Christopher and Pete on a boat in the summertime

How I helped publish Chris's memoir, Word Monkey

The Husband

I was asked by The Guardian to write about my reaction to reading Chris's book and what happened after his death....

My author spouse never let me read anything he wrote before it was finished. But after his death from cancer, I found myself choosing funeral flowers at the same time as covers for his memoir, Word Monkey

It is strange to be married to an author. At least, it was to me. I inhabited a corporate world, whereas my husband Chris - professionally known as Christopher Fowler – wrote more than 50 novels, from thrillers and crime fiction to fantasy and horror. I was impressed when we started dating and I found out he wrote the immortal line for my favourite film, Alien: “In space no one can hear you scream.” It was not something with which he particularly liked to be associated and he did not trumpet it. He wanted people to remember what he considered to be his real work: his books.

The cancer diagnosis came as a shock. It also came the week before lockdown. It was a very strange period, and one I’m not going to talk about – Chris does that very beautifully in his book Word Monkey. I could never do a better job of it than him. What I can do is talk about what happened afterwards.

Chris and I always talked about his writing but the one thing he never let me do was read anything before it was published. So I hadn’t yet read Word Monkey – which I started referring to as THE BOOK – when Chris died of bowel and liver cancer at the beginning of March 2023, three weeks short of his 70th birthday.

The vagaries of the publishing process meant that I was sent a copy of the manuscript the week after Chris died. I was asked if I wanted to read it. I politely declined. A few weeks later, around the time of the funeral, I was sent versions of the cover and copy suggestions for the back. I found myself considering whether Chris’s book should be purple, orange or yellow, at the same time as choosing flowers and navigating the politics of the guest list for his non-religious send-off. It was a bit surreal. This was the pattern leading up to publication. Agreeing publication dates. Updates to his website. Writing an acceptance speech on his behalf for an award for the last book published while he was alive (Bryant and May’s Peculiar London). It was the Last Laugh award. Chris would have been delighted. There were also similar discussions about two further books to be published posthumously. I found myself asking: “Is this healthy or downright weird?”

Then the finished version of THE BOOK came through the post and I knew that reading it couldn’t really be put off any longer. I couldn’t read it after my friends, family and other people. I decided to travel to Barcelona, a place Chris and I both loved, to read it there on the beach, quiet and undisturbed. It’s a complicated book. Chris was talking about the thing he loved most – writing. At the same time, he was telling the story of his cancer journey and how he felt. Everything is there and has a point and a purpose. I’m lucky and grateful that I will always have a huge catalogue of reminders of who he was as a person.

Harder and more poignant for me was the personal stuff. Of course, I lived part of the cancer journey with him. There was lots of discussion about wills, power of attorney, funeral arrangements. Treatment options. Saying goodbye to friends and family. The thing was, Chris did not like talking about those things. His imagination was so vivid, he said the more he knew and thought about these mundane and miserable things, the worse the nightmares he endured nightly would be.

We agreed to tackle the important practical things together. Other matters, such as the details of his diagnosis, the progression of his disease and his prognosis, he didn’t want to know about. He needed to be kept in the dark to free his mind to write. I became the keeper of his secrets. That was great for him, but a heavy burden for me.

Chris chose to blog about his cancer rather than talk about it. The first I heard about this was when a friend called to ask me about his illness. I was so annoyed at the time. He had not disclosed his diagnosis to anyone else, and then he suddenly decided to blog without warning me. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Rather than tell everyone over and over again what was happening, he decided to do it once. His literary blog turned into a kind of cancer blog. It was not where I wanted to discuss things. I avoid social media and do my very best not to engage with any of it. Chris and I were like gin and tonic: completely different but perfect together. It was the foundation of our partnership, no matter how testing it could be for both of us at times.

As the hot Spanish sun blasted down on the white pages, I devoured THE BOOK in one marathon day. It was impossible to put down. I was in floods of tears at the ending. I still do not know how Chris summoned the clarity of vision and creativity to complete THE BOOK eight weeks before he died. In Word Monkey, he ties up all the knots of his career, his passion for words and his final journey in a brilliant and moving way. Damn him. I went to sleep.

The week that followed was another unexpectedly difficult period. As I digested what I read, a number of thoughts started to occur to me. I worried that he’d left out various important details about what happened and that certain things didn’t happen exactly the way he described. We often had vigorous discussions about this sort of thing in the pub or with friends over dinner, when he was telling a story or we were dissecting something he’d written. His retort was always, “Never let facts get in the way of a good story.” I always have a lot of questions and I had more than usual this time. Normally we would have discussed these together and debated. This time I chose to call the handful of people I knew who had read advance copies. Friends, his agents and other writers. I needed to understand what they thought and how they interpreted the book.

After more thinking time, I came to realise that those things were not important. Our deal when he was writing Word Monkey was that he should be free to tell things the way he needed, and that I should trust him with our shared history. He had begun to withdraw from the world – the disease and the treatment exacting a heavy toll on his increasingly frail body – and this was the story he wanted to tell. I decided to let go of the things I disliked. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter.

Around what turned out to be our last Christmas, a good friend and I took all the books Chris had written and covered the kitchen table with them in order to take some photographs to include in potential cover designs for THE BOOK. After we lugged everything over, Chris sat quietly, looking forlornly at the display. I asked him what was wrong. He paused for a moment or two, and eventually said: “It’s not much to show for a lifetime, is it?” I was gobsmacked. I considered the things I had left behind in my professional career. I doubt that much survived beyond the week of my departure. Certainly, none of it imparted joy to anyone.

The night before Chris died, he woke in the middle of the night. I’d been sleeping on the floor next to him for a while. The hospital bed had been set up in his study. It was his happy place with views across London. It was a clear night and the lights of cranes and office buildings were sparkling. He had mostly lost the ability to speak a few days earlier. He had forgotten how to open and log into his laptop a few weeks before that. It was the hardest thing for me to see, because I knew then that it wouldn’t be long. He asked me on that last night if it was time yet. It was a terrifying question. I had no idea how to answer. The next day, as the sun set, the last thing he whispered to me – so quietly I had to press my ear against his lips to hear – was “Thank you.” He said it three times. He died an hour later.

I realise now that THE BOOK was his message to me. Hidden in between the good stuff and the bad, it says many of the things he couldn’t say to me directly, because saying them before he died would have been an admission of imminent death. He was never ready to die, he always had another book to write, another story to tell. THE BOOK and all his others will forever be there to turn to when I need to hear his voice. As I filed it on the shelf, I thought about its dedication: “For Pete – There are no words.” The truth is that Chris always had words, right to the very end. The right words.

The husband

Read this on The Guardian website


Ian Mason (not verified) Tue, 28/11/2023 - 21:49

That last bit, that Chris always had another book to write. That was exactly the feeling I got as the end inexorably approached. Sometimes I thought that it might keep him going forever.

Gabi Coatsworth (not verified) Tue, 28/11/2023 - 21:51

Thanks for your devotion in giving us this book. I’ve ordered it, and look forward to hearing his voice again…

Ian Luck (not verified) Tue, 28/11/2023 - 21:52

Thank you so much for this. I’m waiting for my copy of ‘Word Monkey’ to be delivered. I know that it will be wonderful. I had not been on the Internet for months, and was late in finding out that Chris had died, only finding out from a very nice obituary in ‘Fortean Times’. There’s nothing I can say that probably hasn’t already been said, so I shan’t. I hope you are all right, though. Thank you again. Chris was brilliant – I never got the chance to meet him, but he looked to be a really nice bloke. I’ll miss his books, and his ridiculously entertaining blog.

Jo W (not verified) Tue, 28/11/2023 - 21:53

I still haven’t finished Word Monkey, I think I don’t want to. I keep finding questions to ask and laugh out loud moments that I want to mention to Chris and then I remember, he’s not here.
Pete, thank you for carrying on this blog and the twitter feed and for all you did for Chris.
When I do finish WM, I think it will be time to start at the beginning until Foot on the Crown is ready to be savoured.

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