Interview: Brent Weeks (The Way of Sadows, Shadow’s Edge and Beyond the Shadows)

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Brent Weeks burst onto the epic fantasy in October with The Way of Shadows, with the next two volumes in the Night Angel trilogy out this month and next. He was kind enough to agree to the first ever interview on NextRead and it hopefully won’t be the last!

What do you love/hate (hate is optional) about big fantasy?

Epic fantasy is one of the few places where people don’t sneer at heroism. People are capable of the grand and noble. It might be rare, but that makes it more precious, not less true. I think epic fantasy sometimes shows this. When done well, epic fantasy gives us a sense of the hugeness of the world, and our own significance and insignificance in the face of that. Epic fantasy can also be surprising; there’s more room in a big book to have plot twists, and for people who read a lot and get used to anticipating which way the roller coaster is going to veer to be surprised the way they were the first time they rode. That’s awesome.

What I hate is that the hugeness is always escaping. Conceiving of a huge outline, the grand story, is different from being able to pull it off. This is why series blossom from trilogies to decalogies. And when series explode, sometimes authors forget that we readers don’t care as much about all parts of their creation as they do. So I can end up stuck reading hundreds of pages about a character that, frankly, I don’t give a damn about. Another thing is that every writer has limitations, just like all your friends have character flaws. You may not notice them for a long time, but epic fantasy gives you a long, _long_ time with a writer, so the cracks show: you notice that everyone talks alike, or that all the women straighten their skirts when they’re upset, and continuity errors start to creep in. It’s one thing to create a cast of thousands, but it’s another to remember which ones you said were blond and who was has a cousin in Toledo.

How do these loves/hates come across in your Night Angel trilogy?

Both come across, sadly. I took a different path than I’ve seen others take as I made a vast world. The Way of Shadows happens almost entirely in one city. We start this trilogy zoomed in very close. Then Shadow’s Edge is played on a national stage, and Beyond the Shadows has a huge international scope. I did this so I could have non-stop action _and_ scope. These books are big, but they aren’t even close to Robert Jordan or George R. R. Martin big—and there are only three of them. By committing to a trilogy, I forced an end to this story. And it _still_ tried to get away. Beyond the Shadows really wanted to be about another 250 pages longer.

In the second and third books, I did take some risks in asking readers to bond with characters who were less important in the first book, but the payoff was both scope and complexity. I mean, if you don’t like some of the other characters, when I kill Kylar off in the middle of book 2, it’s really hard to keep the series moving forward. So I think I might lose a few readers at that point, but—hehe, juuust kidding. I don’t really kill off my main character there. But, uh, no promises about the ends of the books, right?

As far as overcoming your limitations as a writer, all you can do is work hard on the things that don’t come naturally, try to avoid things you’ve done before, and understand that you’re never going to be the best at everything. People don’t read Jane Austen for her amazing action sequences. People don’t read John Grisham for his deep characters. But they do read them.

What other things have you thrown into the mix? Or have you stayed within traditional ideas/boundaries?

I don’t see myself as an iconoclast, but I do veer away from the familiar. I like to turn problems around and look at them from the opposite direction. I think I definitely took on tougher challenges in book two and then harder challenges still in book three, simply because I thought I was ready for them. If you ask me this question in December, I’ll give you concrete examples, but despite my teasing in the last question, I really don’t want to give any spoilers.

It’s being released over three consecutive months – How did you react to the idea? Did you want people to wait or was it quite exciting to know that people were going to be able to know what happens by Christmas?

I’m thrilled to have the trilogy released quickly. Have you ever noticed that second and third books in a trilogy often start with some action sequence and then five pages in, two characters sit down and say, “Can you believe all we’ve been through?” And then they sit there for five pages and recap all of the last book. Now, that’s helpful if it’s been two years since you read the last book and you can’t remember what happened, but if you discover the trilogy after the whole thing’s been published and you’re tearing through the books, it’s boring. Or if the author doesn’t recap enough and it’s been a while, you’re sitting there feeling stupid because you can’t remember minor character #1205. Clearly, some writers manage this more artistically, but it is a problem. I still had to work in some recap—some readers won’t read the second book right away—but it wasn’t crippling. So that was one purely artistic reason I was delighted to have the trilogy published quickly.

The reason Orbit like it is that sometimes readers won’t buy an author who’s only got one book out, and places like Borders don’t want to hold shelf space for five years to see if you’ll build a fan base and starting moving books. Readers like it because they don’t have to wait to see where the story goes. I like it because if someone loved the first book, I don’t want them to have a year and a half to forget me.

The series must have taken a long time to write. Did it put you off writing big fantasy stories or are you eager for more? I guess I’m asking what can we expect next?

It didn’t put me off writing big stories at all. But I think it’s important to know what you’re capable of. The Night Angel Trilogy has a definite end. You can stop there and never read another of my books and feel that you had a complete story experience. I don’t believe in trapping readers into a series. But the characters in this trilogy—those who survive, anyway—are important side characters in a huge trilogy I’ve got planned in my head. But I looked at what I wanted to do with the next trilogy in Midcyru, and I’m not ready for it yet. George Martin was 48 years old when the first book of the Song of Ice and Fire came out. Robert Jordan was 42 years old when the first book of the Wheel of Time came out. They had decades of writing experience. I’m 31 years old; I started the Night Angel trilogy when I was 25. I’ve got a lot to learn. I also didn’t want to get stuck in one world for my whole career, so I made up something different. I’m writing what I think will be a trilogy in a new world with new magic and cultures and politics, and it’s invigorating. It’s a story of brother against brother, one of them trapped in this ingenious magical prison, betrayal, revenge, love, coming-of-age, war, revenge, surprises, and brilliant magic. The schedule’s all very tentative, but the first book should be out in fall of 2010. (Basically a year to write it, and a year for it to go through the editing process.)

Finally a random question. If you had to sit next to one of your characters at a posh dinner who would it be and why?

I’d have to go with Dorian. I mean, the guy can see your future. How could you not have a fascinating conversation?

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I’d like to thank Brent for giving some really interesting answers especially, his comments on heroism, and Orbit for arranging the interview 😀

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