Congrats on your new novel. You seem to be getting some great feedback thus far; and from what I've read, it seems to be my type of book! Where did the idea come from?
I have always wanted to write a Foucault's Pendulum style adventure book, a conspiracy treasure hunt, if you will. I suppose many readers think of that as a Dan Brown type book, not realizing that it predates Brown by several decades. But I knew that was a hard type of book to write - not stylistically, but rather, research-wise. And it was. But once I had enough conspiracy thrillers on the virtual shelves, I began toying of finally writing one, and my thoughts naturally turned to the Voynich Manuscript, because it is such an enigma. Written in the mid-fifteenth century, by an unknown author, it is apparently a code, or some sort of encrypted language, that's never been deciphered. That just seemed to beg for a good treatment - you couldn't make it up. And I wanted to reprise Dr. Steven Cross from my Wall Street thriller trilogy, Zero Sum. So I decided to ask the question, "What if Cross somehow became involved in the Voynich, and all hell broke loose?" From there, the story line almost wrote itself. Although the research was a backbreaker, and took a lot of time. I think it took three times longer to research than to write it. I probably won't be doing that again, unless the world shows an insatiable appetite for that sort of book from me. What's weird are the comparisons to Da Vinci Code by some - apparently, the concept of an adventure/treasure hunt involving any sort of trail of clues automatically falls into Da Vinci territory for a few. I wonder whether they ever read Treasure Island, or Cussler, or Eco, growing up. I suppose that since Da Vinci did so well, it's inevitable that Voynich will be compared to it, and I should take it as flattery. Which I do. If one out of every hundred who tried Da Vinci buy Voynich, I'll be a happy camper. I should live so long...
Yeah, I know what you mean. My novel The Solomon Key gets compared to DaVinci Code by people who like it (which I'll take as a compliment, though I've never actually read that particular Brown novel). But I know what you mean by the amount of research that goes into these types of novels. It is exhausting. And because of how much work it requires, it makes it all the more difficult to bear bad reviews - ones like "tried too hard" and "total rubbish." It seems there are some people that don't like all that research in their books. Oh well. I do:) And your novel sounds awesome to me!
How long did it actually take to write?
The actual writing probably took a cumulative 25 days or so. I started it, then went to other things, then just settled in and wrote it. First draft came to 115K words, which I trimmed down to 100K.
Is there a specific reason you whittled 15,000 words out of it?
I over-wrote it, and when I went back to rewrite, I cut anything that seemed to slow the momentum of the story. Sometimes there isn't much I can cut, and sometimes I deliberately write more detail than I need because it seems right at the time. But when I go into rewrite mode, my job is to be ruthless. Kill the words that slow the plot or pace. I actually did two passes of rewrites on Voynich, and cut on both passes, in addition to tweaking sentences and eliminating echoes and the like. And I tried to simplify the sentence structures somewhat. I've been told that I tend to lean more towards complicated sentence structure, which is true - you can't be a huge fan of DFW and not. But for mass market fiction, apparently readers don't want a symphony of words, but rather more of a top 40 tune. So I did a lot of work to shorten sentences where I could. I think the overall result has enough erudition to annoy dim readers, and is suitably pedestrian to infuriate pedants and those with literary pretensions. Everyone should find something to hate in Voynich. So my work is done!
Haha... Well, I guess as long as we're making enough people happy it's all okay! What has the response been so far?
Overall, strongly positive. I've had a few reviews saying it's Dan Brown like, but these are from folks who either have never heard of Umberto Eco, or who think I should be writing The Grapes of Wrath. Those that hate the book are pretty evenly divided between comparing it to Da Vinci, as though that is a masterpiece of literary scholarship, or those who feel that my talents are wasted writing "pulp" fiction. They are in the conspicuous minority, thank God. I've seen almost 6,000 sales and 25K+ free downloads of the book since it released three weeks ago, so there's an audience. What I've noticed from my reviews is a truism - you can't please everybody. Some just don't get it. Some will snipe at you because they just hate you, or are jealous, or because that's what they do - spray venom. But most love the book, and think it's worth reading. I'd say that as long as folks are voting with their wallets, I'm not all that concerned with what someone who got the book free thinks of Da Vinci versus Voynich. I personally think it's one of my most accessible works. Everyone should buy multiple copies, and give them to friends. Wink.
Have you gotten any feedback specifically from fans of the Zero Sum trilogy?
Yes. I've actually had a number of e-mails from people who were strongly affected by the story, because they had been through similar stock manipulations in the U.S. markets. People who have battled against a system that is plainly corrupt, and favors the criminal interests of the large players while they loot the financial markets. Think of all the examples of obvious fraud connected to mortgage backed securities, to creating financial instruments that were designed to fail, to hedge funds making billions betting against the "suckers" who bought them. Consider the countless companies where investors got slaughtered because they believed that the SEC would do its job and police the markets. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who have been negatively impacted, some would say victimized, by a system run amok - a system that is operated by, and favors, the predators. Look at the loss of faith over the last five years in the whole system - the market is still around 13,000, and yet gold is worth double what it was. In gold adjusted terms, that means that the stock market is worth about 6500. Small investors have abandoned the system, because they correctly perceive it as a den of thieves where all they get is screwed.
The obvious problem with that, as a society, is that capital markets are supposed to be venues for raising capital for expansion, not casinos where the house has their foot on the pedal beneath the table and is stealing everything that isn't bolted down. So investors take their dollars elsewhere, and it becomes harder to raise capital, so innovation and progress are hampered. Society suffers, because investments by private interests drive innovation, but if nobody wants to go public or play in the markets because it's a killing field for Wall Street predators, then there is no next new thing. Capital formation becomes much harder. Liquidity becomes constrained. Even the predators lose, as they require constant new rubes to put their money into their machine so they can steal it. The rule of every good parasite should be, don't kill the host. The markets over the last decade forgot that, and the host is now dying, if not dead. Few believe that the law is enforced as it is written. I mean, come on, the former head of Goldman and former Governor of New Jersey's company steals a billion of client funds, and nobody is arrested. Everyone is concerned, and there are hearings, but the bottom line is really rich, powerful white men get to steal whatever they like, and they get away with it. If a kid robs a convenience store, he's going to get arrested, and likely go to jail. He's a menace. If a fat cat on Wall Street screws a thousand investors out of a billion, he's invited to the White House for lunch. It's a crap system that is coming apart, and it's obvious to many.
Not that I have an opinion or anything.
What about using the character from Zero Sum? Do fans seem to like that?
Well, I used him in The Voynich Cypher, and that's my biggest selling book to date in the first month of sales, so I'd say they do indeed like him. I plan to do at least one book per year with him, likely the same kind of adventure thriller as Voynich. So Dr. Steven Archer Cross will get his time in the sun every year.
That's sweet. Will you have a subtitle on those novels - "A Steven Archer Cross Novel" or anything like that?
Yup. On the Amazon product description, not the cover. "A Dr. Steven Cross Adventure."
Will you be sticking with a consistent genre for the character (adventure), or can we expect him to get involved with any number of scenarios?
I think I keep it open. I don't like to pigeonhole characters if I can help it. Life doesn't happen in a genre. The adventures shouldn't either. In Zero Sum, he was running for his life from Wall Street predators. In Voynich, he's trying to decode an ancient parchment. In adventure three...who knows? But it has to be plausible, fun and racing. On the other hand, in the Assassin series, I'm limited, because the villain is an assassin, so by definition, there's going to be assassinations. But I like keeping Dr. Cross hard to pin down.
If you had to define Voynich's target audience, what market would you single out?
People that love Clive Cussler and Dan Brown. Basically, about 50% of the entire reading world. If you're going to pick a genre, why not think big?
Awesome. Can't wait to read it. Should I start with the Zero Sum trilogy first?
You could, or you could just read it, and then go back and read Zero Sum. Since I wrote Voynich after ZS, I naturally think of the reading experience as being out of sequence like that, so that's how I envision readers doing it. But I'd imagine it would work the same either way. Although some of the earlier chapters in Voynich will have more impact after finishing ZS - but that's about the only reason to read them in sequence.
Click here to read the entire Mag7Event interview with Russell
Click here to purchase THE VOYNICH CYPHER