Conversations with the Bookless: Chris Holm

April 12, 2011
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It is to my great shame that I’ve waited until the third round of Conversations interviews to include Chris Holm. Ladies and gentlemen your next favorite writer….

Where are you, right now, as you’re writing these answers?

I wish I had some fancy-pants answer for this one, but the fact is, I’m at my desk in my home office, wearing PJs and sporting a wicked case of bedhead. Seriously, my reflection in the computer screen is downright distracting; I look like a mid-lightning-strike Doc Brown.

Who are your influences and what is your unlikeliest influence?

First off, let me preface this by saying I think writers — myself included — are terrible at pinning down their influences. At best, any names I rattle off would be a wish-list, because my brain’s just as likely to spit out a reference to an old A-Team episode or half-remembered commercial jingle as it is to tip a hat to anyone I consider a literary idol. That said, my wish-list is as follows.

On the crime side of the fence, I’m all about the classics. Chandler. Hammett. Westlake. Block. Ross Macdonald. (I mean, those are givens, right? Like when Wheel of Fortune spots you the common letters. Crap; there’s that pop-cultural regurgitation I’m talking about.) As far as newer names, I’m huge on Huston and Ardai.

And on the speculative end, I’m nuts about Tim Powers, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, and Michael McDowell. Ooh — and classic Crichton; man, I’d love to write a big-ass high-concept thriller in the Crichton vein one day.

As for my unlikeliest influence? P.G. Wodehouse. I mean, my style’s about as far as you can get from frothy British farce. But damn: His wit. His dialogue. His clockwork precision with plot. What I wouldn’t give.

Why do you write?

Because apparently, I can’t not. I tried for years to do something else with my life; it didn’t take. I was grumpy. Bitter. Miserable. Just ask my wife. (She’ll lie, for the record, on account of she’s so sweet — but she’s awful at it; you’ll see the truth all over her face.)

What issues or ideas about fiction have been foremost in your mind of late?

My wife (who’s a mightily talented writer and reviewer in her own right) and I have talked a lot lately about the fact that the mystery community’s tendency to fractionate along subgenre lines means there’s almost no such thing as a mainstream mystery anymore. Labels like cozy, procedural, or neo-noir are all well and good if they lead a reader toward stories they might otherwise have missed, but I worry that more often than not, they serve to cull rather than stock a TBR pile. What’s more, I think writers feel pressured to sand down the edges of their work until it fits into its proper niche, which sometimes means losing those aspects that make the work unique.

When did you start writing and what prompted you to do so?

I could tell you my pat go-to story of getting sent to the principal’s office for a particularly bloody picture-book I wrote in grade school, or of the Godawful dystopic sci-fi novel I tried to write in high school, but the truth is, I didn’t start thinking seriously about writing until my mid-twenties. I’d always been one of those guys who
said, “One day, I’m gonna be a writer,” but the idea seemed so divorced from my chosen path — which, at the time, was pursuing a PhD in infectious disease research — I just never found the time. That is, until I realized just how unhappy I was on that chosen path. So, after some serious cajoling from my lovely wife, I bit the bullet and dropped out of grad school. Moved to Maine. Got a job. And started
writing.

What do you most value in the fiction you love?

A clarion voice that transports you into the narrative. Whether the story is propulsive as all get-out or a slow burn, it’s the voice that draws me in, that makes me hungry to come back when real life pulls me away. I want to forget where I am — or that I’m even reading. I want to live the story for however long it lasts. Plot alone can’t do that. It all stems from the voice.

How would you describe your style?

Brazenly stolen. Hopefully, though, I’ve brazenly stolen from enough different sources, it’s not too obvious.

Is that too cute an answer? Okay, I’ll try to play it straight. I try to write stories that are more than one thing. I think my crime stories have an element of horror to them, because crime is often horrific. Sometimes my stories are sprinkled with humor, or elements of the fantastic. Particularly in my short fiction, I tend toward
intimate tales, because what I’m really interested in is exploring what motivates a normal, average person to do something most would never even consider. I’m a big believer in the idea that not all small-town crimes are cozy (which is not, by the way, a knock on cozies in the slightest.) As I mentioned, I love a strong voice, and I try my damndest to imbue each and every story I write with one.

What’s your favorite story written by someone else?

My favorite story? Oh, man. Just the thought of picking one is giving me the shakes.

If we’re talking shorts, I’d have to say my favorite is “Night Moves” by Tim Powers. It does effortlessly pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted to accomplish in my fiction. Gorgeous prose. Vivid, memorable characters. An achingly beautiful sense of melancholy. And just a taste of the magic that surrounds us. Powers even opens with a nod to the first paragraph of Chandler’s “Red Wind,” which is, for my money,
the sexiest bit of writing old Raymond ever put to paper.

If we’re talking novels, I’ve gotta go with THE BIG SLEEP. Ask me a hundred times and you just might get a hundred different answers. Ask me a thousand, and THE BIG SLEEP would likely pop up more than any other.

What is the value and purpose of short fiction in mystery/crime fiction for you personally and overall for the form and genre?

To be completely crass, the value of short crime fiction for me personally is that it put me on the map. I started writing short fiction to build a list of credits so I could cite them when I queried agents for my first novel. It ain’t romantic, but it’s true.

But here’s the thing: I’m a huge nerd. I never leap into anything without a crazy amount of research, and what I discovered researching short form crime fiction is that it’s some of the leanest, tautest, bad-assest stuff the genre has to offer. And it turns out, it always has been. In many ways, the short form is like the primordial ooze from which most of the greatest crime writers sprung. (Was that too dorky? Yeah, it probably was.)

Who is the best short story writer that people haven’t gotten hip to yet?

Oh, man — I feel woefully unqualified to answer this one, particularly because many of my favorite short story writers have been making good of late. Folks like Hilary Davidson, Steve Weddle, David Cranmer (I particularly love his crime/western crossovers written as Edward A. Grainger) and Stephen Blackmoore. If I had to pick someone not a lot of people are reading right now who I think is tremendous, I’d have to go with Patrick Shawn Bagley. Patrick’s as good as it gets in the realm of country noir, and he’s certainly well respected, but his profile’s been kinda low of late, which, thanks to the short attention span inherent to any online community, means a whole new crop of readers have probably never had the pleasure. Maybe if we all start clamoring for some new stories, Patrick’ll be forced to oblige.

What do you like most about short fiction?

Reading or writing? Actually, it doesn’t matter; the answer is the same. What I like most about short fiction is that it allows the reader and the writer to explore relationships, themes, and stories that, for whatever reason, simply wouldn’t fit when translated to a longer format. I treat my short fiction as a lab of sorts for my longer work — one in which I can experiment with structure, character, and point-of-view. Readers of short fiction are more willing to accompany a writer on his or her flight of fancy, because they know they’ll only have to put up with it for so long. It’s a bit like strapping into a roller coaster; you wouldn’t want to spend all day on one, but a few minutes? Hell yeah. By the same token, a reader might not want to read a novel with an unflinchingly nasty protagonist, or in which the characters they’ve come to identify with reach a bad end, but a short story is another matter. In that sense, the form allows a writer to be more daring, and that’s rewarding for the reader and the writer both.

Of your stories, which is your favorite; the one that showcases best your abilities?

I’m tempted here to traipse out that old chestnut about picking a favorite story is like picking a favorite child, but I’ve long suspected when people say that (about stories or children) what they really mean is they don’t want to cop to having a favorite, because that favorite is ever-fluctuating. Right this second, my favorite is probably “Action,” which appeared in the May 2010 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I’m not sure it best showcases my abilities (or even, for that matter, what abilities I should be showcasing), but I had a blast writing it. I’d envisioned it as a
comedic caper in the vein of Westlake’s lighter fare, and of all my stories, it probably came out the closest to the idea of it that had been rattling around my head.

Do you have any short story publications forthcoming?

I do! My short story “Green” is going to be in the upcoming Crime Factory anthology. My short story “The Hitter,” which originally appeared in Needle #2, is going to be reprinted in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. I’ve got a story called “An Open Door” in an anthology I’m not yet allowed to talk about. And three other shorts of mine (“Pretty Little Things,” “The Putdown,” and “The Man in the
Alligator Shoes”) are in the hands of folks who have Big Plans, so they may see the light of day this year as well. I’ve also committed myself to writing two others in the coming months, so there’s a chance I’ll put more stories out in 2011 than in the last two years combined.

Where can readers check out some of your work?

A great place to start would be my website (www.chrisfholm.com). My front page contains links to my (Spinetingler nominated!) Kindle short story collection, 8 POUNDS, as well as to any publications for sale in which I appear. My bibliography entries link to free online stuff whenever it’s available.

What are you working on now?

Like I said, I’ve got a couple short stories in the works, but I’m also in the home stretch of THE WRONG GOODBYE, which is a sequel to my crime/fantasy crossover DEAD HARVEST.

How do you plan to rectify your booklessness?

I cannot say. (No, seriously: I cannot say. Do with that what you will.)

You have a couple of completed manuscripts floating around? Care to tell us about them and maybe share a paragraph or two.

There’s not a writer alive who’d say no to that one. How much time you got?

DEAD HARVEST is the first in a series that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as a Golden Era crime pulp. Picture angels driving Crown Vics and demons running speakeasies, and you’re in the right ballpark. Here’s the quick pitch: Sam Thornton collects souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Once collected 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 collect the soul of a girl he believes is innocent, Sam does something no Collector has ever done before: he refuses.

I’ve also got a novel called THE ANGELS’ SHARE making the rounds. It’s more of a straight mystery than DEAD HARVEST, although there’s a teeny tiny chance there’s an undead character in that one, too. Here’s my pitch: Kirkland, Maine is a town with many secrets. When reporter Alex Whittaker discovers a Kirkland High student beaten and left for dead on the eve of a contentious local election, she is determined to unmask the girl’s assailant. Soon, Alex is plagued by memories that are not her own, and dreams too terrifying to contemplate. Her investigation reveals a town rife with scandal and corruption, and she finds that there are some who’d go to any lengths to silence her. As her dreams bleed into her waking hours, Alex is forced to make a choice: face off against a vicious killer, or risk losing herself completely.

If you’re interested in reading more, pop on over to my website; I’ve got links to excerpts of both in my bibliography.

A lot of people want to know the same thing. When the hell are we going to be able to read a Chris Holm novel?

Again, on this one, I’ll politely demur. But with luck, it won’t be long.

***

Chris wrote his first story at the age of six. It got him sent to the principal’s office. He’d like to think that right then is when he decided to become a writer. Since then, Chris’ stories have appeared in a slew of publications, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Needle Magazine, and Thuglit. He’s been a Derringer Award finalist and a Spinetingler Award winner, and he’s also written a novel or two, which are currently out on submission. You can visit Chris on the web at www.chrisfholm.com.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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5 Responses to Conversations with the Bookless: Chris Holm

  1. Paul D Brazill on April 13, 2011 at 5:23 am

    Smashing interview. Smashing writer. Good call with Patrick Shawn-top writer.

  2. Steve Weddle on April 13, 2011 at 8:58 am

    Two things: DEAD HARVEST is one of the best book I’ve read. Paranormal urban fantasy or whatever it’s labelled — it’s a helluva story, written by one of our best writers. Great stuff.

    Oh, and I get the feeling in this interview that Chris is fond of his wife.

  3. Chris F. Holm on April 13, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Dude, she was sitting RIGHT THERE when I wrote that stuff. If I didn’t say nice things, it’d be into the box for me.

    Kidding. (As far as you know.)

  4. Stephen Blackmoore on April 13, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Gotta agree on DEAD HARVEST. Loving it.

    And yeah, Bagley needs to get off his ass and get more out there. You readin’ this Bagley? Huh? HUH?

  5. Glenn Gray on April 14, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    Very talented writer. Great interview.