Chris Larsen’s first novel, Losing Touch, has garnered much praise and acclaim since it was published by Post Mortem Press last year, winning several awards and receiving rave reviews. The horror/sci-fi novel focuses on a typical beleaguered husband/father, Morgan Dunsmore, who is not only watching his life dissolve around him, but is also losing physical tangibility. Being able to “phase” through solid matter sounds like a superhuman ability, but for Morgan it proves to be more horrific than heroic.
Chris has also written numerous short stories for anthologies and other publications. I had the pleasure of working with him on his story “The Little Things” for the Zippered Flesh 2 anthology. I recently managed to catch up with Chris and used the opportunity to talk with him about his book, his writing, and his future.
Weldon Burge (WB): Your novel, Losing Touch, won the Preditors & Editors Award for “Best Horror Novel” of 2013. The book has been well-received just about everywhere. Not bad for a debut novel! To what do you attribute your success?
Chris Larsen (CL): I was talking to my wife, Maureen, about this the other day. I really don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much, but if you would have told me five years ago that I would have a novel published with a foreword by Piers Anthony—and won an award for it to boot—I’d have told you that you were shitting me. I think what I mean by that is that “success” is a relative term, kind of like “old” or “rich.” It’s not the sales or the accolades that make me feel successful—it’s the positive comments and reviews. When I know that I’ve reached a reader, that’s success, and it’s measured one reader at a time.
I really couldn’t tell you how I achieved that success, though. I just wrote a novel that I wanted to read. Or I tried to, anyway. There were times (many times) that I finished writing for the day and I thought that what I put on paper (read: “the screen”) was absolute crap. But a writer writes. You just keep pushing forward until people starting reading and liking what you’ve written. And it took me a while. I mean, I started “writing” when I was 10, finished my first novel at 27 (don’t look for it on Amazon—it’s safely locked in a trunk where it will stay, forever and always), and published a couple of dozen short stories before I even took a crack at novel writing.
WB: What does your family think of all this?
CL: Maureen and my boys are big reasons why I’ve achieved the success that I have. They let me do this. I take time away from them every day to put in time writing. They give me that time, and they really don’t have to. I’m even tempted to argue that they shouldn’t. But they do.
WB: Morgan Dunsmore, the lead character of the novel, seems like an “everyman” who is forced to deal with a bizarre affliction that changes his life. Despite his superhuman ability, he comes off as very human and flawed. How much of Morgan Dunsmore would you say is Chris Larsen?
CL: When I started writing Losing Touch, I just wrote what I knew. I figured that I would change the “too-autobiographical” stuff later, but I never did. So I must shamefacedly admit that quite a bit of Morgan Dunsmore is me, and vice versa—not that I can walk through walls, but I’ve made bad decisions, had unhealthy relationships, and, with the great recession of 2008, a fair bit of financial stress. I went from being a radio rock jock to an English teacher to a novelist in the space of three years. It gave my bank account whiplash. A number of people with whom I am close made it into the book, too, and my mom has spent the year since the book was published telling anyone and everyone that she is not Morgan’s mom. She’s not, really, at least in whole. Every character is based on at least a couple of people, but the people close to me recognize themselves, I’m sure, and—I’m saying this to them, now—I’m really sorry. But the part about Morgan being a frustrated Chicago Bears fan? I wrote that from the heart.
WB: What was your biggest challenge when writing the novel?
CL: Not giving up. I wanted to give up after almost every writing session. I just thought what I was writing was terrible. And lest you think that I’m one of those low self-esteem types, I’m not. I was really just unable to read Losing Touch without thinking I took a metaphorical shit on my computer. It wasn’t until Piers Anthony wrote the foreword that I thought I might actually have something here, and it took me four months to work up the guts to even ask him.
The other challenge I dealt with was putting words to page every day. I don’t know how it is with other writers, but you give me any excuse not to write, and I’ll probably take it. And here’s the weird part: I love writing! Maybe this is part of the I-hate-everything-I-write challenge. But you know, when you are a writer, it’s your job. A police officer doesn’t feel like policing—that’s a problem. Same goes for me. So I roll up my sleeves and write every day (or most days), and let other people tell me if what I created was any good.
WB: Do you work from an outline, or pretty much improvise?
CL: I never work from an outline, and 99% of the editing I do is in-line, meaning I do it while I’m writing. At least, that’s how it went down with Losing Touch, which started out as an unfinished short story. It didn’t have any traction and I left it sitting there on my hard drive. When I was batting around ideas for a novel, a friend of mine suggested I revisit the-guy-who-can-walk-through-walls story, which isn’t really all that surprising, because this friend was always a big comic book/superhero kind of guy, even though that’s not quite how the book plays out. I changed the main character’s back story and life situation, and voila, the story had legs. Morgan is out-of-work husband and father in the Chicago suburbs who loves the Bears. In the aborted short story version, he started out as a senior citizen living in rural Wisconsin who cheered for the Packers. Write what you know.
I also thought the novel would have to be about fifty-thousand words when I started. But, about halfway there, I found out that first novels in the sci-fi/horror genre really have to be about eighty-thousand words to sell. I had no idea how I was going to “stretch” it to that length, but looking back now on the roughly eighty-two-thousand word story, I really don’t know how I could have made it any shorter. The story tells the writer what it wants to be—not an outline. At least, that’s how it works for me.
WB: You’ve been an English teacher, radio personality, newspaper reporter, and I suspect you’ve held a number of other jobs over the years. How have these diverse experiences educated you to become a better writer?
CL: Life experience is the writer’s notebook. It’s true that I’ve worked in a bunch of different industries and met a bunch of people with a fairly wide spectrum of life experiences that I suspect have crept into my writing, but the most important thing is to observe your surroundings, whatever they might be. Sure, a police detective like Joe McKinney lives a pretty interesting life and that informs his writing in some fairly obvious ways, but I’d say a receptionist at a doctor’s office could also draw on his or her life experiences to write a damned interesting story. The important thing is to make it real, or seem real, even when it’s fantastic. The life experience that I drew on the most when I was writing Losing Touch was being unemployed. Not very exciting stuff, on the face of it, but I think the realism, the stark desperation of the situation, gave it something that my readers can identify with, even if they didn’t live through Morgan’s exact situation. (Heck, I didn’t even live through his exact situation.)
WB: What (or who) inspires you?
CL: Everything. Every little thing can be the cornerstone around which you construct a story. Losing Touch really had its beginnings way, way back when I was in junior high, when my seventh-grade science teacher said that you could walk through walls if you lined up your molecules just right. It was a throwaway statement in the middle of a larger lesson, but I held onto it for 25 years until it turned into the beginnings of Losing Touch. I even reference the science teacher’s statement in the story, but I changed his name. Slightly.
WB: Do you have any rituals/habits you must do when you sit down to write?
CL: I do most of my writing in the afternoon on my laptop, while lying in bed. I need the door closed because my kids’ idea of quiet and mine are two totally different things. I also screw around a lot on the internet while I’m writing. A lot. I used to write for a set amount of time, but found that the screwing around ate up most of that, so now I write at least 500 words a day, which isn’t much, but it adds up. I wrote Losing Touch in four months using that regimen.
When I’m done with a novel, I find that I take a lot of time off from writing, sometimes as much as six months, which makes me feel really, really guilty. I mean, I’m a writer, right? If a writer isn’t writing, he’s nothing. But I’m pretty good at convincing myself that I earned that time off, mostly because once I’m done with a big project, I’m pretty empty. I don’t know—thinking about my answer just feels like a bag full of excuses. Maybe I should just cut it out and write every day. Yes. I should do that.
WB: Your short stories have been published in numerous anthologies, including Chiral Mad, Zippered Flesh 2, The Best of The Horror Society 2013, A Feast of Frights, What Fears Become, and many others. Any advice for novice writers trying to crack the antho market?
CL: I started out by writing a bunch of stories, polishing them to a fine sheen, and then sending them everywhere. When I was brand-new to the biz, I didn’t know the good publishers from the bad, but I learned. In fact, I found Post Mortem Press (the publisher of Losing Touch) when I submitted for their anthology, The Ghost IS the Machine. So submitting to a bunch of places gives you a good feel for what the publishing houses are, and how they do business.
I got a lot of rejections, like everybody, so you new writers out there (newer than me, anyway—and I’m still pretty green), keep at it. I’ve had some stories rejected a ton of times, but I just kept at it with them until they find a home. It’s like dating in some ways. Most find their mate, eventually. And the good rejections give you pointers about how the story might be improved. Even if you don’t make the changes to that story, you pick up on the lesson for the next. It makes you a better writer.
The other great thing about appearing in anthologies is that you (virtually) get to meet a lot of other writers, and I’ve found that the writing community is one of the most supportive, collegial communities out there. I absolutely love appearing at conventions and events with other writers, because they are genuinely fun people—people who think like you—and you can pick their brains about the writing process or the publishing business. You don’t have to talk to Stephen King to learn something. Just the other guy, doing the same thing you are. There’s so much collective experience out there.
WB: Let’s talk for a minute about editors. What do you find most frustrating about working with editors? The most rewarding?
CL: I’ve had the good luck of working with some terrific editors. I’ve been frustrated once or twice with requests for rewrites, but it was mostly a communication issue. I’m glad I kept my cool, because I was happy with the end result, as published, and I think the editors were, too.
The most rewarding thing about working with editors, especially anthology editors, is the beautiful, finished product, of which I am only a small part. It’s so incredibly cool to be part of something bigger than yourself, put together and packaged in a way you would never have the patience or talent to do yourself. Getting into an anthology is like boarding a party bus, and a good editor is the driver. There are rules, and as long as you follow them, everybody gets funky!
WB: One thing I’ve noticed is that you are quite savvy when it comes to social media, and you seem to be a perpetual blogger. Do you think, from a marketing perspective, that these technical skills are now prerequisites for success for the modern writer?
CL: You’ve got to be able to promote yourself, however you can. I blog, Tweet, post to Facebook, and do as many events as I possibly can. On average, I do a signing or reading (or both) about once a month. And it’s one of the things that’s convinced me that I’m in the right line of work, because I love it. But technology—it’s not like I’m a computer programmer or anything. Anybody can sign up for a free blog, or Twitter, or Facebook. You just got to get out there and do it.
WB: What’s next on your writing agenda? Another novel in the works?
CL: I finished a novel in 2013 called The Afterwalkers about a kind of vampire. He’s sort of like a nachzehrer, which is a kind of German vampire that doesn’t suck blood. He wakes up once a generation and feeds on the life force of people, but doesn’t really remember anything about who he is … not what he is, he knows that, but he has to make up aliases and back stories every time he wakes up, because it’s a blank slate. It’s in the editing process right now.
I’m also working on a novel called Hive Mind about zombies. It’s not a zombie apocalypse story, and it’s not a virus or radiation or anything that causes them to come back. I’m about halfway through the first draft on that. About forty-thousand words.
WB: One last question, just for fun: The Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers? And why?
CL: I’ve never been a Three Stooges fan, so I’ll go with the Marx Brothers by default, even though I don’t really have much experience with them. Groucho was known for saying some pretty brilliantly hilarious things, though, so I feel pretty good about that vote. But if I’m really going with my heart, I’m going to write-in Laurel & Hardy. Far and away two of the funniest men in the history of funny. I love watching their stuff with my kids—because it’s still funny, despite the fact that it’s 80 years old or so, and some of it is even silent. That kind of thing transcends time and generation, and I love that my kids love it, too.
WB: Thanks, Chris!
For more on Chris Larsen, visit his blog at http://exlibrislarsen.com
(A version of this interview was also published in the August 2014 issue of Suspense Magazine.)