Sunday, April 11, 2010

Interview with Peter Brett

Posted by Simcha 5:17 PM, under | 8 comments

I'm delighted to present to you today an interview with one of my favorite fantasy authors, Peter Brett. Peter's newest book, The Desert Spear, was released last week in the UK and will be available in US bookstores tomorrow. The Desert Spear is the second book in the Demon series and since I've already read it I can honestly tell you that it's really fantastic (and I'm not just saying that because Peter's here)

So Peter, you’ve been working hard to keep The Desert Spear's storyline under wraps as much as possible, but are there any particular tidbits about the plot or characters that you would be willing to share with eager fans?

Sure. With regards to my secrecy, it’s mainly protectiveness towards my readers. Personally, I hate spoilers. I’ve been known to bite the still-blabbing heads off of people who comment on things to come in a book I’m not finished reading, and I’ve threatened to feed people to the demons for putting LOST spoilers in their facebook/twitter status updates. I read forewords last, and never read reviews of the books on my TBR shelf.

I think many writers would agree that when they write a book, they very carefully pace the flow of information to the reader in order to maximize tension and present a smooth exciting narrative that is full of surprises. That manuscript is the pure form of how we want the story told. Everything else is marketing.

I want as much as possible to preserve that pure form, but I’ve also made a point of giving away excerpts, usually from the earliest sections of each character arc, to let readers have a taste of what’s to come without lessening the experience. They can be found on the blogs Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, A Dribble of Ink, and the Random House website.

What I can say about the book, spoiler-free, is that The Desert Spear is a darker and more complex story than The Warded Man, both by design and a natural evolution of my writing style. Much as the first book detailed the lives of Arlen, Renna, and Rojer, The Desert Spear gives a deep look into the struggles of two relatively minor characters from The Warded Man, Ahmann Jardir and Renna Tanner. Telling their side of the story broadens the landscape and challenges some preconceived notions readers might have after The Warded Man.

There are also long sections in the point of view of Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer, continuing to follow these characters as they grow, and giving insight into some of the “lost years” of their past.

In The Warded Man you built the foundation for your story by introducing a new world and the characters that populate it, and in The Desert Spear the story takes off, right from the beginning, building on its predecessor. Is the experience of writing the first book in a series, where everything is fresh and new, very different from writing the following books?

Not really, because I think each book has its own rhythm and personality, and finding it is always a fresh and new experience. In some ways, each progressive book in a series can be more restrictive to write, because you are not able to contradict anything you have written before, but in other ways, the previous books are very freeing, providing a firm foundation upon which to add new and exciting layers of interpersonal dynamic and politics.

The Desert Spear also has new POV characters, which helps to keep things exciting. I think as I build an ensemble cast for the series, things will seldom get boring, because I will always be able to jump into the head of a new character with great deeds still ahead of them.

Did the fact that The Desert Spear is a darker book make writing it more difficult?

The Desert Spear was a more difficult book to write because of its size and complexity, but not because it was dark. It was always my intention to start out with a comfortable and easily accessible starting point in The Warded Man, and then take the series in a more complex and mature direction. That shift really freed my hands in a lot of ways, allowing me to confront some issues that were tiptoed around in the first book.

I know that authors are often influenced by some of the books they read or movies that they see during the time that they are working on a book. Was your writing influenced at all by any outside media while you were working on The Desert Spear?

I didn’t read or go out to the movies nearly as much while writing the second book, mainly because we had a new baby in the house, and every moment not spent writing was spent helping take care of her. It left me with very little leisure time.

I think my strongest influences for The Desert Spear were probably Shogun, by James
Clavell, and Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300. Both books introduced a strict warrior culture guided by principles of honor and glory, with proud death in battle being the greatest honor a warrior could dream of. I watched the 300 movie with a wicked glee, glorying in all that spear fighting and the beautiful shield formations. I also listened a lot to Loreena McKennit’s album An Ancient Muse.

Another movie with excellent spear-fighting, by the way, is Troy, which rises above being a Brad Pitt/Orlando Bloom vehicle at times.

You mentioned in another blog interview that the Krasian tribe of fierce desert
warriors in your books was inspired largely by the samurai culture of Medieval Japan, but I myself couldn't help making comparisons to what I know of the Islamic culture, as I'm sure many others will as well.

In The Desert Spear, in particular, we get to know more about these men, whose sole purpose is to give their lives to the destruction of demons, thereby receiving eternal rewards in the afterlife. These characters strongly, and eerily, reminded me of modern-day suicide bombers and I was wondering what kind of research did you do in order to portray such characters so realistically?

The Krasians started as an amalgam of many cultures, and have become a people unique unto themselves in my mind. They are not meant to be a commentary on any real-world cultures, and readers seeking to find hidden politics written between the lines will likely be disappointed.

That said, I am a New Yorker, and was in Manhattan on September 11. My wife’s parents were in the Trade Center when the planes struck, and it was hours before we knew if they were safe. The themes of fear/helplessness and the way it affects people that are prevalent in
The Warded Man were a reflection of what I and others I knew went through that day.

I’ve always been a student of mythology and religion, and after the attacks I spent a lot of time pondering religious extremism, and it’s something I try to explore in my writing.

It’s interesting to note that the concepts of martyrdom and rewards in the afterlife are in no way unique to any one culture or part of the world. The Vikings believed a glorious death in battle would win their way into Valhalla, the resting place of heroes, while cowards went to Hel. The ancient Greeks had similar beliefs about Elysium and Hades. The path of Christ
ianity is filled with martyrs and crusaders rewarded in Heaven and sinners sent to Hell. In fact, if you follow Christianity, Judaism, and Islam back to their common root, Abraham, you find a man whose faith was so strong he was willing to sacrifice his own son at God’s command.

With regards to samurai, take this quote from the Hakagure, which was something of a guide book for samurai behavior:

    Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku (ritual suicide) at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

It’s easy to see how this mindset affected a samurai’s worldview, and evolved into things like the Kamikaze fighter pilots of WWII. I considered all these sources, as well as others, as I developed the mindset of the Krasian warrior caste.

While writing the scenes involving the Krasians did you find yourself holding back at all in consideration of possible negative feedback, as certain parts of The Desert Spear will probably strike sensitive chords with some of your readers.

Not really. I didn’t really pull any punches about some of the abhorrent things the Krasians do, but I think I also did a good job of balancing that by showing the circumstances by which their society evolved, and the real sense of faith, honor, and protection of humanity that are the culture’s foundation. It’s very easy in writing (and real life) to dehumanize your antagonists without truly understanding them. My goal in setting the first 200 or so pages of the book in Krasia was to show the reader that there was a level of complexity there that they might not have seen in the first book.

That said, there was one incident of Jardir striking a woman that was cut from the final draft after consultation with my editor. It’s the only time I can think of where I cut something I thought was in character due to outside pressure, but it was a relatively minor point in the grand scheme of things.

And going ba
ck to my question about research, did you do any particular kind of research in order to get into the heads of individuals who were part of these warrior societies, in creating Jardir and the other Krasians in such a realistic manner?

I read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, as well as accounts of King Leonidas of Sparta’s war with Xerxes and Skaka Zulu’s conquest of Africa. I also did a fair amount of research into world religions, but that’s always been a hobby of mine. I have a nicely growing collection of the Men-at-Arms and Warrior books from Osprey publishing, which are wonderful references for historical arms and armor. I also use Wikipedia all the time to answer quick research questions.

The wards, which are the humans’ main defense against demons,
are an essential part of the books and I was curious as to why no physical descriptions of the wards themselves, or any explanations of how they are drawn, are included in any of the stories

I try in general not to over-describe things in my books. I think a core part of the reading experience is the reader’s use of their own imagination to visualize some of the characters or other aspects of the world, including the wards. Besides, the wards have been illustrated in almost every edition of the book worldwide.

I have detailed notes on how the warding magic system works, but until there is a need to include that information in the story, it would just be extraneous information that would bore most readers and reduce overall tension. The Daylight War and the subsequent stories will continue to explore the magic system and add depth to t
he reader as needed. Magic is returning to the world after a long absence, and it will have a large part to play in the war with the corelings.

Authors often receive suggestions and advice from their readers, sometimes directly and other times through book reviews. I was curious if you ever implement some of the suggestions or critiques that you receive from your readers or that you come across in reviews.

I do read every review, great and small, kind and kicking. I am constantly working to improve my craft as a writer, and will think deeply on any good points in negative reviews to see if I can learn from them. The influence of these sorts of things is relatively small, though. Most of my critiquing is internal, or from a small but sharp-tongued group of beta-readers I can trust to think deeply and pull no punches.

How long did the writing of each of your previous books take and when can we expect to see the com
pletion of your next book (in other words, how long do I have to wait to get my hands on The Daylight War?)

Ha. I honestly don’t know. The Warded Man took me about seven years to write, but it was something I was working on in my spare time while I had a separate career and an active social life. The Desert Spear took three and a half years to write, but some of that overlapped with work on The Warded Man, and it was done while working from home in a 2 bedroom apartment with a newborn baby.

I am hoping to turn The Daylight War around in approximately half the time of The Desert Spear, but I’m not making any promises. The book is coming along very well at the moment and promises to be my best work yet, but it is still in an early prose stage, and there may be unforeseen pitfalls to come. I will not sacrifice quality for speed.

Regarding your recent publication of The Great Bazaar, a collection of short stories about Arlen and some of his experiences off-scene during The Warded Man, where exactly did these stories come from? Were they deleted scenes that didn't make it into the final novel or separate creations that you went back and wrote after the publications of your books? Do you plan to publish additional such novelettes?

The title story of
The Great Bazaar is an entirely new tale that was written well after I finished The Warded Man and had started The Desert Spear. In order to keep the pacing the way I wanted it in the first book, I left some large gaps in the lives of the characters. There were two points in the novel where a section ends and then the next one picks up several years later.

Some of these gaps are childhood periods of schooling that weren’t where I wanted the story to go, but there were others that I always imagined to be full of adventure, like Rojer’s years as an itinerant Jongleur, and the 3+ years that Arlen worked as a Messenger, traveling to every major city on the map, and hunting through ancient ruins in his spare time. These are fertile periods for storytelling, and I always meant to get back to them, in part with future novels (as with some scenes in
The Desert Spear) and in part with novellas like The Great Bazaar.

Bazaar started as a backup story for a deluxe version of
The Painted Man in the UK. I was very proud of how it turned out, but that deluxe edition was shelved indefinitely, and I ended up sitting on the story for almost a year before I found a new home for it. The other two stories in the book were large deleted scenes from The Warded Man, along with some supplemental materials on wards and a Krasian dictionary.

The Great Bazaar is meant to be a companion book to The Desert Spear, and I think it adds a lot, but I think it also works as a standalone book to introduce readers to my work. One of my favorite aspects of the book are the discussions about the writing process included with the deleted scenes, showing why I decided it was better for the overall book to cut them even thought I thought they were really good. There are several more of these (with commentary) on my website:

There is another Arlen Messenger novella entitled
Brayan’s Gold which is already written and will be published by Subterranean Press in their Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 anthology later this year. The story is included in the German translation of The Great Bazaar, which is on sale now. I have a full plate at the moment, but I intend to do more shorts as time allows.

While novellas seem like a great way to keep readers satiated while waiting for your next novel (and considering the book has been sold out, it appears to have been a great success), don't they take away from time otherwise spent writing your next book?

I usually work on the shorts in my “down” time, when I am feeling a little burnt out on a novel and need a break, or when I have sent the novel to my test readers/agent/editor for commentary. Large epic fantasy novels can be very draining to write, and take years (at least for me) to finish. It’s nice and mentally refreshing to work on something that I can finish in a few weeks and share with readers.

Of course, I seem to have less and less down time as my career progresses…

Now that you are a successful author you get to rub elbows with some of the hotshots in the literary world. Is there anyone that you were particularly excited to get to meet?

Lots of people. I am still a fan at heart, so sometimes it’s hard to keep my composure at times like that. I met Robert Jordan twice before he died, and both experiences were quite memorable. At a World Fantasy Convention party a couple of years ago, someone asked me to pass the chips, and I turned around to find that it was George RR Martin. I’m pretty sure I stuttered through the entire conversation that followed.

At New York ComicCon in 2008, I got to meet Terry Brooks when the Editorial Director of our mutual publisher Del Rey Books introduced us so that I could ask Terry to read (and possibly blurb) The Warded Man. It was a business meeting and I suppose I should have been professional, but instead I brought my copy of The Elfstones of Shannara, begged him to sign it, and gushed like a fanboy. Terry did end up reading the book, and gave an incredible review that has adorned my book jackets ever since.

It’s also been great getting to know my peers in the current generation of fantasy writers, which is a bumper crop of amazing talent. Brent Weeks and I were like buddy cops at WFC last year crashing Gail Carriger’s Soulless launch party, and I’ve been enjoying corresponding with great writers like Pat Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, and Blake Charlton.

Wow, that's so awesome! Man, what I would give to pass the chips to George Martin...

There is a question that I have been wondering about for a while and since I saw you mention on your website that The Warded Man had been optioned for film, I thought I would take the opportunity to ask you about it.

So why is it that authors are so enthusiastic about having their books made into movies? While I understand that a movie brings worldwide attention to the book that it is based on, the movie is rarely as good as the book and people therefore make assumptions about the books without having ever read them. I know a number of people who have decided that certain books are not worth reading because they didn't enjoy the movies made off of them. And I would assume that after putting so much time and effort into writing a book, authors would be weary of having the stories that they worked so hard on tampered with by film makers.

That’s a good question, and I think the answer varies for everyone. From a purely practical standpoint, you can’t put a price on the attention it brings to one’s work to have a major motion picture made. I think for everyone who chooses not to buy the book because the films were bad, there are a great many readers who would never have heard of the book otherwise, and are willing to take a chance on it. Anything that garners more readers try my work is wonderful in and of itself.

But beyond that, for all the bad movie adaptations out there, there are also some really great ones. Beyond the obvious Lord of the Rings movies, you have things like The Road, Watchmen, or the Harry Potter films, not to mention some of the incredible films that have been coming out based on Marvel Comics. I also have really high hopes for the HBO show based on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

I didn’t sell the movie rights to my material causally. There were several interested parties, and in every situation I was very defensive and protective of my baby. I grilled director Paul WS Anderson for hours about his vision for the films and what he liked about the books before we even talked about actually making a deal. Paul really impressed me with his love and respect for the source material and his desire to show the overriding themes in the adaptation. In addition, I’ve been on set with him and seen how hard he works. I think the books are in good hands, and the movies are going to be awesome.

And if not, so what? The books on my shelf, my legacy to the world after I’m gone, will be unchanged.

Well, that's a pretty good answer and congratulations on your movie deal. Although I'm generally weary of books adapted to film, this does sound like an exciting project and I look forward to seeing the results.

Thank you so much Peter for taking the time to answer all my questions, especially with your busy writing and book touring schedule.

For more information about Peter Brett visit


This was an AMAZING interview! Thanks for sharing and posing some great questions!
I am totally with Peter about spoilers - I've been known to do some of the same things he does. :-P
So cool that he met Robert JordaN!
I've really got to check out something by Peter Brett!

Great Interview Simcha! Peter gave excellent detailed answers to your questions as well, which is always nice. I have his first one sitting on my TBR pile at the moment. J

Fascinating interview, Simcha. Such thoughtful questions!

Awesome job and great info. I'm really really really dying to read the Desert Spear and somehow find The Great Bazaar.

I finally made it here to read your interview. I am really amazed! This is very nicely done. Interesting about having a movie deal. I guess I am going to have to get to the books sooner than later, so I can compare when the movie comes out. :) I am looking forward to purchasing these books. I have to get through some books on my shelf here then I can start buying again. So this is on the list. Thank you!

Brizmus: I avoid reading reviews of books that I already know I want to read because I'm afraid of running into any spoilers. And I'm sure you will enjoy these books, when you get the chance to read them.

StephanieD: Thank you, though after reading The Desert Spear I just had so many questions that it really didn't take too much effort to pull this interview together.

Bryce: I've heard really good things about The Great Bazaar, and I think The Book Depository might even have some copies of it. Unfortunately I don't have the funds now to buy it, but I hope to get to read it eventually. And it has a great cover!

Jason: Peter is a great guy and he really put a lot of effort into answering each of my questions in a thoughtful manner, even though he was very busy at the time with all his promotional events.

Melissa: Although I do think you will enjoy these books, you don't need to rush- they aren't going anywhere. It will probably take a while for the movie to get made as well, though I really do hope it will be good.

Paul WS Anderson? Is he serious? The man is a terrible director. I wouldn't consider seeing a film of The Painted Man based on his past work. But as Peter says, the books are his legacy and that's all that matters. - Ian

Ian, I'm not familiar with individual directors but I just read that the movie will be in 3D, which I'm a little skeptical about.

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