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An hour-long conversation with Christopher Ruocchio, author of the The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books (published by Gollancz in the UK), which began with Empire of Silence in 2018 and continues with Howling Dark in 2019, and assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints.
Christopher Ruocchio’s Amazon Page
Christopher Ruocchio is the author of The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books, as well as the assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints showcasing tales of human exploration. He’s a graduate of North Carolina State University where, in his words, “a penchant for self-destructive decision-making” caused him to pursue a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric, with a minor in Classics.
An avid student of history, philosophy, and religion, Christopher has been writing since he was eight years old, and sold his first book, Empire of Silence at twenty-two. The Sun Eater series is available from Golancz in the UK and has been translated into French and German.
Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he spends most of his time hunched over a keyboard writing. When not writing, he splits his time between his family, procrastinating with video games, and his friend’s boxing gym.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Christopher.
Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
We met…we’re both DAW authors, a you know, conflict of interest and all that, get that right there, and we actually met at San Jose last year at WorldCon at the DAW dinner. I think was when I first met you.
I think so.
And then you very kindly showed me around the…well, Dealer’s Room doesn’t quite cover it at DragonCon…
A shopping mall.
Yeah…when I was down there last year, so I appreciated that as well. So it’s great to have you on. And I have to confess I have not finished Empire of Silence, but I…
Neither has my fiancée, so I can’t throw stones at anybody.
But I’m well into it, so when I get you to do a synopsis in a little bit, and I say, “no spoilers,” that will be for me as much as for the listeners.
I’ll do my best.
So, I always like to start these things off by going into… I always say either the mists of time or the depths of time…into the past, to find out how you got interested, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, and how you started writing it, You started early, apparently, at eight years old.
Oh yeah. Yeah. I think it was my dad’s fault mostly, because when I was really small we were a Disney family, and most Disney movies are…I don’t want to say are for girls, but they’re about princesses, and when you’re a three-year-old boy it’s harder to get into those necessarily, although I was I was very fond of, especially, Sleeping Beauty because there was a dragon and a sword fight…
But then I think I watched Star Wars for the first time when I was four or five, and then immediately after we got through watching the first three movies, you know, a week later and then two weeks later, because they’d spaced it out, I think I watched the original trilogy on loop. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch very much. I was allowed TV Land, the Batman cartoon from the ‘90s, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and then the Star Wars trilogy. And so, I watched those original movies obsessively, and I read a bunch of the books, and of course The Phantom Menace came out, and I was just young enough to think The Phantom Menace was awesome. And it’s, you know, actually, it’s fine. It’s Attack Of The Clones that’s bad.
But I went from that through to reading a bunch of Star Wars books. I think the first book I ever bought was the first Tim Zahn Thrawn novel. But then I found Tolkien, and Harry Potter, of course, came in. I hit…actually before Harry Potter was popular. I read it when I was like five, because I read very early, maybe even younger than that. I’d have to check with my mother. And so, all this was happening at once, and then I hit Lord Of The Rings right when the movies were starting to come out, around 2000. I tried watching the Bakshi version, and it terrified me, and I gave up. And I tried reading the books instead but struggled with those a bit more than the Star Wars books and Harry Potter.
And so, I started writing because my friends, you know, would play make believe on the playground, right? And they were playing Dragon Ball Z, which I of course had no idea what that was, because I was not allowed to watch it. And so, when I was asked,” Hey do you want to play Dragon Ball Z?” I said, “Yes! But can I be Batman? And after two weeks of careful deliberation, the other five-year-olds agreed that, yes. And so, over the years going through grade school up to about third grade, we would play make-believe, right, on the playground, and we spun out and made our own characters. So, Batman eventually got a lightsaber, and…you know all these other…he went to wizard school, I think, and became…he was very accomplished.
I think that would improve Batman.
You know, I like Batman a lot, so I hesitate to say that, but I would definitely read that.
At least with a lightsaber.
The light saber, yes…he needs one. Everyone needs one, really. But I…so I started writing down these adventures we had on the playground, and then as my friends grew up and discovered football and social skills, I sat on the edge of the parking lot with a notebook and would keep making stuff up. And, of course, once I made it to fourth grade, third-grade me didn’t know what he was talking about, and I would throw everything out and start again and again and again and again and again, until I finished a novel, I think in eighth grade, of which one copy remains printed and it is in someone’s lockbox somewhere, I don’t remember. And it is terrible, and I…I kept doing this through high school and college, mostly because, you know, Christopher Paolini got lot of flak, you know. But he wrote that book at fifteen, and he was another Christopher, and an Italian one, at that, and I was…you know, “By God, if he can do it, I can do it, too,” and…I actually got to meet him at DragonCon, when I met you, and thank him for that, because I…you know, it’s one of those things I always thought that you needed to be like forty to do when I was little and he sort of proved that wrong. And so, I kept doing this until I eventually had something worth reading.
Did you share that early writing with your friends and see how…you know, that you could tell stories that they enjoyed?
Oh, sure. That…I had…I have a few friends, actually…before we started the talk officially I mentioned my two roommates. My two roommates…I’m just moving out now, actually, into my first house, but my roommates are two friends I’ve been friends with…since third grade, I think…and them and a couple others I would…we would always pass things back and forth. We used to play, you know, like, not exactly Dungeons and Dragons but some like off-brand RPGs and stuff together, a lot of, like, Internet forum RPGs? So we would do a lot of co-writing and stuff. And I was always working on this side thing, and when I would finish, it’d be like, “Guys, look at this!”, and then hand it out. A couple of them have stuck with me and keep giving me feedback. I think one of them has that one copy that I referred to, ’cause he was always fond of this stupid story I’d written in middle school, so I gave him the last print copy I had, because God only knows what happened to the Word documents.
I always ask that because a lot of us started writing young. I wrote novels in high school and started well before that, and I talked to some writers who, you know, there’s no way they were gonna show that stuff to their friends, and yet, I always did. So I always ask people that. And I think it helps, because you get that sort of, “Oh, I could tell stories that people really enjoy,” so, you know, it’s a kind of a positive-feedback thing.
I still do…I have a couple of them. I have a little Facebook group discussion and I send them updated files of…I’m working on the third book in The Sun Eater now and so every four or five chapters I will send them another update and then wait until one of them tells me how it is. Because you don’t know, right? You don’t know if what you’re doing is really good until you get someone else’s eyes on it. It’s sort of like Schrödinger’s Cat. And it helps to have either some validation or some course correction.
Well, somewhere along the way I lost all that. So now nobody sees it until it goes to Sheila at DAW. That’s another thing I ask, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later on with your writing process, you know, whether you have people that help you out at that initial stage or not, giving you feedback. But we’ll talk about that a little bit…so, from, you grew up, then, in North Carolina, I presume, where you still live.
Oh yeah. Born and raised. I am the proverbial medieval peasant. I haven’t moved more than ten miles from where I was born.
And so, this was interesting, that you decided to get a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric with a minor in Classics. I didn’t even know there was a degree called English Rhetoric. What does that involve?
So NC State was weird, right? It’s sort of…North Carolina, Raleigh in particular, has got a bunch of colleges right around. We’ve got the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which is a pretty famous liberal-arts school, oldest public university in the US, and we’ve got Duke, which has sort of like a semi-Ivy League reputation, but NC state was founded as an agricultural school just after the Civil War. So it’s got more of a…it has a reputation for being kind of the, like, farm school, right? But now it’s one of the best engineering universities in the state, and, I think, even in the world. But I went for an English degree because they had this internship program for English students that had a 100-percent job-placement rate and I am, if nothing else, a practical man. So, I thought that would be better than a slightly more reputable name on my diploma. And it was a great program at any rate, just a less-famous one.
So, I went, and they do this thing where they split their English degrees into what they called focuses, so I could take a focus in literature or rhetoric or film, and the rhetoric one was the technical-writing one, really. So, there was a lot of tech-writing classes, that sort of thing, but also just journalism classes, you know, just making sure you could write, you know, nonfiction articles, that sort of thing. Make sure your grammar is correct.
Hilariously, I had this very bad graduate-level rhetoric class right at the end that taught no rhetoric, I think because the professor felt left out that when the scientists got particle accelerators and lasers the English department didn’t get any toys. So, we spent a lot of time talking about the “rhetoric of physical spaces” and how…and that’s not rhetoric. And I got in a lot of trouble for repeatedly informing her that this was not rhetoric, because I had the classics background, too, which I backed into because I didn’t want to take a world-literature course because I’m less interested in them, shall we say, than in the things that I grew up with., because that’s just who I am as a person. And I didn’t want to take a language class where I had to stand and do oral conversation components to my exams because I am bad at learning languages.
Unlike your character.
Yeah. So people who say that he’s just a self-insert are wrong. I can’t do it. And so I was taking three years of high-school Japanese and by the end it was, you know, (something in Japanese), and I’d be like, “Um…um…good morning.” I’m not that bad, but I was just embarrassed, and so I took Latin. And between the taking Latin and…I took for my world literature course. I did ancient literature, so we did a bunch of Greek and Roman stuff, but we also did some middle-Eastern stuff. The Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh, these things, and some early Far East stuff as well, which is also fascinating, so when I say, “world literature,” I mean contemporary stuff, because I just don’t think a lot of contemporary lit-fic is very good. I know that…it just doesn’t interest me, so…the old stuff, yes, by all means. And so, I backed into it because of my interest in ancient history and the classical period in the Near East and whatnot, and through the Latin.
The rhetoric major still interests me. It doesn’t sound like it was what anybody would consider a creative writing class. It’s more like just technically creating clear sentences and paragraphs and organizing your thoughts and all that kind of thing.
Yes. So, I had a bunch of classes that actually were your sort of traditional…the sort of rhetoric classes that Shakespeare was forced to do, right, where it’s like, “OK, give us, you know, write ten examples of tricolon, as like a, you know, overnight assignment,” right, things like that. And so I actually have…I won’t say something like an ancient education where you would be drilled constantly on how to speak and how to hold your hands to present a statement before the Roman Senate, right, because there were hand positions in these things, but I at least had something sort of winking in that direction, where it was, you know, “Be aware that if you phrase things in this way, if you employ devices like hendiadys or stichomythia, you know, these things that sound like Greek incantations, that you can have an effect on an audience in a certain way.” And I did a lot of Elizabethan theater classes, as well, and a lot of that was still used by people like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the rest, in writing those plays, because they’re very…the play is a very oral medium, right, it’s meant to be heard, it’s meant to be spoken, and I think the best prose should be the same way. And so, the rhetoric stuff ended up being really useful, I think, from a creative-writing standpoint, because I’m a big audiobook person, and so I’ve been very much affected by the sound of the language. And so, those classes were all great except for that last one, which was like, “We’re going to talk about rhetoric in paintings,” to which I said, “Shouldn’t be a design class, three buildings down?”.
How to win friends and influence professors, maybe not.
No. It was my last semester and I was grumpy, let’s say.
So, with Empire of Silenceselling when you were twenty-two, clearly you were working on this while you were at university. Is that when this began?
Yeah. The book that became this one…people ask when I started writing. I’ve always been writing, air-quotes, “the same book,” but when I started writing it at seven, eight years old, you know, it was about Batman, and it’s not about Batman at all anymore, really, although Hadrian does wear a lot of black still, that hasn’t changed. But so do I, and I don’t know if that’s a chicken or egg thing.
And so, I started this one in my freshman, sophomore year of college, really, and it was quite different still. Hadrian wasn’t quite human in the original draft. There were some near-human aliens because I also played a lot of Japanese RPG games and there are a lot of aliens that are almost human…anyway, it changed dramatically. And as I got into my final year, I had the great fortune of having John Kessel for a professor. He’s a Nebula Award-winning short-story writer, he’s got a couple of novels out from Saga, and he is an all-around just great guy, and he gave me some advice on querying, and of course I’d started my internship at Baen, so I actually had access to a SFWA directory, which has all the agencies in the back, so, I photocopied that and started going through, querying people, with John’s advice on the letter writing. There was this awful frame narrative that was in the book at the time that he convinced me to cut out. And lo and behold the minute I did that, I started getting answers to my queries that weren’t, “Go away.” And I sold…rather, I got an agent a month before I graduated and then…so that was November because I graduated a semester off schedule, I had an extra, I was late, which is part of why I was so cross with my rhetoric professor, I just really wanted to be out. And so, I had about a month over the holidays because, you know, people aren’t working in December really, and then come January I got my job at Baen on Monday, and then that Thursday I got a call from Sarah Guan, who used to work at DAW, she’s with Orbit now, she loved the book and wanted to buy it. And so, I had about the best week of my life up until I proposed to my fiancée. So that was a good time.
Well, you said this book kind of grew out of all the stories that you’d been writing all along, but was there some initial seed or image? How does that work for you when it comes to a story? How do stories come to you, or begin?
I can’t remember where this one really came from. There’s no, you know, Robert Howard talking about Conan just appearing or J.K. Rowling having the same sort of conversation about Harry Potter just sort of appearing to her on the train, because it’s been so long. Hadrian and I…although Hadrian’s had like thirteen, fourteen different names, he’s been with me in some form or other since I was a kid so, I don’t…a couple of people have noted similarities between our personalities. You know, just…this is a common thing with authors, right? Like, I’ve seen people say the same thing about Pat Rothfuss and Kvothe, that they have some similar personality traits, things like that…but I don’t know which one’s me, which one’s him, because I’ve been writing this character in some form since I was a small kid. So, like, I was talking about the black clothes. Like, I wear black pretty much all the time and so does Haddrian, it’s his family color, and I don’t know if I’m wearing black because I’m sort of low-key cosplaying my own work or if my work is borrowing from my own fashion choices.
I thought I was a Johnny Cash influence.
You know, my dad makes that joke and I’m happy to accept it because Johnny Cash is the man.
I wrote a biography of him, a children’s biography of him. So…it was kind of cool.
Did you really? I’ll have to go track that one down. I’m a big fan. I’m not usually a country guy but Cash is excellent.
So, I don’t really know. There are some other stories that I will, that I’m working on that I have some ideas for. They’re just coming to me randomly. I don’t try to go looking for them. I’m not a very stringent researcher. If it’s something completely new, if it’s something I want to be devoting a lot of time to, they’ll just sort of pop up eventually, usually because I’ll be reading or watching something and I’ll like it, I’m like, “This is cool! But…” And then something will sort of spin out of an objection or a critique of something else. And I’ll want to do something from that. I’m a very argumentative person, to my detriment, as my educational history made brief reference to.
Well, if we’re going to talk about the Sun Eaterseries, perhaps you could give a spoiler-free synopsis of the first book for those who either have not read it or, like me, have not yet finished reading it.
All right. Well, what I usually do, because I go to a lot of conventions and I do a lot of floor selling with my friend Alexi Vandenberg of Bard’s Tower, is, I tell people that my main character, Hadrian, is sort of an Anakin Skywalker, but less whiney, if becoming Darth Vader were the right thing for him to do. The story is set about 20,000 years in our future in this big galactic empire. Hadrian is a nobleman, the son of a fairly minor but high-status house, that runs away from home, and he finds himself stuck in the middle of this war between humanity and the Cielcins, this alien menace, who are the first species of technologically advanced aliens in all that 20,000-year history who have ever stood up to humankind, who have ever rivaled us for control of the galaxy. Hadrian tells you on page one that he is the man who ended that war and killed all of the Cielcin, and the story is a memoir of why and how.
Yeah, talk about a spoiler on the first page.
Yeah, I…yeah. I don’t…I’ve always taken umbrage with spoiler culture. I think that if your story has to hang together on surprise, then maybe it’s not the best story. People have started to realize this about, say, M. Night Shyamalan, after The Sixth Sense. You know, his other movies have all hung on some twists that more or less haven’t delivered and I, you know, I don’t go out of my way to ruin things, but I think that if we can take the what-if, or what might happen, off the table, and instead talk about why and how, and the details, obviously, ‘case I’m not giving away the whole ending on page one, that we can ask some more interesting questions and have a different kind of story.
I suppose there’s no particular reason…I don’t think it even works very well to try to do an entire novel version of an O. Henry short story where everything depends on a sudden twist on the last page. I don’t think readers would actually like that.
No, no. And I’m not saying that every, you know, plot twist is like that, either. I just…I think…like, I’ve gotten a lot of people who complained that these memoir-style books take a lot of the tension out of the plot, and maybe that’s true for them. But I am one of those people who always looks at Wikipedia summaries of things because I like to know. I’m more interested in the journey than the destination and seeing how things get carried off and why, and what’s layered in there. And for those people who think that this story is something that I’ve given away completely at the beginning, that presupposes that all there is to this story is this one action that I tell you about on page one, which I think would be a mistake.
Well, I was gonna say that when it comes to memoirs it’s not like, if we were reading a memoir of a famous person…we know what he did, or she did, and yet we are still interested to find out how that all came about from the internal perspective of the person who did that thing. So, that should apply just as well. If I were…we’re currently reading, of all things, I’m reading out loud Boswell’s Life of Johnsonto my wife. We still have forty-four hours to go according to the Kindle.
Oh, my gosh.
And yet, you know, it’s still interesting even though, you know, well, he did the dictionary and he did all this, and then he died, you know. And yet it’s still interesting, even though you know how it ends. And it’s not like, you know, Romeo and Julietis any less powerful because you know when you go into it how it’s going to end. In some way it’s going along the journey along the way that makes it interesting.
Right. And there’d be no point to read classical literature anyway, right? Like, take The Count of Monte Cristo, right? Like, everybody knows it’s about a guy who goes to prison unjustly and gets revenge. And now, that he gets revenge, which is usually how the book sold to anybody when you’re trying to get them to read it, presupposes his success. But the details, right, you know, and how and why and the catharsis of those moments, right? That’s why you read the thing, you don’t read it to figure out what happens.
Did I interrupt you in the synopsis of the book?
Oh no. No, no, no. That was pretty much all I wanted to say, because I don’t want to say the things in the middle, right? There are, you know, without putting anything together, there are gladiator fights and there is court intrigue and there are aliens and friendships lost and found and all of these things.
Well, that brings me around to the next question, which is, so far you’ve mostly talked about your character, but there’s an awful lot of worldbuilding going on in here and a detailed and complicated plot. What does your planning process look like? Do you outline in great detail, do you wing it, and then…how does it work for you?
So, I winged the first book because I didn’t have a deadline. I had years and years to figure it out. And so, most of it ended up gelling in my head over time as I was rewriting things and changing things. You know, “What if I did this instead?” I had to rewrite this one very quickly because my first editor, when she bought it, it was about half as long. She said, “I love it. It’s great. I read it in one shot overnight, but I have these two problems,” and I looked at the problems and they were, without getting into too much detail, they were really fundamental worldbuilding problems, and it was the sort of thing that the only way I could fix them and be sure I fixed them and it wasn’t sloppy was to rewrite the whole thing. And so, I locked myself in my room, basically, for three months. I think it took me 108 days, because I kept a spreadsheet of my progress because this encourages me. Or discourages me, at least, when I fail to write enough on one day and my spreadsheet looks bad. And I would go to work, and then I would come home, and I worked…I think I slept only, like, four hours a night for most of that period. It was not good. But I shot through the whole thing all at once, and because I had just written it, right, it was all still very crystal.
But for the second book…I’ve become pretty friendly with David Drake, working at Baen, and Dave writes these enormous outlines, you know, you can…they’re basically like fifty or sixty pages for everything he does. And Dave ticks through and writes them…he writes his books…we, you know, we can almost plan our schedule around Dave. He’s like clockwork. It’s amazing. And so, he’ll turn in a book, we’ll know how long it is, we’ll know when we’re getting it, we know how early we’re getting it, we know how clean it will be. He’s so consistent. He’s just a real pro. And he does it because of these, I think because of these, amazing outlines, and so when I wrote book two, Howling Dark, I thought, “I’m going to be like Dave Drake.” Bold, bold statement, I know, but we have the Rome thing in common, so I thought I was I was off to a good start.
So, I started this big outline, and I wrote it and then, having written it, I realized that I knew basically everything that was in it. So when I would start a chapter I would look again at the page or so I’d written for the chapter, refresh myself with it, and then not look at it again. And for book three I did kind of the same thing. Because this story starts with at least intimations of its ending. I had kind of both ends of this plot string nailed to the table and I’ve been trying to untie the knot ever since. Which is kind of hard to do. So, I’ve been clipping at it and moving things around, so when I start outlining, I will put a bunch of scenes I know need to be in the book down on sticky notes. I had this big door on my closet that was just flat, right, so I used it kind of like a like a chalkboard, and I would stick these things to it and this sort of cloud of notes would turn steadily into a column marching straight up and down the middle of the door as I knew which scene/chapter was gonna be where and what would happen. And I turned that big string of post-it notes into a sixty-page David Drake outline. And I’ve done that for the last two books. And in doing that, I haven’t taken, you know, fifteen years to write it. I did book two in about nine months and book three is going to take about six all told. So I’m getting this down to a science, I think. I hope, rather.
What length are they? I’m reading it in Kindle, I don’t know how thick it is.
Oh gosh. Empire was 238,000 words. Howling Dark was 260, and I think this one’s going to be a little bit longer than that, the third one.
They are substantial.
Yeah, I try to write about 2,000 a day, when I am not moving house (I’m moving right now, I think I said), I can do two to three pretty reliably. At least, now that I have a due date and the fear of God is in me.
Sixty pages is pretty impressive from my point of view—my synopses are more like twenty, twelve to twenty, fifteen to twenty, more or less. But you don’t win the medal for people I’ve talked to on The Worldshapers. Peter V. Brett does a 150-page outline.
Yeah, I have no ambitions of trying to take that title from him.
He’s certainly…and there’s also, you know…I guess it was Kendare Blake I talked to, whose episode just came out before this interview with you, and she basically wings everything. So it’s always interesting to hear the different approaches that people take.
You mentioned Rome, and clearly that’s a lot of influence in there, in the book. So, going back to the worldbuilding side of things, it seems like you were drawing very much on your interest and study of history and philosophy and religion, all that seems to really find its way into the story.
Yes. So I thought, when I was writing it, that it was mostly Greek and Byzantine. I was wrong, but that was what I had in my head. And I think…I had thought that a lot of the Roman influence was because I post a lot of very stupid jokes just, you know, meme images, that are about the Roman Empire and Roman history generally, because I think they’re funny and I think maybe two people I’m friends with get them all, but I share them anyway. And so, I think this impression that I had been primarily a Roman scholar sort of emerged from my stupid Facebook use, and I’ve sort of steered into the skid a little bit, because most of what I’d read was, of course, Greek, because there’s more of it, at least, dramatic literature, right, and most of it the Romans appropriated in one form or other, sometimes improved, depending on who you ask.
And because, also, I was raised and am Roman Catholic, I went to a Catholic school up through high school, up to the beginning of high school. And so, I grew up with a lot of classical history because it’s so integral to the genesis of the religion. So we talk about Egypt and Israel and the Near East generally, and then moving through to the Greeks and…the Seleucids, the Macedonians, you know, and Rome later, and the Byzantines afterwards. And, of course, much of early medieval history, which is steeped in a lot of classical philosophy. Aristotle’s influence cannot be overstated. And my best friend is an Aristotelian scholar at, he’s finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton. So, I have him check a lot of my work and give me ideas, things I wouldn’t have read because I was mostly interested in the myth and the drama, and he had the philosophy. So he helps me out a lot.
And so, a lot of it really comes from, I think, that religious background, just because, you know, you can’t escape Rome’s shadow as a Catholic, certainly. Both the Empire and the city and the church after. And a lot of that left its stamp, but I think as far as my reputation for it goes, it’s probably mostly just those stupid jokes.
You never know what you put on line is going to follow you down…
No, and you never know what thing is going to be the useful detail in your world building, right? You know, I might have only read I think a few pages of philosophers like Epictetus, right, like I…of course. your readers will think you’ve read all of it. Don’t tell anyone. But you know, you might find a line or two and that’s all you need. You know, the fiction writer’s world-building game, I think, ought to be consequensive of a pretty light touch. You know, I talked to Lois Bujold, because I did a brief stint doing the other side of the interview thing here when I did the Baen podcast for a couple of months, and I asked Lois Bujold about worldbuilding, and she told me she won’t make up anything until she needs it. And once I heard her say that, I was like, “All right, I’m not going to spend hours filling notebooks with information anymore. I will make up details as I need it and then try to stick to the rules that I have established.”
Well, I’m a stage actor and playwright and director and a lot of this bears in common with doing something on stage: you only put on there what you need to suggest the reality and the viewer, in that case, the audience member, fills in everything from that. You know, that one flat with a view over the Roman hills in the background or whatever. It’s really just a light little touch, a little detail, and yet it suggests a depth and richness that in many ways the audience actually provides.
It’s amazing how little the audience really needs in order to generate a picture, right? Like, Shakespeare…Elizabethan theatre didn’t use set design at all, right? They might, they had the balcony above the stage, but there were no tables and chairs. It was all done by costume. You had your props and what not. You know, I think it’s Measure for Measure when they say, “Exit pursued by a bear.” There was a bear-baiting pit across the street from the Globe, so I’m sure there was a real bear, but they weren’t building, you know, castle displays and these things. That’s why, at the beginning of Henry V, the chorus comes out and says, you know, “Imagine that this dome, you know, contains the varsity fields of France,” and so, you know, just a light suggestion, just an off phrase is going to generate crazy ideas in people. I remember as a kid looking at maps of Middle Earth and looking at places Tolkien doesn’t even talk about, right, like a ruin barely comes up, and thinking, “Well, I want to I want to go there,” right? That’s all it takes is literally just one name on a map and the audience is running with. And they think that you have it all planned out, and you don’t have to.
We have talked about a little bit about your actual writing process: 2,000 words a day on a good day, 2,000 to 3,000 words. You are very…it sounds that you’re very organized, like, “I sit down, and I work when it’s time for me to work.” Is that pretty much the way you work?
Yeah. Well, especially now. They give me a deadline, and it was a month sooner than I had anticipated for book three. So what I do, I wake up at about 6 a.m., I eat breakfast, and then I will write until I have to go to work just before 9, and then I will go to the office and work 9 to 5, like a good soldier, and then I will come home, make dinner, and then I will work until I hit that word count. And I try to hit, at the very least, a thousand words in a day. These days, I’m trying to bottom out at 1,500, just because I want to get it to Katie on time, and if I can do it early, because they know the deadline surprised me and wrong-footed me, then I will look really cool. And I am trying to look as cool as possible so…fortunately I had that deadline.
You’ve mentioned, also, you know, that you have these friends that you still get some feedback from. Especially when you’re working to a deadline like this, do you actually even have time to show this to anybody before you’re gonna have it done and then hand it in?
They might not…their feedback at the very end might not be that useful, but I try to get it to them in stages, you know, so they might read three chapters at a time and just sort of follow behind me. I very briefly had a stint in the noughts as a middle schooler writing fan fiction and reading it. I sort of fell out on it because I realized that I would do better writing my own stuff. I know I could make money doing that, I can’t make money writing Legend of Zelda stories. But, you know, they would update a chapter at a time every couple of weeks, right? And it was exciting. Same with comic books, right? You know, I’m a big fan of Berserk, the Japanese series, and that might get a chapter every, like, three months or something, and waiting for that little update’s really exciting. And so, my friends who came out of the same space as me no objections to getting these things in dribs and drabs and getting back to me. I have a couple who were faster than others, and some people might not answer, but that’s the virtue of having about five or six. I’ve got a couple who will read pretty reliably.
My friend the philosophy guy usually spot checks things for me. I’ll have specific questions for him or a couple of other people. My…I mentioned my friend’s boxing gym in my bio. My friend Wes runs a gym here in Raleigh. He trains boxers to actually fight, because most boxing gyms are actually aerobics studios. Not to put that down, but they’ll just stand in lines and they’ll just do drills, and their technique is not actually competitive at all. So, Wes trains people to fight, and he also does fencing and HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and he used to teach summer camps where he would teach kids like medieval military tactics and have them in lines with spears and stuff, it was very cool. And so I’ll have him check a lot of my action scenes, things like that.
I was gonna ask, what specific kind of feedback are you getting from people? I guess that’s one of them. Action scenes, and specific questions you have for your philosophy friend…philosophical friend?
Yeah, yeah. Marcus. He’s actually, he is who Gibson—if you’ve read the book, Gibson is Hadrian’s tutor.
Sort of the scientist monk. And they all take names, in much the same way that when you’re confirmed Catholic you take a saint’s name, these monks will take old scholar names, and he has borrowed my friend’s name, as a nod to my friend for his long years of service.
So what does your revision process look like when you get to the end? Do you revise as you go? Do you do a big revision at the end and then submit it? How does that work for you?
I do…when I have time, and I won’t this time with book three, I let it sit for a week, ideally, and then start reading it over again, and I’ll make notes about what needs to be changed and things as I go. I’ll fix, you know, bad-sounding sentences. Because I try to read aloud. The most important bit of writing advice I ever got, and I think the most important bit of writing advice I can ever give, is “read your work out loud,” because if you wrote a bad sentence it will sound stupid and you can fix it, but you can’t fix it if you can’t hear it. And so, I try to read everything aloud and catch those as I’m going and then catch things. I also find my memory is much better with things I’ve heard, so I’ll remember details better and catch things like someone’s eye color changing, which…even proofreaders are going to miss that sort of thing.
Yes, those things do crop up, and if you don’t read it out loud to yourself while you’re doing that, you will certainly find those errors when you’re doing a public reading sometime.
Oh, yeah. Every time. There’s a word missing in the first line of dialogue in Empire of Silence, I think. It’s something like “the mother of wisdom in” and it should be “is in” and that missing “is” haunts me to this day. I fixed it in the mass market, but it just…it’s in the audiobook, and every time it just…it’s too late.
It must be in the electronic ARC I’m reading, so I’ll have to look that up.
Yeah, it’s…it’s just embarrassing. But I try to do that, and I’ll do spot fixes. I try to go and find words like “very” and see if it’s an instance of the word “very” that needs to go. Words like “seems.” I have a whole list somewhere, I forget other words…
Quite a few authors have told me that. Let’s see, it was Kevin Hearne, I think, who said he suddenly became sensitive to the phrase “I couldn’t help but,” and he said, “Well, of course you could.” And so he goes through and tries to get rid of all of those. For me…I…well, of course, there’s the, you know, the basic, if you do a search for “wases” and “weres” and stuff you can see if you’re using passive tense sometimes you shouldn’t. But, I often find that my characters make animal noises too much. They’re always growling dialogue or snarling something. I try to catch some of those.
So, when it gets to DAW, and Katie, your editor there, what kind of editorial feedback do you get? I haven’t worked with her, so I don’t know how she works.
Katie is great. Katie catches a lot of things. My favorite thing about working with Katie is that Katie and I have more-or-less diametrically opposed worldviews and philosophies and backgrounds. I come from a deeply Catholic conservative background. Katie is very much a progressive. I think she was, I think she was an activist, like, a professional activist before she was an editor. And we live in very divisive times, let us say, and without getting into anyone’s opinions on anything, because I really don’t, especially publicly, don’t want to be a political person in any way whatsoever, I really appreciate that we can work together with these very different…because there are just things that you’re blind to, right? When you have opposing…when you have a different way of seeing things, there are just some parts of the world you don’t see because you’ve never seen them, these sorts of things? And Katie is conscious of things.
’Cause I’m not trying to hurt anybody with writing, so just, you know, stupid, you know, thoughtless things that might creep into your writing because it doesn’t…you don’t encounter it, right? It’s not exactly…I’m not describing, like, sensitivity reading issues, because my response is usually not…it’s not changing anything that’s in…I don’t change any of my…things that are in the text. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s…she will catch where I haven’t presented myself very clearly or I’ve sort of taken half-measures in order to express an idea or to negotiate a plot point, these sorts of things. The way I like to think about it is, in Dostoyevsky and Brothers Karamazov, right, he’s got Ivan and Alyosha, and Alyosha is kind of dim, but he’s a really decent human being. Ivan is viciously brilliant, right? And Ivan wins every single argument that he has against Alyosha, but Alyosha wins in the long run because he is a decent human being. He ends up at the end of his life better off, right? And Dostoyevsky has more in common worldview-wise with Alyosha than he does Ivan, but he makes Ivan as strong a foil as he possibly can. You know, Nietzsche used to say that he did philosophy with a hammer, well ,Dostoyevsky did literature with a hammer, right? He built the strongest possible…you know, I don’t want to say arguments, because fiction isn’t necessarily an argument…but the strongest possible avatar of things he didn’t believe in, right? He made his villains, his antagonists, as strong as he could. And Katie helps me to pull out places where I have been a weak writer because of our differences of opinion and vision and clarity of vision. And, you know, I find that absolutely wonderful and indispensable. And so, in addition to that, obviously there’s the usual stuff about, you know, just usual editing, you know, this might not work here, move this scene, that kind of thing, but that, I think, is the most useful, the most indispensable, bit of editorial help that I get.
So, Empire of Silence came out last year, right? 2018?
Yes. Yeah. July 10.
Trying to remember what year it is.
And the second one, which is called Howling Dark, is coming up very shortly. We’re recording this in early June and the book comes out in July.
I should know because there’s this guy on Twitter that’s running a daily countdown of how many days it is.
Yeah. I thought that would be fun. It’s been a lot of work.
I was looking at that, thinking, “I could do that for Master of the World,” which is my next book from DAW, but I thought, “Boy, that looks like a lot of work,” so I don’t know if I will do that or not.
Yeah, I did that all in advance, thank heavens. I don’t do it every day. I did a countdown for book one like that, where I did the one quote from each chapter per day for each number of chapters. But I had eighty chapters in this book, and doing one for three months, is…
So, what has the response been to the first book?
Overwhelmingly positive. I think I’ve got about 1,200, 1,300 reviews on Goodreads. Fifty percent of them are five stars, which is just absolutely mind-boggling, because to me this is still a bunch of goofy nonsense that I made up because, really, you know, for all this talk of, you know, differences of opinion and stuff, my only aspiration is to entertain people. It truly, truly is. People can read the book if they agree with me, if they disagree with any of this. And I hope that they have a good time, because that’s what this is about. I am ultimately no different than a medieval harlequin juggling in the streets, and that’s all I want to be, only more serious.
Well, that actually is my next question. This is the point in the podcast where I ask the big questions, and the first one is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write?” And, on a broader scope, why do why do you think any of us write, one, and two, why do you and I and other people write this kind of made-up stuff, science fiction and fantasy?
Well, I have two answers, because of course I have artistic pretensions, right? And any artist does. And I do really think that literature in particular, that the thing that separates human beings from the animals isn’t, you know, tool-building, obviously crows do that sort of thing, it’s not language even, really: it’s storytelling. The reason…we tell stories so that our narrative persona, our narrative avatars, right, our characters, can suffer and die so that we don’t have to.
Stories are instructional. The most basic story is, “I went out into the wilderness. There was a tiger. It killed the other cavemen. Bring a stick next time.” You know, that’s why fables have morals. And all stories do this. And what we’ve been trying to do with our stories…and the oldest stories, in addition to being, you know, daily news, like the tiger one, are religious, right? Religion, literature—these things overlap pretty significantly in the way that they try to define an ethic of, like, how we’re supposed to act in the world, what the right way to behave is. That’s what the hero’s journey is, right, the hero’s journey is like the Dao in Daoism, right, it’s like the eightfold path in Buddhism, it’s like the imitation of Christ in Christianity, it’s the right way to act in the world, you know, being heroic, right? Now, we can argue about the details of what that is, and that’s part of the experiment, right?
You know, I started writing this because I read Iain Banks’s Culture series, where he’s like, “Well, the minute we get into space, government’s finished,” like, you know, no one will ever control anybody. And as much as I love those books, I was like, “That’s not right. Like, well, it’s really hard to get off planets, Mr. Banks. Like, they just won’t let you.” And so, I made an empire that doesn’t let people get off planets. So, you know, it’s all part of this argument about society and how people function.
But beneath all that, and at the same time, you know, I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs said, you know, “You have to entertain first.” Right? Maybe it was someone else, or maybe he said it, too. And all I really want to do…the reason why most of what I post online are links to obscure metal songs and stupid jokes about the Roman Empire is because I am not here to change anyone’s heart or mind. I am not. I don’t think I have the wisdom or the clarity of mind to do that, and I would be very suspicious of anybody whose job is to write stories about wizards and spaceships who tries to tell you how to live your life. All I want to do is tell you a story about wizards and spaceships.
And as for why we write stories about wizards and spaceships, you know, I think…there are a lot of people, a lot of my creative-writing professors, John Kessel aside, because the man is a rarity…hated that I was writing science fiction in my creative-writing classes. They in fact tried to stop me, and I had to negotiate with them pretty early in the class, like, “Look, this is what I want to do, like, professionally, I would really appreciate your feedback, can you please work with me?” And they very often would. A couple of them were like, “No, you must write literary, you know, lit-fic minimalist hyper-realist pieces.” Maybe magical realism, because that gets a pass for some reason. But all the old stories are fantastic, right? Literally the oldest story we have is the Enûma Eliš, or the creation myth from the Sumerians. And it is a dragon-slaying story. It is about Marduk, the God of Attention, right, he’s got eyes all around his head, right, and his ability to speak magic words, and to take the Dragon of Chaos, Tiamot, apart. He cuts her to pieces and builds the world out of the dragon’s corpse, right? So this is a dragon, and magic words, and, you know, he’s got superpowers, he can see everything, right?
It sounds like a Marvel movie.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it all is. Science fiction is modern mythology, because a lot of modern people have a hard time with other forms of mythology, because they go out into the world and they’re like, “Well, I don’t see anyone turning water into wine. So these stories aren’t true,” and I’m like, “Well, but what does the story mean?”, right? The story represents something. Whether or not that something is metaphysically true is irrelevant—those stories have meaning. And it’s the same…and I think it’s more digestible if we know those stories are fake to begin with, right? Like, I’m amazed by the number of people who dislike religion on principle who are Tolkien fans, right? It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me, because it’s the same story, you know? King Arthur is literally the same story, right?
And so, I think we’re doing this because writing… because we don’t live in a society where popular culture is hagiography anymore, where we’re not writing the lives of the saints. So, instead of talking about St. George killing a dragon—because that’s the same story, too. You know, talking about St. Barlaam, who is actually just the Buddha, you know, that story traveled across Asia and arrived in Europe in a different form. You know, instead of telling all these stories as popular entertainments, instead of talking about the quest for the Holy Grail, right, which is of course a very religiously centered story, we tell stories about different dragonslayers, right? You know, Euron Greyjoy just killed a dragon in Game of Thrones, right? Now, that’s a terrible person, but it’s still the same motif, it’s the same kind of story, and it’s scratching a similar itch. Even if the ending of Game of Thrones…that’s an issue, you know, we can get into another time. But it’s still…it’s still hitting that same spot for people.
I think that fandoms are…I don’t want to say cults, but, like, cults in the Roman sense, where they’re these little tiny micro-religions, right, without the pejorative content at all, I think. People come to these things looking for meaning, and they find them in these other places.
And, you know, I think some other people just like dragons, right? They like knights, you know, because in their real life they’re pizza-delivery guys or, you know, they drive trucks, or they work in an office, or they teach school, and, you know, they…it helps. You know, Tolkien talks about writing escapist literature, because, you know, in its truest sense, because you need to be let out of prison, right, because you don’t want to go to the office every day. I work at a science-fiction publisher and I don’t want to go to the office every day, it’s an office. You know, and I love my job, but sometimes it’s Tuesday and you don’t want to go.
I don’t know if it’s Tolkien or Lewis who said that people who…who’s against escapism? Well, jailers. So, people who say, “You shouldn’t read that escapist stuff” are the jailers.
Yeah, that was my problem with those professors.
It’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of authors, some of whom had creative writing, and that is…that, unfortunately, it’s still there, those creative-writing types who have this deep-seated prejudice against the fantastic, which…not always. there have been some exceptions in the people I’ve talked to, but it is something that comes up quite a bit.
I will say this though, against those professors. That’s what every student in those classes wanted to write. Almost to a man and woman, every single person who was in those classes with me wanted to write science fiction or fantasy. Maybe they wanted to write, like, a thriller, right, you know, some sort of military story, spy story, but they weren’t writing, you know, literary minimalism, you know, about some person in their ordinary life having ordinary experiences. Everyone was in there with dragons or robots. So they’re losing. And I think people like Dr. Kessel will be more the mainstay in the profession here in another generation or so.
Well, we’re just about to the end of the hour. We’ve talked about the new book and you have mentioned that what you’re working on is the third book. Anything else that you’re working on at the moment?
No, none at the exact moment because I have to power through book three here and finish it before Howling Darkcomes out July 16. And so, I owe them book three August 1. I’d wanted to turn it in before this one was even out, because I turned in book two before book one was out, because it would be nice, you know, to do that. But I have some other ideas. Most of them are fantasy. I want to…there’s a famous story about the Emperor Caligula, who’s famously mad, although I think personally that he’s been defamed by oligarchs throughout history, but it’s his famous story about him ordering his soldiers to attack the ocean. And, you know, that happened up in the Netherlands, so he sounded crazy to everybody in Italy, but I’m a big Tim Powers fan and, you know, Tim Powers’s thing is, he tries to find fantastic explanations for these sort of coincidences in history and, you know, what if Caligula were actually attacking something that came from the sea, you know? That, I think, is something I want to work on after I finish this, but after I finish book three it’ll be time for book four. And then book five. So I have to do that first.
Because it’s not a trilogy, then. It’s more than that.
Oh, no, no. I’m allergic to trilogies, because everyone…it seems every time there’s a trilogy out I find people who are like, “Oh, book two is bad, oh, don’t read the second one, really dropped it in the middle,” or, “You get through the second one, the third one fixes it.” And I thought, “Well, instead of having one awkward middle book, I’ll have three. That’ll fix the problem.”
Well, I did a five-book series, so I’m right there with you. Although they were much shorter. I mean, I think the entire five books would have fit into one and a quarter of yours, but…
I just talk too much, as you can tell.
And where can people find you online?
I am on Facebook and Twitter @TheRuocchio. Someone had already taken my last name, it’s like a third cousin of mine in Pennsylvania, so I put the “The” in front, which makes me sound famous, even though I’m not.
Oddly enough, that’s why this is called “The Worldshapers” instead of just “Worldshapers,” because worldshapers.com was taken. And they offered to sell it to me for, I don’t know, $5,000 or something. I said. “You know, I think I’ll just put a ‘the’ in front of it and I’ll be fine.”
Yeah, that’s the easy solution. I wasn’t gonna try and shake down this cousin I’d never met, so…
So, Twitter and Facebook, both the same thing?
Yes. And my website is sollanempire.com. I figured that’d be easier to spell than my name.
Well, thanks so much for being a guest. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.
I did. Thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this. I really enjoyed the episode you did with Dave Butler, who is a really good friend of mine, and a couple of the others, and been real excited.
Well, thank you. I think it’ll be…I’m sure that listeners will enjoy it as much as we both did. I hope, anyway.
I hope so, too.
Okay, bye for now.
Bye. Thank you.