Interview: Pierce Brown

Pierce-WaterstonesPierce Brown, author of the Red Rising trilogy, is an unashamed fan of the genre. When he met with Paul Simpson at the Hodder offices during his UK tour at the end of February, they quickly found common ground discussing Buffy and Angel with Brown dissecting the final seasons of the vampire series and naming Illyria as one of his favourite characters in the show… It was a good starting point for a discussion of Red Rising, Golden Son and Morning Star, his trilogy of novels that follow Darrow, a Red (the lowest of the low) from Mars who rises to the heights of power in an attempt to bring the whole system down that caused the death of his wife. The conversation that follows covers the three books (although we’ve tried to remain spoiler-free for the events in Morning Star)…

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What sort of programmes did you watch when you were growing up?

The funny thing is I used to try to sneak in Buffy but my parents wouldn’t let me. I think that Xena and Hercules were my favourite shows growing up, and seaQuest DSV. I was obsessed with seaQuest. The first season with Roy Scheider was some of the best thing I ever saw on TV. You can’t rewatch it now though!

I was obsessed with Scooby Doo, and also Thundercats – I make a policy now, I make myself a big breakfast and I watch some cartoons or Saved by the Bell, or something like that.

Saved by the Bell when you look back on it is terribly racist, and all about bullying – it had the worst messages. The most progressive stuff has always been sci-fi and fantasy, and especially on TV. Look at Xena – and you saw what basically I looked at as a lesbian relationship to a degree with Gabrielle and Xena. As a kid, it created this normalcy which sci-fi and fantasy has always been at the forefront of.

seaquestLook at seaQuest, it’s a lot like Star Trek when you look at equality and gender neutrality, taking it out of that heteronormative state that it’s always in. Star Trek is one of the most amazing things invented. Buffy and Angel: both shows that were way ahead of their time, embracing gay and lesbian characters, and embracing the minorities and making them part of the story.

I’ve always liked the ability of sci-fi and fantasy to do that. It’s one of my favourite things about the vehicle I have – you can talk about pretty much anything as long as you put spaceships in it or vampires!

And as long as you don’t make it too preachy – that’s just who Gabby and Xena were…

It creates that sense of normalcy, which is what it should be doing. It shouldn’t be saying “this is what we’re trying to do”. Create a good story and let people learn their own lessons. I hate being preached to and I’m sure you do the same! But I love it when someone can tell a story and let me sympathise and let me empathise.

That’s what human beings want to do – they want to relate. Give them a story and it gives them the excuse for all these barriers we erect to start breaking down.

Shadow of torturerWhich brings us to an interesting point – you use an unreliable narrator. There are a number of lessons that Darrow doesn’t realise he’s learned in the first two books, and he doesn’t realise how temporary some of his alliances are…

I was very fortunate to stumble across Gene Wolfe’s work. In the Shadow & Claw series – especially Shadow of the Torturer – he had an unreliable narrator, Sevarian the torturer (so Sevro is a shout-out to Sevarian). I read him because I heard Neil Gaiman mention him in an interview and said he was the best living fantasy writer.

When I did, I was in awe at the story-telling capacity of an unreliable narrator. I realised that you can play with the reader so much in terms of their expectation, in terms of their empathy, and a lot of the time the fun thing about Darrow is he’s a classic Greek hero but with more of our emotional sensibility.

He’s a classic Greek hero thrown in to the age of the Borgias…

That’s a great way of putting it.

The end of book three particularly reminded me of the Borgias.

History inspires every type of story – Game of Thrones was inspired by the War of the Roses. I’ve been able to piggyback off the great stories of the Borgias, the court dramas, Henry VIII, all these different influences but particularly the Greek ones.

Darrow is essentially Achilles mixed in with Odysseus. He has that capacity for rage that Achilles has and lost himself to. I look at the Iliad as a tragedy, the tragedy of Achilles – an extremely capable human being who drives himself into the ground because of his own pride and vanity.

It doesn’t glorify war, it almost pities the men who do it. A lot of people see the Iliad as a glorification of war but I look at it as a dirge to the human capacity to violence.

new-oxford-iliadPeople only really know the story of the Trojan Horse.

They don’t know the build up. They don’t know when it ends with Achilles relenting in his rage and giving Hector back to Priam. With that ending, it’s what the story is about – the rage of Achilles. “Oh muse, sing the song of the rage of Achilles.”

My favourite thing in Golden Son is Darrow succumbing to the temptations of being Gold. Him succumbing to the trappings of the Greek hero. Him succumbing to this very seductive society. To be honest, once you’re accepted by the cool kids, it’s very hard to resist that.

And to remember that you went in there to kick the shit out of them!

Right, because I can empathise.

That’s the problem, and also the wonderful thing about this character – that ability for empathy. It puts him in some dire straits at times, when he trusted individuals that he shouldn’t have trusted. Of course he shouldn’t – but his whole theory is about trusting them.

For me, Darrow appears to have very high ideals in a world that can’t support them.

Same thing with Cassius, but his ideals are different. One of my favourite things is seeing these people who have ideals but the world continues to remind them that these ideals don’t work, and to see if the human being changes or if they force the world to change. The fun thing about literature is that you can make them shape the world, and you can make them shape the story.

Only to an extent, if your character is to remain credible…

Of course.

Darrow cannot win totally.

Oh completely, and that’s why I realised I needed to write three more books because the story cannot end perfectly.

Morning StarAre they going to be from Darrow’s point of view?

No.

Good.

They’re going to be round side characters, characters we haven’t met yet, and also characters we have met who are ten years further down the road.

So we’re going to finally start seeing Darrow reflected in other people?

Yes.

That’s one aspect that I was hoping we might have in Morning Star – third person or a different narrator…

It almost had to be. It was hard.

That’s why it was so hard to write. To show the scope of an interplanetary rebellion from one person’s perspective in one book was a difficult process.

It does get perilously close to infodump occasionally which you’ve managed to avoid.

You skim close to it. You’ve read enough to know when I have to do it, but you try to do it so lightly or separate it a little bit or have it in a character interaction because otherwise it’s going to be an infodump. With Red Rising, the whole idea of a POV book is that you’re not infodumping because you’re experiencing the entire world through them, so you can’t ruin your vehicle for it.

Now with multiple POVs I can expand the world. I can’t get bigger than Morning Star in terms of scope but I can make it smaller while making it bigger. That’s the only way to do it unless you ramp up the violence, which is boring.

You get into the realm of torture porn…

Exactly. Look at the Jackal: when the Jackal captures Darrow, it could easily turn into torture porn. It got very close then I realised that the psychological manipulation that the Jackal would do thematically would work a lot better than any physical torture.

Red RisingYou start from a situation where every single person, pretty much, that we see is a killer because of what happens at the start of the book at the Institute. Normally you have characters where the act of killing is a line that they won’t cross, particularly in YA…

…which is one of the things that I wanted to address because I see YA books written where a character is supposedly thrown into dire circumstances where they have to compromise their morality, but they, through sheer force of will, never have to. And that is not life. That’s not the book I want to write. It’s not the world I want to create.

What I wanted to do was put everyone in a situation where there is no way out, and they can’t choose not to take the test. None of them actually would. Everyone is going to try to survive. That’s just a fact of life. Each one of us wants to try to deny that but I really do think, in the end if you have no other choice, anyone could kill.

That’s the darkest thing you could say, but it’s also true. Addressing that and having a character have to face those compromise decisions – think of Pax au Telemanus: lovable character, right? The person he had to kill in the passage was a little girl, because that was his test. Could he kill something that weak? And he did, to survive. You see the guilt afterwards; he’s looking for redemption the entire time… He always want to protect.

Mustang, in my own mind – because all this stuff happens behind the scenes, you can’t write it, which is why I want to write multiple POVs now – brought him so much closer to her because of that, because he knew what he went through and the horror he must have faced – and at the same time she was trying to fight back her own psychological guilt from killing someone. Obviously someone as evolved as she is knows the necessity of it but doesn’t like it. Because she’s so intelligent she hates herself more, because she thinks there should be some way out of it, but there isn’t. There should have been another way, and there isn’t.

What in your mind made them establish the test like that – it creates a lowest common denominator rather than a highest common factor?

They’re trying to make everyone dirty. The Institute was created, and spawned in my mind, based on two principles: the decimation of the Roman class, the patricians, by basically too much money, too much food – by excess. The decimation of the class that conquered the world. The same with the Mongols: two generations in, the children of the people that conquered the known world, the Han dynasty, were decimated because of luxury.

You have this almost effeminisation of progress, which makes them weaker. [The Golds] realise that you might be at the height of civilisation but you have to kill. It compromises the morality and makes [the next generations] as culpable as everyone else.

Effeminisation is an interesting word – why is it feminine?

It’s not in a negative way; it’s more civilized.

But it is a negative in that society?

Yes because I think the way you carve out a society, the way you conquer, you start from a place of barbarism. (This is a theory I use in Red Rising.) Then you reach ascendance – that’s such a very small window of time. Ascendance is like the age of Augustus, then very quickly it turns into decadence. I call it effeminisation because all of the overly-masculine barbaric roots are overturned.

So it’s testosterone-based originally?

Yes, and then it’s softened out so you have silk instead of iron. What you have then is a class of people where music is made, plays are made. I’m delighted it happens. What has ever been created by a roving warlike culture? There’s very little. Almost all progress is made within society after the barbarism is past, but the thing is these characters, these people in Gold society, are seen as weaker.

It’s something Augustus would think – he would say feminine in a pejorative way. I look it in this way: when you strip away the testosterone from a culture, that’s a good thing in overall terms for the life and the people, but it also makes it very difficult to maintain sometimes…

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