This week I am thrilled to share an interview with Nat Russo, author of Necromancer Awakening and The Road To Dar Rodon, as well as a fantastic blog on the writing process. He has a lot of great insights to share about incorporating your life experiences into your fiction, switching genres, and finding time to write. I’m sure you’re going to love it!
1.So far, you have written within one genre (fantasy). Do you think it is difficult for an author to move between genres? Does it hurt their brand or do you feel readers are more tied to the author himself, rather than the genre?
I don't believe it's difficult for writers. I think it's difficult for publishers, mostly for marketing reasons. It's similar, in a sense, to actors being typecast. Once a publisher (or book store) pigeonholes a writer, it can be difficult to market that writer to a different audience. But this problem exists because of outmoded marketing techniques (often boiling down to the question, where do we place this physical object in a store among other physical objects?) Today's publishing landscape is quite different than it was ten or twenty years ago. With the advent of digital distribution, the writer can categorize their work by way of keywords, and the digital distributors handle the "placement" of the book.
As far as branding is concerned, it can hurt the author's brand if they don't understand their brand. For example, "Nat Russo" is known as a metaphysical and visionary fantasy author. If "Nat Russo" started publishing erotica, that could be problematic. But if "N.A. Russo" published that same erotica, there'd be instant brand separation.
I suspect readers think about genre and author names a lot less frequently than writers do. As an industry, we know very little about book marketing. There's a famous saying: "We know that 50 percent of marketing works. We just don't know which 50 percent." Yes, there is some genre loyalty and author loyalty. But book sellers know there is one factor that sells far more books than any other: word of mouth. I'll try a new author and genre today if a trusted friend convinces me.
2. Writers are often told to "write what you know." How do you do this when writing fantasy or sci-fi, which is so far out of the realm of everyday existence?
At the end of the day, we're writing about people. Whether it's alien people or Earth people, they're people. It's a common misconception that "write what you know" is speaking about factual information. But if that were true, there'd be very few stories about serial killers and psychopaths. And we'd have virtually no stories about wizards and magicians. Speculative fiction allows the writer to shine a light on real-world issues by presenting them in hypothetical, often fantastic settings. It's those elements of the "real world" that oft-repeated phrase is talking about.
I write about necromancers in a world where feline warrior-monks ride six-legged lions, and gods walk and speak among people. Priests raise the dead from ancient graves to fight a war that spans life and afterlife. Spiders the size of minivans do battle with bat-like flying predators who use sonic weapons to disable their prey. I have no idea what any of that's like, beyond what I can imagine. But I do know what it's like to be victimized by abuse of authority. I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of psychological abuse, and I know what it's like to feel like a fish out of water. I know what it's like to live in a society where persecution and racism run rampant. And I know what it's like to live in a world where evil presents itself as good, and true good is often veiled behind façades we fear and misunderstand. The necromancers, six-legged lions, and giant spiders are the devices that allow me to draw the reader in by sleight of hand. And in so doing, it allows me to present a world where the heroes fight against those evils and prevail, often at the cost of great personal sacrifice. We often can't see our own faults until someone holds up a mirror. For me, speculative fiction is that mirror.
3. You have worked in a lot of different fields (seminarian, police officer, software engineer, writer) and lived in many different places. How important do you think this wide experience is in making you a good writer (i.e., giving you lots to mine for story ideas, character development ideas, etc.)? Any advice for authors without your varied history on making their fiction richer?
This plays into the "write what you know" proverb. That wide array of experiences is what gives me the first-hand knowledge of the evils I write about. So, in my case, I'm very grateful for having lived them. There's a saying I heard recently: "Young writers write what they've read, old writers write what they've lived." I think this is true, and I think both paradigms are valid ways of approaching the craft. Whether the experience is real-world or purely intellectual, what's most important is how the writer distils and synthesizes those experiences into character and story.
I think passion is the most important attribute a writer can have. My advice to new writers is find what drives your passion and mold it into words on the page. Writing a novel is a process that, for many fantasy writers, takes more than a year to complete. It's passion that's going to give you the tenacity to hang on when things aren't working. It's passion that will drive you to fill the gaps in your knowledge and experience. And it's passion that will crack the whip over and over while you continuously improve your craft.
And while you're out there, filling those gaps and hanging on for dear life, be a sponge. Absorb everything! Don't be afraid to listen in on the conversation in the booth behind you at a restaurant. That's how you'll study the way in which real conversation ebbs and flows. Don't be afraid to stare an extra minute or two at that storm cloud. And while you're staring, describe the cloud and everything else you're seeing in the voice and words of one of your characters. You might not know what it's like to be the religious leader of that fictional religion you're writing about. But I'm willing to bet you know what it's like to work with people you don't get along with. You probably know what it's like to be in danger of missing a critical deadline. And if you're mostly human, you've probably done a thing or two you later regretted. Capture those feelings and draw from them in your stories. What you may lack in experience, you'll more than make up for in passion!
4. As a writer with a full-time job and a family, writing time must be hard to come by. Do you make time to write every day? Do you have a specific writing schedule (e.g., write every night at 9 p.m.) or do you fit it in when you can?
It can be a challenge to find time, but I have two things going for me. First, I have an understanding wife and family who know I need the time. Second, my day job is only a couple of miles from my house. So I can often come home at lunch and get a little writing in then. Regardless of the specifics, I try to find time every day to write. This is a must when I'm in the middle of a project. I'll usually write from about 5:30–9 p.m. on weekdays. On weekends, I try to write from the time I get up until the time I go to bed, except on days we make family plans.
Nat Russo was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.
Along the way, he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.
He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenage son, and mischievous beagle.