27 November 2015

Black Friday Interview with Christopher Irvin

In true bumbling fashion, when I first met Christopher Irvin in person at Bouchercon back in October, I asked him, "So do you write too?" Clearly I should've looked more closely at his name tag first, but at least I can blame the general Bouchercon blur for my stumbly faux pas.
He does indeed write—and terrifically well, as I'd already known at the time. And if you haven't yet discovered it yourself, you're in for a treat.  

Christopher Irvin is the author of two novellas—Burn Cards and Federales—and of short stories that have appeared in publications including ThugLit, Beat to a Pulp, All Due Respect, Plots With Guns, Spinetingler, Needle, and Shotgun Honey, among many other journals and anthologies. In May 2015, Keith Rawson at LitReactor named Christopher one of "5 Crime Short Story Writers You Should Be Reading Right Now"—noting that "Irvin’s tone is lightening fast, hard hitting, and leaves the reader breathless and shocked with the sudden and realistic portrayal of violence."

Earlier this month saw the publication of Christopher's first short story collection, Safe Inside the Violence, which has already been earning high praise from various corners. At My Bookish Ways, Angel Luis Col√≥n wrote, "Irvin has a knack displaying the desolation of crime—that near soul-shattering silence and loneliness that comes with the dark places people can end up." At LitReactor, Dean Fetzer wrote, "Irvin has mastered the noir short story, that’s plain." And Paul Tremblay wrote, "A fine collection of crime stories told from the point of view of regular people, forgotten people, and their painfully human decisions are a roadmap to their inexorable Hell."

I'll add myself that it's a terrific collection and a surprising one in many ways—both in terms of where simmering violence might burst out into the world and in how that inner turmoil might manifest itself in more subtle ways. I'm pleased that Christopher agreed to a quick interview about the collection and his work in general—and here on Black Friday and with Small Business Saturday ahead, I also want to call attention to a terrific "Buy Local" promotion underway right now: Purchase a copy of Safe Inside the Violence from an independent bookseller before the end of the month and Christopher will send you for free a limited-edition chapbook featuring four additional stories and artwork by Joe DellaGatta. Details on the deal can be found here.

In the meantime, hope you enjoy here my chat with Christopher Irvin on his fine work.

Art Taylor: So many of the stories in Safe Inside the Violence present characters who—whatever surface they present to the world—hide inner lives, inner turmoil, troubles which may or may not spill outside for others to see. I hesitate to ask that simple question about which comes first for you—characters, situation, plot—but I am curious what drives your storytelling in that direction generally.

Christopher Irvin
Christopher Irvin: Thanks so much for the opportunity, Art. For better or worse, character and situation drive my storytelling, often playing off one another in their development. For example, I wrote "Napoleon of the North End" with the publication Plots With Guns in mind (accepted and published in their final issue, Fall 2014). I approached it with the situation of A) a gun has to be present in the story, and B) recent news of a series of sexual assaults in the North End of Boston in which a white male had groped several women and run off. The police arrested a suspect—even releasing his name—only to come out later that they had the wrong guy. It was prominent in the news for several weeks, though I don't recall what came of it in the end. Anyway, the idea of the garbage collector came next, partially out of trying to use the gun without firing it, or using it “as a gun,” and from his character the rest of the story fleshed out. In another case, "Nor'easter," I had a depressing idea of a man who works as a mall Santa during the holidays, but who is separated from his family. He gets to experience the Christmas/holiday joy around him—and he loves it—but he's lacking that deep personal connection. Again, the situation and character built off each other until threads of plot revealed themselves and I went from there. That's probably where I get some of my “slow burn” style. Plot takes a while for me to develop and feel comfortable in.

How does setting inform your work—Boston particularly?

I used to say setting is everything, and I still mean that in some ways. It should be critical to a story—otherwise, why are you setting it there? I love small details—not the first things you see, but maybe the second, third or fourth that really makes a setting unique and come alive. Instead of pointing out the cobblestones around Faneuil Hall, point out how “newer” brick paths run alongside them and how people will stay on those to avoid tripping or scuffing their shoes on the uneven stones. I've lived in Boston for six years, but I feel like I've only recently been able to write about it. Whitey Bulger, North End Mafia, the “Boston accent” (don't get me started on the “pahk the cah” tourism)—these are classic Boston that have been done to death, and honestly don't interest me as a writer or a reader. I think this is part of why it took me so long to write about the city. The parts I've grown to know, Jamaica Plain, especially, are now on the forefront of my mind. It's a “new” Boston—post-Whitey, post-Big Dig. A newer, more gentrified Boston. That's the Boston I know and identify with, that interests me. I'm sure in another decade it will have transformed even more.

I mentioned that I moved away from the “setting is everything.” It's become much more of a situation, or at least in the way I think about it. How characters interact with their environment, what about the setting adds to their story, what's important to them, etc.

Safe Inside the Violence carries the subtitle Crime Stories, but I don’t think I’d categorize a story like “Digging Deep” that way—even as it brims over with constant tension, the threat of trouble. What constitutes a “crime story” for you? And more generally, how does genre—the expectations of genre—impact your writing?

This is a tough one. There is a great sense of melancholy in my favorite crime stories—perhaps a sense of inevitability, but not without hope. Underdogs I love to root for even though I know they'll stumble and fall eventually. In some ways this feeling, or perhaps a focus on it, has pushed me from the genre definition of crime—a focus on criminal acts—to what? Literary crime? Dark literary fiction? I'm not entirely sure, but it is where I want to be—at least today. I wrote the four new stories in the collection ("Digging Deep," "Imaginary Drugs," "Lupe's Lemon Elixir," and "Safe Inside the Violence") all without a crime publication in mind, and they all turned out in this vein. I was pretty anxious as a kid and I think that comes out in my work, even more so now that I'm aware of it. That's what I'm interested in more than the crime—how people exist in situations that rub up against crime, what their fears/anxieties are, how they make it through the day. As confident as I may seem with the direction of my writing, “genre expectations” do weigh on my mind. When a reviewer praises these stories as being different, I take that as a huge compliment—but is it what people want to read? I hope so. I hope the emphasis on quiet moments, or quiet crimes, is something people can relate to/empathize with and be interested in delving into further. Maybe even want to read a full novel of one day.

You have two children now. How has fatherhood changed your writing—both the process of writing and the content of your work?

Fatherhood has really opened my eyes to the portrayal of children in stories, especially violence and uncertainty. Situations, perhaps more so in movies—take Tom Cruise's character in Minority Report, whose son is kidnapped right in front of him—which did little for me before, really strike me now. Again, going back to that anxiety, the worst-case fears of a father, loss of control/powerlessness. That's really on display in "Union Man," the first story that really incorporated my feelings as a father—my “coming of age” fatherhood story. I wrote it when my son, George, was about six months old. He's three now, and I have a second son, Freddie, who's approaching the four-month mark. In terms of process, I need to be more focused than ever with the number of projects and ideas I have going, but I started getting up in the morning to write before work about a year before George was born, so at least I had that down. One less adjustment. It's an adventure.

A more general question about short story collections: Several of these stories have been previously published elsewhere, several are new to the collection, and other stories that have been published elsewhere didn’t make it into the book; how do you determine what’s in, what’s not, and what guides you generally in determining the contents and order of a collection like this?

For this collection it really came down to theme/similarities (threads of family throughout) which I didn't realize until I began to seriously compile a list of stories. It wasn't until I had ARCs that I noticed the through line of anxiety. It's been eye opening to see what notes readers pick up on. Doing interviews like this—forced reflection—has been incredible. I'm a much more intelligent writer, much more aware now, than even six months ago. Some stories that hit the theme were left out because they'd been published too recently in other books, others because they were too short and I wanted to keep the number of stories in the low teens. I read an articleby Richard Thomas (on LitReactor, I think) a while back about how he arranged one of his collections. His use of “tent pole” stories to structure the beginning, middle, and end stuck with me. Other than that, just making sure that the first stories set expectations which carried through to the end. I hope I was successful in choosing the arrangement. I thought hard on it for months, going through several iterations, even up to the last minute.

In addition to the story collection here, you’ve published two novellas, Burn Cards and Federales—short-form storytelling still, though at the longer end of the spectrum. [Note to Chris: I’ll link each.] What is it about the novella, the short story, the flash that attracts you more than a full-length, full-fledged novel? And what are the biggest challenges about writing short versus writing long?

I love short stories, especially dark/weird speculative fiction where you can get away with lack of explanation. For me, as a reader, I enjoy being able to finish something and reflect on what I've just read—the way it leaves me feeling, or a story's ability to stick with me for days, or even years. Short fiction, in general, has stuck with me much more than novels. I think it's because of the focus on the moment, where novels can wander. Not to say that's bad, it's just different. I often find myself wanting to just finish novels—even those I'm enjoying—partially because my “to-read” stack is so huge but also because I've already taken away the style/characters, the 'feel' of the book that's either going to stick with me or not, regardless of the end. It's rare that I'm so captivated by a novel, but it happens all the time with short fiction. Perhaps, because of the short length, there's the mystery of the gaps. What we don't see that can be equally or more powerful than what we do.

Challenges? Uncertainty in where I'll end up. Is it even a story? Does this matter? My few longer works are driven much more by outlines, but I fly by my gut and a loose outline or series of moments on short fiction. Much more subconscious, while I'm making more conscious decisions—especially in terms of plot—on longer works. I've questioned everything—process, style, etc.—on almost every story I've written this year. The farther I stray from “crime,” the more I question my sanity.

Looking at your other work, you’ve also written in collaboration with graphic artists, including Charred Kraken and Expatriate. How is that work an extension of your prose writing, and to what degree is it a significant break?

In a lot of ways, writing comics seems easier than writing prose. For one, I'm much faster at it (I can write about an issue a week). It's much more of a conscious process—like solving a puzzle. Take a five- or six-issue arc, break that overall story down by issue, then down my page, and again by panel. I love this organizational bit, which I do entirely by hand. I really enjoy writing by hand. I start every story by hand, but usually transition to my laptop after several pages—once I have a feel for the tone/direction. So it's fun to do an entire draft by hand when working on comics.

More plans in that direction ahead, or what’s next for Christopher Irvin?

I have quite a few projects at various stages (mostly comics) and a novel that's due for a full rewrite. The novel is my priority for the winter months (it's sat for close to a year.) Between the novellas and the short story collection, it's become a bit of a monkey on my back. I want to prove to myself that I can complete a novel that reaches, or exceeds, the level of my short fiction.


  1. Irvin sounds like a writer to put on my must read list!

  2. Indeed, Janice! The stories have many layers--both one to another and then within individual stories themselves.

  3. Thank you! I hope you both enjoy it!

  4. Welcome, Christopher. Now that you mention it, there is a sort of melancholy in Boston crime writing.

    I used to live and work in the area although mostly the South Shore and south of 128, Plymouth, Brockton, etc. I could do a couple of real-life chapters about men with guns!

  5. Thanks, Leigh. Great point - especially western Massachusetts and the old mill towns. There is a lot of Massachusetts that Bostonians don't think about.


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