As you know, I recently contacted a number of speculative fiction authors to inquire about the possibility of interviewing them. Mark Lawrence, whose Red Sister (Canada, USA, Europe) will be released in just a few short weeks, was the first to step up to the plate.
I last interviewed him back in 2011, right around the time Prince of Thorns was about to hit the shelves, and since then the man who came to be known as That Thorn Guy became one of my favorite SFF authors out there. So it was nice to have a chance to chat and catch up with him.
- Without giving anything away, can you give potential readers a taste of the tale that is RED SISTER and The Ancestor series?
The most recent blog review said:
“The book feels like the spiritual sibling to Name of the Wind and Blood Song, but might surpass them both for me.”
I’ve read and very much liked both of those books. I’ll put the “surpass” down to kindly hyperbole, but I’m pleased with the comparison.
- Are you happy with the advance praise garnered by RED SISTER thus far?
I am! The blog reviews have all come from people who have read my previous books and quite a few of them have called it my best work yet, as did both my editors. You can’t really complain when people say you’re continuing to improve.
- This marks the beginning of your third fantasy series. Is the release of a new book, especially the first instalment in a trilogy, always stressful, or does the feeling fades to a lesser extent now that you have gained a wider readership?
It’s always exciting and interesting. There’s some stress too, I guess. But I’ve always felt I was ahead in the game just by being published, and I have never had any expectations of great success, so I’m not wringing my hands or ready to be thrown into the pits of despair if someone doesn’t like the new book. The whole thing is an adventure.
- I'm aware that the spark which generated the idea to write The Ancestor series was the illustration of a young badass female figher. A female version of Jorg, if I remember correctly. But beyond that illustration, how did the storylines come together? What comes first for you when it comes time to consider your next novel/series: themes you wish to explore, a setting you're interested in, or characters you want to write about?
Always character first for me. And generally that’s the extent of my planning. Come up with a character that interests me and then throw stuff at them and see what happens. There was a little more planning with these books. I take my youngest daughter out for long walks quite often, and while I’m pushing her wheelchair through the neighbourhood my mind rambles through storylines. I tend not to write much of it down but the general ideas guide me later. The best ideas drop into an empty mind, I find.
- What can readers expect from the upcoming sequels? Any tentative titles and release dates? - You are one of the extremely rare authors who had finished writing all three of your trilogies before the first volume of each series was even published. Since The Ancestor series is done, what can you tell us about your next writing endeavor?
You should see Grey Sister about the same time in 2018 and Holy Sister in 2019.
Since finishing Holy Sister I’ve written a very different sort of book that looks as if it will be published under a different name before this trilogy is all on the shelves. I’ve also started three other books. One follows a character from the Broken Empire stories across the Atlantis Ocean to the New World, another is a whole new fantasy driven by a cool idea for a type of magic, and the last one is a modern day thriller. I don’t have a contract on me or any deadlines so I thought I would experiment and have some fun.
- How has your interaction with fans and critics colored your choices in terms of characterization and plot? Has there ever been anything that you've changed due to such interaction in any of your novels?
I don’t think it’s had any impact at all. So no.
- The PC police and the online SFF feminist clique have not always been kind to you, especially regarding Jorg Ancrath. Are you curious to see how they'll react to Nona, a young girl, as the main protagonist in RED SISTER?
Not particularly. We’re talking about a very small number of individuals here, some who troll for sport and some whose hot topics distort all interactions.
The polarising of politics makes a depressing number of people online desperate to identify everyone as ally or enemy. My small number of strident critics would likely be horrified to discover that I actually agree with many of their views, just less dogmatically.
Equality, diversity, and feminism are, in my view, fine things. When I write a story I’m not preaching or fighting a political corner. Just as I refused to apologise to a tiny number of people complaining that Prince of Thorns had too few women, I will refuse to apologise to anyone who complains that Red Sister has too few men.
- Speaking of Nona, as a nine-year-old girl at the beginning of RED SISTER, was it more challenging to write from the perspective of such a young protagonist than it was from that of Jorg or Jalan? Did you have to do anything differently to get her voice "right"?
I’m going to say no. I’ve been nine. I knew a lot of nine year olds at the time, and I’ve had four children go through nine. I never sweat the voice of a character. I have a strong idea of who they are in my mind and I write down the things I think they would say and do. People vary widely. I just have to show the reader *a* person. They don’t have to be typical, or like someone they know … just interesting and consistent.
(SPOILER WARNING: The answer to this question is not a spoiler per se, but it does have to do with an interesting worldbuilding plot device. Lawrence felt that some readers might not want to learn about this before reading the book, hence the warning. . .)
- In terms of worldbuilding, The Ancestor series features a dying sun and a planet left with only a 50-mile wide corridor running along the length of its surface heated by a focus moon that allows mankind to survive from the encroaching ice that covers the globe throughout both hemispheres. What was the inspiration behind that concept?
I have no idea!
In story telling the fundamental rule is “put your character/s under pressure”. Nobody wants to read about the twenty-five years that Jim went to the office every day and everything was fine. They want to read about the day it wasn’t fine because of aliens/terrorists/office romance/heart attack. A geographical equivalent of tightening the vise, and a driver for the action on a global scale.
- In style and tone, all three of your series have been quite different. Did you have a different approach for each?
I think The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War are not dissimilar in style, we just view the story through the eyes of two very different characters. This leads to a difference in tone while the actual world is the same and the events overlapping.
Technically they are both written in the first person and spend a lot of time in the protagonist’s head. Both use flashbacks and other techniques to generate additional viewpoints.
With Red Sister there’s a change to third person and while I still only use one point of view the third person is less claustrophobic. Things are described with less of the character’s interpretation and musing. And of course Nona is very different to Jalan or Jorg, which gives a different tone again. Nona is a lot less selfish and self-focused than Jalan or Jorg and this leads to more interesting friendships and more development of the characters around her.
- You have recently been a prolific short fiction writer and in late 2015 you released a collection of short fiction set in the Broken Empire universe titled ROAD BROTHERS. Can you tell us a bit more about how that project came together? Do you have any short stories/novellas coming up in 2017?
Most of the stories in Road Brothers had appeared first in anthologies and were written because someone that had been supportive asked me to. Many anthologies get a small readership and vanish from view quite swiftly. I felt I wanted to give the stories that concerned Jorg and other characters from The Broken Empire trilogy a more easily located home and a new lease of life. So I collected them together.
I haven’t written many short stories recently. The only one I can think of is a story about Prince Jalan that’s due in Unbound II (Grim Oak Press) sometime soon.
Voyager are planning to put out an updated version of Road Brothers later this year in hardback and ebook. That will be 50% longer than my version and have three new stories in it.
- Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?
All three of my main characters have been pretty impulsive, but Jorg was the most impulsive and the least predictable. I generally had no idea how he would get out of the situations the story landed him in.
- How special is it to see your novels/series be released as beautiful collector's editions? How involved are you in the creative process behind the production?
It’s pretty good! It’s a very nice way to cap off writing a set of books, to be able to hold the whole trilogy in a fat leather-bound edition full of great artwork and design.
I was as involved as I wanted to be in the process. I canvassed readers to select the scenes from each book for Jason Chan to illustrate. I gave my thoughts on the graphic design and cover choices. I talked about font and page count.
I’ve never felt myself to be a great judge of visual aesthetics so I made sure to let the artists and designers carry the load. And the end result is hugely pleasing!
- Jorg Ancrath has been one of the most divisive fantasy protagonists in recent years. Were you surprised by the intensity of the love/hate relationship associated with him? In retrospect, would you do anything differently as far as his characterization is concerned?
Well, when I wrote the first book I didn’t have any audience in mind or any expectation of it being widely read, so the reader reaction was never something that I spent time considering. Which means I didn’t have any strong expectations regarding reader reaction.
I have been a fantasy reader for decades but I was never part of the online side of things until I got published, which meant I had no idea how politicised certain aspects were in some subdivisions of social media. So yes, I was surprised to find quite prominent elements of the blogosphere dissecting books in terms of the social message they were (wrongly) seen as championing.
And no, I wouldn’t change any of Jorg’s characterisation.
- According to George R. R. Martin, most authors are either architects, who write novels based on detailed outlines, or gardeners, who have a general idea of where the storylines are going but prefer to watch things grow as they go along. Which type of writer are you and why do you prefer that approach?
I’m definitely a gardener, and I prefer that approach as I like the story to surprise and entertain me as I write it. Having it all planned out and writing it as an exercise in padding out the framework would be very dull for me.
- Have you ever written a scene, only to be stunned by your own reaction after reading it?
I don’t tend to get a different reaction reading something I’ve written to the reaction I have when I am actually writing it. But certainly writing a powerful scene can have a powerful effect on me. I guess if it didn’t I would consider it not to be working.
- You're the brain behind the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, an effort dedicated to raising awareness about good self-published works. Can you tell us a bit more about why you initially got involved and how things turned out?
I have always felt that there is a lot of luck involved in getting published. Some authors maintain that hard work and skill will guarantee success if you keep at it. I am unconvinced. So I’ve always felt a little … guilty(?) about my success. The SPFBO is a mechanism to explore these issues and to give other authors a second roll of the dice that came up so well for me. You still have to be skilful, hardworking, and lucky though!
We’re nearing the end of the 2nd year of the exercise and will have considered around six hundred books, selecting twenty finalists, and two winners.
For me the exercise has been a great success since it has put before me a new author who has written two of my favourite books ever! With the further vindication that the author had struggled without finding an audience for years and was on the very brink of giving up. The last six months however have seen him sell thousands of books and restored his confidence.
- Some writers admit having a favorite book among those they've written previously, others say that their favorite is their current work in progress, and others still say it's always the next book that hasn't been written yet. How about you?
Very tough. I’m not good a choosing favorites in any context. I hope that one day I will write a book that is better than any of the ones I’ve written to date. I recognise that might not be true. It’s certainly my most recent books that occupy most space in my head.
- There are a number of different perspectives as to the function secondary-world or epic fantasy carries out for readers. Le Guin once wrote that such fantasy deepened and intensified the mysteries of life, while R. Scott Bakker has put forward that humanity is neurologically ill-equipped for a modern, rationalist world and this leads some to seek access to a pre-modern worldview (or the fiction of one) where reality conforms to the mind's irrational, evolutionarily hardwired expectations. Others have denigrated it as mere escapism, an alternative opiate for the masses. What is your view as to fantasy's function?
I see no reason why it can’t have lots of functions, thereby supporting what Le Guin, Bakker, and many others say. I reject the “should” part of what anyone has to say about what fantasy should do. Fantasy as a genre caters to intellectuals and to the masses. It’s different things to different people. Clearly to some it’s a political vehicle, to others entertainment. I don’t disagree with any of the views you paraphrase, except perhaps for the use of “mere” to describe escapism.
- Some authors mention that they're never fully satisfied with any of their books, that there is always the idea of the book one attempts to write versus the book that one actually managed to create. Looking back, give us an example of something that didn't quite work out the way you envisioned it. Given the chance, is there anything you would change in any of your novels?
Some writers are perfectionists, endlessly tinkering until the thing is literally torn from their hands. Or, in some cases, never finishing.
I’m not like that. Also, because I’m a ‘gardener’ I don’t have a strong concept of the book I’m trying to write, and thus I’m not disappointed by any discrepancy between that concept and the book I produce.
I could be disappointed if the book I write doesn’t please me, but I’m lucky that so far I have been pleased with the end result in all cases.
The only thing I would like to change is in Emperor of Thorns where the editor felt that the end twist came too out of the blue and convinced me to foreshadow it more. I now read many reviews where the readers says “I saw that coming a mile off.” Now, it’s entirely possible that the way I had it was too obscure and it did need some extra foreshadowing. But I clearly did it with rather too heavy a hand and so I would wish to undo (at least partially) the changes I made to the original text in that regard. I think rather than being “an” example this is “the” example. I can’t think of any others.
- If your readers could only take one thing away from having read RED SISTER (apart from enjoying the read) what would you want that thing to be?
I guess that the desire to buy and read book 2 is a variant on “enjoying the read”.
But really the only things I want readers to take away from my books are variants on “enjoying the read”. There’s no message.
- Neil Gaiman said of Lord Dunsany’s THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, “...It’s a rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola.” If RED SISTER was a drink, which one would it be? Would you recommend downing it in one shot or sipping it slowly...?
Perhaps a good ale that should be drunk at a moderate pace. Consuming any book in too many small portions is likely to make it feel disjointed and to obscure the overarching elements of plot and character. And downing a book in one go is apt to blind you to any subtleties and to the strength of the prose.
- With six published novels under your belt and another one about to be released, one short story collection, and over a million of copies sold, do you feel that you have grown as an author compared to the man I interviewed back in 2011 around the time PRINCE OF THORNS was released?
It may well be true, but I don’t feel it, no.
I’ve written a million more words, and practice is generally held to make you get better at something. But when we say that we are mostly talking about activities where the ground truth is easily accessible. Put in another thousand hours of practice and your golf handicap will likely improve, you will get better at sinking the basketball etc. But with writing how to do tell if you’re getting better? There’s no objective measure. And success is a fickle thing guided by currents that are often beyond your control or influence.
In the days when I went skiing I felt myself to be getting better each year. With writing I’ve always felt that I was getting my imagination successfully onto the page. I guess you have to be outside the process to form a judgement.
- Caring for your disabled daughter prevents you from doing promo tours and attending most conventions. And yet, you are quite active on social media and on genre-related websites and online communities like Reddit. Do you believe that such interactions with fans and potential readers have something to do with the commercial success you have enjoyed over the years? How important is it for you to engage with your fans on a regular basis?
I suspect that being active on social media has a rather minor impact on book sales. I know of several authors who have twitter followings or blog following that are significantly larger than mine but whose books don’t sell very well. I think the main driver for book sellers is one reader convincing another to read that book. And that happens because of the book. On the internet we see reflections of the currents out in the wider world (though often distorted by the demographic of a particular platform) but that if we think the internet is driving those sales we may well be mistaking the windsock for the wind.
I spend time interacting with readers because I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I would stop.
- Anything else you wish to share with us?
Just that it’s nice to be asked back for an interview after 6 years, thanks. Things come and go pretty quickly in the blogosphere and in publishing. The Hotlist appears to be one of the constants. Long may it endure!