I love sending questions out to authors. They give so generously of themselves and their insight into their world and books. Chris F. Holm was no exception. The delightful answers below are an excellent introduction to this humble author. Enjoy!
WN: You’ve published both full length novels and short fiction. Which do you like best? Why?
CH: This is the part where I’m supposed to say it’s impossible to choose because I love them both equally, but the fact is, that’s not true. I very much enjoy writing short stories — and some of the ideas rattling around in my brain work best in the short form — but novels were my first love as a reader, and remain so as a writer. They are, to my mind, the ultimate challenge: equal parts endurance race and psychological warfare. No two write the same, and there’s no guarantee when you begin one you’ll make it out alive. That makes tackling a new novel thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.
WN: Sam, the protagonist of The Collector series, has an unusual profession and he doesn’t follow the rules. Tell us more about how Sam came to be.
CH: Sam came to me one night as I was drifting off to sleep. A scene was playing through my mind in which a man, whose identity was a mystery to me, was watching some sort of gathering through the window of a pub. When the pub closed down and the patrons were ushered out into the street, this man followed one of them. The drunken patron stopped in an alley to pee, and after a moment, the mystery man followed.
At that point, I didn’t think enough of the scene to get out of bed and write it down. It seemed dime-a-dozen to me. Predictable. I figured it was a hitman story, or maybe a cuckolded husband’s revenge tale. But I must have been right on the edge of dreaming, because all the sudden things went a little weird. The mystery man plunged his hand into the drunk man’s chest, and said “I’m sorry — it’s nothing personal.” And then he tore free the drunk man’s soul.
When that happened, I realized I was onto something. It felt new. Fresh. Unexpected. I leapt out of bed and ran downstairs to my office, where I wrote down everything I could remember. Then, over the next few days, I started asking questions: Who was my mystery man? Why did he steal that poor guy’s soul? What did he mean, it wasn’t personal? And that’s how I wound up with Sam Thornton, a mostly decent guy condemned to collect the souls of the damned at hell’s behest for all eternity, thanks to a devil’s bargain made to save his dying wife.
WN: Sam has probably one of the toughest jobs I’ve heard of lately and probably one of the best reasons for being in that job. Do you delight in putting him in tough spots or do you secretly feel bad for him?
CH: Oh, a bit of both. On the one hand, I conceived of Sam as a pulp protagonist who can really take a beating, so it’s nice to put him through his paces. It always seemed to me Philip Marlowe was awful quick with the wisecracks for a fellow who got sapped unconscious five times a book. My guess is, if I took that many blows to the head, I’d be drooling all over my hospital gown. Lucky (or maybe unlucky) for Sam, he doesn’t have to worry about that. He has no body of his own, so he gets around by possessing the newly dead. If he gets beat up too bad, he can just find another body to ride around in.
On the other hand, I love the guy, and he’s gotten one hell of an unfair shake. I kinda think he deserves a break. But you people don’t want to read about Sam snuggling up beside a fire with a good book and a bottle of wine, so instead I beat the heck out of him. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s all your fault.
WN: What’s it like writing about religion? Freeing? Enlightening? Or frightening?
CH: I try hard in my books not to draw entirely from any one religion; my mythology is based on the notion that all the world’s religions, myths, folklore, and legends are the result of an epic game of telephone begun by people who, at most, got a brief confusing glimpse of the world as it truly is.
That said, there’s no question the books are heavily influenced by my family’s Catholicism, and very much reflect my own ruminations on faith, my struggle to come to grips with what I do and don’t believe.
That struggle, of course, is universal to all of humankind, but it’s deeply individual as well. I thought it would be terrifying to put my existential anxieties out into the world — to show my work for all to see. But the fact is, it’s been tremendously liberating, and gratifying as well. Much to my surprise, my books have been embraced by believers and nonbelievers alike — and even better, both camps are pretty sure I secretly side with them. I can’t think of any finer compliment than that.
WN: What’s next for you? The third installment in the Collector Trilogy was published in July 2013 (Congrats on how well it was received!)
CH: Thanks! The truth is, I’m not sure. I’m revising a couple of books right now, with the help of my agent — one a creepy little ghost story that takes place in small town Maine, and the other a big, sprawling hitman novel. Time will tell which sees the light of day first. After that, I’ve got an idea for a horror story I’d love to take a crack at writing. And of course I hope to write more Collector novels, so long as people want to read them.
WN: Your grandfather was an big influence in your writing. Tell us more about what it is like to be the grandson of a cop who loves crime fiction.
CH: Some of my earliest memories were of riding with my Papa on his weekend errands. To the newsstand (he got a paper; I got a comic book.) To the donut shop (don’t laugh; the man was thin as a rail.) To the Public Safety Building, where he — and by extension, I — was treated like royalty. Papa was old-school. A dry, stoic, chain-smoking pulp hero come to life. He rose through the ranks from beat cop to Deputy Chief, and helped put away a crooked mayor on the way. He burned through books like he burned through cigarettes, passing them along when he was done with them come Sunday dinner with either a “not bad” or “not as good as his last one.” And when he passed, he left behind seven children and a couple dozen grandkids, each of whom were certain they were secretly his favorite. I wish he’d lived to see me publish. You have no idea what a “not bad” from him would have meant to me
WN: What is your writing style like? Do you plot or fly by the seat of your pants? How do you get into and out of those tricky corners?
CH: Each book is different for me. Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I kinda-sorta outline until the story starts moving under its own steam, and then I abandon the outline and let the words fly. As for those tricky corners, I welcome them. They force you to examine the story from a fresh angle. To look for things you’ve missed. They’re usually the place in the book where something unexpected happens.
WN: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
CH: If I’m being honest with myself, a writer’s all I’ve ever really wanted to be. But the fact is, for a while I was on another path entirely. I studied biology in college, and when I graduated, entered a PhD program in infectious disease research by sheer momentum. I hated it. It wasn’t for me. But it had been a lifelong goal of mine, a lifelong dream, so I resolved to stick with it. It wasn’t until my wife encouraged me to find another dream that I turned my attention toward writing.
WN: What is one of your favorite Murder & Mayhem memories?
CH: I could tell you some kind of inside-baseball humblebrag about hanging in the green room with literary idols, or knocking drinks back with them afterward, but you know what? One of my best memories of last year’s con is of sitting in the audience and listening rapt while Ruth Jordan interviewed George Pelecanos. It was a master class in storytelling, and in that hour, I learned a ton about the craft of writing. And the coolest part was looking around the room and realizing everyone else was as riveted as I was. That’s how I know I’ve found my tribe.
WN: What question did WN not ask, that you really would love to be asked?
CH: The most important thing we’ve yet to address is, “What sort of baked goods should a would-be stalker present you with to get into your good graces?” And the answer to that is pie. Fruit or custard, it doesn’t matter, and preferably unpoisoned. If ever I die under mysterious circumstances while on tour, it will be on account of soliciting baked goods from strangers. And I suspect it will have been worth it.
Hmmm…baking a pie may be on the to-do list. Thanks, Chris!