Interview with Peter Brett
Question:First of all, I have to ask about the composition of this novel, which is your first. Is it true that you wrote The Warded Man on your Blackberry while commuting by subway from Brooklyn to your day job in New York? This is a novel that weighs in at over 500 pages!
Peter Brett:Well, it wasn’t a Blackberry, but the rest is true. I have an HP Ipaq 6515 smartphone. It’s a little clunky compared to some of today’s smartphones, but back in late 2005 when I picked it out, it was about as close as you could get to a tricorder. I chose it because it could run Microsoft Word, which meant I could write on the mini-keyboard, sync it to my computer, and then continue working in the same document on my desktop.
Finding time to write when you have a full-time job (not to mention a life outside work) is possibly the greatest hurdle for the would-be novelist to overcome. On a good day, I was on the subway an hour and a half. On a bad day, anyone who is familiar with the NYC subway system knows your commute can grow exponentially. I was always looking for a way to make that time productive, but writing longhand on the subway is impossible.
Enter the smartphone. On days when I could get a seat, I would put my iPod on to drown out the background chatter and start thumb-writing. I set a goal of 1,000 words a day for myself, and usually I could get at least 800 of those done on the commute. More if I wrote at lunch. At night, I would go home, sync the phone to my PC, and then clean up the file, fix typos, and finish off the quota (if needed).
The phone really changed my life, because it meant I could write anywhere, at any time. In a long line at the bank? Write. Waiting at the bar for a friend? Write. In a cab, or the passenger seat of a car? Write.
I would frequently even come out of the subway, walk up the steps and down the sidewalk, all the way to my office, still typing away. It’s pure luck that I never walked into an open manhole or got knocked over by a bike messenger. I would say that a good 60% of The Warded Man was written thus. I don’t know that I could ever have done it without this tool to make my historically unproductive time so productive.
Q:I read a lot of fantasy fiction, and I confess that when I first heard about your novel, the idea of a world where demons rose from the ground each night to attack a dwindling population of ever-more-desperate humans didn’t really grab me. Until I read the first few pages. Then I knew I was reading something special, a first novel utterly unique in its concept yet written with all the skill and assurance of a veteran of the bestseller lists. Can you tell us a little about the book and where you got the idea for this compelling new world?
PB:I firmly believe that it is characters, more than concept, that drive a story. Make the characters relatable and compelling, and the story will work. When my mother, who had never read a fantasy book in her life, read it and told me she was lying awake at night, wondering what would happen to the characters, I knew I had something.
As for how it all started, I was taking a fantasy writing class at NYU in 1999, and we were given a homework assignment to “write the first scene of an original fantasy novel.” I wrote a little story about a young boy named Arlen who was never allowed to go farther from home than he could get by midday, because he needed to get back home before the demons came out at night. He always wondered what was over that next hill, though, and promised himself that one day he would find out, even if it meant spending a night outside with the demons.
To be honest, I knocked out the story in one night and put it aside for years before coming back to it and working on it in earnest. I was writing a very different book at the time, but Arlen was never far from my thoughts, and every once in a while I would jot down a few notes on his world.
Q:As I mentioned above, it’s hard to believe this is a first novel. What was your path to publication, and what writers have influenced your ideas about writing and fantasy?
PB:The Warded Man isn’t really my first novel. Technically, it’s my fourth, though it’s the only one I ever tried to sell. Writing was always a passion of mine, but in all honesty, I never believed I was good enough at it to have a shot at doing it professionally.
I wrote my first novel, An Unlikely Champion, in high school, and it was godawful. I mean really, really bad. My friends and family said nice things about it at the time, but I think they were just being gracious. I then went to the University at Buffalo and majored in English, taking writing classes, but in truth I learned more about storytelling in my weekly games of Dungeons and Dragons, where I served as Dungeon Master and wrote original adventures for the players.
After college, I wrote a high fantasy novel called Heart’s Guard, which was about the adventures of a warrior who worshipped the goddess of Love, and was an allegory about the awful things we sometimes do for love. There were a lot of worthwhile parts to that book, but I knew I was still learning and needed more practice. I took what I had learned and started fresh, writing Snowcrest, the sequel, a book I am still quite proud of. I learned even more writing Snowcrest than I had with Heart’s Guard, and rather than continue that series, I opted to try something new. Much as I loved those other books, they were still about swordsmen and wizards and elves, and the fantasy market had quite a bit of that already. I decided to go back to Arlen and his demon problem.
After I had finished the first draft of The Warded Man, I met a Literary Agent at a SFWA NY Publisher’s Reception (a.k.a. the mill & swill). He gave me his card and told me to send him a copy of the book. I did, and he totally trashed it.
I was pretty devastated. I tried to come up with all sorts of reasons why he didn’t know what he was talking about, but of course he did, and was right to bounce the book. I look at it now and see that it was deeply flawed. I then sent him Snowcrest, at which point he called me up and told me he wanted to meet for coffee.
He sat me down and told me that I had real potential, but that it was clear my writing was mostly self-taught, and that while my instincts were good, I still needed polish. He gave me a copy of Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith, and told me to read it, think about it, and then rewrite The Warded Man.
I really appreciated my agent taking that time to talk to me. I knew he was a busy man and wouldn’t have bothered if he didn’t think I could succeed, so I took his words to heart. I took a year to rewrite the book, throwing away close to 75% of the first draft, and sent it off to him, holding my breath.
The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did Joshua agree to represent the book, but within a few short months he had sold it (along with two sequels) in the U.S., the UK, Germany, France, Japan, Russia, Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Spain. I am still kind of stunned at the sudden success.
As for influences, I have always been a pretty voracious fantasy reader. I started with Tolkien, naturally, and went on from there to Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore, Douglas Niles, Piers Anthony, Lyndon Hardy, C.S. Friedman, Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Phillip Pullman, David Farland, Naomi Novik, and countless others. I think I must have read the entire TSR line of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance books in the 80’s and 90’s. I also read a lot of horror stories, mostly Stephen King and James Herbert.
All of those authors made an impact on me and my writing, but the two books that I really credit with raising my game were James Clavell’s Shogun and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. It was in these books that I realized just how far the medium could reach, and that a lot of the limits in writing are self-imposed by the authors. I don’t know if I can ever achieve that level of writing, but I intend to spend the rest of my life trying.
Q:The novel begins in 319AR–that is, 319 years after the return of the demons. Can you fill us in a bit on this back story without dropping any spoilers? Where did the demons go? Why did they come back?
PB:Approximately 3500 years prior to the events in The Warded Man, mankind was at war with demonkind. Using weapons etched with magic wards, humans fought demons on even terms, achieving something of a stalemate. It was around that time that a Krasian general named Kaji conquered the known world, creating a vast army with only one purpose: to exterminate the demons once and for all.
He came close to succeeding. Very close. But before his victory was complete, the demons just stopped coming. Night after night passed, with no sign of them. Thinking that they had won, Kaji’s people called him the Deliverer, and believed he was a messenger of Everam, the Creator.
But after the death of Kaji, his empire began to splinter. Humans began fighting amongst themselves, as they are wont to do, and after a few generations, they stopped believing that demons even existed. Magic became the stuff of fairy tales, and science took hold. Civilization rose to great new heights.
But the demons were waiting. And breeding. And when they were ready, they came back with a vengeance, destroying much of what humanity had built in a very short time. Robbed of their technology, humans were reduced overnight to a medieval society, and forced to retreat to walled fortresses, protected by ancient symbols that were once thought to be superstitious nonsense. But the ancient tales of the Deliverer say that he will come again…
Q:Is this the first book of a trilogy, or is it a more open-ended series?
PB:I am currently contracted for three books in the series, but I hope to do more. I have a definite end in mind, but I would like to take some time to explore the world and its more interesting characters a bit before getting there.
Q:Tell us about your main characters, Arlen, Rojer, and Leesha.
PB:I’ve always felt that people are defined as much by their flaws as their talents, and I approach characters with that perspective in mind. With Arlen, I wanted to write about a hero who had to really earn his special abilities. I was tired of heroes who were born to privilege and power, or who were given some magical trinket that made them special. I wanted to tell the story of a normal person who had to suffer and knowingly give up everything that made him human in order to survive.
Rojer is scarred, physically and emotionally, at an early age, and raised by an abusive foster parent. He is a textbook ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), and has a very hard time fitting into normal society. Of the three, I would say he is the hardest to write, and his story is in many ways the most tragic, as every parental figure he finds tends to get killed right before his eyes.
Leesha was meant to be that perfect girl we all knew in high school, the one every girl wanted to be, and every boy wanted to be with. Beautiful, rich, smart, and pampered, but so kind that no one could hold it against her. But in being what everyone expected her to be, she was never really tested. It’s only when her seemingly perfect life is shattered that she learns what she’s really made of.
It’s interesting to note that the original draft of the book was entirely in Arlen’s POV, and he first met Rojer and Leesha as adults when he rescued them on the road. Giving Rojer and Leesha their own perspectives was, I think, what really made the book work. Leesha’s story, in particular, took off. She practically writes herself.
Q:The people among whom your trio of main characters grow up live fearful lives on the margins of what can be protected from the demons. What sets these three apart?
PB:They’re all stubborn as hell.
Q:Arlen is a warrior, Rojer a musician, and Leesha a healer. Why these three archetypal occupations?
PB:I have no doubt that my decades of playing Dungeons and Dragons had an influence there, but there were practical considerations as well. Every book about monsters needs someone to fight them, someone to patch up the people who do the fighting, and someone to provide entertaining exposition.
I tried very hard to approach these archetypes from a different angle, however. One thing I decided early on is that there would be no swords in this world, because fighting a demon with a sword meant getting closer to it than any sane person would ever get. And in truth, warriors in Arlen’s world are almost extinct, because the best of them can’t even stand toe-to-toe with a lesser demon without the lost fighting wards.
The concept of the Herb Gatherer had a lot of interest for me, especially since I spent ten years working in pharmaceutical publishing. They seem at a glance to be quite primitive, but many of them, like Leesha, actually have access to old-world books of science and medicine, and brew cures that are quite potent.
The traveling minstrel is a fantasy standard, but I was careful not to make Rojer into comic relief. I wanted a real character, not an annoying sidekick. The Jongleurs in the story are a necessary part of society, because they maintain oral storytelling traditions in a world where most folks are illiterate. I’ve always thought music held a magical quality, and I wanted to explore that a little, too, especially because the first book is rather low-magic.
It’s also worthwhile to note that all three characters will be called upon to exceed the purview of their archetypes as the series progresses.
Q:Arlen hears tales of the Krasian people, who actually fight the demons rather than meekly shelter behind defensive wards. Your descriptions of these warriors, whom Arlen encounters to life-changing effect, reminded me of Arab cultures. And that led me to reflect a bit on how the culture of Arlen and the other main characters is recognizably Western, around the Middle Ages or so. Can you talk a bit about the use of history in fantasy, the touchstones of the real world that you employ to make your fantasy world real and believable?
PB:It was very important to me to make the setting a familiar one that readers could easily recognize and feel comfortable with, while still trying to keep it fresh and original. By and large, ever since Tolkien, Western fantasy stories have used a pseudo-European medieval setting, so I began there, but with the intention of expanding outside that comfort zone once the readers had been given a chance to bond with the characters.
It’s true that the Krasian people are based mostly on Middle Eastern culture, and the concept of jihad in particular, but they were also heavily influenced by the ancient Spartan citizen soldier model, and by some of the cultures of the Far East.
I love fantasy because it gives writers an opportunity to pull interesting facets from history and real world culture to flavor their stories without the need to adhere too strictly to actual events. Every culture in the world has its own mythologies that define it in many ways. That's something that has always fascinated me. I have intentions to explore other cultures as well, if the series expands beyond three books.
Q:What about the events of the real world, our world, that were going on as you wrote The Warded Man–specifically, the War on Terror. It’s often said that fantasy fiction is pure escapism, but it seemed to me, on the contrary, that you were engaging very directly with certain aspects of our modern world.
PB:There's no denying that what was happening in the world while I was working on this book had a major impact. I was in Manhattan on September 11th, and could not possibly have been unmoved by what happened. It forced me to look a lot harder at the Middle East, U.S. policy there, and to learn about the people that we were being told were our enemies. The reality I found, of course, was far more complex than what we were being told in sound bites by the news and our leaders. I hope to make my story, and the moral questions it raises, just as complex. There is definitely more going on than meets the eye in the first book.
Q:The demons seem like mindless monsters. Are they really as mindless as they seem? Are there demons with more intelligence that haven’t yet made an appearance?
PB:Oooh, that would be telling. Suffice it to say, there are quite a few demon breeds yet to be revealed.
Q:Do you have a working title yet for the next volume in the series? Can you give us any hints of what lies ahead for Arlen, Rojer, and Leesha?
PB:The second volume in the series will be titled The Desert Spear, and the first half (give or take) of the book will step back in time, telling the life story of Jardir, the Krasian leader, from childhood to the present day, much as the first volume did for Arlen. It will tell the story of the very real friendship between these two would-be messiahs, and hopefully give a different perspective on some of the events in The Warded Man.
There will also be another minor character from the first book, Renna Tanner, who will take center stage in The Desert Spear, along with plenty of scenes centered around Arlen, Rojer, and Leesha, as the characters learn more about ward magic and start to bring back powers long forgotten. Magic will play an increasing role as the series progresses.