Interview with Pierce Brown

Posted by Goodreads on December 5, 2014
Pierce Brown's transformation from rudderless college graduate to bestselling fantasy author began halfway up a glacier at the age of 22. The aspiring writer, who had previously completed six unsuccessful novels and received 130 rejection letters, was trudging through the ice at 2 a.m. when he had the idea for his dystopian Red Rising trilogy. Set on a futuristic Mars, the book follows Darrow, a member of the oppressed Red caste, who embarks on a brutal journey of metamorphosis and cunning to take on the decadent ruling Golds, who enslaved his people and killed his wife, Eo. Brown credits a powerful inner "ticking clock" for his output—he knocked out a first draft in less than two months. His riveting 400-page debut, winner of this year's Goodreads Choice Award for Best Debut Author and a finalist in the Best Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction category, immediately won armies of fans and comparisons to The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and A Game of Thrones. A bidding war for the film rights followed (Universal won, with Marc Forster of World War Z fame set to direct), and Brown began writing the screenplay. With the second part of the trilogy, Golden Son, set for release next month, Brown, now 26, is hard at work on the final installment. Goodreads pulled him away from his computer to talk about inspiration, gravity, and the dangers of working with noise-canceling headphones.

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Goodreads: Where did your inspiration for Red Rising come from?

Pierce Brown: It was really organic. I was hiking in the Cascade Mountain Range, and I'd been rereading the Greek play Antigone. I was struck by the contrast in the story, the dichotomy of the forces represented, a young disenfranchised girl who stands up to cold power, and I thought what a beautiful thing it was that such a fragile character could be a seed of destruction. Then I wondered, What did Antigone leave behind? What if there was a person who was in love with Antigone? How [could] her actions transform not only him but the world? The story started to unravel before me. Eo was conceived far, far ahead of Darrow. She was the first character. It was always about that sacrifice.

GR: Did you see it as a trilogy from the beginning?

PB: I did. That's the structure I love most. I think it enforces discipline on the story arc, even though a lot of trilogies completely abandon that discipline for reasons that are unknown to me.

GR: How did Mars enter the equation?

PB: Thematically it resonated with me because of the dissonance between the Roman god Mars and the Greek god Ares, and how the Romans bastardized Greek mythology. They made the god Mars much more a protector of the heart and home than the god Ares, who was reviled by the Greeks. But also Mars is the next logical jumping-off point for humanity, so it has origins there, too. And I've been fascinated by it ever since I looked at it through a telescope when I was a kid in Arizona.

GR: Did you have to do a lot of research about space and the solar system?

PB: Not too much. I changed it up enough, and it's not a hard sci-fi book but more of a sci-fi fantasy. I wanted the planets to be different in terms of the ethno types and cultures, but you can't do that too much because there are already so many moving parts. But if someone's lived on Mars, for example, with one-third of Earth's gravity, or Luna, Earth's moon, which has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, you have to take into consideration how that would affect their height, bone structure, and density, and you have to build around it, and that's very interesting to explore.

GR: After you started with one character, how quickly did this whole universe evolve in your head?

PB: So rapidly. I mean, I wrote the book in under two months. I didn't really outline it, which was problematic near the end, but mostly the story was so fully formed because Darrow had such strong motivation. I've always been a fan of the notion that a novel is the war of the heart against itself, and that's what I think a good character is, and Darrow has that built into him because he doesn't want anything more than love.

GR: In Red Rising society is divided into a hierarchy of color-coded castes, with Reds at the bottom and Golds at the top. How did this system come about?

PB: The origin here is in Plato's Republic, where he says that in a perfect society men should form a natural hierarchy. There are men with souls of gold, men with souls of copper, iron. The ones of iron should till the soil, while the ones of gold should rule the city. But he didn't believe it should pass down through birth; he believed it was a meritocracy. The problem is that he didn't see that people would want to accumulate wealth or power and pass it down to those they love. So I thought that would be interesting: We have a meritocracy, but how could it be poisoned?

GR: When you were writing, were you aware of any contemporary social commentary you could be making?

PB: I'm not trying to tell anyone anything. I was 23 when I wrote this, which is pretty limited life experience, so I have to come at this with a massive degree of humility. It's not necessarily saying what I think but what is real in this imaginary world. To lay claim to some big notions of governmental critique is not something I've ever wanted to do. What's really interesting to me is how people and economies function and how groups make decisions. It's fun to see how things move in familiar patterns. We're pretty predictable in terms of the overall arc of history. And that's what I really wanted to look at with Red Rising: What do we recognize in their world that's parallel to our own, even though their world is vastly different, even though they look at democracy as an abominable thing. The second book will concentrate more on media and on the idea of propaganda, which I'm fascinated with.

GR: All the castes have their own dialects with distinctive slang (such as the Reds' "bloodydamn"). How did you go about creating this?

PB: I based a lot of the Reds' slang on posters that were put up in New York during the Irish immigration in the latter half of the 19th century. I took some of their verbiage, and I just altered it. Then for the Greys there's more of a cockney inflection. But I think it's risky because creating slang words is super silly sometimes. Battlestar Galactica used the word 'frak,' and it takes some getting used to. But then you feel like you're part of a club. Language is a way for us to belong, and I thought it would be amazing to give fans as well as my characters a way of communicating and belonging.

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GR: Who would you say were the key writers who influenced you in your creation of Red Rising?

PB: Contemporary ones I would say, obviously. J.K. Rowling, because she ushered in a new age of fantasy culture being accepted by mainstream society in much the way J.R.R. Tolkien did. I think that Gene Wolfe, who is more of a hard sci-fi, hard fantasy writer, is fantastic. Stephen King is wonderful, but more because I realize that, although I am totally entranced by his stories, I cannot write at all like him, I have nowhere near the patience, and George R.R. Martin because of the amount of stories that he can juggle. And Frank Herbert as well. I think Dune and Alexander Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo are the closest parallels to Red Rising in terms of tone and story. People compare it with The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner and other things like that, but I've always felt Red Rising's soul is much more in line with Alexander Dumas and Frank Herbert. Those guys are classics, and I'm not comparing myself to them, but that's where I got a lot of the inspiration. And then I would say Tolkien was hugely influential to me as well as Homer and Sophocles.

GR: How would you describe your writing style?

PB: I want my writing style to be something that is accessible, and that's what's so interesting about this book being called Young Adult. There's a lot of discussion among readers: Is this Young Adult or is this not Young Adult? I don't know. But the thing is that Young Adult is simply a book that is interesting in every chapter. A lot of books aren't necessarily like that. A lot of my favorite books aren't necessarily like that, and that requires a great deal of patience, and I don't know if that patience is in line with the modern way of thinking. I'm always struggling with this: Should I take more time, but then I lose the interest of the reader? How do you balance pacing with content? My editor can always tell when I'm reading a Russian author or anything not written in the last 30 years because my writing all of a sudden becomes very bloated, and there are so many inconsequential conversations, and he's asking me, "How is this driving the plot? Your reader just stopped reading."

GR: Do you feel like you think about this world the whole time now? Is it difficult to switch off?

PB: It is really difficult. It's impossible to switch off if I'm driving and listening to music or if I'm in any way doing something that doesn't require my active mental participation. I drift off, and I don't think about my life, I think about Red Rising. I feel very blessed at this point because I've been able to really ruminate on these characters and the world that surrounds them. When you read Book Two, I think you'll be able to see how my writing has improved because I understand the world better, I understand the motivations of the characters better and it's less forced, it just flows out of me now. It's so fun, and it's because I don't leave that world. And while it's difficult to separate work from reality sometimes, to break off and have a conversation, it's wonderful now because there's such a connection to the characters.

GR: How has Darrow evolved as you have developed as a writer?

PB: He's more introspective, he cares more about the people around him, and I think his rather myopic worldview, while it was easy to write in Red Rising, it was also trying on the reader, and I think the reader will like Darrow much more as the series progresses. It's hard because I know I've created a character whom some people will dislike because he is so driven by one thing and he's not nice to people we like. What's frustrating sometimes is that people think that this is me, that these are my opinions. But no, this is Darrow. He gets wiser as things progress, and that's so nice for me. He becomes a man.

GR: What's been the most exhilarating part of the journey for you so far?

PB: There are two things, really. One is writing something and my editor saying, "No, that's not what Darrow would do," and realizing that I've created something that's beyond me, it's almost a product that's greater and smarter than I can be. Hopefully! The other thing is probably somebody saying "bloodydamn" to me.

GR: What are the major challenges you've found in adapting the book for the screen?

PB: The major challenges are understanding what the audience knows and doesn't know. Because the world is so vast, it's hard to lead your audience by the hand in screenplay format without feeling condescending and explaining everything. What's trying for me sometimes is taking away the complexity of Darrow's inner monologue. With the book we get to be in his head, and whether or not you agree with his decisions, you understand why he made them. In the movie there are so many opportunities to alienate the audience by Darrow's horrible actions. It's a very complicated process, and it's new to me. But I'm also writing television shows right now. I've started writing a couple of science fiction, fantasy-based shows that we are taking out very soon as pilots, and I'm really excited about those.

GR: You're also writing Book Three at the moment?

PB: Yes, and it's going pretty great. I was having trouble getting started because, prior to these books, I'd never written sequels to anything. It's hard, wanting to do the characters justice, close off all the loose threads, and structuring it properly. I don't want to get myself into a hole. So Book Two took a lot longer to write than Book One, and with Book Three I've been really outlining a lot. I actually had to escape for the last couple of weeks, my parents have a cabin up on the Washington coast, so I was up there writing by a campfire and hiking a lot, and it really helped clear out my creative block.

GR: Do you have a title for Book Three?

PB: Yes, I do.

GR: Are you sharing it yet?

PB: Not quite.

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GR: Goodreads member Trace asks, "Without giving anything significant away, can you give us a teaser from Golden Son?"

PB: Darrow begins to understand that the thing the Golds fear most is civil war, and so he begins to embrace himself as the Reaper and a creator of chaos. So I would ask you: How would someone create the most chaos in Gold culture?

GR: Goodreads member Cameron Hulcy asks, "If you could choose the actor to play Darrow, who would you choose?"

PB: A very good actor.

GR: Goodreads member Austin Manges asks, "Why do you write? Is it because you wish to tell people about the world, or is it because you wish to understand the world yourself?"

PB: It's because I wish to share a world.

GR: Goodreads member Jenna writes, "One of my favorite things about Red Rising as opposed to other similar series is the fact that Darrow is rebuilding rather than going through a slow ruin. Was it important to you that it felt like he had nothing to lose from the start?"

PB: Yes, I think that is the point. Because I started with Eo and I started with that loss, and when you do that, you start almost from nothing, and it is the rebuilding of a man and of a dream.

GR: What's it going to be like when you have to say good-bye to this universe, when you come to the end of Book Three?

PB: Lots and lots of blood. I'm kidding. I think it will be, depending on how I end it—I have two possible endings that I'm writing toward right now; I will have to see which is more thematically earnest when I get there—but it will definitely be like saying good-bye to an old friend and perhaps one I'll never see again in a lot of ways.

GR: What's your average writing day?

PB: I try to write at least eight hours a day. I wake up and have my breakfast, I read my paper or I read a book of poetry, particularly English Romantics because they have such a felicity of phrase and expression, and it really opens up my own use of words. I write until lunchtime and sometimes take a break to eat lunch or go work out, and then I'll come back and write for four more hours. I try to be done by 7 or 8 o'clock, because if I'm not, I'll be up until 4 a.m., not necessarily working but being unable to fall asleep because I'll be thinking about it, and that's problematic because it throws me off the next day. I try to treat it like a regular job because I have this ticking clock inside me that says I should be working because I'm not really living a real life so much. It's almost like I'm followed around by this Catholic-size guilt for not producing.

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GR: Do you have any particular writing habits or rituals?

PB: Coffee. And I get into this zone where I'm writing and I block out everything. I wear noise-canceling headphones, and it really is traumatizing because every now and then a friend will sneak into my house and come up from behind and scare the hell out of me. It's a very dangerous way to write.

GR: What are you reading right now?

PB: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and a book given to me by a friend about Gustave Doré, my favorite artist. He did a lot of the etchings for Paradise Lost and Dante's Divine Comedy.

Interview by Catherine Elsworth for Goodreads. Catherine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Cond&eacute Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.

Learn more about Catherine and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Bobbie (new)

Bobbie I had placed Red Rising on my Wish List - now it's going into the cart! Great interview. I was interested in the "Young Adult" category placement. I've found this group of books to be as well written as any of the "literary" books I have read in the past. But it IS true, as Brown says, that they move along rapidly and don't have much introspection (which I tend to see as a "British" thing - my apologies to all writers I may have labeled in this manner). Can hardly wait for my next book order to arrive.

message 2: by Eric (new)

Eric Mesa Bobbie wrote: "I had placed Red Rising on my Wish List - now it's going into the cart! Great interview. I was interested in the "Young Adult" category placement. I've found this group of books to be as well wr..."

The audiobook is VERY well narrated, if you haven't already hit the button. If you bought a Kindle book, the Audible book is a pretty cheap add-on. Although I'm not sure if it's the same narrator. (Should be, right?) I got it as part of a Humble Bundle w/o DRM.

message 3: by Daryl (new)

Daryl Really want to jump in this series but holding myself because they're still not in paperback (I love paperbacks) and still not finished. I hope Golden Sun should be in paperback in mere months after its release.

message 4: by Bobbie (new)

Bobbie Daryl Gian wrote: "Really want to jump in this series but holding myself because they're still not in paperback (I love paperbacks) and still not finished. I hope Golden Sun should be in paperback in mere months afte..."

Daryl - I just purchased Red Rising from Amazon in paperback... Bobbie

message 5: by Hady (new)

Hady Gómez I loved Red Rising and I can't wait for Golden Son <3

message 6: by Bobbie (new)

Bobbie I am finishing another series by another author right now - but Red Rising is next on my list. Maybe by next weekend! Looking forward to it and thanks for the recommendation!

message 7: by Chelsea (new)

Chelsea Green Her has a lot of depth and a beautiful and complicated way of thinking. Nice save on the actor question.

message 8: by Amy (new)

Amy Verkruissen Great interview...I too am a huge fan of Frank Herbert's Dune series. I started reading those in middle school!

message 9: by Heather (new)

Heather I got an ARC of Golden Son and it does not disappoint!

message 10: by Bobbie (new)

Bobbie Ha Ha Chris - gotta plug that hole you discovered.

message 11: by Emilie (new)

Emilie Haney Fantastic interview! Love seeing "behind the scenes" into an authors world and thoughts. Looking forward to Morning Star!

message 12: by Prince (new)

Prince Uchenna hello

message 13: by Tia (last edited Apr 10, 2015 12:37PM) (new)

Tia I heard about Red Rising on the radio show Kidd Kraddick Morning Show, here in Texas when Pierce Brown called in for an interview. Ja-Si, from the show was talking about this book and how much he loved it. I bought it and read it and I LOVED IT! I just bought the Golden Son, can't wait to read it :)

message 14: by Tia (new)

Tia I agree

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