Pierce Brown: „I looked at each rejection as a challenge“

An interview with the author of the „Red Rising“ series.

Pierce Brown, the author of the „Red Rising“ series, visited Sofia as part of a promo tour between 26th and 28th April. I got a chance to take an interview from him and ask him about the inspirations behind the books and the progress of their adaptation. It took me over a month to publish this interview, because, alas, good thinks happen slowly. Nevertheless, it is now ready and it is worth the read!

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The banner for Pierce Brown’s promo tour in Bulgaria.

How are you? A traditional question for a start.

Good – traditional answer.

What do you think of Sofia and Bulgaria?

It’s been incredible seeing how young the readers here are. It’s kind of emblematic of the readership in Eastern Europe – discovering books, discovering new voices and things like that. But I love the city, man, it’s beautiful, I came here during perfect weather. I’ve been shocked by all the good food I’ve had.

But the genre of your books is young adult, so isn’t it normal for…

Not in the United States. It’s not young adult, in the US it’s science fiction. So most of my readers are between 24 and about 35 and then going upwards. Of course, I have youngsters at my events, but it’s perceived much more as a science fiction book than a young adult book.

The Bulgarian cover of „Red Rising“

So here it was rebranded?

I think you just have to know the marketplace. And young readership out here is so active, so it made a perfect match with Bulgarian readers.

Have you been to many countries on promo tours?

I have been to a few countries. I’ve been to Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria on this tour. I usually go to the UK and to Scotland for my official book tours and all across America.

When you started writing „Red Rising“ did you at any point expect it to become such a phenomenon?

No, I didn’t. I mean, you hope to inspire a phenomenon. I wrote six books before „Red Rising“. And each one of those I tried to make a phenomenon. I tried to write for the marketplace and trick people into liking the book and no agent wanted to represent me. So I went „Yeah, I’ll just write something for me“. And so I wrote „Red Rising“ for me, using a lot of the things I loved in my childhood, and also in the science fiction I appreciated, then using Greek mythology, which I have always been fascinated with. And so I wrote the book for me and – explosion and surprise – other people have the same taste as I do.

That was going to be my next question, about the six books you wrote before. What did they lack so they didn’t get approved?

I think that one, I was learning how to write. And two, in a way it was my education, because I was trying to write like my favorite writers, like the Neil Gaimans out there. But you can’t write like Neil Gaiman, because only Neil Gaiman can write like Neil Gaiman, I can only write like me. It took a long while to realize what I wrote like, it took years of experience doing that. And so, I think one, it was learning how to write in my voice, and two, finding a story that meant something to me on an emotional level, and then getting to explore political and social topics as well. So it really was about finding something that I couldn’t not talk about for the next six years.

But those six novels, now that you’re rich and famous…

(laughs)

…Are you going to try to push them again, show them to the world?

Probably not, no, man. I don’t think they’re very good!

Pierce Brown during his meeting with fans in Sofia. Photo: Todor Todorov, source: Webcafe.

You don’t like them any more?

No, no, I think there’s some crumbles of good storytelling in there. But I have to rewrite the entire thing, because I’ve changed as a writer. And because I wrote the six novels when I was 18 to 22. Now that I’m 30, I have different skills at my disposal. I am a much better writer. So going back and looking through those documents will be… painful. And I have so many other stories I wanna tell moving forward. I wanna tell this fantasy story next, I want to look into options like fantasy thrillers and things like that. I have so many new stories I want to tell after I tell „Red Rising“, that going back to those six seems almost like a waste of the new ideas.

How did you get the idea for „Red Rising“?

It came from a Greek play I was reading at the time, „Antigone“. In which Antigone is a young girl in Thebes and her brother participates in a rebellion and fails. And the tyrant of the city, a guy named Creon, he institutes a law saying that none of the rebels can be buried. But Antigone buries her brother anyway and she’s executed for it. And at the time her fiance, who is the son of Creon, didn’t understand this. He thought that, because they were in love, that was all that mattered in the world. I thought I want to write a story about who Antigone left behind. I wanted to see someone making that sacrifice for what they thought was right, and then see who they left, and their way of trying to understand that.

There are many ways Darrow mirrors the fiance of Antigone, because he’s trying to understand. He loves someone with all of his soul, she’s all that matters. And then she dies for something that’s not him. So how does he come to terms with that, how does he begin to understand that love can be selfish that her love was for freedom, for an ideal, for freeing her people. How does he come to terms with that and also then fight for her dream.

It started off with that and I was climbing a mountain with a couple of friends in Washington state. I hadn’t figured out how to make the story go and I was climbing the mountain, it was at night and I could see the stars. It was so bright, like you could almost touch them. And climbing up there, all I wanted to do was complain about hiking, because it was so hard, and I thought about having a place with less gravity, I thought about Mars, because it had less gravity, and I thought „Wait a minute!“. And the idea started blossoming up out of that.

Are you a fan of science fiction? Is that your favorite genre or?

Probably, probably. But I also enjoy fantasy. I think these books of mine are more science fantasy than they are science fiction. It’s a combination of a lot of genres I enjoy. I also love military history, I love history in general. So, history, fantasy and science fiction are my favorites, so I created a book that mirrors all of them.

The Bulgarian cover for „Golden Son“

A fan of yours from our website, Petya Ivaylova, sent a question for you.

Oh, cool!

You kinda answered it already, but nevertheless… She thought that Darrow was inspired by Spartacus.

Actually no, no he wasn’t. I think that Spartacus is an archetype, that is used commonly throughout Western culture. I adore the movie „Spartacus“, I’ve read so much about Spartacus throughout my life, but it was never a conscious choice to make him like Spartacus. It was a happy accident. Now that I look back, I’m like „Obviously, he mirrors Spartacus“, but I didn’t think of it like that. Because in many ways Spartacus is more like Ragnar, who is a large character in the series. It’s funny that people mention Spartacus now, because it makes sense, yes.

So she’s not the first to think of that?

She’s not the first, no, not at all! (laughs)

And what about the October revolution? Did you take any inspiration from that? Because it’s the rising of the reds, against the elite, and so on.

Yeah! It’s a good question! I think that all revolutions are violent revolutions, they usually end up eating and destroying the people who started the revolutions to begin with. So what I wanted to do was look at a lot of the revolutions throughout the history – the French revolution, the October revolution, and modern era, like the Arab spring, that started happening after I wrote the book, and look at how they progressed and what patterns they followed. I’m now writing these next three books in the series, because „Iron Gold“ just came out in the United States, and „Iron Gold“ addresses things like that. Basically, how do you keep a revolution alive. Once you’re finally in power, what happens to that revolution when the person who led your army is no longer relevant in the same way that the institutions you’ve now created are. So if someone creates a republic and then that republic disagrees with that person, who’s right? That’s something I’ve always wanted to explore. I’ve certainly read about a lot of revolutions and finding the little interesting twists they all have is something I really enjoyed.

Do you know when „Iron Gold“ is coming out in Bulgaria?

(Here the representative of the publishers Ciela joins): Actually that questions I can answer. The editor of the books is currently in Romania, so I don’t know what we will do. We haven’t started working on the translation, I know Egmont are interested. But I don’t know what will happen.

(Pierce Brown continues): Hopefully soon, you have as good information as I have.

And what about the fifth book, „Dark Age“?

As soon as I go home to Los Angelis, I’ll start working on it again. But this here is my vacation.

Pierce Brown and a representative of the Bulgarian publishers Ciela have an interview. Source: Darik Radio.

How much has it progressed?

I’m pretty deep into the book right now. And we’ll start editing it soon. I’m pretty excited. We’re hoping we’ll have it until the end of the year in the United States, but yeah, within a year.

How many novels are there going to be in „Red Rising“ after „Dark Age“?

One after „Dark Age“, six total in the „Red Rising“ world.

Are you sure it’s going to be the final?

We’ll see (laughs). I think that I don’t know what else I would say. The first series is about revolution, about Darrow and the rise of the hero. And then the second series, „Iron Gold“ is about what happens to that revolution, how does it sustain itself, how does hope sustain itself and also how does a hero age. We’re dealing with issues that are not just an enemy. It’s more complicated than that. Some of his best enemies in the new series are his friends. So how does that change a man and what does that look like when society lifts someone up and then tries to tear them down. But after that, I think thematically, it’s difficult sometimes to think about what I’ll do, until I finish this one. I didn’t know I was going to write these new three books until I was halfway done with the second draft of „Morning Star“. Mostly because there are so many things that I realized I hadn’t said, how they are tied up, it was too neat a bow for me and I wanted to keep exploring. So it’s hard to say, maybe, we’ll see.

Apart from Ancient Rome, which obviously inspired „Red Rising“, you said you were also inspired by Ancient Greece. What did you like about those two periods and places in time?

I think I read them at that point in childhood, where something becomes iconic and almost binds itself to your soul. What was fascinating to me about those cultures, is their lifting up of Gods, but Gods, who are disastrously human. Gods who represent our pride, our vanity, our selfishness. Look at Zeus, how violent and how selfish he was. Look at Ares, and especially Ares in Greek mythology, where he’s the God of bloodlust. I think it’s the idea of these huge legends, wrapped up in emblematic human traits. You have myths like Narcissus, Perseus, they all represented something about the human spirit.

I think that’s what attracted me to it, but what really interested me, is the difference between the Greeks and Romans. The Greeks had Gods before, but they didn’t use them as tools of statecraft the way the Romans did. Romans took the Gods of Greece and made them tools of propaganda, tools to help their empire. And then you see throughout history how other tyrants have used Rome in the same way. Hitler took almost all the emblems from the Roman Empire for the Nazis. From the gold standards and the legions to the coat of arms. This was also done by Napoleon, by Franco, Mussolini. I think it’s interesting is seeing how tyrants take from history what they like in order to make themselves seem divinely inspired.

The Bulgarian cover of „Morning Star“.

And it’s bullshit, but that’s what tyrants always do, so I wanted to use the Golds to steal from the Greeks and the Romans, all the things that could help them vindicate their power, make them seem as though they were divinely sent. That was fascinating to me, using that as a tool of statecraft. But also my characters are very mythological with their huge flaws. They might be powerful and strong, but, like with Homer, they all have one fatal flaw. And getting to explore that is fun, because I was raised with those stories.

What would you do if you were an Ancient Roman, what would life be like for you there?

(laughs) I don’t know if I’d be a writer, man. Military might be calling. There’s glory, there’s glory and riches to be won. I would probably be in trouble though, because I have bad eyesight. I’d be like, Pierce the Blind, that would be my name throughout history.

How long would you last as a warrior?

In my current state? Not very long. If I was raised as a warrior, I think I’d do pretty fine. Yeah, I was always good at sports, so I’d apply well. But that thing that would get me is the bad food on the march and having to set up camp every night. It would just be very inconvenient, you can’t even brush your teeth, man!

You said you were good at sports, what sports are your favorite?

American football, soccer or football and lacrosse.

Let’s talk about the movie „Red Rising“. Are you one of the screenwriters?

I originally was the screenwriter on the Universal movie. Universal won a bidding war between them and Sony. And Mark Forster was gonna direct. I believe I was 25 when that happened and I hadn’t written any of the other books in the „Red Rising“ series. But as I started writing the other books and as I was adapting „Red Rising“, I started realizing the difficulty of condensing it all into a movie, in this format. Because I had to eliminate almost half the characters, I had to eliminate all the twists and turns. You lose a lot of the richness that makes the world special. Such a movie looks like a movie you’ve seen before. Now it’s going to become a TV series. That’s much more interesting to me. And to you it seems like!

Yeah! (we discussed a lot of TV series before the interview, that’s how he knew)

Because the ability to explore the characters, the ability to explore the world, where you can have quiet moments or moments of learning and not detract from the plot, that’s much more interesting to me. I’ll be doing screenwriting for that as well.

The screenwriter or one of them?

I’m the screenwriter right now, so I’ll be the creator, and I’m bringing on another showrunner to run the show, because I don’t know how the business aspect of that side works, who’ll also be a writer. We’ll be co-writers, the two of us. I think that will be great, because I love the relationship of bouncing ideas back and forth. And adapting your own thing can be very difficult when you’re the only person, because you need someone to say „Ahh, the audience doesn’t know that yet“ or „What are you talking about, we haven’t introduced that yet, that’s three books later“.

Pierce Brown LOVES his dog! We showed each other’s dogs’ photos before the interview. Source: Instagram

I think it’so much fun, it’s a different experience when you’re writing a book than when you’re writing a script. When you’re writing a script it’s fun to play with other people, to be a team. And I miss being a team, I miss sports. As a novelist you’re just by yourself. By yourself, in a room, and you’re coming up with stuff. But it’s so fun to create something with someone else and I can’t wait for that experience.

Are you going to closely follow the book or are you going to change something?

Closely follow the chronology of the book, but it’s going to be from multiple perspectives, not just Darrow’s all the way through. So we won’t just follow him, because I think that misses out on the richness of the other characters and the experience. So it will be different in that regard, but a lot of the same plot will happen.

Are you adding any new characters?

Maybe.

So, did it take you long to sell the rights for the movie or were you immediately onboard?

I sold the rights for the movie within 5 days of the book coming out. But I’d written a script before then, so that I could sell the rights… for more money (laughs), and also kinda have some, what I thought was, control over the product, but that’s not how the movies work. TV yes, movies no. In movies you have no power, you have no control. You’re a consultant, which means nothing.

It sold 5 days after the book came out, but it had been long in the making, I had been working on the script with Mark Forster about six months before that.

What scripts had you written before that?

I had already written other things. I had written for TV shows. I was taking projects out in Hollywood. They were, oh, so close to getting made and they didn’t go. It’s just the most… it’s like blue balls. It’s tantalizing, but almost. I had two shows with big producers. One was just before „Westworld“ came out, but it was with clones. It was somewhat like „Westworld“ does now. So we were going to sell it to HBO and that didn’t work out, „sorry guys, too late“. So one was grounded „Black Mirror“/“Orphan Black“ science fiction and the other one was a thriller.

I worked on a bunch that never saw the light of day, that no-one ever bought. But that’s good, because it’s the same like I did with books. You learn at first and then you find your opportunities when they come.

„Iron Gold“ is the fourth book in the RR-world, the beginning of a new trilogy.

How did you get involved in that work? I mean Wikipedia says about you that you studied politology and you wrote in your parents’ garage, but nothing about the screenwriting.

Yeah, no, nothing about that at all, but that’s why I had to learn by myself. I was going to be a lawyer and I was going to work in banking and all these things. I realized I hated it. I hated it all, because I was doing what society wanted me to do. All the things they say you’re good at, and „you should do this to make money“, and I said „OK, cool“. And then I realized it was like that… I went in politics for a little while, but I didn’t like the way… It was very disillusioning, it was very hard to see the underbelly of it. It’s not corrupt per se, it’s just about leverage and it’s about people maneuvering and everyone scheming all the time, and that wasn’t something I wanted to fill my life with. And so, I studied economics and political science in order to pursue those goals and when that fell through, I started writing books where I’d get to use my degrees. „Red Rising“ is filled with the study of the people, economics and political science, which is nothing more than the study of trends. Study of how people behave in certain parts of life. Economics is about trends and how large groups of people buy things and how they function. Political science is about mechanisms applying to politics. And so it was fantastic getting to use that in the books.

But how did you get involved with the Hollywood guild?

Hollywood? I moved to Los Angelis, I got an agent and I started writing. And then taking meetings and scripts, having general meetings about the book helped a lot. People wanted the book so they had meetings with me, and I’d try to sell my other stuff.

It’s been a kind of a long road actually, now that I’ve been in Hollywood six years. Six years, where you don’t get anything made, but you’re still working your butt off all the time. And so then one day all that stuff, all those other scripts I’ve written, that didn’t get made, hopefully will get made. So those ones I’d love to see on screen one day, but the first six books – not so much.

So behind your current success there are years of very hard work and…

Oh my God, yeah, I mean I’ve probably written 2 million words since I was 18, maybe 3 million and people have only read about 200 000 of them, or 500 000. It’s amazing, the amount of work that you do that never gets bought, never gets seen, never gets read by anyone except maybe like 10 people.

How did you not give up?

I’m stubborn. You know, I looked at each rejection as a challenge. Someone saying „Nah, you’re not good enough“. My response is „F-k you! I’ll keep writing“. And so I put up all the rejection letters on the wall behind my computer, when I was writing „Red Rising“, and I put them up in my bathroom as well, so I could see them when I was writing and when I was taking a shit. I’d just constantly remind myself that people thought I couldn’t do it and it helped me wanna do it.

I think you see that a lot in Darrow, this idea, that „No! I’m gonna do it my way“.

Pierce approves the TV-adaptation of „The Terror“.

What kind of movies and TV series do you watch? What are your favorites?

Oh, man, I like so much stuff. My favorite things are „Game of Thrones“… I really like „The Terror“, which is a new show on AMC.

Have you read the book?

Yeah, Dan Simmons. Have you seen it?

I’ve only read the book, haven’t seen the show yet.

Ah, the show is GREAT, they do a great job! I love „Hyperion“, I love „Dune“, I love „Count Monte Cristo“, Isaac Azimov, Robert Heinlein… For TV shows I like „Black Mirror“ quite a bit. I really love, love, love „Battlestar Galactica“, it’s my favorite show ever. „Buffy, the Vampire Slayer“ and „The Wire“. What else… Big fan of „Xena: Warrior Princess“, back in the day, yeah, it’s my guilty pleasure. And I like „Westworld“, I’m interested in seeing where they go with it. (reminder: the interview was taken before season 2 started)

Movies, games?

M… Games? Ok, so here we go. I grew up on „Command and Conquer“ and „Rome: Total War“ – amazing strategy games. „Baldur’s Gate 2“ is my favorite RPG of all time. I love „Morrowind“ and „Oblivion“ and „Skyrim“, „The Elder Scrolls“ world. I love „Warhammer 40K“, I played „Counter Strike“ a ton when I was younger. And „Metal Gear Solid“. Those would be the best games I’d name.

I always loved strategy games, I always loved making a world. It makes sense that I write books, because I’m always playing strategy games to make a world. I’d always build like these huge forts and have my army guys and launch catapults at them and things… When my parents would come to my room when I was 6 or 7 to take me to church, I would have already been out for 3 hours playing with my toys. I’ve always loved making things and building forts for myself and my army. I used to light tennis balls on fire and launch them at forts – not in my room, outside!

For movies, I’m a big „Star Wars“ fan, of the original trilogy. I love „Lawrence of Arabia“, which is probably my favorite movie of all time. „Alien“ series. Anything Stanley Kubrick – „2001: Space Odyssey“ as well as „The Shining“… I like Fellini – „La Dolce Vita“ and „A Sweet Life“. Kind of all over the board, man.

So now that you’re successful do you have more time for entertainment or?

Less time! Less time, because I’m working harder, because I see that there are opportunities right there, that I have to take. When you’re not published, you think it’s so hard to find an opportunity and you have excuses not to work. But now that I have success, all I’m thinking about is that if I don’t work hard, then those opportunities will pass me by. So all I do all day is write. And yeah, sometimes, for research, watching movies and games. I did recently get PS4 for virtual reality, which has been just wild. So I play „Resident Evil“ on that, it’s terrifying.

The fifth book is coming soon.

You said your parents took you to church, are you religious?

No, I’m not, but my parents were.

Every Sunday?

Every Sunday. I would read the Old Testament of the Bible, because it’s so scary. I’d be sitting there, they’d be like having a lovely sermon, and I’d be reading about David collecting foreskins from Philistines and these huge battles in the Old Testament.

Do you think that would make a good horror movie?

Aww, I think it could, yeah, there’s a lot in there!

Well, I’m basically done with my questions. Is there anything you’d like to say to the readers of SciFi.bg?

Well… Thank you for reading the books, if you have read them, and if you haven’t I hope you give them a try. It’s a world that’s full of treachery, of bravery, but also of huge spaceships going pew, pew, pew, but it’s all founded and rooted on the characters and their journey through a political turmoil. So I hope you enjoy them.

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