First off, thank you Christopher for taking time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions for this interview. I must admit, I was overly excited when I saw that you were available for interview. I’ve been waiting impatiently since last year for the sequel, Howling Dark…and having just finished it, I am still in awe and blown away by your incredible writing, world building and storytelling.
Empire of Silence was by far the best Science Fiction novel I’ve read, probably ever and one of my favorite novels of 2018. Since its release, debut last year, it’s been my go-to recommendation whenever anyone asks me or doesn’t on what book I’d recommend. There aren’t enough words, it’s just simply, brilliant.
CR: I don’t even know what to say to that! You’re very kind. It’s still surreal to me that other people have read these stories at all. For so much of my life they were in my head and nowhere else. I remember the first time my dad asked me how to pronounce “Cielcin” out of the blue and my first instinct was to ask, “Who told you about them?” But really, that anyone enjoys them at all is all I ever hoped for, and I hope you know how much words like that mean to me and to other writers, so...thank you.
For new readers, can you give a brief introduction to The Sun Eater series? For long-time fans, without spoilers, what can they expect to see in Howling Dark?
CR: The Sun Eater is a space opera science fiction adventure set about 20,000 years in our future. It’s the story—the memoir, in fact—of a man named Hadrian Marlowe. He’s a nobleman in this vast galactic empire who runs away from home to become a scholar and instead finds himself thrust into the midst of an interstellar war between the human empire and the Cielcin, the only aliens who in 20,000 years have ever stood up to our might. Hadrian tells you on page 1 that he is the man who ended that war and killed all the Cielcin, this story is why and how. When I’m selling on the convention floors I like to say, “Imagine Star Wars if Anakin’s being forced to become Darth Vader were right.”
As for Howling Dark, you can expect the unexpected! This book takes Hadrian beyond the borders of the empire. Not the outer border, but into the dark between the imperial stars, where he encounters all the things that hide from the security the empire offers. People got on my case in book one for the empire’s oppressive disdain for machines and for things like extreme genetic augmentation. In this one, we’re going to get to see why the empire is so cautious. But really, the biggest thing to expect is that this one really opens up the world in new and terrifying ways. It’s a bit more Gothic, a bit more Cyberpunk, and there’s even a touch of the old Lovecraftian cosmic horror thrown in for good measure. Those expecting another safe planet-bound story in an epic fantasy space empire will be very surprised.
Howling Dark was full of surprises, in terms of events, outcome and being that Hadrian and the gang are in the midst of war, casualties…while writing the sequel, did you already know how the story was going to play out, at least, this far?
CR: I am actually a fastidious outliner...well, I am now. I worked on Empire of Silence since I was about 8 years old, so I kind of tinkered with it. But this one needed to be done in a year, and that meant I needed a road map. I’ve had the privilege of working with David Drake, the great military SF writer, and the man produces these 50 page enormous outlines. So I copied Dave’s technique for outlining as best I could and plotted it out very carefully. As for the general shape of the story, I knew where I wanted it to end. I knew who was going to die, who was going to leave. I knew about the revelations that were coming, and had obsessed about them for years. A certain character (the one on the cover) has been developing in my head since about middle school, and it was an absolute joy to finally put him down on the page. But there are still surprises. Captain Corvo, for instance, grew sort of out of nowhere and was a very nice surprise. She’s one of my favorite characters now.
You mentioned that Valka was never intended to be in EOS but after revisions she was brought forth. From conception to the finalized version, how much of Howling Dark has stayed the same or changed since you started it? Were there numerous revisions and edits?
CR: This one’s stayed much more true to conception, thanks to the outline. Of course, things are very different than they were five years ago, but the book you’ve read looks almost exactly like the outline I sketched out as I was finishing EOS. The book 2 that I envisioned for the pre-Valka version of EOS was mostly about Hadrian meeting a very different Valka and working with her on Vorgossos alone. (Valka was originally conceived as a literal space witch born on Vorgossos, which was quite a different place). So that changed, but for the better—and it changed a long time ago, before the version of EOS you’ve read was even finished.
I absolutely love how you wrote the books, memoir-style, why that style?
CR: Two reasons! The first is a technical one: because it allows every scrap of narration to also be character-building text. The long digressions and musings on human nature and so forth are Hadrian’s musings and digressions, not mine. Every word on the page is his word, and that makes him a lot more real. Often in third person books I find the POV character the thinnest and least accessible. (Think of the way people make fun of Luke for being boring in Star Wars next to Han and Leia and Lando). This flips it a bit.
The second reason is that I really liked the D.J. MacHale Pendragon books as a kid. Those had a frame narrative and used first person letters the main character was writing to his friend back home in ways that amped up the drama. Then I saw it in some other books. Dracula, for one, and Frankenstein, but also in Name of the Wind and The Book of the New Sun—both notable influences on my own work (although in complicated ways and not really how people expect).
The books are mammoth, were you able to keep everything you wrote or did you have to work within a limited word count?
I think this one got longer as we revised it! My publishers (DAW and Gollancz) have been very forgiving of the long word counts. My editors have stressed repeatedly that I should make the books as long or short as they need to be, and that’s a very rare and precious thing, believe it or not. Bookstores allocate their shelves down to the inch, and big books are a riskier buy in for them, so I’m humbled and grateful they’ve taken the risk with my titans.
I LOVE the covers; did you have any say or input into its creation? I saw on Twitter that you mentioned the color palette for book three is red, white and gold? I can’t wait to see it!
I do! Usually I’ve given my publishers an idea or two and they’ve picked the one they think is most market-friendly and ask me to get details together on what things should look like, and then we’ll go back and forth on sketches and tinker a bit back and forth until they tell me to cool it and stop nitpicking. It’s very generous of them, most publishers (especially historically) want to keep authors as far away from their covers as possible...because some of us writers are not marketing geniuses.
And yes! Small teaser, but the book three cover features His Radiance, the Emperor seated in all his majesty upon the Solar Throne, so the Imperial colors will be out in full force, which will stand out nicely contrasted against these darker, cooler-colored books. I’m really excited. We’ve been working with Kieran Yanner again for book three—and Mr. Yanner is just great. I’ve been a fan since I was a high schooler playing Magic: The Gathering.
The Cielcin are just one of many races within the Sun Eater Universe, as we’ve seen plenty of various beings on Borosevo and March Station. With that said, do you believe in other lifeforms?
Oh, I would be surprised if we were the only life out there in the universe—though we may be the only thing we recognize as intelligent. That’s the real question, I think. The Cielcin are an interesting case, because they’re right on the edge. They look fairly human, they have culture and language and are fairly comprehensible...but their minds just don’t make sense to us. They’re an edge case, and there’s a part of me thinks the odds of finding something that’s as “human” as we are are fairly slim.
When you first received news that Empire of Silence sold, what was happening that day? And what did you do to celebrate?
CR: I was on my way to dinner to celebrate my brother’s engagement, which had just happened the day or two before. And so I sat silently at the table not telling anyone for 2 hours so as not to steal their moment. But we were at the restaurant I’d worked at for 8 years, so I ran into the kitchen to tell my friends.
How much has your life changed since becoming a published author?
CR: Not so much day to day. I write, go to work, come home, write some more—same as before. But I get to travel to shows and do signings—and I actually have Twitter notifications most days, which is new. But most days it’s still breakfast and commuting and office work and listening to too much heavy metal. Some things never change.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
You have to write. I know that sounds stupid, but the biggest hurdle I’ve seen in talking to aspiring writers is that they don’t actually write. They talk a lot about writing, but never sit down and do it. Make a schedule. 500 words a day. 1000. Whatever it takes. People think of artists as chaotic, windblown muse-chasers, but you need a structure like a vine needs a trellis, even if it’s just a little one.
And folks can always tweet me at @TheRuocchio. I’m also a professional editor. I can’t read your work for you, but I can answer questions all day.
I know you’re currently working on book three, Demon in White. Can you tell us anything about it? Or any other projects you may be working on concurrently?
Just a little! Demon in White picks up nearly 70 years after Howling Dark. Hadrian is in the thick of war with the Cielcin and has become quite centrally involved. You’ll see a lot more of the center of the Empire, there’s a lot more political knifework, more archaeological mysteries, and a lot more outright battles. You’ll also meet my favorite supporting character to date, a monomaniacal intus officer named Lorian Aristedes who’s found his way into Hadrian’s circle.
Other projects? I’ve written a 3-chapter novelette called “The Demons of Arae” that goes between Howling Dark and Demon in White, that’s out in October. I’m working on DIW, of course, but I have a couple short stories I owe people, too!
Lastly and randomly, have you met Gene Wolfe yet?
CR: Gosh, no. Mr. Wolfe passed away a month or two ago, and like a fool I sat on a fan letter—too nervous to send it. I’d written it around the time Empire of Silence was coming out, but he fell terribly ill right around then and I held off. I’ve been told by mutual friends that I needn’t have been so nervous, that he was one of the most generous writers in the industry. I wish I’d sent it. Now I’ll never get the chance….(Apologies for the downer answer).
Thank you so much Christopher! Again, I absolutely loved Howling Dark and can’t wait for everyone else to read it!
CR: Thank you very much for having me—it was my absolute pleasure.