Tell us about the first project you worked on when you knew you wanted to be a writer
As most imaginative youths can attest, they grew up wanting to be everything. I’ve desired to pursue every career path from pirate to president, astronaut to doctor, and Santa to engineer. It should therefore come as no surprise that at some point “writer” wormed its way into my list of potential occupations.
Though I didn’t realize it until much later, my background was ideally suited to this path. My mother was an English teacher; my father a US Army officer with degrees in history. I therefore learned to read, write, and study far in advance of most of my peers. Every year held two main calendar events: the spelling bee and whatever historical trip the local scouting troop had planned. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to travel and see other cultures. As an “Army brat,” moving was an almost yearly occurrence, and by the time I was thirteen I had lived in or visited eleven different countries.
My love of reading ranged across all genres with a slight focus on fantasy, science-fiction, and history. By the time I reached high school, I had developed a keen interest in classical civilizations: Rome, Greece, Egypt, Phoenicia, and so on. Combined with an attachment to strategy games – courtesy of learning about wars and tactics from my father – the stage was set for my first literary endeavor. I became so engrossed in Rome: Total War that I began to think of alternate scenarios, “what-ifs” that may have changed the course of Mediterranean events. From this brainstorming emerged my first, yet unfinished novel: First Legion.
The work examines a world in which Julius Caesar doesn’t die on the Ides of March, instead learning about the assassination plot beforehand and brutally putting the conspirators to death. Political ramifications spiral off from this core alteration, resulting in the secession of Greece and Anatolia from the Roman Empire. Caesar responds with overwhelming military force, a civil war erupts, and the collapse of the “civilized” world begins hundreds of years early. This world is rife with potential, from the utopian/dystopian through-plot I intended to develop, external tribes that were to be introduced, examinations on absolute power, and so much more. I fully intend to return to it . . . some day.
Yet ironically, we still haven’t covered enough to answer the original question! I swear I’m not being circuitous for the sake of watching myself write, though that is something authors have a tendency to do. Rather, I still wasn’t committed to being a writer after setting aside First Legion, despite my incomplete draft winning the Honor Seal, a local commendation for a work going above and beyond what was expected of a graduating high school senior. No, that didn’t happen until seven years of engineering study later with a project you may have heard of previously: Divinity’s Twilight.
Something in me had always yearned for the world of imagination I once dwelled in; to return to the majestic settings, succulent feasts, and raucous adventures of my childhood reading. This isn’t to say that I found engineering boring, but technical creativity is vastly different from artistic creativity. The former is a source of pride. The latter is a source of wonder and fulfillment.
So when I picked up Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt on a lark while in graduate school, I suddenly found everything I’d been craving. His was a world that didn’t sacrifice the fantastic for the sake of technology, instead letting them blend, allowing them to build upon each other. I thought to myself, This isn’t so different from what I’m doing. Why can’t I indulge both of my passions at once?
The result was Divinity’s Twilight: Rebirth, my debut work and a novel that combines the realms of magic and science in fascinating ways. With its successful publication, the disparate natures of my desires are now one, and a new convert to fantasy writing is here to stay.
Do you have a favorite character to write?
Sylette Farkos. Poised, determined, brash, and forthright, she’s everything I’m not – which makes her a delight to pen. All the biting remarks I want to say but don’t are placed in her mouth, and every dressing down I want to indulge in is delivered with her scathing wit. Yet while we’re different on the outside, our calculating, logical natures are very similar. It’s likely we’d get along terribly at first . . . at least until we had a detailed conversation and discovered our worldviews aren’t so different.
Has a character ever surprised you? Maybe you thought they were one way, but they turned out to be completely different? Can you tell us about this experience?
When you meet Renar Iolus, classmate to our initial POV military cadets, you’ll immediately write him off as a throwaway character. I did as well. His antagonism is one-note, his actions cliché, and his only value seems to be providing a foil to Vallen, our protagonist. He had “token Malfoy” pasted all over him.
Then, being the pantser I am, I wrote myself into a corner. Renar, a being more defined by his father than his own actions, was coming along on the adventure whether I wanted him to or not.
And it was an amazing decision! You’ll see part of his unraveling, much like peeling back layers of a particularly hard onion, in the second half of the novel. But just you wait for future entries. Renar is going to grow and reveal some long hidden depths, a few of which challenge traditional fantasy gender roles.
What do you do when you’re just not motivated to write?
An author’s work is never done. If I’m not writing, I’m probably marketing or managing my social media. If I’m not doing either of those things, I’m probably moping through the day, contemplating the horrible waste of time I’m committing. The perfectionist in me will not give me peaceful rest until I accomplish something of value unless it’s an off-day, which I rarely take anymore. When I do, you can find me reading, playing strategy or soulsborne games, or bingeing fantasy, sci-fi, or historical Netflix series.
How do you balance writing, reading, family and a job (if you’re working)?
Long ago these four elements lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when my publication attacked . . .
The usage of that ATLA quote is a tad melodramatic, but balance is something I’ve lost and am trying desperately to restore. Writing, family, and work have taken priority over everything else. Fortunately, my day job is being an engineering professor, which allows me nights, weekends, and summers to use for writing. With the advent of the Coronavirus, my classes have gone online, resulting in the small silver-lining of having more time to focus on Divinity’s Twilight: Rebirth’s release. I’ve also had the opportunity to reconnect with my family (parents) who I’m staying with while virtually connecting with my class.
As for reading . . . I picked up The Eye of the World two months ago with the intention of using the quarantine to make significant progress through The Wheel of Time. If it was possible to log a negative page count, I would do so. Suffice to say that this great love of mine is currently at the bottom of my list of priorities.
Do you write stories with an audience in mind?
No. I may pick a theme or culture to focus on when crafting a nation, race, or ideology, but this isn’t intended to target a specific group. Entertaining myself is my primary goal, since if I can’t do that, engaging a reader is impossible.
How do you navigate the dilemma of writing characters of a different gender than your Own?
The proverbial jury is still out on this one. More women have read and enjoyed my novel to this point than men, so I may be doing an alright job crafting Sylette, Velle, Lilith, and all the other women who are quite literally carrying my story.
Anecdote time. After finishing Divinity’s Twilight: Rebirth I handed it to a number of friends and family members. When I asked them about the characters, they brought up something I had never before considered: “Did you know your women are stronger than your men?” I skimmed back through the manuscript and sure enough, my women were leading, reassuring, and generally holding my males together on every page after the opening sections.
This unconscious decision – which I see no reason to change or retcon – likely stemmed from my upbringing. Being an Army officer was a demanding career for my father. He spent long hours on base, was often deployed, and spent his time at home maintaining the house and yard. We had a healthy relationship, but I was effectively raised by my mother. As a result, I came to correlate stability and security with her presence, something that naturally extended to my grandmother when we visited her.
Again, this is me attempting to retroactively explain an unintended phenomenon. I love all my characters and don’t intend to adjust the direction of the story in any way.
What made you realise you wanted to be an author? Specifically a fantasy/sci-fi author?
In a word: Freedom.
First Legion, which I mentioned previously, was a historical-fiction title. I had tons of fun crafting its characters, planning its overarching plot, and deciding what sequence of smaller incidents would lead me to that exhilarating conclusion. But once those had been decided, the rest of the process felt . . . empty. Lacking. There was something critical missing, and whatever it was had stolen my enjoyment.
Realization struck when I examined my notes. Outside of the characters, plot arcs, and setting descriptions, everything else already existed. My weapons, clothes, political structures, naval vessels, games, farming methods, religious institutions – everything that makes a world a world! – was pulled straight from historical documents. I had nothing left to invent; my tools had been provided, and I couldn’t alter them without abandoning the fundamental roots of my story.
Later, when I began writing Divinity’s Twilight, I understood this need as the craving of a world-builder. My desire to construct doesn’t lie in just the broad strokes of plot and character, but in the gritty details of their surroundings and environment. By becoming a fantasy/sci-fi author, I liberated my mind to create the locales, worlds, and universes it always dreamed of.
Tolkien, Martin, Rowling – all revolutionized what we thought was possible and what became mainstream; Is moving the industry something you’re interested in and if so, in what direction?
Not with Divinity’s Twilight, although its themes and messages shouldn’t be discarded because of that. While the series – intended to be a whopping ten books long – is going to be a constant through much of my career, its primary purpose is to entertain, thrill, and excite. It’s loaded with all the things I enjoy in a story, and I believe that passion will resonate with readers.
I do have an idea for a story that would revolutionize the genre: a series written from dual perspectives that would challenge readers’ perceptions of traditional genre staples. However, I freely admit that I am not yet skilled enough to do it justice. When I’ve finished Divinity’s Twilight, when I understand how to write with many different voices, styles, and plot archetypes, then I’ll flesh out that tale into the magnum opus it deserves to be.
If you could change the world by doing one thing what is something you would change right away?
The prevailing lack of empathy. Grim-dark stories are surging on the fantasy scene precisely because they’re a believable portrayal of humanity’s capricious, selfish nature. We make decisions for our own benefit without ever considering the situation of our neighbors – their struggles, hardships, and past. If we took a moment to consider these things, how the words we say or the actions we take affect others, then the world wouldn’t be so full of pain and suffering. Think, evaluate, then act. And above all, be kind, for “kindness breaks the cycle of despair.”
What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite band?
Movie: LOTR – The Return of the Kings. It’s the consummate fantasy movie. Epic battles take center stage, while the moral struggles and heroism of the smallest and weakest decide the fates of kingdoms. No matter how many times I re-watch it, certain scenes still give me goosebumps.
Band: Two Steps From Hell. Their sweeping orchestral scores are the perfect accompaniment to fantasy storytelling. Somber and mournful, vibrant and intrepid, their music adds flavor to every scene, instilling in my mind the exact emotion I wish to convey with words. I can’t thank them enough for aiding my creative process. Favorite Piece: “To Glory”
Recommend some Fantasy or Sci-Fi
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. In my opinion, it is as close to perfect as a novel can be. The pacing is superb, the twists are mind-blowing, and the story wraps up in a tidy bow that allows it to serve as either a standalone or springboard for future adventures. Vin, Sazed, and Elend also have my heart. I dearly want to hug them and tell them that everything will be alright . . . eventually.
What’s next for you writing and release-wise?
December 2020 – Gravitas short story releases in the IFA (Indie Fantasy Addicts) Authors Villain Anthology. A preview is available on my website (christopherrussellauthor.com) blog.
Early 2021 – Divinity’s Twilight: Rebirth audiobook??????????
3rd or 4th quarter 2021 – Asian Fantasy standalone novel set in the same universe as Divinity’s Twilight. The prologue is available on my website (christopherrussellauthor.com) blog.
4th quarter 2021, 1st quarter 2022 – 2nd Divinity’s Twilight novel releases. Currently in beta-reading, after which I will make necessary revisions and send it to my editor.
Down the road – Divinity’s Twilight is intended to be a TEN book series split into two arcs: one concluding after book six, and another beginning in book seven. There are countless mysteries, twists, and enigmas left to be uncovered…