Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Writers With Day Jobs: Chris F. Holm

Chris F. Holm is the author of the widely praised (even by your truly) Dead Harvest, a wildly inventive urban fantasy/crime/horror novel and book 1 of The Collector series.
Book #2, The Wrong Goodbye, is out in a few months. 
(As an aside, these books have some of my favorite covers of anything recently, and maybe ever. As I delve deeper into this cover design thing I have the utmost respect for good cover design and artistry. These things are frame-worthy things of beauty.)

That's not to mention his collection 8 Pounds, and his work in the anthologies Crime Factory: The First Shift, Beat To A Pulp: Round One and Round Two, and I'm proud to share the page with him in Pulp Ink.

His life in between pumping out these Anthony Award nominated, Derringer-nominated and Spinetingler-Winning  stories was so interesting there are a few follow-up questions in here, including two cents from his wife, Katrina. Hmmm . . . I sense a new series of questions here. Spouses of Writers Get Their Say.

What do you do as your day job?
I'm a research associate at a large biotech company, which is a fancy way of saying I'm a lab rat. Once upon a time, I was enrolled in an Infectious Disease PhD program; I thought I'd work for the CDC, chasing nasty microbes around the globe. Turns out, it wasn't quite my cup of tea. So I quit. Got a job. And started writing.
Your job and background sound ripe for a thriller set in the CDC world or with bioterrorism and other "high concept" stories. Have you ever been tempted to "write what you know" and sell yourself as one of those "expert" authors that publishers seem to love so much? Lawyers writing legal thrillers, Barry Eisler's CIA experience, etc.
Honestly, I've got no interest in selling myself as an "expert" author, because a) I'm more dilettante than expert, really, and b) microbe-centric-thriller-author sounds a hell of a lot more restrictive than either of the examples you mentioned; I'd be repeating myself by book three. That said, I've had an idea for a weird little wrong-man conspiracy/global pandemic tale bouncing around my head for years that no one's scooped me on yet, so maybe one day I'll get around to writing it.

When do you find time to write?
I've worked hard to carve out a few hours a week -- eight till noon, Saturday and Sunday -- during which I write no matter what. Friends and family know not to call then, because I won't answer. Weekdays, I'm far less strict, but I try to open up my WIP once a day at least, because even a few minutes spent writing gets me a little closer to the finish line.
Has your job or coworkers ever influenced a story?
Absolutely. My short story "The Big Score," which featured prominently a lobsterman, was influenced by the view at my last day job; we were a scrappy little marine bio startup, and our (shabby, shabby) offices overlooked Portland, Maine's working waterfront. I'm talking bait trucks and the like. I wrote a short called "A Native Problem" that hearkened back to my infectious disease research days. And I've got one coming out later this year influenced by my layoff a couple years back, and the sort of existential emptiness of modern cubicle culture. (Not that I'm complaining, work-folk. I'm very happy for the job. And the paycheck. And the benefits.)

Now that you have a high-profile book out, do those co-workers who are supportive ever think they've found themselves in Dead Harvest or anything else you've written? Are they right?
You know, no one has! And I tend not to base characters on folks I know, so even if they thought they were in there, they'd be wrong. Every once and a while, I'll borrow a friend's last name for a minor character or street name or whatever, just to make 'em smile, but that's about the extent of it.
What would it take for you to quit and write full time?
That's a question I've often asked myself, and the answer I always seem to circle back to is, "A deal big enough I don't have to worry about how I'm gonna keep the lights on." Which is to say, at least a couple years' salary. Because one big sale is no guarantee you'll make another anytime soon.
Do your coworkers know you write? Do they know you write dark crime fiction? What do they say about it?
They do. As I mentioned, I was laid off a couple years back. It occurred to me that most potential employers Google folks they're interviewing, and in my case, that meant they'd stumble across my blog, my Twitter profile, even a number of my online short stories. So I was up-front about it. Explained that I wasn't exactly making a mint at the writing gig. Emphasized strong writing skills, and downplayed my penchant for killing people messy on the page. Much to my surprise, it worked.
Don't get me wrong -- most of my coworkers thought my writing an eccentricity. Then I got a book deal, and something shifted. Many of them have really embraced -- even championed -- my writing, for which I'm very grateful. And if I've creeped any of 'em out, they've been too spooked to say so.
Do you think people respect writing as a job, or does it come off as less "work" than a labor or office job?
A bit of both, I think. Most folks seem to respect the time and effort that goes into it, if only because they can't imagine writing anything for fun, much less thousands upon thousands of pages worth of material. But on the other hand, I think writing's sometimes viewed as a natural talent, a facility, rather than something that requires exercise to maintain. And unless you've been in the submission trenches, taking rejections left and right, you've no concept of how daunting the actual business aspect of writing can be. God knows I didn't, starting out.
Be honest, if you wrote full time, do you think you'd be disciplined about it?
If you'd asked me that a year ago, I would have said no. But lately, I've been on a tear, forcing myself to put ass-in-chair every chance I get, to write even when I'm not feeling it at all. This past month alone, I wrote a hundred prose pages. Plus my promotional duties. Plus my day job. And hell, I even managed to fit in a road trip for a good friend's wedding. I used to think, "A book a year would be a breeze if I were writing full-time -- imagine how much time I'd have for other stuff." Now, I think, "If I were writing full-time, to hell with one a year: I could probably fit in three."
What job, other than writing, would you most like to have?
Bookstore owner. Rock star. Covert agent. Iron Chef. Sommelier. (Note your question never states I'm required to be remotely qualified.)
What has been your best job? Your worst?
Best job (no offense to my current one, which I quite enjoy and also please don't fire me) would have to be driving a shuttle van in college. Radio on, windows down, brain wandering; it was a writer's dream. My friends would come hang out while I was on shift, and if nobody showed up looking for a ride, we'd go grab a bite to eat, or play PlayStation for free at Toys R' Us, or whatever. Good gig for a kid on scholarship, too poor to own a car.
Worst was hands-down the summer I spent running a drill press in a rural upstate New York factory that built forklifts. It was hot, hard, brutal work, and it didn't help that I was a rail-thin, multiply earring'd college kid in a building full of grizzled lifers. By summer's end, me and those guys got on okay, but it was rocky getting there. 
When do you find time to read?
Uh. Um. Remember when I said I've been on a writing tear? Yeah, a lot of that's been at the expense of reading time. I bring a book to work so I can read during lunch. Some days, that's the only time I find.
Have you ever, or maybe how often, have you considered quitting and shacking up to write novels, money issues be damned?
I haven't. My wife's been insanely supportive of my writing, but I don't think I could ask her to be sole breadwinner while I slogged away in penniless obscurity. She and I've been broke before, and I'm not about to volunteer us to wind up that way again. Poor's only romantic to folks who haven't had the displeasure.
What is your ultimate goal with writing? Full time journeyman or millionaire? Or are you satisfied doing it part time?
Writing's the only thing I've ever done I thought was worth a damn. I'd love to make a go of it full-time. Whether I'm lucky enough to hit it big, or just scrappy enough to make enough to keep the lights on, that's what I aim to do. Lord knows how long it'll take to get there.
Given what you've earned writing, dividing it by the hours spent, what would you say is your hourly wage as a writer?
I don't think my calculator goes that low. Is it too late to reconsider on that whole full-time/part-time thing?
Do you have a spouse/partner that would support you writing full time?
Very much so, though as I said, Katrina and I are of a mind about making sure doing so's financially tenable first. It was my wife who encouraged me to try my hand at writing in the first place, and she's not only read but edited every story I've ever written. The world doesn't see it without me first getting her thumbs-up, and her input's been vital to my career. Of course, it's worth noting she's a book blogger and reviewer who's read more mysteries than any ten other people I know, so the opinions she's offering aren't simply of the blandly supportive variety.

And as long as you brought her in, do you mind if I ask your wife what she thinks of what your imagination is capable of? Does she sleep with the lights on? 
Katrina Niidas Holm:
Chris’ madness knows no bounds. It’s really quite terrifying.  Please send help.
Seriously, though – I’ve always been impressed at Chris’ ability to craft a story, but I don’t think I was ever really caught off guard by the scope of his imagination until I read the second Collector novel (THE WRONG GOODBYE, due out this September).  That book knocked me back.  I can’t count the number of times I came across something in the text – some creature, some concept, some set piece, some sequence of events – that caused my jaw to drop.  I must have sounded like a broken record, so often did I turn to him and demand to know how in the hell he’d come up with something.  I’m now fairly convinced I’m married to a literary Willy Wonka.  Or maybe a noir-ish, pulpy Jasper Fforde (that’s high praise, coming from me!).  And I can’t wait to see what crazy shit he comes up with next. 


Chris said...

Thanks for having me, Eric. And if you don't mind my saying, your recent forays into cover design ain't too shabby, either. Credit for mine goes to my editor, Marc Gascoigne, and Amazing 15 Design, who've worked with properties as varied as Dr. Who and the RAF. (Er, Amazing 15, not my editor. As far as I know.)

Anonymous said...

Haven't read your whole blog (you write a ton, geez) and it may be on here somewhere but do you have a day job yourself?

Eric Beetner said...

I do have a day job, but since this whole blog is all blah blah blah about me I wanted to hear what others deal with as writers/workers.
I love my job. It is very creative and pays well. I am a TV editor and producer. Occasionally I get to direct very small things. I left behind my life as a part-time musician a long time ago. My screenwriting career was a spectacular flameout, or really more of a never-sparked kind of thing.
Any time anyone wants to interview me about me I'm on board :) But for now, I wanted to give other writers I admire the chance to speak out. And really, I was curious how others deal with a day job.
Thanks for stopping by!