From the archive: an interview with Mark Lawrence
This interview was first published in
Wyrd Daze Lvl.2 issue 2, May 2015.
The second book of the Red Queen’s War trilogy was about to be released, and Mark had already begun writing Red Sister, the first of The Book of the Ancestor trilogy.
Mark Lawrence was born in Champagne-Urbanan, Illinois, to British parents but moved to the UK at the age of one. He went back to the US after taking a PhD in mathematics at Imperial College to work on a variety of research projects including the ‘Star Wars’ missile defence programme. Returning to the UK, he has worked mainly on image processing and decision/reasoning theory. He says he never had any ambition to be a writer so was very surprised when a half-hearted attempt to find an agent turned into a global publishing deal overnight. His first trilogy, The Broken Empire, has been universally acclaimed as a ground-breaking work of fantasy. Following The Broken Empire came the bestselling Red Queen’s War trilogy.
The Book of the Ancestor trilogy has an entirely new world and setting, with the third book Holy Sister released in April this year.
Also released in its entirety in 2019 from Mark is a sci-fi trilogy Impossible Times, which has been described as “Ready Player One meets Stranger Things.”
One Word Kill was released in May, with Limited Wish coming in June, and Dispel Illusion to follow. (Great titles, great covers!)
Here’s a little bit about the story:
In January 1986, fifteen-year-old boy-genius Nick Hayes discovers he’s dying. And it isn’t even the strangest thing to happen to him that week.
Nick and his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are used to living in their imaginations. But when a new girl, Mia, joins the group and reality becomes weirder than the fantasy world they visit in their weekly games, none of them are prepared for what comes next. A strange–yet curiously familiar–man is following Nick, with abilities that just shouldn’t exist. And this man bears a cryptic message: Mia’s in grave danger, though she doesn’t know it yet. She needs Nick’s help–now.
He finds himself in a race against time to unravel an impossible mystery and save the girl. And all that stands in his way is a probably terminal disease, a knife-wielding maniac and the laws of physics.
Mark is married, with four children, and lives in Bristol.
An interview with Mark Lawrence
You’ve said that when writing you don’t need much more than a first draft before you have a finished manuscript, and also that you don’t really plan your books but let the story unfold as it will. Did you manage to sustain these methods throughout the whole of The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War trilogies?
I did through the first five books. For the last book of The Red Queen’s War I sketched out a rough plan and largely stuck to it. It was less nerve-wracking knowing the book was heading toward an ending – even if the ending was the part that veered away from the plan to the greatest degree.
I understand you wrote the entirety of The Broken Empire before the first book was released? Did your subsequent interaction with readers and the way The Broken Empire was received in any way affect your telling of the story in The Red Queen’s War?
I don’t think so. I was writing a very different story, so there wasn’t anything of relevance to pay attention to, even if I had been minded to.
You are a welcome and genuine presence on social media (By this I mean that you’re not just there to sell your wares, but seem to genuinely enjoy interacting with people). To what extent do you think this has aided the popularity of your books, and do you have any advice for other creators who might want to use their social media accounts to mix business and pleasure?
I really don’t know. How does one measure such things? Many authors have been far more successful than me with minimal use of social media. Others have a far bigger footprint on social media than I do, and sell considerably fewer books than I do.
It can’t hurt to have a presence on social media, but it’s also easy to over-estimate its impact. The really important thing is that you write a book that gets each reader, on average, to get more than one of their friends/acquaintances to read it. Do that and you have a hit.
What comes first for you: plot, character or setting?
A character comes first. After that plot and setting materialise while I write, along with other characters.
Do you have any tips for creating believable characters?
Not really. I’m not even sure what ‘believable’ means in this context. The important thing seems to be to create a character that’s so interesting people don’t want to stop reading about them. It helps if that character is charismatic, and that often involves having a sense of humour… If by ‘believable’ you mean ‘real’ … well, even that’s hard to pin down in a fantasy setting. In literary fiction you often have to capture an attitude and poise and set of habits to convincingly depict a person of a certain age in a society with which the reader is very familiar. That requires a particular skill set. In fantasy the task is somewhat different – there’s overlap, but also new freedoms, and also new constraints.
The core of real in both cases though is that the character be consistent. Not consistent in their behaviour necessarily, because real people are often inconsistent – but consistently the same person.
Although you’re known principally as a fantasy writer, your short stories seem to delve into the realms of wider speculative fiction. Have you had any thoughts towards writing a novel somewhere within this broader category?
Maybe. I never thought I would, or could, be a published fantasy author. I feel confident I could write all sorts of speculative fiction in alternative world settings – my strengths are prose and imagination and those will take you a long way in SFF. I don’t know if I could write a real world novel, or at least a subtle, literary one. I’m not sure I’m a sufficiently keen observer of the people and world around me to do a good job of that.
For anyone who hasn’t read your books yet, would you recommend they start with The Broken Empire or The Red Queen’s War?
Yes. Which one? Depends on your tastes. The Red Queen’s War has a thicker vein of humour and less darkness in it. The Broken Empire perhaps has stronger themes and more emotion.
Has there been anything in your books that you found difficult or uncomfortable to write, or that gave you pause whether or not to include it at all?
Certainly there have been sections that were difficult and uncomfortable to write, but no, nothing that gave me pause about whether or not to include it.
Did you read Steven Erikson’s two-part essay about ‘Authorial Intent’ on /r/fantasy, and have you any thoughts/comments about it?
I didn’t. I did start it but I have to admit that my eyes glazed over and I … stopped.
Do you have a set schedule for writing, and a word count target?
No. Many days I write nothing. Some days I write a lot.
What’s your writing environment like? Do you allow yourself the internet/music/a window?
I write in short bursts normally, allowing myself to be constantly distracted by the internet. I’ll only play music to drown out other noise, usually a piece I’m so familiar with that I don’t hear it. I’ll sit in any one of four rooms to write, on a sofa in three of them, or a bed in the other.
Do you immerse yourself in fantasy fiction or avoid it when working on a novel?
Neither. I read almost exclusively fantasy at the moment (that hasn’t always been the case) and I read it slowly and patchily. Since I’m always working on a novel if I avoided reading while writing … I wouldn’t read.
Can you tell us more about your Gunlaw project?
I wrote a book called Gunlaw. The end.
It’s a weird science-fiction / fantasy mix … with gunslingers and minotaurs and such. It may be additionally unusual in that one of the point-of-view characters is very severely disabled. In any case it proved to be a bit too much of a left turn for my publisher, so I wrote The Red Queen’s War instead.
How good a book it is I’m not sure. I hope to get back to it one day, possibly to re-write it, possibly to drum up interest in it.
Would you consider writing for a different medium, for example comics or a screenplay?
I wouldn’t mind writing for comics (specifically 2000AD) or graphic novels as an adventure. I was asked by the head of a Hollywood studio to write the screenplay for Prince of Thorns, but I didn’t want to. Basically books are where it’s at for me.
Is there anything about your world, characters, or story: a perspective that someone has pointed out or commented upon, that has surprised you?
I guess I’ve been surprised that some people are so politicised about fiction and project their politics onto books and attempted to reverse the process too. I have certainly been surprised by the rather naïve assumptions that some people have made in thinking they can somehow deduce (and then criticise) my personal politics from the actions or attitudes of characters in my books. Or their demographics, come to that. In all such cases, and with a remarkable level of vehement surety, they have been laughably wide of the mark (pun intended).
Now the Red Queen’s War is done, have you any inkling of what your next book might be?
I do. I’ve written 40,000 words of it. It’s fantasy again – the protagonist is a young girl when we first meet her and she spends much of the book in a convent! It’s called Red Sister.
If you could live in any literary fantasy world, which would it be, and why?
I would want to live in a comfortable and enlightened one in which beer is free and doesn’t make you fat… sadly such utopias are boring to write about and I don’t know of any books featuring one. I honestly can’t think of any I would want to live in.
You’ve written a number of Broken Empire short stories. Do you hope for these to be eventually be published as a collection?
I not only hope it, I know it for fact. I will publish them myself in due course. I just need to wait for some of them to appear in various anthologies and for the rights to return to me. Hopefully this time next year!