Inklings Press has a chat with Christopher Ruz, author of the Rust books
and the A Century of Sand fantasy series.
Hi, Christopher Ruz – or Ruzkin as visitors to your website or on Twitter might know you – and welcome to the blog. I first encountered your material through your Twitter account but some of our readers may not be familiar with your work. I'd pitch your Ruzkin work as down the street from Stephen King, on speaking terms with James Herbert, playing with the neighbourhood kids from the Addams Family... but how do you describe your writing?
It's obviously bearing fruit – though with an awful lot of hard work as anyone following you on Twitter I'm sure will attest! You say on your website that thanks to that work, you're managing to make a living out of your ebook sales – I'm sure there's many, but what have been the toughest challenges you've faced getting to this point?
I've never had a problem with putting words on the page: I've self-published and sold about 15 novels worth of material in the past five years, and I'm proud of all of it. On the other hand, promoting myself has been a difficult... no, almost impossible task. Like many writers, I'm insecure about my work and have a lot of trouble spreading the word about what I do. Every new reader gained is a massive achievement. Then again, those readers tend to stay hooked for life, so I must be doing something right!
And the best benefits? What has been the biggest upshot from it?
The best part of being a self-published author in the age of social media is being able to directly interact with fans, and being able to use their feedback and advice immediately without having to go through the middle-man of an agent or publisher. I work directly for the people who love my books, and I couldn't think of anything more satisfying.
For readers looking to get on board with your material, where's the best place for them to start?
You get to press one of your works into someone's hand, which one is it, and why?
Century of Sand, without a doubt. It's been the most difficult series to write for me, but by far the most rewarding. It's a fantasy in the vein of Gene Wolfe that follows a father and daughter on a life-or-death journey across a vast, untamed desert, chased the whole way by a sociopath Magician and his undead tracking dog.
Gene Wolfe! Now there's a name well worth checking! Is that the book that is your personal favourite, too? If so, what gives it that personal connection?
Century of Sand was my fourth novel (I'm now polishing number 11), but the first time I felt like a true writer in terms of pushing my craft to a professional standard. It's also the story with the strongest emotional core. The crushing fear of losing your family, and the lengths a parent will go to to protect their child, is at the heart of Century of Sand, and I think it resonates most strongly with readers, and myself as a teacher.
Which authors would you say are your biggest influences? Or perhaps artists – I asked a previous Q&A participant this only for them to switch to movie influences!
I take influence from so many places! In terms of story construction and depth of lore, there's nobody greater than Gene Wolfe. He's a true gem. David Lynch and Philip K Dick are also huge factors in my style - I love their off-kilter pacing, the way they construct scenes either through prose or film that leave you feeling one step removed from reality. Finally, props to Kathe Koja, who injects pure horror into some of the most mundane situations. Her book The Cipher left me sweating.
The first piece of your work I read was the first episode of Rust, which then you were publishing in a serial format. In one of our previous chats, with Renee Scattergood, that's the format she's been working with, essentially creating a TV series of stories, but with Rust, you had a rethink. It's a bold step to shake things up in progress, what prompted you to make that move, and what wasn't working with Rust?
Put simply, I listened to readers. They said they weren't enjoying buying shorter episodes of the serial, even if each 'episode' was closer to a novella in length. They wanted something hefty, an entire novel with no pauses. Sales stats showed me the same: nobody wanted the episodes. People only bought the collected omnibuses. So, as much as I loved the serial format, I took the opportunity to recraft my series and give fans what they were asking for. I think it was the right move: nobody has ever asked me to bring back the episodes.
I think the rejig works with Rust. I found myself put off a little actually after reading the first episode, if you don't mind me saying so, and it's for one reason. It was a short excerpt, something like four chapters if I recall, and while the writing was deliciously menacing, it hopped around several characters in those chapters. At the end, you didn't really know who to root for, particularly as not all those viewpoint characters made it out of the first episode alive! Does the longer format Rust open up the format, so you're not constrained by having to hook readers in so quickly, and how does that shift your writing style?
Not writing in a serial format has allowed me to play a longer game. There's a real pleasure in developing larger, more satisfying arcs and more deliberately paced scenes that I couldn't do when Rust was a rapid-fire serial. I'm really enjoying getting to draw out the tension and deliver bigger payoffs as a result. But still, the serial format gave the first two Rust novels a real page-turner tempo, so I don't regret the initial experiment.
Sticking with Rust for just one last question – and I should mention to readers here that there is already a Rust 2 and... Rust 3 soon or is that published already? But anyway the question is about the covers. The cover of Rust, above, is a top notch, spooky cover that's a little bit Wicker Man, a little bit Don't Look Now which I understand is your own design work? But that's not how the cover started out a while back, when it had more hand-drawn appearance, with buildings curving in around our heroine. What instigated the re-design process and what was your thinking behind the final crafted image?
You're right, Rust 2 is out and Rust 3 will hopefully hit Amazon before Christmas. I'm really glad you like the new covers; they're all my own work, which really stretched my design skills, but the end result was damn satisfying. The previous, illustrated covers were commissioned from Helen Pinkney, an exceedingly talented artist whose work ticked all the boxes... but readers didn't like it. The feedback I got over and over was that it made Rust appear to be a graphic novel, that the art simply didn't reflect the content, so even though it was a shame to say goodbye to illustrations I loved, the market had spoken.
In redesigning the covers, I tried to avoid the cliche I've seen in many horror works of splashing the page with blood and spooky fonts. Instead I worked toward more evocative images, something with an air of mystery and metaphor, which better reflects the stories. Sure, there's more than enough gore and guts in Rust to go around, but the heart of the story is a mystery that's somewhere between David Lynch and Philip K. Dick. I'm really happy with how they turned out.
OK, moving on to your other works – Century of Sand is your fantasy novel, while The Eighteen Revenges of Doctor Milan sounds like a title Michael Moorcock would have been proud of. Tell us a little about those.
I've mentioned Century of Sand briefly before, but I'll sum it up: RIchard, an old soldier, rescues his daughter from the hands of a mad magician and flees with her across the border into a vast and untamed desert. It's a trilogy in the making (one book left!) that's almost a road-trip novel, following Richard and Ana as they battle demons wearing human skin, hook up with a deposed desert warlord, battle monstrous creatures in the heart of a canyon, cause a revolution... all while being chased by the magician and his undead, stitched together tracking dog. The third novel will hopefully be ready to launch in 2016!
The Eighteen Revenges of Doctor Milan is, as you thought, a homage to the classic 60s and 70s scifi I grew up reading. It's a revenge tale set in a prison on a distant mining colony, lashed through with Buddhist philosophy, alien intelligences, reality swapping, and a healthy dose of ultraviolence. It began as an experiment but became one of my favourite pieces. It's also just fun to do novella length, stand-alone pieces that wouldn't have any place in a traditional fiction market.
I'll briefly mention you also write a fanfiction of X-Com on your site – which I promise I'll read if you promise you'll join me to campaign for an X-Com mod featuring the Stargate SG-1 team – but also that you write pulp spy books under a pseudonym of DD Marks. I'm starting out on the process of writing with all my writing under a single pseudonym, how much of a challenge do you find it trying to drive sales of books under two different identities?
Very difficult. As far as I can tell, sales from one pseudonym don't bleed into the other, which is a shame because I'm very proud of the work I do as both Christopher Ruz and D. D. Marks. As such, publishing under two names means twice the self promotion - twice the time, twice the money. Honestly, self publishing and promotion is a full-time occupation with just a single pseudonym, so I'd advise other self-pubbers to think very seriously before trying it.
Two last questions – the first, if you could look back and advise yourself a couple of years ago, what would you say is the most productive tip you could pass along?
Focus on one project at a time. Sure, you can smash through a draft of a book, put it aside to germinate, and write another in the meantime, but don't try to write two first drafts at once, or split your editing time between multiple projects. Your output will be higher and of better quality if you can concentrate on making one book the best it can be before moving on.
And lastly, what book are you reading at the moment, and what is your favourite book this year? That may be two questions – if so, we're totally cheating.
I'm reading Chuck Wendig's Zeroes at the moment - I'm on a real Wendig kick at the moment, but as soon as I'm done I'm going to reread one of my old favourites, Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. The best book of 2015 is, no question, S.A. Hunt's Malus Domestica. It's a modern horror story about witch hunting in the south, and it's goddamn terrifying.
Christopher Ruz, many thanks.