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BBs, Grizzlies, and How I Wrote “The Black Prism”

I am a cheater.I am a cheater. The first time I cheated in college it wasn't for grades. It wasn't for money. It wasn't even for love.

"Brent, you gotta help me," Kevin said on the phone.

My brother needed a monologue for a theater class. He was stuck. He'd tried. He just couldn't write it. Naturally, it was due the next morning. He cajoled. He flattered. But most of all, my big brother needed me. I huffed and puffed and made pointed jokes and told lies about how much homework of my own I had.

And after midnight, tired, irritable, and imagining Kevin sleeping snugly in his bed, I began wrestling with my keyboard. Within moments, a Grinch grin spread over my face. Write you a monologue, huh? Doesn't matter the subject, huh? Just has to be good, huh?
The tale my brother recited flawlessly the next day (he has an infuriatingly keen memory) was true... ish.

When we were children, we would play in the vegetable garden after our dad had rototilled it, churning up big hunks of clay that baked brick-hard in the Eastern Montana sun. One day when we were 12 and 8 years old respectively, I played innocently as my brother threw dirt clods into the air. He chucked one so high it pierced the mesosphere.

On re-entry, trailing flames as it slowed to roughly 750 mph, it landed flat on my head, knocking me out cold. In his (ahem) monologue, my brother expressed how he was afraid that he'd killed me — because he thought he'd get in trouble. He tried to figure out how to hide the body. He looked on the bright side: at least the irritating little tag-along was finally gone. I drew him as a monster and his baby brother as the faithful Golden Retriever who just wanted to be with him. It was a thing of beauty. Consigning Kevin to at least 10 minutes of in-class purgatory, I felt positively Dantean in my passive-aggressive triumph.

Kevin sold it, too. Never accuse the man of flinching. But he didn't get an A. When he got the peer evaluations (which were supposed to judge only his delivery), he found out why. Against a bunch of As, three people had given him low grades, each complaining about the content. One gave him an F: "I'm a little brother. F*#k you," he explained.

Unfortunately, if I was a bit Dante, Kevin had always been a lot Sun Tzu: "He who knows himself and knows his enemy need not fear the result of a thousand battles [and karate and a gun don't hurt either]." Evidence of this ancient Chinese wisdom: my fight record (0-4363-1).

Kevin understood instinctively that if you seek out conflict when you have the upper hand, you can intimidate your opponent into not seeking out conflict when he does. So, after a friendly afternoon of shooting pop cans and neighbors' windows, my brother turned to me, BB gun cradled in his arms.

"Brent," he said, his voice flat, "run." He chambered a 4.5 millimeter orb of copper-colored pain and pumped the gun once.

"Kevin, no. Kevin, don't do it!"

"I'll give you to the count of three." This was him being sporting.

I danced in close, grabbing at his arms, supplicating, appealing to his better nature. I always was a little slow.

"One." He looked at me quizzically. I had the opportunity to run, but if I wanted to make myself an easy target — well, there's just no understanding some people, is there?

Of course, once I ran, that slow, "One... two... three" would become onetwothree! The corner of the house — safety — was at least 10 yards away. Too far.


"Kevin, no! Please! I haven't done anything!" The BB gun could handle 10 pumps, each adding more air pressure. At one, it would give you a wicked sting, but it wouldn't break skin.

He pursed his lips. He shook his head. "You asked for it," he said. He added a second pump: another 137 feet per second, another 2.4 yowls on the welt scale.

But to pump a Daisy Air rifle requires taking the gun off target for at least 1.4 seconds. I was off like a Montana grizzly trying to get off the endangered species list, a mobile mountain moving 33 mph.

In addition to being surprisingly fast, it turns out that from five yards a grizzly is also surprisingly difficult to miss.

Not that I was always so defenseless. The best offense can be a weak defense. Classic ambush: after a long day of low-level fighting, Kevin punched me in the arm in front of Mom, and she threatened him with spankings or gruesome death — the details are fuzzy after all these years. She'd turned her back and I'd howled and held my arm. When she'd turned around, the pure hatred on his face was all the evidence she'd needed for a swift conviction. From behind her back, I grinned my little Grinch grin at him.

Pity the mother with too-smart kids.

But years later, everything was to change. The pastor of our church was inside, visiting for a cup of coffee with this nice family with well-behaved children. I was 17, big from football, big from weightlifting, and just big. More importantly, I was finally bigger than Kevin, who was 21 and coming back from college where he was studying the oh-so manly art of opera singing.

Kevin sought a fight, and found one. He served up a generous helping of pain. I took it. Did I mention his martial arts? But I didn't stop. Today, I would win. Stomach shots, shoulder thumpings, wrist locks, wrestling in the driveway. He hurt me so bad that, big football player that I was, I cried. Crying, I was humiliated. Humiliated, I was enraged. I took the worst of it. I kept going. (File under: Berserker Grizzly.)

It scared the hell out of him. I interpreted his fear as a foretaste of sweet, sweet victory.

And then he did one thing he'd never done in 4,000 fights, the one thing that was utterly out-of-bounds: he punched me in the face.

I tackled him, shrugged off some blows, ended up on top, and took his golden throat in both hands. His beautiful tenor was his most precious possession. I choked him.

Then I thought, What am I gonna do? Kill him?

I hesitated. He threw me off. We staggered apart, a cold realization hitting both of us: If we ever fought again, someone was going to get maimed or killed. Literally.

Thus ended my fighting career on its highest note: a draw. I staggered inside, shirtless, splotchy, teary, dirty. I stormed right past the pastor. Sorry 'bout that, Mom and Dad.

For my whole adolescence, I knew there were benefits to fighting my brother. It taught me how tough I was, and how tough I wasn't. It taught me the difference between simple pain and actual injury. It taught me that when something knocks the wind out of you, you will not, in fact, die. It taught me what low blows are and who uses them. (All useful to know in publishing.) Best of all, I knew that Kevin would always have my back if we had to fight anyone else. We were best friends.

But it was years before I could see that last fight and all the others from my brother's perspective. Kevin and I were about the same size from the time I was four years old and he was eight. For my brother — perhaps for any older brother — every fight was an existential struggle. He had to win. There was no other choice.

Recently, though, what's fascinated me more than that are the rules by which we fought, and what it takes for rules to break down.

I don't recall being told it was okay to hit in the shoulder, but wrong to hit in the face. I don't know how I absorbed that it was fine to inflict pain, but trying to inflict permanent damage was unacceptable, dishonorable, disloyal. I know now that my brother needed me to run away from the BB gun — because he wouldn't risk shooting me in the face.

Man, I wish I'd known that then.

Sometimes after a compliment about my characterization skills, I'm asked if I model my characters on real people. Emphatically, no. And sort of, yes. I don't paste in my Aunt Ethel and have a character look like, talk like, and react like she would. Doing that seems fundamentally uninteresting to me. It also seems like a good way to infuriate Aunt Ethel when I have her betray her husband at the crucial point in the story.

That said, I do use real people. I use everything that fascinates me. If I see someone's endearing quirk, I'll lift it, change it, and use it — shamelessly. I don't know how I could write at all if I refused to use what I learn, what intrigues me, and what moves me.

The Black Prism is a story about two brothers who respect and fear and admire and contend with and shape each other. In other words, it's a story of normal brothers — who happen to be in extraordinary circumstances. It's not Kevin's and my story, but without having lost those 4,363 fights, I couldn't have written how Gavin and Dazen love and loathe each other. Without having fought to that draw and stopped, I couldn't have explored what happens when brothers break the rules — and then keep going. Without having seen how hard a good father had to work to shape headstrong, competitive young men, I couldn't have written how badly things go awry when a bad father picks a favorite.

The Black Prism is a story of emperors and prisoners and magic set in a Mediterranean, 1600-esque world. It's a fantasy story; it's fast and fun and inventive. But I like to think it's a human story most of all: a story of a fat kid who feels like an outsider, a story of complicated love, a story of trying to keep secrets from those who know us best, a story of trying to prove someone wrong. It is, to the best of my ability, a story of what Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself."

So I lied. When I cheated in college, it was for love. The kind of love that tweaks a nose, jabs with an elbow, and finally pats a back. That cheating, that love, is the source of The Black Prism. I hope you really enjoy it, but just a little bit more than that, I hope my brother does.

÷ ÷ ÷

Brent Weeks was born and raised in Montana. After getting his paper keys from Hillsdale College, Brent had brief stints walking the earth like Caine from Kung Fu, tending bar, and corrupting the youth. (Not at the same time.) He started writing on bar napkins, then on lesson plans, then full time. Eventually, someone paid him for it. Brent lives in Oregon with his wife, Kristi. He doesn’t own cats or wear a ponytail.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Black Prism ( Black Prism #1)
    Used Hardcover $13.50

Brent Weeks is the author of The Black Prism ( Black Prism #1)

13 Responses to "BBs, Grizzlies, and How I Wrote “The Black Prism”"

    joyce August 22nd, 2010 at 10:43 am

    I am so angry with Mr. Weeks for the end of his Night Angel Series. SO angry, I vowed to never read him again! Alas, I am a sucker for family drama. So this essay did the one thing I never thought possible, I will be reading The Black Prism!!!! I truly hope I will not be suckered in again only to feel betrayed at the final ending like NIGHT ANGEL..Good luck to you Mr. Weeks and if this book is even close to WAYS OF SHADOW, I will not be dissapointed..

    Caleb August 22nd, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    Awesome essay.

    Eli August 23rd, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Damn good, Mr. Weeks. Damn good.

    Skot August 24th, 2010 at 2:37 am

    I hope this book is as good as the Night Angel series, but if it is I am gonna be mad at having to wait so long for the other installments. Keep teh great writing coming.

    Judy August 27th, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    The Black Prism is every bit as good as the Dark Angel series. And the best thing about it is that it's totally different. The characters and plot and scenes are in no way tweaked versions of the first book. No formulas here. Great job Brent!!! * to settle in to wait for part 2..

    AJ August 28th, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    To Joyce: What made you angry about it? The storylines came full circle, and they were all wrapped up. Things ended the way that the author wrote them to end, and there was nothing left unsaid. I do wish there was more to read, and if that is what got to you then I agree fully. I didn't want to leave that world, and that shows that it was written the right way.

    As for Mr. Weeks, I appreciate every chance to read just about anything he puts to word. He soared to my favorite writer position in just under three chapters, and has stayed there. I will be purchasing Black Prism in about three hours, and my fingers are anxious to turn the pages.

    Erin September 1st, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Oh come on....the end of Night Angel trilogy was only SLIGHTLY heart-breaking. And leaves plenty of room for a sequel series!

    I'm loving Black Prism so far. I'm about 2/3rds in and it's amazing. I will admit, though, having read Night Angel, I was expecting certain twists to come. But it's been really good so far, and I'm already looking forward to book 2....

    ...when's that coming, by the way?

    John September 2nd, 2010 at 9:21 am

    As always I love reading anything by Brent Weeks. I loved the Night Angel Trilogy and I loved the Black Prism (and will probably read it again in a few weeks). I agree that I hope he writes quickly so that I can continue the series, and I can't wait to see what happens to the rest of the characters. This essay was amazing, giving me an insight into the story that I never would have imagined.

    Mitch September 2nd, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    finished reading night angel series this morning. talk about amazing, though i do have one question what happened to the white kakari khali had was it destroyed with her if not I'm sure Kyler's son could use it in a few years. by the time i got to the end of the epilogue i was balling my eyes out, no book has ever made me cry. good job keep on scribbling

    a fan 4 life

    joyce September 3rd, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    I couldn't handle the betrayl by Vi, and I felt Mr. Weeks allowed lust and desire to win out over true love. I am a sucker for young love and have issues when it doesn't work out. This was also my first science fantasy series and I wasn't lying when I stated that THE WAY OF SHADOWS was one of the best books I have ever read...I was just SHOCKED by the final ending...

    Adam September 19th, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    I thought the young love did win out. Kylar got together with elaine and when fate/their noble choices tore them apart it seemed like Kylar and Vi would get together(if the story hadn't stopped). Also I didn't see Vi's actions as A betrayl. Anyhow, Best series I've ever read. Glad you all like it.

    joyce September 25th, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    It is hard to make my opinion clear without giving away the entire story line. I don't want to do that. But there is no way that what was between Ky and Vi was young love. SHe even admits that what she does to Ky at the end of the 2nd book is equal to, and knowing it is wrong, does it anyway. Therefore, in my mind, anything that happens because of that one act is wrong! and the fact that Mr. Weeks then allows the story line to progress along a desire/love reaction is totally wrong for me. I would feel the same way if he had reversed the storyline and had a male do to Elene what Vi did to Kylar. She stole what wasn't hers to have.. Now obviously I have to give Mr. Weeks credit because I still get VERY UPSET when talking about this ending and I have a feeling I always will..

    Will September 29th, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Mr.Weeks The Nigh Angel Trilogy was by far the best books I've ever read it made me sad it made me laugh it made me cry I loved it and the black prism was just as good keep writing the great books looking forward to the next one

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