One of the fringe benefits of doing reviews is that if I come across a book that I really like, I may have the chance to speak to the author and do a little information gathering from a fan’s perspective. So, I’m going to kick off a series of “book-based” interviews with Christopher Ruz, author of the recently-reviewed Century of Sand. Christopher is in Australia and I’m on the East Coast of the USA, but thanks to the wonders of Skype we were able to talk in real time and inject a little spontaneity into the proceedings.
Warning: as the title states, this interview contains many spoilers for Century of Sand. So, you’d better hurry up and finish it before you read onward…
Will Weisser/The Metanautics Department: I know you got the idea for the Ant Tower [the short story that developed into Century of Sand] from a dream that took place in a desert. You live in Australia, which is mostly desert, on a scale that is almost hard to comprehend. But when I read the book, I got more of a Middle Eastern or North African vibe. Were you going for a particular aesthetic? Did living near the Outback influence you at all?
Christopher Ruz: Initially when I first had that really weird dream that had the Ant Tower in it, I’m pretty sure it was an Australian setting. You know, the long, flat, dusty plains. But when I actually started to put it into a story, it’s not as simple as just transcribing the dream. I had a central image but no structure around it, so I started to try and find an appropriate setting and place. You were right when you said North Africa, because the first setting that really grabbed me was more of a Roman era sort of piece. As the legions were coming down the land bridge into North Africa, that sort of transition from civilization to this unexplored wild land. It ended up becoming more of a pure fantasy, and Rome and Africa kind of fell by the wayside, but that was the aesthetic that remained.
That’s exactly the type of info I was hoping for; I never made a connection between Richard’s Kingdom and Rome.
It was much more obvious in early drafts of the Ant Tower that they were Roman legions encountering Moors; they were carrying Gladiuses and all this different Roman equipment and such. But I found it didn’t really sit well with test readers. They were saying, “well, you’ve researched some parts but not enough, and unless you put another year or so into reading books on Roman history, it’s just not going to make any sense.” So I said screw it, I’ll throw away all the Roman stuff and create my own roughly equivalent world where no one will be able to complain about historical inaccuracy. And I think the story was stronger for it.
What made you decide to make Parkin and the Magician lovers?
I’ll be honest: it was a complete mistake. Not that I regret it, but it was an accident how it came about. Again, I was working on an early draft of the Ant Tower. I can’t remember the exact line, but I think I was trying to describe Parkin being terrified of the Magician. I think I wrote that he got this weird chill, ‘in his gut and in his groin.’ And I looked at the line, you know, in his groin, and I thought wait a minute, that could be misinterpreted. Then I thought, wait a minute, that would make the story so much more interesting if there was a completely different dynamic between these characters. Fear, but also some sort of attraction. And then I thought, well, why not, If the characters flow in that direction and that’s the way the story rolls, and if it’s stronger for it. So, I threw out a whole lot of stuff I’d written previously and I re-wrote it with that in mind, and people really responded well to it. But yeah, it was literally a one-line accident that ballooned and took over the story, and I’m happy it worked.
In a way it’s effective because it doesn’t take over the story. But it’s amazing the type of stuff you can get by accident; do you find that to be true?
Yeah, absolutely, which is why when I write my process is far more on the side of spontaneity. I don’t plan much, at least in the early states. I just kind of write and see what comes out, and that means I produce a lot of crap which I have to delete later. But you find those small kind of gems that let you spin an entire story off of a paragraph.
Almost more like treasure hunting than editing.
That is how it feels, especially in the really early drafts. I write really fast and I don’t edit much as I go along. I don’t know if you’ve seen it up on my blog, but I had some scans of some pages that I had gone over with my red pen…
No, I didn’t see.
Ah. Well, in my second draft there was maybe 10% of the original story left, and then I re-write from scratch, just building around those, like you said, treasured moments or really great lines.
That sounds really time consuming! I want to talk about that in a bit, but first I wanted to ask about Ini’s fortress. So you have these characters, they’re on a quest to reach this tower, and finally after many trials they reach it, only to find that someone has gone and built a giant fortress around it and set up a whole religion. What gave you the idea to do that?
I really enjoy the study of religions and the way they compare and how they form; how tiny fragments of legend expand through retelling. I love the concept of how an entire religion or culture can form around a mote of legend. A part of the landscape can become a holy site, just through a few generations of stories being twisted and twisted, and suddenly a statue in a lake has turned into a holy relic. So in the original draft, they turned up at the tower and it was empty. They knock on the tower, ‘demon are you there?’, nothing there, then they walked on and that was the end of the story. And I was looking at it going, “this is the worst, this is the most disappointing ending, I can’t write this.” So I went back to those studies of how religions form. Forty years earlier this was a terrifying place, but how much does it take to tip a sort of…what would you call it, a stained place, a cursed area, into a worshiped area? All you need is one person with the right number of followers and the right sort of rhetoric to completely twist that around. That just seemed like a totally brilliant idea, so I scrapped the last third of the book, feeling very proud of myself, and rewrote it all from scratch. And I think it worked out all right; at least I injected a whole lot of conflict into the story that wasn’t there in the early draft at all.
You’ve written that you made a map in the process of writing the book, but there’s no map in the book itself. Is there a plan to release that at some point, maybe with the sequel?
I’d like to release the map. The problem is right now it’s drawn on a giant piece of paper that I got out of one of my old design sketchbooks, and it’s really janky, you know, it’s all ballpoint pen that’s been smeared out. It works for me, I can reference where everything is, but it looks hideous. I’d like to redo it and maybe print it out on nice paper, burn the edges with a lighter and dip it in tea…
[laughs] Well we do have Photoshop. Might be a little unnecessary.
Yeah, you gotta go the extra length. I’d like to release a proper map, so everything fits together. But on the other hand, I kind of like the idea of not actually showing a map to anybody until the last page of the third book. So, you’ve got this really long journey, but the geography and timescales are a complete mystery, and only when the entire thing is done, you turn the last page and there you’ve got the whole map laid out.
That’s really interesting. Why wait? Usually it’s right up at the front.
There’s a number of reasons. Richard and Ana, when they’re traveling, I like the fact that they don’t really know where they’re going; I get the feeling they’re filling in a lot of the details as they go. I guess I could include, at the start of each book, the component of the map that Richard has. But to include the whole thing ruins the mystery of what’s up ahead. I don’t want readers going, “oh I can’t wait for them to visit this place, or cross this particular mountain.” I’d like it to always be surprising. Going back to when I was a kid, I remember reading Lord of the Rings. You read those three books, and the third book finishes and they return back to the Shire, and it’s only at that point that you realize the books take place over a year and a half or two years. You don’t understand the scale of what they’ve done until you’re at the final page. It really hit me as a kid, like woah, they didn’t just skip across town to Mordor; this was their lives. It was a huge journey that doesn’t really impact you until you hit that last page. Maybe I could try to have that same sort of impact on my readers. Or, maybe I’m just being a wanker…
Heh. So as far as the next book goes, what state is it in now?
Books two and three are in various states. Book two I’ve got a complete draft written out; I had that done a full year ago, and I put it down while I was trying to get book one traditionally published, which didn’t work out. So now I’ve gone back and I’ve got book two all printed out. Scribbling all over this stuff…[he shows me a page on the camera]
I see, yeah. Wow.
So, I’m taking out all those marks. You can see I’m not keeping much, actually. That’s about how much survives.
Looks like about…one half of a paragraph on that page.
That bit survives, everything else is gone. So there’s some reasonably big sections being re-written, not just fine tuning. I’m aiming to have it done by the end of the year. I’d like to have had it done by October, but life got in the way. And other projects.
I know the feeling.
Yeah. And book three is 60,000 words done, out of about 140. But that’s also a very, very early draft.
Speaking of the second book, and you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but with Richard and the Kabbah headed to Reason, should we expect the Priest to make a re-appearance, given his connections to that city?
I’ll throw that out there. He was not as major a character as the Kabbah or the Magician or Richard, but he hasn’t just been thrown away. He comes back again, as a sort of semi-antagonist; that’s where I’ll leave that.
Great. There was a scrap of paper in the chest that Richard found. You don’t reveal the nature of that paper in book one, right?
Right. That will be up pretty early in the second book; I won’t tease it for too long. But right now they’ve just got more pressing concerns.
Right, of course. Ana is one of my favorite characters, which is kind of strange, because she says so little, especially in the first three-quarters of the book. But it seems like you did a great job getting her personality across despite that. Now that she’s changing, and we’ve spent so much time dealing with Richard and his issues, are you trying to focus more on her going forward?
I’ve got a reasonably clear arc planned out for her. I am trying to bring her more into the foreground because you’re right, in the early sections of book one she was almost like an object or a MacGuffin that Richard had to drag along with him through the desert, and then she slowly came into her own right. I’d like to continue expanding that; not so much push Richard aside and make Ana the main character, but bring their clashing relationship to the forefront. Richard is essentially being forced to go through sixteen or seventeen years of raising a girl in the space of six months, as she’s accelerating and learning so quickly. So it’s going to be even more about his struggles as a father, as well as his struggles to survive.
With all the re-writes you do, how sick were you of reading Century of Sand by the time you were done? I mean, it’s a long book.
You get to the point where you can flick to a page and actually read it off with your eyes closed; it’s the worst feeling. On the other hand, it’s actually good because you know you’ve done something right when you can pick up your book after three months off and re-read it and actually enjoy it. So the first three drafts I was reading going “oh, God, why.” It’s painful, terrible. But by the time I got to the last draft, I was doing the final proofreading and actually getting into my own story. If I’m enjoying reading this stuff for the seventh or eighth time, something’s finally going right. It’s time to publish!
A big thank you goes out to Christopher Ruz for doing this interview. Make sure to follow his blog for more news about his work.