The Chris F. Holm Interview from Kate and Dan

Kate and Dan: Chris, it’s no secret that Dan was knocked out by your debut novel, DEAD HARVEST. Now we’re on the verge of the arrival of the second book in your Collector series, THE WRONG GOODBYE. With its mix of the supernatural and pulp elements, this series literally screams for more world building. Can you tell us about the influences that led to this series? Comics? Late night movie of the week? Tarnished altar boy? What exactly leads a man to chronicle the growing war between Heaven and Hell?

Chris: Altar boy? Heck, no. I got bounced from Sunday school for asking pesky questions long before I ever got that far.

As far as what led me to write a crazy, pop-culture-infused pulp tale of the coming war between heaven and hell (and rest assured this will also one day be my defense strategy at my inevitable trial), I blame my family. For one, they’re Catholic – my parents lapsed and my extended family less so, which means I was raised Catholic-ish. As in, I grew up believing there was an arcane and rather lengthy list of rules I’d better follow if I didn’t want to wind up going to hell, but I wasn’t entirely clear on what they were or how to follow them. That’ll do a number on a kid. And for two, they’re avid pop-culture consumers. My mom’s from a family of cops, mystery readers all. My dad’s side is all about the fantasy and sci-fi. Throw in my own childhood obsession with Batman, Stephen King, and cheesy slasher flicks, and the Collector series starts to look like a foregone conclusion.

K&D: With THE WRONG GOODBYE set to hit shelves this month, we can almost see you crossing the days off on your kitchen calendar. Just how nerve wracking is it waiting for your new book to hit the shelf of your local bookseller? What can you tell us about the new book?

Chris: The funny thing about my novels being released in such rapid succession is, I’ve barely adjusted to the notion I’m a published novelist, and BAM: here comes book two. I mean, I went thirty-odd years of my life with no published novels, and now I’ll have two out in one year. So in that sense, THE WRONG GOODBYE is just gravy.

But – and this is a big but – as much as I love DEAD HARVEST, I think THE WRONG GOODBYE is in many respects the better book. It expands Sam’s world in strange and unexpected ways – injecting Lovecraftian horror, road story, and buddy-action-comedy influences into the pulp-fantasy mix. It’s got bug-monsters and creepy human dolls and badass blind transgender showgirls (okay, just one of those), and a mystery that I think is gonna keep folks guessing ’til the very end. Writing it, I had this tremendous sense of discovery – I learned a ton about both Sam and the world he reluctantly inhabits. I can’t wait to bring everybody else along for the ride.

K&D: It’s a common misconception that most published authors wear tweed sport coats with patches on the elbows, spend their days churning out manuscripts all day, then they go home to their families for supper, before doing the same thing again tomorrow. But you are a working author. So your books happen when you’re not at work. Please tell us about the challenges that come about from chasing your dream to be a novelist, while juggling the day-to-day responsibilities.

Chris: First things first: most writers have day jobs. That fact tends to surprise readers (who, I think, often secretly assume we’re rich), but it’s true. So I’m hardly alone in shambling through life like the walking dead on account of burning the candle at both ends. And as you say, I’m lucky enough to be chasing my dream, so far be it from me to complain.

That said, let’s get to the complaining.

Truth be told, the toughest part for a natural procrastinator such as myself is learning to manage my time. If I’m lucky (and/or skip household chores and sleep), I’ll find an hour or two on a weekday to cram in writing-work, and maybe four or five a day on weekends. But writing-work encompasses tons of stuff that isn’t writing fiction. It’s also cranking out blog posts and designing bookmarks and taping podcasts and, yes, fielding interviews. Don’t get me wrong – I get a kick out of all that stuff, and wouldn’t trade the opportunities I’ve been given for the world, but sometimes before know it, I’ve clocked fifteen hours of book-work in a week without writing a damn word. And unless I set aside the time to get some actual, for-serious writing done, all that other stuff I enjoy doing is gonna eventually go away. Not to mention the fact that writing is my outlet – it’s how I process the world, and (presuming for a moment that I’m of sound mind) it keeps me sane. If I go too long without writing, I’m like a chain-smoker gone cold turkey. Grumpy is an epic understatement.

K&D: We are heavily invested in social media. Those that frequent the interwebs know you are very active on Twitter. I know this is a subject you have discussed in the past, but please tell us a bit of your thoughts on social media – how has it affected you personally and professionally?

Chris: I never thought I’d be the type of guy folks asked about social media, let alone one of its biggest champions. I’m a crazy-misanthropic technophobe curmudgeon who avoids social obligations at all costs and has only had a cell phone for a couple years.

And yet.

Early on in my writing career (’06 I think it was), I decided it’d be a good idea to start a blog. You know, build myself a web presence and all that. Through it, I met some like-minded folks – readers, writers, ’zine editors – and before I knew it, I was a part of a fantastic community of oddball weirdoes just like me. People who geeked out over the same stuff I did, from pulp mags to comma placement.

Then one day, one of ’em (ace author Sophie Littlefield, who’s so awesome I’m shamelessly namedropping her in an effort to burnish my own nonexistent rep) suggested I join Twitter – just to snag my name as a Twitter handle before someone else did, she said; I didn’t have to interact with anyone. Still, the idea terrified me. I’d avoided MySpace, eschewed Facebook – and to this day, I have no idea what Pinterest is all about – but for whatever reason, I couldn’t resist Twitter’s strange allure. And when people started talking to me, I surprised myself by talking back.

Now I can say without a hint of snark that I met many of my closest friends on Twitter. And professionally speaking, I think two thirds of my short story publications came about thanks to relationships I’ve forged online – not ’cause I was fishing for them, mind you, but because I was lucky enough to fall in with some seriously talented and motivated publishing-types who were so kind as to invite me to submit.

Also, on occasion, social media leads me to wind up chatting with such lovely people as you two. So all in all, it earns a big thumbs-up from me.

K&D: Before DEAD HARVEST hit the shelves, you first found success with short stories. 8 POUNDS is a fantastic short story collection! Can you please tell us some of the differences between writing short story fiction vs. regular length novels? There has to be more than just needing more paper for your typewriter…

Chris: The mechanics of writing short-form and long- are pretty much the same to me. The difference lies in the idea(s) behind it. Here’s how I always think of it, and how I tell a short-story idea from a novel idea: a short story is small enough the whole thing fits in my head; a novel ain’t. If I can pick up the idea, turn it over in my hands, and examine all its angles without sitting down to write it, it’s a short. If, until I take a crack at it, it’s so big and blurry and inscrutable I feel like I’m sitting six inches from the bottom corner of a movie screen, it’s a book. Or maybe just a really bad idea.

K&D: In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own set of questions we ask of every interviewee.

When did you finally say, “Yeah… I’m gonna write stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”

Chris: Sunday, August 11, 2002

Oh, you think I’m joking, don’t you?

I graduated college in ’99. Went straight into a PhD program for microbiology. I thought it’s what I wanted to do with my life. And I was miserable. But I was determined to see it through, until my lovely wife pointed out how stupid that was. And so, with her encouragement, I quit. The spring of ’02, this was.

The next few months, we looked for jobs. Moved back to the Northeast from Virginia. We arrived at our new place on my wife’s birthday, July 31. And once we settled in, I cast about for a new dream – or, more accurately, an old one, long since abandoned.

On Sunday, August 11, 2002, I created a file on my computer called “Ramblings of a would-be writer.” In it, I put a jumbled mess of notes. Some wound up short stories. Others wound up nothing. But that was the day I made up my mind to take my shot.

K&D: What was your favorite moment in mystery writing? The moment that when you read it on the page, you smiled and said, “That was so cool!”

Chris: You mean like other peoples’ writing? Can I pick two? No? Well, too bad, ’cause I’m gonna anyway.

Moment One: THE THIN MAN’s big reveal. I was a pretty savvy mystery reader by the time I got around to reading it, and considered myself fairly twist-immune. But damn if Dashiell didn’t get me. And what a feeling, getting played for a chump by someone that damned good at it.

Moment Two: Richard Stark’s THE HUNTER. It is, in a word, perfect – as, in his own inimitable way, is Stark’s finest creation, Parker. No shit, I spent the entire book thinking, “He can’t do that! Can he do that?” And if you think a whole book can’t count as a single moment, well, that’s because you haven’t yet read Stark. Doing so is such a joy; you won’t know where the time goes.

K&D: What was the moment that made you say, “Writing books is amazing”?

Chris: Brace yourself for some serious schmaltz: I have that moment like five times a day. I live in a constant state of giddy disbelief that this gets to be my life. Hanging out and talking books with fellow superfans. Getting blurbed by – or published alongside – literary heroes. Getting paid actual cash dollars American for crazy crap I make up on my couch. Realizing there are people out there who genuinely like my stuff. And further realizing the vast majority of those people are pretty awesome in their own right.

K&D: Our standard Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett?

Chris: Ah, crap. Aw, hell. I have to pick?

On the real, this question gives me hives. But if I had to – if I absolutely HAD to – I’d pick Hammett. He laid the blueprint. He created the framework. As ol’ Ray himself would tell you, he wrote like pain hurt and life mattered.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a shelf full of Chandler novels to apologize to.

K&D: Parting thoughts?

Chris: Just that I can’t believe you Sophie’s Choiced me on the Chandler/Hammett question. That’s like asking which leg I’d prefer to lose. (Left, sure – but the fact the choice is obvious doesn’t make it any easier.)

Also, pushing bravely past my trauma for a second, thanks for having me! Oh, and to anybody reading this who’s inspired to check out THE WRONG GOODBYE, much obliged, and I’m sorry in advance for the bug scene. You’ll know the one I mean.