“Questions & Answers” – with Chris F. Holm

(ed. note: this episode of “Questions & Answers” was originally set to air on Halloween.  Due to Hurricane Sandy in New York City, the release was delayed until today.  Apologies for any inconvenience – enjoy the show!) 

Happy Halloween, everyone, and welcome to another edition of ‘Questions and Answers’ here on Raging Biblioholism.  Today’s guest is one of the rising stars of fantasy noir, Mr. Chris F. Holm.  The second book in his series featuring Sam Thornton, collector of souls, is just out from Angry Robot Books and is called The Wrong Goodbye.  It’s a terrific mix of crime, fantasy, horror, and action – after finishing the book (and having felt only moderately warm towards the first), I said that I thought Mr. Holm had made a damn big splash, establishing himself firmly at the top of the genre.  We’re thrilled to get a chance to speak with him today as he takes a short break from The Wrong Goodbye tour.

Please welcome to the stage Mr. Chris Holm!

CH: Thanks so much for having me.

DB: It’s my pleasure!  So, let’s start with the start: where did the idea for this series come from?  What were/are your inspirations?

CH: The Collector series began with a scene that ran through my head as I was drifting off to sleep one night — a scene of one man following another into an alley, accosting him, and ripping out his soul. I’m not sure what fascinated me more about the scene — the altercation, or the fact that during it, the assailant said to his victim, “Sorry — it’s nothing personal.” Whatever it was, it got me out of bed. I ran downstairs to my desk, and wrote down everything about the scene I could remember.

That said, that one scene — which wound up the opening chapter of DEAD HARVEST — was simply that: one scene. I had no idea who these men were, or what the context of their ill-fated meeting might’ve been. So I set about filling in the gaps left by my subconscious with raw materials culled from my many obsessions and preoccupations. Dimestore detective novels. Cheesy horror flicks. Religious conspiracy stories, both real and imagined. Philosophy, armchair and otherwise. Lovecraft and his many acolytes. Dante. ’80s movies. Campfire tales. Greek myth.

DB: You can feel the mix in the writing – makes for another level of entertainment as you read, trying to suss out the various inspirations.  But while there are all these diverse progenitors, the books (especially The Wrong Goodbye) feel fantastically original.  Can you talk about the experience of claiming your own turf in what is becoming an increasingly crowded genre?

CH: First off, thanks! Sitting in the writer’s seat, it’s sometimes tough to tell whether I’ve done any such thing.

As far as staking out my own territory within the crowded field of urban fantasy, I used to think said territory for me was in truly honoring the crime side of the equation. Most folks who write urban fantasy borrow heavily from crime fiction, but damn few started their careers there like I did.

Now, though, I think that’s crap. I’d like to think the fantasy in my novels isn’t second rate, and I know for damn sure lots of folks who came up through fantasy can thrill an audience as well as any crime writer.

If you ask me, my territory — if I have one — is defined not by writing the sort of fantasy only a crime writer could write, it’s in writing the sort of fantasy only I could write. Which apparently means equal parts dumb movie references, random in-jokes, weird-ass set-pieces, and ruminations on faith. I’m just delighted to discover how many folks are willing to climb out onto my own personal nerd-limb with me.

DB: Speaking of those set-pieces… I have to ask about the second half of Dead Harvest.  In it, you pull off not one but two rather audacious and ballsy moves for an opening novel: you blow up Grand Central and you have an epic chase sequence that involves helicopters.  Can you tell me about what it was like to write those?

CH: You know, it’s funny. I’ve caught a lot of flack from some quarters for the helicopter scene; some folks loved its balls-out gonzo-pulpiness, and some folks thought it veered too far into unbelievability.

DB: I’ll admit – I’m a member of both camps.  (laughs)

CH: But the interesting thing is, no one has objected to the Grand Central disaster. I suppose it says something about the world we live in that such an act no longer falls outside the realm of possibility.

As for writing them, they were two very different experiences. The helicopter scene was pure cotton candy — a chance to really celebrate the classic pulp novels with which I’m so enamored. To my mind, the Collector universe isn’t the real world + fantastical elements, it’s the heightened, exaggerated world of crime pulp + fantastical elements. And lord knows, the chopper scene’s got both of those components in spades.

The Grand Central disaster, on the other hand, was uncomfortable to write because — supernatural origins of the attack aside — it was all too easy to put myself into the mindset of the fear and uncertainty that ensue in the wake of such a horrific attack. But it was important to me to suggest the heavenly battle I’m depicting has real-world consequences, and if I did my job right, the scene wasn’t exploitative or disrespectful in any way.

DB: I sometimes get a strange shiver up my spine now when I walk past Grand Central, so I think you nailed it.  But more than the set pieces, this is a character driven series for sure.  Can you talk about having a main character who’s constantly switching bodies?  How do you keep the reader locked in to the idea of being the same guy but with (something VERY) different human forms?

CH: For me, Sam’s ever-shifting physical form is more than simply a cool fantastical hook to draw the reader in. it cuts to the core of what the series is about — namely, the notion of identity as fluid, malleable. We’re all as much beholden to our life choices and our circumstances as we are the architects of them, and every day, we’re presented with countless branching-points that could result in us becoming very different people. The experience is fundamental to the human condition, which I think makes it quite relatable. In Sam’s case, that experience is simply literalized.

One thing I find fascinating is that readers, to a one, believe that Sam’s a decent man. For that matter, so do I. But that sort of judgment is in itself an expression of faith — a bet placed on the likelihood of specific future behaviors. And there’s no guarantee Sam will live up to it. We’ve seen him do ill. Seen him lie, cheat, steal — even kill. It seems to me, he’s forced to constantly decide what kind of man he really is, and — as with most of us — I’m not sure his answer to the question is consistent from moment to moment. So on the balance, who’s to say where he’ll come down?

DB: On that more serious/philosophical note… do you believe in true good and true evil?  Sam’s a marvelously complicated character as you just pointed out.  Do you think we all fall into that Sam-esque middleground or are there people closer to being paragons of good and evil?

CH: What’s funny about my series is I spend a lot of time dragging the black-and-white archetypes of religion, folklore, and myth into the muck and filth of the vast, gray middle in which we live. Yes, I think there’s such thing as true good and true evil, but I also think we all contain within us the capacity for either. That’s sad, to some extent, but it’s also freeing: no one but ourselves can decide which path we take. And I think the very question — that constant moral gutcheck we all do ten times a day — is a big part of what makes us human.

DB: So let’s discuss your writing process.  Are you a writer who writes a lot of backstory/bonus material type stuff that never ends up seeing the light of day?  Are their stories about these characters (Sam, even) floating around that we might never know?

CH: I’m not the sort of writer who fills notebooks with backstory and character sketches, so in that respect, it’s all on the page. That said, one of the things I feel strongly about is the notion that a writer shouldn’t necessarily make explicit everything he or she knows about a given character. I think it plays better, and the characters feel more well-rounded, if the audience only catches glimpses of the whole. So there’s probably not a character in my novels who doesn’t have some nugget of backstory I’ve yet to use rattling around my brain.

DB: How about music?  Are you a solitary silent writer or do you like noise/music?  As a reader, I tend to go back and forth – but sometimes an album and a book click and, for me, I found Nine Inch Nails’ “The Fragile” to be a perfect companion.

CH: First off, I love your choice of soundtrack. I might’ve gone for Massive Attack’s wonderfully creepy “Mezzanine,” but really, the two records are flipsides of the same coin.

DB: Done and done – the next book!

CH: Great!  Anyway: second, alas, I can’t write with music on, because I’m lousy at tuning it out; I wind up paying more attention to it than the writing itself. But I often compile mental playlists in preparation for certain scenes, so that I can set the mood in my mind. Anything from Portishead to Benny Goodman to the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” have proven, um, instrumental. (Really, Chris? A music pun? For shame.)

(General laughter.)

DB: Alright, if the puns are starting to come out… we’ve got time for one more question and then we’ll send you back on your way.  It’s the question everyone both loves and hates: what do you see as the future of this series?  Is Sam sticking around or do you think you’ll move on?

CH: The Collector series is half crime and half fantasy, and in the land where I am king, so too is my plan for it. Crime tends toward open-ended series, whereas fantasy leans more toward closed cycles. So ideally, what I’d love to do is tell a series of, say, three-book story cycles, where each set of three has its own arcs, its own conclusion — but still leaves the door open for further adventures. Whether I’ll get my way depends on a lot of things I have no control over, like folks actually wanting to read ‘em. But I’ll tell you this: I’m working on book three right now, and I ain’t writing like it’s the end. In some ways, Sam’s journey is only just beginning.

DB: Well, I’ll definitely be first in line to see what happens next – “Mezzanine” in tow!

Ladies and gentlemen, Chris F. Holm is the author of “The Collector” series, the second book of which – The Wrong Goodbye – is out now in fine bookshops and internet places everywhere.  If you’re a fan of Harry Dresden and his ilk, Sam Thornton gets my full-throated recommendation.  Chris, we look forward to seeing you again sometime soon!

(Applause and the lights fade.)

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