10 Questions With Chris F. Holm
By Chris F. Holm's definition, his novels Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye "recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp." That's a pretty good way to put it. The books are as hard to define as they are impossible to put down.
Holm's short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Beat to a Pulp, and Thuglit. His novella, "The Hitter," appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2011, edited by Harlan Coben and Otto Penzler. He's been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
In second grade, I wrote a three-page sci-fi/horror epic called "The Alien Death From Outer Space." Burned through a couple red crayons illustrating it, too. I guess I freaked my teacher out a bit, because I wound up in the principal's office. He asked a series of what I now realize were probing questions -- about my home life, about my mental state -- which I misread at the time as interest in my story. Once he was satisfied I was just a kid who'd seen way too many horror movies rather than a burgeoning sociopath, he gave me a Hershey bar and told me not to tell anyone about our little chat. I consider that my first ever literary award.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
The first thing I ever sold was a short story called "The World Behind." To Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, this was -- and on Friday, October 13, 2006, if you can believe it. I'm sure my wife and I split a bottle of champagne or something to celebrate, but what sticks with me is that I was so stunned when I got the email, I walked straight out of my day job and wandered the streets in a daze, only to be roused by what sounded like a trumpet blast some six feet to my left. Turns out, the circus was in town, and I was so lost in thought, I didn't realize I'd strolled right past their yellow sawhorse barriers and into their encampment. The sound was an elephant, who I'd stumbled upon mid-bath. When I saw it, all I could think was "Ellery Queen and an elephant in Portland, Maine, all on Friday the 13th? The world is truly a stranger place than we give it credit for."
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
My only writerly superstition is that I doggedly avoid writerly superstitions. I'll write anywhere, anytime, on anything. But given the choice, I write in Word, on my laptop (a Macbook Pro, for the gear-inclined), on my couch. Evenings and weekends, mostly, but that's day-job-driven necessity rather than personal preference. If it's morning, I'll drink coffee. If it's evening, I'll pour (and likely as not, ignore) a glass of wine. Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I halfway do and then forget, like story training-wheels. I tend to do my research on the fly, so I write with a browser open: search engine, maps, Wikipedia. No email. No Twitter. Or so I tell myself.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
You know what? I've made plenty, both business-wise and writing-wise. But the fact is, I don't regret a one of 'em. I made a pact with myself when I began writing toward publication that I'd comport myself as best I knew how at every turn, and it's served me well thus far. Looking back, there's not a step along the way I'd change.
What? A guy can't pull a graceful cop-out? Fine. We'll talk specifics, then -- about craft, at least, if not business. Tales of the latter are best left for late nights at hotel bars.
The fact is, Dead Harvest ain't my first completed novel, it's my second. The first, which landed me an agent but never saw the light of day, was a quirky little ghost-story-slash-small-town-mystery-slash-political-satire-oh-and-it's-also-about-whiskey-for-some-reason book called The Angel's Share. And if that description sounds all over the place, well, that just means I described it right. Don't get me wrong, I still love the book -- it's got good bones, and I think a rewrite (plus a title change so's folks will stop messing up the apostrophe placement) could turn it into something really interesting. But it fell into the same trap so many first novels do: namely, trying to be every kind of story, rather than one good one. The Angel's Share was so chock-a-block with dumb in-jokes, autobiographical touches no one but me would care about, heavy-handed messages, and me trying too hard to be clever, it detracted from the story. Now I'd like to think I have a better handle on how to leave that out, or at least more artfully sneak it in.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
Recently, I finished my first straight-up crime thriller -- which proved a series of firsts for me. It was the first time I wrote a book in the third person. The first without my go-to crutch of throwing in weird-ass paranormal stuff when I get bored. My first sex scene, which I'm proud to say is as unromantic as they come; it's hollow, melancholic, and character-informing. But if I had to point to one thing that proved my greatest personal breakthrough, it was in realizing that sometimes, the best moments of the story are the ones in which the characters have a chance to breathe, to grow, to surprise. The quiet moments, if you will. Shifting to close-third from first meant every point-of-view character was, in essence, their own short story, and each upon rereading represented a different facet of me reflected back.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Westlake's Dortmunder. I wanna pull up a chair in the back room of the O.J. Bar and Grill and just listen as he and his cohorts plan a heist, or maybe recount a couple old ones. Because I love nothing better than a good caper story, and Westlake's were the best -- and funniest, and cleverest -- you'll ever read.
Where do you buy your books?
All over, really. My local indie (Longfellow Books, for those who're playing along at home). Big box book chains. Online retailers. Conference book rooms. I'm an addict. I'll take my fix wherever I can get it.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
Poorly. I stew. I curse. I breathe fire and stomp around. Then for a while I feel like shit. But I try not to do any of that online. Because the fact is, bad reviews are part of what I signed on for. And the good ones more than make up for it.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
"Write what you know." It's pure horseshit, and it's responsible for some of the lamest, most derivative, navel-gazingest crap I've ever read. I'm not wild about hard-and-fast writing rules myself, but if you're looking for a better one than that, try "Know what you write." "Write what you know" is passive, lazy. "Know what you write" is a challenge to examine, to understand.
WILDCARD: Religion is a huge wedge issue, and in The Collector series you're re-imagining a lot of mythology to fit the story--have you experienced any blowback from readers or religious groups? And was that ever a concern when writing the books?
It was absolutely a concern while I was writing. Look, writers all talk tough about wanting the caché that comes with having their book banned, but the fact is, my series represents my own ruminations on questions of faith, and the last thing I wanted was to turn people off straight away. I wanted to engage. To challenge. To create a dialogue with the reader, be they a staunch atheist or devout believer. And as a result, I sweated plenty throughout the writing process.
Turns out, I needn't have worried. The books have thus far been embraced by people of faith, which is very gratifying. In fact, the only blowback I've gotten is for my language. Apparently, blasphemy and violent murder are acceptable, but F-bombs not so much. Which, if you ask me, is pretty fucking weird, but what do I know?
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