Demons at his heels: The writing life of Peter V. Brett by Michael J. Martinez
The Brasserie Ruhlmann, in New York City’s historic Rockefeller Center, is the kind of place you’d expect literary folks to frequent. It has dark mahogany wood paneling, tile floors, plush banquettes and enough brass fittings and accents to cast a church bell. This is the kind of place we expect to see authors clad in tweed, lazily chatting and laughing with one another in a haze of cigarette smoke and lofty words.
To be fair, the “matchbooks” here are actually tiny notepads; smoking was banned in city restaurants years ago. And Peter V. Brett, in a t-shirt and jeans, doesn’t fit that clichéd, traditional image of the novelist, either. But he’s pretty good with words: He’s the New York Times and international bestselling author of The Daylight War, third novel in his Demon Cycle fantasy series, and writing is something he takes quite seriously.
“Fun?” Brett asks, a touch incredulously, in response to a question about his writing process. “I wouldn’t call it fun, but that’s OK. I would rather have work that I am proud of in the grand scheme of things than have fun doing it. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I wouldn’t have any other job. But the day-to-day process of writing is not fun. It’s work.”
On the face of things, Brett’s living the idyllic writer’s life. He quit is job a few years ago in order to write full-time. His books have made best-seller lists around the world, and he has a growing fan base that has produced everything from the now-ubiquitous “Keep Calm” slogans (“Keep Calm and Draw Wards,” in homage to his books’ system of magical sigils) to custom jewelry and an online wiki.
“Well, that’s just it. I have people getting tattoos (of wards). There are people who have permanently marked themselves,” he says. “Last thing I want is to put out a sucky book and have them be like, ‘Why the hell did I get this tattoo?’ It’s pressure.”
Pressure – though far more deadly forms of it – is a constant theme in Brett’s books, which started with The Painted Man in 2008 and continued with The Desert Spear (2010) and this year’s The Daylight War. In Brett’s fantasy setting, humanity is plagued by corelings – powerful demons that well up from the center of the planet, unpredictably wreaking havoc on anyone not protected by the aforementioned magical wards. People live from moment to moment in incredible fear, not knowing when the next attack might occur.
That sentiment came, Brett says, from his experience on Sept. 11, 2001, and dealing with demons of a different sort.
“Maybe it was my way of dealing with it, but while it was all going on, I took a step back and was watching people, watching how everybody reacted – maybe it kept me from freaking out myself. Everybody was terrified, but everybody dealt with that differently, and the problem was something that we couldn’t fight, we couldn’t face, couldn’t deal with, we had no idea what was going on. That kind of overwhelming fear you can’t fight back against became the driving theme of the story.”
As much pressure as Brett places upon his characters – and he does, in spades – he seems to place as much upon himself in his writing. He didn’t quit his day job to fulfill a dream of a leisurely writing life; he did because he owed his publisher two more books under contract, and didn’t think he’d get them done on time if he was working 40 hours a week doing something else. So he dutifully crunched the numbers, drew up the spreadsheets, and determined that, yes, the first book had done well enough to warrant the move while still feeding his family.
That attention to detail has served him well in creating the Demon Cycle’s unique setting. Brett has a 250-page appendix file of minutiae about his world, populated with the taxonomy of corelings, an massive system of ward-based magic, every proper noun introduced in his books, and even currency systems.
“Nobody cares what your currency system is, and you shouldn’t explain it to them in the books, but your characters sometimes need to buy stuff, and you need to be consistent in what you’re saying when they’re doing their haggling,” he says. “It’s the same with so many other things, like your magic system. The reader doesn’t need to know everything there is to know about your magic system. You need to know it, though, because Heaven forbid, you screw something up.”
With the success of The Daylight War and two more novels yet to come, Brett now faces the challenge of writing his fourth book in the Demon Cycle. He turned in a 104-page treatment (“bullet points, one after the other”) at the end of April. And then came the hard part: translating that outline into a novel.
“When I was younger, I was a seat-of-my-pants guy, and it got me in trouble. I think it’s very easy to write yourself into a corner. More and more I believe in stepping everything out before you do it,” he says. “But now I’m in a difficult period, because after six weeks of traveling and touring for the new book, I have to write the next one, and I’m out of rhythm. There are just days where I’m like, ‘Just write something. Anything!’
“There’s this kind of conception amongst readers like, the whole book is in your head, and all you have to do is just sit down and type it,” he adds. “And it’s just not like that. There’s days, I don’t have a single sentence in me. It’s part of the process, though. And eventually it comes out.”
That sometimes means peeling off a thousand words in a sitting, and other times staring at a blank screen – but he’ll put himself in the chair, regardless. That said, Brett is hesitant to give too much writing advice beyond “practice,” because what works for him may not work for others.
“You have to test it all out yourself a bit and decide what works for you and what doesn’t. You take any piece of writing advice anyone has given, I can show you a super-successful book that breaks it. It’s hard to give vague advice that works for everybody. Practice, and recognize that not everything you write is good, and nor should it be. And you have to write some crap before it gets good,” he says.
All this may make Brett seem like a dour, detail-obsessed man with the demons of doubt and anxiety at his heels, and that would be somewhat inaccurate for a writer with subtle wit and humor. He shows immense grace and gratitude toward his fans. This is someone who holds Dungeons & Dragons sessions with fellow authors at conventions and puts them up on YouTube. The doubt and anxiety are only occasional, as with so many of us.
Driven, perhaps, is a better word to describe him.
“Certainly now, the more popular the books get, the more I feel this tremendous pressure to do a good job, to make each successive book better than the last and make it worthy of all the people reading it. And, that means there isn’t a lot of room to screw up,” Brett says. “But that’s OK. I’ve done work that I’m really, really proud of, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have success with it. So I’ll keep doing it.”
After our chat, we said our goodbyes outside Radio City Music Hall, and I watched as Brett seamlessly melded into the crowd of folks heading home after a day’s work. Just another guy in jeans with a backpack, at first glance, but also a writer hugely determined to make his next book better than the last.
And that’s any writer’s real life in a nutshell.
About The Daylight War
With The Warded Man and The Desert Spear, Peter V. Brett surged to the front rank of contemporary fantasy, standing alongside giants in the field such as George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Terry Brooks. The Daylight War, the eagerly anticipated third volume in Brett’s internationally bestselling Demon Cycle, continues the epic tale of humanity’s last stand against an army of demons that rise each night to prey on mankind.
On the night of the new moon, the demons rise in force, seeking the deaths of two men, both of whom have the potential to become the fabled Deliverer, the man prophesied to reunite the scattered remnants of humanity in a final push to destroy the demon corelings once and for all.
Arlen Bales was once an ordinary man, but now he has become something more—the Warded Man, tattooed with eldritch wards so powerful they make him a match for any demon. Arlen denies he is the Deliverer at every turn, but the more he tries to be one with the common folk, the more fervently they believe. Many would follow him, but Arlen’s path threatens to lead to a dark place he alone can travel to, and from which there may be no returning.
The only one with hope of keeping Arlen in the world of men, or joining him in his descent into the world of demons, is Renna Tanner, a fierce young woman in danger of losing herself to the power of demon magic.
Ahmann Jardir has forged the warlike desert tribes of Krasia into a demon-killing army and proclaimed himself Shar’Dama Ka, the Deliverer. He carries ancient weapons—a spear and a crown—that give credence to his claim, and already vast swaths of the green lands bow to his control.
But Jardir did not come to power on his own. His rise was engineered by his First Wife, Inevera, a cunning and powerful priestess whose formidable demon bone magic gives her the ability to glimpse the future. Inevera’s motives and past are shrouded in mystery, and even Jardir does not entirely trust her.
Once Arlen and Jardir were as close as brothers. Now they are the bitterest of rivals. As humanity’s enemies rise, the only two men capable of defeating them are divided against each other by the most deadly demons of all—those lurking in the human heart.
The Daylight War is available in all good bookshops and online.
(c) Michael J Martinez
Michael J. Martinez is the author of The Daedalus Incident, a historical fantasy/space opera due out this summer. His blog www.michaeljmartinez.net currently features excerpts of a tie-in novella, The Gravity of the Affair, about Horatio Nelson’s first command… around Jupiter. Mike is also on Twitter at @mikemartinez72.