This time around in Imitating Order, I got to have a killer conversation with one of the hardest working dudes in genre fiction: Christopher Ruz. He’s got a lot of good things to say about the current state of affairs in fiction, as well as life in general.
Matt: Where did the desire to tell stories come from? What was the moment that crystallized it all for you, and made you decide to pursue being an author? It’s a rough and sometimes ragged road, what keeps pushing you down it?
Christopher: I fell in love with storytelling when I was a kid, maybe only four years old. My parents would play the old BBC Radio adaptation of Lord of the Rings on long car rides, and the way the narrator transported tiny-me to Middle-Earth was something magical. I knew I wanted to tap into and understand that magic, and I started writing as soon as I knew how to hold a pen. I wrote my first short story when I was five – it was a retelling of Star Wars: A New Hope, typed on my Mum’s electric typewriter – and told my parents I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. So yeah, I knew from pretty early on.
Then again, I also told my folks I wanted to be a Transformer when I got older, so let’s not pretend that I had any damn idea what I was talking about.
I put dreams of writing aside for a long time when I was growing up, and didn’t really know it was the thing for me until I’d finished my first novel. I was 21 or so, and my first test readers told me I had something special happening. I think that reawakened all those childhood dreams. Now I’m turning 34 and I’m 14 novels in, and I don’t really know how to stop. You just have to do what you love or you start sinking.
M: How does genre fiction allow us to confront questions, and make us think about the world around us differently? Fantasy, sci-fi, outrageous supernatural horror. What do you think it is that makes people seek out the Other?
C: I think we love good genre fiction because it lures us in with something inherently fantastic – monsters, eldritch beasts, spaceships, war, AIs, broken universes – and then, once it has us hooked, dives into very relateable stories of how folk deal with that sort of strangeness. Personally, I don’t care about weird stuff in a book. I want to imagine how I would react to that weird stuff, how I’d survive in a universe of weirdness, and I want to live that experience through characters. It’s something very fundamental inside us. We don’t see “Here be dragons” and say, okay, dragons over there, me over here, that’s fine. We want to go discover the dragons. Make friends with them. Ride them into battle.
I think we all have a drive to discover and create, and these days we’re being given precious few opportunities to do either. So genre fiction lets us live that moment of discovery, to find and interpret something Other for just one moment, and to find a human connection with someone else – even a fictional someone – interpreting and dealing with that Other.
It also lets us take confronting or even dangerous issues and put an inhuman face on them. That’s a tricky thing, detaching real world issues from real world humanity. But sometimes that’s what we need to do to find a solution to those issues, or at least come to terms with them in a way that makes sense to us as individuals.
M: You’re also a teacher. That’s more of a vocation than a career, much like writing. Where’d that come from? And how do you find the time to make it all work together, how do you choreograph the two things?
C: I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher until I was sort of shoved into it by a friend who was starting an art tutoring business. I was an artist, he needed warm bodies, so I put my hand up. Didn’t take me long to realize I loved it, so I went back to university for the third time and got my teaching qualifications. You’re right, it’s more a calling than a career. You can’t teach well if you don’t live and breathe it. People who just want to tick boxes and go home at the end of the day burn out fast. Hell, even people who have a passion for it, like me, are often on the edge of burnout.
Time is tricky as a teacher. It’s an incredibly demanding job that quickly eats your whole life if you’re not careful. I regularly do 80 hour weeks, 90 hour weeks, and I’m only part time. So you have to find the tiny moments where you can hide from the outside world and smash out a couple hundred words. You have to wall yourself off and guard those moments jealously. It’s not always healthy.
M: What are big inspirations for you right now in your work? Not just stories and authors and such, but what are you pulling from life as well? How much of your life informs your books, how much of yourself hides in the pages?
C: I put a lot of my career and experiences as a teacher into The Ragged Blade and its sequels. I’m not a father myself, but as a teacher I’m asked to guide, uplift and protect hundreds of children every day, children to whom I’m an authoritarian stranger. Richard in The Ragged Blade is in the same position, and many of his struggles, failures and successes are actually mine.
When it comes to broader themes, I’m increasingly researching and writing about social and global politics. When I began writing the Century of Sand trilogy, it was a very simple A to B adventure. Now, given the chance to rework it with Parvus Press, it’s becoming more of a discussion of colonialism, generational trauma and the necessity for reparations. My current fantasy WIP, Her Flesh Most Holy And Incandescent, is a queer love story about priests and monsters, but it’s also all about a hermit kingdom being crushed in a race for weapons of mass destruction.
M: Fiction is evolving at an alarming rate. More outlandish fantasy, more extreme horror. Lots of exploring the frontiers of what a genre even is. Are genres simply things to be smashed together and teased into new and interesting shapes?
C: Fixed genres are a simple way to classify books on a shelf, but I’ve gotta be honest – I don’t get the way we divide books into crime, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, like The Fifth Season and Harry Potter share some basic DNA. When I think of my books, and how I want to write and read, I think of mood, theme, message, structure. Like, The Ragged Blade is technically a fantasy – it’s got magicians and demons and the risen dead and all that good stuff – but it’s also a road trip novel, and a novel about chasing the slimmest of hopes, and about surviving toxic relationships and struggling as a father. When someone talks about TRB to a friend, I’d rather they mention all that than call it fantasy.
Maybe that makes me a wanker. But yeah, I want more genre mashups. I want people to take existing genres and crush them together. I want people to question the shape of genre. Get inspired by it, but then take it in a new direction. Not necessarily more extreme, but maybe… riskier? More experimental. Treat genre like salad dressing for the human stories underneath.
M: Let’s play a few games of What If? What if you had a time machine, but you could only use it to go back in time and ask one person one question. Anyone, from any time. Who is it, what’s the question?
C: I would go back to ’99 and meet my brother, Justin. I’d ask him if he was okay and whether there was anything I could do to help.
M: What If, round two. What if you were given free reign to adapt one of your books into another format? Unlimited funds. Which book, and what would you do with it? Netflix series, big screen, maybe graphic novel?
C: I’d love to give my horror series Rust the Netflix treatment. It’s a small-town cosmic monster mystery set in the 80’s, with a large cast of misfits trapped in a shitty little town, banding together to fight inter-dimensional creatures. I didn’t think it would work in any format but prose, but then Stranger Things came along while I was halfway through writing Rust Four and showed me it could be done.
M: What are you digging into right now? What’s keeping the creative fires burning, the things you’re consuming? What are two recommendations you could give people?
C: I’m chewing through a couple great reads at the moment. The Void Witch saga by Corey White and the Orphancorp Trilogy by Marlee Ward are amazing cyberpunk/scifi/dystopian novellas, but they’re also critiques of modern capitalism and they’re super body-positive and queer-positive, and they’re dark on the outside but hopeful on the inside, so I love them to bits. I’m catching up on The Magicians and it’s breaking my heart continuously, so that’s my number one recommendation for TV at the moment. As for comics and graphic novels, I just picked up Monstress Vol. 3 by Marjorie Liu. It’s bloody brilliant.
That’s more than two, sorry.
M: Last but not least, I’d like to give you a little bit of a platform to do two things with. First, what’s something of yours that you’d like to get in front of people? Something you’re proud and excited about. And part two, what’s something of someone else’s that you think more people should know about?
C: Okay, so I launched The Ragged Blade just a few weeks ago and I’d love for everyone to check it out. It’s my debut trad-pub novel, and my editor pitches it as ‘bi dude and his daughter run away from clingy wizard boyfriend who chases them across a desert with his zombie pupper’.” It’s the first in a trilogy and it’s been brewing for almost twelve years, so I can’t wait for more folk to discover Richard and Ana’s journey into the desert wastes, and all the warlords and demons and monsters and heroes they encounter along the way.
I also recommend 100% that everyone grabs We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson. It’s a big old multi-POV fantasy war epic with all the intrigue and politicking and backstabbing that implies, and I had a ton of fun with it recently.