Sunday, March 28, 2010

7 Questions: Chris Holm

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.


Chris said...

Thanks for the opportunity to ramble on, David. I had a blast.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Top interview. Chris is a splendid writer. Top of the range stuff.

Barrie said...

What a very fun interview!

David Cranmer said...

Ramble away amigo. I've been thinking about your comments concerning "cultural DNA" and how Star Wars "precludes criticism." I've been watching The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman again. I know it's viewed as campy and dated and it is. But this is part of my cultural DNA and I can sit straight-faced following this hokey show and love it.

Paul, 100% agree.

Barrie, Glad you like it. I have a few more scheduled.

David Barber said...

A great interview, David. Really enjoyed it. Look forward to more and will look up any earlier ones.

Regards, David.

P.s. Any joy with the new camera?

Hilary Davidson said...

Terrific interview. I love Chris's short stories and I'm definitely looking forward to the day DEAD HARVEST gets a book deal. Don't think that's far away.

David Cranmer said...

David, The camera we went with is a Nikon P100. We checked everyone's suggestions and tested them all. This one size, capability, and weight was a perfect fit.

Hilary, I agree. Chris is top tier among short story writers and a book deal can't be far off.

sertech said...

His Star Wars breakdown echo my own.

Scott Parker said...

Dang right Han shot first!

Just recently re-watched the first three films with my boy. I was determined for him to watch them in the proper order, thank you very much. So loved his shock at the end of TESB.

I think Star Wars was a cultural line in the sand. There was life before and after Star Wars. It infused everything in my growing up days. The original trilogy will always be special although my adult self rolls his eyes often during ROTJ. In truth, it might have been the first step into this larger world in which we have the possibility of Baby Star Wars. No, I'm not kidding.

Speaking about David's love of Steve Austin and Jamie Summers, I, too, loved those shows. There's a certain quality to them that takes me back to my elementary-school days. I can get that same feeling with the original Star Wars, still, after thirty-three years. (Dang, did I just write that?)

Chris, I wrote a story for school, too. What I did was write an adventure featuring my first crush as the princess and me as the hero. I saved her, of course. ;-)

Dave King said...

First rate interview, giving every chance for Chris to reveal something of himself and his work. I have not read any of his, but I might well now.

Patti said...

Nice interview, David.

David Cranmer said...

Anyone that was a kid betwen 1977 and 1983 understands perfectly.

Scott, 33 huh? Well, that's nothing, take a look at my preceeding post. I'm on the back burner as a character tells Adam Sandler in CLICK.

Dave, We have a story of his, THE TOLL COLLECTORS at BEAT to a PULP which I'm sure you would enjoy.

Thanks Patti.

Chris said...

Thanks, all, for the kind words. I'm pretty sure I now owe each and every one of you a beer. Or, in Hilary's case, its gluten-free equivalent.

Scott, it must've been incredible to see his face during Empire's big reveal. And you left out some key info in your recounting of your grade-school tale: did it work? Did your storytelling chops help you get the girl?

Scott Parker said...

What was neat about my son mulling over what Vader said was my boy's reasoning. Interestingly, I didn't believe Vader was Luke's dad in those three LONG* years between TESB and ROTJ. My son immediately jumped to it but assumed Vader was doing it because he was forced to do it.

As to my sixth-grade "Princess," no, I didn't woo her. Another boy did. She moved away after that school year. Later, I learned from a mutual friend that she liked me. Sigh. Guess I was part of a Nicholas Sparks novel. I may still have it, over at my parents' house. I will have to look.

*We watched Star Wars one Friday night and waited a WHOLE week before watching TESB. Then he (really me) couldn't wait and we watched Jedi the following day. I tried to tell him that we had to wait three years. Didn't phase him. His favorite scene is the cantina scene. I have the DVD with both versions. He likes the original, Han Shot First, version better! Yeah!

David Cranmer said...

I can still remember waiting between movies like it was yesterday. Agonizing for a ten year old.

Clare2e said...

Nice interview!

My cultural DNA's full of the hokey and improbable- I even liked SUPER TRAIN. Anyone who's unrepentant about loving shlock is cool with me, and I'm sure it's a sign of dynamite writing (how I hope it is)

The advice about targeting the market is on the nose, and I'll make a point of checking out the new AHMM. Great luck with the MSS.

David Cranmer said...

SUPER TRAIN?! Now, Clare, we must draw the line somewhere.

Chris said...

BIONIC WOMAN. SUPER TRAIN. Suddenly I feel less like an outlier in the nerd department with my Star Wars obsession. And I'm with Clare; a love of schlock must be a sign of dynamite writing. Should we be questioned separately, that's the story I'm sticking to.