Speaking of Thorns – Interview with Mark Lawrence

prince of thornsMark Lawrence is the author of Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, and Emperor of Thorns.

His latest novel, Prince of Fools, will be released in June 2014.

Literature has depicted violence since the earliest records. Even the “high fantasy” subgenre has heroes we physically associate with killing troves of orcs. What is it in the “grimdark” subgenre that ruffles so many feathers?

No idea! I don’t even know what “grimdark” is. People back off rapidly if you ask them to actually define it. It seems to be shorthand for ‘this thing I don’t like’ … and given that the things people don’t like are as diverse as the things people do like … it ends up pretty meaningless, generally a form of slur.

My only guess is that the people who are shocked by violence in modern work are just ignorant of its existence in both the recent and distant past.

Grimdark is shorthand for grim darkness. This would imply a hopeless and mirthless story. Do you feel your stories lack hope and humor?

No, but more importantly, neither do the people who actually read them. I took a poll a few weeks back. The majority of the 100+ readers who voted felt the overall vibe of the books was cheerful, and 28 of them thought the books were a ‘laugh riot’ compared to 1 who thought them ‘joyless’. So, yeah … more nonsense touted by people who haven’t read them I guess.

Are you against the labeling of your stories as grimdark?

It does seem a bit silly to apply a label that has no definition to anything.

What is the single most important piece of advice that has helped you in your writing career?

Well, very early on it was ‘show don’t tell’. But past that … nothing. I’ve not really sought out generic writing advice. I’ve run and participated in a critique group for over 10 years, but there you’re getting specific advice relating to your story and what you’re trying to do. Writing is a complicated business – once you’re past the basics, it’s unlikely that any given aphorism is going to be much help.

You write in first-person. What are the advantages, and obstacles, of using that point of reference?

I have written in the first person. I’m sure I’ve written a lot more that’s not first-person than I have that is first person.

The advantages are immediacy and getting very close to one particular character. When you put ‘I’ in front of an action, it carries more weight and feels more personal.

The drawbacks are of course that you have (unless you get creative) only one point of view and thus it’s harder to get under the skin of any other character. If you’re writing a complex book it can be difficult to give the reader the big picture with just one set of eyes on the action.

Why did you use the “slow burn” approach to revealing your world? Particularly the setting itself, and the magic/tech level?

I don’t plan my books so the world was revealing itself to me as I wrote. However, if I had planned the work I still would have used the same approach – I would find it very dull as a reader if the whole thing were explained up front in a big info dump.

Some of Jorg’s actions appeared sudden and without precedent. I’m thinking of the necromancer’s heart in particular. Was the spontaneity intentional?

I’m not sure what precedent we can expect after a couple of hundred pages in a character’s company. People I’ve known for 30 years still manage to surprise me. Even so, I think it’s pretty clear before that point that Jorg acts on impulse quite often and makes his plans up on the fly. But yes, the spontaneity was intentional.

In the first book, Jorg is a sociopath. Did you do any research on sociopaths? If not, how did you model the character?

I don’t know what a sociopath is (though unlike ‘grimdark’ I could look it up and get a fairly unambiguous answer) so I can’t dispute you. I took the idea of the character from Anthony Burgess’ 1962 classic A Clockwork Orange and aimed for an incarnation of his character, Alex, in a fantasy setting. Past that I just rolled with the vision of who Jorg was – I certainly wasn’t attempting a type of person, or a condition, just a particular person.

I was intrigued by a reply you gave Myke Cole on an Ask Me Anything event you did on reddit.com. Who is Jorg? What drives him?

Jorg might be characterized by a refusal to compromise, and a disdain for the social niceties (and rules) by which most people are bound. There’s nothing more likely to get a sharp response from him than an attempt to push him in any direction by any means, even if it’s for his own good.

Myke Cole’s blog post about Jorg Ancrath: Jorg Ancrath and the Tyranny of Optimism

Mark Lawrence’s reply to the blog post:

It’s a very interesting post and contains a lot of elements of my original thinking. Certainly there is a strong theme of rebellion against all manner of conventions – against being straitjacketed by expectation, both societal expectations of acceptable behavior and genre expectations of story arcs and redemption. In Prince of Thorns there is a very definite ‘fuck you’ to all efforts both by individuals, society, and circumstance to impose actions upon Jorg.

In all the books I strive for an honesty, both in the portrayal of Jorg and in the things we can and can’t expect from the world. Nothing comes together just to make things nice – no end is delivered just because ‘that’s how things happen in books’.

There is an undercurrent of reckless abandon. The Andrew Marvell references (via his poem) in King of Thorns sum it up to some degree. The march of time imposes a journey from cradle to grave on us all, but damned if it can dictate how we make that trip and sometime we run just to spit in the eye of whoever set it up like that. Jorg is all about making his own choices – not necessarily good ones, but not restricted to the list he’s given to look at.

There is a conversation between Jorg and the angel. How real to Jorg’s world are such religious entities? (The answer contains SPOILERS)

Well it depends how far you’ve read into the books. The answer involves spoilers. The simplest answer is that the default for ‘strange dreams’ when in a near death experience is generally that they are strange dreams rather than to take them as real.

The more complex and spoilery answer is that the ‘scientific’ explanation for the apparent magic in the trilogy is that an adjustment in the quantum relation between observer and object has allowed will to affect reality. Thus Jorg’s later view of the afterlife is revealed to be a view of something shaped by the mass expectation of humanity (in his locale) and his own expectations, and whatever ‘truth’ it overlies is not discussed other than to say it is likely less crude than what he sees. So on that basis – yes somewhere else someone else would see whatever it was they and their culture expected to see – not as some attempt at equality/equal representation on my part but as a natural consequence of the explanation given.

What’s in store for us in Prince of Fools?

Prince of Fools is set in the same place as the Broken Empire trilogy, and at the same time, so we catch glimpses of Jorg’s tale in the background. Jalan Kendeth leads us through Prince of Fools – he’s a coward, a liar, a cheat, and a womaniser, who blusters his way through where he can, and runs for it if his bluff is called. Unfortunately for him the Broken Empire is a dangerous place and he gets caught up in the adventures of a Viking warrior.

The humour in the Broken Empire books is one of the aspects often picked out for praise by readers. In Prince of Fools the vein of humour is rather thicker than the previous trilogy, but it’s certainly not a comedy.

I loved the humour in the Broken Empire series. It has made me look much the fool as I guffawed in public. Do you bounce the comedy off someone, or are you confident in your own ability to identify funny material?

I don’t have any beta readers for my current trilogy, and my only reader for the latter two books of the Broken Empire was really more focused on grammar and prose. In any event I don’t really single out specific parts as ‘funny’ or attempts to be so. It’s not like I’m cracking gags, and I tend to find that readers are far more amused by the quite restrained humorous edges I put on some things than I was in writing them. In other words, being funny is never my main goal and as such, if someone doesn’t find it amusing it’s not a problem, they will simply get the plot/character/action that I’m aiming for. Comedy that has the potential to fall flat is a) dangerous and b) not me – I tend to use a fairly dry humor to gild (or edge) particular lines/moments – if people get it, great. If not, it will probably pass by unnoticed.

Thank you for your time. I’ve enjoyed reading the Broken Empire series, and look forward to Prince of Fools. Do you have any final thoughts or comments?

I’m good thanks!

For more information about Mark Lawrence and his writing, visit his blog at mark—lawrence.blogspot.com, and follow him on Twitter @Mark__Lawrence.

Questions for Our Readers:

  1. Do you prefer a “slow burn” approach to revealing a fantasy world? Or would you rather have the world explained upfront? How do you approach this in your own writing?
  2. How do you feel about certain fantasy novels being labeled as “grimdark”? Is this label meaningless, or potentially helpful?