|Knopf with his Wheaten terrier Sam.
Anyone looking for modern-day Renaissance men need search no further than Chris Knopf ’73.
Knopf is well-known to Dickinsonians as the bass guitarist in the band Bradley, which played gigs on campus in the ’70s and returned annually for nearly 30 years every Alumni Weekend until 2003.
Music is just one thing that Knopf does well. He also
- runs his own company, one of the most successful advertising and marketing agencies in the country
- builds cabinets and houses—he has transformed an 18th-century barn into a home, and designed and built his own Hamptons cottage from scratch
- and he writes critically acclaimed novels, two so far.
For the man who can do so many things well, it’s all in a day’s work. And “work” is the right word; Knopf hates the term “hobbyist.”
This executive/novelist’s long and winding road to success provides a compelling storyline. From the beginning Knopf knew that he loved writing, noting that, “A careful review of my Dickinson transcript—English major, class of ’73—betrayed my life’s ambition. Straight A’s in creative writing (including a couple of independent studies) gracing a decidedly unimpressive overall grade-point average.”
He went on to earn a master’s degree in creative writing in London through Antioch College and later got a job as a commercial copywriter.
“Every copywriter has a novel or two in the drawer,” says Knopf. While in graduate school, he began working on his first novel, which he eventually submitted to a New York literary agent, Mary Jack Wald. She advised him that it needed more work, so he left copywriting to polish it full time for a few months.
Knopf resumed his day job as a copywriter, this time at the Avon, Conn.-based Mintz & Hoke. After working his way up through the ranks, he and wife Mary Farrell ended up buying and running the company—the quintessential American success story. His novel writing was put on hold while he steered his communications firm successfully through the world of new media.
About four years ago, Wald checked back with Knopf to see how his book was progressing. “I was one of the lucky few who had someone actively trying to help me get published—a rare thing for first novels,” said Knopf. “So I got inspired to finally complete the novel.”
Knopf’s 2005 fictional debut, The Last Refuge: A Tale of Money and Murder in the Hamptons, brought raves from the critics. The New York Times Sunday Book Review placed it on its Recommended Summer Reading list after calling Knopf’s “touch … cool, careful, reflective” and remarking that he has “a great ear for the comic eccentricities of the human voice.”
Library Journal agreed, calling it “pure gold. Everything about it (characters, plotting, setting) is brilliant.” Publishers Weekly called it a “beach read that you won’t be able to put down even under threat of sunburn.”
Sam Acquillo, the accidental hero of Knopf’s novel, is an ex-corporation man estranged from his family and living in a run-down cottage in Southampton, Long Island, where he spends his time drinking himself into oblivion. When an elderly neighbor mysteriously drowns in the bathtub he is drawn into investigating the mystery behind the death, which includes a variety of colorful, oddball characters set in the peculiar social reality of haves, have-nots and wannabes who inhabit the Hamptons.
Knopf’s character Acquillo returns in a second novel, Two Time, which also delighted the critics. Publishers Weekly named it one of the 100 best books of 2006.
Both novels are popular in the Hamptons, where part-time resident Knopf has become something of a celebrity among both the well-to-do and the locals, who are united across the social gulf that normally separates them by their enjoyment of his work.
Currently, he’s working on two books, the next Sam Acquillo mystery and another novel set on the New Jersey shore.
Knopf feels no tension between his workaday business pursuits and his creative projects, pointing out that balancing them makes both better. He approvingly cites Raymond Chandler (oil executive), Wallace Stevens (insurance executive) and T.S. Eliot (currency trader for Lloyds Bank) as examples of successfully mixing business with literary excellence.
When the seasoned ad man is put on the spot and given 90 seconds to compose his epitaph, he gives it intense thought, and responds like any true craftsman: “What matters is the work.”