Mark Lawrence Interview
Disturbing, beautiful, chaotic, poetic, haunting, exhilarating… Believe it or not these are all words I would use to describe a single book: Prince of Thorns.
Prince of Thorns is the debut novel of British author Mark Lawrence; a book I reviewed earlier this year. Looking back on the book now, a few months later, I can say that it has stuck with me as one of the finest books I have ever read. Although not released until August this year, I would be willing to make bets that Prince of Thorns will be in the top five of most fantasy review websites 2011 lists at the end of the year.
Personally, the discovery of this book has caused me to list Mark Lawrence in my top five favourite authors. And seeing as the other four are: Weeks, Brett, G.R.R.M., and Rothfuss, hopefully you get a feeling for how highly I rate this incredible author.
After reading the book I felt a need to shout out about it and it just so happened that when researching Mark Lawrence I found he had Facebook. I sent him a message telling him how incredible his book was and to my surprise I got an almost instant response. After a few emails back and forth I found that he lived just about 10 minutes away from me…crazy huh? Anyway, knowing that as soon as this book is released people are going to be all over Mark Lawrence, I asked him if I could jump in and get an interview with him before things get too crazy. To my delight, he agreed and the following is the result!
Let me just say before we begin, Mark Lawrence is an interesting man who has a lot to offer the genre. Completely dedicated to his role as the head of the family, he has at the same time held secret level clearance with both US and UK governments. As he himself explains, “At one point I was qualified to say ‘this isn’t rocket science … oh wait, it actually is’.” Although his writing is extremely dark and at times scarily brutal, this high grade intellect and admirable personality is something you will still see shining through in his writing. Perhaps, in my opinion, this is why Mark Lawrence is one of the only writers I have come across able to flawlessly write a first person novel.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about yourself and what it was has led Mark Lawrence to the imminent release of a fantasy novel in 2011?
I’m not sure anything led me. I think it was more a process of random blundering. I’m a research scientist, a forty-something with kids, and what until recently was very definitely a sideline in writing. My interest in writing grew out of an early involvement in tabletop role-playing games. That interest led into text-based play-by-mail fantasy, and then into writing short stories. After a while short stories turned into long stories. I never considered that it would lead to publication. When I queried a few agents it was guilt that drove me – I’d been given a big fat book on writers’ markets (2008) listing agents and publishers by a friend who thought I should ‘go for it’. I’d left the book to gather dust, but after a year the book’s imposing presence on my desk and the fact my friend had spent good money on it drove me to act!
How would you describe Prince of Thorns, what is it about and who will enjoy it?
I try to avoid describing it where possible! I never want people to tell me about a book, just to tell me I should read it. Of course those are people whose opinions I trust. When pressed, I say Prince of Thorns is a violent swords-and-sorcery romp and that can be the level you enjoy it on. People of a more literary mindset can find various themes about evil and free will in there. Other readers may enjoy the prose. It seems to me that what you get out of a book often depends on what you bring to it. The younger reader may enjoy the thrill and the passion, an older reader might appreciate the pathos and the story between the lines.
The tale centres on revenge and I hope any fantasy fan will enjoy it. The book won’t tax you unless you want to be taxed.
Could you tell us a bit about how the idea for the story came about?
There really never was an idea for the story. What there was, was an idea for a character, an idea for Jorg. I wanted to write as destructive and violent a character as I could without losing the readers’ interest. I wanted to find a way to bind the reader to this person’s story so that they couldn’t look away no matter how much they might want to. And that’s something that Anthony Burgess managed with spectacular success in A Clockwork Orange.
I find that if you have a sufficiently compelling character they will gather a story around them as they go. You just need to give them a little push to set them going and then to try to keep up as things unfurl. Generally, as I wrote the first word of any given chapter I had no idea what would happen in the next page.
Prince of Thorns is certainly dark. Being that it is written in the first person, how difficult was it getting into that mindset of the protagonist?
Hopefully it doesn’t make me a bad person to say ‘really easy’! Jorg is very human. Not a good human, but a human none the less, and his instincts are in all of us to some degree. Writing some of the detail when others fall foul of Jorg, now that’s a different matter. The devil is in the detail.
Without spoiling too much – (because most readers are still anticipating the first book) – what are your plans for this series? How far do you plan on taking Jorg’s story and have you already penned sequels to Prince of Thorns?
I have very recently completed the third book of the trilogy so whatever plans I had (and they were few) are now committed to electronic ink and paper. Prince of Thorns was written to stand alone. The subsequent books take Jorg’s story into very different places as he grows. Book three is the end of the tale. I don’t believe any character should outstay their welcome.
Now that you have sold this novel is writing something you are able/looking to do ‘full time’? I know your personal circumstances mean that you have a lot of time at home – So how will this change your life?
I still cycle off to work every day and stay there until the school sends my little girl home, then I look after her full time (and her disability means that really is FULL TIME) until she goes to bed. I’m not about to give up the day job. For one thing I enjoy it, and selling one trilogy won’t keep my family going for the next twenty years! The only real change is I don’t need to feel so selfish when I take the time to write and the added income has compensated what I lost having to go part-time to care for my daughter.
In regards to reading, what are your top five books of all time, what are you currently reading and what are you looking forward to?
Most people’s top books will change depending on their mood, recent experience etc. Right this moment I would say:
1. Free Fall by William Golding
An accessible book by a noble prize winning literary genius that tells you everything you knew about the human condition but couldn’t put into words.
2. Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger
How to create a voice. How to write between the lines.
3. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The power of understatement/reserve.
4. Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein
So many things, the power of the language just one of them.
5. 1984 by George Orwell
Cold, hard, bleak, great.
Currently I’m re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire series in preparation for A Dance with Dragons, which is what I’m looking forward to, and comes out about three weeks before Prince of Thorns! On my ‘to read’ list are books by Rothfuss and Abercrombie who seem to be the authors that general good opinion is pointing me at most.
I know you have been interested in the genre for a long time and taken part in RPGs over the years. What do you think of modern fantasy (titles from say the last five years)? Could you tell us a bit about where you think things are going and what you think needs to change in order for the genre to keep growing?
It’s true I’ve been reading fantasy since the 70s, but I’ve read almost no fantasy that’s been published in the last five years. I think the only thing that qualifies is Peter Brett’s Warded Man/Desert Spear, which I had a lot of fun with. There was another recent fantasy book that I had to put down after thirty pages because the writing grated on me so badly. Other fairly modern fantasy I’ve read in the past five years has been confined to George Martin and Robin Hobb both of whom I find excellent and put to shame much of the 80s/90s fantasy that was pushing me away from the genre.
This very limited view of the genre’s recent twists and turns means I’m in no position to pontificate about the state of play or future directions. It does seem to me that fantasy has grown up significantly in the last ten years or so. But perhaps I’ve just been lucky with my authors.
Do you believe writing is a skill or a talent? Do you have any suggestions to want-to-be writers that will help them on their path to getting published?
Both. Just like being a mathematician or a football player. There are varying degrees of innate talent and that can be augmented to a considerable degree with practice/learning. I couldn’t have written a saleable book or short story twenty years ago. Two decades of practice has improved my writing. Two decades of practice won’t guarantee you any kind of success though, unless you’re wise enough to consider the journey a success in itself.
My advice to ‘want-to-be writers’ looking to be published comes in several parts:
i. You’re not a ‘want-to-be writer’, you’re a writer. At least you are if you’re writing. And if you’re not writing you’re doing it wrong.
ii. If by ‘published’ you mean ‘book on the shelves of major stores etc’ then the chances are that’s not going to happen. If you’re going to feel like a failure, like you’ve wasted your time if that doesn’t happen . . . then you should consider stopping now. I wouldn’t advise anyone to set out to be a published writer as a goal. If a person likes writing, let them write and enjoy it. You can’t lose. And if you get published in whatever form – great! Icing on the cake, cliché of your choosing.
iii. Join a critique group and experiment. Develop a skin that’s exactly thick enough to let you survive the sting of others’ opinions whilst not blocking out the lessons to be learned.
iv. Accept early on that there is no magic formula that will unlock the doors for you. No killer query letter, no golden rules of writing, no networking technique. The main requirements are that you can write well and that you get lucky.
Since selling your book could you tell us about how you have found the world of publishing? I remember you saying that originally when you handed it to the agent you said he expected things to move slowly. Then suddenly you sell the book and you’ve had this long wait (as is the game in publishing) until release. What thoughts have been going through your mind, and in terms of Prince of Thorns what have you been doing behind the scenes and with the guys over at Voyager?
My agent told me, about a week after I’d signed with him, that the publishing business moves with glacial slowness and not to expect to hear anything from him for a year or so. About six weeks later after an international bidding war between seven major publishing houses I had a deal! He’d not seen anything like it in his career. So that was exciting and more than a year later I still have five months to go before I find out if the public share the publishers’ enthusiasm.
Past that I’ve really had very little contact with the world of publishing. I’ve never met or spoken to a publisher. I was invited to lunch but my duties caring for my disabled little girl mean it’s very hard for me to get away from home, so I had to pass. The editing process took place by email and went smoothly. There were very few changes to make and my editor (a writer herself and an exceptional one) understood my work.
Voyager do a great job of keeping me up to date: here are a couple of ARCs, we’re going with this font, the dust jacket will look like this etc, but generally it’s out of courtesy. I’m not in the mix doing stuff. That would be very inefficient and I doubt any publisher would get anywhere with all their authors’ egos coming into the process on a daily basis.
I’m sure the folk at Voyager have been doing all the things a good publisher should do behind the scenes, but none of it calls for my input. So without wanting to burst anyone’s bubble – the publishing business from a new writer’s point of view is very much i) hand it over ii) wait.
Could you tell us about your schedule leading up to publication? What have Voyager got you doing? I’m wondering where we can look out for you and whether we can expect signings, etc.
I can’t! I’m not sure I’ve got one! Either it’s too early to be thinking about such things or there’s nothing to do. I’m really that ignorant about it all. Again, being a full-time career for a very disabled child (when not at work) puts a distinct limit on my ability to travel. I would guess I’ll be asked to do some kind of signing and the most likely venues would be in London and Bristol (where I live).
Last question! Let’s skip ahead 10 years. How do you want people to look back on Prince of Thorns as a trilogy?
If they’re looking back at it in 10 years then I will already have exceeded any reasonable expectation! If we’re in fantasy land then obviously I want them to look back on it as the famous start to a hugely successful career and string of film spin-offs so lucrative that I can employ JK Rowling to answer my front door. Realistically I’m interested in how they look back on it as they close the third book. I hope that they will feel they’ve been on a journey and that the story meant something to them – that for the hours they spent with Jorg they were taken to places they hadn’t been before and that will stay with them after the final chapter.