Chris F. Holm is an American writer, born in Syracuse, New York, who published his first novel, “Dead Harvest”, on February 2012 through Angry Robot Books. It is the first long fiction released by Chris F. Holm after the short stories he published in publications such as “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine”, “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine”, “Beat to a Pulp” and “Spinetingler Magazine”. He gathered some of these stories in a self-published volume, “8 Pounds: Eight Tales of Crime, Horror and Suspense”. His novella “The Hitter” was selected for “The Best American Mystery Stories 2011” edited by Harlan Coben and Otto Penzler, his short story “Seven Days of Rain” won the Spinetingler Award in 2008 and Chris F. Holm also was nominated for the Anthony Award and Derringer Award. The author’s second novel, “The Wrong Goodbye”, is due to be released on October also from Angry Robot Books.
Mihai (Dark Wolf): Chris, thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.
You made your debut, let’s call it that for now, at the age of six. Why did your story sent you in the principal’s office? Did six years old Chris F. Holm dream of becoming a writer?
Chris F. Holm: The story in question was a lavishly illustrated picture-book titled “The Alien Death From Outer Space,” so my guess is the gory subject matter – and the gleefully rendered pictures that accompanied the text – were what landed me in front of the principal. Not that I knew that at the time. Both the principal and my teacher couched the trip as a reward of sorts for having done such a good job on the story – so that’s precisely what I thought of it. Now, of course, I realize that trip, and the pointed questions to which I was subjected, were aimed at ensuring I wasn’t some kind of burgeoning sociopath, but instead just a science-fiction-obsessed kid with a vivid imagination and access to a whole lot of red crayons.
As for whether six-year-old me dreamed of becoming a writer, I think the answer is, he didn’t dare. He loved books, to be sure, but it never really occurred to him that growing up to write them was even an option. No doubt he’d be pretty geeked to find out that it was.
Mihai (Dark Wolf): How much influence had your policeman grandfather on your choice of genre? What other influences do you consider to have made an impact on your writing career?
Chris F. Holm: A tremendous influence. He was a voracious reader of mysteries, and because of that, so were his children – my aunts and uncles. As a result, Sunday dinners were essentially a giant mystery book swap, where everyone showed up with an armload of books they’d read, and left with a stack they hadn’t.
That said, DEAD HARVEST – with its angels, demons, and undead protagonist – is far from a traditional mystery. The more fantastical aspects of the story are likely influenced by my childhood obsession with horror flicks and Stephen King, as well as the fantasy and science fiction my dad’s family tended toward. And though I’m not a practicing Catholic, the questions of free will and religion I find myself preoccupied with in fiction clearly stem from my upbringing in the faith.
Mihai (Dark Wolf): You wrote stories of crime, horror and fantasy with a definitive pulp touch. Although your bibliography doesn’t reflect it, do you consider yourself to be a writer confined to a certain genre? Do you consider that an author could develop more while writing in a particular genre or when stepping outside genre boundaries?
Chris F. Holm: I’d like to think I’m unconfined by genre, because I like stories that are more than one kind of thing. The best crime novels are often, on occasion, horrific, and a lot of fantasy and science fiction is draped across the framework of a mystery plot. But the fact is, when an author – any author, myself included – is writing to be read, they’ll always feel a certain pressure to conform, to deliver a salable story, and often that means adhering to genre norms. Where I feel that most acutely is in my short fiction. All markets have their guidelines, all editors have their tastes, and every publication worth a damn is so swamped with submissions, when they come across something that doesn’t quite fit, it’s easier for them to take a pass rather than a chance. That’s not a knock, mind you – consistent point-of-view is how a publication builds and audience. But it does make quirky fence-straddling stories harder to place. The stories I’ve had the toughest time selling are the ones that don’t fall neatly into any one genre.
M(DW): Your short stories were written exclusively in crime, suspense and horror genres, but you went for a pulp mystery/paranormal fantasy for your debut novel? Why the sudden change with “Dead Harvest”? Why the paranormal touch?
CFH: That’s an excellent question, but it underscores my point regarding the difficulty placing fence-straddling short stories. The fact is, I’ve written loads of quirky, fantastical short stories: a throwback time-travel sci-fi serial, a horror/adventure tale that’s equal parts George Romero and Indiana Jones, a ghost story about a hardened criminal tormented by his many victims, even a Christmas mystery with an elf PI. But it’s the straight-up crime stories that seem to attract the most attention. Come to think of it, maybe I should have taken the hint and written a book-length one of those.
M(DW): Before making your novel debut with “Dead Harvest” you were a published short fiction writer. How was the progression from short to long fiction? Did your experience as an author of short stories helped in the writing of your novel?
CFH: Actually, I’d finished a draft of my first novel before I ever considered writing shorts, but alas, despite landing me an agent, that novel never saw the light of day. In retrospect, though, I’m glad, because writing short fiction taught me a great deal about how to tell a story. Maybe that first novel of mine would have sold if I’d honed my craft on short stories first. Lord knows DEAD HARVEST was better for it.
M(DW): Do you feel more comfortable writing short stories or novels? Why?
CFH: There’s no more or less comfortable; it’s just a matter of figuring out which the story’s supposed to be, and then writing it. Short stories are quicker, that’s for sure, because you can fit a whole one in your head. Novels are wilder, woollier affairs. Both have their upsides. Both, occasionally, prove pains in the ass.
M(DW): You self-published a collection of stories, “8 Pounds: Eight Tales of Crime, Horror and Suspense”, before your novel, “Dead Harvest”, was released. What is the difference between a self-published book than a traditionally released one? Do you believe there is a difference in the way a writer is received depending on these methods of publication?
CFH: Oh, there’s definitely a difference. When I released 8 POUNDS – almost two years ago, this was – I did so as an experiment. I had a bunch of previously published shorts to my name, some of which had since gone out of print, and I’d been hearing buzz about the whole ebook thing, so I thought, “Why not put one out and see what happens?” What happened was I sold maybe 50 copies in the first two months. I got minimal coverage, and no reviews. But then a funny thing happened: bit by bit, momentum started building. Reviews started popping up. Sales soon followed. And much to my surprise and delight, the folks who read it seemed to really like it.
By contrast, the release of DEAD HARVEST was a crazy insane whirlwind of interviews, reviews, appearances, and guest blogs. It was all I could do to keep up. A little of that is due to the fact that I put in way more legwork hyping the release. A lot of it is due to the tireless efforts of the good folks at Angry Robot. But I can’t discount the fact that DEAD HARVEST is quite simply taken more seriously because it’s a traditionally released book. That implies selection, oversight, editing, the whole nine, and guarantees a baseline competency that some self-released stories lack.
And I’ll say this, as the author of a moderately successful self-published ebook: if you wanna do it right, it’s gonna take just as much work as going the traditional route. The only difference is, all that work – and risk, and possibly reward – will fall to you.
M(DW): I understand that “Dead Harvest” has a few influences of pulp noir novels, the title is derived from Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest”, the main character’s name, Sam Thornton, makes references to the same Dashiell Hammett’s first name and Raymond Chandler’s middle one. What other influences does “Dead Harvest” hold? Does the upcoming novel in your “The Collector” series have similar influences or references?
CFH: I think oftentimes, when writers speak of references, it’s mostly wishful thinking. I’m sure I’m as influenced by Eighties slasher flicks and cheesy commercial jingles as I am by my beloved classic pulp. That said, pulps aside, there’s one clear influence I think I’m on solid ground citing for DEAD HARVEST: namely, Dante’s INFERNO. It’s from Dante that I take my opening quote, and from Dante my conception of hell springs.
As for future books, I’m trying to keep the crime-pulp-meets-fantasy flavor, but to also fold in additional elements as I go. THE WRONG GOODBYE is a road story with a touch of action-comedy and Lovecraftian horror thrown in for good measure. The third book, should I be lucky enough to get to write it, will feature my take on the classic Universal movie monsters, as well as a goodly dollop of secret history. (Yes, book three has a title, and no, I won’t say yet what it is, for fear I’ll jinx it.)
M(DW): You grew up in a Catholic family and you have some experience with Sunday Schools. How much influence did this aspect of your life had on “Dead Harvest”? How other personal experiences found their way on your debut novel?
CFH: I think it had a profound influence on the conception of DEAD HARVEST. As a kid, I was terrified by the notion the Catholic church drills into you that a decent person could easily wind up in hell if they didn’t play precisely by the rules, so in a way, Sam Thornton is the fictional embodiment of one of my most basic childhood fears.
As for other personal experiences working their way into DEAD HARVEST, I’m sure the book is chock-a-block with them, up to and including my smoking vicariously through my main character. I quit years ago – those things will kill you. Lucky for Sam, he doesn’t much have to worry about that.
M(DW): Your bio says that when you are not writing you are playing the guitar. Did your passion for music find a way on your writing as well? What music influences does “Dead Harvest” have?
CFH: First, let me be clear: I’m a terrible guitarist. I’m not being modest. I’ve played for over a decade now, and I’ve got a repertoire of maybe twenty songs that I can be relied upon to mangle. But I do so enjoy the mangling. I guess everyone sounds like a rock star to their own ears.
When it comes to writing, however, I confess I can’t work with music on. But that doesn’t mean music didn’t play a role in shaping DEAD HARVEST. I find my listening habits while away from the writing tend to tailor themselves to the scenes I’m working through in my mind. For DEAD HARVEST, that meant a lot of dark, propulsive hip hop for the action stuff – Massive Attack’s brilliant and creepy “Mezzanine,” for example. And for the scenes set in the past, Benny Goodman never failed to set the stage (Goodman’s version of “Sing Sing Sing” is one of my all-time favorite tracks). Of course, Sam’s also got a wistful side, so mellow, bluesy, melancholy stuff like Morphine, Sun Kil Moon, or Joe Henry proved handy for tapping into that.
M(DW): Sam Thornton and the characters of your short stories have a shady side. Does a mixed bag of characteristics make the personalities of a character more believable? Is a straight good or bad character weaker than the mixed ones?
CFH: I try to write people I can wrap my head around. People who seem real to me. Pure good and pure evil are abstract concepts, not human attributes, unless maybe you’re talking unrepentant psychopaths. And I’m not so interested in what makes an unrepentant psychopath kill, because as far as I’m concerned, their motivation amounts to nothing more than a neurological short-circuit. I’m far more interested in what makes your kindly old neighbor kill, or what might drive you or I to do so. I like characters that have moral strictures – I guess I enjoy batting them around to see what will make them break them. On the flipside, I like my bad guys to be redeemable, or at the very least able to justify their own actions to themselves. From where we’re sitting, we’re all the stars of our own shows. Nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy in someone else’s story.
M(DW): The first thing that drew my attention towards your debut novel was the cover artwork for “Dead Harvest”, as well as for the following “The Wrong Goodbye”. How important do you consider the book cover to be? What role does a good book cover have for a writer who is unknown to a certain audience or is a debutant?
CFH: I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve found my covers to be tremendously useful in attracting readers. I know for a fact you’re not alone in being drawn to my books because of their stunning covers. Said stunning covers, by the way, are the brainchild of my editor, Marc Gascoigne, and were executed beautifully by Amazing 15 Design.
Of course, once the cover draws someone in, the writing has to keep them, so a good cover that has nothing to do with the book would likely have limited utility at best. Luckily, my covers do an amazing job of selling my pulpy point of view, and injecting a little of the otherworldly as well. Then again, I may be biased.
M(DW): “The Wrong Goodbye” is the second novel in your “The Collector” series, featuring the very interesting character Sam Thornton. Do you have other novels featuring Sam Thornton in mind? Do you plan for a longer series?
CFH: Short answer: yes. I conceived of Sam as very much a series character in the vein of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or Block’s Matthew Scudder – someone I could spend a lifetime writing if given half a chance. That said, I think what I’d ideally like to do is tell a series of closed cycles – each one a trilogy, perhaps – that are sort of stories unto themselves, but leave room for later works as well. Maybe I’ll get my wish, and crank out a trilogy of trilogies. Maybe not. Really, it seems to me the audience, or lack thereof, will dictate how many Sam stories there’ll be.
M(DW): “Dead Harvest” comes with plenty of cinematic characteristics. Do you see your novel adapted for the big screen? What movie actors would see playing your characters?
CFH: I’d love to see DEAD HARVEST adapted to the screen – big or small. But I confess, I have a tough time casting my own characters. In my mind, they’re quite real, and I can’t picture them as anybody but themselves. That said, I hate to give a cop-out answer to a good question, so I’ll take a crack at casting Sam and Lilith.
I think Josh Jackson would make a decent Sam. In Fringe, he plays a sort of wisecracking, world-weary hero – a little sad, a little wise – and that jibes pretty well with the Sam I have in my head. Of course, for him to pull it off you’d have to do the whole Quantum Leap thing, where the audience sees him one way and the other characters another, since Sam’s always hopping bodies.
And the internet seems to think Christina Hendricks of Firefly and Mad Men would make a decent Lilith. Can’t say I’d object to that. My good friend Dan O’Shea thought a young Sophia Loren would be a better fit. Can’t say I’d object to that, either.
M(DW): It happened more than once for a character to be very popular and the series of novels centered on that particular character to be prolonged for financial reasons. Would you make a compromise and continue writing novels featuring Sam Thornton or other character just for the sake of financial reasons although you will not feel like working more on his adventures?
CFH: That depends – how much money are we talking?
Kidding. I think.
Fact is, I wouldn’t, and I don’t think that’s just me blowing smoke. When I decided I wanted to take a crack at this whole writing thing, I made a pact with myself to at every step do it the best way I knew how. I guess I felt – and feel – if I was going to chase my dream, I wanted to honor that dream by never cheating, and by never phoning it in. In fact, I have a tattoo to that effect on my forearm: it’s a typewriter and crossed fountain pens, around which is a banner that reads: “Write bravely.” And I’d say churning out words I don’t believe in to chase a buck hardly qualifies.
That said, I also want to be successful in this business, and that means sometimes, finances will factor into my decisions. I think the key there is to find the intersection between what you’re passionate about writing and what the market wants to pay you for. Anything less is bad art and bad business. You may fool someone into buying soulless crap once, but they won’t be coming back for more. So it’s best to never write it in the first place.
M(DW): Talking to the same point if the publisher feels that the novels should continue for financial reasons and you would not agree to write further on the same character how what would you think if another appointed author writes the adventures of your character? Would you be disappointed if such a case comes to pass?
CFH: This one’s such a distant hypothetical, I haven’t the faintest idea how to tackle it. Angry Robot and I have a marvelous relationship, and my characters are my own, so I can’t imagine a scenario in which this would happen. But I will say this: there’s a right way and a wrong way to do anything. Did I think the latter DUNE books sucked? Yeah, a little. But at the other end of the spectrum, there are truly marvelous additions to beloved characters’ canons, like Anthony Horowitz’s wonderful new Sherlock Holmes tale THE HOUSE OF SILK. I’m not vain enough to think my series will be as beloved as those of Herbert and Doyle, I only bring them up to make the point that so long as the baton is passed into the right hands, such endeavors aren’t always doomed to fail.
M(DW): You were nominated for a few awards and won a Spinetingler Award. Is winning awards an objective for you as a writer? The fact that your works are nominated for certain awards has an influence on your writing career?
CFH: Are they an objective? No. Writing toward the goal of winning awards is a fool’s errand; the best you can hope for while you’re writing is to serve the story. But do I want them? Yup. Awards and nominations serve as validation, recognition of a job well done. I don’t mean to say they’re the only form of validation that matters – online reviews, tweets, and emails from folks who liked my book are just as gratifying. But it’s important to remember awards aren’t handed down from on high, or spit out by that weird-ass computer program that decides all the college football bowl-game matchups – they’re voted on by fans, peers, and sometimes even idols. If I claimed the opinions of all those folks didn’t matter to me, I’d be lying.
As for whether my nominations (and one lonely win) have influenced my career, they absolutely have. Each one of them served to increase my profile within the writing community. Each one made me a little bolder in my artistic choices, because they encouraged me to trust my gut – to push myself. And each one has boosted my sales at least a little – no small matter when I’m trying to make a living from this gig.
M(DW): Besides “The Wrong Goodbye” what do you have in plan for the future? At what are you working at the moment?
CFH: Fame. Fortune. Ruling the world with an iron fist from the safety of my gold-plated moon base. Also, probably, some writing.
In all seriousness, right now I’m working on a straight-ahead crime thriller based on my short story “The Hitter.” It’s the first time I’ve ever tried to expand a shorter work into a novel, and I’m quite excited by how it’s turning out. It’s an entirely different beast from the story from whence it sprung.
After that, I hope to dig into the third Collector novel. Or maybe a country noir tale I’ve been jotting notes down for. Or this weird little alien-abduction conspiracy story I’ve had in my head for the better part of a decade. Point is, right now – thanks to my promotional obligations and day job both – I’ve got more ideas than time to write them. And, though it’s occasionally exhausting, I sure ain’t complaining. I’ve been damn lucky to get to where I’m at, and besides, nobody ever said chasing your dreams was easy.
Thank you very much for your time and answers.
Thanks for having me!