Recently at The Ranting Dragon, Stephan and I read and reviewed Mark Lawrence’s brilliant debut novel, Prince of Thorns. After being blown away by this dark, captivating and relentless work of fantasy, the next logical step was to track Mark down, corner him in a dark alley and ask him for an interview. Okay, so maybe it didn’t play out quite like that. Mark was very accommodating and agreed to answer some questions without the need to resort to threat. He did, however, challenge me to ask him something that no previous interviewer had. Here is the result:
Meet Mark Lawrence
First of all, thanks very much for agreeing to this interview! You have rapidly become a new favourite among many of the Ranting Dragon staff and other readers across the internet. How does it feel?
Odd. That would be the word. An unexpected mix of feelings. I’ve written both long and short stories for many years and shared them on critique groups, so having people like (and sometimes dislike) my writing and tell me so in no uncertain terms is not a new experience for me. Having that experience multiplied across the internet is … odd. Words fail me. I never expected to be a published author and I didn’t have a set of expectations. This isn’t the culmination of a childhood dream, I’m not ecstatic, just pleased and rather surprised. To me that’s a healthy mindset and more likely to prove robust to the inevitable knocks that await me. If my writing career doesn’t take off I won’t be a broken man! I’ll just be amazed that I got so far and very thankful for the chance.
I’m assuming you do not intend to celebrate the release of your debut novel in quite the same manner that some of your characters might, for instance by burning and pillaging a small settlement. How do you plan to celebrate, if at all?
No celebrations planned. I live a very busy and rather isolated life as the sole carer for my very disabled little girl. My book isn’t the big news at our house – my daughter’s next medical test, operation, or piece of equipment is usually the headline. I expect I will toast the event with a beer somewhere past midnight.
You must be a busy man dividing your time between general day to day life, your work as a research scientist, and caring for your daughter. When do you find time to write? Would you consider writing a form of relaxation or escape for you?
I generally write late at night when I should be sleeping, and yes, it’s an escape.
Prince of Thorns: Characters, context and the Broken Empire
Do you have a favorite character in Prince of Thorns? Or was there one that you especially enjoyed writing? If so, who was it and why?
The story is told through Jorg’s eyes and he’s the focus of the tale so he’s my favorite to write. With the others it was really a case of the more I enjoyed writing them the more page space they got. I guess Jorg’s tutor, Lundist, and his companions Makin and the Nuban top the list.
In contrast, who is your least favourite character?
Well I’m looking at them from the point of view of how much fun they were to write, not whether I’d enjoy their company or want them as a son-in-law. I guess the nastiest of the brothers would be Rike, Row, or Liar. Not men you’d want to meet.
Your protagonist Jorg is at once fascinating and terrifying. Yet you have previously stated that you found getting into his rather sociopathic mindset relatively easy. Should we be worried?
Probably. But then again that would mean harbouring suspicions about any actor who’s ever done a convincing job of portraying a villain.
Do you think that given certain circumstances every one of us has the potential to commit deeds that we would otherwise condemn as monstrous?
I think most people have the potential to imagine doing terrible things, that’s just a question of how flexible your imagination is.
When it comes to doing rather than daydreaming, well, the primal response to situations kicks in fast and is generally tempered by our higher brain before we act. However, given the right conditions, particularly if society as a whole or your immediate circle in particular are encouraging you, many people can do things that we’d call monstrous. There are famous psychology experiments that show just how quickly regular people can be encouraged into torturing and killing their fellow citizens. And of course we have real examples like the Nazis.
If you ever happened to meet Jorg and his brothers down a dark alley, how do you think you would respond?
Throw my wallet in one direction and run like hell in the other.
The world portrayed throughout Prince of Thorns is dark, desolate and decidedly different to the world we know. If we all woke up tomorrow morning in that world instead of this one, how do you think people would cope? Would we survive?
Heh – if we all woke up there we’d outnumber them 1000 to 1 so it would be messy but some of us would make it. If you just dropped random people from today into that situation then I’m guessing only a very small percentage would last long.
What was your inspiration for the world of the Broken Empire?
The setting is part of the story that unfolds through the trilogy. It’s not lazy borrowing and it is thought out. More than that I can’t say without spoiling the read.
Do you envisage your readers responding to Prince of Thorns in a particular way? How would you like them to respond?
To be honest, I thought the book would be too challenging to do well and that no publisher would be interested in it. Even when it was accepted, I thought that the reviews would dominated by people complaining that I’d polluted their genre with something ugly. I always thought the book’s subtext had a degree of literary beauty and worth to it, but I didn’t expect a large fraction of general readers to agree with me.
I have seen (online) some people throw the book down in disgust or misunderstand it as being some angsty teen novel, but it’s been maybe one or two percent of the response rather than the 75% I had feared.
I’d like readers to be moved by the book. To ‘get’ it. And then of course convince ten friends to buy a copy and to clamour for King of Thorns to be released early.
Now, can you tell us a little about that literary context? What was your inspiration for that aspect of your novel? Do you feel that it’s one of the things that separates your book from others?
Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange was an inspiration and that immediately moved this away from being a story about a hero standing against evil or someone becoming a hero. Modern fantasy is less driven by those standard structures of the genre, but even in the cases where the character in focus is morally ambiguous we find in the majority of examples the story is about redemption. Here, like Burgess (though obviously with less importance) I’m just telling a tale, not teaching a moral lesson or ensuring that things turn out ‘as they should’. And if anything is to be discovered between the lines, I hope that it’s a window into some small part of what we all are. Of course all that can be safely ignored in favour of the fast-moving blood-stained adventure that overlies it.
I wouldn’t claim that any particular aspects of the book sets it apart from the rest of the genre, there are many books that do some or all of the things I’ve done, and many do it better I’m sure. But the aforementioned aspects do set Prince of Thorns apart from much of the genre.
What else do you think makes your book unique? Do you have any idea as to what it is about your novel that has struck a chord with so many readers?
I think it’s really for readers/reviewers to say whether anything sets the book apart from those nestling up against it on the shelves. I’m not out to say my book is somehow better than the next man or woman’s. Each author puts everything they’ve got into their work.
That ideal reader we talked about earlier, they’re going to spot that far from being a slick work of violence about a shallow teenager, that Prince of Thorns is a deeply emotional book. The nightmare reader is going to have all of that run off them and leave no trace. All I can say is that there’s nothing cynical about this book – there’s something raw and bleeding on the page and it came from tragedy that struck me and my family at the time of writing. If that fails to reach out and touch a reader then I’m simply not good enough at what I do.
If you had to sell me your book in 10 words what would they be?
Ask someone who has read it and whose opinion you trust. (11 words!)
Throughout most of the novel, your protagonist Jorg is just fifteen years old. What were you like at fifteen and what did you envisage for your future? Was it anything like it turned out?
At fifteen I was a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic. The first UK Games Workshop opened about two hundred yards from my school when I was eleven. I never stood a chance!
I imagined I would be a scientist of some description and hopefully shake the world with some grand theory born of my genius. In the end I did become a research scientist but my minor insights into the workings of the world occupy a few science journals in the dusty stack rooms of various university libraries, and I very much doubt anyone was shaken by them!
Geeking it up with games, author battles and other fun insights
So, you’ve played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. What is or was your favorite character class and why?
Heh – I haven’t played any for quite some time, but it’s certainly true that much of my youth was invested in that pursuit. For almost all of that time I was the dungeon master, designing and then running the adventures. I guess my favourite class would be the magic user because there are so many creative ways to use spells.
What do you think would be Jorg’s highest stats? Or alternatively what Dungeons and Dragons style skills do you think would be most useful to survive in the world of your novel?
I think the answer to both of those might be charisma. The ability to win people around to your cause by whatever means is an incredibly valuable skill in our world or any other.
If you were a fantasy archetype what do you think you would be and why? How would you distinguish yourself from other individuals of the same class etc?
Well to be honest I wasn’t sure what fantasy archetypes were. I resorted to my friend google and there turns out to be a quiz to establish which type you are. It turns out I am ‘damsel in distress’ … I guess on that basis the distinguishing feature would be facial stubble.
I hear you also like computer games. What are some of your favorites and why?
Strangely I’m not a role-player on the PC. I like adrenaline, also beating other people. I tend to focus on a game I like and get good at it (within my time constraints). So my two most recent interests were the real-time strategy game Command and Conquer 3, which I played far too much online and did pretty well at, and Modern Warfare II on the Xbox which I gave up after finally getting my 30-0 game.
What are your favorite books of all time? Can you recommend some titles to us? Now, what is your favorite scene in any book? What makes it so special for you?
My favorite book list changes all the time and the changes are more to do with my mood than with having read new contenders. People’s choice for favourite book is as much to do with when in their life they read that book as it is to do with quality. I may have read better books than Lord of the Rings, I may read another one tomorrow, but I won’t ever be seven again and so nothing will ever again imprint itself so strongly that I get chills just thinking about it.
Anyway – my top five would be:
1 – Free Fall by William Golding. An accessible book by a Nobel prize winning literary genius that tells you everything you knew about the human condition but couldn’t put into words.
2 – Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger. How to create a voice. How to write between the lines.
3 – Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The power of understatement/reserve.
4 – Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein. So many things, the power of the language just one of them.
5 – 1984 by George Orwell. Cold, hard, bleak, great.
Favorite scene? So many. I like the grand moments. The balrog appearing in Lord of the Rings. Ravers fighting bloodguard in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The Wild Hunt riding out in Alan Garner’s Moon of Gomrath. Druss’ last stand in Legend … the part where Fitz is closest to death in the Farseer Trilogy, the very end of Catcher in the Rye … too many.
You are challenged to a duel with fellow author and self proclaimed ‘angriest man in the world’, Sam Sykes (Tome of the Undergates and Black Halo). What is your plan of attack, choice of arena and weapon?
The thing is that whenever I see Sam my mind goes straight to Ewok. I think, like Han Solo, I’d be too busy being condescending to notice I’d been trussed up ready to be cooked for dinner.
Interviews, publicity and the business of writing
You have done quite a few interviews. What is the strangest question any interviewer has asked so far?
Well the D&D stats question you asked was probably one of them. The Falacata Times asked “If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?” and also what were the last 5 websites I’d visited!
Is there any question you always wanted to be asked in an interview but haven’t yet?
The question I most wanted to be asked was about the GRRM comparisons/hype – but Dan Goodman finally asked that on literary musings and gave me the chance to distance myself from publisher hyperbole that I have no control over. The GRRM stuff causes bad feeling with some GRRM fans (of whom I’m one) and really has nothing to do with me. It’s exactly the same as every new guy being compared to ‘Tolkien at his best’ in the 80’s – totally predictable, a compliment to Tolkien (and GRRM) and best ignored immediately.
I guess the questions that many writers might be waiting for but that never get asked are those about the writing itself rather than the story. Writers often think a lot about the business of writing, separate from the art of storytelling – most readers are interested in the story and only notice the writing if it’s bad. Which actually justifies the lack of such questions because why as an interviewer ask questions that the author is interested in rather than those the readers care about?
In that case, if you could tell the readers one thing about the business of writing what would it be?
Gah, hoisted by my own petard! Um … well … for me, writing is the art of achieving the most you can with the smallest number of words. It’s easy to drown the reader in description but in the end you’ll bore them to death and they won’t see what you’re trying to show them. In the same way that a good artist can give you all the character in a person’s face with a few suggestive squiggles, a writer tries to paint their world with a few deft strokes that hook into the readers’ experience and emotion. I’m not given to describing what each person wears at every turn – you won’t find me laying out the colour of each new person’s eyes as they make their entrance, I won’t construct each building or woodland scene in minute detail for you, but I will show you what matters to the character whose eyes you’re looking out of, and I’ll do it with as much economy and beauty as my skill allows.
Thanks very much for your time, Mark! Is there anything else you’d like to tell us before we finish up?
Nah, we’re good. Thanks for having me.
Prince of Thorns is available in stores now and we highly recommend you get yourself a copy!