The third book in The Collector Series from Chris F. Holm is out today.
Sam Thornton has had many run-ins with his celestial masters, but he’s always been sure of his own actions. However, when he’s tasked with dispatching the mythical Brethren – a group of former Collectors who have cast off their ties to Hell – is he still working on the side of right?
More about THE BIG REAP at Goodreads and at Holm's site.
The Sam Thornton series pulls from world history and from religions & and from mythologies. How do you keep all of this straight? How do you decide which bits work? What research do you use? How do you create this deep, vast world for the series?
Chris F. Holm:
The truth is, I don't keep a series bible or anything. I don't map this stuff out ahead of time. I mostly just wing it, and trust my brain (and CTRL-F) to keep it straight. That said, I kind of think it's like doing improv, where there are sort of rules to how I wing it that keep me in check. Like, when it comes to world-building, I try to leave negative space whenever possible. That way, I'm not painting myself into a corner by tossing out details before they're needed, or contradicting something that's come before. And I never make something up out of whole cloth unless no myth, folk tale, or religious figure exists that would work within the context of what I need. For one, nothing I could come up with is even half as weird. For two, borrowing liberally from established mythologies gives Sam's world texture, and some small sense of verisimilitude.
As far as what research I do, a lot of it -- in the moment, at least -- is simply creative Googling. But I'm also borderline obsessed with classic horror novels, Greek myth, epic poems, cryptozoology, religious Apocrypha, conspiracy theories, urban exploration, and the like, so even my various methods of procrastination becomes accidental research.
The bugs. Honestly, dude. What the heck is with the damn bugs?
The truth? I'm scared shitless of them. Any kind, big or small. Have been since I was little. In fact, the scene from book two in which Sam wakes to find every surface in his hotel room -- including himself -- crawling with bugs was inspired by something that happened to me when I was a kid.
I spent most of my childhood in a log home my dad built, way out in the upstate New York countryside. I was six when we moved in, and in college when my parents sold it, and in that time, I don't think the house was ever truly finished.
One day, I came home from school to discover a plate-sized hole in the drywall above my bed. It led to some ductwork that eventually vented to the roof. To this day, I've no idea what that duct was for, or why it languished unfinished for as long as it did.
Anyways, one night, weeks after the hole showed up, I woke to the sound of rain. I could feel it falling onto my blankets, so I switched on my bedroom light, sure I'd find a roof leak drip-drip-dripping down on me.
It wasn't a roof leak.
It was beetles. Hundreds of them, it seemed to me, but that's probably a gross exaggeration. They were pouring out the hole above me and onto my bed. They were in my blankets. In my hair. I freaked. Woke up the house. My dad patched up the hole the next day, but I still slept with the lights on for a while after.
Having followed Sam Thornton through these three books, we see quite a change in him, not all of it for the good. I’ve described the books as Charlie Huston meets Jim Butcher, and I think the Huston series with Hank Thompson is more and more apt as your books have come along. What’s happening to Sam in this last book? He seems to have come a long way since the opening of the first book.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to writing series characters. Some authors -- the late Robert Parker, for example -- write their characters in a sort of suspended now, so when you read a Spenser novel, you know before you start what you're in for. Others -- Lawrence Block's Scudder novels come to mind -- allow their characters to evolve over time. That makes them less comforting reads, I suppose, but the upside is, the series is richer and more dynamic when taken as a whole. Both are valid approaches, but I'm solidly in the latter camp when it comes to my own fiction. I have no interest in writing the same book twice. If Sam's the same at the end of the tale as he was at the beginning, I feel like that's a sign I picked the wrong story to tell.
When we first meet Sam, he's broken. Friendless. Utterly devoid of hope. Which makes sense, I guess, on account of he's spent sixty years or so of a presumed eternity in hell.
Since then, he's found his place a bit. Made some friends. Begun to hope for something better. Maybe even begun to think that he deserves it. The Sam of THE BIG REAP is more sure of himself than he has been in the past. More comfortable in his role as hell's hitman. And that's not necessarily a good thing. He's still the guy readers know and maybe kinda sorta love, but his new-found confidence makes him a little callous -- a little arrogant. And although he seems aware of that -- even fears that his years in hell's employ have finally begun to erode his sense of what's right -- he's also selfishly relieved not to be so tortured all the time.
That shift in personality was uncomfortable for me to write. I hope it's uncomfortable to read. Because it's important to the story, and with luck, by the end of THE BIG REAP it pays off huge.
His companion, so to speak, along the way has been Lilith. While this isn’t a “love story” in any usual sense, how has their relationship been progressing and, for readers of the first two books, how is it different as this third book opens?
In THE BIG REAP, we get to see Sam on his first mission. From a writer’s perspective, what choices did you make that led you to hold this until the third book in the series?
I've got a low tolerance for origin stories. Sure, they're important to a character, but they're usually the least interesting story about that character. Some big fancy writer dude once wrote what's past is prologue, and origin stories always feel like prologue to me. So I decided if I were to ever tell one, I'd do so only if it served a larger tale.
The first part of Sam's origin story -- his devil's bargain and his death -- was told in flashback throughout DEAD HARVEST, but only because it served to explain how a decent guy wound up condemned to hell. The second part -- his rebirth as a Collector, his first meeting with Lilith, his first soul-snatching assignment -- wasn't germane to that story, nor to THE WRONG GOODBYE, so I didn't tell it. But it's damn important to THE BIG REAP, since much of the focus is on Sam's relationship with Lilith, so I knew I had to work it in.
I know you’ve been reading a great deal of Ian Fleming and John LeCarre lately. I thought LeCarre’s NIGHT MANAGER was such a nice example of a post-Cold War thriller. I’ve recently run across a biography of Christine Granville, the Polish-born English spy of the Second World War. She did about a billion great things, but is probably best known as the inspiration for Fleming’s Vesper Lynd in CASINO ROYALE. My guess is that all of these spy thrillers you’ve been reading had an impact on your writing of THE BIG REAP. Were there things in those books that you just had to work into THE BIG REAP?
I always envisioned the detente between heaven and hell in my books as a Cold War of sorts. Each side quietly chipping away at the other, trying desperately to gain a foothold. The shifting allegiances of players big and small creating ripples that might one day tip the balance. The notion of this secret struggle existing just beneath the surface of our visible world. Spy novels provided me a roadmap for marrying the fantastical with the everyday.
What is it about the old spy thrillers that people still fall for? The characters? The action? Something deeper?
In Fleming's case, I think the appeal lies partly in his structure. He essentially invented the modern thriller. Le Carre's books are more cerebral, which affords the reader the chance to feel all smart and stuff. But in general, I think the appeal of spy novels is that sense you get of, "Siddown -- I'll tell you what's really going on." They feed our hunger for finding meaning in the noise of life. Our innate sense of paranoia. And they turn enormous, abstract concepts like the Cold War or resource scarcity into deeply human struggles.
When I tell people about the Sam Thornton series, they want me to classify it. Is it mystery? Is it historical fiction? I end up saying that it’s “Urban Fantasy” but I’m not really sure what I’m talking about. Is it urban fantasy? Please label your artistic creation for me. On which bookstore shelf will I find it?
I've never been wild about the "urban fantasy" label, because very little of my series actual takes place in an urban environment. But it's become a common shorthand for "gritty contemporary fantasy," and as such, I've made my peace with it.
I used to say I thought my stuff was fantastical noir, and maybe it is, but there's no shelf for that at the bookstore, so it's not much help. Some folks think I'm writing horror, and that's cool too I guess -- but I'd never claim the label myself, because it's only horror if I scare you.
The only label people tag my books with that bugs me is science fiction. I do science at my day job, and I promise you, there ain't a lick of it in the Collector series.
I say stick the books in the fantasy section and call it a day. Or better yet, skirt the issue altogether, and put them on the display table at the front of the store.
Speaking of labels, the Sam Thornton series is published by Angry Robot in the UK, but has nothing to do with robots at all. How did they come to publish the books and how great has it been to work with them?
I wound up with them the usual way. My then-agent shopped DEAD HARVEST around, and they're the ones who bit. I had no idea at the time how lucky I was, because it turns out, they've been fantastic to work with from the get-go. Every step of the process, from covers to marketing, has been incredibly collaborative, which is rare in the publishing world. And they've given me tons of leeway to write the stories I want to write. Time will tell if that was genius on their part or folly.
The third book in the series which is out now, THE BIG REAP, has left me and many, many early readers ready for book four in the series. Any hints as to what happens next?
In book four, Sam will buy a run-down villa in Tuscany and embark on a heartwarming journey of home repair and self-discovery where maybe, just maybe, he'll learn to love again. Or he'll wind up locked in the White House during a terrorist attack, and he'll have to use his Collector-y superpowers to save the day. Or, I don't know, something involving little yellow gibberish-talking minions. People fucking love those things.
SW: Put a recipe in the back, too. I like those.
Thanks to Chris. F. Holm.
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More Holm on DSD here.