Friday, July 06, 2018

Interview with Christopher Ruocchio, author of Empire of Silence

Please welcome Christopher Ruocchio to The Qwillery, as part of the 2018 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Empire of Silence was published on July 3rd by DAW.

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. What is the first piece you remember writing?

Christopher:  Thank you for inviting me! It’s hard to say exactly. I began writing in second grade. My friends and I would play make believe on the playground (it started out with them all playing as Dragonball Z characters with myself as Batman—I wasn’t allowed to watch DBZ, you see). It fell to me to catalog the events of the week, and as my friends discovered football and social skills, I just kept writing. I think the first thing I ever finished was what amounted to a handwritten piece of The Legend of Zelda fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off. I did finish a novel in about the ninth grade, but being wise for a high schooler, I put it in a box in my attic and have not thought of it since.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Christopher:  A hybrid, certainly, but with more plotter than pantser. That said, Empire of Silence’s development was far more organic than its sequel. I was working on “a book” since I was about eight, and so I had all the time in the world to make things right. That book eventually became Empire, but not without about fourteen years of false starts and mistakes. For the sequel—which I have finished—I composed about 60 pages of outline, which I then proceeded to only look at with one eye. Artists must have a plan, in my opinion, and a structure, but they should always keep one eye open to inspiration, and some of the best moments in both Empire and its sequel came to me in the heat of the moment.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Christopher:  Sitting still! I tend to find excuses to stand up and move about or to get distracted cleaning my room, but I bought a standing desk recently and that’s helped curb the worst of my meandering. I’m also not very keen on the revision part of the process. Writing new material is easy, but to go back through and pull out pieces and to try and look at plot threads or character arcs distributed through the book sometimes feels like playing four-dimensional chess. That being said, Hemingway was dead on (I believe it was Hemingway) when he said that all writing is rewriting. Onerous a task though it may be, revision is the most crucial part of this enterprise, and editors are unsung heroes (or heroines, as is more often the case)!

TQYou are the Assistant Editor at Baen Books. How does being an Editor affect (or not) your own writing?

Christopher:  The most prominent effect my job’s had on my writing is on my writing time. When I wrote Empire, I was a waiter and a college student, which is a much more forgiving schedule for someone trying to write a book than any 9-5 office job. I wake up at about 6 AM each morning to write before work, and then again after. Those are long days (though much shorter days than those of factory workers, so I remain very grateful—both to my employer and the factory workers). Most of the other effects of my work with Baen have been procedural. I know how the book-publishing process works, and so I’ve been spared the plague of doubts and questions that seem to afflict many newer writers. It’s taught me the importance of being on time, and of clear and quick responses to emails (both as a writer and editor). I think I’m learning to be a better client in relation to my agents and publishers, and a better publishing employee relative to the authors I’ve had the privilege of working with.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Christopher:  Gosh, what hasn’t! The book’s been compared to Dune and The Name of the Wind, which was surreal hearing someone else say out loud. Frank Herbert certainly has been a large influence on me, and I wanted the book to start someplace familiar. The Name of the Wind comparison has more to do with the fact that they’re both first person narratives, though while I do enjoy Mr. Rothfuss’s work—he’s one of the finest prose stylists working today—his work wasn’t a factor in my choice of narrative-style. I was practically born a Star Wars fan, one of the last to experience the franchise before the prequels swept in. Stargate and the Alien films are also perennial favorites—though I never cared much for Star Trek, I will confess. Tolkien was and is absolutely foundational for me, as he was for so many. There has never been a finer writer in all of genre fiction. Being a child of the 1990s, I was also very much influenced by anime/manga. Cowboy Bebop is an all-time favorite, and Akira and Ghost in the Shell have played a role as well (though more in informing Empire of Silence’s sequel than Empire itself). I’m also a great fan of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, which I’m rather afraid may not bode well for the well-being of my characters. Video games also played a role. Tales of Symphonia was nearly as foundational for me as some of the books I read, if not more so, as were games like Baten Kaitos and Lost Odyssey. In addition to that, I’m an ardent fan of classic literature: Elizabethan drama/poetry, the Romantics, and even Greek theater. History as well. People are quick to note the Roman influences on my worldbuilding, but there are echoes of Byzantine, Spanish, and British Imperial history in this book, as well as some Qing Dynasty China. And lastly, I was raised Roman Catholic—and while my feelings about theology are conflicted enough to fill an entire book—it would be a mistake to imagine that upbringing had no impact on my thinking.

TQDescribe Empire of Silence using only 5 words.

Christopher:  “A love-letter to classic SF.”

(Hyphenated words count as one, right?)

TQTell us something about Empire of Silence that is not found in the book description.

Christopher:  I think it’s quite funny some of them time. Make no mistake: it’s quite a serious book, but there’s enough social comedy elements in places to relieve that. Hadrian is extremely grandiose and formal, and the rest of the cast constantly needles him for it—as does Hadrian himself. I also think it has a lot of heart to it. You can lose sight of that focusing on all the larger-than-life galactic politics and the like, but I consider myself a very character-centric writer and Hadrian’s relationships with the rest of the cast—warts and all, Hadrian is far from perfect—are what I think holds the story together.

TQWhat inspired you to write Empire of Silence? What appeals to you about genre blending - Space Opera and Epic Fantasy?

Christopher:  I’ve always wanted to write. As I say, since I was eight-years-old to be a novelist has been the sum of my professional ambition. Empire simply grew up with me. There was no apple falling out of the tree moment: I just wanted to write a heroic adventure story like I enjoyed when I was a kid, but one that paid homage to the more “complex” stories I’d grown to love as a teenager. As to genre blending, I don’t think I ever thought about it. Fandom’s obsession with genre reminds me of metalheads’ insistence on their love for hyper-specific, micro-genres. The distinction between black metal and power metal, for instance, is totally opaque and arcane to outsiders, and is thereby meaningless. (It’s also so obscure that people don’t want to get into it). Genre fiction is going that way. Some readers will only read epic fantasy, but not urban fantasy, for example. On principle. My question is: How long before realize we’re on our way to creating as many genres as there are writers and give up the whole system? Stepping down off my soapbox, I had a story I wanted to tell, and that story had both fantasy and space opera elements. I thought, “Hey, it’s worked before!” and went about writing it. I hope that fans of both space opera and epic fantasy will find something to love about it!

TQWhat sort of research did you do for Empire of Silence?

Christopher:  I haven’t done much by way of formal research. The truth is, I’m constantly reading something or watching something else, and if you’ll forgive me for boasting, I have an excellent memory for facts, such that I can retain at least the gist (but very often the precise wording and even the tone) of anything I hear after just one exposure. I’m very taken with all the lectures and podcast interviews available now with all sorts of experts on subjects from psychology to biology to ancient history. One has to be careful to vet one’s sources, of course, but it’s not uncommon I’ll get through two or three lectures a day as I drive and make dinner and so on. There’s a Greek Orthodox icon carver called Jonathan Pageau I’ve watched a lot of recently, for example, he discusses literary and visual symbolism in the early Christian tradition and how ideas embedded in these ancient icons still persist in popular culture today (he once compared Shrek to The Bacchae by Euripides. Yes, really). I tend to float from topic to topic as it catches my interest. I never know what might be of use and how. There’s a great channel called Invicta which covers Roman military history in exquisite detail. We live in an age of unprecedented access to educational material for even the most idiosyncratic interests, and I mean to take full advantage of the opportunity!

TQPlease tell us about the cover for Empire of Silence.

Christopher:  The US cover was done by the immensely talented Sam Weber, who did the art for the Dune Folio Edition, as well as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and the tenth anniversary edition of The Name of the Wind. I’ve adored his work for years and feel very fortunate to have gotten to work with him. It doesn’t so much depict a moment in the novel as it does evoke the world and feel of the text. It shows my hero, Hadrian, in sort of a lordly, formal set of armor. Mr. Weber balanced the futuristic nature of the setting with the historical influences my worldbuilding draws from Imperial Rome and Victorian Britain. He’s depicted against the dark of space, with two moons to help signify that this is science fiction we’re dealing with (and because the planet Emesh, where most of the book takes place, has two moons). He stands with his sword towards the ground—an unknown hand clutching the blade, looking up as if for some word. We were slightly inspired Pollice Verso, the famous Gerome painting of the gladiator looking up at Caesar’s box for the order to spare or kill his beaten opponent.

TQIn Empire of Silence who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Christopher:  Hadrian has been easiest, far and away. Since he is our narrator, I spend more time in his head than any other character and am more familiar with him the rest of the cast. I’ve also got more space in the text to flesh him out than any other character. The most difficult character by far was Valka Onderra, a xeno-archaeologist who disagrees with Hadrian’s world view at practically every given opportunity. The two have a very antagonistic relationship in the book, which is complicated by Hadrian’s trying very hard to stay on her good side, so every scene she’s in becomes a complex mire of negotiating complex emotions and verbal combat. I think the end result was worth the headache, however. Several early readers seem to really like her!

TQWhich question about Empire of Silence do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

ChristopherIt seems like a lot of your writing relies on reusing old ideas/tropes. Why the homages? Shouldn’t SF/F always be something new?

This thread’s come up in a few of the early reviews, and it’s been bothering me because, yes, I do lay on the homages very heavy at the beginning of this novel. As I say, I wanted the book to start out somewhere familiar, to give audiences a window into the kind of story I’m telling, if only to give them a false sense of security because the book will take us somewhere quite different than the beginning might lead one to suspect. If you look at the great successes in recent years, especially in the film industry, say, none of those things are original. Nonetheless, the industry so often gets fixated on writers who are going to “smash” tropes or “break” a genre. I’ve yet to see one really succeed. For me, doing something different in this day and age means less experimentation, and more focus on telling a story as well as I can. Scotch tobacco ice cream may appeal to foodies, but the average person with a sweet tooth would still rather have vanilla or mint chocolate. And that’s not to say I’m not experimenting, but if you’re going to blend genres the way I am, you need those classic ingredients or the fact this is a blend might go unnoticed.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Empire of Silence.

Christopher:  I’ll pick two at random:

“We live in stories, and in stories, we are subject to phenomena beyond the mechanisms of space and time. Fear and love, death and wrath and wisdom—these are as much parts of our universe as light and gravity. The ancients called them gods, for we are their creatures, shaped by their winds.”

“But there are other powers that move our world, powers greater than man. Powers that, like time and tide, wait for none. Even Emperors, like starlight, bend to the blackest forces of natural law.”

TQWhat's next?

Christopher:  I’ve just finished the sequel to Empire of Silence—well, the first draft of it, anyway—and have turned that in to my editor. I’m starting work outlining book 3, which I plan to have done by the time revision notes for book 2 come in. Hadrian and his story will be with me for a few years yet! In addition to that, I’ve just finished compiling stories for a reprint anthology called Space Pioneers with Baen’s Editor Emeritus, Hank Davis. It’s just what the name says on the tin: a collection of older stories about people braving the environs of space. We’ve got stories by Niven and Pournelle, Sturgeon and Heinlein and so on. Hank has an archival memory of everything in SF up until the ‘80s, and there are some real gems in this anthology. I’m also working on an original story/novelette to include in the book as well! That’ll be along in December!

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Christopher:  It’s been a pleasure! Thank you!

Empire of Silence
The Sun Eater 1
DAW, July 3, 2018
Hardcover, Trade Paperback and eBook, 624 pages

Hadrian Marlowe, a man revered as a hero and despised as a murderer, chronicles his tale in the galaxy-spanning debut of the Sun Eater series, merging the best of space opera and epic fantasy.

It was not his war.

The galaxy remembers him as a hero: the man who burned every last alien Cielcin from the sky. They remember him as a monster: the devil who destroyed a sun, casually annihilating four billion human lives—even the Emperor himself—against Imperial orders.

But Hadrian was not a hero. He was not a monster. He was not even a soldier.

On the wrong planet, at the right time, for the best reasons, Hadrian Marlowe starts down a path that can only end in fire. He flees his father and a future as a torturer only to be left stranded on a strange, backwater world.

Forced to fight as a gladiator and navigate the intrigues of a foreign planetary court, Hadrian must fight a war he did not start, for an Empire he does not love, against an enemy he will never understand.

About Christopher

Photo © Paul Ruocchio
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 the upcoming Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints showcasing tales of human exploration. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where 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 in available from Gollancz 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. He may be found on both Facebook and Twitter at @TheRuocchio.

Twitter @TheRuocchio ~ Facebook


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