Indie, action-adventure novelist on DIY genre writing
If you think that landing a publishing deal with a brand is the big cheese, think again. Many authors who have gone indie or self-published have been rewarded with tremendous success by reader-fans of cult favorite genres. The fans themselves give the DIY authors' work all the accolades.
Ian Kharitonov is one of the current bestselling indie-DIY published authors in a genre that is finding a resurgent demand among reader-fans: the men's action-adventure pulp novel. Think Jason Bourne, James Bond, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and even Indiana Jones among those heroes coming from action-adventure themed storylines.
Kharitonov has won the Grandmaster Award from Clive Cussler in 2010 for adventure writers for his novel, The Russian Renaissance. Ian's heroes are Russian brothers, Constantine and Eugene Sokolov, who both stop madmen and secret societies with secret plots from ruining the world. REACH magazine gets to talk to Ian Kharitonov about his success as an indie author and his craft as a writer.
REACH: Getting published nowadays is easier for DIY authors beacuse of Amazon and other eBook publishers who offer platforms for anyone to get their book out. You are a successful author in a pulp genre--men's action-adventure thriller--which is now making a strong comeback as a niche market for both readers and writers. People who use Kindle or pay for eBooks are no longer ashamed to buy action-adventure stuff as their guilty pleasure. How long did it take for The Russian Renaissance to make it and allow or convince you to follow up with a second book?
Ian K: Thanks for the interview. It’s been twenty years since I first visited Manila--an unforgettable city! I must say that I wouldn’t have become a writer if I hadn’t traveled across South-East Asia. My first book, The Russian Renaissance, took several years to write. I submitted the completed manuscript to the Adventure Writer’s Competition and won it, receiving the Grandmaster Award from Clive Cussler in 2010. Around the same time, Amazon was shaking up the publishing world with the Kindle platform. I chose not to pursue a traditional contract and joined the digital revolution.
DIY author is an interesting term, but I prefer another acronym—APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur), coined by marketing guru Guy Kawasaki. The publishing landscape has changed forever, and there’s no turning back. Much like AirBnB or Uber impacting traditional business models in other industries, the rise of ebooks has given authors more opportunities than ever. With this kind of creative freedom, continuing the series was never in doubt.
Image Credit: Ian Kharnitonov (used with permission)
REACH: You have the advantage of being familiar with Russia as a setting and with Russians as characters--getting a Russian hero to be loved by American readers is not as preposterous an idea as it would seem and it does make for a very intriguing personality for a male hero. What makes Russians unique as a heroic figure (Russia Renaissance hero: Eugene Sokolov) compared with other action-adventure heroes like John Rambo, Jason Bourne or James Bond?
Ian K: The late, great Martin Cruz Smith created an iconic character in Arkady Renko when he wrote Gorky Park in 1981. It featured a Soviet investigator as the main character--at the height of the Cold War, no less. Gorky Park’s success proved that it’s not the protagonist’s nationality that connects with the reader, but rather the motivation and conflict. The Renko books are crime thriller classics, but there aren’t many Russian protagonists in spy thrillers that deal with Russia. So I decided to explore this niche. My thrillers could indeed be described as ‘Jason Bourne meets Gorky Park’. I think that a Russian hero conveys more authenticity in his actions and offers an insider’s perspective throughout the story.
REACH: Your influences in action-adventure pulp range from Clive Cussler to David Morrell, both of whom use setting as a character (ships and the sea, Vietnam) in their novels and we see that happen in your hero novels too. Readers have praised your books as insightful because of your way of using history and setting to flesh out your story instead of just action-a-minute thrillers. What makes Russia and its history as a setting or backdrop a great place to riff off for stories for you as someone who writes for western readers?
Ian K: Even 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia still remains an enigma for western audiences. With so much history ingrained into the fabric of Russian life—a lot of it incredibly tragic—any story set in Russia is bound to reflect it in some way. It’s impossible to write a Russia-themed thriller with just a few weird-sounding names and locations thrown in to make it feel genuine—Russian history and culture will inevitably take over for the plot to work.
REACH: Are you familiar with 70s writers and their work like Ian Fleming and popular icons like The Executioner and Mack Bolan where the alpha-male, swashbuckling playboy was the archetype for most action-adventure thriller series of their era? Do you think that a chauvinistic, James Bond-flavored hero can still work as great reading, action-adventure for this age, if there are still fans of that type of hero? Is sexy moments in action-adventure already too much of an anachronism or a cliche in modern thrillers or is there still room for femme-fatale foil characters or moments for an alpha-male hero to still indulge in trysts?
Ian K: Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan is a genre-defining character in men’s adventure, just like Bond is for spy thrillers, and they represent the standard against which all other characters are measured. The modern age calls for stronger female characters and a more gynocentric approach. Personally, as a writer I try to create complex female characters. Also, I avoid sex scenes if they do not move the story forward. However, the ‘damsel in distress’ archetype has been the driving force of storytelling for milennia, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon—but of course it has become more subtle than it was in the 70’s.
REACH: Creating a book series out of a successful story is a dream of most indie authors and your Russian hero has become a beloved icon among fans of heroic men's action-adventure. Are you planning to stick with him for a while or would you write a Russian heroine action-adventure that may work for YA fans or even male fans of traditional spy thrillers and action-adventure?
Ian K: It’s an interesting concept. Clive Cussler’s co-author Russell Blake created a highly-successful action series featuring Jet, a female operative, as the main character. The idea is definitely worth considering, but right now I’m more focused on continuing the Sokolov Saga.
REACH: You've watched Guardians of the Galaxy where they have Starlord, an out-of-time, rogue, swashbuckling hero as the Han Solo of this generation. Is science-fiction something you might want to explore for action-adventure hi-jinks for a Russian hero?Would you write a sci-fi Russian hero of the same mold--aka Han Solo or Starlord--and riff off your Russian heritage for the setting as character theater? Do you think a Yuri Gagarin-type adventure hero would work or would you still infuse American sensibilities into your character since you grew up in the west?
Ian K: Great question. THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir immediately comes to mind. A lot of successful action-adventure authors are venturing into sci-fi and post-apocalyptic genres, namely Steven Konkoly, R.E. McDermott, and Tom Abrahams, among others. In many ways, however, Russia is a post-apocalyptic country so it would be difficult to draw a line between science fiction and non-fiction! Kidding aside, Yuri Gagarin is a fascinating figure—there’s more than meets the eye—so it’s a topic I may turn to.
REACH: I know you may not be familiar with the amazing success of crime fiction in Russia today but can I ask something connected with the popularity of noir and thrillers? In spite of literary writing figures in Russia being what most readers think of when Russian authors are mentioned, there is a whole army of amazing and smart writers of pulp in Russia today as there are in Czechia or the U.S or in England. Why is crime-thriller fiction such a popular vein for mining stories and what makes the Russian hero on your part a standout that readers from any part of the world may prefer him over an English spy or an American CIA operative?
Ian K: The popularity of Russian crime fiction dates back to Dostoyevsky when he wrote Crime and Punishment. The success of Russian noir must have something to do with the notorious Russian fatalism—or the weather!
As for my two main characters, brothers Eugene and Constantine Sokolov, I believe they stand apart from the typical adventure heroes. Neither is a spy or a special forces operator. One is a rescue officer and the other is a historian, but they are experts in their respective fields---and their skills are called upon to save lives in the midst of international conspiracies.
Image Credit: Ian Kharitonov's writer workspace
REACH: When you write a story or create characters, do you make an outline of the entire novel or do you go with the flow and see where it takes you? Do you have a messy writer's workspace or a tidy one?
Ian K: There are two extremes: authors who outline obsessively and those who write by the seat of their pants. I fall somewhere in between ‘outliner’ and ‘pantser’. On the one hand, a super-detailed synopsis can prove to be too restrictive, stifling the actual writing. On the other hand, writing without an outline is like setting sail without a map. So I draw up a general plot structure in advance and work on the finer story details as I go.
REACH: Making a living off writing is a dream for all aspiring writers of any genre. In our own country, where pulp romance is a religion, Marian Tee has become a top indie, self-published author on Amazon and Kindle for pulp romance and erotic romance. You have breached the action-adventure genre as a bestselling author for crime-spy thrillers and proven that indie authors can do it as well as brand publisher authors. Do you know more indie writers who have made it in genres that were traditionally stables of brand name authors?
Ian K: In fact, I’m struggling to think of a genre where indie authors have NOT made it. They’re among the biggest names in fiction right now. Self-published authors dominate the romance categories.
In sci-fi, The Martian became a hit as well as a movie starring Matt Damon. Hugh Howey achieved phenomenal success with Wool, another sci-fi bestseller set to appear on the big screen. A.G. Riddle’s Atlantis Gene has sold two million copies in the U.S. alone. Mark Dawson is a top crime author. The examples are endless. You can find indie names on every bestseller chart—and they deserve their success through their talent and hard work. Quite a few traditionally published authors are also switching to self-publishing, either becoming ‘hybrid’ authors or going full indie. It certainly is a very exciting time to be an author.
REACH: Thank you Ian for giving us the chance to talk with you about indie author work in a very interesting genre that is action-adventure, crime-spy thrillers. We do hope you get an awesome movie deal for your books and carry the standard for many indie DIY authors for generations to come and inspire them to dream big and make books happen.