Friday, June 2, 2017

Michael Atamanov - interview

To celebrate the upcoming publication of the second book of The Dark Herbalist series we made a big interview with Michael Atamanov. We thought it's a shame that readers over the ocean know nothing about author of the bestelling series (Perimeter Defense and The Dark Herbalist). So, we're making it up to you right away.

According to your Amazon bio, you were born in the city of Grozny: the capital of the Chechen Republic in the south of Russia. According to my calculations, you came to Moscow around 1991 or 1992. Is that correct?

That's right. As a runner-up in several national chemistry competitions, I was admitted to Moscow University without having to pass the entrance exams. They had just created a new Faculty of Material Science with only thirty freshman vacancies. In the end, they actually admitted more applicants on the condition that every seven weeks they were going to expel the person with the lowest ratings until they had the right number of students. I found it very stimulating, of course. We had two international chemistry competition winners and lots of runners-up, myself included. Quite a few of them had been studying at the Moscow University Preparatory School so their math skills were absolutely out of this world. I could never dream of anything like that. And yes, they did begin to eliminate people. Every few weeks they kicked someone out. Plus they expelled really a lot of freshmen based on their first mid-term exam results. They only kept those who were really prepared to do the work.

What kind of specialists was the faculty supposed to train?

Officially, material research scientists. In reality, however, we worked in all sorts of research labs: inorganic as well as physical chemistry ones. I chose analytical chemistry. I did spectral foetometry and worked on creating new testing methods. But as we entered our third year and were about to start the obligatory military training (which replaced military conscription for university students), we were appointed army mathematicians - not chemists as you might think. We had to write computer programs, solve problems, work on win-lose and mini-max systems, that sort of thing.

What was Grozny like before the war?

Everyone who visited Grozny used to comment on how green it was. For a Southern city set under the scorching sun we had an incredible number of parks and gardens. The soil there is wonderful: you throw anything on it and it'll come up. We had a two-bedroom apartment and a cottage in the countryside with a fruit orchard and a garden allotment where we grew tomatoes and cucumbers. You could grow anything there. Then we had to flee, leaving everything behind. Afterwards, it broke my heart to see the city in ruins.
The 1990s did have their share of ethnic unrest. That was already after the Azeri-Armenian conflict and the Fergana Valley ethnic cleansing. There were lots of other things, too. The local administration was too weak. The army had left. Chechen guerrillas attacked military bases and seized weapons. Sometimes my father who worked at an oil refinery saw dead bodies on his way to work. They would kill someone at night and just leave them there. The evening sky was criss-crossed with tracer flares.

Mind telling us about the Chechen war?

While I was in Moscow studying, things in Grozny got really out of hand. Dudaev and his nationalists seized power and held a so-called "referendum" on devolution from Russia. That was absolute and utter bullshit. Not a single voting station was open. Nobody wanted to participate in that mockery. That didn't prevent Dudaev from publicly announcing that "the whole of Chechnya" had voted to separate. Ethnic Russians were persecuted and forced to flee Chechnia. The more of them that left the country, the harder it was for those who stayed put. The first Chechen war broke out. Last time I visited my country was in August 1996 just as the separatist guerrillas had entered Grozny. That's when my family left, too.

Why didn't you leave earlier?

That's the question I keep asking myself. You know this thing about frogs? If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it'll jump straight out. But if you place it into a pot of cold water and start heating it up slowly, it'll just stay there until it boils alive. This is probably the same mechanism. Whoever stayed behind must have hoped that things might still work out in the end. But they only got worse.

Were you there during the military action?

Quite a few times, yes. I witnessed air raids. I saw people die. The shooting was non-stop. Sometimes we had to lie on the floor and couldn't get up because we'd attract the attention of snipers. I'd just finished my fourth year at uni and decided to spend my vacations at home. And I arrived right in the war zone. Most of our friends and neighbors had already fled. They had to do it promptly if they wanted to live. A lot of others were killed. One night, the militants killed eighteen people in our street. They didn't notice our house because our front door didn't face the street. It wasn't just Russians who fled. Quite a few of the new regime supporters, both Chechen and Ingush, also did. No idea if any of them ever came back to their homes.
Me, I went back to Moscow to graduate. When I was doing my post-graduate studies, I met my future wife. So it just happened that I stayed here. I found a job. We bought an apartment under construction, then had to wait until the house was built. We didn't really make any plans to stay here.

Let's talk about your EVE Online experience. I know that you joined the DarkSide, a powerful PvP alliance.

I had two characters. One was a trader who made me money. The other... he tried everything. First he was doing Imperial missions. Then I got a bit bored with it. I needed more variety. I joined the alliance. We moved to a nullsec where we were mainly doing building and POS work. We had our own claim - but we were only a satellite of a bigger alliance, of course. At first we were based in Querious from where we moved to this NPC null in Fountain. We were ultimately forced out of there because our allies had lost to the Huns and the Pandemics. After that, we moved to RED Alliance - Russia's biggest, which currently doesn't have a claim of its own. We joined RED sorties as plus allies. That's when I knew that's what I liked doing the most. I kept an eye on the bigger PvP alliances including the DarkSide even though I knew I had few chances of ever being accepted. So I decided to build up my stats a bit by guarding low sec entrances to drone regions with other guys.
That was when the first ED & IRK vs. RED war started. The two made quick work of the Reds. Then there was another war, defending C-J (then RA's home system), etc. By then, I had very decent shooting stats. I had about 100 kills a month. So I applied to the DarkSide. Their diplomats took a look at my stats and said I could come over. So I did. Now there the ambiance was absolutely incredible.
We were busy doing something almost every night. It was FС Creamster who organized everything. At the time, his main char ranked #3 and his secondary char, #5. He used to run Friday gangs which were truly special. Other players left work early just to sign up. The fleets were perfectly kosher: God forbid you tried to install some dodgy stuff, you would have problems afterward. He was an excellent commander and could explain things really well. Naturally, he demanded strict discipline. At first we flew drakes - they may be easy prey but perfect to build up experience. I did too. More experienced players used to fly logistic ships or tackle interceptors. Later I moved on to a Nighthawk - a Caldari command ship - in the same position. At first Creamster wasn't very happy about it but then he gave up and gave me his permission. I never lost this Nighthawk despite the fact that I often finished the battle without any MWD or resistance modules left because I'd burned them out.
The problem with the DarkSide was that they made quick work of their neighbors. We had to venture further and further out to find anything at all.

How was your flying experience with the DarkSide?

We had all sorts of battles. One strategy I remember is when we'd enter some large alliance and set up a POS. Naturally, the locals would put it into reinforced mode. We waited until the reinforce timer was about to elapse, usually arriving just in time for a quality scuffle.

And what if the enemy brought their capital ships against you?

Well, we had to fight them, didn't we? It was actually more fun that way. One day we threw together a fleet of fifty ships. And the enemy had three hundred. The battle lasted four hours. The enemy would retreat, change ship and renew their attacks. Still, they didn't seem to be doing too well. Either they didn't have a consolidated command or... I dunno. By the end of the fight, each of our pilots had over a hundred kills.
But then Creamster lost all interest in Eve and left: first to Dota, then he left Dota too for something else. He took many good players with him. We had other fleet commanders, of course. The alliance was never short of staff. Now things really began to change. We started flying alpha ships like long-range Lokis each fitted with equipment worth a billion. In those days you could already encounter fleets with fifteen logistic ships. You just couldn't tackle a tank like that without alphas. Money was no object. We had about a dozen Angel Agents in G-0. Four hours of farming could earn you a month's subscription.

Apart from its own combat system, Eve also has its political structure. Did you use any of it in Perimeter Defense?

Not really. Even the combat thing I didn't copy blindly.

Why did you base your own game system on reputation?

By then, I'd already read a lot of LitRPG. The thing that annoyed me most was the sheer amount of stats that didn't really play a big part in the story. Okay, so the MC has so much strength or XP, now what? It might seem interesting at first but then you begin to ask yourself what you're supposed to do with it. So I tried to create a new system which was based on reputation. In order to pursue new goals, you had to have a certain standing. Just a system I came up with.

Are you planning to conclude Perimeter Defense at Book 4?

The main story line will definitely be finished in Book 4. Lots of readers asked me why in the beginning of Book 3 my MC had to get involved again. Why would he allow himself to be deceived? The answers to these questions are in Book 4 although I can't yet tell you when it'll be translated. Currently my translator's got his hands full with The Dark Herbalist.  

Talking about The Dark Herbalist, didn't you say you'd only planned two books?

When you're on a roll and you just can't get your butt off the chair, that's when you produce your best work, I think. Seriously, I wasn't planning to make the Herbalist series too involved. I finished Book 1, then Book 2, then people started asking questions. So I had to start Book 3. It's a bit heavy going, but still.

Some people complained about your rough treatment of girls in The Dark Herbalist. Twice in the course of the book your MC hits girls: first it's Kira, then it's this lady in the hospital. I'm not saying they didn't deserve it, but still: why?

Never thought about it. I might have to consider this. It just felt like a perfectly natural thing to do when I was writing the book.

Are you trying to justify your MC's actions?

I am. He did what he had to do in that situation. It's something my parents had taught me: if someone attacks you, you should strike back. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to advocate beating women! It's just that every situation is different.

Don't you think that your MC is indecently lucky? First it's the Wyvern Egg, then it's the hunt conditions he literally forces on the corporation. Don't you think he has it too easy?

Well, every such case has a reason and an explanation. What I tried to show is that my character's relationship with the game is different. His immersion is deeper. For him, his NPС partners are more than just bits of binary code. If we take Taisha...

Yes! Taisha!

I don't know how to explain it to you without giving away any spoilers. In Book Three, the corporation will try to work her out. They'll be giving her quests in order to find out how she ticks. I also plan on going back to leveling herbalism. For an herbalist, my MC seems to ignore it entirely. The new management will point this fact out to him and will try to give him appropriate quests.

Did you initially plan not to develop the herbalism theme too much?

I came across this herbalist idea while on holiday in Abkhazia. I spent some quality time researching herbs and their properties; I came up with a whole leveling system - specialization, XP, everything. Then I realized it probably didn't make for a very interesting read. So I decided to file my research away for the time being and concentrate on the story instead, showing my hero working, playing and solving his problems.

Do you feel yourself part of the LitRPG genre?

I think I do - probably because I don't have much to my name in other genres yet. At least here I already have a readership. My page views for my LitRPG books are considerably higher than for my other stuff. I'm talking of my Russian audience, of course. I keep toying with the idea of writing something in other genres but when I think that I'll spend six months on writing something that might have less than a hundred readers... no, I'd rather stick to LitRPG.
I've just made available the Russian version of Book One of my new series, Bending Reality. That's techno LitRPG: no magic, no goblins. Actually, no, there is some sort of magic-ish thing in it, as well as other races too. Still, this time I decided to use things we're more used to, like firearms or Kevlar armor. At the same time, there are other creatures here. Take a minotaur, for instance: you just can't smoke it with one clip. Now imagine this minotaur is a fellow player who has his own agenda: to barge in and brandish his axe left, right and center. Why not? Even if he gets killed, he'll resurrect within a quarter of an hour.

Is traditional LitRPG old hat these days? Do you feel that you're obliged to add some new slants to the genre?

Oh yes I do. Had Dmitry Rus written his Play to Live series today, he might still have gotten it published but it wouldn't have been so successful. At the time, he was a pioneer. And now that every detail has been done to near death by a multitude of authors, it's not as easy anymore. I'd say that some truly original takes on the genre is what might sell these days. Like real-world based LitRPG, this sort of thing.

All the LitRPG books I read feature some really old-school game systems. You'd think they're supposed to be games of the future but still they're based on the same old stats which are gradually becoming obsolete these days. Why?

Probably because every author bases their books on their own gaming experience. It's not easy to come up with something truly revolutionary. Creating a futuristic game system that works is quite a challenge. A book author isn't exactly the same as a game script writer. The former is more interested in the story, the latter in the system itself. I tried to come up with a specialization-tree based system similar to those in today's shooters.

Could it also be nostalgia?

Oh yes. Gamers make a very special part of my readership. Many of them write to tell me that after reading Perimeter Defense, they wanted to renew their Eve subscriptions.

Going back to The Dark Herbalist, a lot of readers really loved the fact that the MC is a goblin. But as I was reading the book, I wasn't really sure if it made any difference.

At first, I wanted to exploit the goblin theme. I came up with this idea of a goblin village. I wanted the reader to see mob farming in a different light. You're probably right, I should have expanded it further. Thanks for the tip. I might need to add something - like a goblin Summer Moon festival, for instance.

In the second Herbalist book, you mention a few novels that must have influenced you personally. Like Treasure Island or Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. What other books could you list that affected your personal development?

Our mother did her best to introduce me and my brother to good literature. She bought us a whole collection of classics like Captain Blood, The Three Musketeers, the complete works of Jules Verne starting with The Mysterious Island... Personally, I was into science fiction, reading authors like Andre Norton and Harry Harrison. Later in college, I discovered Tolkien. I loved his books but my brother didn't. He thought it was too much like a children's fairy story. The recent film was much more believable, I have to admit. I don't read a lot these days. My work takes up too much time. Only occasionally I manage to find a few minutes to do some reading.

Are you working toward writing full time?

I've given it a lot of thought. It might actually happen at some point when I can afford to earn a living by doing what I love.

And how about your other interests like material science or cyber security?

These things used to interest me at some point but not anymore. It seemed a shame to abandon my hard-earned university degree. Still, life moves on, bringing with it new interests and new goals.


  1. Are you working on another Dark Herbalist book? I really hope so!!

    1. Hey! Thanks for reading our books. Another Dark Herbalist book is supposed to be released but there is no schedule for it yet. We'll keep posting all the information we have on the subject ASAP

  2. Oh thank goodness! I hope it’s soon, I’m looking everyday.....