Mark Lawrence has been a key voice in grimdark fantasy since the release of Prince of Thorns in 2011. Lawrence engages closely with the fantasy community both as an author and as founder of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), using his platform to help indie authors. He has published sixteen novels that blend fantasy and science fiction to create an intricately connected universe spanning multiple worlds.
Mark Lawrence’s latest novel is The Book that Wouldn’t Burn, the first installment in The Library Trilogy. I recently had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Mark about his latest novel.
[JM] Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. The Book that Wouldn’t Burn is your self-described love letter to books and the buildings where they live. Your descriptions of the Athenaeum—the infinitely large library of The Book that Wouldn’t Burn—made me feel like a young child, staring in awe at the tall bookshelves and the unopened books waiting to be read. When did you first fall in love with libraries? Did you find yourself reliving childhood memories as you were writing The Book that Wouldn’t Burn?
[ML] My mother’s first job when she and my father returned to the UK with baby Mark from a few years’ stint in America was as a librarian. So, I have very early memories of being a toddler in her workplace, dwarfed by towering bookshelves, lost in the midst of it. I certainly tried to get that feeling on the page. Books always numbered among my Christmas presents as a child, before video games etc were a thing, and I saw them as special, treasured items.
I found the library in question – my mother worked there in 1969. It’s a lot smaller than I remember!
[JM] Your previous trilogies are each built around a single main protagonist (Jorg, Jalan, Nona, Nick, and Yaz), but The Book that Wouldn’t Burn takes a different approach with two dynamic leads, Livira Page and Evar Eventari. How did you first develop the concept for The Book that Wouldn’t Burn? Was it a different process compared to your previous trilogies, which are built more overtly around a single protagonist?
[ML] Heh, I’m not sure phrases like “develop the concept” have a place in my writing. I don’t generally plan my books and for this one the ideas I had before I started typing would have fitted into a fairly short paragraph. The stories take form as I follow them across the pages.
I knew I wanted to show two sides to the library, one from the outside, seeing it as alien, unexpected, and wondrous. One from the inside, overly familiar, and seeing it as a place to be escaped. A theme that runs through the book is that of presenting ideas and situations from different angles and showing how the ‘truth’ of them is so dependent on context. And to do things like that, it helps to have more than one point of view character. You might carry that further and say, why not nine point of view characters? But I like to bring my point of view characters to life, to really get under their skin and form emotional bonds with them. This is easier with one or two characters who get lots of page time each.
[JM] All of your trilogies play with the notion of time, sometimes subtly but often in a quite explicit fashion. The Book that Wouldn’t Burn falls into the latter category, with time flowing very differently between the library and the outside world. How did you decide to pursue a narrative where characters age at different rates? Did it present any special challenges or open unexpected avenues for the plot progression?
[ML] This is certainly walking the spoiler line, but what isn’t a spoiler is that I have great difficulty with ‘how did you decide’ type questions. Such questions imply a degree of internal debate that’s orders of magnitude greater than the reality. I often say, I just sit down and type. This isn’t meant to be dismissive or to hide any secret formula – it’s just what I do. Possibly the writing equivalent of the shoulder angel and shoulder devil are having heated debates about these issues in my subconscious, but all my consciousness does it ask, “What next?” then type it out.
Any significant transition in time, especially with a young character, presents challenges in accounting for the years missing from the page, and in easing the reader over the discontinuity. Additionally, there’s a need to have the character grow on all levels, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. I did the same thing with Jorg in The Broken Empire trilogy, and Nona in The Book of the Ancestor trilogy. So, I’ve had some practice.
[JM] One of many reasons why I find your books so engaging is that there is always a scientific or technological basis for the fantastical elements of the stories, which makes them more believable. You have leveraged relativity, quantum mechanics, genetic mutations, artificial intelligence, and much more. Do you think that having a plausible scientific basis for fantasy is important so readers are not asked to suspend their disbelief around a new world and its magic system?
[ML] I think fantasy readers are old hands at suspending disbelief, so I don’t feel there’s a need for some pseudoscience arm waving in that regard. It’s just something I enjoy. I haven’t wanted to write a portal fantasy, but I do like connections between my fantasy worlds and the reality we inhabit. It serves to give it a sense of scale somehow. And the science elements serve as a kind of bridge, an indicator of a shared history, albeit a distant one.
[JM] At the end of your previous novel, The Girl and the Moon, you wrote that it’s time for something new. The Book that Wouldn’t Burn is a wholly original tale set in a new world with a brand-new cast of characters. Yet with its infinitely large library, The Book that Wouldn’t Burn somehow encompasses all your previous work. How would you like people to view your interconnected universe? Do you have a preferred name for it?
[ML] I think it’s more the case that the library encompasses all realities, so setting copyright issues aside, it encompasses everyone’s previous (and future) work, along with anything they might possibly have written but didn’t. There’s no connection between this trilogy and my other work. The epigraphs heading various chapters include some playful nods, but they also include references to pop culture and literature from Shakespeare to 20th century poets, along with a host of entirely fictional works of fiction.
[JM] The Book that Wouldn’t Burn is your longest novel to date. As a hefty book set in a library, I was expecting this to be a slow-paced story. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Book that Wouldn’t Burn is your fastest paced novel since Prince of Thorns. How do you approach the pacing of a novel? Does it unfold naturally for you, or does it require deliberate decision?
[ML] I’ve come to the conclusion that pacing is mainly in the eye of the beholder. The less someone is enjoying a book, the more likely they are to call it slow paced. Whenever a story veers away from the aspects a particular reader is interested in then that reader is likely to call those sections slow. The phrase often functions in readers’ minds as a stand in for the speed with which enjoyment is being delivered to them. And since different readers enjoy different things this explains why two readers can read the same book and one will call it slow paced and the other will say it was fast paced. I’ve certainly seen diametrically opposed judgements on aspects of a book (like pacing) which are nominally objective properties rather than subjective ones.
I tend to think of all of my books as relatively fast paced, and perhaps The Girl And The Stars is the most breakneck of them all.
As to how I approach the pacing of a novel, I’ll have to fall back into the pattern of previous answers and say that it never enters my mind at all. I just write a story that entertains me. However, since this turned out to be my most heavily edited book ever (it wasn’t heavily edited, but since I normally do very little at all, this holds the crown) I can say more on this question. My editor, whilst loving the book, did say that the middle section of the manuscript I handed in was “a little soggy” – which is a reference to pace. She felt it was getting a bit slow/bogged down. And in response I did chop out several small chunks, and also condense two chapters into one, losing a bunch more text. All of which is highly unusual for me. That chapter chopping was the first time. I’ve not done that in the previous 16 books.
So yes, someone had a clinical eye on pacing and edits were made to rectify that ‘sogginess’!
[JM] Fantasy has a reputation for being overly wordy, but you never seem to waste a single word in any of your novels. Despite its length, The Book that Wouldn’t Burn is no exception. As scientists, we are taught that writing should be both precise and concise. Has your training as a scientist influenced how you write fiction? Do you find that it gives you a different perspective on writing compared to other authors coming from non-scientific backgrounds?
[ML] It’s certainly true that some fantasy is very wordy, especially the stuff written in the 80s. There was definitely a Big Fat Fantasy market, and if you’re writing a BFF then one way to push the front cover further away from the back is to be wordy.
I’ve enjoyed a fair few BFFs myself, back in the day, though I’d lost my taste for them by the time that things like Wheel of Time hoved into view. It’s never been in my nature to write great reams of description. I subscribe to the idea that the reader’s imagination will do a lot of the heavy lifting if you strike the right note, and that whole settings can be summoned into being with relatively few words if – and here’s the hard part – if they are the correct words.
I don’t think any of this is a scientist vs non-scientist thing though, just a matter of taste. And it’s not a black and white issue by any means. Just because I would try to evoke the feeling of being in a country lane with talk of the smell, and the wind, and the wideness of the sky – there’s very definitely a place for the author who populates the hedgerow with half a dozen named species and waxes lyrical about the interplay of colour and light.
[JM] The Book that Wouldn’t Burn is your most theme-driven novel to date, covering topics such as how society develops the idea of a collective enemy, the seductive power of lies, and the danger of information in the absence of wisdom. With the global rise of nationalism and the weaponization of disinformation, these topics are more important now than ever. Did you feel that it was your responsibility as a writer (or as a Nobel Peace Prize nominee) to include these themes in The Book that Wouldn’t Burn? How should society respond in an age where disinformation spreads globally with the press of a button?
[ML] I certainly didn’t feel it was my responsibility. I wouldn’t ever want to write a responsible book! But these are things that I see in the world around me, and it seems natural to want to hold them up to the light and inspect them from different angles.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, like many of my other books, asks questions. It doesn’t give answers to those questions – that would be lecturing and I’m not in the business of educating readers, just in giving them something to think about.
There are two extreme views at the heart of the trilogy, and they attract various of the characters whilst others reject the emotional purity of the far ends of the spectrum and wallow in the messy realm of compromise. And none of these positions are, I hope, portrayed as without merit.
These are big issues with no answers that are obviously correct. I don’t try to solve them. But I do use the characters and their unfolding lives to explore the subject.
That sounds a bit dry and highbrow – but this is just a background – the story itself is about people and filled with action, adventure, even some kissing!
[JM] The Book that Wouldn’t Burn contains some of the most beautifully written epigraphs of any book I’ve read. The epigraphs also provide plenty of Easter eggs for longtime fans of your work. What is your process for writing epigraphs? Do ideas for epigraphs arise while you are writing the corpus of the book, or do you tend to write them afterwards?
[ML] Once again I’ll have to say there’s not much of a process, but I can tell you that the idea of having epigraphs was suggested by Natasha Bardon (who heads up Voyager) after she’d read the manuscript. I thought it was a good idea and sat down to write 70 of the things. It took me about 3 days. I would look at the first page of each chapter, remember roughly what happened in it, and try to write something that held some vague connection with the events on a thematic level. Those connections vary from tenuous to non-existent.
The epigraphs are largely supposed extracts from books that live within the library, and they variously contain literary or pop culture references, often disguised. Some are just sentiments that occurred to me in the moment. Mostly they’re just a bit of fun, but quite a few of them turned out rather well, I feel.
I’ve done epigraphs for the other two books of the trilogy, and it was the same deal with those – I wrote them all together after the books were finished.
[JM] From King of Thorns through The Book that Wouldn’t Burn, another one of your recurring themes is the nature of memory. How have your perspectives on memory evolved over your career as a scientist and later as an author? Have recent developments in artificial intelligence changed your perspective on the nature of memory and sentience?
[ML] I’ve always had an armchair interest in the nature of intelligence – both in the sense of how it might be recreated in different (silicon) forms, but also in the psychological and neuroscience sense: how do we create the illusion/delusion in which we exist. Our lives are great works of fiction loosely coupled to an underlying reality through our senses, biases, and – importantly – our memories. AI has always been both a fascinating prospect in its own right, but also another way to interrogate our awareness of self.
I don’t think recent developments have changed my perspective so much as sharpened my appetite for more advances and understanding. It turns out that there’s nothing more mind blowing than the mind.
[JM] Is there anything you can share about the next two volumes of The Library Trilogy or other future projects currently underway?
[ML] There’s not a lot I want to say about them. They’re both written, and it will be book 1 that sells readers on book 2 rather than anything I have to say about it. But I’m definitely happy with how the story develops and also how it ends. Which is nice, because I never know how my books are going to end or even if a satisfying ending is possible – which is a bit terrifying when it comes to contracted work, a terror that I ameliorate by being so far ahead of schedule that should everything crash and burn, I could just start again. But I’ve never had to.