You might know I’m a bit of a fan of Chris Holm’s work — you can find my reviews of his Collector trilogy here, and of his new book The Killing Kind here — and we’ve had some great interactions (including some signed bookmarks for the Collector series, featured in my review of that trilogy!), so I was excited to be contacted and asked if I wanted to feature a post from him about the journey behind writing The Killing Kind.
It’s a bit of a jump from publishing SF/F Chandler/Hammett pastiche with Angry Robot to writing a book set in reality (albeit the dark underside of reality I wouldn’t want to visit, unless guided by an author like Chris in a safely fictional vehicle)… but as you can see from Chris Holm’s post here, maybe it has something in common with the Collector trilogy after all.
It just wouldn’t die, you see.
The Story Behind THE KILLING KIND
It began, as many criminal enterprises do, with a layoff—with a man, suddenly out of work, nearing the end of his rope.
Writers don’t often talk about their day jobs, but I’m a scientist by training. For a time, I thought I wanted to be one of those bug hunters the CDC dispatches whenever there’s an outbreak of something deadly and exotic. (My wife, as you might imagine, was thrilled.) I was serious enough that I enrolled in a microbiology PhD program at the University of Virginia—but ultimately, it didn’t stick. A field that challenging demands one’s full attention, and I couldn’t bring myself to shelve my dream of becoming a published author. So I dropped out of grad school, took a job as a researcher for a small biotech startup, and got writing.
Nine years, one unpublished novel, and a handful of short stories later, that startup folded—and for the first time since I was sixteen, I was jobless. So when my buddy Steve Weddle told me he was launching a new print magazine and asked if I’d like to contribute a story, I said sure. He couldn’t afford to pay me, but I didn’t care. I needed something to do to keep me from climbing the walls while waiting to hear back on all the resumes I sent out.
I pitched Steve couple story ideas. One was lean and mean at maybe 3,000 words—the sort of story I was known for (inasmuch as I was known at all). The other was a monster, a behemoth—an idea so ambitious that I worried it’d get away from me, and wind up too long to print. When I told Steve so, here’s what he replied:
“The problem with online writing (which I love and have nothing against and love and did I make it clear that I love online?) is that folks have a tough time scrolling through a 10k word blog post of a story. So if you have a piece that’s longer than 5k, being in print would be the way to go, I think. AHMM and EQMM and those folks have limits to size. I mean, they can’t just run 20k of something because it’s cool. Needle can. It’s what we were built for. Yeah, some quick punch is great. But something longer, developed, intricate, high-concept would be great to see in print.”
So, caution thrown, I sat down and wrote “The Hitter”—a hard-bitten tale of violence, loss, and redemption, featuring a hitman who only hits other hitmen. It came out fast. Crazy fast. And at 11,000 words, it wound up more novella than short story.
“The Hitter” appeared in Needle’s second issue. To my surprise and delight, people really responded to it. It was nominated for an Anthony Award, and selected to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. I’m pretty sure that means I owe Steve a beer.
But for some reason, the story still nagged at me. Unlike all the other shorts I’d written, it felt unfinished—which was odd, since it was already longer than the lot of ’em. I told myself to leave it be. That I shouldn’t mess with a good thing. Then, one day, I woke up with an idea that changed everything. I could pull back the camera. Shift the narrative from claustrophobic first-person to sprawling third. Show not just the (hopefully redemptive) journey of the hitman protagonist, but also that of the antagonists who want him dead, and those who hope to bring him to justice. A few months later, I’d finished the first draft of THE KILLING KIND.
Whether the transition from short story to novel was successful isn’t for me to say—but so far, buzz has been good. THE KILLING KIND received the first starred review of my career, from Kirkus. I’ve gotten glowing blurbs from writers I admire. In one of the more surreal turns of my life, the legendary David Baldacci called it “a story of rare, compelling brilliance.”
I’m grateful, if a bit befuddled. All I was trying to do was make this story finally shut up. I’m nearly finished with book two, and it hasn’t yet. It’s almost enough to make me wish I’d been laid off ages ago.
Chris Holm is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. His critically acclaimed Collector trilogy made over forty Year’s Best lists. His latest novel, THE KILLING KIND, is about a man who makes his living hitting hitmen, only to wind up a target himself. For links to Chris on Twitter and Facebook, visit www.chrisholmbooks.com.