Start a business. Write a book. Quit a life-draining job. Travel the world. What are the things you really want to do, but feel like you can’t quite take the leap? How are you waiting to express yourself? What do you feel you are hiding from the world? What needs to finally be set free? So many of these questions connect back to our authenticity: who we really are and how we really want to be living.
But being yourself shouldn’t feel so hard. Sometimes, all it takes is some inspiration, advice, and encouragement to see the way to being a truer version of you. In the Authenticity Series, I talk to people who are all walking different paths, in their own ways, in the hopes that others will be able to do the same.
Homelessness. Addiction. Punk rock. These are some of the main themes that Canadian author Chris Walter exposes in his writing, which draws from his own personal experiences. A recovering addict, Walter’s work is often called raw, gritty, urban, and honest all apt descriptions for a prolific writer whose own small press, G.F.Y, claims these are “books for the wild at heart.”
Walter started writing books in 1997 and in 1998 established G.F.Y (short for “Gofuckyerself Press), through which he has since published over 20 books and counting. He describes his press as “beholden to no one,” and it makes sense: Walter’s become a cult hero to many, a punk rock writer whose novels fearlessly expose their blood and guts and speak to experiences that are not often seen in mainstream literature.
Walter has also boldly shared the stories of his own life. In a time when we people are publicly shamed for tweets and where we are often warned to keep our personal lives offline lest our true selves be revealed, Walter continues to be unapologetic about who he is, where he’s been, and where he’s going.
Q: The tagline for your press is “books for the wild at heart,” and you say Gofuckyerself Press is “beholden to no one.” How reflective are these statements to your own identity?
Well, I use them for a reason. Wild at heart is obviously a pop culture reference, but it came about one day when I was selling books at an event and they needed a tagline for my press. So I came up with “words for the wild at heart.” I didn’t even think about it. Actually, it was “low brow literature for the wild at heart,” but I had to shorten it.
And in terms of “beholden to no one,” first of all, Gofuckyerself Press has been an albatross for me from the beginning. I didn’t think I would be starting a publishing company, trying to sell books around the world. I would send out queries to bookstores and as soon as I sent out my website and they heard the name of my publishing company that would be the last I ever heard from them.
It seems like it’s more okay to use the word fuck in a punk band or something, where you can get away with it. It seems to be okay in the music world more, but the literature world is still very conservative, I’ve found, and most bookstores don’t want to have anything to do with Gofuckyerself Press. So I shortened it to GFY but if you do even a little bit of research you can see what it really stands for, the damage has already been done.
But that’s just made me more independent anyway. And it’s worked out. I don’t know where it would have gone if I’d tried something else. Every once in a while I feel like I’m kind of a hamster on a treadmill because I don’t really have an opportunity to break out of it, because I can’t get any mainstream publicity.
I could get myself into small presses and work my way up and hopefully get a shot at a bigger publishing house eventually, but I can’t do that because you’re lucky to get a thousand-dollar advance for a book deal now and I’m a professional. I can’t get by on a thousand dollars for a book that’s going to take me months to write. I have to make a book and I have to sell it. Otherwise I’d have to get a job and I’m not willing to do that.
Q: Well, you’ve done a great job of establishing yourself in a lot of ways that I think other writers would be quite envious of, especially since you’re working as a self-published author. Did the resistance you came up against with traditional publishers ever cause you doubt yourself along the way?
When I started off, I sent out my first book to some small presses, and even my second and third, and I got really close with getting those books published. It was a bit frustrating. But my girlfriend worked at a printing shop so I thought fuck it, I’ll just print them up.
So I started making these books that looked like somebody’s homework. But then when I realized that people were buying them. So instead of trying to find a mainstream publisher, I just started putting all of my efforts into learning how to make books, rather than look for a publisher.
The first four years I only had a couple books and I didn’t really start making any real money in those first years. Most people can’t do that – I was still on welfare at the time and my girlfriend had a day job, so I kind of floated by on that for the first four years. And then it turned into a real thing.
Q: So how do you overcome any sense of doubt that might have come along the way? A lot of people who want to write feel like these are the obstacles they’ll have to come up against. Why did you keep going?
Well, you can’t write for with the goal of being successful. You have to do it because you love writing. If you’re writing books, it’s simply for the sake of doing it, and then you try to sell them. I probably would have given up if nobody was buying them, but that’s not why I started.
I started writing because I like to write, and there’s a sense of accomplishing that comes with it. Before writing I was doing drugs, and you don’t get a sense of accomplishment doing drugs. Your motives have to be in the right place. It’s the same thing with joining a band.
You can’t join a band because you want to make a million dollars. You have to join a band because you love playing music and making noise.
Q: What is it about writing? Why did you want to express yourself in this way in the first place?
I was on such a dead-end road in the past. I wanted to do anything that would validate my existence, because I didn’t really have anything. All I did was watch TV and think of ways to get drugs, and then I would go out and get drugs. And my TV was so shitty I couldn’t even pawn it, you know? So I had to do something.
I started writing, and it didn’t seem that hard to do. I’d tried to play music and that was really hard to do. I could hear the sounds in my head but I couldn’t make them come through on the guitar, but when I write I have an idea in my head and I can put it on paper.
Q: You’ve been very open about your past. Why did you choose to put it all out there in the way that you have?
A lot of my writing is about drugs because that’s what I know about, so there was no way I could hide it. It never even occurred to me that I shouldn’t talk about it. It never dawned on me not to. I guess some people try to make themselves look a certain way and they hide things about themselves, but that’s boring. Especially in writing.
Q: There are a lot of illusions people try to maintain. There is a lot of keeping up appearances in our society.
That stuff doesn’t apply to me because I don’t have a boss. I’m the boss. Nobody can fire me. Nobody can do anything to me for doing what I’ve done in my past, so who do I have to cover up from?
Q: Was there a point in your life where you realized there was no turning back for you?
I never wanted to in the first place. It’s always been about the books. I’m always planning from book one to the next. And at my age, 56, I’m too old to go back to construction, which is the only thing I was good at, so I don’t have any interest in a day job. So I’m all in. At this point now I have to try to figure out how to get to the next level. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing.
Q: You mentioned being your own boss, and that makes me think again of the idea of not being beholden to anyone. When did you decide you wanted to be your own boss?
Well, the jobs I always had were the shittiest jobs available because I didn’t have any education. But it didn’t really dawn on me that I could actually be my own boss.
I had a feeling that there was something I could do that would bring me some kind of income and I wouldn’t have to take shit from people, but I didn’t have any idea what it could be. I didn’t even consciously set about selling books. It just kind of happened. I was on welfare but I didn’t say, “Okay, I’m going to get off welfare and get a job.” I just said, “I’m just going to keep writing.”
Q: In terms of getting involved in punk, was that something you were attracted to because you felt like you on the outside of things?
Yeah, but I always wanted to be on the outside of things. That’s what I liked about punk rock. It wasn’t like I was on the outside trying to get in and thinking, “Oh shit, I’m out here but I want to be in there So every time I think, “Oh, poor me, I can’t get any mainstream publication,” I remind myself this is something I’ve chosen.
Q: There are a lot of people who make these decisions to be on the outside, but there are also a lot of people who sometimes want to be on the outside, too, but they’re afraid. Why do you think people feel like they can’t just make a choice for themselves about how or who they want to be?
A: I think it’s about security. They think if they let go of things that are familiar or comfortable, their world will fall apart, or people they know will stop talking to them.
Q: What would you tell someone who feels held back from being who they really want to be?
I would tell them that you just have to – I don’t know. That’s something I’ve never really thought about myself. I don’t know how to do it any other way.
I would tell them that you just have to make a decision that you’re going to make your own rules. You have to learn how to say no to people.
Anything I think I can say sounds so cliché, but there is truth to it. If there is something you really want to do, it’s up to you to do it. And if something doesn’t feel natural, or it feels hard to you, then maybe it’s not what you’re meant to do.
And if something makes you happy, whether it’s painting houses or writing poems, then you should do that instead.
To check out Chris Walters’s work, visit punkbooks.com