Chris Holm: The Terribleminds Interview

Today, we’re publishing three — count ’em, three! — interviews here at Jolly Olde Terribleminds. On first pass, I don’t like to crowd up with interviews, and I thought, mmm, maybe I’ll spread these out. But here’s the thing: these interviews talk to three writers who each share a kind of intellectual space. All three are cracking short story writers, all three come out of crime writing, all three have killer novels (two of them published, one on submission), and to boot, all three know each other. So, my thought is, let’s let these interviews feed into one another. Right? Right.

Now, time to talk to fellow Angry Robot author, Chris F. Holm, a talented motherfucker who’s proven that he’s a gifted short story writer — and who now gets to show off his novel, the soul-collector-gone-awry tale known as DEAD HARVEST. (Check out that killer cover, by the way.) That drops next week (2/28), so get ready to grab it. Meanwhile, check out what he has to say below. Track him down at his site — chrisfholm.com — or stalk him on the Twitters (@chrisfholm).

When you’re done here, check out the other two interviews:

Dan O’Shea

Hilary Davidson

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Okay, I’ve got one. It’s a story about the power of story, and it’s true and false in equal measure. If that don’t fit the question, I don’t know what will.

My Papa Burns was a consummate storyteller with a wicked sense of humor, and there was nothing he loved more than winding up his grandkids, much to my grandmother’s consternation. Their house was on Earl Avenue in Mattydale, New York, and one of Papa’s favorite topics for grandkid-winding was Earl. Earl — according to Papa, and all my aunts and uncles who gleefully corroborated his story — was a gaunt loner of a man who once lived in an apartment above my grandparents’ garage. Earl was apparently quite the amateur photographer, but a horrible accident with his developing chemicals left his face irreparably scarred. Papa always intimated Earl was guilty of perpetrating great and terrible crimes against the children of the neighborhood, though of course he never told us what, precisely, those crimes were. Or, for that matter, how being a gaunt, disfigured loner who does unspeakable things to children leads to having a street named after you. But plot holes matter not to children. Not when presented with so juicy a story as Earl’s.

For you see, as the story goes, no one knows what became of Earl. Some say he died. Some say he was run out of town by the parents of his young victims. But not Papa. Papa was convinced that Earl was still up there, living like an animal in the ruins of his old apartment.

Did it occur to us to ask why Papa, a cop with a loaded sidearm and a litter of grandchildren forever underfoot, would let some creepy feral child killer/molester/photographer/whatever live in the attic of his garage? No, it did not. But it did occur to us to try to find out for ourselves whether Earl was still up there.

There were no stairs up to the garage’s second floor. There was no ladder. Just an empty square of darkness, framed by rotten four-by-fours and cut into the ceiling. The plan was simple: Me and my cousin Joey were going to lace our fingers together and hoist up our cousin Steph — the oldest of us at maybe ten, and therefore the tallest — so she could stick her head through the trap door and take a peek. Steph’s younger sister Sarah was in charge of steadying her so Steph didn’t tip over. And we’d find out once and for all whether Earl was still up there.

We found out, all right. We found out good.

When Steph’s head cleared the trap-door’s frame, she let out a shriek the likes of which I’d never heard. The three of us at ground level panicked, and we dropped her. She didn’t give us so much as a moment to worry if she was okay before sprinting, ghost-white, out of the garage. Instinct kicked in, and we three followed. When we finally regrouped, Steph breathlessly related what she’d seen: the scarred, pitted, anger-twisted face of a madman, just inches from her own. As if he’d known we were coming. As if he’d been waiting for us.

Once our initial fright had passed, me and Joey mocked her something fierce. In the protective light of day, far removed from the gloom of the garage, we were sure she was full of shit. Sarah, the youngest of us, seemed less sure.

But you know what? We never ventured into that garage again. And looking back, even knowing Papa’s stories were so much bunk, I’m half-convinced she saw Earl all the same.

Why do you tell stories?

My answer’s simple: I tell stories because I can’t not. But that ain’t just some glib cliché, because believe me, I’ve tried. I’m from a practical, middle-class family one generation removed from the working class, so I was raised to believe you found a vocation you were good at and then did it: end of story. In grade school, it turned out I was good at science. Which led to advanced classes, which led to acceptance into college, which led to me majoring in biology. Next thing I knew, I was working toward a PhD in infectious disease research, and trying to ignore these insane ideas that kept waking me up at night, begging to be written down. And oh, yeah: I was miserable. So, with encouragement from my amazing wife (seriously, I’d still be on the wrong damn path without her), I dropped out. Started writing. And I can’t imagine ever doing anything else.

Infectious diseases — tell me that’s going to start popping up more and more in your work.

My fascination with infectious diseases has snuck into my fiction a time or two already. I wrote a horror short that appeared in BEAT TO A PULP: ROUND ONE, which explored the real and terrifying concept of a pathogen actually altering the behavior of its host in order to propagate itself. And a major plot point in DEAD HARVEST centers around the early inroads toward a cure for tuberculosis.

That said, I’m sure you’ll see it take on a starring book-length role sometime in the not-too-distant future. There’s a book in my head just dying to be written that tackles the idea of a global-killer pandemic in what I hope is an unexpected way. But the thing’s so damned ambitious, I’m not sure I’m writer enough to tackle it yet.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

I have a tough time giving writing advice, ’cause really, who the hell am I? But one nuts-and-bolts pointer that served me well early on in my career (and continues to do so to this day) is this: enter a scene as late as possible, and leave early. Plenty of folks have already heard that one, I’m sure, but for those who haven’t, I’ll say this: read over your WIP. If there’s a scene you think just grinds the story to a halt, before you go chucking the whole damn thing, try deleting the first and last paragraphs of that scene. I’ll bet you it reads better.

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

There’s a ton that’s great about being a writer. Engaging your every flight of fancy. Going down the rabbit-hole of your own half-crazed theories like some schizophrenic detective uncovering a truth no one else has ever seen. Justifying every bit of slackitude you’ve ever indulged in as “research.” Being told even once someone lost sleep because they had to finish what you wrote. Packing away some small kernel of your soul like a Horcrux, so that no matter how awful life gets it can’t taint you completely, because you just know you can make something beautiful out of it.

What sucks? The self-doubt. The days the words are slow in coming. (I don’t believe in writer’s block, but every job has its shit days.) The fact that, to a one, we’re addicted to the validation of utter strangers, and sometimes utter strangers can be douches.

You write from a place where genre has reduced meaning — in other words, you kind of smoosh together genres. What’s the value of genre to both writer and reader? Are there risks in painting outside the lines overmuch?

The value of genre, to reader and writer, is simple. People like organizing things. Labeling them. Arranging them according to predetermined criteria. It’s our way of making sense of a world that resists sense-making. And generally, it’s pretty handy. I’ve been a fan of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror all my life, so I’m more likely to find a book that’s to my liking on shelves labeled “Science Fiction,” “Fantasy,” “Mystery,” or “Horror” than I am in, say, “Biography” or “Inspirational.” It’s just a numbers game.

The problem is, arranging things according to predetermined criteria has a tendency of getting away from us. Of propagating prejudice. And that’s a damn shame. Because there are no doubt titles in “Biography” or “Inspirational” I’d really dig, but that I’ll likely never be exposed to. And I know for damn sure the labels I’ve listed thus far poorly represent my favorite sorts of books, which tend to be “Stories That Are More Than One Kind Of Thing.” I’d shop the hell out of that section, and chances are, most of what I write would be stocked there, too.

That’s the answer to the first half of your question. The answer to the second half is, hell yes there are risks to painting outside genre lines. Every genre’s got its adherents and its detractors, and every genre’s got its giant-air-quotes-implied rules. Which means if you’re writing in two genres at once, you’re twice as likely to turn off a given member of your audience, or twice as likely to fuck up in their eyes. The kneejerk reaction of most crossgenre writers is to say, To hell with them, then. If they don’t get what I’m doing, who needs ’em? And that kneejerk reaction ain’t wrong. But I’ll tell you this: when sending out queries or shopping a novel, your audience is nothing but agents and editors, some of whom are gonna be turned off by work that’s tough to classify. That can sting. But fear not; there are plenty of crossgenre fans out there, and all it takes is winding up in front of the right one of ’em to set you on your path.

Gotta talk about 8 Pounds, an alarmingly good collection of horror and crime stories you self-published: how are those stories ones that only Chris Holm could’ve written?

That’s an excellent question, particularly since one thing I strive to do whenever I sit down to write something new is to tell a story only I could tell. But if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure every story in 8 POUNDS clears that bar. “A Simple Kindness” is my take on the classic pulp tale of a patsy being played by a femme fatale. “The Well” is a twisted little bit of flash that’s the horror equivalent of a joke, all setup and punchline. I like both stories very much, and stand behind them to this day, but the fact is, I’m not sure someone else couldn’t have cooked them up.

The other stories in that collection, though, come from perhaps a more personal place. “The World Behind” reflects my impressions of Virginia, formed in the two years my wife and I lived there after college. “The Big Score” is my love-letter to Maine, inspired by the ten years I spent at a job with offices that overlooked a working fish pier. “Seven Days of Rain” filters my apparent obsession with lifelong regret (of which I was unaware until I noticed how often it popped up in my work) through my twin loves of Poe and McDowell. “A Better Life” I wrote in response to the mice in the walls of my new home. “Eight Pounds” was borne of a funny bit of dialogue that lodged itself in my head and wouldn’t let go. And “The Toll Collectors” was my first attempt to tell a story that straddled the line of crime and the fantastic.

Whether that means only I could have written them, I couldn’t say. But I do think each represent a snapshot of who I was while I was writing them, and each of them represent a point on my evolution as a writer.

What did 8 Pounds teach you about self-publishing (if anything)?

8 POUNDS taught me that self publishing is damn easy to do, and damn hard to do right. The temptation as a writer to just click a button and upload your unfettered genius for all the world to see is mighty indeed, but holy hell is there a lot of work involved in making it look and read as clean as a traditionally published book. I was lucky enough to have been through a round of professional edits for each of the stories I included, since they’d all initially been published elsewhere, and proofreading alone, I must’ve gone through five rounds of edits. Add to that the formatting quirks of the assorted sundry ebook formats, and any detail-oriented person could drive themselves insane trying to get everything exactly right.

Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it again, or that I wouldn’t recommend that path to others; given the proper circumstances, I’d do both. What I am saying is, anyone who thinks of it as a shortcut is kidding themselves. Successful self-published ebooks have a lot in common with successful traditionally published books: most notably, a buttload of hard work. The only difference is, with self-published books, all that work falls to the author.

Get cocky. Drop your penmonkey testes on the table and demand that all behold them: what makes DEAD HARVEST a mighty motherfucking ass-kicker of a book that everybody should buy in quantities of 12 or more?

Look, I can wave my hands all I want about how I think DEAD HARVEST is, at its core, a deeply romantic novel about a guy condemned to hell for saving the life of the woman he loved, and the thankless task he’s forced to do by way of punishment, but let’s face it: that’s just the spoonful of emotional resonance that makes the asskickery go down. What it all boils down to is an undead, body-swapping protagonist sacking up and going toe to toe (to toe to toe to toe) with a cadre of pissed-off angels, more demons than you could shake a rosary at, the entire NYPD, and a psychotic rival soul collector who thinks he’s a god, all to protect a young girl who may or may not be a mass murderer. And oh, yeah, if he fails, he’ll be responsible for jump-starting the Apocalypse. If that ain’t a heaping helping of badass, I don’t know what is.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Picking a favorite word is tough. I’m kinda partial to defenestrate. Or mellifluous. Or schadenfreude. Or moiety. Or petrichor. Or interrobang. Or phenomenology. Or kummerspeck, which isn’t English (yet), but German, and means “weight gain due to emotional overeating” or, more literally translated, “grief bacon.”

Picking a favorite curse word is easier. It’s “fuck” in a walk. Sure, there’re sexier curse words out there, or ones with greater shock value, but “fuck” is just so fucking versatile, it’s like the Leatherman of curses. You should carry it with you always, ’cause sooner or later, you’re gonna need it.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

If I had to pick a single drink on which to live out the rest of my liver-abusing days, I suppose I’d choose a big, ass-kicking Paso Robles Zin. But it’d be tough walking away from whiskey. What I love about both wine and whiskey (be it Scotch, Bourbon, rye, or anything in between, the smaller the batch the better) is they tell a story. You can taste the ground from whence they came, the air they breathed, the baking sun or rolling fog under which they grew. As with storytellers, the worst of them never get past that — they’re no better than the sum of their parts. But the best of them transform all those influences into something transcendent. That, to me, is magic. (Oh, and another thing they have in common with storytellers: the best of them wouldn’t be the best of them without the help of a judicious editor, usually the guy with his name on the bottle.)

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Just one? I guess I’d have to go with LAST CALL, by Tim Powers. It’s a thrilling, sprawling, insanely ambitious novel that blends elements of pulp, fantasy, and history into one of the strangest and most wondrous books you’ll ever have the privilege of reading. I’m not going to do the book the disservice of attempting to summarize it here, but it involves Bugsy Siegel, the Fisher King, the intersection of luck and fate, and a game of poker played with a Tarot deck, where what’s at stake are the players’ souls.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

Well, I grew up in the country, so I can shoot. In my Day Job alter-ego, I’m a scientist, so I could probably MacGyver up a quality booby trap or chemical weapon in a pinch. And there’s always the off-chance the zombies’ weakness will prove to be obscure television references and super-cool dance moves, in which case… yeah, okay, I’m still only one of two.

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

Wow. That’s a tough one for a foodie, ’cause I like the whole damn spectrum, from chili dogs to truffles and foie gras (and hell, I’d consider both at once). But if we’re talking last meals, I’ve gotta go a heaping platter of barbecue. I’m talking pulled pork with North Carolina-style vinegar-based sauce. Ribs, both pork and beef. Hot smoked sausage with low-country mustard sauce. And don’t forget the cornbread, slaw, and collard greens. If I’m going out, I’m going out full.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

One of the things I love about this gig is, I have no idea what the future holds. Might be I get to write another five books in the Collector series, and that’d be just fine by me. Might be I move on to something else. Right now, I’m working on a straight-ahead thriller, mostly just to see if I can color within a single genre’s lines just once. Truth is, there ain’t years enough in this life of mine to tell all the stories I want to tell. That thought should bum me out, but really, it just makes me smile. It’s somehow reassuring to know they’re out there, even if I never get to ’em.

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