The Write Stuff – Monday, December 17 – Christopher Ruocchio Interview

A new and powerful voice has risen among us. Christopher Ruocchio’s epic novel, Empire of Silence, is on a par with Allan Moore’s Jerusalem and Frank Herbert’s Dune. The first in a series, Empire gets underway with all the deliberation of a mile long freight train and builds to a logical, well conceived ending. Be forewarned. This is no blast-em-to-smithereens space opera. While there is physical violence enough for those who require it, the subtle threat of the ever-present Inquisition lurking in the background, threads tension through the story in a way swords and phase disrupters never can. The Chantry, whose Inquisitors are sure to be feared, like all religious fanatics, are perforce blinded to possibilities beyond their belief system. The fundamental posit that founds their beliefs is that humans are the universe’s sine qua non, all the while denying the possibility of any other intelligent race or species.

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 anthologies “Star Destroyers” and “Space Pioneers”. 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 age twenty-two. “The Sun Eater” series is available from Gollancz in the UK, and has been translated into French and German.

Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. When not writing, he splits his time between his family, procrastinating with video games, and his friend’s boxing gym.

I asked him to describe Empire of Silence and he provided this:

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.

Your style of writing, Christopher, is like a signature. Your unique choice of words, your frequent eschewal of traditional sentence structure, as well as the cadence of your prose, impart a greater surrealism to an already surreal story by removing the telling several steps from the ordinary. Was this a deliberate strategy, or simply a byproduct of your obvious love of language?

Is my sentence style non-traditional? It’s extremely hypotactic, with a lot of subordinate and dependent clauses, but I didn’t think there was anything unusual about it. I’m an extremely auditory person. I can remember virtually anything I hear after one or two exposures. I’ll remember a random snap from a conversation my friends were having in the other room without me days later, and so when I write it’s always out loud, and I check my writing out loud when I’m done. Good prose has to sound good, or it’s bad prose. Insofar as my prose is surreal, I made a conscious effort to make sure Hadrian doesn’t understand everything that’s happening around him. He’s not very technically minded, which allows the technology to feel a bit more magical, for one, but there are also events happening (especially later in the books) that are meant to defy human understanding in any event. So it’s best to write in such a way that hints at more, and to let the dark corners of your imagination fill in the rest.

Hadrian and Valka’s discussion about the Umandh while they were visiting the alienage at Ulakiel yields, not only an alien quality to the setting, but also emphasizes how un‑Earthlike these characters are. While most science fiction authors struggle to describe the strangeness of a person or place, you build an otherworldly scenario through your prose and dialogue. Is this a deliberate strategy, a happy accident, or merely this reader’s perception?

In a certain sense, the prose is dialogue. It’s first person, and everything here is Hadrian speaking with you, the reader. One of the things we modern people are really bad at is getting our heads around just how different people used to think about things in the Middle Ages and in classical antiquity. A lot of us are so thoroughly materialistic and rationalistic in our thinking that when we encounter someone who is, say, deeply religious, we almost think that they’re insane—when in reality they’re representing a mode of thinking that was far more common for most of human history than the way we think now. Hadrian’s tendency towards pattern recognition, to latch on to sounds or symbols and to see them as a through line that gives his life meaning (for example, when he experiences bright lights he connects them to the supernova he tells us he will cause at the end of the series, as if they’re omens of what’s coming), is very like the way a medieval or a classical Roman might have thought. Being somewhat religious myself, I find that symbolic way of thinking about the world a more reasonable and meaningful way to view existence in the first place, and I think the loss of it is something the modern world got wrong. So if Hadrian and his countrymen feel alien in this way, it’s because their cultural worldview has more in common with these older ways of thinking than ours does.

Empire of Silence is a story that is sometimes felt more than it is recounted. From Hadrian’s thoughts on the night before he steps into the Colosso, to the scene that takes place at the palace barbican in Chapter 49, more is inferred than stated outright. How much time do you spend revising and editing to get these scenes right?

Empire of Silence was actually completely rewritten after I sold it to DAW books (except for about the first dozen chapters or so), so the rewrites were fairly minimal after that. I do reread everything aloud before I send it in for copyediting, and I use that phase to sand down the rough edges, so to speak. But it’s always been my observation that many people are too afraid to say what they really mean, or are too embarrassed, and so there’s a good deal of side-stepping and beating around the bush. But really, this sort of conversation by implication-and-inference is less a product of revision and more a consequence of how I communicate in the first place, or at least reflects my personal theory about communication.

In the course of the conversation between Hadrian and the Cielcin commander in the chambers at Calagah, you reveal an understanding of socio-linguistic dynamics—how language springs from a culture and how the very structure of the language can impart layers of meaning above and beyond the mere words of the conversation itself. Will you tell us about how you acquired this knowledge?

I have a quibble with your question, if I may. It’s not that language springs from a culture, rather it seems to me that culture springs from the language. That’s something most modern linguists seem to get exactly backwards. They’ll talk about how language shapes perception (the Japanese have one word for both blue and green, and so it’s not uncommon to see a Japanese child use a green crayon for the sky), but then they’ll say people consciously manipulate the language to control populations, which is the precise reverse of the premise that language shapes perception. It’s foolish. Languages are almost Platonic forms (though they certainly change, despite the effort of we editors to keep grammar fixed in place). But languages are more long-lived than any individual human is, and they shape us  individually to a far greater degree than any individual shapes or controls language. We are its  creatures and not the masters of language at all. That’s why God is sometimes called the Wordthe Logos, in the Christian and Stoic traditions.

As for how I got interested in this sort of thing: because I hated linguistics classes in school. Linguists these days are all sophists. They espouse this postmodern ethos wherein there is no objective, higher meaning and words may mean whatever you want them to mean. They’re like Syme in Orwell’s 1984, who understands that if you replace the word bad with ungood, you destroy the ability of people to conceptualize bad as a concept on its own. Syme is certainly correct, but modern linguists seem to have taken him as a model for emulation, not an object lesson in how not to act. My interest in the subject came out of this conviction that my classmates and I were being ill-served by our instructors, who seemed more interested in advancing their private agendas than pursuing truth.

You recently told me you were outlining the third book in the series. Are your outlines detailed, or written in broad brush strokes?

The outline for my second novel, Howling Dark, ran about 60 pages long. I think it was more useful as a writing exercise than a reference material, because as I wrote the book I found I hardly looked at it, so the outline for my third novel only ran about 20 pages—just long enough to get the boilerplate for each chapter down, although there were certain parts that ran longer than others. Having written the outline, I find my thoughts are now ordered enough to get the book written with only the occasional glance back at the outline, which leaves me enough room to improvise where and if necessary, too!

 The Rod Serling quote in Chapter 10 caught me off guard. At what point in its creation did you decide to ground your story with real world, Earthbound references?

Probably in my senior year of high school. I’d been writing a  novel since I was about 8-years-old, and like the Ship of Theseus slowly changed out parts as I grew up. It began as an epic fantasy novel, heavily inspired by the cartoons I was watching at the time, and slowly changed. Around the time I got into college it properly became a science fiction novel, and the world moved from a secondary world to our far future. But I’ve always been a bibliophile and a classicist—as well as a science fiction/fantasy fan—and so it was natural to work in these references, ranging from the momentary Easter egg, like the Serling quote, to the overarching: The arc of the whole series is inspired by the Gothic migrations and Attila the Hun’s invasion of Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries. I’ve been utterly mystified by some reviewers on this score. One accused me of “stealing” a line from Doctor Who “like we wouldn’t notice!” Which was baffling because I had hoped people would notice the reference and be in on the joke with me. Literature is intertextual and referential by nature, after all! As for Serling, no one is surprised when someone references Shakespeare in these far future settings, but I thought Serling might surprise someone.

How did you find your publisher? Are you agented, did you submit to them directly, or did they find you through your relationship with Baen Books?

By brute force! I spent about 10 months finding an agent, racked up just over 50 rejections and nearly threw the book away. I had gotten down to the end of my list of reputable agents and decided to let the last couple queries I had play out while I started a new story. Fortunately, one of those agent was Shawna McCarthy, who took me on. I in fact tried very hard to minimize any advantage my then-internship with Baen Books might have given me. I didn’t show Baen my work for the whole first year I was with them for fear that I’d come across as unprofessional trying to worm my way into a deal I hadn’t truly earned. I didn’t want to be accused of nepotism, or of having gotten published by dint of some unearned privilege. This story is the culmination of my short life’s work (there’ll be other culminations later on, I’m sure), and I wanted to do it right, even if that meant rotting in the inboxes of half a hundred agents.

How did the story come to you?

I have lived with one version of this story or other for so long that I can’t really answer this question. Hadrian himself only fully formed when I was about 18, but the Cielcin and the threat they represent had menaced earlier versions of the story for far longer, when Hadrian was a different character with a different name. There was a time when this battle played out in a medieval kingdom, and it was the threat of a flood and not a destroyed sun that Hadrian’s precursors held over the world. Hadrian was called Caelan then, and the Cielcin were the Qorin. It was a high fantasy story in those days, not science fiction at all.

But really, the question of where this story comes from is the question of why I started writing, and the answer to that is this: my friends as I played make believe as children. They would be characters from shows like Dragon Ball Z  or Inuyasha, which were popular at the time. I was Batman. As we moved through grade school, our characters sort of individuated, and became their own thing. Soon there was nothing of Batman left at all, and my hero character grew and grew by layers and degrees. My friends left to play football, but this character—who began as Batman and became Hadrian, but who as I say had many names and incarnations—stayed with me, and I had to do something with him. Eventually, after throwing out a nearly-finished draft for the 80th time, I sat down and sort of sketched Devil’s Rest and the city of Meidua out in a scene or two, and the final Hadrian stepped out.

What else do you want readers to know about your book?

It’s a response to Frank Herbert’s Dune. I’ve taken hits from a few readers for being too much like Herbert’s book because of the byzantine galactic empire or the religious injunction against machines, but here’s the thing: Frank Herbert’s ethos for the Dune series can be summed up where Pardot Kynes says: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.” Frank Herbert is, at the end of the day, a skeptic about the virtues of heroism. Paul’s actions save the Fremen from the Harkonnens, but his actions result in the deaths of billions and the destruction of the Fremen way of life as water comes to Arrakis. He paves the way for his son’s 4500 year reign, and the series’ “Golden Path” is a plan to liberate mankind from hero worship and god-kings for the rest of time. I’m neither so libertarian nor so skeptical of heroes. Where Paul Atreides is a response to the naïve heroes of pulp fiction (your Buck Rogers and your Flash Gordons—and even Luke Skywalker if you want to be anachronistic, but accurate), a deconstruction, Hadrian is a response to Paul. Like Paul, Hadrian’s actions are terrible, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be the wrong thing to do (even if they tear him apart to do them). Modern people like to say that good and evil are matters of opinion—that they don’t really exist. That’s nonsense. Hadrian’s story is one of embracing the precepts of heroism that got playing straight by someone like Luke or Flash despite the horrific consequences of things like war and empire embodied in someone like Paul. And for me to do that, for me to enter into a dialogue with Herbert, the book has to share traits to invite comparison in the first place. If I’d written urban fantasy instead, no one would think to look to Dune for the other half (or third) of the conversation. So don’t be fooled by the sword fighting shields. Thematically, Empire of Silence and The Sun Eater generally are about as far removed from Dune as it gets.

Are there any awards or honors you’d like to share?

I’ve not won any awards as yet, nor do I especially expect to. I am being considered for the Compton Crook Award for best new writer, and I suppose I’m eligible for the Campbell in the same light—as well as the Hugo, Nebula, and Dragon. I would be honored to be nominated, of course.

Do you have another job outside of writing?

I’ve worked for Baen Books now for the last 4 years (1 of those as an intern). I’m their Assistant Editor, but don’t let the title fool you: I mostly do digital marketing, social media, PR and the like. If you email Baen with a question or complaint, I’m usually the one fielding it. I do some production work, some jacket copy, backads, and so forth, but I want to stress I don’t do acquisitions, so if anyone catches me at a signing trying to sell their book to me, I’m sorry in advance. But it’s been an educational experience. Its helped me get a better understanding of how publishing works, which I hope has made me a better editor towards Baen’s authors and a better author towards DAW. It’s also been a great boon. I have to travel to conventions for my day job, which has allowed me to reach more shows and readers than I might have done on my own. I’m very grateful to Toni Weisskopf and to everyone at Baen. It’s been a great experience and I’m looking forward to doing it for a while yet!

Would you care to share something about your home life?

I don’t know that it would be very interesting. I live with two roommates—friends from grade school—and will for another year. It’s time to buy a house and finish growing up. I’m very nearly as young as authors come (I’m 25), but I already feel like there are things I should have done years ago. My teachers and professors all told my generation to rebel and question “the Man.” In their day, I guess that meant free love and psychedelics, but since a lot of my generation seems to be doing just that, I figure I’ll rebel by marrying the girl I love and starting a family. I don’t think that’s what my professors had in mind, but I don’t think they realize that they’re “the Man” now. The world’s upside down.

Hadrian draws. Hadrian fences. Do you as well? If so, please elaborate.

I used to draw, but not very well. My uncle is a professional artist/industrial designer, and I really looked up to him as a boy (and still do!), and tried to learn to draw like him. But alas, I was frustrated by failure and rather than push into visual design, I made the lateral move to writing and that’s worked out pretty well so far. As for fencing: yes! I was a pretty avid fencer from about Grade 5 to Grade 11, when I had to start working nights and weekends as a bus boy and waiter, and I’m afraid the fencing gym has since closed down, and Raleigh doesn’t have another one at the moment. I was mostly a sport fencer, but I’m competent in Italian-style rapier (no master, by any means), with a smattering of Polish saber and some longsword. My father used to make fun of my lightsaber fighting antics as a small child and said I should learn to do it right, so I did. As it happens, I now take boxing lessons from the same man who taught me to fence, Wes Caudill. Wes was where I got Hadrian’s preference for fighting barefoot (something I’ve always refused to do myself), and there’s a little of him in Sir Felix and especially in Pallino.

Thank you, Christopher, for taking the time to share. Before I provide an excerpt from Empire, followed by your social and book buy links, I’d like to end this interview with a Lightning Round, because of the insights the answers frequently provide. In as few words as possible, please answer the following:

My best friend would tell you I’m a: bit of a madman, I expect.

The one thing I cannot do without is: Music. I’m a big hard rock/metal fan. Bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Blind Guardian. My favorite musician of all time is the late Ronnie James Dio. I actually own—and this is the truth—Dio’s bed. I bought it from his estate sale.

The one thing I would change about my life: I’d spend more time on physical fitness. Boxing twice a week is great, but I should do something every day.

My biggest peeve is: People attacking J.R.R. Tolkien’s reputation. There was an article going around about how another writer thought Tolkien was a racist because of the way he treated the orcs. That opinion is so ludicrous as to be almost illiterate, and anyone who holds it gets a black mark from me.

The person I’m most satisfied with is: Most satisfied is a weird way to put it, but I love my girlfriend, Jenna, very much. At the time of writing, I just took her to the airport after a week long visit, and I miss her terribly. I feel very lucky to have her in my life.

Do you have a parting thought you would like to leave us with?

Science fiction is in a weird place right now. There’s a lot of infighting, writers attacking writers, editors attacking writers, writers attacking awards. You’ve got the awards attacking writers back and worst of all, you’ve got writers attacking fans. I can’t fathom why any creator would attack his or her fans. It’s insane to me. One thing I learned from the aforementioned Ronnie James Dio is that you don’t do that. You don’t spit at your fans. I’m extremely grateful to the few fans I have thus far, and I’d be honored if any of you reading this who haven’t checked out my work might take a look. Empire of Silence really is my love letter to our genre, and I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

Thanks for having me, Raymond.

Excerpt:

Light.

The light of that murdered sun still burns me. I see it through my eyelids, blazing out of history from that bloody day, hinting at fires indescribable. It was like something holy, as if it were the light from God’s own heaven that burned the world and billions of lives with it. I carry that light always, seared into the back of my mind. I make no excuses, no apologies, no denials for what I have done. I know what I am.

The Scholiasts might start at the beginning, with our remote ancestors clawing their way from Old Earth’s system in their leaking vessels, those peregrines making their voyages to new and living worlds. But no. To do so would take more volumes and ink than my hosts have left at my disposal, and even I—who have had more time than any other—have not the time for that.

Should I chronicle the war then? Start with the alien Cielcin howling out of space, their ships like castles of ice? You can find the war stories, read the death counts. The statistics. No context can make you understand the cost. Cities razed, planets burned. The countless billions of our people ripped from their worlds to serve as meat and slaves for those Pale monsters. Families old as empires ended in light and fire. The tales are numberless, and none of them is enough. The Empire has its official version: one which ends in my execution, with Hadrian Marlowe hanged for all the worlds to see.

I do not doubt that this tome will do aught but collect dust in the archive where I have left it, one manuscript amongst billions at Colchis. Forgotten. Perhaps that is best. The worlds have had enough of tyrants, enough of murderers and genocides.

But you will read on, tempted by the thought of reading the work of so great a monster as the one made in my image. You will not let me be forgotten, because you want to know what it was like to stand aboard that impossible ship and rip the heart out of a star. You want to feel the heat of two civilizations burning and to meet the dragon, the devil that wears the name my father gave me.

So let us bypass history, sidestep the politics and the marching tramp of empires. Forget the beginnings of mankind in fire and in the ash of Old Earth, and so too ignore the Cielcin rising in air and from darkness. Those tales are elsewhere recorded in all the tongues of mankind and her subjects. Let us move to the only beginning that I’ve a right to: my own. Born the eldest son and heir to Alistair Marlowe, Archon of Meidua Prefecture, Butcher of Linon, and Lord of Devil’s Rest.

No place for a child, that palace of dark stone, but it was my home all the same, amid the  logothete-ministers and the armored peltasts of father’s service. But father never wanted a child. He wanted an heir, someone to inherit his slice of Empire and to carry on—not as a man—but as an extension of our family. He named me Hadrian, an ancient name, meaningless save for the memory of those men who carried it before me. An Emperor’s name, fit to rule and to be followed.

Dangerous things, names. Perilous. They begin our shaping, for better or ill, guiding us by the hand or by opposition. I have lived a long life, longer than the genetic therapies the great houses of the Peerage can contrive, and I have had many names. During the war, I was Hadrian Halfmortal and Hadrian the Deathless. After the war, I was the Sun Eater. To the poor people of Borosevo, I was a myrmidon called Had. To the Jaddians, I was Al Neroblis. To the Cielcin, Oimn Belu, and worse things besides. I have been many things: soldier and servant, captain and captive, sorcerer and scholar and little more than a slave.

Interested readers can find Christopher online here:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheRuocchio/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheRuocchio.

You can purchase his book here:

Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Empire-Silence-Eater-Christopher-Ruocchio/dp/0756413001/

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