Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Christopher Ruocchio?
I am the author of Empire of Silence, a new space opera/epic fantasy out in July. I am also the Assistant Editor for Baen Books, where I have edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers and the upcoming Space Pioneers. I sold my first novel — this novel — at age 22. I graduated from North Carolina State University, where I studied English Rhetoric and Classics. I am a boxer, and former fencer, and the owner of half a suit of replica first century Roman armor. I worked as a waiter for seven years, during which time I wrote and paid my way through college at the expense of any sort of social life. I remain an enthusiastic student, and am blessed with what I consider the world’s greatest family, a lovely girlfriend, and better friends than one of my stormy disposition perhaps deserves.
Your debut novel, Empire of Silence, will be published by Gollancz in July. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
My goal was to write a space opera with the epic style and scope of a high fantasy. My publishers have compared it to Dune and The Name of the Wind, which is staggeringly high praise and I hope that I can live up to even a tenth of it. Empire of Silence is the first book of four recounting the story of Hadrian Marlowe, a man who saved humanity from a race of genocidal aliens called the Cielcin — but at the cost of several billion human lives (to say nothing of the dead aliens). It’s written in memoir fashion, hence the comparison to Mr. Rothfuss, as a much older Hadrian recounts his journey through this massive, interstellar empire as he contends simultaneously with the corruption of his own society and the greater threat of the Cielcin invaders. There are also hints that his entire life and the war itself may only be part of a larger, higher game that Hadrian himself still doesn’t fully understand.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
History and literature mostly. I’m a great admirer of history, by and large (so many people seem to despise it these days). As a classics student, I am deeply influenced by Greek and especially Roman history and literature. My Sollan Empire is part Trajan’s Rome, part Justinian’s Byzantium, and part Victoria’s Britain, with a smattering of Qing, Mauryan, and Imperial Japanese influences. I read a lot of classic literature, as well. I’m one of those dinosaurs who still holds to the idea that there is a literary canon (although I simultaneously despise those cretins who would limit that canon to works of European extraction). I’m a great fan of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton, but also of works like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Ramayana.
In addition to these and to SF/F writers like Tolkien, Herbert, and Bujold, I grew up playing a large number of Japanese RPGs and reading a lot of manga. The Legend of Zelda was a gateway for me, but video games like Tales of Symphonia, Baten Kaitos, and Lost Odyssey were a huge influence on my development as a storyteller, and one which I think sets me apart from many of my contemporaries.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
My parents showed me the original Star Wars films when I was about three. I wasn’t allowed to watch most television programs growing up, so I would watch the original trilogy night after night. Then The Lord of the Rings films started coming out when I was about 8 and I was doomed. I struggled to read the book so young, so my parents got me the audiobooks, which — like Star Wars — I would immediately restart the moment I finished. I honestly must have listened to Tolkien’s work 60 or 70 times growing up.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
Well, it makes for some long days, but it’s been extremely educational. Publishers can seem like black boxes to new authors, and having worked now for Baen Books for three years I’ve gotten an excellent look at how things work inside that box, which has helped to temper any anxiety I might have over the process. I’m trying to be the kind of author I’d like to work with as an editor, and vice versa. Mostly, though, I’ve enjoyed meeting all sorts of people. It’s been an absolute privilege to work with writers like Lois McMaster Bujold, David Weber, and Eric Flint. It was all a bit crazy at the beginning, though. I sold my book and got my job in the same week, which was almost too much excitement, as you might imagine. Still, it’s been a remarkable experience and I hope I’ve come through it a better professional for having it.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Not terribly. To be frank, I’m always a bit mystified by these novelists who can only write in a specific chair in a specific room with a specific device to specific music by the light of a specific moon. I set a word count per day (1,500/2,000) and I don’t do anything else until I hit that mark. Some days I’ll work at my desk, on others I’ll move to another part of my apartment, and on others I’ll go to a bookstore or cafe. Perversely, I find I write extremely well while traveling.
As for research, I’m always listening to lectures online or watching old History Channel documentaries that have wandered onto YouTube. It’s amazing that we live in a world where respected and credentialed experts share their courses for free online. You never know what new information might be helpful in writing science fiction.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I can’t actually remember. It was a decision I made very, very early. I started writing when I was about eight. My friends and I used to play make believe on the playground at school. They played Dragon Ball Z, but were gracious enough to let me be Batman (I had no idea what Dragon Ball Z was at the time). Over time, my character took on new traits and a life of his own as I grew older and a shade more sophisticated. My friends all moved on, taking up football and the like. I wrote instead. I would start a novel, grow to hate it, and pitch it. Then I’d rework my ideas a bit and start over. Eventually, that became Empire of Silence, so in a sense I’ve been writing this story in some form or other since I was a child, though it has changed completely since those early days.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think that the explosion of the various kinds of stories and genres we’re experiencing has been wonderful and fascinating, but also a bit of a double-edged sword. It seems to me that fandom has fragmented into camps (along genre and ideological lines) and there’s very little communication between said camps, and that what communication there is seems mostly aimed at making things worse. I think that’s an absolute catastrophe and a real shame. We were all the weird, outcast kids in school. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.
As for my work, I shall say this: I abhor deconstruction. The postmodern obsession with subverting, deconstructing, or critiquing traditions in fiction (and in everything) is played out, in my view, and is often deliberately hurtful or mean-spirited. The Last Jedi deconstructed Luke Skywalker and critiqued the Jedi Order so badly that I can’t bring myself to watch it again. You don’t kick your fans like that. I want a story readers can believe in, a hero they can root for, even if he’s a little complicated and broken. Because complicated and broken isn’t the same as bad, which is the treatment too many antiheroes get these days. I want to reconstruct the hero narrative, because — in a certain sense — it’s true.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
Well, I just turned in the sequel to Empire of Silence, which I’m very, very excited about, and I’m launching into the outline for book three. Hadrian’s story is so big and complicated that I haven’t really stopped to look past it yet.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
In fiction, I just finished reading through Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, a grimdark manga series that is astonishingly good but very much not for the faint of heart. Now I’m working my way through Witchy Eye by my good friend D.J. Butler; a flintlock fantasy set in Jacksonian America. It has some of the best worldbuilding I’ve ever, ever seen, especially if you’re as fond of history as I am. Both get hearty recommendations from me!
In nonfiction, I’ve been picking my way through Jordan B. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, which is an attempt to marry Jungian depth psychology with modern biological science and evolutionary psychology. It’s truly groundbreaking stuff, and I’d recommend it to anyone trying to write epic fiction of any stripe.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. It’s a bit of a cult classic, but it won the Hugo in ‘61. It’s absolutely one of the finest pieces of prose ever produced in science fiction. It’s about a Catholic monastery that preserves a bunch of scientific documents and other literature through a nuclear holocaust, and about the slow rebirth of civilization in the American southwest. It’s part Fallout, part Name of the Rose, and utterly tragic in its beauty. If you like post-apocalyptic novels and Cold War nuclear paranoia, there is no finer book.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I don’t actually read very much! I can’t sit still long enough to read like I used to, so most of the reading I do is via audio book. It’s been that way since I was about 10 years old. I adore books as artifacts, but I cannot make the time to sit down with them. This has turned out to be to my advantage. I strongly believe that the key to good writing is that it must sound good, and so my preference for audio books has, I hope, made me a better writer. I also greatly prefer to reread books I enjoy than to try something new. Not that I don’t love new stories, but although I’ve read Tolkien dozens of times I find my appreciation for his work only deepens with closer examination.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
The release of Empire of Silence, for a start! It’s my first novel, and a big change in my life, and it’s bringing a lot of changes with it. I’ll be attending my first Worldcon in August and my third Dragon Con in September. There are a couple new Star Wars films to look forward to (or dread), and the Dark Souls remaster. But most of all, I’m looking forward to spending time with my girlfriend, who lives in Florida and whom I don’t get to see nearly enough.