Christopher Millis is a man of many hats, from comic strip artist and writer to novelist and screenplay writer. His latest role is that of the Chair of the SCAD Writing Department.
Millis, originally from Saratoga Springs, New York, attended SUNY (State University of New York) Buffalo State where he earned his undergraduate degree in art. During his undergrad program, he wrote humor columns and created editorial cartoons for the school paper, The Record. During that time, he also began creating editorial cartoons and illustrations for his home newspaper, The Saratogian.
“Then my first job out of college was in Rochester, New York at the Rochester Free Press which was a metro morning daily,” Millis said. “I started as a reporter but then immediately became the art director and drew the daily editorial cartoon. [I] also sat on the editorial board so I would write editorials from time to time, which was very cool and I was very young, 22 maybe. I really did not know what I was doing, but I had good mentorship.”
Millis’s interest in cartooning came from his knack for storytelling, which he learned while at his grandmother’s kitchen table. It was there that Millis learned everything he needed to about dialogue, contradiction and character development.
“My grandmother’s kitchen table was just this constant rotation of relatives and neighbors and friends,” Millis said. “My grandmother was a very plainspoken lady. She sort of facilitated a salon but I didn’t even realize what that was at the time. She was a great raconteur in her own way, and she also taught me how to leave the empty spaces for people to talk, which I think is the hardest thing to teach young writers. It was the hardest thing for me to learn.”
For Millis, visual communication is a crucial storytelling element in addition to writing, both of which he applies as a cartoonist for John McPherson’s syndicated comic strip, “Close to Home.”
“I’m not a good enough illustrator to be anything more than a cartoonist, and I always liked the sort of satirical voice that cartooning allowed, because you can say very serious things in a way that was approachable to people and wasn’t didactic.”
Millis described his writing process as “very analog and tactile.” He prefers to write his first drafts by hand and then retype his work into a word processor, which in turn adds an extra layer of self-editing.
“When you transfer it into the digital page, that’s one layer of editing right there,” Millis said. “Your first draft on the computer is already superior to your actual first draft, and that definitely benefited me.”
When Millis wrote his first novel for the Annual International 3-Day Novel Writing Contest in 2000, he produced his first draft longhand. That novel, “Small Apartments,” won the competition, was published and later turned into a feature film for which Millis wrote the screenplay.
After “Small Apartments” was published in 2001, Millis decided to go to graduate school. Millis said after 9/11, he did not feel he was doing anything meaningful with his life, which is why, for a moment, he decided to join the army. Ultimately, he discovered he did not have to join the military to contribute to society and enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where he graduated with a concentration in fiction.
“Graduate school for me was a deep, deep dive into structure and how stories are constructed and how we come up with these natural narratives,” Millis said. “We’re always thinking about things in retrospect but that’s not how you live. You live blindly forward.”
During grad school, Millis said he cemented great relationships with professors while also completing his thesis which turned into a novel, “God and California,” published by The Vermont Press. Millis’s screenplay adaptation of the novel is currently under option with Anonymous Content and producer Steve Golin, whose producing credits include “Spotlight,” “The Revenant” and “True Detective,” to be made into a feature film.
“There’s a road trip about a wounded Iraq-war veteran and a defrocked Catholic priest, and they have to deliver a pink 1975 Cadillac Eldorado from New York to California inside of a week,” Millis explained. “They’re breaking all Ten Commandments along the way because they’re trying to piss off God into a conversation. It’s this road trip, existential comedy story, and I optioned that right out of my printer from grad school to Lionsgate Films.”
Millis said he finds it easier to write screenplays than novels because of his roots in cartooning.
“I think I’m a better screenwriter than I am just a straight-up prose writer, because I started as a cartoonist and a visual artist,” Millis said. “I’m more of a visual thinker.”
Prior to coming to SCAD, Millis taught two years in a row at two different schools: the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY and Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, NV. The opportunity of teaching and leading an academic department at SCAD brought Millis to Savannah.
However, Millis initially applied to SCAD for their Chair of Film and Television position. SCAD asked Millis if, given his background, he would be interested in serving as the Chair of Writing.
“The more I was involved in [the interview process], the more I thought I wanted to come here and see what I could do,” Millis said.
In terms of the age-old question, “Can writing be taught,” Millis said he absolutely believes one can teach writing.
“Can I teach a person how to have that x-factor of that thing you can’t provide for which is their genetics and their upbringing and their passions and their quirky way of seeing the world?” Millis said. “No. I can’t teach them how to be them, but I can teach them all the tools they need to write well, because we’re all still getting better at it, trust me.”
Students can read more about Millis and find updates on his writing projects by visiting his website. His novels “Small Apartments” and “God and California” are both available on Amazon, as is the “Small Apartments” film adaptation.