Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Titus Chalk?
A literary chancer with a new book out! Otherwise, a typical Berlin implant; a Brit taking advantage of the city’s cheap rent to work a bit less and write a bit more. I’ve recently left a decade or so of sports writing behind me to spend time in the library learning to write fiction – that’s currently what I am hoping to with my life, having taken Generation Decks from initial idea to a bookshelf near you soon.
Your new book, Generation Decks, will be published by Solaris. It looks interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
It’s the story of the world-changing fantasy game Magic: The Gathering and a memoir of my time playing it. But more than that, it’s a look at the way business, culture and community changed with the advent of the internet age. It tries to capture that transition in the early 90s where everything was turned on its head as more and more people plugged in their dial-up modems and logged on to this strange thing called the web. Although Generation Decks is ostensibly about a very complex and rich strategy game, it’s absolutely not a specialist book – it’s for non-gamers and gamers alike. And for anyone with an interest in the way pop culture evolved in the digital age.
What inspired you to write the book?
It was really a coming together of lots of different factors. Having worked as a journalist for the best part of a decade by the time I started writing it, I’d had the idea kicking around in the back of my head for a while – I had simply needed time to convince myself that Magic really had a story worth telling. And perhaps more than anything, that I was the person to tell it. I left a full-time job in London in 2010, moved to Berlin and went freelance and very quickly realized I would be in a good situation to write a book. But I needed a couple of years, getting some experience under my belt, finding enough security as a freelancer and poking around at the idea before I was ready to go for it. Then the realization hit me towards the end of 2012, that the game would turn 20 years old in August 2013. I decided to get a book out in the anniversary year and just went for it. With such a short turnaround, the only real option was self-publishing – and I found that idea very empowering. At the same time, getting the book over the line and out into the world as an e-book was incredibly hard work – and made me realize the value of traditional publishing. So once I had produced that early version of the book, I decided to pursue the real deal and, slowly, Generation Decks came to pass.
How were you introduced to genre fiction, and Magic: The Gathering?
It’s good that you put these two questions into one – there’s no doubt in my mind the two go together!
I was influenced from the word go by genre fiction: my parents named me after Titus Groan in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. And, as my dad is a fantasy and children’s illustrator, I really was steeped in that world from an early age. Even when I was four or five, growing up in suburban England, my dad would read me 2000AD every week, back when it was printed on bog paper in the early 80s. Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper… the stories, the artwork, the unbridled imagination of it all… it really just blew my mind and set me up to be a genre fan for the rest of my life. Around the same time, I can remember my dad reading me books like Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat – really pulpy sci-fi, that to me was pure, unadulterated fun. Then came C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. LeGuinn’s Earthsea books… it was an incredible education and something I’m very grateful to my dad for. Of course from then on I was open to all sorts of fantasy stuff and that sensibility led me to Magic.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
It’s a huge privilege to publish a book, especially one on a subject I’m passionate about, a game that changed my life. For that, I’m very grateful to my agent James Wills and the entire team at Rebellion who’ve been fantastic – especially editor Jon Oliver. But really, for me right now, publishing a book is a total anomaly. I hope it finds an audience – if even one person reads Generation Decks and enjoys it, then that’s wonderful. But that’s not really what being a writer is. That’s just the very visible part of it, the public’s idea of writing. In fact, being a writer can be pure hell. Most of it is wrestling with words you once thought were great, but now hate. It’s days spent in the library thinking you’re awful. It’s a constant fight with your own anxieties, which you bring to the blank page and seem to cripple your fingers. It is, in short, really bloody difficult!
Whenever I doubt myself, though, or doubt that writing is what I want to do, all it takes is for me to sit in a café and scribble a few words in a notebook. That simple act, just putting pen to paper like that, makes the whole world fall away and inevitably makes me feel whole or well or happy. And it’s knowing that I love the process of writing that allows me to continue. You can’t do it if you’re just in it for the rare moments you publish or receive some kind of recognition. They’re too fleeting.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I work part-time at a TV station, writing news scripts to pay the bills. The rest of the time, I try and head to the library to write. When I’m there, I don’t connect to the internet, which is really key for me. I always sit at the same table, near a big beautiful window, rattle off words for a couple of hours, then leave it at that. I try not to force it and like I said I above, I try and get the most enjoyment as possible out of the process. You have to make the initial bursts of writing on any new project fun. Because the re-writing and re-writing and re-writing – the real work – is excruciating.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
It’s very hard to answer exactly, as my understanding of what an author or a writer is has changed a lot over time. So while from the outside, it might look like I’ve been writing since I left university and became a journalist in 2005, that’s not how it feels to me.
I guess what I would say is that late on in my studies, I had no real idea what I wanted to do. I was reading politics and French and in my final year, had been exposed to some great literature and some great ideas. I had hit my stride, too, in terms of essay writing and realized how much I loved words. When I graduated, I was scrambling around trying to figure out what I wanted to do – and I just began applying to jobs that looked liked they paid people to write. I wound up at a magazine publisher in London and then sort of fell into football (soccer) writing. In many ways Generation Decks is the culmination of that part of my career – the journalistic part.
Now, in writing some short stories, I’m trying to do something different. Fiction is such a different beast to journalism that it feels like an entirely separate career or life, even. In broad brush strokes, it’s an art whereas journalism is a craft – an applied art. There are no deadlines, no briefs – and perhaps nothing at the end of it. You just have to inhabit the identity of being a writer and pour your energy into it.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Of writing in general? I think it’s in a really strange place right now – look at the world, at the political upheaval of the past 12 months – and how fatally language has been undermined. It is not an easy time to be a writer, when discourse has been reduced to tweets of 140 characters at a time. I worry that now we’ve stopped expressing complicated thoughts, we might soon stop thinking them at all. I’d be more confident of my work finding a place if it was written in emojis. Or was video.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a handful of short stories about Berlin life and hoping to get a good enough portfolio together to get on a post-graduate creative writing programme. I’d like to tackle a novel at some point, but I need to get some more fiction miles under my belt first.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I just finished Ernest Callenbach’s classic utopian novel Ecotopia, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m also reading a wonderful collection of short stories by Michael Byers, called The Coast of Good Intentions. Beautifully crafted, hopeful stories set in the Pacific Northwest. Not reading any non-fiction specifically at the moment, but I feed my brain with the London Review of Books every fortnight.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
With the caveat that this is an impossible question to answer, let’s go with Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. It’s so spare and simple, yet so dark and utterly devastating, I love it!
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m trying to learn “Autumn Leaves” on the guitar at the moment – my first jazz standard. I used to play a lot when I was teenager – and all I really wanted to do was rock out. Now, I’ve just pulled my guitar out of the basement and want to knuckle down and relearn the instrument in a completely different way. And for me, that means finally learning to play some jazz.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Donald Trump’s impeachment.
Titus Chalk‘s Generation Decks is out now, published by Solaris in the UK and US. Here’s the publisher’s synopsis for the book:
Empowering geeks, making millionaires and shaking the net!
This is the incredible true story behind the global gaming and business and geek phenomenon. For some, a game of cards is just a way to pass the time. But for an awkward generation on the cusp of the internet age, it became a way of life.
Generation Decks tells the story of the millions of fans worldwide who fell hopelessly in love with the mould-breaking fantasy card game, Magic: The Gathering. The brainchild of misfit maths genius Richard Garfield, Magic combined fiendishly complex game play with addictive collectability. When it came out in 1993, it transformed the lives of quiet braniacs who had longed for a way to connect and to compete. It made millionaires of its creators, who shook up corporate America. And it kick-started the era of professional gaming.
Author Titus Chalk tells the game s complete story from its humble origins in a Seattle basement to its continued success in today s digital age. Prepare to meet Generation Decks, a community like no other. And to discover Magic: The Gathering, the millennial phenomenon that made it OK to be a gamer.