What impact has the state of Maine had on your writing?
The impact Maine's had on my writing would be difficult to overstate. There's the obvious, of course: my first novel, THE ANGELS' SHARE, takes place in a small town on the coast of Maine, and Maine has featured prominently in a couple of my shorts. There's a richness here, of character and of setting, that I've not felt anywhere else I've ever lived. But for me, Maine's impact goes deeper than that. Truth is, writing was just an idle fantasy of mine until I moved to Maine. I was on another path entirely, living in Virginia and working toward a PhD in infectious disease research. It was what I thought I'd always wanted to do with my life, but I was miserable. For some damn-fool reason, I was determined to stick it out, but my wife's a hell of a lot smarter than I am, and she convinced me I should quit and find a new dream. So I did.
Moving to Maine was an easy choice. I think I loved the place before I ever laid eyes on it, having spent my adolescence ensconced in the works of Stephen King. I first started visiting Maine in college with my wife, who grew up in the Western Mountains, and it felt like coming home. When we moved up here in 2001, it was like a switch had flipped. I started writing in earnest for the first time since middle school, and haven't looked back. There's just something in the air up here, I think. It's hard to describe without sounding all crazy and mystical. But I can't imagine living anywhere else, for fear the words would go away.
Where did the spark for writing begin?
When I was six years old, I wrote a picture-book for school titled "The Alien Death From Outer Space." I'm pretty sure I wore out my red crayon illustrating it, so you can imagine how impressed my teacher must have been. As I recall, she liked it so much, she showed it to the principal. He called me to his office and asked a bunch of what I now assume were pretty pointed questions. When he realized I wasn't so much a sociopath as I was obsessed with science fiction, he congratulated me on a job well done and gave me a candy bar. I didn't realize at the time my blood-spattered tale had caused a panic; all I knew was that I wrote something, and people noticed. I consider that candy bar my first-ever literary award, and from then on, I was hooked.
Congratulations on "Action" being published in the current issue of AHMM. Now, you're an old hat at this with "The World Behind" landing in the June '07 issue of EQMM. What's the secret to your success?
Thanks, David! I'm not sure I've any great secret, but if I did it would be blind determination coupled with a knack for writing toward a specific market. The first story I submitted to EQMM got bounced in record time -- twenty-eight days, door to door. And truthfully, it should have been; it was all wrong for EQMM. I hadn't written it with them in mind, and though technically it fell within their guidelines, it lacked the flavor all their stories seem to share. Of course, I couldn't admit that at the time; I was just pissed they'd failed to see my utter, utter genius. It was a vain, wrongheaded, and ultimately useful response, because it forced me to sit down at my keyboard and write "The World Behind", the whole time thinking, "Oh yeah? Let's see you reject *this*!" Only they didn't, and since then, I don't think I've started a single story without a target market in mind. That market may not be where the story ultimately ends up, but I find the guidance helpful nonetheless.
The caveat to that approach is that you (and by "you", I mean "I", but just roll with it) can't be mercenary about it; if you don't really, truly *feel* the story you're writing, it'll come off bloodless on the page. I can set my sights on The Paris Review all I like, but lit-fic ain't my bag, so it's just never gonna happen. The trick is finding that sweet spot between what the market is looking for and what you like to write, and if there isn't one, don't bother submitting. For me, the approach isn't restrictive; I find it actually pushes me to be more ambitious, to take more risks, and (whether it's a coming of-age story like "The World Behind", a comic caper like "Action", or an adventure-pulp/horror crossover like "A Native Problem") expand my own definition of the kinds of stories I write until it more closely resembles those I like to read.
In a recent blog post you mentioned you are a recovering Star Wars geek. What crashed your Millennium Falcon?
Oh, I wouldn't say it crashed. Maybe just picked up a couple mynocks on the hull, who're draining it of juice. But in a pinch, it'd still make the Kessel run in twelve parsecs. (See? Huge geek.)
Truth is, I'm still a huge fan of the original trilogy. (Yes, even Jedi.) But they're no longer the sacred cows to me they once were. I was exposed to Star Wars so young, it's a part of my cultural DNA. It was the first fictional universe that really grabbed me, and it no doubt shaped the way I view the world. That sort of relationship almost precludes criticism. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to extend to the new trilogy. I've seen them all a bunch of times, and even defended them a time or two, but the fact is, they're pretty terrible. They lack the verve, the spark, the first three had. And the more you watch them, the more they call attention to the shortcomings of the original trilogy. Hokey dialogue. Spotty acting. Cloying cuteness.
Also, for God's sake, Lucas, HAN SHOT FIRST!
Sorry. Don't know what came over me there.
That said, I don't subscribe to the idea that Lucas somehow retroactively ruined my childhood by making I-III. Lucas botching the new trilogy led Whedon to create Firefly. Hell, Lucas botching the new Indy led Ardai to create Gabriel Hunt. That's enough to make me wish he had another franchise or two to screw up.
Cliché question here: When working on a story, do you draft an outline or wing it?
I never know quite how to answer this question, 'cause the fact is, I've done both. I think these days, I fall more into the wing-it camp; it keeps the story fresh for me, and hopefully by extension for the reader as well. Usually when I begin a story, I know where it starts, how it ends, and I've got an idea about a few key beats in the middle. But the less written down ahead of time, the better. More room for surprises that way.
Coffee or beer when you're writing?
I write mornings, so coffee. Maybe a beer or a glass of wine when I'm revising. Whiskey when a project's done.
How's the novel coming?
Very well, thanks! I'm in the home stretch on the second book in a series that recasts the battle between heaven and hell as a Golden Era crime pulp. The first in the series, DEAD HARVEST, is being shopped around right now.
*Chris explains the story behind the fun picture of his wife, Katrina, and himself on his blog.