With two solid novels already in tow with Forgiving Solomon Long and Deliver Us From Evelyn, Chris Well is now ready to release his third "laugh-out-loud crime thriller." Tribulation House releases next month and in this interview, he speaks to us about the realities of being a writer, having several projects spinning at the same time and his cynical look at end times theology.
Matt: How did you get into writing this cross genre of the "laugh-out-loud crime thriller" as it says on your website?
Chris: Mainly as a fan of it. I read a lot of Elmore Leonard and others, but mainly just Leonard. I don't wear my influences too much on my sleeve, I guess. (Laughs). And then it was later that I started reading some of Janet Evanovich, who is a kindred spirit also. But really, Elmore Leonard. I guess it goes back to before reading any of his books, I saw Get Shorty and there's just something about something that's that authentic as a crime film, yet it was hilarious. I love that juxtaposition of the quirky characters, but there is a real threat and a real danger going on at the same time.
Are those hard literary waters to navigate in?
Good question. In a way, I'm still rethinking your first question, because I think it's my personality coming out. Because, yes, I was influenced by Leonard and others of that kind. Also in a non-funny way, I was inspired by James Elroy. That's why these three books so far have been very ensemble oriented, so it's a funny version of L.A. Confidential, in a way. There's a juxtaposition for you.
But when I think about Forgiving Solomon Long, when I first started this book that I was intending to write, my personality took i that direction. Early in writing the first book... I was just showing some early pages to my publisher, but there's a scene with these two thugs that become a couple of Shakespeare characters to some extent, where they are the comedic relief. When they first came on the scene in the book, when you look at my early pages, they just come in, tell the boss the information and then they went out. My publisher said there was something very normal about them entering. He said, "Don't show me somebody else's mobsters. Show me Chris Well's mobsters."
So then suddenly these guys come back into the scene again and their conversation was about Broadway musicals. And then to even amp it up, it turned out that they were returning back from killing somebody and talking about Broadway musicals. One thing I'm proud of is that they made a reference to a musical that had actually played in Kansas City recently, which is where they were in the book. So they were able to reference a real production of a real musical that happened right around the time it was happening in the book.
How did that change your writing or the book?
It completely changed the book and who they were and they ended up playing a larger role in the book as it got toward the end. One guy is always quoting Czechov and another guy references old sitcoms. And that's what people respond to in my books, all the pop cultural references. You don't see those in a lot of Christian fiction, but when you hear things you know about, it resonates with you. It completely changes the way you engage with the book, instead of watching these people at arm's length.
Where did you get the idea for Tribulation House? Was there an "a-ha" moment?
It sort of developed I guess. There was a confluence of different little ideas that came together. This being my third quirky, crime fiction book, I started to get a feel for how to look for the friction between what's funny and what's scary. That combined with the actual spark for the idea came from... well, I don't want to say it came from real stuff. I don't actually know a guy who borrowed money from the mob because he thought the rapture was coming.
But the guy who wrote the pamphlet who was sitting in the church and the pastor called him on it... that actually happened at my church in Nashville. It was before I went there, but the guy who wrote "88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Happen in 1988"... Apparently the pastor from the pulpit was claiming it was heresy that someone would claim this. And the guy afterward came up to him and said, "I wrote that." So the pastor said, "Well, one of us is a liar and in 1988, we'll find out which one it is."
So that is a true thing that I kinda built this crime story around. So some of it naturally came together, but it was a lot of little things in the back of my head. I like putting things together that don't naturally go together.
How has your voice developed since Solomon Long?
It's a continuing journey. With the first book, a lot of the different things were going on because I had a lot of little ideas that I had to put a bunch in just to make the book long enough. But by this time, I'm getting a better sense of "this is how you allow a scene to play out." So yes, it's still a lot of stuff and still very fast paced, but we stay with moments more. The characters, I feel, are a little deeper. I feel that's something I'm getting better at, allowing the characters to be a little more fleshed out. I'm allowing scenes to play out more naturally, rather than being focused on "I've got to get to this moment."
So hopefully it's a more authentic experience, even as crazy as it is. For me, I've already artistically and emotionally moved on to the next book. I feel like I'm even pushing myself even further that way, so each book I hope is just that much better. I hope I'm getting better at telling a story, learning the pacing, etc.
How many ideas do you allow in at a time? Which ones do you allow to boil and others to simmer?
You know, I've got notebooks full of ideas. At this exact moment, I'm wrapping up one thing because I'm already wanting to move on to the thing after that. So I'm trying to wrap up this one first because I don't want to mentally move on until I'm finished.
Can that be difficult?
Sure, because the next thing is a series idea that my wife and I are developing together. As I get ideas for character quirks or great lines or great scenes or great moments, I try to get those down. The challenge is to write enough that I'm just doing notes and not writing the chapter. So that's the balance that I'm juggling. Another thing is that I've come to the conclusion that, as long as you're with a CBA publisher, you can't make a blip on the radar with anything less than one or possibly two books per year. But I have a full-time job, so that's crazy. But I've got to figure out how to do that.
So I've got three or four different things I'm fleshing out. The fourth book I'm trying to finish so that I can work on the fifth book and then we have a great idea for a title and title treatment that would be the sixth thing and seventh thing, which my wife is working on a mock-up to pitch that idea. These are all things that are in some kind of development.
As far as order, the first one is something we've already pitched, so we're working on that. For the fifth project, there's actually a contest and we think this mystery writer's contest would be a great place to break this idea for a series. That has a deadline, so that moves it up in the order. So the deadline thing lets you know what goes in which order. But I'm always afraid of forgetting something unless I write it down. I love coming up with the new idea and what would really surprise people.
This post-Tribulation House project is my attempt at, for lack of a better word since we're stuck with having to label things, full-on chick-lit murder mystery but if it was written by Janet Evanovich or Elmore Leonard. So it's me trying to do write in a different way, do a character in a different way, but at the same time making it funny and very left-of-center.
Has this book been your biggest challenge yet?
Yes, but that's because each book is a stretch from the one before. But it was also the next thing. The next thing is probably not as chick-lit, but it will be another way of making yourself better. Look at someone like Stephen King, who's on top of the world, but he's always looking for ways to stretch himself and make himself better. If he feels he needs to keep working on his game, who am I, Mr. Threebook, to not try to get better?
We focused so much on your future works, but anything else you want readers to know about Tribulation House?I don't want people to think I'm not excited about Tribulation House, because I am. It's as Jason Boyett said, who did the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, it's the first book about the rapture where Jesus doesn't come back. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's not that it's anti-Left Behind or even anti-rapture. But the thing that drove it for me is the people who become obsessed with a fringe approach to the gospel at the expense of not serving the Lord and not doing what the gospel requires. So far, people have laughed and enjoyed it but they're also connecting with the point of the book, the human part of it. It's probably the most overtly Christian book I will ever write. But I am excited about it.