Stuff & Nonsense 026: Buttefly
This week's chat is with crime novelist and comic book writer Christopher Irvin, who is not only a talented guy, but extremely kind and supportive of other members of the writing community. He has a new short story collection out via 280 Steps, Safe Inside the Violence, that I hope you'll check out. This interview was edited for space and clarity and so forth.
Chris! Thanks for chatting with me today. What's the Christopher Irvin story? Or legend?
Alex! Thanks for having me. I live in Jamaica Plain (southwest neighborhood of Boston) with my wife and two boys (3 years and 3 months…it's an adventure). I deprive myself of sleep as much as possible to spend my early mornings reading and writing. I mostly write crime fiction – or stuff that borders on crime (more on that below) – and comics. AND I cannot stop. I think it's bordering on an addiction at this point.
You've got a few great books under your belt. I particularly love Federales. What can you say about Safe Inside the Violence?
Thank you! Safe Inside the Violence is my debut short story collection. It consists of nine previously-published pieces (2013-2014) and four that are brand new, written specifically for the book. It's marketed as crime, though early reviews are calling it a mix of crime and literary fiction – which I agree with. Though the 'literary,' or however you'd like to categorize it, is dark and I think includes elements of crime, or at least is influenced by crime. A lot of my recent favorites – stories from Ron Rash, Tom Perotta, Jabari Asim, Alden Jones, Joe Ricker – incorporate some of this. Problems/complications that impact lives of everyday people on the fringes of crime, or maybe not "crime" at all, but it still feels like crime to me.
What's your writing process like? Who are some of the authors you admire?
I drag myself out of bed around 3-3:30 in the morning to write before the work day. I'm lucky that I run well on 5ish hours of sleep. I remember my dad always getting up early when I was a kid so maybe it runs in the family. I tried writing at night, but even before kids I was pretty smoked regardless of how my day went. Writing is just getting the words down on paper though, and I think most of the hard work is done in my head throughout the day. Small bursts of inspiration that give me special moments to key off of in a story: lines of dialogue, a place, a smell, an interaction on the subway. These moments flesh out entire stories for me, with the gaps filling themselves in as a write. I'm trying to find that balance of reflecting on what I do to better understand it, but also not thinking too hard.
As for authors, I mentioned some in the previous question. I throw out William Boyle and Richard Lange all the time, as their style really pushed me into a more 'literary' groove. I'm a sucker for a dark slice-of-life. Brian Panowich's Bull Mountain might be my favorite book of the year. I agree with all of the praise heaped on it, but what really blew me away was his pacing and the way he held to 300-some pages of what I'm sure could have been drawn out and doubled in size. It's brilliant. I'll be throwing it at people come the holidays.
Another highlight for me this year is Don Winslow. I don't read books that run 400+ pages much anymore (there's just too much good out there and so little time) but after much prodding (and the fact that Winslow was going to be reading in Boston) I devoured The Power of the Dog and The Cartel in two weeks. I don't think I did anything else – mornings, nights, at the gym, on the T – all I did was stick my face in these books. They are unbelievable, soul crushing, and EPIC.
On a totally different note, I was really taken by Kieran Shea's Koko books (Koko Takes Holiday, Koko the Mighty). His world-building is off the charts, and I love his style of pulling you through without explaining or defining what everything is. It's inspiring and pushing me to write/outline some fun ideas.
Oh man, don't get me started on Winslow. He's a master. For my money, The Cartel was the best book of the year. But going back to your work - how tricky was it to pick the stories that went into Safe Inside the Violence? Any that you wanted to include that you didn't have room for?
It was easier than I thought it would be. I've kept a running idea of what stories could fill a collection over the years (I think mostly to see the word count growing as I tend to write on the shorter side.) But more recently, when I was seriously contemplating the book, I realized that most of the works had a family at the core of the story, and that the story was about them more than anything else. Recognizing this theme helped narrow it down, although it was a bummer to have to cut some of my more fantastical/speculative pieces – "Charred Kraken with Plum Butter," "Belly Poachin'," etc. I snuck "Beyond the Sea" in there.
280 Steps has been making a name for itself lately with some very smart moves - what made them the right place for you?
When 280 Steps reached out to me after having read Federales, I knew of them, like many people, for their covers. I LOVE their covers – both the 'house' style and individually. I can't stress enough how important covers are to me. Everyone judges a book by its cover. It's impossible not to have some reaction – good, bad, indifferent. It informs your reading experience and sets a tone. Well, it turns out that not only are their covers fantastic, but 280 has been great to work with and very supportive as well. As you mentioned, it's great to see their line-up for 2016 coming together. It should be a banner year for them and I hope the growth continues. They definitely have the cards to become a major player in small press crime.
Talk to me about your comic book work. I know it's something you're passionate about.
If you could see the plates spinning…
This is where things get a little nuts. I love writing comics. Scripting is a blast and I learned A TON between writing my first series Expatriate (w/ Ricardo Lopez Ortiz) and Bent Eight (w/ Joe DellaGatta). The writing is done on those two mini-series and is being pitched around with some of the artwork.
I did a one-shot (also start of a series) with Artyom Trakhanov, Charred Kraken, based on my short story, "Charred Kraken with Plum Butter." Kelly Fitzpatrick did the colors and Thomas Mauer lettered it. I just did a print run for MICE in Cambridge, MA, and it came out fantastic. It's a lot of fun – kind of a weird noir/Lovecraftian/Hellboyish/Goon tale set in an underground world call The Underbelly. The response has been wonderful, and it should be up on ComiXology soon, as well. I plan to do more if we can really drum up sales.
I have a couple more mini-series outlined, and another project with a good friend that seems to be getting some traction. The comic industry really seems like a place that is very difficult to break into, but once you get one or two under your belt and prove what you can do, anything is possible. I'm in it for the long haul, trying my best to have fun along the way.
Kelly colors The Black Hood and most of the Dark Circle line - she's amazing. Just had to say that. Are there other comics you're digging lately?
Too many? I've been trying to cut back on single issues because I love the trade format, especially with the more detailed/long-form comics that I typically enjoy, but they still get me. I'm all over the map when it comes to genre…here's a random sample off the top of my head:
Head Lopper, by my buddy Andrew MacLean is a blast. It's coming out quarterly with 60+ page issues. Sure, I'm biased, but I highly recommend checking out his stuff, especially Apocalyptigirl, a short graphic novel that's a surprisingly quiet and really effective sci-fi adventure tale.
Eric Powell's The Goon, which has been a long-time favorite, just ended. I'm looking forward to collecting the library editions.
Starve from Brian Wood and Danijel Zezelj is really great – kind of Anthony Bourdain meets Iron Chef in a dystopian near future.
Hank Johnson: Agent of Hydra is a hilarious one-shot written by David Mandel, who's written for Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep, and SNL.
I'm slowly making my way through Stray Bullets: Uber Alles Edition. It's fantastic, but a bit of a slog for me. Maybe because of the size of the book.
Afterlife with Archie totally took me by surprise. We need more of this, stat, Alex!
Starlight by Mark Millar and Goran Parlov is a recent favorite about an old hero who saved another planet when he was younger but no one ever believed him – and it's time to go back to work and save it again.
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend – biographical OGN by Box Brown. A must read for wrestling fans.
Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba – this book is off-the-charts incredible. It's one of my top recommendations to everyone, especially non-comics readers. I just received Two Brothers in the mail and I'm waiting for a quiet day to sit and absorb the whole thing.
Great list. I love me some Stray Bullets. Though I have to agree that certain bits slow things down - but that works for the whole, I think. It took me a few reads to really get into the Amy Racecar sci-fi bits, but then I grew really fond of them. One of my favorite comic series ever. In terms of writing process, though, I enjoy both comics and novels because they work different parts of my brain - comic scripts are kind of like putting a puzzle together, whereas prose is more about immersing yourself in a world you've created. How do you feel about them?
I think you're onto something when you mention 'putting a puzzle together.' Writing scripts is a blast, and – so far – much faster for me than writing prose. I love breaking down a story arc, let's say over six issues, and then going deeper into the issues themselves and laying that out over the pages, then again deeper into the action on each page and the dialogue that follows. Sure, I think some of the subconscious writing that I see at work in my prose is there, but it's much more engineered for me, the acute attention paid to pacing and structure. Even more so with the couple of mini-comics I've written. A 700 word short story is one thing; a 3-5 page comic is another. That said, the collaborative aspect is my favorite part of creating comics and I try to make my scripts relatively loose (at least the artists I've worked with appreciate it) so I've got that going for me, at least, ha.
What else is on the horizon for you?
I have a novel to rewrite from the ground up, a couple more secret (shh) comic projects, and I'd like to tackle a screenplay next year (re-writing my comic mini-series Bent Eight as a screenplay). I think it would be fun and give me the chance to learn a lot.
I can't imagine you have much time for TV and movies - but anything you've gotten hooked on lately?
Unfortunately television and movies is the one thing I've had to cut hard to make room for writing and more family time. The list of shows (Fargo, Daredevil, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Ballers, Veep…) keeps growing and growing. I'm a big Punisher fan so I'll have to catch up on Daredevil sooner than later, but other than a few notable exceptions – Game of Thrones and True Detective – I'm mostly watching Thomas the Tank Engine, Curious George, and Daniel Tiger with my son.
BUT having kids did lead to discovering two amazing shows. My three-year-old loves Jake the dog of Adventure Time. I don't remember how we started watching it, but I can't get enough of the show. I've seen some episodes 50+ times and it never gets old. It's flat-out brilliant. It carries dark, heavy adult themes throughout its 200+ episodes (new season kicked off this week) and handles them with more sincerity than most adult shows out there. But still hides/balances these themes with fun and adventure well enough that I think they are mostly hidden from kids.
The second is Over the Garden Wall. Cartoon Network ran the mini-series last fall (ten 15-minute episodes), and brought it back this year in both episode form and an abridged movie. It's about two brothers who get lost in a Brothers Grimm-esque woods and run into everything from a town of pumpkin people (really skeletons wearing pumpkins) throwing a fall festival, a school full of animals, and a steamboat full of The Wind in the Willows-esque frogs. Sure, it's for kids…I guess? But, man, it is layered and DARK, to the point where I kind of cringed while watching the second half with my son. Highly recommended – plus there are comic tie-ins!
This was fun! Thanks for coming by, Chris - hope we covered everything.
I think we got it! Thanks again for having me, and I hope people dig Safe Inside the Violence. Spread the good word!
So, this is happening.
You can still pre-order copies of my upcoming novels, Silent City and Down the Darkest Street. Feel free to spread the links around - it's an important time for these books! Thanks in advance.
I had fun chatting with my friend and fellow crime writer Kristi Belcamino about P.I. fiction. The second part will run Sunday.
Two college lovers were convicted of a grisly murder years ago - why has it become a cause now?
True crime writer Anthony Flacco on why we're drawn to survivor tales.
What happened to Deputy Jon Aujay?
Stassa Edwards analyzes our culture's obsession with the murdered sorority girl.
Jonathan Ashley on Goodis and Willeford at hardboiled wonderland.
Until next time...