Mark Lawrence’s debut novel, Prince of Thorns (ACE August 2011, USA, Harper August 2011 UK/Aus), is generating quite a bit of buzz on the Internet, and has been for months leading up to the book’s publication. The novel, the first book in The Broken Empire trilogy, is a harsh tale of revenge and youthful power and pride set in an uncompromising world where kinslaying is commonplace and murder is a way to survive. In our interview, Mark discusses his youthful protagonist, his path to publication, fantasy in general and UK v. US beer.
Jorg does some not so nice things, to say the least. Did you find it difficult in making such a hard-lined, brutal character likeable? OK, if not likeable than an intriguing character to whom the reader wants to listen for 300-plus pages?
I’m going to say no. ‘Prince of Thorns’ is 95% as it was written first draft. I never went back and said to myself, ‘He’s not likeable enough – gotta tweak that’. There are two aspects to the answer. Firstly, because I wasn’t writing with thought of publication, on many levels I didn’t really care whether the ‘reader’ would like Jorg, I just wanted to get the story out. The second element I guess was that I had faith that the magic which worked for Burgess in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, nearly 50 years ago, would work for me too. And that magic is simply that a story told by a character with a compelling voice, seen through his eyes, will draw the reader in almost irrespective of what he does, as long as he is clearly human. Good writing is about honesty, about shining a light on the human condition, telling the reader truths they already knew but maybe couldn’t frame. They don’t have to be uplifting truths to have worth. Now if you inject some of that into a fast-paced bloodstained fantasy, I felt that the result would be worth reading. What I hadn’t anticipated was that quite so many of the genre’s readership would appreciate it.
One thing that (from some of the discussion at the SFFWorld Forums) is challenging to digest is just how damned young Jorg is, when compared to the respect he gets from older and more brutal men. Is this something you expected when writing Jorg’s story and if so, how challenging was it for you to make him convincing?
I could rattle on about this at length, citing real world examples of similar modern day situations. I could answer with a number of spoilers that explain and justify the situation. I could point out that a degree of precociousness that may surprise some readers shouldn’t be harder to swallow than magic and dragons and the like. In the end though I would simply fall back on the fact that his age is a number mentioned a dozen or fewer times in a tale of close on 100,000 words. Rather than let that sour things, just tell yourself he’s older, their years are shorter, or this race matures faster . . . it seems a small thing to stumble over.
As to the ‘why’ of it – well I wanted Jorg young enough that the question of age muddied the waters of his guilt. Not to the point that it came close to exonerating him, but to the extent that we’re reminded this person is in many ways half a child – this is not the man he is, but something stepping in that direction. In addition I wanted Jorg to be close enough to the events in his even younger life such that we could still accept the strength of their hold on him.
As to whether it was a challenge – well I wasn’t trying to make him a convincing example of his youth, I was aiming to show an exceptional case, an aberration, a person whose intelligence and experience lifted them above their years, but whose youth still meant that they were malleable, half-formed, still capable of change.
How has your scientific background influenced your fantasy writing?
I’m not sure that it has. I can give a pretty good defence of anything technical in the tale, but I don’t really think I’d draw much on my formal education and professional experience even if I were writing science fiction. It’s probably more the case that my imagination has influenced my science and made me a much better scientist than I would have been otherwise.
What’s a writing day like for Mark Lawrence?
Heh, I don’t have writing days. I have writing hours and they lurk after midnight. During the day I’m either at work or looking after my very disabled little girl, and the latter is by far the harder. Fourteen days a year we get to spend at the hospice and then I’m free to write all day – which is quite a shock to the system.
Prince of Thorns isn’t the first thing you’ve written, is it? What can you say about some of the other things you’ve written be they fiction or non fiction?
Well the only non-fiction I’ve written has been a collection of rather dry papers that are now buried in technical journals in the stack-rooms of university libraries around the world.
I’ve written a lot of short stories, a mix of fantasy, horror, literary, and speculative fiction. It’s a great way to learn how to write – particularly if you share them in critique groups. There’s also fierce competition in the fantasy magazine world, so if you’re getting success there you’re probably good enough to be published more widely – you’ve made the grade and what you need next is a whole lot of luck. Before ‘Prince of Thorns’ I wrote two other fantasy books, one very bad, one pretty good. I didn’t try to get either of them published. Both were far more traditional than ‘Prince of Thorns’
I’m seeing a lot of influences in the novel and world from Jack Vance to Fritz Lieber to Richard K. Morgan to George R.R. Martin. You’ve noted the influence of Martin in getting you back into fantasy, but what other writers would you say have shaped what you are trying to create?
I read a lot of fantasy in the 80’s then started to move away from the genre. When I picked up ‘Game of Thrones’ in 2003 or thereabouts, GRRM dragged me back in. The skill and depth I’d been looking for in classics and literary fiction was all there in spades. Since then I’ve read a lot of Robin Hobb, and very recently Peter Brett’s two books and Hulick’s ‘Among Thieves’, but basically I’ve read very little fantasy that’s been published in the last 15 years and I have a huge ‘to read’ list that includes many leading lights such as Abercrombie, Bakker, Morgan, Lynch, Rothfuss . . . the tally goes on.
So to answer the question, there aren’t really any conscious influences. I think GRRM is excellent, but my writing is nothing like his and nor is my storytelling. I’m sure there are many subconscious influences, and many of the classics I’ve read and loved, everything from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to ‘Catcher in the Rye’, will have put its stamp on me, but I can’t point to any direct influence save Burgess.
You come across as honest and savvy with the people of the Intarwebs. Speaking as a moderator at SFFWorld, this is most welcome. How important is keeping your virtual presence active, in terms of cultivating readers?
I don’t know. Many sources tell me that the influence of the blog-sphere and groups like SFF World is not as significant as you might think. Certainly no publisher has ever suggested that joining forums etc was a good investment of time. And the darlings of many forums (Bakker for example) are not noticeably more successful than many who are widely reviled in such places. So I spend time on SFF World primarily because it’s damn good fun. Of course, I can’t believe that it’s not good for spreading the word as well – it has to be doesn’t it? And because being a carer for my little girl means I’m never free for more than a few hours at a time, I can’t travels for signings and events, so it seems an ideal way for me to do my bit.
As the narrative progresses, things don’t get clearer. Or rather the expectations of the setting, which seems to be pseudo-medieval, based on the map, isn’t our own. However, certain elements to begin to gain an air of familiarity. How much more ore you planning on revealing in subsequent books.
An astute reader should find all the answers they’re looking for geographically in the second novel. A scarily observant reader might figure that out in book 1 in fact. More historical links between the story/setting’s distant past and its present are revealed in both subsequent works. The continuing unfolding of the setting should allay any worries that moments of déjà vu are slips or just lazy borrowing.
You’ve mentioned all three books are finished, but we’ve heard the same from other writers when the first book of their series is published. When can readers expect the next two to publish, allowing for the grain of salt that is the often slow process of the publishing world?
Well to be honest, I’m not sure anyone has ever told me the answer to that question. My contract said I was to deliver book 2 and book 3 a year and two years after acceptance of the first book. I’ve always assumed that meant the books would be published a year and two years after publication of the first book. I’ve seen series and trilogies come out recently with separation of only a few months, so clearly publishers can pull the stops out if they need to. My expectation is that they will come out in the summer of 2012 and 2013 – I can see no impediment to that timescale.
With three books completed in this series, do you plan on returning to the world or starting something entirely new?
I’m a believer in quitting while one’s ahead. Hopefully that doesn’t mean book 1 . . . but by the end of the third book the story is definitely told. The saddest sight in fantasy is a character staggering on past their sell-by date being milked for cash. That is of course not to say that every character carrying their 12th novel on their back is in that category. Some are slow burners, some shooting stars.
I’ll write something entirely new and very different. If things work out and the planets align, then someone will publish it. If not, I’ll be back to writing for myself again, and that’s plenty to keep me going all by itself.
Prince of Thorns has an incredible cover by Jason Chan – simplistic, but great use of color and shadow, plus a stark red font (at least on the US cover). What kind of input did you have with the cover or the artist?
Absolutely none. Voyager were in the process of discussing a cover with me, because I’d initiated the conversation, when Ace produced Jason’s cover out of the blue. It actually ran counter to the ideas Voyager seemed keen on, but they loved it and adopted it. How much influence my input would have had on the UK cover if Ace’s hadn’t been taken up by Voyager, I don’t know. I’m told authors very rarely have any say in the matter. Fortunately Jason Chan’s image has a haunting quality to it, is extremely well executed, and steps outside the more common examples of ‘the hooded man’. So I got lucky.
The book was the subject of a pretty nice bidding war. What some find surprising is that ACE is the US publisher, who over the past few years, has leaned more towards SF and mass market paperback initial releases for their fantasy novels. They clearly have faith in your work, but what made you choose ACE over other publishers?
Heh – all I knew about the bidding war I learned after the event. My agent told me that Ace had won and I just said, “Great! Who?” I would have said the same of any other publisher. When he said ‘Penguin’ I recognized that, but that’s about the only publisher I could have named at that point. I had faith that my agent struck the best deal he could – after all the effect hits his pocket directly – and given he knows a hundred times more about it than I do, I let him do his thing.
Let’s get to, perhaps, the most important question – your Web site (http://www.princeofthorns.com/authorrbio.html) indicates you brew your own beer and you’re something of a beer-aholic. Holding both US and UK citizenship, which country do you think has the better beer offerings?
I’d have to say English beer wins out. There are some fine American ales (Samuel Adams Irish Red Ale out of the Boston Beer Company for example), but for diversity and accessibility, the UK has it.
Interesting, so what English beer is your favorite?
Well my favorite beers are apt to change in the same way my favorite books do, and with a higher tempo. Recently though I’ve been very partial to London Pride, which has a very complicated taste that keeps surprising me, and Butcombe Brunel IPA, which just has that aaahhhh to it. I guess I should really be bigging up some obscure local micro brewery, but I’m not _that_ much of an aficionado!
What is more challenging – writing a fantasy novel or brewing a great beer?
When I brew a great beer I’ll let you know! Right now I’m settling for cheap and decent.
Any last words for our readers?
Thanks for keeping me company on SFF World – it’s made the whole business of having a book published at least a hundred times more interesting.
2011 Rob H. Bedford, SFFWorld, and Mark Lawrence