, into what I can only call philosophy. Outside is a book that makes its own beauty look effortless.’
For a review by John Andrews on the Caught by the River website, click here.
An interview with Chris McCully
When did you first begin writing, and what inspired you to do so? Have any specific books/authors served as inspiration for you?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but in terms of selling words for a fee, I sold my first poem (to the Scarborough Mercury, a weekly newspaper) in 1975, my first angling feature in 1982, and published the first academic paper in 1983. The real impetus behind almost all my writing, however, came from some inspiring schoolteachers, and then continued as a response to omnivorous reading, sometimes in different languages, insofar as I know them. Authors and books which have always served as whatever is called ‘inspiration’ are, in no particular order: the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, all of Shakespeare, Old English verse, the Latin poet Horace, early Middle English shorter lyrics, Chaucer and Dante. Later authors I often read with tremendous admiration are Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Samuel Beckett and John Le Carre. Modern and contemporary poets include Hardy, Pound, Yeats, Graves, Auden and Hughes. Angling writing from which I’ve learned a great deal includes the 15th century Treatise of Fishing with an Angle, Walton and Cotton’s Compleat Angler (especially Cotton’s addition to Walton’s original), Grey of Falloden’s Fly Fishing (surely the greatest of all angling books) and the works of Sidney Spencer. At present (2011), and partly as an unexpected result of completing Outside, I’ve been reading H.V. Morton’s In Search of England and J.B. Priestley’s English Journey – and I’ve been re-reading some Ted Hughes poems, too. Next on the reading list is a biology textbook about phenotyping.
Can you tell us something about the inspiration behind this work in particular? And about what you were trying to achieve; what ideas you were trying to convey?
Outside began as a response to a question: where do you, Chris, ‘fit in’? I don’t suppose I’d ever have posed this question without having relocated (in 2007) to this part of the north-east Netherlands. This landscape and, if I may put it this way, this culturescape, seemed at once familiar and at the same time estranging. I wondered how the landscape, culture, language and even the ecology that surrounded me could ever comfortably include me – a middle-aged and weary English chap - or whether I’d ever be able to feel I ‘fit in’ here in Groningen. As it happens, one tool I’ve always seemed to use in order to orientate myself to previously unknown land- and waterscapes is angling, which in turn involves some study of how the natural world hangs together. And so, in Outside, I tried to analyse estrangement and imaginative dislocation, and the analysis encompasses history, geography, names and language, nostalgia (an impostor), parts of my own past…and of course, angling. I tried to be descriptive, clear and robust, and never to give in to the pull of mere sentiment (nostalgia). I tried – with what success the reader must judge – to bear in mind that I was trying to answer that original, specific question: where, if at all, do you ‘fit in’? And if you do fit in, how do you fit in?
How do you go about creating your voice on the page?
I’m not quite sure I understand the question, but I’ll have a go at answering it. Many people have told me, particularly since I left England in 2003 and picked up a fuller career as a writer, that whatever prose I write is ‘distinctive’ (or even somehow ‘poetic’). If the prose is distinctive (or ‘poetic’), I don’t know quite how the distinctiveness happened. It seems to have been hammered in to me by accident over the years. Writing to particular word-limits forces one willy-nilly into compression, and compression means continual re-writing in which the extraneous is jettisoned. The process, interestingly, is much the same with poetry … or, I suppose, with sculpture. It’s at least partly an art of subtraction. With prose writing, I imagine somehow that the inevitable, singing patterns are embedded in the beautiful, intricate riot that is the English language, and I hack and hew among the riot, trying to get to the ostensibly true, just and memorable paragraph, phrase or word.
As many of my patient teachers and editors will tell you (or would have told you, before I began to learn better), my vice is over-writing. Writing prose for magazines and journals has, however, been very good for me, since the words have to be accurate, compressed, memorable – and have to be produced in a timely fashion, often to very strict deadlines. That’s been a good and creative discipline.
How and when do you write?
I write almost all the time, and if a day goes past without my having created something – even a humble web entry – then somehow the day doesn’t feel quite right. Given that I now have a new and rather demanding job at the University of Groningen – notionally part-time, but currently involving almost full-time commitment - my writing time’s more limited than it was, so I usually draft things on trains or at airports, reserving blocks of writing time to the early morning, to the weekends or to times when I’m not critically required to engage with the continual traffic of university emails. During the past Christmas period, for instance, when the university was closed, I used the opportunity to draft 40,000 words of a new book on Irish sea-trout fishing and its history.
What do you enjoy reading? What are you reading that you can recommend at the moment?
My answer’s largely contained in the response to the first question. What, further, could I recommend? Over Christmas I read Luke Jennings’ recent Blood Knots and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoy reading history, and recently took to reading as much as I could about Richard III (I take no sides, and certainly not publicly, as to his alleged villainy – but that said, I’m a Yorkshireman and Richard’s institution of the Council of the North seems to me to have been both just and inspired). I’m also beginning to take an interest in what’s called (and often, called somewhat clumsily) ‘eco-criticism’, since not too long ago I began to wonder whether the human imagination functioned as an environment, so I’ve just ordered a reader edited by Cheryll Glotfelty in the mid 1990s. I usually find, however, that when I’ve posed what I think are interesting questions to myself, many others have posed exactly the same questions long before, and have answered them more fluently than I ever could. Still, it’s sometimes quite useful to find oneself reinventing the wheel, because the attempt at reinvention might just result in a better kind of wheel.