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INTERVIEW: Pierce Brown on Writing a Bestselling Sci-Fi/Fantasy Series

Bestselling author Pierce Brown's latest book, Light Bringer, is available July 25. 

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  • Photo Credit: Pierce Brown / Instagram

“I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.” 

Two sharp and brutal sentences introduced readers to Pierce Brown’s stunning world of Red Rising almost a decade ago. Rarely does a book capture the essence of the story in the opening lines so succinctly. But these words don’t just set the tone for one book; they encapsulate six—and counting. 

It’s this impressive ability to succinctly capture simple truths that has grown the fanbase for Pierce Brown’s books into legions of Howlers, willing to follow protagonist Darrow to the edge of the galaxy if necessary. It’s been a loyalty earned in blood. Through friendship and love, victory and loss, treachery and vindication, Brown weaves lessons learned with mistakes made. These books are a battlefield, and no one is safe. It’s what makes these books so bloodydamn addicting.

Now, after a four-year wait, Howlers are reunited with Reaper, Mustang, and everyone’s favorite Goblin. Light Bringer is the penultimate book in the series, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the story and its stakes keep escalating. 

I was thrilled to tear Brown away from his desk and talk to him about which characters he loves to write, how he got started, and if he’s finally ready to say goodbye to this world.

When did you start writing?

I had finished A Feast for Crows in high school and was waiting for A Dance of Dragons to come out. One night, I sat down with a yellow legal pad and started writing this scene of these mercenaries trying to capture a dragon to harvest its eggs. After 25 pages I wondered if I should put this in a world and write a book.

800 pages later, I had a monstrous tome called Requiem for Light. It was overblown but very cool. It’s funny though, I had a slave miner [like Darrow in Red Rising] and there were pit vipers. There were these superhumans who have maintained peace in this area of land until one of their founders returns and exposes the hypocrisy of their order and their ranks. It was a multiple point-of-view (POV) story and was a lot of fun to write. I ended up writing like a maniac and finishing fifteen pages a day.

Retroactively, it makes sense that I ended up being a writer when I look back. I lived in eight states growing up and wasn’t able to take my friends with me. But I took my books. In many ways, books became the constant in my life. I always found them to be a refuge from my mind.

It’s interesting you started with a multi-POV and then went to a tight, single narrative for your debut trilogy. Now you’re back in a multi-POV. Does one come easier than the other?

Single POV present tense is easiest. It’s constraining in a way that helps make the story more linear. The thing that slows me down and takes more, or adds to my cognitive load, is multiple perspectives because I have to take into consideration causation, as well as having that character change. The point of a novel is taking a character through a journey and have them change based on events they encounter. So, having multiple characters and not only tracking that change, but making it interesting is very difficult. Particularly when it’s part of a longer arc in a series.

I’m not a plotter, so I find for me, multiple POVs hamstring me to a degree. I think anyone can see, based on how slow these books are to come out, it’s not as easy as a single POV. I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, or down the chute of a clawdrill, riding that momentum down into the mine. And so, I found writing an immediate first-person story very liberating. When I include others, it adds a lot of complications.

Who’s been your favorite character to write?

I always find Victra leaps off the page. It’s hard not to say Darrow, because I’ve written him so much. But he’s exhausting at times. 

Sevro used to be, but he’s become so, so beloved by the audience that it’s hard to please the audience. I can’t always make him the comic relief. So, he became very difficult to write because I found myself doing that in one of my drafts and I have to use him sparingly for risk of him becoming trite. In that way, he’s very tricky to write, but when I get him right, he’s very fun. 

Alexander was really fun to write, and Ephraim was such a pleasure. I rarely had to edit Ephraim much. Story elements sure, but never the voice. I love Ephraim.

Who’s the hardest character to write?

Virginia. She’s supposed to be so intelligent, and there’s also the element of her as the person in power. There’s a bias to blaming her, in and out of the world. So, she’s a complicated character to make fallible and have her make mistakes that aren’t dumb mistakes. When someone is that smart and that moral, and she’s also the Sovereign, so she should never be in physical danger, how do I make that exciting and not just her in a bunker dictating? It’s difficult.

One of the things I admire on a craft level is how distinct each voice is, even though the tone of the book stays very fluid. How do you work to maintain that consistency?

I’m very tonally based. For the characters, they have different sentence patterns in how they speak, different ways to show their thought patterns. It’s not something I always do consciously, I don’t have a boilerplate for each character. It’s more that I spend enough time with them, I know how they think.

Lyria’s chapters are the easiest to write because I can very easily visualize her talking. She’s not as articulate as the others. She’s more impetuous. Darrow used to be that way, which made him easy to write, but he’s gotten trickier because he’s gotten older, he’s gotten wiser. He’s had to change.

Virginia is super tricky. Same with Lysander. They’re both supposed to be smart, but with Lysander, I don’t want him judging everyone around him and telling the reader all the things that he’s noticing. It’s hard to figure out how to show that in the text.

And it can definitely limit the words you use. Sometimes I’ll mess it up and my editor will ask, “Would Lyria be this poetic?”

I’ve heard you talk in other interviews that you don’t write your stories to tell readers your opinions because you’re more interested in exploring ideas with them. But what do you hope, if anything, that your readers take away from your books?

Empathy. I don’t think my series has any overt goals. I hope it enriches their sense of humanity, that they seek to find connections, and can overcome their own personal obstacles after they’ve seen characters they love and have followed for years overcome their obstacles. I hope they have the temerity to struggle, even when all seems dark, things like that. 

Many of the things that the characters go through, I believe a lot in that kind of journey. I don’t want to tell people to find their political leanings or preach to them that certain ways of government are better. It’s much more about the personal journey for me.

What’s wild to me is when people think the way a character talks is me talking. I have an anarcho-capitalist in Quicksilver, half of them are socialists. I’ve got fascists and tyrants. These are characters. I’m writing how I think they would talk. Even with the protagonists. Darrow talks like a sixteen-year-old miner. The expressions he uses and things he says are not things that are in my head.

The complexity of your characters and the Society is one of the things that initially drew me into your books. How do you balance presenting these complicated topics in a way that feels so realistic?

One of the things I think is super weird that I’ve seen in series and adaptations is when there’s almost a homogenized acceptance for all the differences in the world. I felt like if every Color in my world had the same view on say, homosexuality, I think it would be a less believable world. For instance, in the greater society homosexuality is not seen as something that is other. But in the mines, it’s not seen that way. So, the mine characters are going to have different views on it. And I think that then allows you to talk about it in the world and comment on it.

There are myriad issues that the characters are focused on that are reflections of our world. But if they have a homogenized acceptance of homosexuality, if they all have the same viewpoint, then I feel that it almost does a disservice to the issue. I couldn’t bring up the different views on Trig and Ephraim’s relationship, and then have Lyria realize that some of her preconceptions are off. And then you’re robbed of being able to actually deliver a lesson to the characters or explore those lessons. 

I think one of the things that’s beautiful about science fiction and fantasy is that when you go into it and the author is not preaching, you don’t have to counter-argue with what’s being presented. But if the author comes across as lecturing the reader, if you have a different opinion, you’ll argue because you’ll bring your opinions into the world to defend your view. I think it’s better to be more fair-handed and let the reader make their own conclusions by simply exploring the topic. Then you’ll be more open, you might realize you didn’t think of that subject in that way before.

So, I think that’s the author’s job. That’s what I try to do, anyway, instead of coming in with a message that I think everyone should agree with. 

You bring so much detail to your books, and I know you read quite a bit of history and philosophy. But your ability to really cut to the heart of human behavior and motivation is also impressive. Have you spent a lot of time researching things like psychology? 

More so lately. I think that because of that, it made it into the text of Light Bringer more than the other books. For some reason, I was never attracted to psychology when I was younger and now, I find it extremely interesting. I think it was just a thing of ignorance breeding separation. Then I started reading it a bit because I had some of my own puzzles to solve, my own knots to untie. I think it really lent itself well to understanding characters a bit better, and understanding and giving voice to showing repression and how people act out. I think psychology has been a great addition to my common pod of knowledge.

Red Rising began as a trilogy and then expanded into a second quartet. You’re writing the last in a massive seven-book series. Are you ready to say goodbye to these characters and this world?

Yes and no. Because beyond this lies the unknown. Beyond this lies the ability to change their story again. Of course, that happens with every book. There’s always a postpartum and I’m sure I’ll be disconsolate after this is done. But I’m very ready to look into new characters and not have to keep track of hundreds of characters and planets and language that I’ve made up in Red Rising. Part of me is eager to be free of it.

At the same time, it’s like a relationship with someone you love. There might be things that get under your skin about it, but it’s always going to be hard to say goodbye. So, it’s bittersweet. 

I also know the task ahead of me is monumental. I’m writing the seventh book right now, and I can’t be too concerned about what happens beyond it. I’ve got to earn that right. I have to bring it home. So, I’m focused on the book. It’s important I land this ship. And I think I have all the parts. I think Light Bringer set it up perfectly for the final showdown. But I still have my work cut out for me.

Well, I for one cannot wait. Until then, be sure to grab Light Bringer, on sale July 25, at retailers everywhere.

Featured photo: Pierce Brown / Instagram