They say these are violent times, the end of days when the dead roam and monsters haunt the night. All that’s true enough, but there’s something worse out there, in the dark. Much worse.”
Mark Lawrence is the writer of last year’s hit Prince of Thorns which was also his debut novel. That story is part one in a epic fantasy trilogy about a privileged royal child named Jorg who, after a tragic life changing event, has become the Prince of Thorns, a cunning, immoral boy who leads a grim band of outlaws. Though only a boy Jorg’s actions and plans are morally questionable to say the least. The sick part though, is it’s frighteningly easy to relate to the character and understand him. The second book in the series, King of Thorns debuts in America on August 7th.
AiPT recently spoke to Mark Lawrence to talk about fantasy, his writing and what’s in the works after the Broken Empire trilogy.
AiPT: I want to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Prince of Thorns has been out for nearly a year now. Are you pleased with how it has been received?
Mark Lawrence: Yes! It would be pretty churlish not to be pleased with good sales, good reviews, and a place on the Gemmell Award shortlist! There’s always a bigger fish and no matter where you’re swimming in the ratings you’ll see authors doing better than you and authors doing worse. Frankly I’m amazed that I’m an author at all – I had no expectations of success and so everything’s a bonus.
AiPT: For someone who’s never heard of Prince of Thorns and the Broken Empire Trilogy how would the elevator pitch go?
Mark Lawrence: By strange coincidence I saw this phrase for the first time today. I don’t know what it means. An elevator pitch? We crowd into a small room and push a button? I start in a baritone and end in falsetto? OK, I get that it’s about selling the book to you. I don’t do that – never have. I’m not a salesman and just thinking about trying makes my skin crawl (no offense to salesmen). One of the best things about this whole business has been the discovery that those people who told me I’d never get published without networking, without writing the perfect query letter, without studying the market and playing the game… were full of crap. I don’t think I have to sell Prince of Thorns to anyone. If people buy the book it will be because they’ve read a good report of it from a reviewer they trust, or a friend has raved about it, or they just happen to like the cover in and take hold of it in one of those impulse moments we all get. Me elevator pitching is just going to take us all to the basement.
AiPT: The main character in Prince of Thorns, Jorg, is a bit of a bastard, but he’s also shockingly easy to relate to. How do you see heroism in epic fantasy?
Mark Lawrence: Um. I’m not sure what the question means. I guess the protagonists in fantasy books tend to be heroic more often than they don’t. I also note that some fantasy readers are literally incapable of using any word but hero for the protagonist and if the protagonist isn’t in fact heroic they simply put quotes around ‘hero’ and make out that somehow you’ve not understood how fantasy works. But those people are stupid and I think we can safely ignore them.
I don’t think any kind of fantasy sub-genre actually insists upon heroes in its instruction list – I mean, like 90% of all humans I don’t ever read the instructions manual if I can possibly help it, but I’m pretty sure there’s no law saying your main character will behave in any particular way.
I wrote a book about a person. Not an ordinary every day person, but someone who was (I hope) fully human. My only concern is that the characters I write about be interesting. I’m not writing a moral handbook or a guide to better living.
I know from my own reading that there are now, and have been for many decades, fantasy writers who treat the genre as grown up literature and write about people of all dispositions, from the very best of humanity (or whatever) to the very worst.
Hopefully there’s some kind of answer in the above meanderings!
AiPT: Many writers come from a background in journalism or education. According to your bio you are a research scientist in the realm of artificial intelligence. One might assume a teacher can bend the rules of reality, but with a background in science do you find yourself sticking to certain laws of science? I’m thinking of how magic doesn’t seem to have much a place in science. For instance, could you see yourself breaking the laws of physics for a story?
Mark Lawrence: Magic doesn’t have much place in anything/anywhere, we all obey the laws of gravity whether we happen to know the equations governing it or not. My first degree was in physics, my PhD in mathematics, and I have zero problem breaking any theory (no true laws in science) within a story at the drop of a hat.
AiPT: Especially considering your work in Fantasy goes outside the norm of traditional fantasy, what would you say to someone hesitant to read fantasy on account of the common stereotypes of the genre; that is, swords, elves, orcs and magic?
Mark Lawrence: I’d tell those people to continue to hesitate. What’s important in a book is the quality of the writing and the story and the ideas. If anyone is minded to take against a book (or a genre) because of the ‘things’ in it . . . well frankly I don’t want those people reading my work. I don’t have elves and orcs, but I do have swords and magic, and if I had pixies and mega-chickens I still wouldn’t have much time for people who based their decision to read or not on such… arbitrary issues of content. A book’s worth has nothing to do with such superficial nonsense.
AiPT: When reading Prince of Thorns I was reminded of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series and how characters appear to be interacting with a world from the old west, when they stumble upon, avoiding spoilers here, things that don’t appear quite right. It’s a marvelous way to surprise the audience; also the beautiful mutants. Is it difficult to strike a balance between different genres?
Mark Lawrence: The question pre-supposes that there’s some balance to strike. To my mind a book can mix any genres in any proportions – why not? And as such there’s no balance to strike. You just write what suits you.
AiPT: You recently announced on your blog the film and TV rights to Prince of Thorns and the Broken Empire trilogy were bought by Stephen Susco, the writer of The Grudge. How much involvement have you had with the production? A follow up question to that would be, is it difficult to give up control of your creation to another creator?
Mark Lawrence: We’ll there’s a huge difference between having a book optioned and having it go into film production. I read somewhere that about 1% of books are optioned for a movie and about 1% of those actually appear on screen. At the moment all being optioned means is that Stephen Susco can now go around Hollywood seeking to interest studios in making a film, safe in the knowledge that nobody else can make the same offer. This means that Stephen can invest his time into the project. He’s free to write a screenplay and to make pitches without the worry that someone else will beat him to a film deal on the same material.
To answer the follow-up: Yes, I found it pretty easy. Firstly because I’m a realist and I don’t truly expect to find myself watching Prince of Thorns with a box of popcorn. It would be stellar if it happened, but the odds are against it as they are for any book no matter how good. Secondly I know that the art of screen writing is a very different one from that of book writing. I’ve never written a screenplay and it would be insulting to the talented individuals who have made that their career to suggest that I could step in and control the process. And finally – I haven’t given up all control, there are still decisions I can make and at all stages so far Stephen has been more than willing to talk and take on any input I might have. So all in all, it’s all good!
AiPT: Since we’re on the subject of films, what are your favorite films?
Mark Lawrence: Shawshank Redemption. Possibly one of the reasons that a good number of people like my book is that I like what a lot of other people like. Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring would probably be 2nd. I was just so very pleased that Peter Jackson didn’t screw it up and instead did Tolkien proud. Twelve Angry Men is another brilliant film – just twelve men talking around a table. Special effects budget, zero. Location budget, zero. Impact, through the roof. More recently, I really liked Watchmen.
AiPT: It’s always fun to do a casting call for a favorite book. If you could pick a dream cast for Prince of Thorns who would play the parts?
Mark Lawrence: I’ve actually done a whole guest slot on this right here.
To summarise: The film would entirely stand or fall upon the actor chosen for Jorg. Jorg, being young, requires a young actor and I don’t know any of those by name – so I invoked a time machine and said I’d have a young Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, or Heath Ledger.
What I would want from any of these three, and what I’m sure they could have delivered at an appropriate age, would be the ability to command each scene and just plain scare the hell out of me by letting me know they were capable of doing absolutely anything without requiring provocation. More than that though, they would need somehow to make me feel the pain they denied, to make me laugh out loud, and to make me end up rooting for them despite the evident blackness of their souls.
AiPT: I’m looking forward to the second installment in this series, King of Thorns, the synopsis of which sounds exciting as hell:
The Broken Empire burns with the fires of a hundred battles as lords and petty kings battle for the all-throne. The long road to avenge the slaughter of his mother and brother has shown Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath the hidden hands behind this endless war. He saw the game and vowed to sweep the board. First though he must gather his own pieces, learn the rules of play, and discover how to break them.
A six nation army, twenty thousand strong, marches toward Jorg’s gates, led by a champion beloved of the people. Every decent man prays this shining hero will unite the empire and heal its wounds. Every omen says he will. Every good king knows to bend the knee in the face of overwhelming odds, if only to save their people and their lands. But King Jorg is not a good king.
Faced by an enemy many times his strength Jorg knows that he cannot win a fair fight. But playing fair was never part of Jorg’s game plan.”
Can you tell us anything to whet our appetites prior to its release?
Mark Lawrence: Well I’d guess that all the potential readers for King of Thorns will have read Prince of Thorns and will have made up their own minds whether to continue or not. So on that basis (and plenty of others) I’ll decline the elevator again! I can tell you it’s a longer book, more complex, and moves into new territory. The beauty of a young character is that they grow whether you want them to or not.
AiPT: But I just desperately wanted to get trapped in an elevator with you. Uh, I mean, in an interview with Fantasy Faction you said you have completed the Broken Empire. Can you divulge any details on anything you’re currently working on? Please tell us we’ll get more fantasy!
Mark Lawrence: The Broken Empire trilogy was finished before Prince of Thorns hit the shelves. I’ve been busy since then with my day job, looking after my youngest child (who is very disabled), some secret projects I can’t speak of, and my current work in progress which is a book called Gunlaw. It’s a strange tale of gunslingers and fantasy based on a short story I wrote a long while back and which has been waiting to appear in Black Gate magazine for many years! (Due next issue.) Superficially it sounds a bit like Stephen King’s Dark Tower – which I read after the short story but in and around early work on the full book, and which I love. It’s actually very different. We get minotaurs and witches, but sadly no swords, orcs or elves.
AiPT: You had me at minotaurs. We’ll take it! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Mark.