Saturday, May 14, 2022

Moderation Can Be a Good Thing


Scott D. Parker

I’ll admit something: it’s been harder than I expected to get back into the writing routine after it laid dormant for a couple of months. Which is odd considering I like this book (why else would I be up to chapter 31 of it) and want to get to the end—I’ve mapped out the scenes up through chapter 39 so it’s not like I don’t have a road map.

Part of the reason I’ll admit is health. I’m healthy, eat well, and walk about two miles every day per week except Fridays and Saturdays. But it’s the lack of sleep that’s actually started to get to me.

There are more things I want to do on any given day and there’s just not enough time to do them. That includes writing, living, working, being with the family, and doing my own thing (usually reading or watching a show). As a result, I recently found myself staying up later in the evenings (a little past 11pm) but still waking up at 5am. After starting off as an evening writer, I’ve become a morning writer.

Every time the alarm went off this past week, however, the body was having none of it. Usually I all but jump out of bed, but this week was a struggle. I actually felt myself dragging throughout the day, including when I’m in the office three days a week. I even resorted to a 15-minute power nap in my office, doors closed, reclined in my office chair, the legs up on one of those padded-top short filing cabinets. After those power naps, I’m good, but its necessity cut into my lunch hour writing time.

And that irritated me. I would have to do something about that.

Late last year as I was enduring some harsh times at the day job, I found myself drinking more. I never got drunk, but I’d have the five o’clock cocktail and then wine at nine almost every day. It wasn’t a good habit to keep, so when Lent rolled around, I gave up alcohol. First couple of days were not hard, but I certainly wanted to keep the muscle memory of drinking alive.

But on Easter, I didn’t rush to the liquor cabinet and make a cocktail. Instead, I reminded myself that it’s perfectly fine to have a glass of wine or a martini but I didn’t need to have both every day. Heck, I could have a day or two per week in which I don’t have any alcohol and let that become the new normal.

Couple the lack of enough sleep with the more limited alcohol intake since Easter and both things got me to thinking that a little bit of moderation can go a long way to a healthy lifestyle. The alcohol consumption is pretty easy: Just limit to one glass of wine on the days I drink and save the martini for Fridays and savor the heck out of it. That’s working well and it’s made the martini preparation something more special.

The sleep thing take more of a challenge. I literally have to cut out something I want to do in favor of making sure I get my six hours. That one’s tougher because there’s just so much I want to read and do and write and watch. But how much do I actually enjoy watching a show or reading a book when I'm nodding off?

What the heck does this have to do with writing? Well, moderation.

I’m fortunate to have a day job that takes care of all the bills and insurance and makes sure we have enough money and peace of mind to get us through the days. Granted, it also curtails my writing/watching/family/myself time, but that’s the trade off.

Where the writing part comes in is this: Moderation.

Right now in my writing career, I have no external deadlines. I have internal deadlines for writing and publishing stories well into 2023, but they are well enough in advance that I can write—wait for it—at a moderate pace and achieve my deadlines. The moderate pace will also enable me to do some moderate marketing and not interfere too much into the day-to-day life.

Because that’s the key, right? Sure, I could have kept drinking at last fall's pace, but sooner or later, I’d have hit the wall and the physical health would have suffered so much that the doctor would advise me to stop drinking. That’s no fun. Neither is constantly being tired during the days because I didn’t get enough sleep the night before.

And neither is writing when you’re under the gun. Yes, the old pulp guys using to do that to pay the rent, but guys like Walter Gibson and Lester Dent ultimately suffered physical ailments because of their constant demands.

I’d rather enjoy the writing process in the time I have rather than be sweating a deadline. I sweat deadlines at the day job and of course I’d sweat a fiction deadline if it ever presented itself.

But for now, I’m just enjoying the ride…moderately.

Friday, May 13, 2022

The Post-Antibiotic Era is Here

Guest Post by Chris Holm

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: CHILD ZERO is not a COVID novel. It can’t be, because I’ve been working on it for six years—completing my first draft in January of 2020, when COVID cases still numbered in the hundreds.

And while I’d be delighted to find myself shelved alongside Justin Cronin, Stephen King, and Emily St. John Mandel, the near-future of CHILD ZERO isn’t all that post-apocalyptic, either. Sure, the pillars of society are a little wobbly, but they’ve yet to crumble, and there’s every chance the better angels of humanity may yet prevail.

So what, exactly, is CHILD ZERO? That depends on who you ask.

My publisher, Mulholland Books, describes it as a scientific thriller in the vein of Michael Crichton about our species' next great existential threat—namely, the imminent collapse of the antibiotic era.

Tess Gerritsen, of Rizzoli and Isles fame, called CHILD ZERO “a terrifying look at a world gone mad and the possible plagues to come.”

Chris Holm
Lee Child said it was “really scary” and “highly recommended.”

In their starred review, Publishers Weekly declared it an “alarmingly plausible thriller… fans of Lawrence Wright’s THE END OF OCTOBER won’t want to miss.”

And some other fella from up my way by the name of Stephen King said it’s a thriller that “really thrills” with twists that “go off like a string of firecrackers.” (Say, that’s a snazzy turn of phrase. He might have a future in this business.)

Personally, I like to think of it as a thrilling yarn about a little kid with a big secret that many powerful people would kill to learn—but I won’t deny that I also intended it as a call to action.

See, for years, scientists and medical professionals have been sounding the alarm about the dangers of multidrug-resistant bacteria.

“A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the twenty-first century,” wrote physician Keiji Fukuda in his foreword to a 2014 World Health Organization report.

“Stop referring to a coming post-antibiotic era,” insisted CDC director Robert Redfield in 2019, “it’s already here. You and I are living in a time when some miracle drugs no longer perform miracles and families are being ripped apart by a microscopic enemy.”

“Unless researchers develop new antibiotics and therapeutics,” cautioned professors Jennie H. Kwon and William G. Powderly in a 2021 editorial for the journal Science, “the decimation of modern medicine will soon become a reality.”

Though their admonitions have garnered coverage from such outlets as BBC News, The New York Times, NPR, Vox, The Washington Post, and Wired, the public at large remains unmoved, likely because they fail to comprehend the enormity of the threat.

It’s not their fault. Widespread antibiotic resistance is a thorny concept, the full ramifications of which are tough for laypeople to wrap their heads around. That’s where I come in.

I’ve been fortunate enough to make my living as a writer for several years, but before that, I was a molecular biologist. I began my career at the University of Virginia’s Department of Internal Medicine, where my research helped identify a molecule that regulates a major virulence factor in the pathogen responsible for amoebic dysentery. Later, while working for a marine biotech startup on the coast of Maine, I discovered a gene in spiny lobster that provided the basis for a United States patent. I then spent several years doing research and development for a Maine-based diagnostic company whose tests help keep our furry friends healthy, and ensure the water on the International Space Station is safe to drink.

My background and experience make me uniquely suited to render, in vivid detail, the terrifying reality of a post-antibiotic world—and, by doing so, educate readers about this looming crisis before it’s too late to avert.

That is the essence of CHILD ZERO.

That is why I spent six years working hard to get it right.


Chris Holm is the author of the cross-genre Collector trilogy, which recasts the battle between heaven and hell as old-fashioned crime pulp; the Michael Hendricks thrillers, which feature a hitman who only kills other hitmen; thirty-odd short stories that run the gamut from crime to horror to science fiction; and the scientific thriller CHILD ZERO. He's also a former molecular biologist with a US patent to his name. Chris’ work has been selected for THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES, named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and won a number of awards, including the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Novel. He lives in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

"I blundered into my dream job:" A chat with Chris Holm

Chris Holm

By Steve Weddle

CHILD ZERO, the new Chris Holm book we've all been waiting for, published this week. Launch day seems to have gone well, as the book went into its second printing on day one.

Fortunately, I was able to chat with Chris Holm during a quieter spell and was surprised to learn about his connection to Ryan Gosling. But first, a few words about the book ->

It began four years ago with a worldwide uptick of bacterial infections: meningitis in Frankfurt, cholera in Johannesburg, tuberculosis in New Delhi. Although the outbreaks spread aggressively and proved impervious to our drugs of last resort, public health officials initially dismissed them as unrelated.

They were wrong. Antibiotic resistance soon roiled across the globe. Diseases long thought beaten came surging back. The death toll skyrocketed. Then New York City was ravaged by the most heinous act of bioterror the world had ever seen, perpetrated by a new brand of extremist bent on pushing humanity to extinction.

Detective Jacob Gibson, who lost his wife in the 8/17 attack, is home caring for his sick daughter when his partner summons him to a sprawling shantytown in Central Park, the apparent site of a mass murder. Jake is startled to discover that, despite a life of abject squalor, the victims died in perfect health—and his only hope of finding answers is a twelve-year-old boy on the run from some very dangerous men.

The Interview

Steve Weddle: This book has been getting starred reviews all over the place. What’s it like to be an overnight success?

Chris Holm: As of this writing, it’s only gotten one starred review, so your choice to pluralize feels like a provocation. Still, everybody who’s read CHILD ZERO seems to like it, which is nice. It’s gratifying to be rewarded for something into which I put so little effort. I mean, I tell people this book took me six years to write, but I spent the majority of that time replaying Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in my pajamas.

SW: Much has been made in the publicity for this one about the collapse of the antibiotic era and the threat of infections. But I don’t want to talk about all that science stuff, because at the heart of this book is, well, the heart of the book – the threat to Jacob Gibson’s family, which feels very real and very personal. What can you tell us about Jacob and his daughter?

CH: Jacob Gibson is a homicide detective in a New York City still reeling from a bioterror attack three years prior that killed nearly one hundred thousand people—his wife, Olivia, included. Had it not been for their infant daughter, Zoe, her death likely would’ve broken Jake.

At the book’s outset, Zoe—now four—comes home from daycare with an infection. These days, that’s a common enough occurrence, and hardly cause for concern. In a world without functioning antibiotics, it can easily prove deadly, and failing to report it to the Department of Biological Security might well cost Jake his job—a risk he’s willing to take to prevent Zoe from being locked away in a dodgy, state-run sanitarium.

SW: OK, I lied. I do want to talk about the science. I’ve read thrillers in which the non-fictiony part overwhelms the story and the characters, stopping any momentum to explain art restoration or religious history of whatever window dressing the author is using for the thriller. But you lay the groundwork here seamlessly, with straightforward talk about antibiotics and infections, about viruses and bacteria. What’s your secret for smoothly delivering all that science stuff?

CH: That’s kind of you to say. To my mind, incorporating some admittedly heady molecular biology without boring the crap out of my audience was the biggest challenge of the book, so I began by laying down a few ground rules.

First, I wanted to keep info-dumps to a minimum, and couch them in scenes that illustrate the real-world implications of the science—or, in other words, no talking heads in lecture halls.

Second, I did my best to use plain English to describe the science—which, for someone who spent two decades of his life in laboratories, isn’t as easy as it sounds—and ran it past nonscientists (my wife, my agent, my editor) to see if it made sense.

Third, I kept paring those sections down until there was nothing left for me to cut without sacrificing their scientific accuracy.

And fourth, I knew I’d need a heaping helping of sugar to help the medicine go down, so I packed the story with breakneck action from start to finish.

SW: Your first Collector novel came out about a decade back and was the first in a trilogy, Seven years back, the first of your two Michael Hendricks novels came out. Any interest in revisiting these stories, either for print or for the screen?

CH: Short answer? Yes. Longer answer? Absolutely.

Truth is, there are several ways this question could be interpreted, but the answer above applies to all of ’em. Would I like to write more Sam Thornton or Michael Hendricks books? Yup. Would I be happy if someone adapted them for the screen? Most definitely. Would I be willing to adapt them for the screen myself? Sure, although I suspect there’d be one hell of a learning curve.

While we’re on the subject, here’s a scoop: though I haven’t talked about it publicly, THE KILLING KIND was optioned ages ago, and is currently in preproduction. Adam Siegel, Ken Kao, and Ryan Gosling (yes, that Ryan Gosling) are producing. Ben Foster is expected to star.

SW: Speaking of your earlier novels, while Child Zero feels like the perfect novel for right now in terms of the zeitgeist, is it also the perfect novel right now for you? Do you feel as if you could only have written this novel at this point in your career? Are there lessons you needed to learn before you got to this point?

CH: I hope it’s the perfect novel for the moment, but the fact is, I never intended for it to come out during a pandemic. I’m as traumatized as anybody by the events of the past few years. That said, the book’s not so much a pandemic story as it is a breakneck thriller set against the backdrop of a pandemic. Time will tell if that’s a distinction without a difference.

As for whether I could’ve written it before now… beats me, but if I had, it wouldn’t be half as good. I’m a stronger writer now than when I started out, and CHILD ZERO still required every trick, technique, and ounce of skill at my disposal.

SW: This may seem like a small thing, but many authors are super concerned about their own brands and how to position themselves, how to stand out in a crowded marketplace and so forth, how to establish themselves. I know many writers who think about pen names for different types of books, who think about using initials instead of a first name, and other considerations. You went from Chris F. Holm to Chris Holm when you moved from Angry Robots to Mulholland. Why the change?

CH: My wife and I joke that the “F” stood for “Fantasy,” since that’s the genre I was working in back then. Alas, the truth is more mundane. By the time I began establishing an online presence, all the Chris Holm URLs and handles were long gone, so I used my middle initial—which, if you’re curious, is short for Frederick.

Between series, I switched agents, and my new one hated the whole middle initial thing. To hear him tell it, Chris Holm sounds like a guy you’d grab a beer with, while Chris F. Holm does not. I didn’t have strong feelings either way, but my books sell a whole lot better now, so maybe he was onto something.

Every now and again, I toy with the idea of putting some stuff out under a pen name, but I dunno. It’s taken a long-ass time for me to build a reputation in this business. Starting over doesn’t sound like loads of fun.

SW: Besides agreeing to this interview, what's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer? Or, what do you wish you'd known then that you know now?

CH: I dunno if I should answer this. I mean, I blundered into my dream job, and—on the off chance this is some kind of monkey’s paw scenario—I’d hate to jinx it.

I will say this, though. “A bad agent is worse than no agent at all” is a common refrain among writers for good reason. I understand the instinct to leap at your first offer of representation—after all, it’s what I did—but you’ve also gotta listen to your gut. If red flags abound during the courtship period, they sure as hell ain’t gonna vanish when you’re married.

SW: As a scientist-turned-novelist, you've clearly done your research and know your stuff. Is there some cool science-y thing you wanted to use, but had to cut from this book?

CH: The human microbiota plays a major role in CHILD ZERO.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it’s just a fancy way of referring to the ecosystem of microorganisms that live in, on, and around each of us. Because your microbiota is influenced by your diet, body chemistry, and environment, it's as unique as a fingerprint—and, as such, it’ll likely be of tremendous value to the next generation of forensic scientists.

Imagine using cotton swabs and PCR to trace a dumped body to its primary murder scene, or determine whether, when, and for how long a victim and suspect interacted. If I could've figured out a way to work that in, I would've done it in a heartbeat.

Nerdy sidebar: many lay publications use “microbiota” and “microbiome” interchangeably. Technically, “microbiota” refers to microorganisms in a particular environment, while “microbiome” refers to the combined genetic material of microorganisms in a particular environment. Rather than bog CHILD ZERO down by digging into that, I just went with the correct—albeit slightly less popular—term. Apparently, I had no similar compunctions about bogging down this interview.

SW: This is a tight story you've told, though it involves many people. Any character you'd like to spin off into their own book?

CH: I adore hijabi NYPD detective Amira Hassan, and think a novel told from her perspective could be amazing. Problem is, I’m not the person to write it, because I lack the lived experience to do her story justice. Then again, if CHILD ZERO blows up huge, I’d be psyched to team up with somebody who could.

I’ve also toyed with the idea of a short story collection set in this world, because I cut tons of characters, subplots, and set pieces to keep CHILD ZERO lean. The trick would be to make them worth reading, rather than inessential bonus material, like deleted scenes on DVDs.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Lucid but Failing

It's entirely unpredictable how a writer will wind up on your radar as a writer you want to read.  Case in point for me: the Italian writer Alberto Moravia.  Yesterday, while at work, I put him near the top of my list as someone I want to read soon.  

It's not entirely true that I just put Moravia on my radar yesterday.  He's been on my radar for some time, mainly because I've seen a few film adaptations of his novels.  These include The Conformist, from 1970, Bernardo Bertolucci's great film with Jean-Louis Trintignant as the title character, a man in Fascist Italy who has an intense need to conform to whatever the predominant political group is during his time, and Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 Contempt, one of my all-time favorite films and among (that middle section) the saddest films ever made.  I also liked a film called Ennui (or Boredom), from 1998, an adaptation of a Moravia book called La Noia (1960), about -- the film -- an older and somewhat jaded philosophy professor who becomes involved with an easygoing younger woman who was the lover of a now-deceased painter.  All three of these films, among other things, contain a great deal of psychological nuance in the characters, something I love. And yesterday, while at work, in the throes of what you might call midday workday ennui, I took a break from my duties and started scrolling the Internet and somehow came across, on Amazon, the page for the New York Review of Books Classics edition of Moravia's Contempt.  

I started reading the introduction to the Kindle version, written by novelist and translator Tim Parks, and read this passage about Moravia's writing, which I found fascinating:

In his novels, "There is the hyper-conscious protagonist whose lucid reflections revolve remorselessly around feelings and events that will remain forever obscure.  There is a profound melancholy that will never quite be placed but is such as to make every event, every memory, pregnant with possibly unwelcome explanation.  A heavy cloud of menace looms over the most trivial of encounters: what appalling truths are perhaps about to be revealed, what terrible mistakes will be made?  However domestic and apparently innocuous the scene, no sooner has Moravia's cool rational voice begun to describe it than we are filled with an irrational apprehension."

Parks goes on to say that a typical Moravia central character is a "disturbingly lucid individual" who "seeks to identify the source of his unhappiness", who "reaches certain conclusions, decides on a certain course of action.  Then an accelerating series of events, in the course of which both the characters around him and the protagonist himself are seen to act in the most unpredictable, though somehow inevitable and pre-determined, of ways, makes a mockery of all his reflection, all his yearning for comprehension and control...The real as we experience it, [Moravia] insists, does have this surreal, oneiric, often farcical quality."

After reading this, I went to Wikipedia and looked up Moravia, to find that "his writing was marked by its factual, cold, precise style" and was "regarded for being extremely stark and unadorned, characterized by elementary common words in an elaborate syntax."

I ended my Moravia pause there, closed my browser, and got back to regular work at my desk, but for the rest of the day, I was thinking about what I read and how I have to get to reading this writer soon because I'm sure I can learn a lot from him that I can apply to my own writing.  I've long found that temperamentally I tend towards a somewhat cold, factual and, hopefully, precise way of writing, and I absolutely try to use unadorned language.  And that blend, as Tim Parks describes it, of having a lucid, analytical type character who attempts to chart a rational course through life, only to find that these attempts fail due to life's vagaries and, yes, often farcical quality, not to mention the character's own blind spots and unacknowledged irrationality, is exactly a blend I love playing with, that strikes a chord with me.  There is no trip like the trip through the mind and emotions of a person as they try to navigate through life and love and sex and everything else.  And when that trip is taken through a lucid mind that keeps abutting difficulty, some of that difficulty created by the lucid mind's propensity towards overanalysis, you have fiction, to my mind, that can be so compelling -- at once melancholy and comic.  It's a type of writing I aspire to, and so, I'm glad I took that short break yesterday at work and stumbled upon the Moravia page because, as I said, it made me think that it's a high time I finally took up one of his books to see how a master does certain things I've been spinning around in my mind for years.