Alex Darwin isn’t your average science fiction writer. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has been a combat sports practitioner for over a decade, and knows the world of MMA inside and out. When I hop on Zoom to conduct this interview, he’s quick to show off his home office: a desk-and-laptop setup accompanied by plenty of mat space a few feet away – perfect for a sparring break between churning out novel chapters.
“I’m still figuring out [how to balance my life],” Alex tells me, laughing. We’re chatting a few weeks out from his first ever traditional publishing book launch, and he’s juggling a little bit of everything: book promotion obligations, family life, day job duties, and of course, jiu-jitsu training.
“You get all this pressure as a debut [novelist], and you hear all these things like, ‘How this book sells is going to determine the course of your career’ – and of course, I know that there are exceptions, and of course I know that that’s not completely true. But there’s always a part of your brain that says it is. And I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself.”
“It’s crazy right now,” he concludes, wryly. “The balance is not there – and I’m just being truthful right now. I wish I had a better balance right now, but it’s just a scramble, trying to keep up with everything. But I’m just telling myself that once the book comes out, I’m going to hit a rhythm writing new stuff again.”
Alex’s longstanding jiu-jitsu practice, however, is great for getting him both out of his head, and out from behind his desk. “In an ideal world, training definitely helps. It makes me happy,” he explains. He’s been using his at-home private mat space to the fullest extent possible.
“I try to train, or at least work out, every day, and just set my mind right, while getting regular work done as well,” he tells me. “I’m lucky because I run my own business – it’s a marketing business – so I’ve been really fortunate in terms of being able to set my own schedule.”
Given his lifestyle, perhaps it’s inevitable that Alex’s martial arts background led directly to the birth of his first novel.
As a science fiction writer myself – not to mention an obvious jiu-jitsu aficionado – I found myself intrigued by Alex’s books long before we first got acquainted. His debut science fiction series, The Combat Codes, takes place in a world where, instead of full-scale wars, conflicts between nations are resolved in single combat between gladiatorial fighters trained for this express purpose.
In other words: what if instead of nuclear war, we settled international incidents in an MMA cage? It’s a hell of a hook.
When Alex sent me an ARC – that’s book people speak for “advance reader copy,” i.e. the uncorrected versions of books that go out to reviewers and other publishing professionals before the novel hits shelves – I dug in, and found myself immediately entranced. The writing, sure enough, lives up to splashy pitch, with strong pacing and memorably drawn characters. It also offers just enough detail in its action sequences to excite diehard fight fans without alienating non-martial artists.
How does he choreograph an on-page fight scene that captures interest from fighters and non-fighters alike?
Alex chews over the question thoughtfully. “I think the example that did resonate with non combat sports enthusiasts-slash-athletes that I’ve used a lot is that if you’re actually watching a fight – like MMA or boxing or even jiu-jitsu, to some extent – is [focusing on] what actually sells the fights to say, the spouse of the person who just loves watching fighting. Of course, the person who loves watching fighting, we could just watch whatever, right? But, to the person who doesn’t – the thing that sells it is all the backstory.”
Backstory is key in The Combat Codes. When Alex chats about the process of developing stakes for his fight scenes, he cites inspiration in the promotional content produced by world class MMA promotions like the UFC and ONE Championship. It’s essentially a matter of studying content from UFC Embedded, or from ONE Championship’s world famous storytelling machine – the content that truly delves into the storylines behind each athlete, and gets fans rooting for one fighter or another – and adapting that energy for a novel.
The Combat Codes’ fight scenes do also stand up to scrutiny from true experts in the art of violence. The novel has grown famous in both bookish and martial circles for its unorthodox blurbs – featuring testimonials from the likes of Kenny Florian – former UFC star turned professional MMA commentator – and Ryan Hall, jiu-jitsu black belt competitor turned UFC featherweight.
The grizzled UFC fighters’ words of praise for Alex’s prose sit on the official Hachette page for the novel, right alongside quotes from established science fiction and fantasy novelists, and reviews by Publishers’ Weekly and Library Journal. The mix of quotes from people who punch faces for a living and people who read books for a living is, according to a laughing Alex, a first for his publishing team.
Though The Combat Codes would ultimately score a traditional publishing deal via Orbit Books, an imprint of Hachette, and one of the biggest adult speculative fiction imprints in the business, Alex’s book series began life humbly, as a self-published labor of love.
“Combat Codes kind of had three lives,” he explains to me – the first of which should be familiar to anyone who reads the Jiu-Jitsu Times.
“I wrote it almost as a love letter to jiu-jitsu and MMA,” says Alex of the book’s earliest beginnings. “I was in San Francisco, and working in the Silicon Valley startup scene at the time – this was around 2013, when I started working on it, and I was in my blue belt, purple belt love affair phase of jiu-jitsu, and also in the Silicon Valley world. So, self-publishing – so far as Amazon and KDP and all those tools – was a very natural progression.”
The second life began when Alex submitted the book to the SPFBO self-publishing contest – which was in its sixth year at the time. Though Alex had originally submitted his novel on a whim, The Combat Codes proved itself the little book that could, making it all the way to the finals of the contest. That gave Alex the confidence to realize that he might have something special on his hands – which could appeal to general audiences, not just niche combat sport fans.
Which brings us to the third life of The Combat Codes, which took place when Alex signed with a literary agent. The agent began shopping the book around big traditional publishers – and the rest is history.
The traditionally published iteration of the book both expanded and tightened up many aspects of the self-published version. Not only did Alex add a whopping 30,000 words to the total manuscript word count; he also worked a lot harder to make the book palatable to a non-fight fan audience.
“One major thing that changed was that the original self-published version was very much written more for jiu-jitsu fans.” He laughs. “Almost to the point where – when I look back and read that version – it makes me cringe a little bit. There were a ton of Easter eggs with popular jiu-jitsu star names – and even some of the nation names. That all changed, to make it more palatable for general SFF fans and readers.
“I’m really happy that happened,” emphasizes Alex, smiling, “but I do have a fondness in my heart for when it was just for jiu-jitsu fans. And we found out very quickly that even that version could appeal to general sci-fi and fantasy fans – because they didn’t get the Easter eggs, but they still picked it up.”
At the end of the day, I can best describe The Combat Codes as a story practically tailor-made to lure fight fans into science fiction and fantasy, if they don’t already read the genre – but it might just as easily convince some longtime science fiction readers to sign up for their first jiu-jitsu class.
Buy your copy of The Combat Codes today anywhere books are sold.
Preorder the limited edition Combat Codes-themed Inverted Gear collection here.