Nathan M. Farrugia: The Terribleminds Interview

I love talking to people who have unusual paths into writing and publishing, and this here Nathan Farrugia has just that — so, I’ll step out of his way, but not before telling you that his website is: nathanmfarrugia.com and you can haunt him on the Twitters @nathanmfarrugia.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

I have a confession to make. I was going to self-publish my first novel, The Chimera Vector. I’d even stalked an editor through the long grasses of Twitter. Little did I know he was the head of Pan Macmillan’s shiny new digital imprint, Momentum. The hunter soon became the hunted. But before you go all Konrath on me, I accepted the offer. Momentum offered me global ebook publication, sub $10 price tags and DRM free ebooks — all things that would’ve been met with laughter by the Big 6 publishers. Well, at the time anyway. They’re changing their tune now. So before I knew it, I found myself in the exciting froth that exists between traditional publishing and self-publishing. I like froth.

Why do you tell stories?

Because I can’t stop. No, serious, send help.

Plus, it completely legitimizes my early childhood imaginary friends. And by early childhood I mean early 20s. Film, television, novels, video games — I love them all. You can’t make me choose. If I could, I would bed them as my many wives. (Video games would get the most foreplay.) In my perfect fantasy world, The Chimera Vector movie would be adapted and directed by Joss Whedon, the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the audiobook narrated by Gary Oldman, the graphic novel by the Wachowskis, the video game by Valve, the covert assassin vibrator set by — oh, wait.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Don’t let your plot hinge on the stupidity of your characters.

This was the first thing my literary agent, Xavier Waterkeyn, taught me. And it’s also the reason he rejected most of his submissions. The characters made choices that served only to move the plot forward. Their choices were illogical, nonsensical and often just laughably dumb. This can cripple an otherwise brilliant story. Example: Prometheus. The moment your character does something stupid because it serves your plot, a baby panda cries. And by baby panda I mean literary agent.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

Write even when your writing is crap and you aren’t enjoying it.

This is often suggested so that writers push through their writer’s block or procrastination or cry-wanking. I don’t know about you, but when I start writing crap, I immediately throw down the keyboard and slap myself. Because if I start writing crap then the chances are I will continue to write crap until I stop. And what have I accomplished? 2,000 words of crap that I will bin the next day. I don’t see the point in wasting that time. If I’m not in the groove and I’m just pumping words to meet a word count, then I stop writing and go do something else. Take a break, watch a movie that inspires me, listen to some music, read a book, do some karaoke. Joke. I can’t sing. I suggest you come back when you’re itching to come back. And if you’re not itching, make yourself itch. In the non-sexually transmitted illness sort of way.

A lot of writers moan about having full-time jobs and needing to squeeze writing into their spare time. I’ve actually found it works well. That full-time job you’re stuck with: it earns you shiny credits and gives you that itch to write. You can’t wait to get home and start hammering … the keyboard.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

I think a lot of people misinterpret a “strong character” as a protagonist who is tough, powerful, resilient. That’s great, but I see a strong character as someone who is strong enough to bear the load of a fully developed plot without collapsing under its weight. If your character shines, no, bursts through the most intricate, plot-driven narrative you can hurl at them, then congratulations: you have a strong character.

I can talk about any strong character here, but I’d really love to offer a female spin on Jason Bourne. Because I’ve wanted one for so long. After recently watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Colombiana and Haywire — all cookie cutter “woman wants revenge after rape or murder” stories — I’ve come up dry. I don’t recall Bruce Willis enduring sexual abuse in order to become a hero in Die Hard. So I’m going with an old favorite of mine: Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica.

Starbuck is a fighter pilot who frequently undergoes emotionally and physically demanding tasks such as, well, being a fighter pilot, assassinations, interrogations, drinking excessively, gambling, you name it. She’s tough and she’s arrogant and yes, she swaps a few feminine qualities for male ones. That’s fine, it’s consistent with the logic in her world and her character, but that isn’t what makes her strong. What makes her strong is she doesn’t float along with the tide of the plot. She has a well-developed personality. That alone sets her apart from most “strong character” cardboard cutouts, cough, Haywire. She is decisive, passionate and flawed. She takes risks. She believes in something. She cares about someone and someone cares about her. She is developed enough that she is more than simply a reactionary force to the plot. She is someone who can actually turn the tides of the story, preferably with a few added quirks of her own. If a character can’t even manage that, then they aren’t strong.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I’m going with a game. Half-Life 2.

Valve’s Half-Life 2 is almost ten years old and yet it maintains an intricately realized universe with memorable action, nuanced characters and spectacular narrative. This game achieved a long time ago what video games are still trying and failing to achieve now: to create an absorbing, rich world with an equally absorbing, rich story, and not to mention strong, individual characters you actually care about. Try finishing Half-Life: Episode Two without being brought to tears, I dare you. I can only hope that more game developers will put as much time and care into the narrative of their games as Valve do. (Minor hat tip to Deus Ex 1, I love you too baby.) Both of these games inspired me to write The Chimera Vector.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Sedulous. It means to be persevering. But sexy.

Elif air ab dinikh. That’s Arabic for “a thousand dicks in your religion.”

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Warp core breach. I have no idea what’s in it, but it sounds dirty.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

Electronic devices have a habit of going all critical failure when I’m around. In the inevitable war against robots this basically gives me superpowers.

Sell us on The Chimera Vector tweet-style: 140 characters.

Sophia is a former deniable operative with a few DNA tweaks and a penchant for stealing government research. #explosions

Where did the idea for the book — and for its insidious one-world government, the Fifth Column — come from?

The masterminds behind oppressive and ruthless secret governments or regimes in fiction tend to be secret societies, religious fanaticism and sometimes even aliens from outer space. While I found these fascinating, I was growing up contending with several family members who seemingly lacked a conscience, and so I spent the better part of a decade trying to figure out what made them tick. It wasn’t until I stumbled into psychopathology, which even to this day is horribly misunderstood by modern psychiatry, that it started to click. In 2003, I came across the research of a Polish psychiatrist who worked for the Polish Home Army, an underground Polish resistance organization. He survived both the Nazi and Soviet occupations and was involved in a covert Eastern European investigation of psychopaths in government. He was the only surviving member of the group to escape Europe with the research intact. Sadly he passed away a few years ago, but his journey was breath-taking and his research was probably the most important thing I’ve ever read. I applied his discoveries to the villains’ personalities in my book: psychopaths in suits who go their entire lives undetected. One thing I learned is when you have bad guys without a conscience running your world, you don’t need to invent a far-flung conspiracy.

Is the book all-digital? Will there be print copies available? Do you plan to do more releases like this, or will you lean more “DIY” or “traditional” in the future?

Digital is the focus, baby, er … Chuck, but it’s also published as print-on-demand on Amazon and Barnes & Noble etc for those who prefer the printed page. My publisher, Momentum, is Pan Macmillan’s new digital experiment, and I really love this hybrid DIY / traditional model. Momentum were happy to experiment with low price points, and in 2011 they even agreed to publish my book DRM free—something that at the time few publishers would consider. This month, all Momentum’s titles will be DRM free, which is very exciting. All my future manuscripts will be shooting into Momentum’s inbox for some digital lovin’. Mmm digital.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I’ve just returned from the Philippines where I was on vacation … er, I mean researching for the sequel. I’m in the middle of writing it now. I hear The Bourne Legacy also has genetically modified assassins and car chase scenes in the Philippines, so now I have to go back and add more explosions.

Later this year I will be hunted across Houston, Texas by ex-FBI and special forces trackers. If I’m captured, I will undergo “mild waterboarding”. So that should be fun.

I have grand plans for audiobooks, graphic novels and transmedia apps. And I’d love to write for film and video games. But all of this will have to wait. The Chimera Vector has only been out for a few weeks, but my readers are already telling me to hurry up and write a sequel. So, um, I have some writing to do now. Which I guess is what I’m supposed to be doing.

*throws smoke bomb and runs away, still clearly visible*

Oh, don’t run away yet. Hunted across Houston? If there’s a story there, you’re not getting away without sharing.

Because I enjoy doing things I later regret, I’ll be taking part in an escape and evasion course that focuses on urban environs. Alongside military personnel looking to improve their urban skill-set and executives who travel abroad in hostile locations, I’ll be learning how to survive kidnappings, escape and move in a hostile urban environment, use caches, disguises and implement a touch of social engineering. On the final day, I’ll be kidnapped, hooded, cuffed and taken somewhere dark and far away. I’m then expected to escape and, without any money or phone, will have to find my own transportation to the first cache location for the first in a series of assignments—all while being hunted by people who hunt, um, people for a living. So basically I’m screwed.

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