Mark Lawrence Interview
Mark Lawrence’s first published work Prince of Thorns attracted some controversy on its release and Mark has been as robust as he is generous in his online engagement with fans, fellow writers and critics. There is a rare gift and a sharp wit to all his writing such that even his most ardent critics would concede that “Prince of Thorns has some damn good writing.” His short story “During the Dance” punches well above the weight of its 2,000 words in terms of emotional impact. So as a fan of the two broken empire trilogies and an eager anticipant of the Red Sister Trilogy, I was delighted when Mark Lawrence agreed to be interviewed.
Congratulations Mark, on your second Gemmell Legend Award, this time for The Liar’s Key. What do these awards mean to you (besides the obvious benefit of more sharp edged ironmongery to scare off intruders)?
Awards are funny things, whether they’re on the basis of a small vote (juried), a middle-sized vote (like the pay-to-enter Hugo) or a large free vote like the Gemmells. All of them reflect the taste of the electorate, and often that taste is heavily flavoured with politics. Often award juries are trying to shape the genre the way they want it to be. They’re promoting into view books they approve of. In many cases books whose messages they approve of.
The Gemmells on the other hand are often derided as being a popularity contest. Which they are to some degree. Past winners have included Brandon Sanderson (twice!) and Patrick Rothfuss. But the Gemmells also have their own flavour (bias if you like) and are shaped both by who Gemmell’s name attracts and by how authors interact with the process. This year for example the long list contained novels that have sold nearly ten times as many copies as The Liar’s Key (i.e. Uprooted by Novik) and additional novels that are more popular, such as those by Abercrombie, Brett, Butcher, and Hobb among others.
So it isn’t ‘just’ a popularity contest, it is, like all other awards, a popularity contest among a particular subset of the genre’s readers. And since this subset tend to choose radically different books to those that crop up repeatedly among some of the other awards…I’m all for it. Especially as I do so well there and get axes!
And to answer the actual question rather than the one I invented: as a big fan of David Gemmell, and as a typical human who enjoys pats on the back and well dones, it means a lot to be short listed and even win this award.
Alex, the sociopathic anti-hero of A Clockwork Orange was one inspiration for Jorg Ancrath in a Prince of Thorns. Then Flashman (as re-imagined from his bit part in Tom Brown’s School Days by George McDonald Fraser) was the inspiration for Jalan Kendeth in Prince of Fools.
Does Nona – the heroine of Red Sister – have any similar literary roots, or easily identifiable inspiration, and did that inspiration drive the gender of the protagonist to be female protagonist?
Nona doesn’t have any clear literary inspiration. My editor at Voyager, Jane Johnson, sent me a picture by Tomasz Jedruszek in response to a blog post I wrote speculating about what cover I might have got if my debut was Princess of Thorns. The image planted the seed that grew into Nona, though she turned out somewhat different to the character I had been expecting. She’s certainly not a female Jorg or Jalan.
Red Sister is a third person point of view story and – while there have been third person segments in the previous books – the majority of your published work (by number of words at least) is told in first person point of view.
Do you find first or third person more comfortable to write in?
I’m not sure to be honest. Yesterday I found the first person story I had started work on had slipped into third person and that I hadn’t noticed for two pages. I think I’m happy with both.
Do you think first person PoV conveys any advantages in story writing/reading (such as a greater sense of intimacy in the reading experience)?
There is some extra degree of intimacy and immediacy with first person. If the first person character does something viscerally awful it’s harder to handle as a reader. It’s like having that person right there showing you what they did, demanding a reaction, as opposed to third person which is more like being told what happened to someone else.
Humour is something I find easy in first person. It seems a more natural way to make a funny observation.
But I don’t want to overplay that. You can write very effectively in both styles.
Have you found any significant disadvantages to first person PoV? For example the difficulty in delivering a complex plot through one set of eyes or a tendency for some readers to assume the author in some way shares the views of the character – like those TV-soap fans who can’t struggle to distinguish between character and actor.
It’s certainly harder to deliver an epic scale story through a single PoV than through multiple PoVs. But actually Red Sister is almost entirely a single PoV story despite being in third person.
More generally, I have read books with multiple first person PoVs (three in one book!), and in my work I effectively generate additional PoVs by using the same first person PoV in multiple time-threads. So there are ways around most problems.
We are in an age where society is being radically reshaped by technology, with young people embracing it to engage with others in ways undreamed of by their parents’ generation. While most authors are active in some way on social media, you are particularly so, indeed remarkably inter-active (5,000 Facebook friends drawn from across the whole world can’t be wrong). I know that family circumstances limit your ability to travel and make social media not just “the main” but often “the only” way you can meet with your readers.
What have been the biggest positives that you have got from maintaining such a high social media profile?
Heh, I guess it’s a proxy social life. And you can meet some good people. I don’t know that there’s a particularly big ‘author’ reason for doing it though. By the time you’re well known enough to get 5,000 friend requests then the number of them that Facebook allows you to actually ‘reach’ with any given post is unlikely to be a significant element in your book sales.
Have there been any regrets where you thought, “I just wish I’d kept my keyboard shut/mouse unclicked?”
Not really. I never intended to present a carefully crafted face to the world. I get very bored of seeing authors on their best behaviour, cautiously venturing that the person spouting absolute nonsense might want to look at it another way. I only invest the time in social media because I enjoy it and I only enjoy it because I speak my mind. Everyone has moments of regret in what they say over the course of dozens of conversations, but I’ve never regretted my approach.
Writers of speculative fiction have often taken the worldbuilding at the literally planetary level, for example Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Modern SF writers may also be inspired by the discovery of an M-class planet orbiting Proxima Centauri – our nearest stellar neighbour. Although the planet lies in the “goldilocks zone” it is locked in its rotation like Mercury with one side always faces its star. The habitable zone will then be just a belt of land running through the poles, sitting on the cusp between the sides of perpetual freezing night and eternal boiling day.
The world of Red Sister also has challenges which have limited the habitable space. Can you tell us a little more about that, and in what way has this physical constraint affected the geographical and political milieu in which the heroine must operate?
Well, it’s a good question, and one that might be fun to answer. But it’s also something that I would much rather my readers discover through the PoV character, and so I’m loath to spoil it in any way.
I guess from a storytelling point of view you almost always need sources of pressure. It’s when the characters (and the world) are under pressure that they are often at their most interesting and exciting. Sometimes that pressure can be local and social, a bully, a gang, sometimes large scale and social, a war, a plague, economic collapse, zombies! And sometimes geographical with the terrain literally putting the squeeze on everyone.
You brought Jorg’s story to a conclusion in a series that was emphatically a trilogy (albeit one where a few short stories have filled in some gaps). You wrote in the afterword that you could have taken the story in a different direction so as to farm (or mine?) Jorg’s adventures with further books and even said, “In years to come when I am eating cold cat food from the tin I may wish that I had.”
Patrick O’Brien by contrast spoke of regret at setting the starting of his series of twenty Jack Aubrey Naval novels so late in the Nelsonic period that he had to have two different versions of the year 1813 to fit in all the stories.
You have now written nine books for publication (six of them already out in print) at an atomic-clock like rate of one a year. Do you find the ideas and the writing are coming more or less easily as time goes by?
Ideas have always come pretty easily to me so I’ve never really seen generating them as one of the hurdles in writing a book. I don’t really have any idea if the ‘easy now’ is easier than the ‘easy then’! To me the idea is like when a sculptor has a huge block of marble in front of them and they decide, ‘I will carve a young woman with her arms raised’ or ‘this will be a warrior on a horse’. That’s easy. Taking a hammer and chisel and ending up with a warrior on a horse that looks like a warrior on a horse…difficult.
Do you think you will ever need to take up one of the many offers you have had from people willing to give you their brilliant story idea if you write it up as a book and then split the proceeds 50-50 with them?
I really don’t. I encourage them to become the word-monkey themselves and roll about in their 100%.
Your own writing approach is very different to some other authors in the genre. You don’t plan ahead that much at all, but are led by the story and characters such that you can be as surprised by what happens between the top and the bottom of the page as the readers are. Despite this, the editing adjustments made to your previous books have all been fairly minor and what the readers see on the page is pretty much what flowed into the first draft (an agonisingly long three years earlier).
Have you ever wished you had planned a story more in advance?
Only in as much as I might feel a lot safer knowing where it’s going and confident from the start that I will produce a book that keeps both publishers and readers happy. Having a plan though would take a lot of the excitement of writing away for me.
I prefer to read books where the characters dominate and I get very involved with their activities and ambitions. I am less of a fan of intricate clever plots where rather generic characters march around with precision to unfold the miraculous engine before me replete with clever twists. Ideally of course you would pack both seamlessly into the same book space. Anyway, that’s the kind of book I like to write too. Emotionally engaging, unpredictable.
Do you think this fluid and organic approach makes you less vulnerable to the perfectionist agonies that have delayed the arrival of some other tomes in our bookshops (Doors of Stone and Winds of Winter, to name but two)?
I have no perfectionist bones. I look at what I’ve written and I see no way to make it better. When I do try changes, I like the result less. This is not of course to say that what I write first time is in any way perfect, just to explain my mind set. I am not a tinkerer. There is no such thing as the perfect book. Every novel ever written that has a significantly sized readership has 1* reviews by readers who hated it with an incandescent fury.
I can’t recognise the perfect novel. What I write looks good to me. That is enough.
You have always been very firm in your appreciation of how well the traditional publishing business has supported you. However, you have also been very active in support of self-published authors. Be it the incisive first page critiques that you have posted on your blog, or by being the driving force and publicist for the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. You have uncovered some gems Michael McClung’s The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids and Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, and have also had experience at first-hand of self-publishing.
Following on from your daughter Celyn’s children’s book Wheel Mouse there has been the Road Brothers anthology, “During the Dance” short story and others.
Do you see any signs of a shift in public perceptions or the quality of writing in self-published work in recent years?
I’m not really in a position to get such an overview. My self-published fantasy contests have populated my friends lists with many more self-published authors and enthusiasts so it’s natural that my view will be one where positivity continues to increase. But whether this is true more widely I have no idea.
Even for me personally it is hard to say because I haven’t been randomly picking up self-published books. I’ve been reading self-published books (rather few because I am a terribly slow reader) that come highly recommended by bloggers I trust. It is certainly true that the best self-published books are as good as the best books, period. But also possible that randomly selecting a self-published book may be more of a ‘risk’ than randomly selecting a traditionally published one.
What do you see as future developments for self-published, traditionally published and hybrid authors?
I really don’t know. Most traditionally published authors have clauses in their contracts precluding competing self-published novels. I do. So I’m not sure how many hybrids we’ll see. And any predictions about the future for publishing would be just random guesses. I would be just as accurate a source for predictions about the world economy, in which I also participate and yet have very little insight into.
Speculative fiction despite the zealotry of its many fans, appears to be a relatively a small pond beside the ocean that is young adult fiction. A few authors may straddle the divide between the two – with perhaps a series about sparkly vampires, or wizarding boarding schools, or dystopian future worlds where pampered elites subdue the majority through stage-managed deadly contests between teenagers.
Some fantasy authors may dabble in the waters of YA fiction. Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, Half the World, Half a War trilogy was an attempt to woo the YA readership, and if that failed, to bash them over the head and drag them back into his own world of SFF in the best Viking traditions on which the books were based.
Have you ever felt tempted to write in a different – potentially more lucrative – genre? If you did, which would it be? (Or is the idea of attributing authors to genres an artificial framework that is ultimately as futile as trying to fence in cats?)
I’ve never really been clear what YA fiction is. Every time I’ve asked if it is less sophisticated or doesn’t allow swearing or sex or dark themes, I have been told resoundingly that it is, does, does, and does. So…what is it? The age of the protagonists? Apparently not, as Jorg is a teenager for most of the Broken Empire trilogy.
I don’t know. It’s a marketing decision that publishers make.
I would be happy to write a book and have it sold as YA fiction and sell ten times my other work, as long as I could write whatever I wanted to.
I certainly don’t have any objection to writing a dystopian novel about a young protagonist. Please start filling my bucket with money immediately.
I was going to finish by asking if there was anything else you’d like to say to those following this interview, but I see we’re out of time so perhaps instead you could just solve this anagram for me.
YOU BOB KYM!
That looks suspiciously like BUY MY BOOK, which is always a fine sentiment.
We would like to thank Mark Lawrence again for taking the time to speak with us. His next novel Red Sister is due out in the spring of 2017. You can learn more about it and his other works on his website or you can follow him on Twitter.