Author Spotlight – Christopher Russell
Christopher Russell (native of Williamsburg, VA) is a 27-year-old mechanical and aerospace engineer (graduate of the University of Virginia) who has loved reading since the day he picked up a book and writing since he could scrawl his first letters. After voraciously consuming titles from every genre—ranging from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings—he decided to combine the expertise from his professional education, passions, and Christian faith into a fantasy epic bridging the gap between magic and science. He currently resides in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his loyal dog, Vallen, named after the protagonist of his first work. For behind-the-scenes information on all of Christopher Russell’s works, visit christopherrussellauthor.com.
Welcome to the Hive, Christopher Russell. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
Wow! Contrary to your assertion, this question is incredibly difficult to answer. Who could pick just one great fantasy book to hold above all the rest?
However, if pressed, I have to say that the best novel I’ve (re)read recently was Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson, the third entry in his epic Stormlight Archive series. I did this as part of my Sanderfan obligations – read the fine print on the 17th Shard – in order to get ready for the Rhythm of War release this November.
Why is Oathbringer amazing? Without getting into spoilers, I can say that Dalinar, the focal POV for the novel, is the most nuanced character I’ve ever read. Too often we get heroes who were once “bad,” but now they’re “good” – and they’re going to stay good for the rest of the series. Yet what if we had a morally grey character who merely hid their atrocities, even from themselves? How would uncovering their past affect the person they’ve become? Their sense of right and wrong? Their relationships with others? Sanderson does a brilliant job examining these themes through Dalinar, so I have to give him the nod for my best recent read.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Crusader with a sword of undead smiting raised to whatever plus value I can get with the gold I have on hand. Dungeons are notorious for hiding crypts, and crypts are bound to be infested with hordes of skeletons, zombies, liches, and the like. When the noxious dead need to be put back in their shallow graves, nothing beats a tank with holy magics.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?) Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
As with most writers, I imagine my process combines a bunch of seemingly incongruous elements.
To prepare, I listen to videos on writing, BookTube reviews, or music appropriate to whatever kind of scene I’m about to dive into. Somber and melancholic for tragedy; bold and dynamic for action sequences; spunky and dissonant for comedy and oddball character interactions. Two Steps from Hell is my go to for these pieces 90% of the time.
Then, once I’m in the proper frame of mind, I settle down at a desktop keyboard with an overlarge monitor – a TV at least twice the size of what most people would consider reasonable. For some reason, this helps me take in a page. I imagine it has something to do with not having to squint despite my poor eyesight.
I am an unabashed gardener/panster/discovery writer. Well, that’s not quite true. I desperately want to be an architect, but find that if I know more than the five critical plot points I need to hit on the way to my finale, I lose most of my motivation. I want to feel the same surprise that my characters do when someone unexpectedly betrays them, or a monster lurches out of the depths to confront them. I want their fear to clutch at my heart, for my breath to come in short, ragged gasps. When I’m on the adventure with my creations, the story beats are always stronger for the fact that I deigned to join them in their world. And at the death knell, when the revision reaper inevitably comes calling, you can go back into your manuscript and make everything neat and tidy so that your head – your story – might remain attached.
However, I’m currently taking steps to broaden my skill-set. The writer that doesn’t try to improve their craft is one that will never advance past where they are now. So, while I’m unwilling to disclose details at this time, I am approaching a new single entry Asian Fantasy WIP as an architect would: designing the magic system in advance, plotting each chapter and part ahead of time, sketching the character arcs, etc. I’m sure my discovery roots will burst forth at some point, but only to improve the final product.
I write bare-footed in a pair of sweatpants and one of three University of Virginia football T-shirts that rotate through the wash on a regular basis. Weird, eccentric, and eclectic garb, just as a writer should wear.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Most fantasy writers are voracious readers, and therefore their influences can be counted in the number of books they have read. But even more than that, a tiny bit of everything I’ve read, seen, learned, or experienced has found its way into my writing – either consciously or unconsciously.
This answer is, of course, a pithy cop-out. My apologies to the interviewer; I shan’t derail the conversation again.
Brian Jacques is the earliest fantasy author whose work I consumed. His anthropomorphic heroes and villains were delightful, his medieval world deep and storied, and his feasts a source of much salivation. I think my love of detailed prose grew from rereading his Redwall series over and over again.
Tolkien, practically required reading for any aspiring fantasy author, was my next stop. His brush strokes represent a manifesto on world-building, and I was more than happy to take notes.
I’ve also read almost every Star Wars book in existence. Grand Admiral Thrawn is my favorite character, Palpatine was working for the good of the galaxy, and the Jedi deserved to be cast down for their hubris. Okay. Only one of those is true, maybe one and a half. I’ll let you sort out which.
However, the series that convinced me to write my own epic was Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s not that his storytelling, formulated around humans who bore the traits of insect ancestors, did anything that hadn’t been seen before. Rather, its execution of mundane concepts like espionage, technology, politics, military maneuvering, and other hallmarks of a fantasy war was outstanding. I won’t spoil any specifics, but Tchaikovsky examines the consequences of innovations and extrapolates them out to every other aspect of society and culture – which is, in my opinion, the crux of fantastic worldbuilding. Start small, change one thing, and figure out how it dominoes into every adjoining thread.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that my dream collaboration would be with Brandon Sanderson. Though Divinity’s Twilight was already out for queries when I first picked up a Cosmere book in 2019, I find the overlap in our approach to worldbuilding and mythology to be considerable. Mind that this is like a filthy cobblestone staring up at a pristine marble statue and thinking they have kinship because they’re both, on some level, rock. Yet once I hone my craft and get to the point where my hard magic systems are as well-defined as his, then I’d be delighted to work alongside him.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
Both of these questions are right up my alley, so I’ll answer them both in turn. I’m presently on a “Viking” binge, having just finished the eponymous Viking show on Amazon Prime before moving to The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I find the latter more enjoyable than the former, primarily for its historical accuracy and the fact that it was drawn from source material by Bernard Cornwell, the king of historical fiction. Beyond simple enjoyment, there’s a yet to be introduced culture in Divinity’s Twilight that will have Scandinavian roots, so taking an entertaining look at their martial past counts as research . . . I think . . .
It might throw readers for a loop, but I’m a fan of most genres of games. Chief among these are RPGs – story driven adventures like Final Fantasy, Witcher, and Dark Souls – and strategy games like Total War: Three Kingdoms. Though I haven’t had much time to play, I’ve been working on a Three Kingdoms campaign as the Han Dynasty circa 184 AD, which is when the empire began to collapse into the chaos that preceded the Three Kingdoms era. I once again claim this indulgence as research, since the Han court may play a role in that Asian Fantasy WIP I mentioned earlier.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I should spend it working on networking and marketing, but that seems a little too much like work, so we’ll forego that misery.
Instead, I’d wake up at the crack of 10 AM, shamble slowly through consuming a small snack and some water, then head out for a five-mile jog. To most, exercise is also work, but I can forgive myself for a lack of productivity if I wear myself out first thing in the morning. Breakfast consists of a blend of various yogurts and granola consumed in front of the computer, on which I’ll either be watching shows or playing games. I will contentedly spend the rest of the day in this manner unless I decide to break for reading. As a binge reader, I will dedicate all my free time to reading a series until I finish it, whereupon I’ll switch back to digital entertainment until I select a new series. An ideal dinner consists of stir-fried rice with a selection of meats and veggies blended in. As I cannot eat without visual stimulation – do normal people really talk while they eat? – this meal would also be enjoyed in front of my computer.
In this way, I will endeavor to accomplish absolutely nothing of value on my day off from writing.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
Divinity’s Twilight: Rebirth is the first entry in my epic Divinity’s Twilight series. These books take place on the war-torn world of Lozaria, home to seven distinct races and the deities that spawned them. However, these gods, the Veneer, have departed for planes unknown, leaving mortals to fend for themselves. The result is as expected: chaos, destruction, and despair.
Seven centuries after the Battle of Har’muth, a conflict between the races that nearly eradicated life on Lozaria by splitting the fabric of existence, a cold war simmers on the continent . . . a stalemate that is about to be broken by an ancient evil that isn’t buried as deeply as everyone believes. Now a band of unsuspecting heroes will have to rectify the mistakes of the past and, in doing so, shoulder a cosmic struggle two millennia in the making.
The novels follow both these protagonists and a cast of morally grey antagonists, all with sympathetic motivations, all with ambitions they wish to see realized. Some would doom Lozaria; others would see it saved. Most lie somewhere on the spectrum in between, and loyalties are not always what they seem.
Three books, of which Rebirth is the first, have been drafted. Since the story continues beyond that point, it is likely that the series will be at least six books long. Fortunately, I’m a prolific writer, so I don’t envision great delays between books and other projects will be mixed in along the way.
Working Title: ??? (Asian Fantasy): This is an architect style single entry novel intended to take place in the same universe as Divinity’s Twilight. What that entails is spoilers, as are information related to its plot, characters, and setting. I can tell you it will have a hard magic system based on real-world principles – specifically those I’ve picked up during my years of engineering study. It will also feature an expanded emphasis on martial arts, courtesy of my years of training in Songahm Taekwondo, in which I hold a third-degree black belt. I expect to have this project completed by the end of 2020.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
“It’s okay to write something that isn’t good. What matters most is getting it down on the page.” ~Paraphrased from Brandon Sanderson
I’m a perfectionist. Whether it’s engineering, athletics, gaming, or writing, I want to be the absolute best. Therefore it can be immensely frustrating when a scene isn’t working. Is the dialogue stilted? Are the characters too introspective? Have I fallen into the tell versus show trap? I used to end up sitting there, staring at the page for minutes on end, trying to determine what the magic formula for the next paragraph was.
Yet all this really does is pull you out of your flow. Better to write, and write poorly – especially as a discovery writer – than to flounder in place and not write at all. Once it’s out of your head and onto the page it is so much easier to fix; it’s no longer an intangible, but a real set of actions, description, and prose that can be manipulated at will.
Write, study, write, study, then write some more. Only by spouting words will you find your voice. Only by trying will you have an opportunity to succeed. The individual that stands still has already lost. Write . . . and give yourself a fighting chance.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter, or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
Ha! I feel like I spent half of the last question answering this. Purely coincidence, I assure you.
Force of habit. My deadlines aren’t stringent, but if I don’t meet a certain word count each day, the following day, week, or month is going to be miserable. Golden prose and ideas won’t fly from your fingers every session. This is simply a fact of life; everyone has ups and downs. In my case, I set a minimum daily word count of 1500 words. I’d love to get to 3-4k, but if fog has settled on my brain, each sentence is like wading through a pit of mud, and I seem to be giving in to “worldbuilder’s” disease instead of progressing the plot, then I hit 1500 and stop.
Naturally, I’ll finish the sentence I’m on. Only apostates cut-off mid-sentence.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
Sengoku Jidai: The warring states period of Japanese history. While I might find myself beheaded as a spy within minutes of my appearance, this is an acceptable risk for meeting some of the great leaders and generals I’ve admired during my studies. Yes, many of them were monsters, but I can’t deny the allure I feel from their tales of triumph and glory. Just a minute with Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then back in the time machine – head still securely fastened to my shoulders.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
I’ll bring back a title I used before: Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Though Tchaikovsky is published by TOR, he doesn’t get nearly the same press that their other contracted authors do. I find this odd given that his worldbuilding is every bit as nuanced as theirs, and his approach to war and politics are among the most realistic I’ve seen. Anyone reading this interview should immediately go out and find Empire in Black and Gold, the first book in Shadows of the Apt. Fans of epic and military fantasy will not be disappointed.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
A world consumed by war . . .
An ancient evil resurrected . . .
A millennia-old bargain comes due . . .
When two blades clash, the third will fall, and the fate of all will be jeopardized. To save Lozaria, the failures of the past must be atoned for by a new generation of heroes. The time has come for mortals to cast off sight and, in doing so, truly come to see . . .
Do you rave about The Stormlight Archive? Are hard magic systems, scheming aristocrats, and undying warlocks plot elements that excite you more than they should? Have you ever wanted to see WWI battleships floating across the sky, or armies clashing with spell, blade, and rifle? Do you want to read about fantasy races that are fresh – that don’t feel tired and cliché?
Then it’s time for you to pick up a copy of Divinity’s Twilight: Rebirth and dive into the expansive world of Lozaria, a land of forgotten gods, lurking darkness, and a cosmic conflict as old as the soil itself. As you close the book, you’ll find it difficult not to ask this question: when does the next one come out?