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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Interview: Chris F. Holm

Last week saw the release of Chris F. Holm’s first novel DEAD HARVEST, a multi-genre mash-up that walks the line between Heaven and Hell, literally. With an engaging protagonist, Sam Thornton, attempting to unravel the complexities of a job gone wrong and not get in too deep with the boss, it looks as though Holm has the start of a fantastic series, if not fantastical.

Though we’ve yet  to coax Chris into contributing to the digital tome of Shotgun Honey, he is no stranger to short fiction. Having appeared in such venues as Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, Demolition Magazine, Flashes in the Dark, as well as in print with “The Hitter”, appearing both in Needle and again in Best American Mystery Stories 2011, “The World Behind” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and “Action” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

How’d you get the Gun? Or rather, what drew you to crime fiction?

I was raised in a family of crime-fic readers. My grandfather was a cop, and he went through crime novels by the bagful. The whole family would pass them around, trading stacks of paperbacks at Sunday dinner. And the mindset trickled down the generations, since before I was old enough to partake of Wambaugh and Sanders, my parents were schooling me in The Hardy Boys, Christie, Poe, and Doyle. I literally can’t remember a time before mysteries, so how could I possibly write anything else?

Some familiar footsteps there with the classics. THE HARDY BOYS bring back some memories. Which was better the books or the TV series?

For me, it was all about the books. We had a yellowed set of them that I’m guessing dated from the ’50s. I probably read ’em through three or four times. By flashlight, under the covers, as they should be read.

Late nights by flashlight, the lore of every bookish kid turned writer. What you write today, from the gritty short story, “The Hitter”, to your new sci-fi noir novel, DEAD HARVEST is a good distance from those childhood mysteries. What are some writers who’ve inspired and helped mold you as a writer?

I tend to think every book I’ve ever read, good or bad, has played some part in molding me as a writer. As far as who inspires me, how much time you got? Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, for laying down the blueprint. Ross Macdonald and Lawrence Block for perfecting it. Donald Westlake, for creating in Parker the most compelling antihero ever written. P. G. Wodehouse for his clockwork timing and stunning wit. Tim Powers for his unmatched imagination. Michael McDowell for his ability to conjure the sort of creeping dread that’s lacking in most modern horror. Susanna Clarke for her ability to craft a world as believable as it is fantastical. Lovecraft for his unhinged glimpse-into-the-abyss mentality. And that’s just to name a few.

As I make my way to the finish of DEAD HARVEST, I can see many of those elements at play. The use of traditional pulp/crime fiction overlaid with the supernatural, a wonderful genre mash-up. One review referred to it as Gonzo Pulp, not that I’m sure what that is? How would you classify DEAD HARVEST? Give us the pitch.

I consider DEAD HARVEST to be fantastical noir. I think that’s far more descriptive a term than urban fantasy, because it captures the flavor of the book, and anyways, who says dark, gritty modern fantasy has to happen in the city? The pitch is this:

DEAD HARVEST is the first in a series of supernatural thrillers that recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. Think angels driving Crown Vics and demons running speakeasies, and you’ve got the gist.

Sam Thornton collects souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Once taken himself, he’s doomed to ferry souls to hell for all eternity, in service of a debt he can never repay. But when he’s dispatched to retrieve the soul of a girl he believes is innocent of the crime for which she’s been condemned, he does something no Collector’s done before: he refuses.

DEAD HARVEST is the first in an ongoing series, where do you plan on taking Sam Thornton?

Well, I’d say to hell and back, but the poor guy’s already there, ain’t he?

I can tell you book two, THE WRONG GOODBYE, sees Sam flitting from the Amazon to Amsterdam to the American Southwest as he hunts down an old friend and fellow Collector who’s stolen a soul he was sent to collect. The story plunges Sam headlong into the demon drug trade, and suggests to him there may be a way to escape the bonds of servitude to hell… provided he can stomach the price. The scale of the story is far larger and more sprawling than that of DEAD HARVEST, and book three, should I be lucky enough to get to write it, looks to be larger still. Who knows what book four might hold?

Well here’s to a long adventurous series. I hate to judge a book by its cover, but really it’s the first thing that sells the book for most? DEAD HARVEST and THE WRONG GOODBYE have really unique covers, did you have any input and what was the thought behind these throwback covers?

I’m fortunate in that I did get a fair degree of input in my covers; I understand that’s not often the case, but then, most writers aren’t lucky enough to sign with Angry Robot. That said, I can’t take credit for the concept. That was all my editor, Marc Gascoigne. He wanted to evoke the classic Marber-era Penguin Crime covers of the ’50s and ’60s, and make my book look like some long-lost dime store pulp. It was a bold choice, but one that paid off beautifully, thanks in large part to the stunning execution of the concept by the artists of Amazing 15 Design.

I’m enjoying DEAD HARVEST, which is getting good reviews and nice word-of-mouth for a first novel, but this isn’t the first book to garner nice praise. In 2010 you release your short story collection, 8 POUNDS. Tell us about that experience?

8 POUNDS was a bit of an experiment for me. Ebooks were just starting to really catch on, and it seemed to me the format was uniquely suited to a short collection. Traditional publishers aren’t terribly interested in publishing a 150-page short fiction collection by a relative unknown, and who could blame them? Print costs mean they’d have to charge more for it than folks would be willing to pay, making it a losing proposition. But with ebooks, that’s not a concern. Each of the stories in 8 POUNDS had been previously published, most of them in markets long since closed, so the argument that self-publishing forfeits the chance at selling first publication rights was moot in this case. In short, I couldn’t see a downside to putting it out there and seeing what happened.

What happened is I sold somewhere on the order of 20,000 copies, wound up on a couple years-best lists, and raised my profile considerably. Granted, I sold them at under a buck a pop, so I’m not exactly swimming in riches, but it was eyeballs I was interested in, not money. I think a lot of my success came down to luck: I hit the market at a time when there weren’t many short collections out there. Now, so many talented writers are putting out their own short collections, I’m not sure I could compete. Still, it was a valuable experience. I will say this, though: getting that damn thing formatted right was a bitch. Kindle is a fickle mistress.

From cover to formatting, I have to thank you for doing a highly professional job. Not always a priority in the blooming ebook marketplace. Bravo!

Many of the stories in 8 POUNDS were previously published elsewhere, so you’re very familiar with both the print and online short story marketplace. Do you see any strengths or weaknesses over print versus online?

Well, first off, thanks, though I can’t take credit for the cover: that was all John Hornor Jacobs’ doing.

As for the strengths and weaknesses of print versus online…

Online’s a great way to get exposure, because anyone with a computer can read it; there’s no need to track down a print copy. And there’s the quick-fix nature of it. Turnaround from submission to publication is generally quicker with online publishers, so if you’ve got the itch to get something out there quick, online’s the way to go. I’ll cop to subbing to online outfits first when I’m jonesing to publish. But no doubt, online is impermanent. Sure, that picture you posted on your MySpace in 2001 of you doing naked keg-stands will follow you to your grave, but chances are, that story you just published in an online magazine won’t be up a year from now.

Print, on the other hand, is print. You can touch it. Smell it. Hold it in your hands. Sign a copy and give it to your Grandma. I mean, let’s face it, not a one of us got into writing to see our byline all lit up in pixels; there’s a certain romance to ink on paper that’s hard to discount. But the flipside is, unless your short winds up in Playboy or the New Yorker, it’s gonna be hard for folks to lay their hands on a copy, and likely expensive, too.

If you ask me, though, the real key isn’t the medium, it’s the editor. Find a publication whose taste you trust, and you’ll do just fine, whether in print or online.

We know that THE WRONG GOODBYE is the next book in The Collector series, what else do your readers have to look forward to in the near and far future?

Well, my current work in progress is a sprawling international thriller based on my Anthony-nominated novella “The Hitter,” the story of a hitman who makes his living killing other hitmen on behalf of their would-be marks. And I’ve got designs on at least a half-dozen other novels, from a sprawling, science-fictional conspiracy novel to some good, old-fashioned country noir. As to what I tackle when, who knows?

“The Hitter” was so well received when originally published in NEEDLE and then again in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2011, do you worry about expanding the material? And as a writer of both short and long fiction, what’s the process like transforming short to a longer work?

First question first: hell yes I worry. In fact, it was my agent who first suggested doing it, and at the time, I balked. I’d already told the story as well as I was ever going to, I thought, and anyways, I knew all the beats. That made it dead to me. For me, writing is about the thrill of discovery, and absent that, how do you keep your ass in the chair?

But a funny thing happened on the way to shelving it forever: that dead thing stirred. I found a fresh angle I hadn’t considered before, and facets to the characters I’d sketched out I’d not explored in the short. So I started writing, thinking it’d probably fizzle. It didn’t. Now, I think it may prove to be the opening installment of a series, which should tell anyone who’s read the short the story’s changed considerably. I see it as less a straight adaptation of the short story than a novel that utilizes some of the same ingredients, in the same way that Chandler used to cannibalize his short stories to craft his novels. Hell, I test out concepts intended for my novels in my short stories all the time — the only difference is, this time, I’m just calling my shot ahead of time.

We all look forward to your future work, and thank you for taking time for Shotgun Honey and our readers. Do you have any parting words or pearls of wisdom for our readers?

Wisdom? From me? Not hardly. The good news is, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that wisdom ain’t what gets you published. What gets you published is being too butt-stubborn to give up.