Laskowski reached out to Irvin through Facebook, and what started as a casual IM conversation turned into an interesting exploration about the challenges of writing about crime, the weird and delightful process of putting together a story collection, and their mutual love for Bobby Darin and Ocean City, Maryland.
TARA LASKOWSKI: So what creepy things did you read as a kid that made you want to write crime?
CHRISTOPHER IRVIN: It’s funny, I don’t think I read much crime at all growing up. I was big into science fiction and fantasy. J. R. R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Dennis L. McKiernan, George R. R. Martin. A ton of tie-in stuff (Alien, Star Wars, Warhammer) and a lot of comics and pen and paper role-playing games. I didn’t really dig into crime until around the time I began writing it, and I still haven’t read much of what is considered classic noir. (Too many fantastic books and not enough time!) I’m kind of avoiding much of it at this point for fear of sounding like those authors. I try to read as widely as possible these days, with a much deeper appreciation for literary fiction.
TL: I was big into the urban legend kind of books. You know, the hook man killing teenagers, or the ghost in the cemetery, or the killer who hides under your car in the mall parking lot and slices your ankles. But, I also liked Nancy Drew. And went through the obligatory romance paperbacks phase.
CI: Speaking of romance paperbacks … I’ve actually been meaning to read some. They are so popular! How do they do it?
TL: No kidding. That’s where the money is. Perhaps one day we could collaborate. “Safe Inside the Bedsheets.” Or “Bystanders in Love.”
CI: The possibilities! Okay, on a more serious note: You begin Bystanders with “The Witness,” a story that in many ways mirrors the title of the collection. A woman witnesses a car accident, and we follow her as she continues to carry the violence with her well after the event. The next two stories hint at threats of violence or danger. What draws you to these indirect forms of violence?
TL: Well, for starters I don’t really consider myself a crime writer. I’m more of a literary fiction writer who likes to crash the mystery/crime fiction parties every once in a while. However, I’m often drawn to the idea of violence and horror as a catalyst in fiction. When I started putting this collection together, I realized that what crops up most often in my short stories is violence on the periphery. I’m always interested in how something terrible happening to someone else has a ripple effect on your own life. Every time a terrorist attack happens — which sadly these days, is a lot — it messes me up for a while. I commute into DC every day and I’m not going to lie — I think daily about altering my commute, walking instead of taking the metro, avoiding tourist areas that might be potential targets. I don’t do it, but that fear is there.
In my stories, though, people do alter their courses. Even though the murder, the accident, the threat didn’t happen to them directly, they ingest some part of it, and it changes them.
In your collection, I think you take this same theme and turn it on its head a bit. Your characters grapple with decisions about committing or being party to a violent act. Many of your stories involve people teetering on the edge of something terrible, and you capture them in the moment someone nudges them over the cliff. I’m thinking of the garbage man who finds the gun and gets it in his head he needs to protect his woman. Or the narrator from your title story who is just simmering about the injustice he sees with the next-door neighbors. Many writers choose to open a story with a violent act and then explore the ramifications, you build up to that moment and often end with the violence just beginning.
CI: Good point, and quite the opposite of your collection, in fact. Often when I’m writing short fiction, I try not to think too much — I take a kernel of a story and just go with my gut. This has lead to a lot of reflection in the wake of Safe Inside the Violence’s release, particularly through conversations such as this one that force me to think hard on why these stories turn out the way they do.
While we exist in a world full of day-to-day violence at the extremes, life is even more cluttered with events that could go there, but don’t. For example, a friend of mine was riding the bus to work the other day and a couple got into a fight in front of her that escalated to a screaming match, the two hitting each other. When the bus driver told them to knock it off, they went after him verbally, to the point where he pulled the bus over and waited for the transit police. The transit police arrived and asked the other passengers for statements right in front of the couple that was being arrested. No one spoke up. Why? Because they all ride the bus with this particular couple every day and likely didn’t want to become their target.
It’s this kind of anxiety and tension in the ramp up alongside potential conflict that I really enjoy writing about and examining. It’s much messier than death, I think. That’s final, whereas anything less forces characters to continue their struggle.
You mention the ripples that result from violence, but you also take on the ramifications of betrayal and mistrust. Do you find an inherent violence in these acts as well?
TL: I love this question, because yes, yes, yes! I interpret violence much more broadly. In fact, I think some of the most violent things we do to one another have nothing to do with the physical, have nothing to do with blood or bruises. Because, my word, how you can skewer someone’s heart and soul and passion with a few, specially chosen words. It’s a mess, as I’m sure you’ve also discovered, when you’re a parent, because I constantly worry that something I say inadvertently is going to mess up my son’s head in some way. Kids are so prone to this. I can still remember in second grade, on the hellish school bus, when an older girl asked me if I’d gotten my hair cut. “Yes!” I’d said, excited she’d noticed, excited that she’d even spoken to me at all. “It’s ugly,” she replied. Thirty some odd years later I still remember that comment and the way it made me feel. If that’s not violence, I don’t know what is.
So yeah, for me betrayal, cruelty, lies, mistrust, emotional abuse — all most definitely violent. In the story “Half the Distance to the Goal,” for example, this entire couple’s relationship is being tainted by an act in the past that no one’s sure even happened. So in that case, the betrayal might be something that didn’t even exist, except in the collective minds of a community or a family or whatever, but the belief that it did is more powerful than if it did happen.
Speaking of things that may or may not have happened, I want to talk a little about the supernatural elements in our collections. We’ve got ghosts and monsters hovering. When I wrote “The Monitor,” a story about a woman who starts to see creepy things in her baby monitor, it was delightful to free myself from “reality” and explore something a little different, while still grounding it in an emotional reality (in this case, postpartum depression). In your story “Beyond the Sea,” a mysterious creature starts showing up and people start disappearing. What drew you to write this one — one of my favorites in your collection, by the way.
CI: I was reading a lot of Lovecraft when I began writing, and so I wrote mostly horror. After a while my work (and interest) began to trend more toward crime, and I’ve stuck mostly with that vein ever since. “Beyond the Sea” dipped back into those horror waters. I saw a call for stories for a 1950s/’60s American horror anthology, and I loved the cover/concept so much I dropped whatever I was doing and wrote the story. It ended up being rejected (womp womp) but Beat to a Pulp published it shortly after, and it became one of my most widely read stories. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and the process of writing it was a lot of fun. My dad is from Baltimore (I get my Orioles fandom from him), and growing up we’d travel every other year to see family in Maryland, catch a ball game, and head out to Ocean City. I have a lot of fond memories of the place — the beach, kites, the boardwalk, caramel corn, Dolle’s Taffy, etc. At its heart, I think the story is a bit of a love letter to the city, my nostalgia for those summers.
TL: How do you see it fitting and contributing to the overall theme of the collection?
CI: It hits on a lot of the same themes of anxiety, melancholia, and family. I originally had it toward the front, but it was such a departure from the other stories that I moved it back to prevent readers’ expectations being thrown too much.
TL: Is the title also a nod to Bobby Darin? Because now I have that song stuck in my head!
CI: It is! I love that song.
TL: Me too. One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life was the night that my father’s jukebox didn’t reload that record properly and the arm of the machine smashed Bobby Darin into a million pieces. I can still cry thinking about it.
Anyway, you mentioned that “Beyond the Sea” was a must-have in your collection. Did you have any other must-haves? Any stories that you were wavering on including and ultimately did not include? Any you regret including now that the book is out? Did you consult anyone else about this, and if so, how did their opinions help or hurt?
CI: Word count and story count were definitely on my mind. A couple years ago, friend and fellow writer Richard Thomas wrote an article on LitReactor on the importance of getting a collection over 40,000 words, as many (reviewers, competitions, etc.) didn’t consider a collection under that to be a “true collection.” But more than that, my first two releases were novellas (both under 30,000 words) so I wanted the collection to be a bit thicker — to feel like a “real” book. It topped out at 46,000 … so at least I tried. I’m happy with the length though, and the number of stories. I read something like 16–20 short story collections last year. Story count did vary, but I’d say most fell between 10–15, so I wanted to try and stick somewhere in there. The collection ended up with nine previously published and four new.
TL: Interesting that there’s this stigma about length and what makes for a “real” book. My collection also includes 13 stories (a spooky, generally unlucky number that seemed appropriate), but I had a slightly different consideration and worry when collecting pieces for it. That was — should I include any flash fiction? I write a lot of flash — stories under 1,000 words — but I was worried that including too many of those would make it like less of a “real” collection. I worried that readers wouldn’t take the flash as seriously. And indeed, the two shortest stories in the collection — which are longer than flash, but not quite considered flash — are the ones that got the most resistance from my first readers of the manuscript. Flash, in my opinion, makes the reader work harder to fill in gaps, and many times that can be interpreted as “underdeveloped” or “thin.”
I ultimately did not include any flash fiction in this collection. And now sometimes, when I’m trying to find sections of the book to read at events, I regret that decision because that form can be pretty compelling read aloud.
For the stories you wrote to fill in your collection, did you find they came easily, or was it a chore to get them done?
CI: I wrote the four new stories in about five weeks, right before the book was due to the publisher. I don’t mean this to come off as a brag, but for context as the deadline required me to write much quicker than I usually do, and I’m hugely indebted to my wife and a small group of friends who provided immediate feedback to keep me going.
On the whole it was a great learning experience. It was the first time I’d written anything without a publication (other than my own) in mind … and the stories turned out much more literary than expected. I’ve been thinking about this a lot too. Do you feel your work to be consciously or subconsciously altered by thoughts of where you might submit it and the editor’s or publication’s expectations?
TL: I try not to do this. Usually when I sit down to write something it’s not with the intention of “I’m going to write this for XXX.” I usually write it, and then figure out how weird it is and what publication might be interested. I guess here I’m talking about short stories or flash, because that’s most often what I’m working on and submitting.
I have had paralysis when working on longer projects. Both novels I’ve written/am writing regularly go through this pattern: “Wow, this is going pretty well.” “Wow, this really sucks.” “No way anyone is ever going to want to read this.” “Okay, no, this is actually pretty decent.” “I’m totally awesome.” “This is the worst thing I’ve ever written.” “Nothing happens.” “Okay! Stuff is happening!” “Wow, this really sucks.”
CI: Story of my life.