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Portland Writer Craig Holt

Portland Writer Craig Holt

Photo by Craig Holt (self-portrait)

Craig Holt is an exceptionally talented writer, whose latest novel, Hard Dog to Kill, is set in one of the most challenging parts of the world: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The novel follows Stan Mullens and Frank Giordano on a Congolese odyssey to find a charismatic diamond miner named Tonde Chirora. Along the way, they encounter some of the most bone-chilling and imaginative characters of any thriller I’ve read.

The novel can be nightmarish in a thrilling way, but Craig’s treatment of the Congo is sincere, and his book succeeds because of his awareness of the region. As a coffee trader, Craig spent decades traveling the DRC and nurturing relationships with smallholder farms. The thriller he produced captures the heavy body and deep tones of Congolese coffee–only balanced with humor–and prose steeped in the existential grit of Cormac McCarthy. In the end, he delivers a solid character study about greed that adds to the conversation around the civil conflicts he covers.

ELEVEN: First, let’s talk about Hard Dog to Kill’s setting. Can you talk about the setting and what inspired you to set your novel in the Congo?

Craig Holt: The Congo is like a fever dream, full of color and conflict, beauty and violence. The DRC is brimming with natural resources, but less than two percent of all the roads are paved. With its vast forests, its gold, diamonds, oil, uranium and precious metals, it should be one of the richest countries in the world, but violence is pervasive, and it’s estimated that almost 64% of its people live below the poverty line. Despite the lack of infrastructure and the limitations to the rule of law, the people I work with there are remarkably industrious and optimistic. It’s a stunning place full of contradictions, and that makes it a fantastic setting.

11: What is your own history with the Congo?

CH: I’ve been traveling to that part of the world for several decades now–first as a backpacker, then as an expedition leader for an eco-tourism company, and over the last twenty years as a coffee importer. My coffee company works with Congolese coffee co-ops near Goma and near Ituri. These growers are remarkable for their professionalism and their positive attitudes, despite the lack of infrastructure in the region.

In addition to working in Africa, I’ve studied that part of the world quite a bit. A lot of my research focuses on the countries where we have strong partnerships–Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. I’m not trying to “understand” those places exactly; I’m trying to wrap my mind around the conundrums that make it so difficult for outsiders to understand the cultural landscape.

11: Can you discuss the challenges that went into writing about such a challenging part of the world?

CH: It’s humbling to write about the DRC. Despite my work there, and all my research, I’m an outsider in every sense of the word. It was important to me that my protagonist move through the Congo like I have–as an overwhelmed stranger, struggling to process the sensory overload of the place. Another challenge was to acknowledge all that is difficult–and, sometimes, horrible–about the DRC, while still giving readers a feel for how awe-inspiring the environment can be, and how proud and resilient many Congolese people are. There’s also, of course, the risk of painting people as clichés–of evil, of innocence, etc. It was important to me to represent folks in the DRC as individuals, not archetypes.

11: Along the way, Stan and Frank encounter a cannibal marabout, warlords, working women and shopkeepers (Nithya, particularly) who have these individual survivalist mentalities.

CH: I’m deeply impressed by the way people in untenable situations carve out a survivable life for themselves. And, as I mentioned earlier, the energy and creativity folks in the DRC bring to that effort is amazing. As with any place, there are people who lean toward exploitation as a means of survival, and those who lean toward creation. Some build, some tear down. I wanted to show a range of approaches in this book.

11: How did you craft your characters? Were they inspired by anything you saw in the DRC?

CH: I’ve spent so much time traveling and so much time reading that my characters are usually an amalgam of individuals I’ve seen, along with a generous helping of people I’ve read about. Once I “meet” a new character, I spend a lot of time telling myself their stories. I write a ton of backstory, and eventually they start talking to me. From there, I tend to do what the characters want to do, and bring them back into line if they’ve led me off on a tangent. (So… yeah. I do what the voices in my head tell me to do. That’s not weird, is it?)

11: Stan and Frank’s moral boundaries are as complicated as their challenging setting. Stan is more meditative and thoughtful with his environment, where Frank’s actions are more impulsive and reactionary. Can you talk about your inspiration with writing such polarizing characters?

CH: I liked the idea of showing two people reacting differently to a moral vacuum. It’s easy to do the right thing when everything is peaches & cream, but throw Jane and Joe Schmo into a war zone, and facile ideas of right and wrong are the first things to die. Some folks roll in that lawlessness like pigs in shit. Other people, like Stan, hang onto their humanity, and their moral compass shows them some way forward. So while Frank embraces the lawlessness, Stan tries to build, from scratch, his own sense of right and wrong.

11: Stan and Frank also have this awesome sense of brotherhood about them. They are clearly pulled together for a reason. Can you describe their relationship for our readers?

CH: These are brothers in arms. Soldiers who have been through battle together form a very deep, very unique bond. Frank saved Stan’s life on several occasions, which deepens that connection even further. At the same time, they’re codependent. Each is aiding and abetting the other’s behavior, and pretending that all the bad stuff that happens to them is the other guy’s fault. One of Stan’s major epiphanies in the book is his newfound understanding that he lives this life by choice. He has no one to blame for where he is, except for himself.

11: The narrator, Stan, is often at odds with his own morality, which becomes an existential threat. How does the narrator address concepts like good and evil in your novel?

CH: Stan is a guy just waking up to the complexity of concepts like good and evil. He’d spent the last decade operating under the illusion that he was definitively “The Good Guy,” but that façade of simple righteousness sloughs off in the chaos of his Congolese odyssey. Stan’s journey is, for me anyway, an exploration of the blurry line between the dark and light sides of the ledger. In a place where survival is Job One, questions of right and wrong are luxuries for people with easier lives. Despite the situation, Stan still feels this urge to do what he thinks of as the right thing, even though it could get him killed. He’s a bad guy with good intentions, and that made him interesting to me.

11: The book has a dark comedic tone to it. Can you discuss the comic elements of your writing?

CH: I grew up with very, very funny friends, and our lives pretty much revolved around trying to make each other laugh. Also, both of my parents have a dark sense of humor. I lived in a world of banter, where nothing was off limits. If all the people you love and trust are funny, you tend to want to see that in other people, whether they’re real or fictional.

Doing research for Hard Dog to Kill, I saw that soldiers spend a lot of time joking around as well. Much of what they joke about is decidedly not politically correct, so when writing scenes with Stan and Frank, I had to dial back their banter from draft to draft. Still, I thought it was important to show that element of their relationship. Early in the book, Stan says, “My appreciation expresses itself as sarcasm.” He shows his affection the same way, so that banter is a ridiculous, juvenile code that means “I love you, man.”  

11: Did Hard Dog to Kill change over time, or did you maintain a specific vision throughout the writing process?

CH: I killed a lot of darlings along the way, but for the most part I had a pretty clear idea of the type of story I wanted to tell. I did a lot of character outlining before I got going, and put together a pretty detailed outline as well. The plot went in some unexpected directions, but the journey I wanted Stan to take stayed intact.

11: What were your inspirations for writing Hard Dog to Kill?

CH: I’d start with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which inspired my interest in traveling to Africa. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was a big influence as well. Westerns in general played a big role in how I wanted to shape the story. The austerity of Butcher’s Crossing was one that really resonated with me, and showed me that the plot didn’t have to be wildly innovative if the characters lived and breathed for the reader.