Nathan M. Farrugia is an Australian technothriller author 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 episodic Helix technothriller series and the bestselling series, The Fifth Column. 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 an author from Melbourne, Australia who lives a little too similarly to the characters in my 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 feminist lesbian pornography. 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. I established myself as a traditionally published author before making the move to self-publishing.
What are your books about?
I write the Helix and The Fifth Column series of techno-thriller novels. Both are action-packed blends of thriller and science fiction. The books are told from the perspective of a ragtag international team of former black operatives led by Sophia, and also a team of Russian operative hunters, led by Olesya. Both were raised and groomed by the Fifth Column, a powerful, clandestine agency with influence over governments, armed forces and terrorist organizations.
Why did you write Helix?
I love thrillers and I love them with a bit of science fiction too. On the silver screen, I’m a big fan of the Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne series (except the last Bourne, that was terrible). In fiction, I’m a big fan of Greg Bear, Ian McDonald, Matthew Reilly and Andy McNab’s ghostwriter.
The thriller genre is one that I adore, but it has its fair share of problems. Corny dialogue and clunky action, flag-waving heroes and docile housewives, and villains that seem to bounce between Soviet spies and Middle Eastern extremists.
When I started writing techno-thrillers, I wanted to tell a very different story. Sophia and her team of former operatives aren’t armed to the teeth or funded by a powerful agency. Instead, the agency hunts them and they’re barely able to keep a step ahead. But they have their training and they’re resourceful. And they have each other.
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 did you choose to write female protagonists?
I was a teenager when I wrote my very first novel. I just threw the dice and my hero was female. And so were half my characters, which seemed logical to me. But for the thriller genre it was almost unheard of.
For some of my new readers it’s a problem. They refuse to read thrillers with female heroes. Others are reluctant, only to be surprised when they enjoy it. But most of my readers don’t care, they love all the characters as much as I do.
In the Helix series, I introduced another female lead, Olesya. She’s a Russian operative hunter who falls in love with a female operative from China.
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 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?
Back when I was traditionally published, I couldn’t put my female characters on my front covers. Not because my readers wouldn’t buy them, but because the bookstores wouldn’t sell them. Of course, now that I sell directly to readers, this is no longer much of a problem. I only have to deal with the reader’s judgement when they see a woman on the cover, which impacts my sales a little bit, but I won’t back down on that.
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. So with my thrillers, I made an effort to step outside the comfort of Western propaganda, although in doing so I risked alienating my largely Western audience.
The Helix series chronicles the story of an American team of operatives as they clash with an opposing Russian team. We see the story through both sides, but as the story progresses they work together to stop the real threat: Purity, a fascist 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 some readers to embrace. Not only had I cast female leads, but I’d cast the Russians as good guys. In today’s climate, that could’ve been career suicide.
But when I started reading everyone’s reviews I learned that I was wrong. People really wanted to read these books. Not only that, my American readers enjoyed them the most. Which 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.