Peter V. Brett Interview
Peter V. Brett has done something to fantasy that very, very few authors before him have managed. He has burst into the genre and written a book that is damned cool. Now, let us not understate the importance of this. Fantasy is geeky and we love it for that reason, but Brett was able to write a book (The Painted Man/The Warded Man) and have even the high-school jocks nodding and saying to themselves, “Damn, this is awesome!” And that is certainly an achievement.
As much fantasy as I have read over the last few years, the world of the Demon Cycle is one that has stuck with me. Peter V. Brett is perhaps one of the finest and yet most subtle worldbuilders there is. As you read through The Painted Man or The Desert Spear, you are completely gripped within the atmospheric tension that has been created. The world is terrifying and you share with the characters the feeling of dread as night approaches.
The first book was quite simply magnificent and book two only advanced on that. Brett showed not only his talent and skill, but his confidence and bravery with the sequel. He dropped the characters of book one for almost half the second book in order to expand the world in a way no one saw coming, and ensure that the storylines could truly earn the series its status as an epic.
As a result of his talent and resulting success, Peter V. Brett is highly in demand. Not only is he working hard on his third book (which he promises will be thick enough to choke a blue whale!) but also he has been working on comic books (Red Sonja Blue) and attending a good amount of conventions. It is with great pleasure then and a feeling of joy that we were able to pin him down (not quite literally, although we were prepared to do it if we had to!) that we can present to you the following interview. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did and if you haven’t read anything by Peter V. Brett yet, do it! Do it now!
After The Painted Man attracted so many readers and was such a success—presumably for its simple storyline and ease to follow—the HUGE evolution of characters and expansion of events in book two was a bold move. Can you explain your thoughts going into book two? Was it always your plan to cross over to Jardir’s point of view or was this something decided after book one? Were you nervous about how it would be received by your audience?
It’s hard to say anything was “always” my plan, because books grow and evolve over time. However, in preparation for this interview I took a look back at the first draft of The Warded Man, which was written, submitted, and rejected by my current agent back in 2004. Back then it was titled Tibbet’s Brook, and had a completely different ending than the version now on shelves. It was also told entirely from Arlen’s POV, with Rojer and Leesha serving only as supporting cast.
But looking at the foreshadowing in the text at key spots, I can see that even then I knew some things to come. I knew, for instance, that Arlen would have to return to Miln and Tibbet’s Brook, facing the problems he had once run from. I knew Renna Tanner, the little girl everyone had forgotten by the book’s end, would play a big role in Arlen’s future.
I knew then that book two was going to focus on Jardir’s conquest of the green lands in great detail from his POV, but I didn’t decide until later that I wanted to make him the book’s main protagonist.
By the time I sold the third draft of The Warded Man in 2007, The Desert Spear was plotted out in full, and I had already started writing the young Jardir chapters. I had no idea at the time that the first book would be a success, but regardless, I didn’t want to keep rehashing the same plot over and over with each book. I still have a lot of growing to do as a writer, I think, and I don’t ever intend to stop experimenting and stretching the boundaries of my storytelling skills with each project.
In the case of The Desert Spear, the experiment was to try and pull a “Jamie Lannister” with Jardir. In other words, taking a character the reader hated (with good reason!), and immerse them so fully in his POV that they began to instinctively root for him. Of course, I was terrified that I would fail. Right up until the book’s release, I was a huge ball of anxiety, hoping my gamble paid off and my skills were up to the task. Personally, I thought that it was the best thing I had ever written, but in the end, that is up to the reader to judge.
One of my favourite developments in book two was to find out that the demons were not actually mindlessly attacking the world with primal instincts. The idea of the demon princes takes the story to another level for sure. I am very interested to know how your demons developed from day one through to book three. Had you always intended to go down this path? Could you give us a bit of an insight to the hows and the whens of their evolution?
Unlike some other things, I knew right from the very beginning when I did my initial worldbuilding on demons and the magic system that there was a demon hierarchy with powerful “smart” demons at its top. These demons would have their own culture and politics, and would only come to the surface when the need was pressing. There is even a mind demon POV scene in the Tibbet’s Brook draft! It was later rewritten as the prologue to The Desert Spear.
Leesha!? Jardir!? Arlen!? Renna!? That was one crazy, crazy ending. All we need now is Rojer and Inevera and you’ll complete the jaw dropping surprises! There has been much speculation and discussion on the Leesha/Arlen failure and Jardir/Leesha and Arlen/Renna success. So tell us, why could Arlen and Leesha not be? What about Jardir did Leesha (a woman who turned away her past bully ‘Gared’) fall so strongly for? As for Arlen, a lot of readers were absolutely horrified when he chose Renna after pretty much ignoring Leesha. I’m actually thrilled with that relationship. Renna is one of my favourite characters, but perhaps for others who have spoken both on your forum and on ours, could you explain the dynamics for them too?
Hm. This is a difficult question to comment on without giving spoilers for stories to come. As with real life, the relationships of the characters are complicated, things will evolve and change over time. Some romances will last, others will be tested and change and some will fail. I love Renna as much as anyone can, but I wouldn’t count Arlen and Leesha out just yet. They still have a lot of unfinished emotional business.
As for why things between Arlen and Leesha didn’t work initially, I think the reasons are pretty clear in the text. When they had their aborted sexual encounter on the road, each of them was in a damaged emotional place, reaching out desperately for some kind of comfort and connection. This is something very common in victims of trauma, as both of them were, if of different sorts. They were emotionally vulnerable and hooked up. It wasn’t meaningless, but it wasn’t true love, either. And let’s face it; neither of them was terribly satisfied with the outcome. Whether the connection they made eventually blossoms into something more remains to be seen.
The same can be said of Leesha’s relationship with Jardir. You suggest that Leesha suggest fell strongly for Jardir, but I don’t know if that’s something backed up in the text. She was certainly attracted to him, both mentally and physically, but her decision to sleep with him was much more complicated (and calculated) than that. As with Arlen, this planted a seed that might well grow into love, or it might not.
Something surprised me a while back on our own forums when people named you as one of the edgiest and darkest writers currently in fantasy. This was even above the likes of G.R.R. Martin – who as I’m sure you will agree, has some pretty dark and edgy themes going on throughout his various novels! The word actually used was ‘disturbing’ – I’m interested to know whether you consider this a compliment or even an insult and why you haven’t toned things down at all.
Certainly this ‘disturbing nature’ of some of your work isn’t putting people off. I mean, you get fans in fantasy, but then you get Peter V. Brett fans! People who spend hours upon hours drawing scenes from your books, people who paint action men to be reminiscent of Arlen and even people who tattoo wards upon their bodies! What is it in your mind about the writing style, characters and themes within the series that have made these novels so popular and caused such dedication from fans?
I don’t think I ever set out with the intention of making my work ‘edgy’, but I can sort of understand how I got that reputation. A lot of fantasy, particularly in the 80s and 90s, was very watered down. I think a lot of this was a result of the misguided belief by publishers that fantasy was generally meant for young adults who couldn’t handle grown up realities in their stories. People who wanted to escape to a magical land that had some scary monsters and scenery, but where generally no main character ever got seriously hurt or died.
There certainly are people who enjoy fantasy of that sort, and they have every right to do so, but for myself I always found it dissatisfying, because I felt the authors inevitably had to cheat a bit to give the reader the happy ending they wanted. I would rather do without the cheats, even if it means that sometimes the good guys don’t win. Because they don’t always, and yet life goes on.
George RR Martin took us all to school in A Game of Thrones when one of the main characters fails and dies. It’s a terrible ending. A horrible tragedy. And it works. The story satisfies. Why? Because we all know in our hearts that the good guys aren’t usually as good as they might appear, and as often as not they fail and history is rewritten to make the villains seem like heroes.
This is something I’ve spoken of at length with some other ‘edgy’ authors like Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, etc. There’s a whole crop of young writers working now who burn down all those old notions of what makes a successful fantasy and strive to strike a more realistic tone. But frankly, even we barely scratch the surface. Take the most horrible things I’ve ever written and compare them to a NYC police blotter on any given night and you’ll find me tamer than a Disney movie.
I think there’s a large audience out there looking to sink their teeth into stories that sometimes make them a little uncomfortable, and make them access a wide range of emotions, not all of them happy ones. I’m happy to be part of that, and to have the support of such amazing fans.
To expand upon that a little, as you’ve said, fantasy is a genre that has been written off by a number of critics as the same thing over and over again. Probably because of most novels being set in similar worlds with similar characters and avoiding certain themes, again, as you’ve alluded to. Certainly your vision of Krasia was a step away from the traditional medieval England setting we see in most fantasy novels. It seemed to be at least modeled on cultures and issues that are affecting the world today. I think this pushed the kind of boundaries you are referring to here. How important is it for writers such as yourself and those you mentioned to raise social, racial, and political issues in their literature?
I think a writer’s only obligation is to tell a good and convincing story. If that can be done in such a way that it makes the reader reflect a bit on the world around them, so much the better, but it’s not a necessity.
I never set out with the intention of raising social/political issues with my stories, but when building a complex, convincing and somewhat unpredictable fantasy world, they sort of happen along the way. I try to present situations fairly, and let the reader make their own value judgments.
But yeah, I was also just sick of reading about knights and swordfights and wanted to banish them from my books. You will never see a single sword in the Demon Cycle. That’s a promise.
Book two was a completely different experience to book one. What you achieved in terms of growth was quite literally phenomenal in my opinion. You took an essentially small scale that I thought was going to ‘x’ and just exploded it into tons of little threads that could very well go to ‘x’, ‘y’ or ‘z’ and more besides. You’ve told me before that book three will choke a whale – but what is it as readers we can expect to experience from it? Will it grow with new characters? How much can you tell us in regards to plot?
I will be continuing to add more POV characters (including demon perspectives) as the series progresses, though I am taking care to try and avoid the trap many other multi-POV epic fantasy authors have fallen into, where the sheer number of point of view characters dilutes much of the narrative tension and makes forward progress in the story difficult. As a result, each book will have a couple of primary protagonists, a couple of secondary, and a few more characters that are necessary to bear witness to key events. Sometimes this means that a reader’s favorite character won’t have their own POV in a particular book, but they will still appear in events witnessed by others.
In The Daylight War, the primary protagonist will be Inevera, who will get the full childhood-through-adulthood POV treatment. By the time events sync back to the present, readers will have a clear understanding of Inevera’s motivations and moral compass, showing her reasons for some of the mysterious and scary things she had her hands in during The Desert Spear. The other main POVs will be Renna Tanner, Abban the khaffit, and Leesha. Arlen, Jardir, and Rojer will have brief POV sections, but their actions will mainly be described as witnessed by others. In at least one scene, all of the above will be in the same place at the same time.
Perhaps 30% of the book will take place in the past, and the rest will be forward moving story. As to what actually happens, I’m not telling, except to happily report that everyone guessing aloud on web forums as to what will happen has been wrong.
The world of the Demon Cycle has certainly now cemented itself now within the genre. You seem to love this world and quite rightly so. In addition, you have had two Subterranean Press novellas published that were successful and really added to the character of Arlen and also showed us that you have so much more to tell.
Having previously stated that the series will be five books long, what can we expect upon this conclusion? Will the Demon Cycle and Peter V. Brett be forever connected with prequels and sequels set in the distant future, short novellas and so on. Or once you finished are you going to walk away from this world and move onto new things?
I think I will stick around for a little longer. I have notes for a few more Subterranean novellas set in the world, though not all of them star Arlen. I am also planning one standalone novel set in Tibbet’s Brook, picking up right after Arlen stirs up the hornet’s nest in The Desert Spear and then skips town.
After that…I really don’t know. Ask me sometime around 2017. I will definitely be doing other projects, but I don’t know that I’ll ever leave the world for good, even if the storylines of the main characters are resolved. The events in the Demon Cycle take place in a fairly small part of a very big world. There are other stories to tell.
So, we’ve talked about your writing process for your first and second books. You’ve also told us the kind of things we can expect within the third book. I wonder though, now, looking back on both The Painted Man and The Desert Spear if you would change anything within the books or about the process of writing them. Is there anything you would advise the younger, less experienced Peter V. Brett to do differently?
You have the hindsight of fans responses to the books and also any problems you have had writing book three because of things done in books one and two.
Would I change anything in the first two books in hindsight? Not really. Maybe a typo here or there, but those usually filter out in subsequent printings. I am an insane perfectionist, and don’t let a manuscript out of my sight until I am totally satisfied with it. Sometimes (usually) this means taking longer to write a book than my agent or publishers would like, but I would rather that than have regrets about a book on shelves. Some people like them and some don’t, but I have yet to receive a fan response that makes me rethink any of my decisions in those books.
Being a professional author now, you’ve done some pretty cool stuff. You’ve traveled all around the world meeting not only fans, but other authors – some of whom I’m sure you admire. You’ve written a comic book – something I know was a real dream of yours. You’ve had fans tattoo themselves with your created wards. Can you put into words what becoming an author has done to you as a person? How it has changed your life? Did you ever really see yourself reaching this level of positive-acclaim pre-published days?
Well, to answer the last question first, no. And by that I mean FUCK no. I never in a million years thought I would even get published, much less be interacting with readers and publishers from all over the world. My life is now a mixture of long periods of isolation/mundanity with brief flashes of things so awesome it borders the surreal.
One moment I will be emptying the vacuum cleaner, and the next I’ll be in France discussing censorship in literature through a translator. One moment changing a light bulb, the next getting emailed pictures of someone who spent hours making a costume so they could dress up as one of my characters.
I love my life.
That said, the transition has been hard in some ways. I think I was drawn to writing in some ways because I am an introvert, but writing as a professional career has demanded a considerable amount of extroversion. It can be terrifying after six months at a desk alone to suddenly be faced with 100 people waiting in line to talk to you up close for a couple of minutes, or a room of 500 people when you’ve just been tossed an unexpected and difficult question.
It’s taken me a while to adapt, but I think it’s for the best. I am much more comfortable in a crowd than I used to be, and the anxiety attacks before public speaking only last 20 minutes or so. They used to last days. I guess I’ll never entirely escape the fear I will say something stupid in front of a crowd…
Because your world has been such a success, people obviously are wanting ‘a piece of the action’. The most obvious example of this is the movie rights having been picked up. I’ve also heard people talking about possible comics or mangas – which with a series likes yours seems most likely – Elric comes to mind as a fantasy series that has had a ton of comics based upon it over the years.
What I wonder is not how you feel about the movie – I know you’ve posted this before and are quite positive. What I would like to know is how protective you are over your world. This is I guess your baby. I imagine it as kind of being like an artist and having someone come and adding to your painting or doing a different version of it – it’s got to be pretty tough to accept. When people say “we would like to do a film” or “we would like to do a comic” or even fans doing pieces of art or fan-fiction is there a part of you that finds it hard to hand over and accept that someone else is going to be touching, shaping and morphing your world?
In general I’m not worried. For one thing, no one can change the books I’ve written. Even if they make a movie or TV series or whatever and it is a horrible train wreck, it will not change one piece of punctuation in my novels. So MY art is unchanged, no matter what happens.
I am not one who believes movies should follow books precisely. Movies and books are paced differently, and for good reason. You can spend fifty hours reading a book, but a movie has to tell the same story in 90-120 minutes. Some changes are inevitable.
But that said, I am a big believer in quality, and have sought out business partners that bring that to the table. I don’t want a shitty Warded Man movie any more than the rest of you. I was very guarded with Paul WS Anderson when we first discussed the film rights, but after three hours of discussing the books and his film vision, I became convinced that he could do it justice, and even more-so when I went to visit him on set of Resident Evil: Afterlife and met the people who would be working on the project if it gets a green light. They have some amazing ideas that I really think will add to the richness of my world.
Let us move forward to 50 years in the future. Peter V. Brett is probably now looking to put down his pen and rest his cramped fingers – give the writing thing a bit of a rest and read some comics. What kind of things do you think/would you like to think people will be saying about you and your work?
Most of all I would hope they are not saying that my books became predictable or lessened in quality as my career went on. That is my big nightmare. I would rather write six books I am totally proud of than twenty I have mixed feelings about, however well they sell. Those books will remain to represent me when I am dead and gone. I don’t want them to suck.
But there’s nothing to be done with your fears but face them. So I will keep writing and pour my all into each book. The Daylight War has been an almighty beast to work on and may still be a while in coming, but I really think it’s going to be my best work yet.