Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s sleep for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. He is the author of Burn Cards and Federales, as well as short stories featured in several publications, including Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey, as well as last year’s highly acclaimed anthology, Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts. (Chris does, not Springsteen.)
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Burn Cards.
Christopher Irvin: Burn Cards follows Mirna Fowler, a young woman doing her best to escape Reno, Nevada, while living with the burden of her father's gambling addiction. When his debts are suddenly thrust upon her, what will she do?
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
CI: The idea originally grew from a short story I wrote for Christa Faust's LitReactor class, Tough Dames, in 2012. I was supposed to take the trope of a black widow and rework the concept – avoid those tropes, right? I think I failed, ha, but I loved the story anyway and it stuck with me, especially the protagonist, Mirna Fowler. I really wanted to do something more with her character…so I wrote a rough outline and sat on that for six months.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Burn Cards, start to finish?
CI: I began writing Burn Cards as a novel in the summer of 2012, right after NECON. I had a finished draft a couple of months later, and edited that through the fall/winter, thinking it would be my "first published novel." It was more "everything but the kitchen sink." I suppose everyone has one of those, right? I have to thank Elizabeth White for giving me the critique that buried the original manuscript for the better part of two years. In 2014 I began talking with 280 Steps about reviving the book. I'd had ideas over the years, even taken a couple whacks at editing sections before drifting back to other projects. Eventually (with help, there's always help – kudos to J. David Osborne) I realized that roughly the second half of the book was unnecessary – the "kitchen sink" that I was keeping around more for word count than anything else. Early last fall (2014) I handed in the final draft to 280 Steps…so that's my long-winded way of saying: about two years.
OBAAT: Where did Mirna Fowler come from? Aside from the obvious, in what ways is she like, and unlike, you? Someone you know well?
CI: Mirna's origins are a little fuzzy. There are characters I've created that I can definitely point to parts of and say "this is me" or "this is A, B, or C" person/friend/etc. There are a couple of others in the book that fit the latter, Maxine for one. I love a good underdog, and I think Mirna grew out of a desire to create my own.
OBAAT: Tell us a little about choosing a female protagonist? Did writing from a woman’s perspective pose any problems? Anything come up you didn’t anticipate?
CI: The female protagonist (Mirna) grew from the original short story where she was a black widow, so first it was a necessity from the perspective of the assignment. I don't think it posed any major problems, though I definitely felt conscious of the fact that I really wanted to nail her voice throughout. Having female friends (looking at you, KL Pereira and Kristin Dearborn) read/critique and approve of Mirna was very helpful and a big relief.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Burn Cards set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
CI: Burn Cards is set in contemporary Reno, Nevada. The setting is very important to the book as the people and culture of the city have a great impact upon Mirna's life. As with Federales, I'm a huge fan of setting being used in a meaningful way, and I hope I accomplished it with Burn Cards.
OBAAT: How did Burn Cards come to be published?
CI: In early 2014 I began talking with 280 Steps after they'd read and enjoyed my first book, Federales. I'd always wanted to do something more with Burn Cards (after aforementioned stashing in drawer) and I pitched it to them with a rough outline of what I'd planned to change. The book ended up quite different (…did I mention I cut it in half?) and I'm very thankful to them for putting their trust in me and running with it. 280 Steps is a fantastic crew and it's been a pleasure working with them.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
CI: My interest runs the gamut when it comes to short stories, though I generally prefer it on the darker/weirder side. I love reading collections and getting to know an author's voice and recognize themes in their work. Some of my favorite collections are Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, Sweet Nothing by Richard Lange, Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill, The Inner City by Karen Heuler, Every House is Haunted by Ian Rogers, and The Little Boy Inside and Other Stories by Glenn Gray. I could probably list five or ten more. I wish collections were more popular with the general readership.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
CI: I drew a lot when I was young. I think in 3rd/4th/5th grades we were given little white books and told we could write/draw whatever story we'd like. I still have them – I think that made a huge impact on me. I also remember, as a kid, seeing George McFly open his box of books at the end of Back to the Future and wanting that moment – that moment that you've created something.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
CI: I have a background in law enforcement…so there's that. But honestly, I don't draw on it much. Like any type/style of fiction, human interaction is at the core. I like to think I'm just observant and contemplate people and their actions/behaviors. Everything is boiled down to a statistic these days. What's hidden or lost in the numbers?
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
CI: The creative aspect first and foremost, but the people I've met and gotten to call great friends are a very close second. I'm lucky to have met some amazing and passionate people.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
CI: Joe R. Lansdale's short story, "Santa at the Café," made me want to write crime fiction. Megan Abbott's Queen Pin was influential in pushing me toward Noir. Other than that, it's a bit of a blur. People who put it all on the line and know they will succeed because they've got what it takes and they believe in themselves – those are the kind that inspires me. There always seems to be rumblings of jealousy around people of that type, but I have nothing but admiration. Believe in yourself and go do it, ya know?
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
CI: The room where I write is freezing during the winter so I'm afraid pants are mandatory along with an IV drip of coffee.
It's a mix. I generally need some kind of rough outline, especially for anything longer than a short story. But if I outline too much I get bored, so I generally start writing before the path has fully formed in my head.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
CI: I usually edit as I go. I love seeing moments come together during the editing process, and it feels good to move forward knowing I have something more-or-less solid to fall back on. I try not to get bogged down in the minutia though. I've
wasted spent entire mornings on a page
trying to coax it together. I'd better feel really
happy with that page in order to not feel like I've lost ground. I try to
have a mindset where I'm always moving forward. Keep that and I'll get there
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
CI: As most writers will tell you: Just put your butt in the seat and do it. If you do that more or less every day, you'll end up with something you can be proud of. Also, no social media on the computer, or whatever you are using to write – I only use the apps on my phone and try my best to tuck it away when I'm writing.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
CI: Have fun. Seriously. The odds of you making a living at this are slim, so you better enjoy it.
And! Make your own luck. Who you know might get you in the room, but you've got to be ready to rock n' roll when you get there. A lot often rides on one shot.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
CI: I think my strengths are in character, setting and tone, so in a way those components are the most important to me in my writing. I try not to overthink them and just roll with my gut. On the other hand, narrative and story/plot are nearly just as important as they are the areas I'm trying to improve in. I struggle with plotting – Too much? Too little? Where's the sweet spot? I think that intertwines with my struggle for a higher page count. 200 - 250 page novels seem to be more marketable these days, which is a trend I hope continues. I often find myself drifting when I read books in the 300 – 400 page range. It's rare that I find a long book where I feel the extra bulk is necessary.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
CI: Maybe Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. It's a beautiful graphic novel and I love how well the stories tie together into a satisfying ending that makes you think.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
Shoveling snow Relaxing with my family.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
CI: I've signed a contract for my next book. More should be announced soon, but that will be arriving late in the fall. I finished a draft of a novel – my first book that really feels like a novel. I'm excited about it, but I'm going to let it sit for a couple of months before I dive back in. My current focus is on comics – Bent Eight with Joe DellaGatta and Mat Lopes, and Expatriate, with Ricardo Lopez Ortiz and Mat Lopes. Hopefully more on those soon!