A Conversation with Chris Irvin
I met Chris Irvin for the first time last year at a writers’ retreat, and all you really need to know to understand Chris is that one night while a group of us were walking on a DARK, creepy country road at midnight (these are the types of things that happen on writers’ retreats), Chris took his phone out and had it play “Looking for the Magic” from the horror movie You’re Next. That’s pretty much the type of guy he is. Since then, I’ve read most of everything Chris has written. Most of his stuff is in the crime genre, but with a clear literary bent to it. His latest release is a great collection of short stories titled SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE. He’s also writing comics, novels, and was recently a momentary viral star when this post ended up at the top of Reddit’s front page. He’s a really good guy, and I was happy when he agreed to let me interview him. Buy his books!
Me: So it’s probably best if we start off with who you are, but knowing writers can blather on and on and on about things, I’m giving you exactly 50 words to introduce yourself. Go!
Chris: I live in Boston with my wife and two sons, though I grew up in the Midwest. I’ve written two novellas, and a few dozen short stories. I don’t sleep (much), and spend the wee hours writing. Two comic miniseries are on submission, and a novel is awaiting a rewrite.
Me: Congratulations on hitting 50 words, exactly. If nothing else, we know you can operate the Word Count feature in Word, so nice job.
I’ve read FEDERALES, BURN CARDS, and your new collection SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE, and I gotta tell you, I find it a little irritating that you’re already this good at such a young-ish age. What’s your writing history? How long have you been at it? What prompted writing for you?
Chris: Well, thank you! Actually, up until recently – turning the *magic* 30 – when it came to writing my age was a source of insecurity. I’m accustom to working with others much older than me in the various jobs I’ve held – and had zero issues – but when it came to writing it was different. Maybe seeing the output of those in their 40s/50s/60s who write full-time, or the notion that some believe one hasn’t experienced enough to write anything of value until their later years. I’m not entirely sure, but I’m over that now…I think.
BUT back to your questions: I drew a lot when I was young. I’d always wanted to write – journaled here and there, outlined a book or two. I stumble upon things occasionally (ex: a gun-filled prohibition-era car chase from 7th grade English that would probably get me in trouble if I were in school today.) In college I ran a pen and paper role-playing group with my roommates. I generated most of the work myself and afterward wrote up the action as quasi-short stories. I think this is part of what gave me the kick to finally write.
When I moved to Boston in 2009 I decided to give it a shot. I don’t recall exactly what it was (I really wish I did…) but I looked for writing classes and stumbled upon Grubstreet. I took several night/weekend classes there, a few with LitReactor, lucked into a wonderful writing group, and kept at it. Right after my first NECON in 2012 is when I started getting up in the morning to write before work. It’s been a tiring three years, but I’m spurred on by the passionate community around me. It’s inspiring to have friends who are finding great success at various stages of their writing career. A nice reminder that we’re all in it for the long haul.
Kurt: Do you remember the first piece you wrote where you had that “THIS! This is how I want to write! Finally!” moment? Did it take you long to get there? Or are you one of those obnoxious people who achieved literary nirvana early on?
Chris: Great question. Yes! I’ll start with mentioning that I thought I had found my voice when I wrote Federales, and in a way I think I did, or was on my way there. That’s not to say FEDERALES or any of my other fiction isn’t “me,” though maybe a snapshot of me at a point in time is more accurate. My writing can be deeply influenced by what I read, and I’ve read quite a bit since then (late 2013.)
When I wrote “Imaginary Drugs” and “Digging Deep,” this past spring I got a strong feeling in my gut that this was it, the kind of story that I wanted to write. All writers experience highs and lows – the ‘this is amazing’ to ‘what was I thinking?’ – and no matter how much I second guessed myself, the feeling stuck. They are two of my favorites in the collection. A story I’m working on now for another project is in the same vein, so I think I’m onto something.
Kurt: So let’s get into it then, shall we? Because you’ve hit on something that happens in your stories where I think we have philosophical differences. I usually approach a story to have a beginning, middle, and end. You, on the other hand, seem to write snapshots, captured moments in time that are captured, but don’t tell a complete story. Oftentimes we don’t see the fallout of actions that characters take. Both “Imaginary Drugs” and “Digging Deep” do this, as does BURN CARDS, which you know I wanted to beat you once I finished. This isn’t a dig on your writing, believe me, and it makes your stories much more literary than most crime stories, but I guess my question is this–How do you approach a story philosophically? What are you trying to accomplish when you sit down to write about a character or situation?
Chris: “Captured moments in time” is a smart way of describing my short fiction, though I do believe they are complete in that they leave the reader with a character(s) who has reached the end of their moment. A failed attempt at fitting in and the loss of innocence in “Imaginary Drugs.” A father with a greater sense of appreciation of his role in “Digging Deep.” I suppose it’s very slice of life in a way, with less focus on a crime and more on the people and the world around them that are influenced/affected by the crime. Most, if not all of my works begin with images of small moments that grow into a story as I write. I write several pages by hand to get a feel for a story – the tone, where it’s heading, etc – this produces a lot of these instants that I’ll jot down on the side and insert later – things even as small as the way two characters look at each other, or a color or smell. Bursts of inspiration that I don’t want to lose. I’m trying to put the reader in the character’s head — right there in their world, and I think if I can conclude a story with the reader hanging on the last sentence, they already know what eventually might come next, but they don’t need to explicitly see it as it’s less interesting than what they’ve read. A boy comes home from camp with the mixed emotions of a teenager. A man returns to his wife and daughter with a renewed appreciation of the world inside his home – where his heart belongs. My favorite stories that have stuck with me don’t conclude – they more or less come in and go out with the tide. This quiet (sometimes disquieting) drift is often very melancholy.
Kurt: That’s a great explanation. Have you approached your novellas and novel with the same philosophy? How does this carry over to your comic writing? And while we’re at it, I suppose you should explain your comics, too.
Chris: Maybe? It’s difficult to recall. I think pieces of each novella developed with the above philosophy in mind, though perhaps with less focus, or more scatterbrained. For example, the first scene of Federales that popped into my head was when the protagonist, Marcos, is standing in front of a mirror in a hospital (quite late in the book). I had a good idea of where I wanted to go, but it would have been too short without flashbacks (which I very much wanted to avoid). So I ended up working my way back from what became the beginning to that moment in the hospital and onto the end. There were a lot of small moments that came about while writing the rest of the book. I typically try not to think too much and just let it flow.
Comics…I could talk about comics for hours, ha. I’m a very visual person and I’ve been a fan of comics since I was little. When readers pointed out the cinematic/visual elements of my fiction, it pushed me to give comics a shot.
I think my prose philosophy/style carried over to my first comic, Expatriate, and the scripts I wrote. It’s about an American white collar criminal who flees the pursuit of law enforcement for Rio de Janeiro. It’s a little more action oriented than my prose writing, but I can see the influence. You need much more of a beginning/middle/end structure though, especially with comics running in 4-6 issues arcs these days. I’m much more conscious of pacing and structure. I outline and layout pages at a very detailed level before I write a full script. My other comic projects have (generally) tended to include more fantastical elements and action with a mind for making it fun for an artist to draw. A story can be excellent, but if it doesn’t inspire or excite your creative partner then it’s not going to go well.
Time will tell with the novel. It’s due for a major rewrite this winter.
Kurt: It sounds like you have a lot of plates spinning currently with short stories, a novel, and comics. Are you naturally this ADD or do you just multi-task exceptionally well? How do you handle all of these different types of projects at once without diluting any of them?
Chris: Naturally ADD without a doubt, ha. I make a lot of lists and try to focus on one project at a time though. If I don’t then I get stuck with a dozen different ideas rolling around my head, pulling me in every direction. For example, I finished the collection in June. Took a few weeks off and then wrote another short story that was coming due. After that it was a month of comics. Now I’m back on a short story that’s due ASAP before I try and rewrite a novel before the end of the year. Baby steps…
I think it also stems from a desire to get my mind off submissions. I can be a constant email checker when it comes to waiting to hear back on a piece. It’s even harder with comics. While there seems to be near infinite outlets for short stories, there are really only five or six publishers of creator-owned comics that can be considered anywhere near widely read. A lot hinges on each pitch. So it helps to keep moving forward, working on new and exciting projects to keep my mind off what I’ve already got in the bag. Hopefully cutting down on the putzing around!
Kurt: Here’s a mean question, if you had to choose one of the–shit, what’s the word: mediums? Genres?–which would you go with and why?
Chris: One medium…while I love prose – especially short stories – I’ve got to go with comics. The visual nature is such a hit with me, and writing scripts is a lot of fun. I think I’d write even more if it wasn’t for the expensive cost of putting together a book. I can write prose novels all I want and it only costs me my sanity time. But each comic requires pencils/inks, letters, color and design. I have a high standard and I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible artists who’ve been a blast to collaborate with. But it also quickly adds up. Like the prose writing, it’s a marathon and I’m in it for the long haul. I’ll keep throwing stuff up until something sticks.
Kurt: What do you get out of writing comics you don’t get from writing short stories or novels?
Chris: I love the collaborative aspect of comics. It’s inspiring to be co-creating with passionate artists after working “alone” on prose for years. I’ve been lucky to have had a fantastic writing group and friends I’ve made over the years who I share drafts (short stories, novels, etc) with, but it’s different when co-creating something. I’m also faster at writing comic scripts – from outlining by issue to breaking down pages and actually “writing,” it often feels like I’ve accomplished more than when on the daily grind of trying to reach a word count on a novel. I go back and forth. After Bouchercon last weekend, all I want to do is get back to the novel!
And again – as a visual person – it’s incredible to see my scripts come to life. Especially with my creative partners to date – Joe DellaGatta, Ricardo Lopez Ortiz, Artyom Trakanov – we have great chemistry and it’s amazing to see the number of panels/pages that come out how them pictured it in my head or that have surprised me with something even better. Also, regarding short stories and novels – covers are extremely important to me. I absolutely judge a book by its cover. It sets the tone for my reading experience. So working on comics is like dealing with my favorite aspects of books X 1000. It’s exciting.
Kurt: You’ve obviously tapped into something “right” based on the reception your work has received, I know that. Who are the crime writers you’ve gained the most inspiration from? What is it about those writers’ works that affects you?
Chris: Megan Abbott’s Queenpin is a big influence on my work. The way her characters move about a world infused with crime and how their lives are impacted by the decisions they make (or lack thereof). I always go back to Queenpin for Abbott’s subtle use of violence. It’s lurking around the corner on every page, but the way a single act late in the book explodes is just excellent. I’ve never read anything else like it.
More recently, William Boyle and Richard Lange have made a big impression on me. I think both of them can be described as writing ‘literary crime’ – the more slice of life, characters on the fringe of crime, how crime influences lives, etc. I see some of these elements in my earlier work, but reading both Boyle and Lange really focused my attention on these aspects, revealing what I most desired to write.
Kurt: What are your plans for Safe Inside the Violence? Will you be doing readings? Signings? Con/panel appearances? Are these things you enjoy doing?
Chris: Bouchercon (the best!) was this past weekend in Raleigh, NC. I brought a couple dozen ARCs and left them out for people to pick up. I think almost all of them were grabbed by readers who are unfamiliar with my work, which is pretty cool. Overall people are excited for the book, more so than the previous two novellas. As for readings/signings/events, here’s a quick rundown of those scheduled so far:
11/13 – Launch Party @ Papercuts J.P. (Jamaica Plain, MA)
11/18 – Reading event with Jason Starr @ Brookline Booksmith (Brookline, MA)
11/27 – Signing TBD (Libertyville/Chicago, IL area)
12/21 – Signing TBD (Columbus, OH area)
Jan/Feb – Event TBD (NYC)
I get anxious, but who doesn’t? They are fun and I’m happy to do more (hint, hint).
Kurt: Okay, time for the rapid fire question portion of the interview. 5 questions you probably won’t get elsewhere, that maybe will let your readers know a little more about you. Explain your answers, don’t explain your answers…it’s up to you. Here we go:
You’re in to a Vegas loan shark for $25,000 and she wants her money tomorrow. You’ve got $25, a snub-nosed .38, and no fear. What do you do?
Chris: Rob another Vegas loan shark on ‘her behalf’ for $25,000. Throw it down on black – double up (natch) – pay her off and ride off into the sunset with my $25k while they take each other out.
Kurt: You’ve been set-up and are now on the run from the law for a crime you didn’t commit. Figure the unstoppable force of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Before you can clear your name, you need to go underground. What’s your plan to disappear?
Chris: Shave my beard and steal your identity.
Kurt: What unsolved mystery must you know the answer to before you die?
Chris: Are there ghosts? Aliens? TELL ME, KURT!
Kurt: Oh no, you’ve got a dead body in your house that you’ll never be able to explain to the police. How will you dispose of the body?
Chris: Dexter did well with the dumping in the ocean. I’ll follow his lead.
Kurt: Dinner party! Besides friends and family, you can invite one rocker, writer, actor/actress, and, considering your genre, one felon, all living, of course. Who are you inviting?
Chris: Oh man. Quickly off the top of my head… Colin Meloy, Denis Johnson, Bruce Willis, and felon…everyone I can think of is a total scumbag, ha! They can stay put.
Kurt: Nicely done. And, as always, I’ll give you the last word.
Chris: Thanks so much for the wonderful interview. I hope people check out the collection and give it a shot. It’s my favorite work to date – and most personal – so I’ve got my fingers crossed. Spread the word!