Rest Less member Chris Calder was 73-years-old when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of bladder cancer. His treatment consisted of chemotherapy, followed by major surgery to remove his bladder. Following the surgery, Chris lay in his hospital bed in France, feeling frustrated. He had recently retired to France with his wife Joan, and was struggling to communicate effectively in French with the staff and patients around him. It was at this point, out of sheer exasperation, that Chris picked up a pen and began to sketch out the bones of his first novel. Now, nine years on, at the age of 82, Chris is cancer-free, has written five novels, and works as a full-time author.
Chris’ role as an author is one of many roles that he has adopted over the years, and his wife Joan, of 61 years, describes him as a “serial retiree”. Before becoming a full-time author, Chris, spent 20 years working in sales management. Then, after being made redundant, he started a small engineering business which ran until he retired and moved to Cyprus several years later. There he started yet another business, which he ran for three years.
At age 70, Chris decided to retire once again – this time to move to France. Chris and Joan had frequently visited rural France in the 1960s when their children were growing up, and had fallen in love with the history, culture, great food and wine, and the relaxed way of life. They bought an old farmhouse with a derelict cottage alongside, and renovated both – with the aim of renting out the cottage to holidaymakers.
However, it wasn’t long after they started renting out the cottage, that Chris was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He says, “I was told the cancer was aggressive. The French surgeon was candid in his response when I asked for the truth. First, an endoscopy to identify the type of cancer, then chemotherapy. That would be followed by a second operation to remove the organ altogether. But he assured me that we would beat the cancer. I asked why the second op was needed if I was to have chemo. What would happen if I did not have it? In a matter-of-fact tone, he replied, “You’ll die.”
The great-grandfather-of-seven describes his brush with cancer as a mere “blip” which has left him feeling even more grateful to be alive. He explains, “The chemotherapy was unpleasant, but tolerable. And the steady improvement in my health was and is, genuinely, a constant reminder of how lucky I am to be alive. Fortunately, the cancer is history now. I can take no credit for just getting lucky.”
“Writing became my escape from the tedium of being locked in”
A significant part of Chris’s journey with cancer involves writing – which offered him escapism during his chemotherapy treatment, and an outlet while he was recovering from surgery in hospital, when he was unable to communicate with those around him because of the language barrier. He explains, “Writing helped enormously during the months of chemotherapy. I had to stay home and was not allowed visitors because chemo lowers the immune system, raising the risk of infection. Writing became my escape from the tedium of being locked in.
“The idea for my first novel came when I was in the French hospital recovering from major surgery. The book was not conceived by any flash of inspiration; it came directly out of frustration when I found myself unable to communicate with the lovely folk around me. At the time, my French language skills were poor, to say the least. So I picked up a pen and sketched out the bones of a book. It was called “Payback.”
Chris, had no idea that writing during this time would eventually lead to a career that he would love and feel passionate about. Although he had always loved writing, and had written the occasional article for magazines, journals and newspapers over the years – he had never seen writing as a dream or ambition.
As Chris’ health improved, his writing career blossomed alongside…
Nonetheless, after penning the outline of his first novel from his hospital bed, Chris spent the next year writing and editing it, with the help of a professional editor. He describes Payback as a light thriller, which is based loosely on some of the experiences that he had whilst running his engineering business. Offering up an example of one of these experiences, he says:
“Our factory was once invaded by local CID and Scotland Yard’s drugs squad, at the same time! It turned out that we had been used by a Dutch supplier to forward to someone else, a large heat exchanger that he had filled with happy pills. Without our knowledge of course. Yes, life sometimes is stranger than fiction. The saying is: “write what you know.” So, that’s what I did.”
Chris self-published Payback on Amazon, and as his health improved, he didn’t stop writing. He has since written My Brother’s Keeper; Celeste Three is Missing, and Kismet, which he also self-published. These novels, along with Payback, have all since been re-published by Heddon Publishing – a mainstream, traditional publisher – and have received four or five star reviews on Amazon. Chris also has a fifth book, Growing Apart, which will be released in due course, plus two more in the pipeline. Giving us some insight into what his next book has in store for readers, he says:
“Growing Apart is about twin boys born in 1937 in India, of a clandestine relationship between an English civil servant and a vivacious Anglo-Indian woman. She dies in childbirth. One boy is adopted and raised in India. The other is taken by his natural father to England, where he enjoys a privileged middle-class English upbringing. The story builds to a climax when the twins finally meet again in a scene where the life of one is in imminent danger.
“As I was born and raised in India and lived through the period covered in the narrative, when writing this one I was fortunate to be able to use personal memories to lend a bit of credibility to the work. That said, it is not in any way autobiographical.”
“I now have a new career that I absolutely love, in a world previously unknown to me...Not a bad result for someone who didn’t start until well into his seventies!”
Since that day in hospital when Chris picked up his pen out of pure frustration, he has learnt a lot about how to write, structure and publish novels. However, he says that some of the toughest and most meaningful lessons were learnt during the writing of his first book.
He explains, “The real benefit of writing my first book was that it taught me about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of structuring a full-length novel. I discovered very quickly the truth in the saying that storytelling is an art, but novel writing is a craft, one that has to be learned, like any other. It was a steep learning curve, but great fun.
“Writing that first book has taken me into a new profession, one that will last for as long as I choose. The rest of my life, probably. I now have a new career that I absolutely love, in a world previously unknown to me. The writing/publishing community is immense, world-wide, and supportive. My circle of friends now includes my readers and others who write. Not a bad result for someone who didn’t start until well into his seventies!”
“Those who know me – close friends and family, would probably tell you that they are delighted that the old guy has found a way to plough his own furrow doing something creative, fulfilling and rewarding on many levels. Amen.”
“When I am not writing, I am editing. When I am not editing, I am writing. And if I am not engaged in either, I am probably asleep”
Today, Chris and his wife Joan live in Markfield, Leceister. They spent 10 years in France, but moved back to the UK to be closer to family – the couple have seven children, 11 grandchildren, seven great grandchildren and counting!
On any given day, when he’s not spending time with his family, Chris can be found happily writing and editing, and doing very little else. But for him that’s a gift. He says, “How wonderful to be able to say, (at 82!) that I have no spare time. When I am not writing, I am editing. When I am not editing, I am writing. Both activities are linked, of course. Interdependent. And if I am not engaged in either, I am probably asleep.”
“However, I realize that at my age there may come a time when I am unable to write. I hope that never happens, but I do have a plan B. Some years ago we bought an electronic piano that I learned to play. Sadly, we could not bring it back from France. So we invested in a keyboard. If and when I need to, I shall go back to learning how to play music properly.”
“Life experience is the most under-rated, yet most valuable gift that we receive as we get older. It is also a priceless asset that cannot be bought; it is earned only by staying alive”
As someone who has explored various different roles and ventures over the years – and who has started a new career as an author in his seventies – Chris is keen to remind others that if you have the will, it’s never too late to start something new. When he first got in touch with Rest Less, Chris shared a short piece with the title, “Yes you can write that novel”, which he hopes will inspire anyone who has been putting off writing their first novel – you can find it on Chris’ blog here.
He also finishes by saying, “The best advice I can give to anyone who is thinking about making a career change or trying something different is to quite simply, go for it. I wrote that short article to encourage others to give writing a try, if they have a will – especially those who are facing choices as they get older.
“Life experience is the most under-rated, yet most valuable gift that we receive as we get older. It is also a priceless asset that cannot be bought; it is earned only by staying alive.”
If you’ve been thinking about writing your first novel, or you feel inspired by Chris’ story and want to give it a go, then check out our article on How to write a book and get it published.
Or perhaps you can relate to Chris’ story, or you have a story of your own that you’d like to share. We’d love to hear from you! Email us at [email protected] or leave a comment below.