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Brent Weeks Interview

Running a fantasy blog, I’m often asked who my favourite authors are. Upon giving my answers, people are often surprised that the likes of Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and so on aren’t in my top 5 (or even 10). I think it’s because when I started reading fantasy it was because I was looking for something deeper than the video games and comics I was already enjoying, but with the same kind of characters, pace and level of action.

Among the first books I found that provided me this were Brent Weeks’s Night Angel books. The Night Angel books proved to me that I could have the same amount of fun reading novels as I could bashing a controller as I zipped around cities in Assassin’s Creed or flipping through comic books about superheroes kicking ass.

Since discovering those books way back in 2008/2009, I’ve followed Brent’s career closely and read just about everything he has written. And, as much as I loved those Night Angel books, his latest series, Lightbringer, has really taken things to a new level. In addition to us awarding him Fantasy-Faction’s book of the year for The Blinding Knife in 2012, Brent also picked up the David Gemmell Legend Award and joined the pretty damned exclusive club of fantasy authors who have broken into the ranks of the New York Times Best Seller list.

So, as you can imagine, when a DM appeared in my Twitter Inbox asking if I’d like to interview the man himself a month before The Broken Eye is to be released, my answer was the professional, ‘that would be delightful’, but the fanboy blogger in me thought, ‘hell yeah I need him to answer some questions! How many can I justifiably ask!?!?’

The following interview is designed for people who have read The Black Prism and The Blinding Knife. The Night Angel spoilers are minimal.

Question 1: Why don’t we get started with a bit of a catch up. Can you remind us where you left readers at the end of book two, The Blinding Knife?

Right around page 671….

Oh! You mean in terms of plot. Right.

The-Blinding-Knife (Medium)The ‘good guys’ lose the big battle at Ru, losing the city and most of their fleet when the bane rises. It’s like a deus ex machina but for the bad guys, and ya know, foreshadowed.

Teia leads an assault on a fortress, saving the Blackguards at least once, and doing some badass magic that should be impossible. Liv goes over to the Color Prince’s side fully. Ironfist makes a miracle shot to save Kip, Gavin, and Karris from the god that Liv has just helped birth. Kip gets into a knife fight with his grandfather Andross and Grinwoody. It’s a bad idea. Kip ends up taken prisoner by his not-so-nice half brother (Big Reveal!) Zymun. His father Gavin ends up enslaved on a galley–with no powers at all. Oh, and Andross, who had successfully concealed that he’d broken the halo, is now healed. And likely up to no good.

Question 2: In book two you switched much of the focus from the adult characters – who were involved in the War between Dazen and Gavin – to the younger characters, such as Kip and Aliviana. Had their growing roles as characters always been part of the plan or did their roles develop as you were writing the series?

That was part of the challenge I took on with this series. I wanted to see if I could sustain a dual focus on Gavin and Kip. In the early parts of the series where I’m establishing that there are socio-political stakes beyond “Will I ever have a girlfriend?” the narrative naturally needs to focus on the older characters. As the series has continued, Kip and the others get dragged into their elder’s fights, first as tools and then as agents of their own. Seeing those progressions is part of what fascinates me, as is seeing how young people react differently to the situations history hands them—both differently from each other, and differently than their elders did.

Question 3: Speaking of Kip, my favourite parts of The Blinding Knife were the sections featuring him and his Grandfather playing the card game, 9 Kings. Did you expect these parts to be as important and as popular a part of the second novel as they were?

I knew that those scenes were going to be important because I invented the game initially as an excuse to get Kip and Andross in the same room, arguing. Otherwise, how would a room-bound old invalid interact with a young man who fears and avoids him, and whom he despises? I rejected using chess or a chess variant—we’ve all been there, done that. Boring. So once I settled on a card game, I figured I might as well use it as an expositional technique, too. If each card carried a bit of history, we could learn some history while in a high-tension setting. Once I added that the cards would contain real history—and that what you could view of that history depended on what colors you could draft—well, that’s when it really exploded for me. I didn’t know if anyone else would like it, but in terms of what it did for the plot, and how, and how it’s layered naturally into some overall themes I’ve built for the series, I’m pleased with those scenes. I certainly enjoyed getting to put the many hours I’ve spent playing strategy and TCG’s to use!

Question 4: Although character growth is seen to some extent in most fantasy series, I’ve come to think of it as your specialty. Gavin, Kip, Kylar, Viridiana and Aliviana are just some of the characters we’ve seen change massively (and yet believably). Is there any particular character that you’ve written that during the planning phase you thought ‘man, this change is going to take some work?’.

First, thank you! I think that if I don’t think, ‘man, this change is going to take some work’ then I’m not pushing myself. Kip has been a particular challenge all along. Because I have more pages with him, I can attempt more nuanced and textured changes. But the major challenge with him has been not of his self-perception, but of audience perceptions of him.

Harry_Potter___Angry_by_magic_spoonDo you remember The Order of the Phoenix? Long-suffering, good-natured Harry Potter is suddenly Angry. All. The. Time. Now, lots—maybe most—young men get angry a lot at some point when they’re growing up. But that was… not Rowling’s finest work. It was a little one-note. I do think it was a great idea to have Harry grapple with anger issues as part of growing up. He has a lot to be angry about—even more than most of us do when we realize how messed up the world really is, how unfair, and how there are no guarantees for us.

But some emotional states are simply unappealing. Harry comes off as a jerk for a whole book.

Even if I do it perfectly artfully, when I write Kip feeling sorry for himself, I think how you react to him depends a lot on how you feel about the 15-year-old you. Do you feel compassion for that you, or are you still embarrassed about it? If you’re embarrassed about your own pettiness and melodrama during those years, you’re not going to like revisiting that time with Kip. We tend to hate the things most in others that we hate most in ourselves. So I tried to leaven those times with some humor.

On the other hand, when Kip starts having real friends for the first time in his life and having fewer good reasons to whine, he’s still the same person. His perceptions of himself—as the fat kid, as the poor kid, as the outsider, and so forth—don’t change as fast as other’s perceptions of him do.

One of the biggest cheats in fiction is that a person has a single revelation, and they’re suddenly over their issue. We wish it were like that in real life, but it isn’t—for example, Girl realizes, “He cheated on me because of his own issues, not because I’m not pretty enough.” Bam! Girl finds true love (with a perfectly healthy man, natch), and never thinks of the dirtbag cheater again. But that’s not true. I want Kip to ring true. He doesn’t buy his victories on the cheap.

Question 6: One of the main themes of the novel is the conflict between Gavin’s love of life and his own ambitions and the expectations on him by society. Can you trace where this theme came from? Is there anything specific in the real life / your own experiences that made this something you wanted to explore?

Yes. But I like readers to decide what the themes are for themselves—and not solely because sometimes they make it sound smarter than I can!

Question 7: There is, depending how you see it, a key turning point for Gavin/Dazen in book 2, when he says he will release his brother if he could do a better job than he as Prism. Would Dazen/Gavin ever really have released his brother?

blackprismsmall_1791This is one of those places where I wanted the reader’s opinions to diverge significantly from a character’s. Gavin is a smart man, but he’s also a little brother. He worshiped his big brother, and thought he was everything awesome and good. With his own world crumbling—powers lost, a murder (or manslaughter if we’re generous) committed, secrets about to be exposed, and so forth—is he capable of self-sacrifice? I’ll let readers decide.

That was a tricky situation though, given how the series is split up. It’s continued to irritate me. Gavin has literally no time from that scene to the ending of the second book to process what he’s done, or how he feels about it, to grieve or regret or perhaps rejoice. It’s all fights to the death and war right to the last page.  It was the right decision for the pacing of the novel, and it was psychologically real—people in crisis push through the crisis now, and deal with the fallout later. But it definitely left emotional threads dangling, and it could appear that I just forgot about it or glossed it over. It could appear that he simply doesn’t care about what he’s done. It’s one situation where binge-readers will actually have a better experience of the series.

Question 8: I loved the fact we got new colours in book 2. However, inventing new colours has got to be hard… right? Did you run into any trouble with this when coming up with them for characters such as Teia?

Not at all hard actually. I wasn’t coming up with new colors. I’m simply dealing with the electromagnetic radiation spectrum here. Black Prism was already packed with exposition, and the other colors are much rarer, so it was an easy choice to leave the explanation of those until Blinding Knife and Broken Eye. (Because there are kinds of magic forbidden by the Chromeria, there’s some that we won’t see until Blood Mirror.)

Red-EyeIn terms of the science of the magic, I had to cheat a little more for the colors outside of the visible spectrum—the lens of the human eye and the aperture of the pupil are (well, obviously) made for the visible colors. I don’t think they could deform enough to actually handle millimeter waves or infrared. But, hey, magic.

The creation of the colors though was pretty simple with the system I’d developed. It was merely a matter of adding the resonance points on the real spectrum that were the most interesting, and then looking at the physical forms that I hadn’t yet used: gasses, and lighter than air substances in the case of paryl.

Question 9: Worth a shot… Black Luxin, White Luxin. What can you tell us about them? Something? Anything? Pleaseeeeee.

Ahahahahaha.

Question 10: Although we’re pretty sure Kip and Andross won’t be playing cards anymore, we are certain the cards will be important in future books. Any clues as to what Kip found in the black deck he stole?

Truth is what’s in all the cards, and the black cards are truth the Chromeria wants suppressed for reasons good and ill. Unfortunately (as of the beginning of The Broken Eye) Kip has given the cards to his father, and he has no idea what’s happened to them. Will they be important later?

Unless I screw up massively.

Question 11: OK, so I will stop pressing you for spoilers. But, we’ve a few weeksuntil book three, The Broken Eye, is released. What can you tell us about what we’ve got to look forward to in book three?

I’m really excited for readers to see what I’ve done in this book. I finally get to reveal some awesome secrets I’ve been sitting on for years. I feel that in some ways, book one set the stage, book two hit a fast pace, and book three deepens everything. There are a couple scenes that I think will live with readers for a long time. I also think I’ve managed a better feeling of completeness with the ending of this volume—while still giving readers lots of reasons to hunger for the next, naturally!

Question 12: I’ve spoken to you before about the risks you took on your journey to becoming a professional author – really an inspiring story of self belief and a risk paying off. I am sure you get asked the ‘how did you get published’ question a lot too, so I’m not going to ask that one ‘on air’ [Google, people!]. What I do want to ask though is, with the initial risk and struggle in mind, whether you can get across to us unpublished writers the feeling you get when you have a queue of people standing in line waiting to meet you?

The beauty of the queue is that after about ten people crowd around you, you can’t see anything beyond them. So as far as I know, there’s only ever been about ten people in line for me. How there keeps being ten people after an hour and a half is a mystery.

Brent-Weeks-Queue

On a more serious note, I’m at a cool place in my career between extremes. When you’re starting out, and only seven people show up to a signing, it can be brutal. But when that number moves up to maybe thirty or forty, you can talk about anything. You can give hints about upcoming directions your novels will go, and take bigger risks. But when you get George R. R. Martin or Diana Gabaldon big, the signing line needs to be moved. There’s a pusher (the person who takes your book, opens it to the correct page, and directs you when to step forward) and a puller (who grabs the book after the author signs it and hands it back to the reader). At that point, you’re lucky if you get a handshake and eye contact. It’s terribly impersonal, but it has to be. Otherwise, the line would take twelve or fifteen hours.

To me, the whole point of getting a signed book is as a physical reminder of the meeting. Where I’m at, I can shake a hand, answer a question, personalize the book—and, you know, then have to move the line along.

While, like most authors, I want my audience to grow and it’s really fun when a lot of people have turned up to meet you, there are things about where I am that I really enjoy.

Question 13: Now that we’re talking about your writing career, I have to say that there is a noticeable step up in quality between the Night Angel books and the Lightbringer books. Please take that as the compliment it is meant to be, because I LOVED the Night Angel books. I wonder what you would put the improvements down to?

Aristotle talked about the golden mean. [His example is that between the extremes of cowardice on one side, and recklessness on the other, is bravery.] I think between debilitating self-doubt and arrogance is a place where you have an accurate view of your own abilities. I do some things very, very well. Others I’m competent but average amongst published writers. Others still I’m blind to, or don’t care about. And at some I need work, maybe a lot of work.

I think I’ve gotten better because I’m honest with myself about my strengths and weaknesses, and I’m relentless in working on those weaknesses I care about strengthening. I do my best to accept criticism, though there’s a time to reject that, too. I’ll do funny little things like read romance novels or really emotive best-selling Young Adult novels to see what they do that makes them resonate with their readers. If something has worked for a lot of readers, it’s probably doing something very, very well. It may not be a thing I value highly, but it’s usually something I can learn from.

The work of the writing life is tricky. It’s easy to get too busy with the conventions and the merchandizing and the anthologies and the blogs and emailing fans and social media and all the good and bad that come with being a professional writer. For me, the main thing is the books. I’m not angling to become a tv writer, or a celebrity. Others are, and I have no problem with that. I’m trying to write great books. It’s a funny world when that sounds like a modest ambition. But it is my ambition, and I cut away extras so that I can spend the time I need to focus on that. I say no to fun stuff.

Not that I do it perfectly consistently!

But I am trying to get better with every book, and I’m so glad when people notice my improvement.

Question 14: The Night Angel trilogy is one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. I know that I’m not alone either, because I see masses of asking you over social media when the next Night Angel book is coming too. As discussed though, I do feel that with the series you’ve raised the bar. So I’m conflicted. I imagine the feeling when readers ask when you are returning to Night Angel is one of conflict too?

BrentWeeks6When I started writing Lightbringer, but before it was published, I had a lot of fans who were disappointed that I was doing something different. They liked thing A, and they wanted more of A, thank you very much. But I’m a writer, not a Pez dispenser. Some writers are more on the business side of the continuum, and they churn out a beach read every few months or every year. That’s writing as pure commerce, and hey, there are worse things you could do to make money. But I’m not that guy.

When Black Prism came out, I still came across a lot of skepticism. People thought it was good, but it was so different, and it was slower than Night Angel. I had a foreign editor tell me, “This is the finest writing you’ve done, and it will never be as big as Night Angel.”

That was hard. I knew that what I was doing was better, and I had so many fun things I wanted fans to see in this world—but the expositional burden of this world is much, much heavier. Complicated history, plus complicated politics, plus complicated magic, AND big lies and big secrets.

After Blinding Knife, I’ve really seen fans change their tune. Now I get fans who say, “I loved Night Angel… but go ahead and take your time going back to it. This is better!” That is really gratifying, and I hope this book only adds to that. I’m still hoping to prove that foreign editor wrong!

That said, I really love the characters of Night Angel, and writing even a few scenes with Durzo or Momma K is a blast, so I look forward to my return with great anticipation.

Question 15: One thing I am thankful for is that you’ve been providing us with some very excellent novellas and short stories set within the Night Angel world to keep us content until you do return. Obviously, it is the Internet and Ereader technology that allow you to do this. Do you think the e-pub will eventually bring back the novella and make the length of fiction less important?

BrentWeeks2It should bring back the novella, but I don’t think it will. Not while Amazon keeps the pricing structure it has. If your book sells through Kindle for 99 cents up to $2.98, Amazon keeps 70%. Once you charge $2.99 and up, YOU get to keep 70%. That means for your novella that sells for 2.98, you make 89 cents; but if you charge 1 cent more, you make $2.09. This pricing quirk basically creates a floor for those of us who do math to try to figure out if writing novellas is worth our time. (Those figures also assume you’re self-pubbing with Amazon.) You can think, well, I’d like to charge $2.50 for this book, but if I charge just 50 cents more…

But there’s pressure from the other side too, with lots of authors pricing their full books for only three or five or six bucks. Books aren’t fungible:  the 99 cent 1,000 page tome from a bad author isn’t giving you a better value than the gorgeously crafted perfection of a William Somerset Maugham short story that also costs 99 cents. But… readers do still take perceived value into account, and part of that value estimation is length. If you like Dean Koontz and Stephen King about the same, you’ll pay more for a novel from one of them than for a short story for the other.

That said, while keeping the novels as my main focus, I intend to continue to experiment with different forms and lengths and even media. I think that’s important to do both creatively and as a businessman.

Question 16: So, you’ve written quite a few thousand words now and I know you have plenty of fans and a couple of critics too. What is the best compliment you’ve ever been given and what is the worst(/best due to pure absurdity) piece of criticism you’ve been given?

Having a fan tell you they were suicidal and they literally credit you with saving their life is pretty hard to equal. But I think of those cases as people reacting to the hope that’s in me rather than my own genius or something. The best compliments unfortunately are the ones you brush off. I won’t even repeat them here for fear that they sound as ludicrous to your readers as they did to me. I’m sure every successful writer gets the occasional fan who praises them too highly, and the danger in that is that you start to believe it. Staying hungry is hardest when the smorgasbord of life is laid out before you. Success makes it possible to improve, but great success makes it harder to improve.

So the best compliments are when a reader notices something subtle I did and it meant something to them, and they carry with them and think of it.

The purest absurdity was a reader who called Night Angel boring. You can call Night Angel a lot of things, but if you find it boring, maybe reading’s not for you.

Question 17: And finally, if you had to pin it down, what is your goal as a writer? On the day you decide to put down your pen / lock away your keyboard, what would you like to have achieved?

BrentBooksA (Medium)I define a goal as something you have control of. Getting published is a hope. Finishing writing your book is a goal. Getting an agent is a hope. Sending your best query out to 30 agents is a goal. I used to confuse the two, and it caused me a lot of heartache. Making a best seller list is something you hope for, but writing a book that deserves a lot of readers is something you work for. My original hope was that I would make enough money writing that I wouldn’t have to get a day job. My bigger hope was that I could support a family. I secretly hoped to sell 100k books (a ludicrous number I kept to myself because it sounded so arrogant!). It’s taken me a while to even accept that “Yeah, I’m probably going to be able to keep doing this” (See my earlier answer about people’s self-perceptions being slow to change!) I hoped to get a foreign rights deal within ten years after I first got published (minus 4 months of first publication). I hoped maybe maybe to hit the NYT best seller list by the age of 40 (30).

I’m not listing those as bragging points, exactly. A lot of my success had to do with things that were utterly out of my control. Great covers that people connected to Assassin’s Creed, which itself was a surprise hit (I’d finished writing the first two of the Night Angel books before Assassin’s Creed even hit the shelves, so they were totally independent of each other). Foreign rights came early because so many people in Europe read English now. Therefore, European publishers have to jump at possible hits quickly—and so forth. I’m listing those successes because success sent me a bit adrift.

I had to clarify for myself that difference between dreams and goals, and decide why I’m writing. Who am I writing for? What motivates me? What does it mean?

I have goals I won’t share publicly, but of those I’m comfortable sharing with an audience that includes strangers, here’s a few: 1) To give people my best. Good enough isn’t good enough. 2) To be great to work with—I want to go the extra mile for people who choose to work with me, whether licensors or book sellers or my publisher, and most of all for fans! At the same time, 3) To deliver only things I’m proud of to my fans. That means demanding excellence of those I do business with. I’ve said no to some lucrative deals (movie and game) because I didn’t think that what would come out would be great.

Now, at some point, if I sign a movie deal, it can still come out and be crap because of the nature of Hollywood: you sign over your baby to Total Fanboy Director Who Wants To Be Faithful To Your Vision, but he can’t get the movie made for good reasons, and eventually he needs to eat, so he sells the rights to Director Who Wants To Make Money Who Cares Fantasy is For Idiots, and boom, you get [movie title redacted]. Then fans ask you for the next four decades why YOU made such a horrible movie. It’s also led me to spending arguably too much time on projects unlikely to make back enough money to make them “worth my time”, which is a slippery concept in itself. 4) I want to be fair to my fans, including in communication. There are things that contractually I CAN’T share. I worked on a video game deal for a year that was really exciting—and fell apart at the 11th hour. I couldn’t share that. But I’ve been where I felt misled as a fan, and I hated it. If I know a book is going to take longer than I thought, I owe my agent and my editors a heads-up first, but then I believe I owe the fans who’ve invested their passion in a series some communication too. I’m lucky that I haven’t had any extreme delays, but I do believe that fans are pretty cool about giving an epic fantasy a couple years for each book, especially if you’re open about the process. Writing isn’t producing widgets. You can get stuck and have to start over; you can have life throw you off track. (Hey, I just had my first kid. I get it!) You can decide that three books won’t do, you need four. (No, but really, I’m 98% certain 4 is enough!) I think fans are pretty understanding as long as you’re as open as contractually possible and they know they matter to you.

Bonus Question: Who would win a game of chess: Tywin Lannister or Andross?

tumblr_mm0iyb2y3N1qba8lyo2_400Lannister would win. Andross Guile hasn’t even learned the rules of such a simple game. 😉

BrentWeeks5Brent publishes The Broken Eye on August 26, 2014. It is the third book in his Lightbringer series, and a book readers have been eagerly awaiting since 2012. If you haven’t read the first two books The Black Prism and The Blinding Knife, I suggest you do it ASAP (and, really, you shouldn’t have just spoiled so much for yourself!).

Keep up with Brent on Twitter @BrentWeeks and his very excellent website www.BrentWeeks.com

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7 Comments

  1. Avatar Perry Parker says:

    What a writer. What a guy. Can’t wait for the broken eye, and can’t wait to read whatever he comes up with next.

  2. Avatar Vivek says:

    I randomly discovered this book at the airport in Oslo. I had some time to kill and spent 1/2 hr in a bookstore there trying to figure out which book to buy with the Kroners I had left. I rarely if ever read fantasy but I just thought this looked interesting.

    I feel fortunate as I blazed through the first book, got the 2nd book at a bookstore across from my office and come to find that the third book is about to come out and the author will be at that bookstore in a couple of weeks!

    Glad I picked up the right book.

    Great interview, good questions. After reading his interview I see how his personality comes through in his writing.

  3. Avatar Jack says:

    Great interview, satisfied some of my hunger for the next book but yet hyped me up even more for it, haha. Thanks for trying to pry some spoilers out of him too, was worth a shot! Anyway, good job 🙂

  4. Avatar Tash says:

    Fantastic interview. I am salivating with Broken Eye excitement. Brent Weeks is just the most imaginative universe builder I’ve come across since Terry Pratchett, and even more so since he doesn’t just rework existing mythologies. I am in absolute awe of him as a writer, and as a person after reading this interview where his integrity really comes across.
    Thanks for the read!

  5. Avatar Jake Dyer says:

    Brent Weeks will always be my favorite author, I have yet to find a better series than the Night Angel triology; although i think Lightbringer is its only contender. I look forward to the Broken Eye and cant wait to get back to the adventures of the turtle-bear. 😛

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