This week in the author interview series, we have Christopher G. Nuttall, whose creative imaginings cross a number of genres. I particularly like that his novels come from a British perspective, both because it’s a nice change of pace and because I’m an unrepentant Britophile.
Zen: An odd question first. How do you pronounce your last name? In my head, it’s new-tall, but am I doing it wrong?
Christopher: It’s normally NUT-All, but I’ve come across several variant pronunciations. The name itself originates from Lancashire, England.
Zen: You write in a wide variety of genres. Steampunk, alt history, sci-fantasy, high fantasy, and military sci-fi, to name a few. Are there even more genres you plan to write in?
Christopher: I’ve written a couple of thrillers and I have an idea or two for present-day humor or politics, maybe a book for older children. But I probably won’t try to go any further.
Zen: Many authors have difficulty writing in multiple genres and maintaining sales. That doesn’t seem to affected you. How have you managed to make a go of it?
Christopher: I’ve been asked that before and my answer is normally bloody-mindedness. <grin>
Generally, I like swapping between the two main genres (SF and fantasy) because it reboots my brain after writing in one particular genre. It makes it easier to keep the disparate universes from sliding together in my head. And I have a number of fans who read both sets of genres, so there’s actually quite a bit of cross-over. (It helps that I try to write fairly quickly.)
That said, I have had people tell me that I’m a better SF author than fantasy author or vice versa. But I like writing in both genres.
Zen: You split your time between Britain and Malaysia. Most authors don’t have the opportunity to live within two such very different places. How has that multiculturalism affected your writing?
Christopher: It’s actually quite interesting in many ways.
Malaysia is both a very multicultural society and an oddly-separated one. The different races and suchlike don’t really blend together – it is my observation that mixed-race marriages are relatively rare in Malaysia. It leads to an odd blurring of contrasts – you see women in headscarves and veils mixing with girls in short shorts and tight t-shirts, for example. There is a considerable amount of friction – the country is largely run for the ethnic Malays – but things are relatively peaceful.
But there are moments that make you go WTF? I was reading only a few days ago about a rapist who had escaped justice (and Malaysia doesn’t mess around when it comes to punishing rapists) by marrying his victim, a 14-year-old girl. And moments – thankfully less horrific – when you are sharply reminded that you are in a different country and the locals think differently to you.
It’s also a reminder of what life is like without social security networks. The poor in Malaysia are VERY poor, by British standards. Walking into one of the poorer housing estates is like stepping back into the past.
Zen: Many male authors write primarily male protagonists, for a number of reasons. You seem to write more women as your protagonists. Why is that?
Christopher: I’m not sure that is actually true, although I can see why someone might get that impression.
I wrote Lady Gwen of The Royal Sorceress as female because it allowed for character development that she wouldn’t have had, if she had been male. It isn’t really easy for someone who has no reason to question the world around him to take a good hard look at it – plenty of people can’t understand oppression, at an emotional level, until they’ve actually faced it themselves. I am reluctant to use the term ‘social justice’ because I loathe Social Justice Warriors, but Gwen’s sense of social justice is considerably in advance of her male peers because she too has faced discrimination – she’s a woman in a man’s world, condemned by her sex. She’s actually capable of drawing a line between her problems and problems faced by others, even if they’re not the same as her.
To some extent, Emily of Schooled in Magic had the same issue – I wanted to explore the effects of her femininity on the world around her. As she took shape, it made more and more sense that she should be female, that her mentality is female (as well as somewhat autistic). A man would have had a very different life, before and after being swept into the Nameless World. On one hand, he would have stood up to his stepfather; on the other, he would be considered automatically ‘strong’ in a world that is very much a patricidal society, at least outside the magical settlements.
On the other hand, the female marines of the mainstream The Empire’s Corps books are largely interchangeable with their male counterparts. They are held to the same standards; their femininity doesn’t matter in the slightest. The side-stories, on the other hand, are different: Sameena of The Outcast wouldn’t be so interesting if she was male, Kailee of Reality Check would have had a very different life if she’d been a man.
The bottom line, as I see it, is that we are a mixed society – female as well as male. And the female experience can be just as important as its male counterpart.
Zen: What would your advice be to a male author who wants to write a woman as his main character, but has concerns about doing it?
Christopher: Don’t overdo it.
A general rule when it comes to writing any sort of character – particularly someone who is different from yourself – is to create a well-rounded character. You don’t want a ‘female character,’ you want a ‘character who happens to be female.’ Very few people are solely defined by their gender – or anything else, for that matter. You want someone who is more than just a pretty face.
On the other hand, you want to avoid (unless in certain circumstances) writing a man trapped in a female body. And you want to gloss over a number of details – most people don’t want to read about periods and suchlike. And you want to avoid making the character unreasonably good – that’s what brings out the accusations of ‘Mary Sue.’ Characters like Princess Leia and Honor Harrington are good along these lines, although Honor’s flaws are not immediately apparent. Generally, if you want your character to be good – say, a character capable of kicking a man’s ass – you have to justify it.
It’s normally a good idea to run any such character past a female friend and ask for their advice and comments. I’ve had a lot of good feedback over the years – both of the editors for the Schooled In Magic books are female – and they’ve offered comments I’ve often integrated into the story.
Zen: You started out with self-publishing, but have since worked with small presses. Which publishing method do you prefer?
Christopher: They both have their advantages and disadvantages, really. Small presses, at least in my experience, are getting better at offering the same services as the bigger publishers, while maintaining contact with the author and working with him. I’ve had very good experiences with Elsewhen Press, Twilight Times Book and 47 North. The only real downside is that none of them produce mass market paperbacks, which makes getting my books onto bookshop shelves quite tricky. They’re often very good at promotion too.
With self-publishing, on the other hand, you have to do a lot of work yourself – arranging for an edit, getting a cover, promoting … but overall, you get to keep a much greater share of the profits. I like it <grin>.
But really, I’m happy being a hybrid author.
Zen: Few writers have instant success. Rather, it’s a matter of building a backlist and developing an audience. Was there ever a point along the way that you felt like you’d never make a living a writing and you should think about doing something else?
Christopher: Not once I finished my first manuscript. (If you heard howls of laughter back in 2005, it was when the agents saw my first piece of work.) It was rejected – of course – but by then I was confident that I could write. After that, it was just a matter of learning the ropes as I went along – most writers, realistically, have to write at least a million words before they come up with something worth publishing. I had the bug.
It wasn’t easy. There were a LOT of rejections. And then Kindle came along and I never looked back.
Zen: You write in series, but like to make each book within the series a standalone, rather than a more serial format. Personally, I thank you for that, as I hate cliffhangers, but lots of highly successful series get away with doing serials. Why do you prefer to do standalones?
Christopher: I’ve always had the feeling that long serials are unfair on the readers – a trilogy is one thing, if the author is determined to finish it, but endless books that are really just overlong chapters are something altogether different. One of the reasons I really appreciated the early Honor Harrington books was that pretty much all of them, at least up to Echoes of Honor, could be read as stand-alone books. But books like Wheel of Time, Safehold and Game of Thrones … they just go on and on. I try to avoid reading them until the last book has finally come out.
(Really, it’s just a pet peeve of mine.)
Most of my books can be read as stand-alone novels for that reason. I admit it isn’t true of Under Foot (Outside Context Problem II) and Chosen of the Valkyries (Twilight of the Gods II) but in both cases it is clearly understood that they are trilogies. I’ve been trying to write the Ark Royal books in sets of three (Ark Royal, The Nelson Touch and The Trafalgar Gambit; Warspite, A Savage War of Peace and A Small Colonial War; Vanguard, Fear God and Dread Naught and We Lead (unwritten as yet) but again, most of them can be read as stand-alone novels.
Zen: I don’t know any authors who aren’t also voracious readers. What books have you been reading lately, or are currently on your reading list?
Christopher: Right now? I’ve been reading around the early Plantagenet Dynasty in England – King Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart, Bad King John … it’s a fascinating era, one replete with historical situations I can (and I will) turn into stories. And I’ve continued my researches into the Roman Empire …
Fictionally, I’ve finally caught up with Peter F. Hamilton.
Zen: Tell us what you’re working on now, and what we can expect to see from you in the near future.
Christopher: I’m planning to start writing the third and final book in the Twilight of the Gods series in the next few days, followed by The Hammer of God, the fourth book in the Angel in the Whirlwind series. I just finished the first draft of Unlucky – book three in that series – so I’m taking a break before writing the fourth book. It’s not the end of the series, but it is the end of the first arc.
In the longer term, there will be several more books; Culture Shock, The Long Road Home, The Sergeant’s Apprentice and We Lead. I look forward to them all.
Christopher Nuttall has been planning sci-fi books since he learned to read. Born and raised in Edinburgh, Chris created an alternate history website and eventually graduated to writing full-sized novels. Studying history independently allowed him to develop worlds that hung together and provided a base for storytelling. After graduating from university, Chris started writing full-time. As an indie author, he has published eighteen novels and one novella (so far) through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.
Professionally, he has published The Royal Sorceress, Bookworm, A Life Less Ordinary, Sufficiently Advanced Technology, The Royal Sorceress II: The Great Game and Bookworm II: The Very Ugly Duckling with Elsewhen Press, and Schooled in Magic through Twilight Times Books.
As a matter of principle, all of Chris’s self-published Kindle books are DRM-free.
Chris is currently living in Malaysia with his partner, muse, and critic Aisha.