Life and Limb of the Written Word: Nathan Farrugia Adds Realism to Writing by Doing the Dangerous Stunts His Characters Do
Imagine a secretive organization that controls both governments and terror groups with a series of false flag operations and mass manipulation of the truth. Add to that cocktail mix a spunky, genetically enhanced heroine programmed for perfection that one day goes haywire and some edge-of your-seat chases and shootouts that jolt the system like an IV injection of pure adrenaline, coupled with high-tech gadgets and wicked weaponry that would make James Bond blush.
Welcome to The Fifth Column, Nathan M. Farrugia’s beguiling science fiction/thriller series that’s steadily earned the Aussie author worldwide acclaim. Beginning with 2012’s The Chimera Vector, the series focuses on the titular Fifth Column, a “New World Order”-style government group that makes the dirtiest secrets of the CIA or DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) most far-out technologies look tame by comparison. The main protagonist is Sophia, a preprogrammed, preconditioned human operative who is the organization’s best asset, until she suddenly “malfunctions” on a mission in Iran. The incident sets in motion a cascade of events that had the New York Times or Washington Post been able to uncover the stories (if they were real, of course), they’d be winning Pulitzer Prizes every year from now until 2160; in the face of such things as experiments in genetic engineering, Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations would seem piecemeal.
“I’ve always wanted to tell stories,” says Farrugia, who’s based in Melbourne. “I think I came up with the general idea when I was 15.”
After seemingly countless rewrites, interspersed with a stint in the Australian military and studies in film and television, Farrugia managed to write The Chimera Vector. Its gritty action sequences and anxiety-inducing chase scenes immediately call to mind a more complex version of Ian Fleming’s Bond, Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels or Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers. Take, for example, the book’s opening lines:
“Sophia did not exist.
Unofficially, she pulled the trigger.”
What follows is a stomach-churning, graphic account of an assassination, one that leaves its victim sans head. But how will the heroine, Sophia, flee after committing such a dastardly deed? Without so much as pausing for the reader to catch their breath, the action continues at breakneck pace as she makes her escape — so much for having time to make a cup of tea between chapters.
But as engrossing and cinematic as Farrugia’s novels may be, what’s earned him notoriety is what he does to be able to deliver all the miniscule details of the scary scenarios his characters are put through. Dangling from electrical wires in St. Petersburg, exploring abandoned spy stations in Berlin, wandering the notoriously dangerous streets of Rio de Janeiro, dashing through narrow New York City subway tunnels while the trains were still running, being voluntarily waterboarded, and training with instructors of the US Marines, Navy SEALs and Russia’s fearsome Spetsnaz are just some of Farrugia’s escapades.
According to the author, he partakes in such decidedly dangerous adventures as a way of doing research and adding a sense of realism to his writing, so that his characters can respond to situations in a manner that would be consistent with how someone would react if put through the same scenarios in real life. In other words, it’s the ultimate way of writing about what one knows. The tried-and-true method has been used by authors for centuries: Mark Twain, for example, was able to write so authoritatively on his characters’ journeys downriver in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because he had spent time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
“It’s one of many ways of exploring something,” explains Farrugia of his adventures. “You end up picking up on things that you might not otherwise have noticed by only researching things from your office. For example, when crawling through a small tunnel, you realize you can’t twist this way or that.”
Of all the things he’s done, Farrugia says the “scariest” might have been at an escape and evasion course he took in November 2012 in Houston, Texas. The week-long course, which is also taken by SEALs and other elite military personnel, included an in-depth look at disguises by Tony Mendez, the CIA agent portrayed by Ben Affleck in the film Argo. Tied up on a bed in a motel room as part of the course, Farrugia had to use everyday objects to quickly flee — and then was hunted through the streets for 12 hours in simulation of a real-life escape from kidnappers.
“There were three of us,” he explains. “My friend and I are from Australia, so we probably traveled the farthest around the world for this course. The worst part was that we were all hooded (heads covered, preventing a person from being able to see). It was taped to our necks. You actually struggled to breathe. It was very alarming.”
Such adrenaline-soaked adventures, as well as Farrugia’s own military past, lend authority to The Fifth Column, and help to immerse the reader in the universe of his novels. That way, when Farrugia describes the martial arts technique his heroine Sophia employs — the little-known Russian art of Systema, an obscure method for engaging multiple opponents in hand-to-hand combat first developed in the mid-10th century — he’s speaking authoritatively. Consequently, he’s not the type of author to bury himself in a small room, huddle over a small desk lamp, and emerge months later with a manuscript at the price of being unshaven, afflicted with carpal tunnel syndrome, smelling like a toxic waste dump, and with hair greasy enough to coat a baking pan.
“I’ve been doing it enough [that] it’s normalized it for me,” Farrugia says of his experiences.
With a daily goal of five hours of writing (usually in the morning, when Farrugia says he can pour most of his energy into writing, and the evenings because he claims he is least likely to be interrupted at that time) and a low target word count of 2,000 words per day, Farrugia states that the first novel in The Fifth Column series took about 10 years to complete from when he began work on it to when the 353-page book was published. “I went through about 10 drafts,” he says, adding that he did not have time to work on the manuscript full-time and that he was perfecting his craft as he went along.
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia imprint Momentum, The Chimera Vector was followed up by The Seraphim Sequence (482 pages), which, similar to the way the Bourne film series gets darker with each new edition, delves deeper into the inner workings of the Fifth Column organization. Next was The Phoenix Variant, which was released this past August and boasts 300 pages. Taking the action in The Seraphim Sequence to new heights, the novel features meteorites, hurricanes, dangerous viruses and a terrorist attack on New York City.
Though the techno-thriller genre is a crowded one in modern fiction, what’s partially so refreshing about Farrugia and The Fifth Column is that all of his books thus far have received an “A” Bechdel Test rating (a test of gender bias in works of fiction that measures if at least two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man), separating them from thrillers that often typecast women as helpless damsels in distress or treacherous femme fatales (here’s looking at you, Ian Fleming). The test, though relatively simple to pass, is a benchmark many works of literature have failed to meet, such as Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and Neil Gaiman’s The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.
Currently, Farrugia says he is working on a new “episodic” series.
“It’s set in the same universe as The Fifth Column,” he explains, “but I’m introducing readers to new characters, with a new protagonist to rival and possibly ally with Sophia. It’s almost like a reboot without actually rebooting.”
Although this new series doesn’t have a specific release date yet, Farrugia says the idea for the series’ “episodic” number of volumes is due to changing reading habits among literary consumers.
“People want series [when consuming media],” he says, adding he doesn’t have a set number of books he plans on writing in the unfolding universe yet. Research backs him up: the mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon that states people acquire a preference for things because they are familiar with them. Furthermore, according to the Wall Street Journal, serialized fiction “has rebounded in the digital era,” a popular practice that was once used by authors like Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens (and more recently by Suzanne Collins and Anne Rice, among others).
With a universe as complex and multilayered as that of The Fifth Column — where every solved mystery leads to another, deeper one — it would seem there is plenty of room for a lengthy run in the series. And with Farrugia’s books available in hardcopy in bookstores across Australia and either as e-books or print-on-demand around the world, sales numbers would suggest there is indeed a reader demand. Though publicly available figures are hard to come by, Farrugia states that there has been a steady increase in sales since The Chimera Vector was published. Perhaps as a hint of the first book’s popularity, a YouTube trailer promoting the novel has racked up more than 120,000 views (see below).
One thing is for certain: with each new book, we can probably expect more crazy, real-life adventures from Farrugia, who gives new meaning to the term “stepping into a character’s shoes.”
Video courtesy of Nathan M. Farrugia.
Readers who wish to check out “The Fifth Column” series can do so via Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Currently, “The Chimera Vector” e-book is available for free from both retailers. || Featured image courtesy of Nathan M. Farrugia.