Today I am thrilled to welcome Will Ruff to Books, Vertigo and Tea for an interview and to share his debut book; The Tomb of the Primal Dragon. Will is speaking at SXSW this year!
The Tomb of the Primal Dragon
By Will Ruff
Arthur Biers, a young would-be historian just returned from a trip to Xi’an, China that nearly got him killed. He has a fresh wound, he’s been discredited in the media as a grave robber, and his role in the illegal excavation of the first emperor of China’s tomb nearly started a war. The United States government wants to know what happened. He recalls the story directly to the United States Ambassador who’s desperately trying to smooth things over.
In an attempt to get into graduate school, Arthur found himself searching for any position covering the drifting relationship between China and the United States. Ready to give up, and with nothing to show for it, Arthur stumbles on what appears to be the perfect opportunity. He encounters a technology mogul intent on building the next media empire using virtual reality. The man behind the project, Wyatt Waller, is trying to win a contract for a pioneering excavation of the tomb using drones. He invites Arthur to join the project as a researcher and when Arthur arrives, he quickly begins to suspect that there’s something more going on at the site than the excavation of historical relics.
Their research suggests the tomb is hiding deadly secrets, if it survived, but China has taken the position that the technology isn’t there to excavate yet, and they have no plans to begin. The story follows Arthur, Wyatt, and several others on a journey across China as they begin to question our understanding of history and the way it’s written. And they all become obsessed with the idea of breaking the real story behind the legendary tomb. Even if they find out what’s inside though, they may not be able to prove it.
Read an excerpt here.
1. The Tomb of the Primal Dragon presents a fascinating concept! What inspired you to develop a plot involving secrets contained within a tomb and museum?
I always knew I wanted to write a story where a character changes the way the world understands history. In college that was spurned on by the story of Heinrich Schliemann who discovered the historical site of Troy. He was a businessman, and his methods were pretty far out of the accepted norms for archaeology. He was convinced the Iliad and the Odyssey were based on historical events, and he spent his life trying to find the evidence. He eventually did despite the entire archaeological community not taking him seriously.
When I was studying traditional China the textbook mentioned the first Emperor and how he unified China, and when it referred to the tomb of the terracotta warriors, and the emperor’s tomb which is almost a mile from the warriors, there was an aside that said of the emperor’s tomb “Itself not yet excavated.” That was the exact moment I decided to write a book about someone becoming obsessed with it, and I spent years digging into it from several angles and what a thing like that meant to the world.
2. Can you describe some of the research that went into writing a story set in China and evolving an excavation?
I studied Chinese history in college, and took a few semesters of Mandarin before studying in Beijing. It was 2009, and I was there for four months taking four hours of language classes a day, history, and mass media, and enjoying the culture. When we got there we took a trip to Xi’an where I got to lay eyes on the Terracotta Warrior museum so a lot of the descriptions come from that. Same goes for all the other sites featured in the book. A lot of the half-English half-pinyin you’ll read in the book comes from that experience. I also wrote my senior thesis on President Nixon’s trip to China where he met Mao and basically changed the balance of power in the Cold War.
The technology side of it was the hard part. When I first started writing it years ago, the idea of drones being used for archaeology had been floated in various articles I found online, but I had no idea how the stuff worked. Then I started reading up on things like LiDar and I eventually connected with a drone software expert who helped me sort of plan this fictional excavation down to what it might cost, and how long it would take to capture enough data. The technology part of it is the coolest, because I’ve been able to speak with so many brilliant people who love the idea and I can actually get them excited about this tomb—itself still not yet excavated.
3. I know that The Tomb of the Primal Dragon was your debut novel. What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered during the writing and/or publication process?
Writing when you don’t know exactly what you’re trying to say is really hard, and it took me a long time to really get going on the story. I tried writing it in college, but that turned into 25 failed attempts at writing an opening chapter. I’d never done anything on this scale before, so I thought I would probably never be able to do it. It wasn’t until years later when I put pen to paper and stepped away from the computer that I could finally focus and get through it. I wrote 80 pages by hand and then finally moved it to the computer and knew where I was going with it. The scene I had written turned out to be the scene where the main character Arthur, who’s fresh out of college and trying to find work in a technology driven economy meets this media mogul who wants to build an empire for journalism in virtual reality. Their encounter is this sort of “technology meets storytelling” moment which is one of the main themes of the book. The big lesson I learned is that you don’t write in chronological order, you write, and you figure out what comes next, and whether anything came before. Then you make sense of it.
4. Did you have a character that you favored most while developing them? If so, what was it that you enjoyed about them specifically?
That’s definitely a hard question to answer since Arthur’s perspective is in first person. In that sense I probably injected all my studies into his character, but there’s aspects in all of them I find intriguing. Bruce has this philosophy that history doesn’t belong to anyone and it isn’t yours to hide. There’s something charming in that but it gets distorted for him and he goes down the wrong road of philosophical purity as opposed to looking at how his work is going to have an affect on people. Emmy I think represents what every ambitious hard working person wants. She’s brilliant, she has a talent for making things happen quickly, and she’s very intent on getting it right the first time—even if she goes against what everyone else thinks. But she hasn’t been given the right opportunity. Arthur is a guy who desperately wants to get into graduate school and he wants to be a part of history, not just teach it. A lack of job training makes it hard for him. And then there’s Wyatt. Wyatt is this serial entrepreneur who has money and can build pretty much anything, and he thinks a media empire is the next obligation he has to society. He’s also in this very self-reflective phase of his life which I can identify with.
5. You mentioned that you will be speaking at South by Southwest (SXSW) this! Can you share a bit more about that with us?
Yes! I’ll be bringing the book to SXSW to talk about the writing process, thought process, and main themes behind the book. Should be about an hour, and I’ll do a Q & A if anyone has interest in that sort of thing. The really cool thing about SXSW is that it’s a big tech festival, and in writing this I got really excited reading up on the technology that might be used for this kind of excavation, and people in tech circles are so far pretty huge supporters of the idea behind the novel. Should be a blast!
6. Last but least, I always ask this one – are you a tea drinker, and if so, what if your preferred cup?
The best tea I’ve ever had was in Shanghai during that semester abroad. I have no idea what kind it was unfortunately. I like tea, but I’m more of a coffee drinker. Black coffee.
Will’s writing has been compared by readers of his early works to classic authors from Hemingway and Hitchens to some of the great defining authors of the modern generation including Michael Crichton and John Grisham.
His debut novel, The Tomb of the Primal Dragon, is a genre bending exploration of both what it’s like living in the modern day in a world where technology eclipses meaning, and an exciting adventure following the geopolitical balance between the world’s great superpowers as they plunge headfirst into the new theater of war, the digital world.
Fans of thrillers looking for a fresh take on the genre as well as those trying to understand how technology is shaping the future will find much to dissect in his writing.
A special thank you to Will for his time and the interview today!