“No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews.” – Author Christopher G. Nuttall discusses The Decline & Fall of the Galactic Empire novels

“There has been something of a gulf between readable SF books and award-winning SF books in the last 20-odd years. The SF books that are genuinely popular aren’t always the ones that win awards.”

10 years ago Christopher G. Nuttall set out on a writing career which to date has seen him produce over 30 titles including fantasy, science fiction and historical novels.

Born in Edinburgh, Nuttall trained as a librarian and now lives partly in Malaysia. He says that to succeed as a writer you need ego and a thick skin. While some of his books have found a route to market via traditional publishers, others have been published directly online.

In his The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire series Nuttall imagines humanity dispersed among the stars, held together by a crumbling political union transitioning from a senatorial republic into a tyrannical empire. In both Barbarians At The Gates and its sequel The Shadow of Cincinnatus narrative threads from classical antiquity are interwoven with pop sci-fi references. The result is a good old fashioned yarn spun by a master storyteller.

You can find our more about Christopher at his homepage: www.chrishanger.net

What are your first memories of Edinburgh?

That’s a hard question – I was born in Edinburgh. I have strong early memories of going to the Tattoo as a child, so that’s probably the best ‘first’ impression.

Has Edinburgh shaped why and how you write?

I think it has, in many ways. Edinburgh is a mix of old and new; Edinburgh Castle was the inspiration for Castle Alexis in Lessons in Etiquette, for example.

There’s a story about you trying to borrow a Tom Clancy book aged 9 which the Morningside librarian thought too old for you. In hindsight were they right?

No, I don’t think they were right; I understood the book at the time and …well, it wasn’t erotic fiction. I don’t think that librarians (I trained as one, so this is dear to my heart) should be trying to dictate reading tastes, even to children. That’s the job of their parents.

Why are many (otherwise intelligent) readers put off by fantasy and science fiction?

I don’t think that’s actually true – my readers are very intelligent. That said, there has been something of a gulf between readable SF books and award-winning SF books in the last 20-odd years. The SF books that are genuinely popular aren’t always the ones that win awards. I know, that sounds odd, but SF has always been about the big ideas and not every book that features a big idea is readable.

If you could jump back a decade, what would be the first thing 2015 you would tell 2005 you (other than to buy George R. R. Martin 1st editions)?

Jump on the Indie bandwagon as soon as it started, I think. Although that might be a mistake – writing requires development and the stuff I was producing in 2005 wasn’t really worth either publishing or self-publishing.

You’ve published via the traditional route and you’ve published online. What’s the difference?

There are actually several different answers to that question. The basic one, in my opinion, is that the former offers considerable cachet, while the latter offers considerably more control. Being picked up by a traditional publisher says ‘this guy impressed an editor’ – it also means that the publisher handles everything from editing to cover design. You have to do all that for yourself if you’re going the self-publishing route. On the other hand, you generally get paid more if your self-published book breaks through..

You’ve talked elsewhere about learning the difference between useful criticism and people trying to pretend to be critics while enjoying their superiority. What’s the first thing a reader of arts criticism should remember and what’s the last thing a critic should forget?

Well, the author should remember that you can’t please everyone – and you can’t. No matter how well you write, you will get bad reviews (this is why I advise authors to grow a thick skin). The reader should remember that the critic may be being paid to be critical – that he or she will search for things he can criticize because he thinks that’s his job. There’s also the risk that the critic may not be very familiar with the field – if the critic is primarily a SF-reader, I wouldn’t expect him or her to be very kind to a romance novel.

The critic should remember to consider the work as a whole, rather than merely nitpick one tiny detail – that’s annoying at best and turns into trolling at worst. I once read a review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that consumed two pages complaining about Harry being forced to complete in the competition even though he hadn’t entered. It’s a valid point, but it doesn’t overshadow the rest of the book.

If I’d done that and one of my beta readers caught it, I could have justified it – that’s where the critic comes in handy. On the other hand, someone questioning an aspect of a society that makes no sense out of context is merely annoying. Trial by combat, for example, was quite popular around the time of Magna Carta, but seems stupid to us today.

How important is the convention circuit for authors as authors, rather than as sales reps?

It’s quite fun to meet other authors and compare notes with them, so I enjoy the handful I attend,. However, sales are almost always minimal – I always buy more books than I actually sell.

Will there be a third installment of The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire series?

Yes, The Barbarian Bride should be coming out later in the year.

If readers liked Barbarians At The Gates, what else of yours should they read?

I’ve produced quite a few books, mainly science-fiction and fantasy. The Empire’s Corps series is set in a decaying empire, while Ark Royal follows the adventures of HMS Ark Royal and her crew as they face a mysterious alien threat. Or, if you like fantasy, check out Schooled In Magic, Bookworm or The Royal Sorceress. Or, if you like alternate history, check out The Invasion of 1950. Or, if you like thrillers, check out The Coward’s Way of War.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Barbarians At The Gates & The Shadow of Cincinnatus?

I’m very fond of In The Hall of the Mountain King.