Charles Harris is an experienced, award-winning writer-director for cinema and TV, and best-selling author. He is one of Britain’s most respected script consultants and a co-founder of the first screenwriters workshop in the world, the London Screenwriters Workshop (Now Euroscript). Aside from being a talented film-maker and writer, Harris is also a martial arts black belt.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
At the time, my childhood felt very ordinary. I grew up in South London, the son of a Jewish draper. Life was pretty comfortable, though I didn’t like school much. Looking back, there were experiences and stories that stand out, but I’m keeping those for my books. To share them too early would take the wind out of them.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
That, for better or for worse, it’s more about who you know than how good you are.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
There are a number of people who make good money supposedly teaching writers how to make a fortune. Usually, it boils down to writing substandard e-books very fast and selling them cheap. If that’s what you enjoy, then go for it, but it’s not as simple as they make it sound.
Then there are even more unscrupulous vanity publishers who take naïve writers for a ride. They will charge large amounts of money for publishing your book. Sometimes the authors email me with their stories, but by then it’s too late. It’s very sad.
The truth is that making a physical book isn’t the difficult bit. Nowadays, you can do it on Amazon for free. What a good publisher provides are editing, design, and marketing. And that should be their investment, not yours.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
There have been many dark periods. Projects are started with high hopes and fall apart for all kinds of reasons. I remember a quote from French director François Truffaut. He said: “Making a movie is like going on a stagecoach journey in the Wild West. You set off hoping you’ll have a good journey and you end up just hoping you arrive.” And sometimes you don’t arrive.
It’s the same for books. What I learned, each time is that there’s always another day, another project, another chance to get back on that stagecoach. At least, so far there has been.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I sit down every morning at my computer. I may not actually write anything, but I don’t do anything else until lunch. Usually, some writing happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. I try not to plan what I’m going to write or do anything to “get in the mood”. You can waste a lot of time trying to get into the mood. The sitting down is the thing. The mood will come.
What is your morning routine?
I get up at 4:30 on the dot every morning, run 5km up a nearby mountain, before having an ice shower under a waterfall. I then perform an hour of T’ai Chi before breakfasting at 5:05 on raw berries…
OK, the reality is that I don’t have a fixed time to wake up. I’ve tried, but it’s never stuck.
My first job is usually to feed one of the cats. The other one has a flexible timetable, like me, and will decide to eat when she feels like it. I do some Aikido exercise, otherwise, I seize up, followed by ten minutes of meditation. After breakfast, the first cat insists I take her for a walk around the garden. She thinks she’s a dog. Unless it’s raining, in which case she’ll curl up in my study.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Practicing Aikido. It is both a martial art and a meditation. It’s effective because it’s both. You have to be focused and at the moment to defend yourself safely. And by constantly providing you with new challenges, it tests just how at the moment you really are. There is always more to learn.
Aikido also teaches you to be aware of your body, your mind, and your surroundings. It staggers me how many people aren’t. They walk around in a daze and are surprised life rears up and smacks them upside the head. Literally or metaphorically.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I believe in forming useful habits. Every habit is one more thing you don’t have to waste brain-time thinking about. You don’t have to think about brushing your teeth. You just do it. Habits are remarkably easy to form – good and bad. The trick is to eliminate the bad ones and form useful ones instead. Like sitting at my computer every morning.
It may sound boring, but it’s no more boring than starting a football match with a whistle – or streaming a new piece of music. You know when it begins and when it’s supposed to end, but what happens in between is different every time.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Where do I start? I can think of hundreds. OK, in my early teens, I remember reading “The Film Sense” by the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and realising for the first time that films actually get directed. And thinking: I’d like to do that.
Much later, the short stories of Raymond Carver inspired me by making it look so easy (of course it wasn’t, and isn’t). However, they showed that good storytelling doesn’t need to be clever. It just needs to be about people we care about.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“If it was easy, everyone would do it.”