Really good and well thoughts answers from the author of the Demon Cycle about his new fantasy series, terror, the changing nature of epic fantasy, and Shogun?
For the longest time I knew I had conducted an interview with Peter V. Brett but for some reason maybe the file never carried over during various iterations of the site. I finally found a copy in my email circa 2008.
This would have been right before his debut novel was released and I recall vividly I had one question I really wanted to ask him (regarding a specific rather dark scene) after reading, so I knew my interview wasn’t something I was just imagining. Here it is and I must say he gave some great thoughtful answers to some rather base questions by yours truly.
I’m pleased to be able to represent this interview with novelist Peter Brett, whose Warded Man may soon be headed to the big screen.
Peter Brett’s debut, The Warded Man, is scheduled to hit U.S shelves tomorrow and is published by Del Rey. It was released in the UK last year as the Painted Man. The Warded Man is the first of three books that Brett has on tap for us (the next being The Desert Spear), and one that I really enjoyed and will get into a bit in a future column.
I want to welcome Peter as we talk terror, Shogun, an overdue CS Friedman shout out, and I even snuck in the Postman!!
Jay – Let’s begin by talking concept. You immediately tell us that at least on the surface what the cause of conflict is on your world, and even just remove it as a conflict and make it merely everyday life. Where did the concept of an eternal battle at night come from, and how did just putting it out there free you as a writer?
Peter Brett – Wow. Good question.
I think on the purest level, mankind has been at war with the dark since the beginning of time. We’re vulnerable in the dark, and we don’t care for that feeling one bit. Overcoming darkness has spurred countless inventions and advancements throughout human history, and yet even now we can’t do some things at night, and a simple power outage quickly reminds us that humans were meant to be diurnal.
The concept of night being the time when the monsters come out is something addressed in most every culture’s folklore and mythology, as anyone who’s ever heard a vampire or werewolf story can tell you. I think it’s part of our genetic code to make up ominous shapes in the darkness.
But I was going for something a little more than that, using darkness and demons as a metaphor for the way I and many of my fellow New Yorkers (not to mention countless people worldwide) felt after September 11.
Everywhere you turned, there was someone telling you to be afraid, that nothing and nowhere was safe. Every time you tried to calm down and just make dinner, the government raised the color alert code, or there was a special news report on bioterrorism or dirty bombs. It’s no wonder people went nuts for a while.
But as time went by, we all got used to the fear, the same way we got used to the fear of nuclear holocaust in the 80’s, or got used to the coming of night. Eventually, it just becomes part of life, because you can’t lock yourself away in the basement with canned food forever. Sometimes you just have to accept your mortality and learn to live with fear.
I think setting up my world in similar, if more fantastical and extreme, fashion allowed me to focus more on people just trying to live their lives as best as they can, rather than the usual “quest” stories you see in fantasy. The supernatural problems these people have are right in their backyard, and it’s how they react to them on that level that makes the story wheel turn.
Jay – Did it hinder you at all?
Peter Brett – For a while. Without a specific, willful antagonist or a formal mission for my protagonists, I faltered a bit in the early drafts of the story. There wasn’t a lot of precedent for that sort of thing in fantasy, but I also read a lot of horror stories, and such themes are more common there. When I finally got the formula right, the story really took off.
Jay – For readers who aren’t familiar with the series – was released in the UK as The Painted Man – can you give them a Hollywood pitch of the Demon series?
Peter Brett – This series takes place in a world where demons rise out of the Core at sunset, hunting and killing with reckless abandon until banished by the dawn. The demons, called corelings, cannot be harmed by mortal weapons. The only way to protect yourself is to hide behind circles of magical symbols known as wards, through which the demons cannot pass.
As a result of the demon depredations, humanity has been reduced from great technological heights to a near-medieval level, and lives in utter fear and oppression, isolated from one another by any distance greater than a day’s travel, because being caught without proper wards when night falls means almost certain death.
It’s the story of a boy named Arlen who decides he can’t bear to live that way anymore, and runs away from home. As he grows up, he finds like-minded folk, and they try to make it so that no one has to live that way ever again.
But it’s harder than they think.
…oh, and there’s sex and violence.
Jay – The Warded Man follows the lives of three characters. The premise makes me assume Arlen was the first character developed. What was the process of picking the other two threads (a healer and one emotionally scarred musician)? Were they something that fit right in or was there deliberation?
Peter Brett – You’re correct that Arlen was the first character to be created. The first draft of the book was entirely in his point of view. On a basic storytelling level, I knew that my fighting hero needed someone to patch him up when the fighting was done, and someone to add enjoyable exposition to help drive the story. They grew into much more, but in that early draft, Rojer and Leesha were introduced as adults, albeit with tons of backstory I had created for each of them.
But the story didn’t work that way, and I realized it was because those backstories were a perfect counterbalance to Arlen’s lonely struggle, and needed to be threaded in much earlier in the narrative. I think it was that change in the story’s structure that made The Warded Man resonate properly, and the characters just took off once I gave them their own voices.
There was a real lesson in that for me as a writer, pointing out what I now see as a weakness (at least, for me) in single POV storytelling, particularly first person narratives. Even the best protagonists color everything with their own perspective, and can never witness all the events that drive a story without some sleight of hand by the author. It can and has been done well, but it’s not the writing style for me.
Jay – What elements do you think most came through regarding both Leesha and Rojer that we wouldn’t have got if we only had Arlen’s perspective? Did they transform more even to you, even with you having their backstory in-hand?
Peter Brett – Absolutely. Leesha the most. My original plan was for even the revised story to be 60% Arlen, 20% Leesha, and 20% Rojer. You saw how that worked out. Both characters came to life in a way I hadn’t expected, and were off having adventure after adventure before I could stop them. I even have short stories in mind for all three of them that take place during some of the time gaps inThe Warded Man.
I think Rojer and Leesha provided a much broader portrait of Arlen’s world, and the struggles of normal people against their demons, both internal and external. They also allowed me to deal with a lot of topics in the story that I otherwise could not have.
Jay – One of your characters is a member of a well known guild in your setting. Rojer is shown to have magic abilities via his music, something that could be a play on the magic of stories and the oral tradition – is he tapping into something any Jongleur or person could? Has a price he paid given him these abilities?
Peter Brett – Well that’s the million dollar question, and one Rojer himself will struggle with in future stories, as will Arlen and Leesha. All of them appear to have special abilities that no one has ever before seen, and which will prove extremely difficult, if not impossible, for others to replicate.
In all fairness, Rojer had as good a shot at being a great musician as anyone. He was apprenticed at age 3 to a Jongleur who was, at least at one point in his career, at the top of the game. Rojer was made to perform alongside his master almost immediately, learning the Jongleur’s trade as he went, and probably logged thousands of hours making music by the time he started wowing people with his talent, and tens of thousands by the time his playing reached the point where some might call it magical.
It’s a pet peeve of mine when characters don’t have to really earn the things that make them special and separate them from other people. Their special “plot coupon” is just handed to them as if by divine providence by some fortune of birth or wise and mysterious benefactor.
You won’t see a lot of that in my books. I’m much more interested in the ambiguity. Is the Warded Man the Deliverer, sent by the Creator to save humanity, or is he just an ordinary man who dared to do something unthinkable and succeeded?
Jay – Is the ‘unknown’ between population centers akin to perhaps wanting to make your setting a continent that is a frontier, possibly even a bit American Western inspired?
Peter Brett – Definitely. I liked the idea that demons had torn down human civilization, so that land their ancestors had mastered was now unknown wilds to them, thick with the ruins of a dead civilization.
In many of the smaller hamlets, Tibbet’s Brook in particular, I was going as much for a Little House on the Prairie/Spaghetti Western vibe as I was the classic pseudo-medieval feel of most fantasy stories.
These are people who understand that they need to solve their own problems, because help isn’t coming in time if the demons breach the wards. The folk squabble, but they also depend on their neighbors and community to survive more than they do some distant government, and help one another when the chips are down.
Jay – You almost immediately threw away the concept of true chivalry with the attempted actions of a Messenger with Leesha. Due to the fact that it really served very little purpose beyond the moment, was this an intended message about the tone and reality of your setting?
Peter Brett – Well, I would say that the scene in question did serve a purpose beyond the moment, as it has repercussions later in the story, and in the second book, as well.
That said, I think chivalry exists as much in the world of The Warded Man as it does in our own world. That is, it exists, but not nearly as much as we would all like to think. The Messengers in that world are not knights in the traditional sense; they are more like mercenaries. They are hard men doing a hard job that most folks can’t begin to understand, and more often than not, they are scarred by their experiences, both inside and out.
Even the best of us constantly struggle with our human weaknesses, with varying degrees of success. I think having characters faced with those same weaknesses, both in themselves and in those they encounter, is what makes a fantasy world compelling and relatable.
Jay – I was getting a (forgive me!) a Postman feel from your Messengers. Is your influence more literary or is that a good analogy?
Peter Brett – You mean that Kevin Costner movie? I swear to God I never even saw it. Messengers are more like Tolkien Rangers in my mind, if Rangers got the respect they deserved from people. They’re all fiercely independent, highly trained fighting men, loosely unionized by their Forts, who can’t stand being cooped up behind city walls.
For some Messengers, there’s a real rush in being out at night with the demons; for others, it’s just a living. Either way, they are very respectful of one another, even to those from the guild chapters in other cities, who compete for their business.
Jay – Was it a message that even in times where humanity is at constant war, that humans still violate each other?
Peter Brett – Human history shows countless examples of this, and it’s certainly a major theme in my stories. In fact, it will be the driving concept behind the third book in the series, The Daylight War. Even when the demons are literally breaking down the wards, humans will still be fighting amongst themselves.
Jay – You show an example of a ‘demon’ that remembers, and indeed follows one of your characters who maims him. Is this meant to, again, be a message of confronting your fears or it will continually follow you, no matter where you go?
Peter Brett – Yes. There is a disquiet to all the protagonists of The Warded Manthat comes from constantly running from their problems, even when they have no other choice. One Arm repeatedly shows the moments when Arlen stops running, and how alive it makes him feel.
Of course, he’s also a scary-ass recurring threat to wet the reader’s pants now and again, but that doesn’t sound quite as erudite.
Jay – What examples of first person pov do you think have best pulled the form off, and can you discuss any specific example that perhaps turned you away from the first person pov?
Peter Brett – Most authors have tried writing in first-person POV at some point. It’s a very tempting style because it lets you really get in a character’s head, but I think there are a lot of unforeseen pitfalls to the style that can handicap an author as well.
The first and foremost of these in my mind is that the reader knows right from the start that the protagonist survives their adventures with a sound mind (and likely body), in order to write about them. That cuts an enormous amount tension out of any scene where the protagonist is threatened. The author has to work a lot harder in order to thrill the reader to the edge of their seat when they know in advance the protagonist is going to get out of whatever fix they find themselves in.
You also lose a lot of tension and immediacy because everything is firmly in the past, as if it happened years or decades ago, as opposed to the short past tense of most novels, where the story could have happened a minute or a century ago, or could even be unfolding right before your eyes.
In addition, when everything is filtered directly through a single POV (first person or otherwise), the author has a lot less avenues to provide important story information to the reader that the protagonist has no reason to know.
Frequently they are forced to rely on dreams, psychic powers, or just ridiculously fortunate coincidences in order to get certain information across. Like how Harry Potter always stumbles on a hiding spot just in time to overhear Malfoy’s latest plot, or how his psychic connection to Voldemort only activates when some piece of information is needed to move the story along. At times like that, a clever reader can see the author’s puppet strings, and those strings should be kept hidden whenever possible.
As for examples, I won’t talk about Herman Melville, because I could never read more than ten pages of Moby Dick without falling asleep. Robin Hobb and Patrick Rothfuss are better examples, I guess. Most everyone seems to have read Assassin’s Apprentice or The Name of the Wind. Hobb and Rothfuss manage to craft first person POV stories that are compelling despite the above limitations, but many writers don’t.
Jay – Is the Warded Man the Deliverer sent by the Creator to save humanity, or is he just an ordinary man who dared to do something unthinkable and succeeded? I would find the two equally synonymous and unrelated depending on one’s point of view. With that in mind, you introduce more than one candidate for both that looks to be one of the focuses of the next book. Can you tell us about him and his people? I think the obvious observation may of a middle eastern-like nation, but I see a bit of Greek Sparta.
What enticed you to have two potential claimants?
Peter Brett – A major theme I want to explore is the Messiah idea. Do we need a savior, or is that just an excuse not to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps? It’s the eternal question of which is more important to a society, secular civitas or religious dogma/doctrine. Both the Warded Man’s culture and Jardir’s have both, but in different balances. How this affects the societies when the Deliverers are ‘revealed’ is something I want to explore, as well as how it drives the two men, who once were very close friends, apart.
One of the wonderful things about writing fantasy is the ability to pick interesting things from a variety of cultures and mix them together. The Krasian people in the story are a hodgepodge of a lot of cultures. Their martial arts are based on force-diversion schools like Ju Jitsu, Aikido, and Hapkido, as well as modern combative styles like Israeli Krav Maga.
Their warrior culture follows the Japanese samurai model. They spear fight in Phalanx like the Spartan citizen soldiers, and their religion/culture’s flavor is mostly a mix of ancient Islam and Judaism. Their lost city of Anoch Sun give the impression of an Egyptian funeral city. They are tribal, and frequently count coup against one another, often resulting in deaths. They drink a cinnamon-based version of Greek Ouzo/Turkish Raki.
But from that mix has come a culture that is, in my mind, vibrant and unique and with its own story to tell. I am very eager to tell it.
Jay – You touch on perspective above, but with you utilizing flash backs of previous characters in your next book, it looks like you are going to be experimenting with point-of-view and perspective as much as you can.
I have seen that you noted yourself an admirer of George R.R. Martin, and though playing with pov is not something he brought to the table, he seems to have popularized it in your epic/high fantasy corner of the medium. What do you take from his work and was his work in any way associated with your own decision or the availability of that decision to work with perspective in such way?
Peter Brett – That’s a big question. Let’s start with the end. Epic fantasy frequently has multiple point of views, but usually limits the number to something easily manageable. Writers like Martin and Robert Jordan broke that mold, though, flooding their books with a constantly increasing number of point of views, most or all of which are compelling and fascinating in their own way. The enormous popularity of their books shows that there are many people, myself included, who love this approach.
The challenge, of course, is to keep the number manageable, because as both authors also illustrate, the world can easily grow so big that it becomes cumbersome and time-consuming to keep it straight and moving properly in the context of a larger story.
I think another modern master of the multiple POV who doesn’t get the credit she deserves is CS Friedman. Books like This Alien Shore and The Coldfire Trilogy do an amazing job of leaping from one character to another while still moving the story forward.
But the book that most inspired me in this regard was James Clavell’s Shogun. It makes your head spin with its complexity, and yet all ties up in the end. After 900 pages, you are totally willing to read 900 more. He doesn’t even need to show the actual end.
Jay – You’ve told me that originally this series was entitled the Demon Trilogy. I understand this is no longer the case?
Peter Brett – There was never a formal series title. I pitched a few to the publishers, but nothing stuck. Harper Voyager in the UK went to press first, and decided to call it the Demon Trilogy since they had bought three books and the word “trilogy” seems to get attached to every fantasy book as a matter of course. To be fair though, my ending the series in three books was (and technically still is) on the table, but I think that no one involved wants that to happen unless the bottom line demands it, which seems unlikely. My plan was always for about five books.
So far as I know, the US release of The Warded Man has no series title at all.
Jay – How many books has Del Rey bought?
Peter Brett – Three. Out of the 11 markets where The Warded Man will be published (US, UK, Germany, France, Greece, Japan, Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Spain, and Portugal), I think only Japan, Russia, and Greece did not purchase three books. The Japanese translation went on sale in September 08, and I am told it is selling very well. Hopefully they will want the following stories. I sold the Greek version personally while I was in the isles for a friend’s wedding. The Island of Kos, where Unicorn Publishing is based, is incredibly beautiful. If I have to go back to sell the next one too, well, so be it…
Jay – Will you introduce a new POV character in The Desert Spear? Will we perhaps see the point of view of a demon in The Desert Spear?
Peter Brett – A new POV character? Ha! I’ll give you three for the price of one, one of which will in fact be a demon POV. The Desert Spear has as its main protagonists Ahmann Jardir, who is the leader of the Krasian people, and Renna Tanner, who was promised in an arranged marriage to Arlen in the beginning of The Warded Man. All the other POV characters from the first book will continue their voices in the second, but more as ensemble to Jardir and Renna’s arcs.
The third book will introduce more voices as well, and so on until the series ends around book 5 or my head explodes. I expect the former, but you never know…
Jay – So you are giving face and voice to the ‘cause’ of fear?
Peter Brett – I don’t think fear has a cause. Fear is something that comes from within. It’s an internal battle that can affect the outcome of external conflict, but it is not caused by it. We cause it for ourselves, and can overcome it the same way.
Jay – When you mention people like Martin or Jordan (and I’d throw in an Erikson) you have authors who started series and have spent a sizable amount of time in telling their tale. In many cases, we don’t see a lot of major non-mythos related work. While I concede it’s a great problem to have so much interest in single projects to be able to sustain and succeed, I was wondering if you have other projects being pitched at the moment or that you are working on, are do you find that you work best immersed in one project at a time?
Peter Brett – Well, that may be true for Jordan, but Martin has a boatload of other projects than his Song of Ice and Fire. So many, in fact, that his more numerous aSoIaF fans get grumpy when he’s working on something else. I haven’t read Erikson, though I was given a copy of Midnight Tides at World Fantasy this year, and it’s on my towering “to read” pile, where countless good books go to die because I read so slowly.
As for me, I have almost three books written of another series that I was working on before writing The Warded Man, with yet two more volumes plotted. I think I’ve grown a lot as an author since I wrote those books, but there are also things in those stories I am immensely proud of, and I have not ruled out going back to that world, smoothing out the rough edges, and finishing that tale.
I have kernels of ideas for other projects as well, but I’m trying not to let them germinate while I’m focused on fulfilling my obligations for the current series.
Jay – You mention both sex and violence, two words that generally get taken for their most extreme or inappropriate definitions when talking in this medium (for whatever reason).
For most of the book, I felt that The Warded Man has this very interesting all-ages (and by all-ages, I mean all ages, not YA) feel to it much in the way I feel Patricia Mckillip’s Riddlemaster has, but then you have two or three instances that make The Warded Man precisely not all-ages. Was it a balance you were conscious of, and what do you think those instances reinforced or even introduced that was so valuable to lose that characteristic?
Peter Brett – That’s a good question, and one I’ve given a lot of thought to. I enjoy all-ages books like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series or Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books myself, and that is probably the safer course in terms of mass market appeal.
However, I think such stories lose a certain level of realism, and limit, as a result, the level of emotion they can evoke in their readers. When someone reads one of my stories, I want them to feel that anything could happen on the next page, maybe even something they don’t want to see. I think that sense frees both author and reader to engage on a deeper level.
At the same time, though, I have no interest in doing things purely for shock or gratuity. I don’t start a book thinking I need a certain amount of sex, violence, or recurring characters killed. Everything should be in the context of the story.
To be honest, there were a couple of things in The Warded Man that I was expecting Del Rey and/or Voyager to edit/cut in order to catch that mass market appeal, and I was fully prepared to fight with them over it. I was pleasantly surprised when neither of them had a problem with any of it. It actually made me more comfortable to push the boundaries a bit further in The Desert Spear, which is a darker book in many ways, and deals with the long-term consequences of some of the things readers witness in The Warded Man.
Jay – Entering the mind of a female lead in an epic/high fantasyish setting is always interesting in terms of seeing how – particularly male authors, and debut authors – handle them. Any difficulties? Did you have a model you were working with?
Peter Brett – I was kind of worried about it when I first started writing female POV’s many years ago, but the truth is I find it easier and more enjoyable a lot of times.
Maybe it’s because I was always too nerdy for sports and also spent 10 years in publishing, but I have always had more close female friends than male. Women tend to approach problems and lead others differently than men do, and I think that’s interesting to write about.
But regardless of gender (or species), I try to make all POV characters complex and unique individuals, because I think most of our gender roles are the product of nurture and not necessarily nature. If an author properly shows those defining moments of “nurture” in their story, it is possible to can craft a perfectly believable character who breaks all the expected societal rules. Frequently, those characters are the most interesting ones to read about.
Jay – Fundamentally, is the Warded Man about fear?
Peter Brett – Yes. As I said in my answer to the first question, fear is the primary theme of the first book. I try very hard to show how it affects people in different ways, and how it can become so hard-wired into a culture’s way of life that people stop questioning it. The thing that makes my protagonists special is not that they are fearless, but that they are too stubborn to let their fears stop them from living their lives as they wish.