Showing posts with label Christopher Irvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christopher Irvin. Show all posts

13 May 2016

Anthony Award Finalists: Best Anthology or Collection

By Art Taylor

Last week, Bouchercon announced this year’s finalists for the Anthony Awards, and I was pleased to get two mentions on that slate: one for my own writing, with On The Road With Del & Louise (Henery Press) earning a nomination for Best First Novel (just on the heels of winning the Agatha in that category the week prior), and another on behalf of the contributors to Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 (Down & Out Books), which earned attention in the Best Anthology or Collection category. I’m honored, needless to say, with the attention! And congratulations as well to fellow SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, whose Agatha-nominated novel Fighting Chance earned another honor as a finalist for this year's Anthony for Best Young Adult Novel—great news all around!

Soon after the Anthony news came out, I reached out about hosting here a quick chat with the other finalists for Best Anthology or Collection:

I have a couple of these anthologies already on the shelf, and I’ll be picking up the others soon, and just wanted to offer a chance for all of us to share some information about our respective collections and the writers who contributed.

Two questions each below, and everyone’s stepping to the podium (so to speak) in alphabetical order. Join me in welcoming them to SleuthSayers today!

First, while the titles of our respective collections already might give some sense of what readers will find on the pages within, how would you describe your own editorial principles/guidelines in selecting stories for and shaping your particular anthology—or in Chris’s case, for sorting through and considering your own stories?

Christopher Irvin: Witnessing the collection come together, story by story, was one of the most rewarding aspects of publishing the book. I'd kept an assortment of lists in notebooks over the past few years of potential line-ups for a collection, but it wasn't until late 2014 (when I was seriously thinking of pitching a collection) that I began to recognize themes of family, melancholia, regret, etc., that were present in nearly all of my work. It was a revelation that has since made me step back and reflect more on my work and the decisions (conscious, or more likely unconscious) that I make in my writing. Long story, short, the selection fell in along the above mentioned themes, trending a tad more 'literary' toward the end, especially with the four new stories in the collection. It's been fun to see how my work and interests have evolved over the past few years. It's one of the reasons I  really enjoy reading other author's collections as well.

Thomas Pluck: When you're putting together an anthology to fight child abuse, it inspires all sorts of anger in the contributors. It's a subject that we don't want to think about, and when we do, it quite rightfully ticks us off. The strong abusing the weak. So the natural instinct is for writers to tackle the subject head-on, and write about it. The first Protectors anthology has many more stories about children in danger, and while it was a great success, it made for a tough read. For the second book, I specifically asked for other kinds of stories. The book is called Heroes for two reasons: it's a loose theme, and the Protect H.E.R.O. Corps is who the book benefits. That stands for Human Exploitation Rescue Operative; the HERO Corps is a joint effort between USSOCOM and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to train and hire wounded veterans as computer forensic technicians, to assist law enforcement in locating and rescuing the child victims of predators. It's a very tough job, one that combat veterans are suited for, because they have experience with the toll such a job takes. With such a heavy subject, I wanted lighter stories. And while we do have a few tales where children are rescued, the stories run the gamut from traditional crime and mystery, whimsical fantasy, historical mystery, revenge tales, horror, and tales of everyday heroism. The order was the tough part. It's a huge book of 55 stories. What I did was label each story with a colored sticky note, yellow for sunny or happy, red for rough or bloody, and blue for in between, and I arranged them like a palette. I played around until I could start strong with an uplifting tale or two, then dip to a few hard hitting ones, give readers a break, then hit them again, make them elated, then ease to a strong ending. Like a story.

Todd Robinson: I've always had the idea to do a Christmas-themed anthology. There are a couple out there, but none that feature the kind of lunatic writers that oil my gears, the writers who we published in Thuglit magazine.

I didn't do open submissions on it. I reached out to writers that I'd worked with at least two or three times each—writers who I knew would bring their own distinct styles to whatever they sent my way, and they truly outdid themselves. Considering the narrow theme of Christmas, I'm still amazed at how different each story is from the next. My guys and gals KILLED it.

Art Taylor: Murder Under the Oaks was produced in conjunction with last year’s Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC—which is nicknamed the City of Oaks and hence the collection’s title. In addition to featuring invited stories by some of the featured authors from the 2015 Bouchercon—including Margaret Maron, Tom Franklin, Sarah Shaber, Lori Armstrong, Sean Doolittle, and Zoë Sharp—we hosted a contest that garnered more than 170 submissions, which first readers trimmed to 27 that were sent my way. My goal in making the final selections was two-fold: first, I wanted to include the best stories I could, obviously (which wasn’t hard, since so many of the entries in that final batch were terrific in many ways), but second—in keeping with the missions of Bouchercon itself—I wanted to represent as wide a spectrum as possible of the types of stories that fall under that larger genre of “mystery.” Many readers are disappointed is a mystery anthology doesn’t include detective fiction, so I was careful to represent that segment of the genre with both amateur and professional detectives (a police procedural in the mix, in fact). But there are lots of other types of stories beyond that: from the cozy end of the spectrum to some really dark noir, from historical fiction to contemporary tales, a bit of raucous humor here, a more poignant story there, something close to flash fiction alongside a novella, and right on down the line. Balancing that mix was important to me, and I hope attention to that helped to provide something for all readers.

Kenneth Wishnia: First of all, we adopted a generous “You don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish noir” policy, which turned out to be prophetic (and how Jewish is that?), because the collection includes stories by a diverse group of authors, including Asian-Canadian author Melissa Yi, Los Angeles’s own Gary Phillips, luminaries as Marge Piercy and Harlan Ellison, and self-professed survivors of Bible Belt redneck culture, Jedidiah Ayres and Travis Richardson—both of whom have been honored for their contributions: Jed’s story “Twisted Shikse” was selected for a forthcoming “best crime story of the year” anthology and Travis’s story “Quack and Dwight” has been nominated for the Derringer and the Anthony Awards. Mazl tov!

I also stressed that submissions did not have to be textbook “Noir with a capital N,” and so we ended up with stories depicting the Holocaust, cynical Jewish humor, the passing of generations, the Golden Ghetto phenomenon, child sexual abuse in the insular Orthodox communities of Brooklyn, anti-Semitism in the mid- and late-20th century United States, and the broader contradictions of ethnic identity and assimilation into American society.

Sounds pretty noir to me—even without the obligatory doomed detective and femme fatale slinking around dark alleys.

Second: There’s a whole range of different ways to tell a story, of course—but are there certain elements that consistently stand out to you as the hallmarks of a great story?

Christopher Irvin: Make me care, right? That's the bottom line that every editor wants. I need to empathize with characters—good, bad, ugly—no matter how long or short the work, I need to want to come along for the ride. My time spent editing for Shotgun Honey had a major impact on my writing to this end. Much of my writing, especially in Safe Inside the Violence, involves indirect violence or characters on the periphery of violence. Perhaps the run up to a seemingly normal encounter in their everyday lives.

There is a 700 word limit at Shotgun Honey. Authors need to bring it from the first sentence if they want to succeed. Often this results in an immediate violent encounter to up the stakes and keep the story moving. While this can be (and has been) done very well, reading these stories, learning from these stories, pushed me to go in a different direction. 

Thomas Pluck: My own writing, I write what interests me, what terrifies me, what angers me. I go for extremes, life-changing experiences, the things I would never want to discuss in public. It forces me to put my heart into it, and that resonates. While editing anthologies, I have to tone down my relentless inner critic, and just try to enjoy them. If I do, they go in the "good" pile and I think what could make them better, if anything. I have some legendary authors in here like David Morrell, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, Andrew Vachss. I didn't edit those stories, obviously. If there were typos in the manuscript, we corrected them together. There are a few authors who have their first publication here, who needed a little editorial help for clarity. That's my mantra: clarity, economy, then art.

What makes a great story? For me, I lose myself in them. The characters, the world, the story itself, they can't be ignored. Harlan Ellison's "Croatoan" is one. It begins with a scene so real, then descends into a nightmarish dream world, like the character is spelunking in his own subconscious. "Placebo" by Vachss is another, so spare, like a folktale. Not a word wasted. Some writers have that gift, a voice that draws you into their world. You either have it or you don't, the best we can do is trust the voice we have and let it do the work.

Todd Robinson: For me, it always starts with a great character voice and their arc within. If I don't care about the characters, why in sweet fuck-all would I care about their story?

Art Taylor: In the fiction workshops I teach at George Mason, I often quote John Updike on what he looks for in a short story: “I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement.” That may sound kind of broad, but it strikes me as solid criteria—and solid advice for writers too in crafting their own stories. A couple of words I come back to time and again are compression and balance. In terms of compression, I look for stories that start as close to central action as possible (the conflict hinted at right there in the first paragraph or first line) and then rely on sharp and suggestive details rather than lengthy explanations—glimpses of larger lives and bigger stories beyond the edges of the page. Balance can refer to many things: between character and plot, for example (each informed by the other), or between beginnings and endings—especially in terms of endings that seem both surprising and inevitable in some way, as if every line, every word, has been building inexorably toward where the story ends up. When a writer can manage compression and balance—and then entertain all along the way… well, that story is a keeper, for sure.

Kenneth Wishnia: I was looking for the same elements that I look for in a great novel: vivid, compelling writing (Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Feeding the Crocodile,” which is up for an ITW Thriller Award for Best Short Story), a suspenseful set-up that engages the reader right away (Charles Ardai’s “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die”) or a non-traditional story that makes me laugh at life’s absurdities (Rabbi Adam Fisher’s “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah”). Some authors hit the trifecta (David Liss’s “Jewish Easter”), but I would have accepted any combination of two out of three, or even just one if the author really nailed it.

A quick final word from Art: Do check out all these anthologies yourself—and look forward to seeing everyone in New Orleans later this year!

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 Colón 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.