Christopher Buckley Interview: Political Satirist Shifts Literary Focus with Medieval, Pythonesque Relic Romp
Image attributed to Simon & Schuster
Born in New York City in 1952, Christopher Buckley is a political satirist and the author of novels including Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, The White House Mess, Florence of Arabia, But Enough About You and God Is My Broker and memoir Losing Mum and Pup. He was educated at Portsmouth Abbey, worked on a Norwegian tramp freighter and graduated cum laude from Yale.
At age 24, Buckley was managing editor of Esquire magazine; at 29, chief speechwriter to Vice President George H.W. Bush and was the founding editor of Forbes FYI magazine (now ForbesLife), where he is now editor-at-large.
"If things continue as they are, then I run out of reasons to say, 'Donald Trump will not be the nominee of the Republican Party.' That said, having no crystal ball, I think if Donald Trump is the nominee of the Republican Party, Hillary Clinton can take the year off and start assembling her cabinet. And this is why I’m writing about the sixteenth-century (laughs). I may go even farther back next book to the fourteenth-century."
Buckley has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker, to name a few. He is the son of conservative writer and activist William F. Buckley and Canadian socialite, Patricia Taylor Buckley.
The Relic Master: A Novel, out December 8, 2015, is a compelling and hilarious adventure featuring a sixteenth-century relic hunter and his best friend, Albrecht Durer, who conspire to forge the Shroud of Turin.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Christopher, thanks for taking the time today.
Christopher Buckley: Where is 205?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Birmingham, Alabama.
Christopher Buckley: I thought so.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You thought you detected a bit of an accent?
Christopher Buckley: Well, I’m married to a South Carolina girl, so I know all about accents. Then I heard yours, and I was reminded that it was not the Pacific Northwest, not California, not Chicago, but the good ‘ol South.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): According to the first page of my uncorrected proof of The Relic Master, the agent said, “This is a big departure for him.” So what did the agent say when you pitched the idea of an hilarious adventure featuring a sixteenth-century relic hunter and his best friend, Albrecht Durer, who conspire to forge the Shroud of Turin?
Christopher Buckley: I hadn’t told anyone what I was working on, neither my agent nor Jon Karp, my longtime publisher. In fact, I hadn’t even told my South Carolina wife. We were living in England at the time. She’s a humanitarian doctor, so she called me from Ethiopia while I was beavering away back in Worcestershire on my notes. I said to her, “We’re going to Wittenberg, Mainz, Basel and Chambery.” She said, “Why are we going to Wittenberg, Mainz, Basel and Chambery?” I said, “I’ll explain on the plane.”
The reason I didn’t tell anyone was that it was such a longshot, if you will. I was afraid that if I told anyone that I was working on a novel about a relic dealer in 1517, I would draw silent stares (laughs). So I kept it to myself until I sent it to my agent. She was quite pleased, and then she sent it to Jon Karp at Simon and Schuster, and he was pleased. I guess that was their reaction.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Then my next question is why did you turn to the Holy Roman Empire in 1517?
Christopher Buckley: Why indeed. I sort of stumbled into this. I was researching a short, funny magazine article on our current infatuation with lists or listicles as they’re called. You know, you can’t pick up a magazine without it saying, “14 Great Vacation Spots,” or “17 Most Embarrassing Celebrity Moments,” or “572 Ways to Drop Six Pounds.” In the course of that, I stumbled on this appealing, luring, little factoid that there was a guy named Frederick of Saxony, which was completely new to me, but then my ignorance is pretty vast, who had a collection of Holy relics numbering 19,013. I thought, in my usual scholarly way, “What up with that?” So I started to dig.
The second thing I found was that Frederick of Saxony had been Martin Luther’s employer and that led me into this world. I became fascinated by it. Frederick, to me, is a rather appealing and even heroic character because he protected Luther when the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and the entire church wanted Luther burned at the stake.
I thought that was appealing, although I doubt it would be appealing to the Benedictine monks with whom I spent four years in boarding school (laughs). I’m not sure how they’d react to it. I just sent off a couple of copies to Father Damian and Father Julian, so I anxiously await their sentences of excommunication.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) I’d also be very interested in hearing those comments.
Christopher Buckley: (laughs) They’re lovely and kind men, so I’m sure they’ll go on as they have, valiantly praying for my soul. At least, I hope they will.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The relic hunter, Dismas, procures “authentic” religious relics for wealthy and influential clients, and he and his friend, Albrecht Durer, the famous painter of the German Renaissance, conspire to forge the Shroud of Turin. Isn’t Dismas actually the Good Thief or the Penitent Thief that was crucified at the same time as Jesus?
Christopher Buckley: You know, it’s interesting. Yeah. Not many people know that name. In fact, last week I was at a Thanksgiving lunch with an Episcopal minister who was educated at Cambridge and a very savvy guy. The name was unfamiliar to him. But then my publicist at Simon and Schuster, Larry Hughes, whom you’ve probably been in contact with, sent me an email saying that Dismas had been his confirmation name (laughs). I said, “Well then you were meant to promote this book."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): No kidding. That’s wild!
Christopher Buckley: But it’s a lovely name, and Dismas is a lovely man. I found it curious that not many people know those names. Of course, these names were given them centuries later by some theologians. No one knows what their actual names were, probably Bob and Ted or Bubba (laughs). If my wife were here, she’d slap me on the side of the head.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) I love your sense of humor and style of writing. How did you learn to develop satire? I imagine your dad was surely an influence.
Christopher Buckley: Surely. I don’t know. I think style is like making a sauce or a gravy or a soup. You put a lot of stuff in the pot, you bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer until it reduces. I think style is what you end up with after you’ve reduced it. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it’s the best description I can give you.
Style evolves organically. I don’t think you start with style. I wasn’t a particularly good writer. I had to work at it. Some people are born smart, and others have to acquire what smartness they have brick by brick. I fall squarely into that latter category.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you truly want to have a writing career, or were you around that atmosphere so much that you were steered in that direction?
Christopher Buckley: I wanted to be Mick Jagger, but the job was taken. I wanted to be a policeman, a fireman or soldier like most boys. But after those careers were curtailed early on, I wanted to write. It was the only thing that I was slightly good at. I was lousy at numbers and really shy. I’m an only child. I think often a certain amount of loneliness or introversion enable a desire to write. But as I say, I had no special knack for it. I studied it and worked at it.
I had some very good teachers, my dad certainly, and he was always very honest. If he thought I’d written something badly, he’d give it to me with both barrels because he thought it was unfair to encourage someone who didn’t have the sufficient talent to do it.
I had some very good teachers at Yale. William Zinsser was one of them. He passed this year at the age of 92, but his book called On Writing Well has sold almost two million copies. It’s a marvelous book which I recommend to anyone who writes or wants to write, or even those who already think they know how to write. It’s essentially almost word for word the course that I took while I was in college.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As an only child, perhaps it was the solace that aided in the creativity.
Christopher Buckley: Well, I think “solace,” the word you just used, is absolutely the correct word. It’s a way of keeping yourself company, isn’t it? But at this point, we have to make a living for less exalted reasons (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your dad, William F. Buckley, was called the “father of the modern conservative movement.” Does that mean he was a Republican?
Christopher Buckley: No. He was conservative as opposed to Republican. Now obviously, he voted Republican and promoted Republicans Barry Goldwater and Nixon to a certain extent, although he had to hold his nose while doing that. But his great project, if you will, was Ronald Reagan, and they became close friends. My dad was very attracted to Reagan and vice versa.
Yes, he was a Republican, but I would describe him first as a conservative with a big, fat capital “C.” Now you’re going to ask me what would he make of the current political situation. I’m just glad he’s not here to see it (laughs). I miss my dad terribly, but it may be just all for the better that he has gone on to, I’m sure, his great reward. He’s probably looking down on us from atop some puffy cloud shaking his head and wondering, “WTF?” (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve said you no longer satire politics because they are sufficiently self-satirizing. But aren’t you the least tempted at what’s going on right now with all the Republican candidates?
Christopher Buckley: This is going to sound terribly self-serving, but my previous book is called But Enough About You, and it’s a collection of essays. In But Enough About You, you will find Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration address. I wrote that in the year 2000. I can say, “You read it here first.” The first line of the address is “This is a great day for me personally.” (laughs)
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) Do you think Trump could win the nomination?
Christopher Buckley: Oh gosh, Melissa. Everyone’s been saying, for about six months now, “Oh well, he’ll never get the nomination.” (laughs) What’s left of the Republican establishment is now having to take a good, hard, cold look at those months of reassuring statements because Mr. Trump is way ahead of all the others and Jeb Bush. Dear Jeb Bush, the son of a man I loved almost as much as my own father, is polling at 3% as of today. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s just cuckoo.
If things continue as they are, then I run out of reasons to say, “Donald Trump will not be the nominee of the Republican Party.” That said, having no crystal ball, I think if Donald Trump is the nominee of the Republican Party, Hillary Clinton can take the year off and start assembling her cabinet. And this is why I’m writing about the sixteenth-century (laughs). I may go even farther back next book to the fourteenth-century.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a practicing Catholic now?
Christopher Buckley: No. I’m a former Catholic.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): People prayed after the shootings at San Bernardino, and Republicans especially are being criticized for that and the lack of stricter gun legislation. What’s your solution to gun violence?
Christopher Buckley: You pick up the paper every day now almost expecting to see some insane carnage has happened the day before. It’s deeply, deeply troubling. And yeah, I think we ought to do more than pray. And yet, I don’t know the answer. It would seem we have too many guns in this country. We have so many guns in this country that I wonder if it makes it almost too late to do anything about that.
I obviously favor background checks. I think it’s far too easy to purchase a gun. That said, the majority of gun owners are responsible people. I am married to a southern woman. All of her brothers have guns and use guns for sport. It’s deeply embedded in our culture. The trouble with the gun control argument is that the Newtown shootings here in Connecticut a couple of years ago … those were legal guns. The mother should not have given this troubled 18-year-old access to them.
We have to do a lot about this, but I’m not sure anyone has a totally clear blueprint. I don’t know what the latest development is on this latest shooting. On the one hand, it sounds like terrorism. On the other hand, there are some very strange aspects to it. It’s a workplace. It’s a couple where the mother leaves a six-month old baby at home. That sounds like something other than just terrorism. The FBI will let us know what it was soon enough. In the meantime, one’s heart goes out as we start looking over our shoulders every time we’re in a public place. We do seem to be at war.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought about turning your memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, into a film or documentary?
Christopher Buckley: Oh no (laughs). I don’t know how you’d begin to turn that into a film. Maybe 70 years form now when I’m long gone and the copyright has expired, someone will do it. But it won’t happen until then, I can tell you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Best of Enemies, the 1968 television debate between your conservative dad and the democrat and cousin to Jackie Onassis, Gore Vidal, was recently released on DVD Blu-ray.
Christopher Buckley: I’ve not seen it. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to be either involved in the project, which I was invited to be, or even see it. It’s just easier not to. This was a pretty painful episode in my dad’s life. I feel that I’m probably respecting what his wishes would have been by simply absenting myself from it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were about 16 years old in 1968 when it aired?
Christopher Buckley: Yeah. Good for you. I was one month shy of 16.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I remember it, but I’m not sure I knew who either gentleman was. My interests were more along the lines of following John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Christopher Buckley: You probably did have better things to do. Frankly, I myself was more interested in the Beatles (laughs). But it certainly did occupy a certain amount of my dad’s time. He sued Vidal and sued Esquire. Those suits went on for years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And then at 24, you became the managing editor of Esquire magazine!
Christopher Buckley: Yeah. Ironically, my first job out of Yale was at Esquire, but the masthead had changed by then. Harold Hayes, Esquire editor, had moved on. So it wasn’t the same cast of people. I had a marvelous time at Esquire. That was a dream first job, and I got to meet some amazing people like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, people who had been like gods of my youth. It was pretty exciting.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Better or worse than today being the editor of ForbesLife in the digital age?
Christopher Buckley: It’s really sort of a crazy quilt, isn’t it? My daughter works at Vanity Fair and loves it. They love her. But I suppose people in a lot of professions would say that they are just glad they are not starting out today. I certainly am glad I’m not. It’s a very virtual world and being virtual, it’s almost hyper ephemeral. It moves at the speed of light. Most of it is not even on good old-fashioned paper. It’s social media and blogs.
Who could have imagined when you and I were growing up that media would have a billion heads like a hydra? It’s sort of difficult to keep up with, and I make no attempt to keep up with it. I read The New York Times in the morning and The Wall Street Journal online mostly although I subscribe and get the good old-fashioned paper editions. But to get back to the “solace,” as you put it, of writing, I find it’s one of the solace of writing books because it takes so long to write that you can endlessly polish.
The Relic Master went through 20 drafts if you totaled it up every time I re-wrote a paragraph or every word. Books take about eight or nine months to publish. I find that slowness of the bookmaking process almost comforting in this topsy-turvy, hyper sonic world of media that we live in now, if that makes any sense. You see it gets a little bit better with each draft.
I always remember something Mr. Zinsser taught us which became my mantra and sort of perches on my shoulder every time I sit down at the laptop: “Be grateful for every word you can cut.” I think there’s a world of wisdom in that advice.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I have to mention your short story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Jonathan V. Last’s The Christmas Virtues which was recently released.
Christopher Buckley: Oh yeah (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I laughed a lot.
Christopher Buckley: Oh, no kidding? Good. It’s a fun collection, isn’t it?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes it is. In these religious satirical tales, do people ever say to you that you’re making fun of Christians or that you’re being sacrilegious? For an example, in your story titled Saint Joseph: The Forgotten “Father Christmas,” you write that in one of Joseph’s dreams, the Angel tells him that Mary has been impregnated by the Holy Spirit. “Joseph wakes up from his dream – surely muttering WTF?”
Christopher Buckley: Yeah (laughs). I mean, really. Put yourself in the poor man’s shoes. Your wife says, “By the way, I’m pregnant.” “What? How could you be pregnant?” “Well, there’s this thing called the Holy Spirit.” (laughs) “Now wait a minute. Walk me through this. Where did you meet this Holy Spirit?” “Well, it’s like this.”
That’s not irreverent. Believe me, I know irreverent, and that’s not irreverent. But I’m not sure I’ll do this standup routine in front of a congregations of Baptists (laughs). My great friend, Christopher Hitchens, wrote a book called God Is Not Great in which he makes a very good case for atheism. He told me his best audiences on that book tour were in the South and were in churches. He would get calls from southern ministers who would say, “I’ve just read your book, and this is fascinating. We’d love to have you come and talk to us about it.”
He was delighted to do that. He went and was treated with respect and friendship and graciousness. Practically every time, they moved the talk out of the church because so many people wanted to hear it. They would have to move to the local municipal auditorium. I find that fact quite fascinating. Christopher said it was a distinctly southern phenomenon. Those calls didn’t come from Minnesota or Seattle. They came from Birmingham, the Carolinas, Georgia and Mississippi, and all of his audiences were very committed Christians, but they wanted to hear his arguments which he made quite brilliantly.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very interesting. Will you be going back in time again for the next book?
Christopher Buckley: This book comes out December 8, and I’m kind of waiting to see how it does. It may tank, and if it tanks then I probably will not go back in time. Every book is like a new product. You run it up the flagpole and hope people will salute, but they don’t always salute. So I think we’ll just have to see. I’ll probably know soon enough.
I don’t read reviews because it’s just sort of easier not to. The good ones are never good enough, and the bad ones hurt your feelings. But the reviews should start to happen fairly soon and we’ll see. In other words, if it sells, then yes, I’d love to do another historical fiction because I had a lot of fun with this one.
I had to get myself educated about a whole lot of things. It was like taking an intense college course. I read maybe four dozen books, spent a lot of time online, went to Wittenberg, Mainz, Basel and Chambery. I loved that part of it. I’d love to do another. Check back with me in a couple of months (laughs). I’ll tell you whether or not it worked.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will do, Christopher. It was great chatting with you!
Christopher Buckley: I enjoyed visiting with you. My grandmother was a darling woman from New Orleans, and I called her Mimi. She had 10 children and 50 grandchildren. If she was pleased with you, which she always was because she was a lovely, darling woman, she would say to you, “Oh darlin’ you are pie.” That’s an expression I know that you will recognize (laughs). I’ll bet you were called pie in your day. I hope our paths will cross again.
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