Peter V. Brett "... Fight choreography is a mini-passion of mine, and I gravitated toward books that did it well. My favorite part when I read The Princess Bride was the long fight between the Man in Black and Inigo atop the Cliffs of Insanity, or Drizzt Do’Urden vs Artemis Entreri in The Halfling’s Gem. I practiced Kendo in college, and follow movie fight choreographers the way others follow lead actors. I’ve been kickboxing for the last 7 years or so, and I consider it a business expense, because the practice dramatically helps my writing. That excitement is probably why fight scenes have always been the one part of writing that flows quickly and easily for me......"
For me as a reader, there are books and authors such as Peter V. Brett that have made a lasting impression on me. Ones that I consider to be gateway drugs for lack of a better term. When I first discovered the joy of dark fantasy, Peter’s series, The Warded Man, was one of the first that I plowed through. At the time I had only read series like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. The Warded Man is a sweeping world of fantasy with a land full of heroics, gray characters, and demons that would make any of the most jaded and stolid of horror readers sit up and take notice.
Peter has come back to this world with a new novel called The Desert Prince debuting in August. This novel takes place 15 years after the last book, which means that we will have throwbacks and echoes of the first series, but with a new cast of characters to get to know and cheer on.
Peter was kind enough to interview with me and talk a bit about writing, his influences growing up, and the new book, The Desert Prince.
BWG: Who influenced you as a young reader growing up?
I get this question a lot, and the practiced answer is usually something like: Tolkien, 1980s Marvel Comics, Terry Brooks, RA Salvatore, CS Friedman, James Clavell, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin.
But that answer doesn’t cover the literally hundreds of other SF & Horror novels I devoured, plus the 10,000+ comics & graphic novels in my collection. King, Herbert, Moorcock, Norton, Eddings, Farland, Hobb, Feist, all the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novels, most every comic book published 1984-1990, the list goes on and on.
One thing that did not influence me as a young reader was my school English curriculum. I am glad to see none of my children will ever be subjected to the torment that is Ethan Frome.
BWG: You have a degree in English Literature and Art History from the University at Buffalo. How has your education affected your writing?
Not a lot, if I am honest. I left high school knowing I wanted to be a novelist, but UB didn’t have a creative writing program, so I just took a lot of literature classes and figured the writing part would take care of itself. It was a terrible plan, but looking back I guess it worked so maybe not that terrible? Definitely a harder road, though. I graduated in 1995, and didn’t have a novel I thought was worth submitting for another ten years.
Even then, my agent rejected my first two manuscripts as the work of “someone who taught themself to write quite well, but was still making a lot of amateur mistakes”. He suggested I read Writing to Sell, by Scott Meredith, which was an enormous help in rewriting one of my trunk novels into what would become The Warded Man.
The minor in Art History has come in pretty handy over the years, though! I get to work with some incredibly talented artists, and it helps to be able to talk the talk. One of my favorite things to do on book tour is to steal an hour or two to visit museums in tour cities, experiencing in real life pieces of art I only read about in books.
BWG: What do you like in a fantasy story? What thrills you, what repels you? Have you read any books lately that really affected you?
I like a protagonist I can relate to emotionally, and stakes I actually care about. Someone who has to earn their power, and sweat a bit to get the job done. I don’t have a lot of patience for convenient “Chosen One” plot structure, which is something I poke a bit of fun at in Demon Cycle.
My other literary turn-off is what the Turkey City Lexicon refers to as “I Suffered for My Art, So You Should, Too”. Basically, it’s when an author does a TON of research for their book, and feels the need to fill pages with endless extraneous details to show off how much they learned. I don’t need to know that much about the rigging of medieval sailing vessels, thanks.
Reading time is at a premium these days with two young kids home-learning and a partner working from the dining table during a pandemic. I switched the majority of my reading to audiobooks while I hike around the park or fold laundry or whatever. Recently I’ve really enjoyed Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Books, as well as SA Chakraborty’s Daevabad books and RF Kuang’s brutal and amazing Poppy War trilogy. I loved Andy Weir’s Project: Hail Mary.
One book that I did manage to power through in print was Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter (the sequel to Rage of Dragons, which blew me away). I managed to call in a favor and score an advance read copy, and the magic holds in the second book. I’m pretty biased these days, but those books made me feel like a kid reading R.A. Salvatore again.
BWG: I know you are an avid fan of RPG’s and Comics. What are some of your favorites and why?
Not counting computer RPGs, I was always a bit of a D&D purist. I felt the rules and setting were so wide and varied that it let you tell a virtually limitless set of stories, so why keep learning the rules to new games? I invested quite heavily in the hardcover rule books (edition 2.5 was my heyday) and plotted out ridiculously epic stories for my players.
Regarding comics, I read most everything in the 80’s and 90’s. Superheroes were always where my heart was, but I also loved noir comics like Criminal and Sin City, indies like Cerebus, Thieves & Kings, and Stray Bullets, as well as Euro comics (mostly via Heavy Metal magazine, or when I could find translations), and more.
BWG: Has your creative outlet always been writing?
Between the ages of 12-16 I wanted to be a comic book artist, but I was never very good at it. I started writing seriously around then, and finished my first (godawful) novel at 17. It was close to two decades before I wrote a good one. I still draw sometimes, though. It’s relaxing.
BWG: How do you structure your daily writing schedule?
Not sure which is more LOL, “structure” or “schedule”. I used to strive for 1000 words a day, and I still think that’s a good benchmark for writers. It’s little enough that there isn’t really a good excuse for not being able to reach it, but big enough that is scales quickly if you do it consistently. But since having kids (and especially in these last 18 months when the whole family has invaded my home office) having a structured schedule became impossible. I write during the day when I find a quiet window, and work late at night when I can’t.
BWG: You have written five books and four novellas, with a new novel, The Desert Prince coming out soon. Some have been more polarizing in reviews than others. From a seasoned author like yourself, how does an author take criticism, positive or negative, and use it to keep moving forward?
It’s different for everyone, so I don’t want to speak for others, but for myself, I genuinely like my own work. There are lots of times when I think reviewers are being biased or downright unfair (being mean always gets you more clicks), but I’ve never once read a review that made me doubt my artistic choices, or wish I’d done something differently. Some will try to paint me as a bad person because a I made a make-believe person in a make-believe world think or feel or experience something they feel is problematic, but I know why I made those choices, so those criticisms mostly roll off. The thing I am most criticized for is two characters saying they love each other too much (six whole times in one 800 page book!) which kinda says it all.
BWG: You are a lifelong New Yorker and saw September 11th first hand. How had that experience affected you firstly as a New Yorker and secondly as an author?
It was a rough day. My father-in-law was in the Towers, and it was hours before we learned he evacuated in time. So many others weren’t so lucky. Worse was how the trauma brought out some of the worst instincts in Americans and government, leading to horrific foreign policy blunders that continue to ruin lives to this day.
Artistically, though, it gave me insight that I think made my early books resonate. Everyone in New York, myself included, was terrified on September 11, but each of us reacted to that fear in our own unique way, across a broad spectrum. I tried to reflect that in the fear that permeates The Warded Man, as people check their wards and wait for the demons to rise.
BWG: Tell me about your beginnings writing The Painted Man. I read you wrote it on a iPAQ 6515 while riding the subway.
True story. After reading Writing to Sell, I threw away about 60% of the original Painted Man manuscript, including the entire third act. I had an agent interested in the rewrite, but I also had a full time job, friends, a relationship, and other things filling my time. Writing was important to me, so I knew I needed to find the time somewhere.
I had a commute from Brooklyn to Times Square every day, and I mostly spent that time reading. I decided instead to try writing during that commute. I bought a Windows smartphone that had a pared down version of MS Word called Docs to Go, broke my manuscript into chapters that would fit on the phone, and wrote about 300-400 words on the way to work and the same on the way home. At night I would sync it to my desktop, fix all my thumb typos, and add enough to get up to 1000 words for the day. I did that for a year, resulting in the book that’s in stores now. Technically, there were hurdles, but it also taught me that I could be creative anywhere, on command, and that’s a powerful thing.
BWG: The first book of The Demon Cycle series is The Painted Man or The Warded Man, depending on where you live. Why two titles? Which title was the preferred title?
The Painted Man was my original title. Random House US decided they wanted to change it, but took a while to settle on a variant. In that time, HarperCollins UK, who were fine with the title as it was, decided to move ahead and go to press. The book published there in the fall of 2008 as The Painted Man to great success, and then in February of 2009 it published in the US as The Warded Man, losing a bit of momentum because of the change.
That said, The Warded Man has grown on me over the years, and is now my preferred title. I just wish it could have been consistent.
BWG: Labels are thrown around a lot that try to classify and pigeonhole fantasy books into different genres, but they rarely get it right. I have heard The Demon Cycle books described as grimdark, although I didn’t find that description wholly accurate as a reader. How would you describe The Demon Cycle books?
I tend to agree with you. I don’t think my books are grimdark. Sure, I deal with a lot of heavy themes in a scary world, but my books also have a lot of hope, and in the opposite of grimdark tradition, a lot of the characters that seem awful at first turn out to be trying to do the right thing in their own way once you see it from their perspective.
Subgenre labels are useful to booksellers and marketers who don’t have time to read every book, but I think authors do themselves a disservice when they try to write in a subgenre and follow its “rules”.
BWG: The Demon Cycle series is combat-heavy, employing detailed fight scenes. What kind of research do you do for fight scene creation, or do you write what feels natural and flows best in the scene?
Fight choreography is a mini-passion of mine, and I gravitated toward books that did it well. My favorite part when I read The Princess Bride was the long fight between the Man in Black and Inigo atop the Cliffs of Insanity, or Drizzt Do’Urden vs Artemis Entreri in The Halfling’s Gem. I practiced Kendo in college, and follow movie fight choreographers the way others follow lead actors. I’ve been kickboxing for the last 7 years or so, and I consider it a business expense, because the practice dramatically helps my writing. That excitement is probably why fight scenes have always been the one part of writing that flows quickly and easily for me.
BWG: The Krasians have certain similarities with Sparta and spartan culture. What attracted you to the war training aspect of Sparta as a model for The Krasians.
I pulled bits from various cultures when first forming Krasian society because I wanted them to feel real, and plausible, but Krasia and its people very quickly grew into something unique to my world.
The Krasian religion is centered around Sharak Ka, the war on demonkind. In the beginning of The Demon Cycle, before the return of combat warding, that meant fighting demons—immortal, armored creatures that can heal almost any wound in minutes—with plain weapons of wood and steel. The more I thought about it, the more staggering it was that they might survive at all, much less find any kind of victory.
What would it take to forge a warrior with that level of courage and skill? What kind of indoctrination would it take to make an otherwise sane man stand before a charging horde of demons, night after night? How would you best go about it? You wouldn’t use a sword. No one wants to get in close with demon teeth and claws. You’d want long spears, and a shield wall.
So it was sort of natural to pull very general themes from Ancient Sparta. The myth—the perfect warrior, forged in the fires of the agoge and legendary for their suicidal stand against a vastly superior force. But also what I imagine was the reality—flawed, damaged and emotionally stunted men, abused through childhood, traumatized by seeing friends killed and the horror of their nightly war.
BWG: You have very detailed dialects utilized throughout your stories. How did you develop the specific dialects and world-building for the different free cities?
It was a subtle way to convey a sense of isolation. The Free Cities are walled bastions against the demon corelings, each the last remain of some once great duchy of Thesa. They share a common culture and language, but over the many years since demons returned and cut them off from each others, they’ve each developed their own unique character. One of the ways to show that was to have words, usage and phrasing that was unique to each city, and even their vassal hamlets. Not too different from how every town in the UK has it’s own dialect, or even the boroughs of New York, once upon a time.
BWG: I know that The Demon Cycle series has been critiqued for its female characters and the presence of sexual assault. While readers form their own opinions based on their experiences, I found it wonderful to read the series as a woman who loves fantasy. It was hard to find my fantasy heroes growing up, where female characters have agency and are more than pretty faces, and your stories feature women warriors and in a position of power. Did having daughters impact how you wrote your cast and their story arcs?
The Warded Man and most of The Desert Spear were already written when my first daughter was born, so I don’t think that had a lot of impact on those early stories. It came more from my own experiences, and the frustrated sense that fiction as a whole was failing not just women, but everyone by excising women from stories. Women are more than half the population. You mean to tell me intrepid world explorer Indiana Jones only encounters one per movie?
So I made it a point to not just have a female lead in my stories, but to make women half the people you meet, from regular supporting cast members down to the local butcher who gets one dry joke, or the young stable hand who doesn’t even get a line. Varied women, not there for the male gaze, but because they belong. It made the stories feel more real to me.
Like most people, I have loved ones that are survivors of sexual assault. Excluding that aspect of women’s lives and experience, even as I did my best to support friends and family during their healing process, seemed dishonest to me. I wanted those people to feel seen in stories, too. Not just the trauma, but also the triumphs still to come in a life lived. I have never used assault as a shortcut, or in gratuity. But as you say, every reader brings their own experiences and opinions to a story, reading with a unique perspective. It’s what makes books so magical. So while I regret that some readers are put off by that aspect of my books, there are also many many readers who see it closer to my intention, and love the stories all the more for it. I don’t think it’s possible for an artist to make everyone happy, so all we can do is tell the story that feels true to us.
BWG: You are extremely popular in Germany and have referred to yourself as the “David Hasslehoff of fantasy.” How did that come about?
For some reason, my books are very popular in Germany. Vastly more popular per capita than they are in the United States. I honestly couldn’t tell you why. I made a joke one time during some interview that it made me the David Hasselhoff of fantasy, since in the US he’s only TV famous, whereas in Germany he was performing to packed stadiums. The joke got a laugh, so I kept it aspart of my regular routine at events and on podcasts and the like. You never throw away a laugh.
BWG: You have a new book coming out, The Desert Prince that takes place fifteen years after The Core, and it stars Olive Paper and Darin Bales. Can you tell us a bit about The Desert Prince and what to expect and about its main stars, Olive and Darin?
Olive and Darin have grown up in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. Olive has never even seen a demon, and Darin, living on the outskirts of the purge zone, avoids them as much as possible. But both have spent their whole lives in the outsize shadows of their hero parents. Most of us know what it’s like to have our parents not approve of our college major or life choices, but what if your parents literally saved humanity from extinction? How does any kid not get lost in that?
In The Desert Prince, their parents aren’t always there to save them, forcing Olive and Darin to find out who they really are.
BWG: What was it like coming back to this world again?
In some ways it was like coming home. I designed the Demon Cycle world to let me tell all sorts of stories, and I had (and still have) a lot of plans for it. But it was difficult, as well, keeping canon with the old series and providing cameos to let longtime readers see what’s become of some fan-favorite characters, while also telling a story that welcomed new readers without burdening them with the baggage of the original series. Anyone can pick up The Desert Prince and dive right in with everything they need to get lost in the adventure.