Thu
Feb 24 2011 5:40pm
Brent Weeks Chats with Peter Orullian

Brent WeeksI first met Brent Weeks the afternoon before his Seattle book signing for The Black Prism. Terry Brooks, Shawn Speakman, and I met Brent and his charming wife for some Mexican food before the evening’s festivities got rolling. I liked him from the get go. We had a great conversation at dinner, and sometime that evening I asked about doing an interview. He said yes and he and I have spent a few months casually trading emails. What follows is that exchange. Thanks, Brent!

Peter Orullian: Hey, Brent. Let’s roll first with the basics: books you’ve written, foreign languages, professional mentions, genre, and your thoughts on the meaning of life.

Brent Weeks: Oh, good, I thought this was going to be in-depth. I’ve written five books now—one of which shall never see the happy halogen glow of a bookstore—then The Night Angel Trilogy, and now the first book in a new series, The Black Prism. The Night Angel Trilogy is currently being published (or in the translation process) in thirteen languages. Let’s see if I can remember: English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Indonesian, Complex Chinese, Russian, Polish, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, and Greek.

Professional mentions... um, I think most professionals try to avoid talking about me in polite conversation.

As for the rest—aha, I see, this is one of those Get the Author on His Heels and Overwhelm Him interviews, isn’t it?

PO: You forget I’ve seen you do a live reading and Q&A. You’ve got that razor-sharp educator’s wit; I don’t imagine you’ve stood on your heels in quite some time. But big congrats on the foreign editions. Cool stuff! And while I do have some “thoughtful” questions, I’ll throw some frivolity in for good measure. But enough of this meta-interview rambling of mine. Now, your writing. I’m going to get one of my standard Q’s out of the way first; and it has to do with the idea of autobiography in fiction. Guys like David Morrell have some insightful ideas on this topic. And having both read and heard you read about some of the genesis of The Black Prism, I suspect you have ideas of your own this idea, no?

BW: I believe that it’s an author’s job to cast his imagination into the far spaces. Your life should—and I think it’s inescapable that it will—inform your work. I’m all for using anything that can make your art better, but your intuition should be an equal partner. It’s easier for me to write certain character types because of my own life experiences, but I find it too artistically limiting to only write about red-headed kids who grew up in small town Montana. That’s really part of the fun of fantasy, I think. Our imagination is basically unlimited. Okay, that’s a terrifying thing about fantasy, too.

PO: Okay, let’s build on that unlimited idea. So, of course, what I want to talk about is world-building. George R.R. Martin described two basically different writer-approaches as: The Architect, and the Gardener. (I capitalize, because they just seem important, don’t they?) Anyway, the former outlines extensively, knows the whole shebang up front; the latter discovers it as he goes, allowing things to grow, shaping. So tell me, are you an Architect or a Gardener? Or something else altogether?

BW: Some questions invite authorial dishonesty. One of them is, “How much do you plot out beforehand?” Any author who is young or insecure will want to reply, “Everything.” because it makes you look good. Telling a story is like trying to eat grapes with a fork. It’s always trying to get away from you. And if you’re a good author, and you’ve challenged yourself, and you’re telling big stories, there’s more and more that’s trying to get away from you simultaneously. We know this, and readers know it, and they want assurance that you know what the hell you’re doing. Here’s the thing: sometimes you plan something, and when you get there six months later to write it, you realize it’s boring, it’s been done, it’s not that good, it’s not believable with how you’ve portrayed the characters—whatever. What do you do at that point?

Stephen King gets up every day and writes his 2,000 words, and he doesn’t outline at all. He just writes, and if he feels like killing off a character and surprising us, he can. THAT is an organic writer or a Gardener in the GRRM analogy.

But the garden analogy is a little too loose to be really helpful, because there are too many different kinds of gardens. Maybe in a hobbyist’s garden you plant stuff and then you see what happens—great, the roses are doing well this year, too bad most of the tulips died off. Wonder what will come up next? But the gardeners at a posh English estate would think that’s nonsense. The bushes will be exactly this high, perfectly squared off, they’ll form this pattern, and when tulips lining this path (precisely 18 inches apart) die back, we’ll have daisies blooming in the spaces in between within two weeks.

Both approaches (Architect and Gardener) have advantages and disadvantages. Architects tend to have their plots payoff better because they know exactly where they’re going and what effect they’re building toward—but if you’re an astute reader, it can get much more predictable (unless they cheat, which is dissatisfying). Gardeners tend to be more surprising, but often don’t have the bang-up finish.

From reading his books, I assume that Dean Koontz is a Gardener. I remember reading one book that had time travel in it and near the end some people got killed off, and it was surprising, and I felt absolute dread. Please, please, please don’t go back in time and save all of them. Don’t do it, Dean! You’re better than that! And…sure enough, he did it. Probably because he wrote himself into a corner. But a Gardener can also write himself into a full-on dead end. GRRM confessed to writing down one path for a year when he was writing A Feast for Crows, then deciding it wasn’t right—and he had to start over.

Even this somewhat over-simplifies things. Stephen King might not outline, but he understands stories so well that he can reject the dead end paths and build toward a satisfying conclusion without an outline—the outline is internalized.

If forced to choose, what kind of a Gardener I was, I’m somewhere more toward the English Gardener. I have a plan, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate, I’m open to changing it.

Where would you describe yourself on the spectrum?

PO: Now, your twist is interesting to me—English Gardener. In my mind I see a meticulously tended thing, with statuary and all that. Nice metaphor.

You ask where I’d put myself on the spectrum: In the middle. I’ve written books completely “organically.” Worked out fine, I think. I’ve also outlined. But I hear tales of writers who will have a half-million words of world building before they write their novel. I don’t do that. I do, in fact, do a lot of world-building in advance—magic systems, religions, political infrastructure, historical events that shape the world, etc., etc.—and then I’ll often do a chapter outline. The outline will have some chapters with a healthy paragraph on what happens, others will have a word. The thing is this: For me, the outline is liberating because it gives me a general map, I get moving, and then invariably I wander far and wide. Sometimes it’s just as I envisioned; but just as often things happen I hadn’t planned at all. I’ve said this before in other conversations, but it’s all writing. Spending time before you put fingers to keyboard sketching out your plot or whatever, doesn’t have to mean it’s going to be predictable. A writer can think creatively, working in surprise and twists that occur in that writing approach, just as he might if he’s actually writing the tale “real-time.” I think of thriller writers who do a lot of outlining. While yes, some of these are predictable, I read a lot of them that aren’t—and these are by writers whose process I know is to get it all “architected” in advance. (Am I using a lot of quotes?)

Anyway, my point is that I agree with you, and I would adopt your cool new metaphor for myself: English Gardener. In any case, we’ve certainly put a lot of digital ink to the topic, and thanks for that. I love the exploration.

Now, next question, about the fantasy genre itself, what draws you to it? I ask because some writers love that they can put a dragon in the tale, others a sword fight, others love to build worlds (per our conversation above), and others like that good and evil can be portrayed and it doesn’t seem silly—the reasons are many. And I guess I’d ask this on both levels: what’s just damn fun for you, and (the deeper) “here’s what I think the genre can do that’s perhaps unique from other genres.”

BW: Fantasy is a playground for the imagination. Four hundred years ago, Edmund Spenser wrote a defense of poesy—the old school name for literature and poetry put together. People were saying, “You know, all this poetry is just lies. It’s immoral.” (That’s a mind-boggling objection to us, but not an irrational response only taken by medieval Christians. Plato—pretty bright guy—had the same objection to fiction five centuries before Christ.) Spenser’s defense was that poesy is truer than history.

Which is mind-boggling too. But here’s what he meant: if the dimmest screenwriter in Hollywood wrote a story of WWII, Adolf Hitler would not be allowed to commit suicide at the end. Either he would stand trial and face justice and die a bitter and broken man, or he would be killed in some spectacularly gruesome way. (Now sure, you could write an alternate history novel and do that, but alternate history is really on the same spectrum as any speculative fiction; it just asks fewer what-if’s.)

So yeah, I do love the freedom. I love that I have to and get to make decisions about everything. I love swords and magic. I love that as long as what I do has some internal coherency, I can do whatever I want.

As for the rest—like, does fantasy do things that no other genre can do?—I’m not so sure. I mean, you can write a murder-mystery where the killer is more moral than the cops if you want to. You can write good and evil in a literary novel (well, theoretically). You could have your fantasy world be absurdist or just reject notions of good and evil altogether.

Fantasy does get us conveniently away from our preconceived notions: if reader X lives in a ghetto, she might think cops are corrupt scumbags by default; she lives in the suburbs, reader Y might think they’re the good guys who protect her. Or reader Z might have a political or historical or religious purpose that means a lot to them that you accidentally trample all over.

The point is, actual history can interfere with people’s enjoyment of your story, or even understanding of it. Your audience can get hung up on things you don’t care one way or the other about. In a fantasy world, I can write about a guard who is corrupt surrounded by basically law-abiding guards, or vice versa, and it’s much easier to accept what I lay out as the facts of the situation. I both frame the picture and draw the picture. So on that level, the storytelling is clearer.

There are, of course, trade-offs.

PO: I haven’t thought about Spenser and poesy for a while. Really takes me back. And on your second point, I like your thought that the genre allows for some clarity in the story-telling, where readers can more readily accept your facts because those facts don’t necessarily come into conflict with the reader’s experience of their “real-world.”

Now, “epic.” The word has certain connotations in the fantasy genre. Your work has been described as epic by some. But I usually find that writers think about this term somewhat uniquely, particularly with respect to their own work. I’m interested in how you think about this subgenre of fantasy—how you might define the term—and whether or not you even categorize your own fiction, or if that’s all “downstream,” so to speak, left to the marketing folks.

The Way of Shadows by Brent WeeksBW: When I was writing the Night Angel Trilogy, I thought of The Way of Shadows as heroic or perhaps adventure fantasy—I know, two terms that are almost as loosely defined as “epic”—and the trilogy itself, as building toward being epic fantasy. So by the time I was writing Beyond the Shadows, I felt I was definitely writing epic fantasy.

The conversation does get  a little difficult now given that anything cool or successful tends to be called “epic” as in “epic, dude” or when Charlaine Harris’s vampire novels are shelved by Amazon as epic fantasy, I wondered if everybody else is talking about something and I have no idea what the hell they’re talking about! In the words of the immortal Will Ferrell, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Seriously, to me, an “epic fantasy” is a big chunking novel with a fully fleshed-out secondary world, frequently with lots of politics and magic and different cultures and so forth.  (I mean that it’s like Tolkien, in that the world feels very real, not that it’s like Tolkien just because it sold a lot of copies.) That said, I mostly concentrate on just trying to write a damn good story. If the epic label fits, fantastic. If it doesn’t, I’ll settle for the damn good story label. (Insert Brent smirk here.)

PO: Testify! And for the record, I think your work is hitting both. Now, let’s have your response to a bit of frivolity (before the heavy topics start to roll). Tell me about any writing quirks. You know, strange habits, superstitions, and whatnot.

Shadow’s Edge by Brent WeeksBW: I used to think that I didn’t have any real quirks, which is a bummer, because the “personal quirk” is usually the only thing people remember about a writer. William Carlos Williams? Wrote nude. Hemingway? Wrote only when knee-deep in tiger blood. Emily Dickinson? Spinster dressed all in white. Brent Weeks? Ahem. Brent Weeks? Bueller? Bueller? For a while, I thought about making up some outrageous lies to be interesting, but making up stories is cool when you’re asking for a novel, and not as cool when a guy is just lying to you. So, less drama, but true:

When I was young and poor and refusing to get a better job so that I could write, I lived in cabin on a lake in Montana. Absolutely gorgeous, inspiring. And when winter came, cold. I always wrote bundled in an old, ugly sweater and kept a candle burning because the cold made my fingers stiff. I’d type, thaw my fingers back out over the flame, and go back to writing.

My quirk now is that I’ll listen to peppy pop music, chick rage music, or Eminem—but often I’ll just put one track on repeat. You listen to something long enough, and it becomes like Zen meditation, the words cease to have meaning, like if you say rutabaga aloud a hundred times, it breaks down and ceases, but the beat and energy and feeling remains. Em is my ohm. So, headphones in, music blaring, coffee in one hand, internet off, closed in a room in case I subconsciously start harmonizing while tapping out an unrelated scene.

It’s a little weird, I guess. I should probably embrace it and call it my eccentricity. Who knows, maybe it’ll get worse and more interesting as I get older.

You have any rituals, Peter?

PO: Well first, cool on the music! I’d planned to ask you if you listen to music while you write, as I know many who do. Way to anticipate me, my friend. Extra cool that you listen to the likes of Eminem. I dig Em, too. And would love to hear some of those harmonies you mention, my dog. You know, King listens to a bit of Em himself.

As for me, my ritual is a little less interesting. I get up around 3:30 AM to write, since I have to do it before I head in to the day job. I usually spend 30 minutes or so catching up on mail, blogs I follow (which includes yours, so make ‘em interesting!), a few tunes and the like. It’s all just a wake up routine before diving back into the story. I do keep a spreadsheet right now where I input my daily word output to graph my progress against my goal. I like the red line being above the blue line—that means I’m ahead of plan. I mostly do this because the books are long, 300K+, and when you’re in it for the long haul, it’s nice to see progress.

And, well, there’s one more. I start the whole shebang with an Extra Strength 5-hour ENERGY drink. You and I chatted about this at dinner a while back. I think your brand is Rockstar, if memory serves. I’m totally going for an endorsement from those guys if the books go anywhere.

Okay, onward. Your four books into your career. Relatively speaking, I suppose that’s still fairly early, and yet, I’d be interested to hear how you feel your own work has or is evolving from the first few chapters you set down. Where are you growing? Are there elements of craft you pay more attention to? Like that.

Beyond the Shadows by Brent WeeksBW: 3:30! That’s so early it’s late! Oh my head.

One my place I’m growing is in descriptions. I’m definitely an action and character guy, and quite frankly when I read long descriptions, my eyes just glaze over and I start skimming until I see something happen. I’m sort of like that dog in the Far Side cartoon: ”wind blowing on the heath, Ginger, blah blah blah Ginger... Fancy dress with blue samite blah blah blah Ginger—He put his knife into the side of the man’s head.“ Awesome!

So when I got to a certain point in my growth as a writer and decided to write what I like, rather than what I thought I should like (i.e. when I got out of college), I think my writing was a little too sparse at times. I’d write, ”She was wearing a nice dress. He put his knife into the side of the man’s head.“

That fast pace is fine, and it allows me to tell a lot of story in the amount of pages that I do write, but the drawback is that you might not give readers a clear enough view of where they are, or how that setting makes the characters feel. Description matters if it matters to the characters. A fight in the parlor is different from a fight in a foggy back alley. Or if this character cares that that girl is wearing Swarovski crystals because they show she’s higher class—then it’s worth putting in. So I’ve been working in The Black Prism on giving clear, relevant details that help set the scene quickly, and then moving on. I’ll never be a detail-heavy writer, but I want to make the scenes clear and vibrant and easy to visualize.

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

In The Black Prism, I decided to take on the challenge of making up a completely new magic system. And then once I made it up, taking on the further challenge of explaining it in clear and concise terms. That’s hard because different readers have different levels of interest, quite bluntly, in anything you might come up with. Tom Clancy could write 50 pages about how a nuclear submarine works, and somehow get away with it; somehow, it worked. But I remember reading a fairly famous writer, who shall go unnamed, describe a character walking around a Roman villa for ten pages describing every household god and cistern, and I wanted to scream.

So those sorts of descriptions always feel like you’re shooting at a moving target. Some readers, once I start describing the magic, their eyes are going to glaze over as if I’m describing the details of a dress or the waving grasses of the heath. Blah blah blah magic. Blah blah blah boom.

I think I’m also worrying a little bit more about anachronisms as I go along. In Night Angel, I was most concerned with clarity of conflict. So sometimes I used more modern speech for the characters, and there’s always an uneasy balance between making the metaphors characters use clear and colorful, and making them correct for time and world in which they’re set. In Night Angel, I definitely used terms like ”kid“ and ”okay“—which I still don’t see as grave sins, but for some readers, that really yanked them out of the medieval setting. Now let’s be clear: this is a construct, a prejudice that readers have. We are writing, after all, in a secondary world. So of course, these characters wouldn’t be speaking English in the first place, but if they were, there’s no reason they would be speaking Elizabethan English rather than contemporary English, is there? Readers bring that expectation to fantasy novels themselves. It’s not a necessary condition that because a world uses chain mail, they’re going to speak a Chaucerian dialect. And in fact, if you or I wrote in Chaucerian dialect, only about five people would understand our books. As storytellers, we’re always looking for verisimilitude, not pure veracity. That contract with readers is always open to redefinition.

PO: I like your style, Weeks! You really hit something there. I’ve heard some description/detail work described using the term, “false detail,” like “tree” instead of “sprawling elm” or somesuch. But then there’s a particular thriller writer who shall remain nameless who will sometimes write something like, “He crossed the hotel lobby.” He doesn’t go all into describing the lobby, since the word “lobby” itself kind of paints the picture well enough—most of us have been in a hotel lobby, and frankly, it wasn’t a hugely important place for description. So, violent agreement with you there on relevant details for description, then on with the story.

And it’s funny you bring up what I like to call “anachronistic language.” I think I carry some of those same biases as a writer, sometimes, too. I mean, when it came to using cuss words in my book, there were times it felt natural to just get out with stuff I heard on the playground/campus/office. But sometimes it felt too 20th century. I must endeavor to get past that, I think—I’d hate to miss out on some good cuss words.

Anyway, I just finished watching “A Christmas Story,” you know, the one with Ralphie who wants an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. In that awesome flick, he has to write a theme. Now, it makes me wonder, is theme something you think about in your writing up front, afterward, not at all?

BW: First let me hit the cuss words discussion a little bit. I know this interview is getting really long, but after all, anybody who reads an interview between two epic fantasy authors kind of deserves it!

When it comes to swearing or anachronistic speech in general, I use both objective and subjective criteria. For example, I had a fan write to me strenuously objecting (somewhat like Demi Moore’s character in A Few Good Men) about my use of the f-word. However, the f-word has an old and noble heritage! If you look it up in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), which painstakingly documents the earliest uses of words, the f-word was first written down sometime around 1350. And was probably used for quite a long time before that. So actually, the f-word is probably one of the most archaic words in the book. But, simply because this reader hasn’t seen such an old and noble word used in the “Lo, come hither” fantasy that he’s been reading for years, he believed it was newer, simply through his ignorance. This makes him a moron. Just kidding, no, it doesn’t. But it does produce a conundrum for a writer. I know the word isn’t anachronistic because I look it up in an objective source like the OED. But if a large portion of my readers read it and think it’s anachronistic, it pulls them out of the fantasy world that I’m creating. So even though I haven’t messed up, the story is messed up for them. So I think it’s important as a writer to keep one eye on your story and to keep one eye on your audience. Like a comedian or a musician, you have to know what they’re getting and what they’re not. We have to make the same kind of calculations when we talk about things like clocks or steam engines—both of which were also known far earlier than most readers think they were. This isn’t to say writers have to, or should, only reinforce their readers’ ignorance, but it does mean a smart writer should pick his or her battles. 

And by the way, that whole “Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock” is a brilliant use of detail (and perhaps this is why you quoted it) because those details matter to Ralphie, so even though they don’t matter to us as viewers, they’re vitally important to the plot, and thus belong there. It tells us something about the depth of his passion that he’s memorized this, quite bluntly, BS marketing speech, and holds it dear to his heart. 

Theme! Oh theme! When somebody says ”theme“ I think of my high school English teacher giving us an assignment to keep us busy for 30 minutes, most of which were spent asking our classmates, “Timmy, you get A’s. What’s a theme?” Do I have themes in mind when I write? Yes, but: What I remember from my English classes when people would say “What is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s theme in The Great Gatsby?” puts the question in a mental, intellectualized realm where I don’t think it belongs. And is certainly foreign to how I write. When I think of my themes for a book, I think “what are the moral conundra that I want to wrestle with here?”

Wait, no! That makes it sound intellectual! (Sorry, that “conundra” just snuck out! Either too much Latin or too little for sure.) I guess what I’m saying is that themes are what emerge as I wrestle alongside the characters with impossible dilemmas, and grieve and cheer with them at what it is to be human.

Do you tackle such things more logically, Peter? Or to throw more high school English at you, do you engage in wanton symbolism?

PO: I have to go back to the cuss words, too—funny that we’ll spill so much digital ink on it. I think of cuss words—and other possibly anachronistic stuff, like technology—much as you do. I always look for a historically accurate corollary to my “second world,” to see if I’m the friggin’ moron for even suggesting such uses in the timeline of my novel.

And I wind up choosing my battles, as you say. Because, again like you, I know some things will throw a reader out of the story, and it’s not worth it to me, even if I’m right. Other things, well, I wind up hoping the reader will come along with me.

By the way, can I use your “Lo, come hither” line? Nevermind.

Yes on Ralphie’s line. The detail is everything there.

And I feel you, brother, when you talk about high school English flashbacks at the mere mention of the word “theme.” And I think the thing it does is supposes the writer meant “theme” from the get go. Oh, some probably do. But I think theme is something you look back to find for the most part, or maybe recognize it as it happens. So, I think I’m in violent agreement with you on this one.

Because I don’t start thinking, “Hmmm, ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’, I think I’ll write about that.” But, I can tell you once I finished book one, that theme came screaming off the page. I never thought about it until after. And frankly, a reader doesn’t ever need to, to feel (hopefully) the emotional effects of that in the story I wrote.

And yes, I prefer epic interviews, much better reads, I say. So, a few more, then we’ll do our summation/conclusion, as any good English student does.

Now, this one’s a bit heavy. It has to do with an idea called “semantic contagion.” Simply put, some ideas shouldn’t really be put out there, because some ideas aren’t healthy. An example would be the condition known as apotemnophilia, which is the desire to have a healthy limb amputated.  According to the theory of semantic contagion, this notion might never have occurred to folks if they hadn’t read about it. Thus, publicizing the condition causes it to spread. Regardless of the example, the whole notion springboards into a question of self-censorship. In other words, are there some topics it would just be better we avoided, or at least avoided trying to write sympathetically. I think, here, about that film, The Woodsman, with Kevin Bacon, where he plays a pedophile. Even if a writer could write a sympathetic pedophile character, should he? Stuff like that. Interested in your thoughts.

BW: I think the question about “semantic contagion” is a question of whether or not you believe in good and evil. That restatement may seem like a bit of a reach, but bear with me. I do, indeed, believe that there are some things that oughtn’t be written about. Yeah, I’ll go ahead and make that a categorical statement. Not just that I ought not to write about some things, but that some things ought not to be written about, period. I think there’s a couple of reasons for this. First of all, there are unhealthy ideas which, as ethical human beings, we just shouldn’t encourage. So, as an easy basically non-controversial example, let me point out that there are “pro-ana” websites: websites that celebrate the mental disorder called anorexia. On these sites, girls (it is predominantly young women) encourage each other in their mental illness, which destroys their lives, their bodies, and their families. That’s sick and wrong, and if I knew a young woman with an eating disorder, it would be wrong for me to tell her “Heck, there’s two sides to this argument. Before you go into therapy, you should read up on some pro-ana views too.” If she ended up starving herself to death, I think I would bear some part of the blame for it.

I think that fiction is an excellent place for us to struggle with questions of good and evil, and humanity and inhumanity. My first novel, The Way of Shadows, deals with street kids living in a city that’s totally corrupt and where no one’s looking out for them. To describe their lives honestly and accurately—and honestly for the character to go the way that I wanted it to—I used a lot of rough stuff. There’s sexual abuse in the first book, and I was aware as I was writing that some of the people who would read my book would be survivors of sexual abuse themselves. I knew that I had the possibility of retraumatizing people who’d already been through hell simply through writing compelling, psychologically accurate fiction.

My first draft had a scene of sexual abuse just played out like any of the other scenes in the book, with the main character experiencing what he experienced, and thinking what he thought, and the reader sitting right there with them, in Azoth’s head. It was, at that time, one of the most powerful scenes I’d ever written. But I knew I was going to have to change it. So about a year later, when I finished the book, I went back and asked myself, “Is this necessary? Does it do more good than harm? Is what it accomplishes worth what it costs some few readers?”

The answer I came up with was that the events were necessary for the characters, but being there while all the events transpired wasn’t necessary for the reader. So I cut parts of the scene and dealt with the whole issue with a different narrative technique.

I’m mostly happy with the balances that I came up with in The Night Angel Trilogy of depicting hard choices in an unforgiving world and the fallout of those choices. But I do get a little squeamish when I see a twelve-year-old reading my book.

The harder questions, of course, are exactly what you define as deviancy or evil, and what you think you need to portray as honestly and humanely as possible. And that’s one that I hope every writer of “gritty” fiction will think about before they send in that final draft. I haven’t seen The Woodsman, and quite honestly, never, ever will! It is certainly within my narrative powers to portray truly perverse characters in a sympathetic light. Heck, lots of novelists can do that, because there are a million techniques, manipulations, and tricks that we use every day to make readers think what we want them to think. However, having the power to do something doesn’t mean you should. What do you think, and what is an example of a semantic contagion that you’ve deliberately avoided? Or, alternately, indulged?

Au Dela des Ombres by Brent Weeks

PO: Weeks, you and I must have been separated at birth: Our views here are identical. I may be wrong, but I sometimes feel that writers (heck, artists of any sort) are so sensitized to the word “censorship” that their knee-jerk is: “Hell, no! Anything that serves my art…” and all that nonsense. That said, I think if I had the time and inclination to make a list of things that oughtn’t to be written sympathetically, maybe that list isn’t so long. Not sure. And frankly, I don’t lose any sleep over the topic as a whole.

Now, as for something I’ve avoided, there is something I struggled with a bit recently. Ten years ago I created a historical event for my fantasy novel that proves rather defining for ages (in that world) to come. I knew one day I’d write the story of that event, and somewhat dreaded it, since I thought I knew how it would play out. I recently, finally, wrote that story: “The Great Defense of Layosah.” So, I don’t want to give too much away, but if anyone reads that story, the struggle will be fairly obvious. The hint—if I can call it that—that I’ll give is that this “struggle” I mention became a whole lot more personal after I became a dad.

And as it happens, I recently had a sexual abuse seen in book two of my series. It was another of those scenes I knew ten years ago that I’d one day be writing. Came up last week. I chose not to get graphic, didn’t seem necessary. All the same, I felt like I was dancing on the edge of a blade. In the end, I think I carried off the impact without the insult of the “gritty” stuff—if that makes sense.

Okay, so with that happy conversation behind us, let’s turn to a lighter topic. Who do you read? And let me make this a two-parter: 1) What writers might you consider your influences, and 2) who, today, do you rush out to buy the day their books hit the shelves?

BW: One of the killers of being in the book industry has been that writing and analyzing writing all the time has sucked a lot of the joy out of reading for me. So it is a lot harder for me than it used to be to just read a book and enjoy it rather than trying to figure out what’s working about what the writer’s doing, why she made this choice here, whether I think this amount of description is necessary, or whether this foreshadowing is too blatant. Especially as I’ve gotten pressed against deadlines and have had to work really long weeks, it’s gotten hard for me to read and just have fun—which I think is really important. 

The writers that I count as influences are probably pretty standard, because they’ve all done really, really well: Tolkien, GRRM., Jordan, Rowling, Card, Koontz, Tom Wolfe. And then the ones that sound pretentious to say: Poe, Shakespeare, and Homer, are probably the biggest influences on my writing. I think that the writers that you run into as a young person, especially the ones who are geniuses and have a really strong vision, are the ones who influence you forever. The awesome thing about being a writer is that now I get free books, so when Peter V. Brett or Blake Charlton or Jon Sprunk or  *cough* Peter Orullian comes out with a new book, I often get a free copy! How awesome is that? I did get kind of screwed and didn’t get the new Pat Rothfuss, though. Huh....

PO: Love that you mention guys like Shakespeare (did I say “guys,” like I’m all pals with him?), since I, too, love the bard. When sometime we’re at a con together and the night has waxed on, we should talk about how Shakespeare is the only writer whose work is known to stand up to quantum theory.

And I’ll make sure you get this little book of mine, never fear. Can’t help you with Rothfuss, though. Maybe challenge him to a duel or something gentlemanly like that.

Now for a rather speculative question: If you could be a character in anyone else’s novel, who would it be? This is a psych test, so answer carefully....

Actually, I’ve heard of this other writer whose work stands up to quantum theory as well: Stephen Hawking. I kid, I kid!  

I don’t know, man, all the novels that I like are full of death and pain. And you know, the main character growing and stuff and “becoming a better person”—it all sounds most unpleasant. Maybe a Victorian novel. With tea. Yes, lots of tea. And people could call me Lord. Yeah, that would be okay.

So here, to throw one back at you: how old would you want your kids to be before they read your books? And, how old would you want your kids to be before they read my books? Mwahah.

PO: So, fiction as “self-improvement,” your saying? Nah, I feel you.

And then Weeks comes through with more mind-reading. My daughter asked me just the other day how old she’d have to be to read my book. “Older,” I said. I honestly don’t know. I think it will have a little to do with the maturity of the kid. How’s that for deep? I say this not because of sex, or even violence, in my books, but of the harshness on the young in the world I’ve created. Not necessarily as a specific or deliberate thing, but just, you know, it’s not all civilized and urban like our peaceful world today (that’s a joke). But it’s rough. Oh, so rough. Still, ballparking, probably in the thirteen-year-old range, with some guidance from me.

As for your books, I’m still hiding from them after the first read. They would like to “get” me, like little book-bots bent on my destruction. But to answer your question about your work, probably about the same age as mine.

Okay, softball question: Best concert you’ve ever been to?

BW: Actually, my best concert experience was probably working on a stage crew for Stephen Stills, shortly after he’d had a top 10 Hit with “Treetop Flyer”—which was the only song of his I knew. He sang a 45-minute set, didn’t sing “Treetop Flyer,” and then left. We, as the stage crew, had the fun time of clearing speakers and cables while people threw empty beer cans and cursed at us. That was awesome. My career as an aspiring roadie ended that night. 

How about you, you a big concert guy?

PO: I love live music of almost any stripe. I dig the energy and atmosphere and anticipation. For me, though, the band or artist has got to be actually playing, singing, whatever. I care about real musicianship. If I just wanted theatrics, I’d go someplace else for that.

But it doesn’t need to be the big stadium thing, you know. I get just as jazzed about small clubs. In fact—and to state the obvious—small clubs can be mega cool, since you can get a better view. For this reason, I really enjoy discovering great groups early in their careers when their tours bring them to smaller venues. That said, one of the last big shows I went to was Trans Siberian Orchestra; that show was off the charts awesome with lights and theater and fantastic players and vocalists. A week later I saw Mannheim Steamroller do their Christmas concert. It was a kickin’ way to start the holiday season.

Sticking with the music theme, here’s another softball: Other than Em (mentioned above), what are your other musical favs?

BW: So, I’m guessing you didn’t love the Black Eyed Peas Super Bowl performance, huh?

I think I got soured on going to live shows early, when my brother introduced some really great opera. So you’d listen to these CDs of the best cast in history singing the Verdi opera Rigoletto and then you’d spend $70 to go to a production of Rigoletto and realize these people were butchering your songs. I knew intellectually that comparing some starving artist to Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland wasn’t fair, but I was still a poor student who was out $70 and kind of pissed about it. That, and living in the hinterlands of Montana, combined to quell my own showgoing enterprises. 

I tend to like any kind of music that you can tell the artist brought a lot of passion to. So sometimes this is stuff like Pink, or No Doubt or Sum 41 or early Green Day or Paramore. 

The world of the Night Angel trilogy

PO: I don’t usually enjoy halftime acts. Even when there’s a great artist, they do medleys. Medleys?!

And I hear you on passion. Unfortunately, though, I’m sorry to say, I’ve seen way too many bands who have nothing but passion—rough on the ears.

Last question, then. What can we look forward to in the next few years from you? Will you write primarily in worlds you’ve created? Novels beyond those worlds? Give us a preview of what lay ahead?

BW: I’ve been really lucky. When I finished The Night Angel Trilogy, it was selling at a pretty good clip, but hadn’t yet blown the doors off, and my publisher came to me and said, “Brent we want your next three books. Whatever you want to write is cool with us.” (Now, I’m sure I could have come up with many ideas that wouldn’t have been cool with them, but that was the gist of it. )

At the time, I was really divided between writing more in the Night Angel world immediately, because I know the stories I have to tell there, and in trying my hand at something really different. I decided that I wanted to stretch myself. And to see if, by doing new things, I could come back to the Night Angel world (Midcyru) with new vigor and new techniques to make my stories stronger. 

So I’m really fortunate that I got that second deal when I did—heck, I’m fortunate that I got a second deal, period!—because, if I had had the big upswing in sales first, there probably would have been a lot of pressure on me to keep doing what worked last time. Which is to say, keep doing a series forever. 

The plan is that I’m going to write The Lightbringer Trilogy and then I will write more books set in Midcyru, either two years or sixteen years after the events of The Night Angel Trilogy. I know what happens to the characters, but I haven’t figured out yet how best to tell their story. Whether to jump forward and then reveal the past, or whether to take it in more measured steps, just straight forward. But I’ve got a couple years to solve those problems yet!

In the short term, I have a novella that will likely be coming out in the early autumn this year. That story will be all about Durzo Blint and how he came to be the man that you meet in Night Angel. It’s a prequel of sorts, and at times I was tempted to turn it into its own novel. I felt like it was a little bit thin of a story to inflate to a 200,000 word novel, but as a 16,000 word novella, it’s absolutely jam-packed with actiony goodness. My hope, I won’t even go so far as to call it a plan, is to write one long short story or novelette in between each book of The Lightbringer books, each one focusing on some different character or part of Midcyru’s history to keep that alive for both fans and myself. 

I may also work in some graphic novel adaptations in the next couple years. Fingers crossed on that one. 

 As with all fantasy writers, that’s just “the plan.” I’m pretty committed to it, but I’ve seen things happen with too many other guys to say it won’t happen with me. I’m doing my best to keep the 15-book series bug at bay.  

So what about you, Peter? Please don’t tell me The Vault of Heaven is going to be 15 books, or I’ll have to apologize right away!

PO: I like your plan of doing the novels in the new series and interleaving it with some tales from Midcyru. And I’ll keep my own fingers crossed on the graphic novel adaptations. Would love to see that!

As for my own series, right now I’m targeting 6 books. I won’t balloon the whole affair, and actually if I can keep it tighter, I will. I’ve also gone on record saying that if I get to book 4 or 5 and it’s winding down, I’ll end it. I’ve got three other big projects I want to write, so there’s no lack of material.

So hey, man, thanks! I really appreciate your time in doing this epic interview. It’s been a lot of fun, and at times thought-provoking. All good stuff.

 

Folks, it’s not likely you haven’t heard of Brent Weeks, but if you’re one of the few who hasn’t, now you have. And you’ve no excuse for not running out and picking up one (or all) of his books. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a Nook or somesuch device, you really should already have purchased something of his while you were reading this interview.

Cheers,

Peter


Peter Orullian is the author of the upcoming fantasy novel The Unremembered, the first in the Vault of Heaven series. Check out his website for more information and his ongoing fantasy author interview series.

7 comments
Ian P. Johnson
1. Ian P. Johnson
Great interview. I'd never heard the "architect vs. gardener" approach to writing. That's pretty cool– when it comes to my writing, I tend to let the story do what it wants. Any writer will tell you– they don't control where the story goes. The story has a mind of its own– it controls where you go.
Chuk Goodin
2. Chuk
Yes, very nice interview, fun to read, too.

I liked the Night Angel books but so far I'm liking The Black Prism even more. I'll have to see if the whole trilogy holds up, but I think I noticed the increased description. He still gives good action scenes, though.
Ian P. Johnson
3. dwndrgn
Black Prism was one of my favorite books of 2010. The Unremembered is on my wish list.

Great interview!
Paul Weimer
4. PrinceJvstin
Fun and interesting interview that has revealed a lot about both of you. Bravo!
Ian P. Johnson
5. metarock
Thanks a lot, that was probably the best interview I've ever read on tor.com.

I have a question about the map of Midcyru, and maybe someone who has read the books can be so kind as to answer it. The borders in that map make it look like post-colonial Africa (or the state borders in the U.S. for that matter), which were artificially drawn up, rather than "evolving" over the course of history. Is there an in-world reason for such straight lines?
Ian P. Johnson
6. Michael M Jones
Not only have I been buying Brent's books as they come out, I've also been buying them on audio from Graphic Audio.  And holy socks, his stuff translates well into audio format.   I routinely end a listening session with "damn you Brent Weeks" for delivering such awesome stories.  

Great interview.
Jon Sprunk
7. JonSprunk1
"The awesome thing about being a writer is that now I get free books, so when Peter V. Brett or Blake Charlton or Jon Sprunk or *cough* Peter Orullian comes out with a new book, I often get a free copy!"

Brent, to be mentioned in such high company is a compliment beyond words. Thank you.

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