By Steve Weddle
Let's get this out of the way right now. Chris Holm's THE KILLING KIND is a brilliant book, layered and clever, with smart pacing and character development that propel you right through to the surprising, shattering end. I had the honor of seeing the short story version of this when I was editing NEEDLE a few years back. My pal Chris Holm is a swell human and fantastic writer, and he stopped by the DSD headquarters (corner of Harlem River Bridge and 3rd Ave) to chat about his just-released thriller, THE KILLING KIND.
"[An] inventive thriller . . . Holm carries off a preposterous plot with brazen aplomb, creating a diverting, action-packed story interspersed with excellent character vignettes."
"[A] fast-moving, witty tale of good guy versus bad guy versus worse guy."
―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"With THE KILLING KIND, Chris Holm has created a story of rare, compelling brilliance with a concept so high you'll need oxygen to finish it. Hitman against hitman, one pure silk and evil, the other not exactly good, but we root for him anyway as the classic antihero. This is a one-sitting extravagant, mind-blowing reading pleasure with a stable of characters who come across as all flesh, bone and folly. You will never look at men hired to kill other humans the same way. You won't merely read this book, you will inhale it."
***DoSomeDamage: You spend a year or two writing a book. Then another year selling it. Maybe editing. Publishing and marketing and all that. How long has it been from the time you first started working on the story to publication day?
Chris Holm: This one took a while. It began, as you well know, with two guys kicking around an idea for a short story in the spring of 2010. One of them, the sensible one—me—was all, “I dunno. It sounds kinda big and messy. It could get away from me.” The other, who was probably just bored and stuff and wanted to egg me on, was like “Nah, do it. It’ll be cool. I’ll totes publish it.”
So I wrote it. At 11,000 words, it did kinda get away from me. But true to his word, that other dude—you—published it, in the second issue of Needle. Thanks, by the way.
People seemed to dig it. It got nominated for an Anthony. Wound up in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES. My agent at the time told me I should consider adapting it into a novel, which was weird, because usually she didn’t tell me anything at all. But I resisted, because the story seemed complete to me. Then one day, I woke up and realized if I shifted the narrative from first to third, I could pull back the camera to show more of this character’s world, and tell the stories of the people hunting him.
So, in between Collector books, I wrote it. And rewrote it. And rewrote it. When I was finally happy with it, I sent it off to my agent, who promptly sat on it for nine months without reading it.
In early 2013, we parted ways. I polished up the book again and started querying. It took almost a year to find the right agent. Another several months working with him on the book. And then it sold in something like a week. But even with that stroke of luck, we’re talking more than five years, start to finish.
DSD: As you’re working on the sequel now, what’s it like to have to shift gears and talk about this book that you wrote a couple years back? Does it make it tougher to talk about THE KILLING KIND for an hour and then get back into the new book?
CH: Honestly, it’s not so bad. I was dipping in and out of THE KILLING KIND regularly until a couple months ago, when we finally locked it for printing, so it’s still pretty fresh. My biggest fear is letting slip some major spoiler, because for me THE KILLING KIND happened in the past, even though almost no one’s read it yet.
DSD: What would the Director’s Cut of the book look like? What have you left out or avoided in this book?
CH: That’s hard to say. I won’t deny, I’ve gotten more editorial input on this book—from my agent and editor both—than I did for all three of my Collector novels combined. But no one ever pushed me to tone the book down, or make it more commercial. The notes were focused on making it the best version of itself. In fact, there’s some stuff in THE KILLING KIND that’s so dark, I’m amazed I got away with it.
That said, my initial version skewed way pulpier. It featured more elaborate—some would (rightly) say indulgent—back stories for damn near everyone who walked across the stage. And its body count was way higher.
DSD: Did writing the Collector trilogy prepare you for this new series or did it create too many assumptions about how to build a series?
CH: I’d like to think the Collector books taught me a thing or two about how to write a series—what to fill in, what to leave blank so I have room to maneuver later—but the fact is, they probably just taught me how to write that series. I’m sure I’ll make all new mistakes in the Hendricks books.
DSD: I was listening to an interview with another Hachette author who, when asked what he was currently working on, responded: "Thank you for asking, but I don't want to discuss it." Do you like publicly discussing your current project or do you feel it could do some damage?
CH: I see what you did there.
Right now, I’m hard at work on the second Michael Hendricks novel—but I can’t tell you what, specifically, it’s about without delving into spoiler territory for book one.
DSD: Your new book, THE KILLING KIND, has a great deal of military-speak in it. As far as I know, you've never served in the military. How confident are you that you got the gun stuff right?
CH: Actually, I tried to avoid military jargon wherever possible, because I was worried I’d get it wrong or lose my audience. But gun specs felt important to the story—they’re the tools of Michael’s trade, after all.
As for how accurate I was, that’s for readers to decide. I did a fair bit of research. And my family’s full of cops and hunters, so I grew up around guns. I’ve shot everything from shotguns and hunting rifles to handguns of all shapes and sizes—even, once, a fully automatic MAC-10 equipped with a suppressor. I know the difference between a clip and a magazine. I know if you reference the smell of cordite in your fiction, you’d best be writing a period piece. I know an automatic weapon can’t fire for minutes on end without reloading. But I doubtless screwed something up along the way.
DSD: Your books, the Collector series and this one, move around quite a bit. How much fun is it to write about places you've never been?
CH: Most of the places in THE KILLING KIND are settings with which I’m familiar. I live in Portland, Maine. I was born and raised in upstate New York. My wife and I spent two years in Virginia after college. And my travels have taken me through New Hampshire, Cleveland, Washington, Miami, Long Beach, and St. Louis.
That said, I enjoy writing places I’ve never been—such as Vian’s chateau in the south of France for THE KILLING KIND, or a castle in the Carpathians for THE BIG REAP—and I certainly don’t shy away from doing so. I’m fortunate in that the protagonists of both my series have jobs that require a great deal of travel. That means I’m exploring these locations from an outside perspective, which is a lot easier than writing from a local point of view. Plus, the research is a blast—although ultimately, it’s not so different from the research I do on the places I know well.
DSD: What is it about Michael Hendricks as a character that you think readers can connect with?
CH: Since 9/11, our nation’s been in a perpetual state of war. Kids old enough to drive literally don’t remember a world in which we’re not sending men and women to fight and die in foreign lands. Okay, technically the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ended—but that’s probably cold comfort to the 15,000 or so US troops still deployed.
Michael Hendricks is, to me, a metaphor for anyone who’s come back from war to find the pieces of the life he left behind no longer fit. His story’s all too common. He was a decent kid who came up rough, and enlisted at eighteen. The things he saw and did in service to his country traumatized him, changed him, cost him the woman and the life he cared about. Now he’s trying—and mostly failing—to make things right the only way he knows how.
But I think his appeal’s far simpler than that. Most of us don’t wind up hitmen, but at some point, we all look back over the path our lives have taken and wonder how it could’ve turned out differently. We struggle to reconcile who we are with who we thought we’d be. We try our damndest to be better than the sum total of our formative experiences. Michael’s no different. I’m curious to see if he succeeds.
DSD: This book has a certain energy to it, a sort of thriller propulsiveness, if you will. As a writer, how do plot out the smaller conflicts within the story to work with the overall pacing?
CH: I don’t outline when I write, but I usually know my major story beats going in. For THE KILLING KIND, those included the introductory chapters for Hendricks, Engelmann, and Thompson. The showdown in the casino at the book’s midpoint. The story’s climax and denouement. I’d love to claim the rest was just a matter of connecting the dots, but the fact is, my agent and editor both helped reorder portions on the book to improve its flow. That was new for me—in part because I wasn’t accustomed to that level of editorial support, and in part because I’d never written a novel in the third person before.
DSD: Finally, do you think an author is obligated to do "more than entertain" the reader? What is your responsibility as an author and is that separate from your responsibility as a person?
CH: My responsibility as an author is to entertain an audience for as much time as I’ve asked of them—no more, no less. My responsibility as a person is to do my best to leave this world a little better than I found it. If I can do both at once, fantastic. I’d like to think sometimes I do.
The violence in The Killing Kind is visceral [and] the writing is tight and tense.
The Killing Kind is a brutal book about brutal people in a brutal world.
-- NPR News
If a movie deal hasn't been made, I'm sure there's one in the works.