September 12, 2013

Writing with the Devil At His Heels: an interview with Chris F. Holm, author of "The Big Reap"

I recently read and reviewed The Big Reap, the third book in the Collector trilogy by Chris F. Holm. A great cap on the trilogy, I thought, and all the excuse I needed to contact Chris to ask him a few questions about the series and his writing. Enjoy!

Gef: Three novels now in the Collector series. A bona fide trilogy. How does it feel to be on the other end of a journey like that? Feel a little wiser, maybe a little battle-scarred?

Chris: Right now I feel spent, and terrified that the whole thing's out in the world for all to read. Maybe George R. R. Martin can hold thousands of pages' worth of story in his head, but I sure can't, so trying to wrap up a trilogy in a satisfying manner involved a whole lot of checking details with CTRL-F and flying by the seat of my pants. Thankfully, most folks seem to like where book three ended up, but I doubt I'll have any idea whether I personally feel that I succeeded for quite some time.

Gef: Blending genres can be tricky, I reckon. With the hard-boiled elements, along with the fantastical, did you find yourself doing some kind of balancing act there, or was there something else to the process that had you more concerned?

Chris: Actually, blending hard-boiled elements with the fantastical came easily to me, because both flowed from Sam's voice, Sam's back-story. The real trick was satisfying the requirements of fair-play mystery within that fantastical framework. Obviously, when you're writing about bug monsters and arcane rituals, plausibility is out the window -- but I still wanted the conclusion of each novel to appear inevitable in retrospect. To do that, I had to establish the rules of Sam's world as best I could and then abide by them no matter what.

The other thing I struggled with was making each book stand on its own. Obviously, they tell a larger story as a series, but I wanted each of them to be complete unto themselves. Whether I succeeded is for the audience to decide.

Gef: With each book a bit episodic in nature, featuring Sam's character development through the course of the trilogy must have been tricky as well. Did you always see his evolution there from the beginning with Dead Harvest, or did it kind of grow as the stories moved along?

Chris: My philosophy when it comes to writing is if my protagonist ends the story in more or less the same place he or she started, I probably picked the wrong damn story to tell. I knew at the outset Sam would evolve over the course of the series. I knew that his evolution wouldn't be consensus-good or -bad, because I wanted to stress the notion that good or evil is not so much a state of existence as an endless series of choices. But of course the details of his character development were borne of story, and since I didn't outline the Collector series, they were often as much a surprise to me as my audience.

Gef: I listened to a podcast interview with Lauren Beukes a while back--Geek's Guide, maybe?--and she mentioned how serial killers have an affinity for puns. Given the wordplay with the titles of your novels and the wink-and-nod to Raymond Chandler, should we be worried?

Chris: Maybe, but if that's the case, the people we should really look out for are the cozy authors; they elevate the title-pun to an art form. YOU CANNOLI DIE ONCE. A BREW TO A KILL. MALLED TO DEATH. And that's just off the top of my head.

Gef: As I read The Big Reap, I felt there was an almost serialized quality to the chapters, with Sam's globe-trotting monster hunt. Was that at all intentional on your part, perhaps influenced by the penny dreadfuls of old?

Chris: I love that you caught that, because that was in fact partly an homage to an old-fashioned serial. It was also my riff on the classic set 'em up and knock 'em down revenge-tale structure seen in everything from Stuart Neville's THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST to Tarantino's Kill Bill. And, of course, it afforded me the opportunity to tell a series of horror vignettes, each paying homage to a specific movie monster.

But there's another, more practical reason I opted for such an approach: time. I knew the meat of the overarching story I wanted to tell, but I needed some decent bones to hang it on. And I only had six months to bang out the manuscript. So I developed a game-plan that allowed me to break the writing into chunks small enough for me to hold in my head, and then I wrote like the devil was at my heels. It might not be an elegant answer, but it's the truth.

Gef: Speaking of serial fiction, do you think the Collector series might be served in lieu of a new novel anytime soon with shorter works? Or is the novel format the preferred length when exploring Sam's world?

Chris: Thus far, the only Collector stories that have presented themselves to me have been novel-length. In fact, each novel's been a little longer than the last. But that's not to say I wouldn't write a short if one occurred to me, about Sam or other characters from the Collectorverse. Every once and a while, some half-baked nugget of a story occurs to me -- the latest being a skewed take on the underrated neo-noir flick Red Rock West, in which Sam repeatedly tries and fails to snatch the same soul -- but I've learned with short stories, it's best not to force things. When one wants to be written, it'll let me know.

Gef: I understand it that you're working on a supernatural thriller next, set in Maine no less. What in the heck is it about Maine that makes it such an alluring backdrop for dark fiction, anyway?

Chris: Maybe it's Maine's stark beauty. Maybe it's the long winters. Truth is, I don't know, but I'll tell you this: I didn't start writing in earnest until I moved to Maine in '01. And I'm afraid to move away, for fear the words won't follow. Which, truth be told, is no big deal, because now that I'm here, I can't imagine living anywhere else.

Gef: Well, a big thanks to Chris for stopping by the blog for this interview. You can find out more about the Collector series and whatever else Chris is working on by visiting

As for the rest of you, if you'd like to read my thoughts on the Collector trilogy, just click on the following link to see my reviews on: Dead Harvest, The Wrong Goodbye, and The Big Reap.

Or you can buy a copy of any or all of the books and read them for yourself.




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