Interview–Peter V. Brett, author of The Desert Spear

I’m so excited to run this interview with Peter V. Brett, author of the forthcoming The Desert Spear (on sale 4/13/10). It’s a sequel to The Warded Man, one of last year’s most auspicious fantasy debuts. You can find our discussion on that book here.

1. How much of this story was in your mind when you wrote The Warded Man?

a. All of it and none of it. I know that sounds like a bullshit answer, but it’s really true. I had a detailed stepsheet of all the major events in The Desert Spear while I was writing The Warded Man, and I’ve held to that quite closely, but the real meat of any story is what happens between those major milestones, and that part doesn’t come alive until you actually start writing.

Once the story did come alive, though, I found characters and events sweeping me along in ways I never would have anticipated, and always for the better.

2. Can you describe your approach to structure? How do you determine how to order your scenes?

a. I have a very meticulous approach to story structure, probably much more so than most other writers. When I began writing, I used to freewrite, which is to say I just sat down and started writing prose, making the story up as I went along. I would jot down cool ideas as I had them, but mostly I just let the prose take me where it would.

This was a terrible approach. A lot of very successful authors freewrite, but for me it tended to make the story wander away from the main narrative thread, losing tension as I explored whatever path my current mood took me down. Looking back, it’s no wonder that no one was interested in the books I wrote in that fashion. For all the good stuff they contain, there are deep flaws.

I have since begun writing what I call stepsheets, which are detailed breakdowns of every chapter in the form of bulleted lists where I describe chronologically all the pertinent events, background/worldbuilding I want to thread in, character motivations, and bits of dialogue I want to include. This is done for the entire novel, often before I have written a single paragraph of actual prose. It allows me to step back and view the story as a whole, moving parts around to allow for proper pacing and flow without having to do a ton of rewriting later. Only when that skeleton is adamantium strong do I begin slapping meat onto it.

This is a long and arduous process. For instance, the stepsheet for Desert Spear was 259 pages, and a completely separate file from the 800 pages of prose in the final novel. However, I feel it is a process that consistently delivers the results I want, so I can’t complain even if it means I write slower than other authors. I think of the story of the grasshopper and the ant, and do what works for me.

3. What plot or character choices surprised you while you were writing The Desert Spear?

a. The character of Abban, friend to both Arlen and Jardir, continually surprises me, always taking up far more stage time than I originally plan for. This is one of the main reasons why he will be a POV character in coming books.

I was also surprised by the turn Arlen’s journey takes in the latter portion of the book. Many of those scenes were originally written as part of an earlier draft of The Warded Man, but by the time I was ready to use them in The Desert Spear, the character had changed so much that I had to rewrite quite a bit to stay true.

4. Jardir is an immensely complicated character, and just when I was getting to like him he’d up and do something ghastly and I’d have to go back to hating him. What was it like writing his scenes?

a. Jardir was surprisingly simple to write, because he has a very strong moral code, and even when circumstances force him to do harsh things, he takes responsibility and does them without malice in his heart, and often more than a little sorrow. It’s all the conniving people around him that were hard to write.

5. Speaking of people around him, I’d love to talk more about Inevera. As you revealed all the facets of her character, I kept thinking back to the young girl she was when she first saw Jardir. It was almost like I was mourning her, if that makes sense. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if she’s been affected by the demon magic like Arlen has been. Would her fate have been different if women had been allowed to fight demons? Why or why not?

a. Well, if you believe in that sort of thing, fate, by its very nature, is unchangeable. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I will just say that I am as fascinated by Inevera as you are, and intend to make her a full POV character in book 3, The Daylight War. Readers will have a look back at her life and see how the events in her past affect her decisions in the present.

6. Krasians seem like a blend of Vikings and Mongols, with a little bit of the near East thrown in for good measure. Could you tell me how you created their culture, especially their rigid caste structure?

a. I drew inspiration from historical warrior cultures from all over the world when I was first creating the Krasians. Most military cultures have a rigid class system, so this seemed a natural thing to include. The Krasian caste structure was originally inspired by the samurai culture of Medieval Japan, but it and the Krasian culture overall quickly evolved into something unique. Centuries spent in an endless war of attrition with demonkind have forced Krasia down its current path.

7. The codified raping was really hard to take. Any chance you’ll give one of those women a voice in a future book?

a. Possibly. I have notes on several possible stories regarding the lives of the people of Fort Rizon after the Krasian conquest, but it remains to be seen how they will thread into the series.

Sexual assault is as hard to write about as it is to read, but it’s also a fact of life even in our own society, and I feel like it would be remiss to pretend otherwise. Almost every military conquest in history, even the ones that history has vindicated to some extent, have included similar atrocities.

That said, it has always irritated me when authors include mention of such things and then never take the time to show the true suffering of the victims and their long and difficult path to recovery. Unfortunately, I have some personal experience with these matters, and have tried both in The Warded Man and in The Desert Spear to give voice to some of these incredibly strong people.

8. Would you rather live in Krasia or in the Hollow? Why?

a. I would pick up a warded spear and defend either one at night. They are both very strict and complicated places, where most people are good and honest in their intentions, but challenged by dated cultural traditions and human weakness.

I expect I’d get thirsty in the desert, though, so I’d probably choose the more temperate clime. ☺

9. I’m not sure I see the Hollow’s weaknesses and traditions as being as toxic as Krasia’s, though. But then again, perhaps the people aren’t as heroic, either. Which people do you think the demons should fear more? Why?

a. I know what you mean, but as a narrator I try to be respectful of both cultures and their points of view. At the beginning of the series, both groups of people are on the verge of extinction and have taken extreme measures in dealing with it. Even as the Hollowers might see the Krasians as a brutal theocracy, the Krasians see the Hollowers as irreligious and hypocritical. Even so, both cultures have many things in common, something I try hard to illustrate in the book.

As to which the demons should fear more, I don’t know, but if they can ever get it into their heads and hearts to fight together, the Core itself won’t be far enough for the demons to run.

10. Did you make any major wrong turns, plot-wise, while writing The Desert Spear? What happened and why didn’t it work?

a. Not really. I had more than a few of those while writing The Warded Man (though less than in previous books I had written), but as I mentioned above, The Desert Spear had a very tight and detailed stepsheet before I even started writing new prose, and that kept me firmly on track.

This is not to say that I didn’t spend countless hours banging my head against the keyboard in frustration, because I surely did, only that I didn’t write a lot of things that were later discarded.

As I said, one of the biggest problems was my attempt to use discarded scenes from an early draft of the first book. Considering how much rewriting they required, it would most likely have been easier to just write new scenes from scratch.

11. Which of the major characters is the most like you?

a. I try not to write myself into my books, though you could say that all of the characters are facets of my personality, or my understanding of others. That said, I do think Arlen’s belief system and moral compass are very similar to my own, though he tends to be more… intense about things than I am.

12. How would you characterize that moral compass? What’s most important to Arlen—and to you?

a. I think we both have a lot of doubts/questions about religion and culture, and are more content to forge our own path rather than follow those laid down by others. People too often accept the traditions of their forebears without challenge because it’s easier than taking control of (and responsibility for) one’s own life. No one is going to come and save us if we’re not willing to save ourselves.

There is also the theme of facing one’s fears in order to conquer them, and embracing pain and suffering so that it cannot control us. These are things I believe in deeply, though I am not nearly so brave and strong in that regard as Arlen—or Jardir, for that matter. Arlen and Jardir are very similar in many ways.

13. How many books are you planning for this series?

a. Five. My original treatment to publishers was something along the lines of “I can close the series in three books if I have to, but I have a lot of stories I want to tell in this world, and I’d much rather do it in five.” This led Del Rey to offer me a three book deal, but they did not specify in the contracts that it needed to be a trilogy. Most of my international publishers did the same, so I began tailoring the story as five books. After that I will probably start with a new series/setting entirely. Much as I love the Demon Cycle, I have lots of other stories to tell, and I don’t want this one series to be my entire career.

14. How did you come up with the number and how much outlining have you done?

a. The number was and is something of an estimate. I always knew that doing the story justice would take more than three books, but since I don’t know what good ideas I might have in the future, it remains hard to say exactly. It’s not out of the question that I will finish the series in four books, or six, but I think five is the most likely.

I am currently working on the stepsheet for book 3, The Daylight War. So far there are 29 chapters, and the stepsheet is about 94 pages. All the main plot points have long-since been decided, but I will probably continue refining/adding to that stepsheet for a few more weeks before I start writing prose sometime in January. I am having a fantastic time with it, as there will be some really exciting things happening in the next book.

After that I have a much looser (and continually evolving) outline for book 4, and then a fairly detailed outline for book 5, which should close out the story.

15. Can you give any hints at what’s to come in Daylight War?

a. The Daylight War will be a more political book than the previous two, but I think that is a natural progression, as all the necessary pieces have now been set. There will of course also be lots of kickass action/adventure as well.

Expect lots of Leesha, Rojer and Abban POV, with the addition of an Inevera point of view and some possible new voices such as Ragen and Elissa.

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