Nathan M. Farrugia is a USA Today bestselling author of sci-fi thrillers from Australia, known for placing himself in dangerous situations, including being hunted by special forces trackers. He studies Systema, a Russian martial art, and is a former recon soldier trained by USMC, SEAL team, Spetsnaz and Defence Intelligence instructors.
Nathan M. Farrugia is the author of the USA Today bestselling Helix and Fifth Column sci-fi thrillers. Nathan is known for placing himself in dangerous situations, including climbing rooftops in Russia and being hunted by special forces trackers in the United States. He studies Systema, a little-known martial art and former secret of Russian special forces.
Nathan is a former Australian reconnaissance soldier who has trained under USMC, SEAL team, Spetsnaz and Defence Intelligence instructors, and the wilderness and tracking skills of the Chiricahua Apache scouts and Australian Aboriginals.
Author Q & A
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a USA Today bestselling author from Melbourne, Australia who lives a little too similarly to the characters in my cyberpunk thriller novels. I’ve been waterboarded and shocked with electric currents and hunted through the streets of Houston. I’ve explored abandoned New York subway stations, hung precariously off rooftops in Russia, studied rare forms of unarmed combat and trained under SEAL, Spetsnaz and Defense Intelligence instructors.
I’ve worked in a variety of careers from a reconnaissance soldier in the Australian Army to a video editor and writer of lesbian pornography that portrayed women in a healthy, sex-positive light. I was the first published author of one of the world’s first digital imprints, Momentum, and Apple awarded my debut novel the iBooks Thriller of the Year in 2012. My novella, Zero, headlined the Murder and Mayhem collection of mysteries and thrillers, which sold 32,921 copies on release week, enough to hit the top five on the New York Times bestseller list.
After Pan Macmillan shut down my imprint, I took my rights back and moved into self-publishing.
What are your books about?
I write the Helix and The Fifth Column series of cyberpunk thriller novels. They feature a ragtag team of genetically enhanced former operatives led by Sophia, and a team of Russian operative hunters led by Olesya. Both are pitted against the Fifth Column—a powerful, clandestine agency—and Purity, a radical anti-genetics political party sweeping Europe. They call Sophia and Olesya the Night Witches, and are hellbent on hunting them down and destroying them.
Why did you write Helix?
For a while, I thought I was writing technothrillers, but they never quite fit in with technothriller authors such as Tom Clancy and Dan Brown. The Helix books are set ten minutes into the future, focusing on genetically enhanced operatives and oppressive governments. These books are cynical and anti-authoritarian in tone, and that’s when I realized these books are, more than anything, cyberpunk thrillers. I wanted to read more books like this, and that’s why I wrote the Helix books.
How did you get published?
I spent ten years trying to get published. It happened by accident when an editor I stalked on Twitter turned out to be a publisher for one of the Big Five. In 2011, I hired him to edit my novel and instead he offered me a publishing deal with Momentum, Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint.
The success of my books led to Pan Macmillan printing my first novel and soon it was on bookshelves around the country. It was a wonderful moment, but it was also the moment where the industry began falling apart. Over the past decade, the publishing industry had ignored the digital revolution and now they were paying a heavy price.
Some publishers shut down, while others closed imprints and fired staff. Even Momentum—despite being able to successfully compete against self-publishing authors in the digital space—couldn’t survive the cull. Over 100 authors were cut loose, including myself.
Since then, publishers have become increasingly reliant on mega-bestselling authors and non-fiction, which also meant shedding their entire midlist of authors. This solves a short-term crisis but it places publishers in a precarious position, putting all their chips on their mega-bestselling authors, many of whom are beyond retirement age, while having no midlist to replace them. The midlist are self-publishing now, and the more successful they are, the less likely they will be to hand over most of their income to a publisher.
Once Momentum was shut down, I took my rights back for The Fifth Column series and self-published all my books.
(You can read more about the recent collapse and revolution of the publishing industry in this excellent piece by fellow Australian thriller and SF author John Birmingham.)
Why are there so many women in your books?
Mostly, I just threw the dice and my first hero was female. Since then, it’s been an even split between both genders.
Are you a feminist?
Not the feminism that we recognize today, no.
There’s a bit of a strange story behind this, so bear with me. When my first novel was published with a female protagonist, I was drawn to feminism of the 1960s for its admirable aim of elevating women to the same rights and responsibilities as men.
In recent years, I noticed feminism became increasingly popular. And then it started to change, or maybe it had already changed long ago and I’d never noticed. But what I did see was the process of ponerization. As described by the late Dr Andrzej M. Łobaczewski, ponerization occurs when pathological individuals hijack an ideology, introducing simplistic doctrines that derail the movement.
While maintaining its external facade of equality, I noticed new doctrines starting to trickle through. The most popular ones were toxic masculinity and male privilege. I paid them little attention at first, but once they were accepted, their definitions changed rapidly.
It wasn’t until I started working on the Helix series, where I was writing about ideologies being manipulated and subverted, that feminism began to alter language, creating new definitions of sexism and racism. These new definitions claimed that discrimination was only real if the victim belonged to an oppressed gender or race. If the victim did not, this was called reverse discrimination and therefore did not exist.
Łobaczewski, a clinical psychologist and survivor of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, calls this a paramoralism. By appealing to our morality with a faulty logic, the new language is justified while its critics are left paralyzed with cognitive dissonance.
Now freely able to engage in approved forms of sexism, feminism gave birth to even more extreme doctrines. Sexual harassment expanded to include flirtation, and masculinity as a whole was finally declared toxic. Women were patronized and infantilized, left unable to smash the mythical patriarchy they were told had oppressed them. This was branded as empowerment, but the empowerment wasn’t real and the enemy wasn’t real. Something was terribly wrong.
So I got out.
To this day, my books feature robust and resilient characters of both genders. Sophia, Damien, Jay and Olesya fight against pathological ideologies and pathocracies. These are the sort of people who inspire me.
Why did you choose to write episodes rather than full novels?
Since my first novel was published by Pan Macmillan’s Momentum in 2012, I was excited to write something more episodic: shorter books with longer stories. I also saw that my readers longed to spend more time with the characters and they were frustrated waiting a year for each novel.
I loved writing Helix because I wrote it as nine episodes—each the size of half a novel. Much like a television series, I had the opportunity to tell a larger, more profound story that I hadn’t been able to tell before. Some readers were a bit reluctant to try the first episode and I think there was some concern that it was a money-making tactic and the episodes would be very small and unsatisfying. But the Helix episodes are a generous size and people really enjoyed them. The only problem is writing them fast enough to keep my fans happy—but that’s a good problem!
Do you prefer traditional or self-publishing?
There’s really not much going for traditional publishing right now, and their marketing strategies are notoriously out of touch with today’s readers. They can pay for the author’s publishing costs, but they also take most of the income.
I enjoyed my time with Momentum, Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint, and I learned a lot about their process. They designed their covers with the digital reader in mind and their marketing and advertising was focused on the right audience. They had some great strengths and also some weaknesses that I learned from.
When I started self-publishing, I tripled the cover design budget and completely overhauled my blurbs with better copywriting. Publishers only pay for one type of edit and their proofreaders often miss typos, so I make sure all my books undergo a structural edit, line edit and copy edit. I’m lucky because I have a dozen mega-fans who are kind enough to read it in advance and make sure no typo makes it through, which is a big problem in traditional publishing where their budget allows for one cheap proofreader. Publishers will tell you every published book has typos and you can’t avoid it. But you can.
I’m happy with self-publishing because I’m the publisher now. I care about my books more than a publisher will. While a publisher simply can’t dedicate the time and energy, I can. Not only that, but I can advertise to new readers and sell more books, something that wasn’t possible when I was traditionally published.
Genetics and psychopathology feature strongly in your books. Why did you choose to focus on these in particular?
My cyberpunk thrillers feature some strange and outlandish concepts, from meteor-borne viruses to cutting-edge genetic engineering, and even an alternative theory on psychopathy where psychopath genes are passed through the X chromosome and more than six percent of the human race are born without a conscience.
That theory came out of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and we’re still catching up. It’s a dangerous study to explore though, because what you’re doing is essentially exposing our deadliest predator in their pursuit for power and control on a macrosocial scale. I enjoy writing about psychopaths because I’m free to do so in fiction, and predators like the little-understood psychopath are, to me, the purest of evil. What we’re looking at here is how a human might function when stripped of their conscience, and stripped of their empathy, remorse and guilt.
What was the most challenging part of writing your books?
During the Cold War era, the thriller genre was nurtured and bankrolled by the US State Department and various CIA fronts to cultivate anti-Communist paranoia, xenophobia and American exceptionalism. Over the decades, this has flourished to become the modern-day espionage thriller. With that in mind, I made an effort to step outside the comfort of Western propaganda and tell a different story.
The Helix series chronicles the journey of an American team of operatives as they clash with an opposing Russian team. We see the world through both sides, but as the story progresses they begin working together to stop the real threat: Purity, a radical anti-genetics movement sweeping Europe, and the covert agency that controls it … and loses that control.
In the beginning, I was concerned this would be a challenging story for many readers to embrace. When the first episodes were published, I combed through hundreds of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, almost in disbelief that no one had taken issue with a gay Russian woman fighting a Western-funded fascist movement in Eastern Europe. In today’s climate, I was convinced it would have both progressives and conservatives frothing at the mouth, and that the series would be a failure. But I was wrong.
People loved it. And not only that, my American readers enjoyed them the most. This makes me very happy, because they’re among my biggest fans.
What can readers hope to learn from your books?
In my books, Sophia, Olesya and their colleagues are outcasts. They don’t really belong to the world, but they find their way in it, and they mean a lot to each other because they have a shared understanding of the world and each other. They’re all they have.
If these characters—who are villainized and blamed for the very things they’re trying to stop, have death and tragedy always looming over them, and all the odds stacked against them—can find laughter, happiness and hope, then I think we can too.