Pierce Brown came to Seattle on tour for Morning Star, the third and final book in his incandescent Red Rising trilogy. The Amazon books editors selected all three books as a Best Book of the Month when each of them were published, so it was an enormous pleasure for us to sit down with Pierce and talk to him about his writing, killing off characters, and karaoke.
Pierce Brown: I always knew it was going to be a trilogy, mostly because I knew where Darrow would end up at the end of it—both the end of the third book and the end of the first book. What I didn’t know was how to get there. When I’m writing, I have signposts that I can see, but I often don’t know the path to get there.
Amazon Book Review: Is there stuff that you cut from your drafts that didn’t make it to the final books?
Pierce Brown: Oh, yes, all the time. My editor at Random House will circle things and just write, “No.” I tend to world-build too much, because I idolize guys like Brandon Sanderson and George R. R. Martin. But the DNA of my stories is very different than theirs. It’s written in a much different way with a much different protagonist with a much different goal in mind.
There are some characters I wish were around more, and I wish I hadn’t killed some characters, because I miss them. Though that just reaffirms that I should have killed them, because if you kill a character that you aren’t going to miss, then it doesn’t matter. But there isn’t much I regret cutting. I think the story is tight, and by the time you reach the third book, you see the themes coming full circle: blood begets blood, death begets death begets death. And when you reach the end, I hope you’ll feel that it was an earned ending—that it feels right and you could see it coming, if you’d paid attention to the clues.
Amazon Book Review: You’ve mentioned before that you got a lot of rejection letters for Red Rising—
Pierce Brown: Too many. [Laughs] I got a lot of rejection letters before that, too. I wrote six books before Red Rising. I got 130 rejection letters over several years. Sometimes people think that because you are young, you haven’t been doing your craft for a while, but I’ve been writing now for ten years solid. It’s been the main focus of my life. Even if I continued to fail, I would continue writing.
I was between eighteen and twenty-two when I wrote those books, and then I wrote Red Rising. I got a lot of rejection letters for a long time, and then I got some agents who wanted me to change some things because they didn’t feel comfortable with the violence or the argot because they thought it would be too complicated for readers, and I maintained that it wasn’t. I finally found an agent who was my own age and who believed wholeheartedly in the project and liked the complications of it, and who expected the reader to be intelligent and keep up. It was the same thing finding Random House as a publisher. There were several publishers that were interested in Red Rising but they drastically wanted to change the structure. I felt like a real artist for a moment [laughs], because I replied to them, “Thank you for your offer, but I’m passing.” Fortunately Random House came along and said, “We like it.”
Amazon Book Review: When you were saying no to the publishers who wanted large-scale changes, did you have a plunging sensation and wonder whether it was the right decision?
Pierce Brown: Oh, yeah. I was living on an air mattress in the Valley, eating ramen, and working for ten dollars an hour as an NBC page and giving tours while wearing a peacock tie. I wasn’t allowed to use my phone during a tour, so on the day I was supposed to get an offer on Red Rising, I told my tour group what was going on and that I might have to take a call in the middle of the tour. We were in the old Johnny Carson studio when I got the call. Random House gave me an offer for three books instead of one, and my life changed in front of those sixteen tourists. I got hugs from every single person. They were elated—this felt like real Hollywood business happening right in front of them.
Amazon Book Review: Last summer we did a Q&A together, and you made a very impressive call about a major plot point in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Can you talk a bit about any Star Wars homages in your books?
Pierce Brown: I want to pay respect to the influences that have shaped me, so I made references to my favorite works, from Star Wars to Dune to Ice Cube’s Friday. It’s also part of nerd culture: winking at each other across the room and saying, I get it. It’s fun, including things like, “Never tell me the odds,” and the cell number a character is imprisoned in in Golden Son. Those references just delight me.
[An interesting discussion ensued about referencing contemporary figures in literature, but we’ll skip ahead. Just know that if you ever run into Pierce Brown, he is a good person to chat with about Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare, how literature reaches readers through the centuries, and the problem of future bias.]
Pierce Brown: Darrow is an inherently divisive figure, but throughout the Red Rising trilogy, one of the biggest themes is perspective. Just because Cassius is Darrow’s bad man does not mean he’s a bad man. One man’s liberator is another man’s enslaver. Lucifer is called the Morning Star, but Jesus is also called the Morning Star, and so is John the Baptist and several other people. One of the things I want people to take away is that there’s usually no black and white, just shades of gray. The series has been leading Darrow in the direction of realizing that. But the morning star is also the star that sailors use to guide them, and Darrow growing into that leading figure is important for the whole series.
Amazon Book Review: Now for our most important question: Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
Pierce Brown: [Laughs] “Meet Virginia” by Train. Which is, coincidentally, the song that Mustang sprang from. That’s why her name is Virginia. That’s why her boots are on the table. That’s why she’s devil-may-care a lot of times, enigmatic, and you can’t pin her down.
Amazon Book Review: So, what’s next?
Pierce Brown: I’ll be doing another trilogy. I’ll be announcing what that subject matter is in the next few weeks. But I’m really excited to dive in. [Update: USA Today announced that "Brown begins another three-part epic next year with Iron Gold, which expands on the cosmic saga of a multi-class struggle on Mars." So...more more more!]
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