I’ve sporadically run an interview series with fantasy authors who generally write in the burgeoning genre of gritty / hard / dark epic fantasy. (I’m, obviously, a fan.) The series began with this book review post, and continued with interviews of George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss. The series continues today as I interview Mark Lawrence. Mark is the author of the Broken Empire trilogy, and the forthcoming Red Queen’s War. His work has been lauded on both sides of the Atlantic (Mark was raised in the U.K., where he works as a research scientist). He was gracious enough to respond to my email queries, which follow after the jump.
DH: Briefly for non-readers, can you introduce us to Jorg & the Broken Empire Series? What makes it different from other series on the shelves?
ML: The Broken Empire trilogy is related by Jorg Ancrath, seen through his eyes. Over the course of the books we see him at various points between age six and twenty watching him grow from a violent, charming and amoral child into a violent, charming and amoral young man. The primary element that makes the books unusual is that Jorg isn’t any kind of hero and in most fiction he would be the villain.
DH: You’ve said in another interview that you ”didn’t outline anything. I don’t plan. I just let the story flow as I write and generally have no idea where we’ll be at the bottom of the page.” Did that extend to the rules that governed the world (magic / commerce / time period)?
ML: Yes, everything was a revelation. It’s fun to write that way – I lack motivation when I know what’s coming.
DH: What do you think the movement toward gritty & researched realism in fantasy world building? To rephrase: does it add to the value of a book that the author has worked out the distribution network for grain in each major city?
ML: I didn’t know people put those things together. I’ve heard people say books are getting more ‘gritty’, meaning more violent and less stylised in general. The realism there might be in terms of warrior not shrugging off their wounds and being fine the next day etc. Researched realism and detailed city/country mechanics are not something I was aware of a movement toward. To me nothing is added by, for example, the author working out a grain distribution network. I’m interested in story and character, not mechanics.
DH: Many recent fantasy series, including yours, contrast a current age of violence with a ancient era of peace and civilizing empire. But some parts of civilization appear to survive in your books, particularly the method of selecting the emperor. What kind of laws and traditions do you think survive the collapse of empire? Which would survive the collapse of ours?
ML: I’m not sure I make that contrast. Nobody accuses the Builders (the ancient civilisation in my work) of being peaceful – simply more advanced… until they wrought their own ruin with weapons of mass destruction.
The method of selecting the emperor wasn’t something that survived – it was something new. In my trilogy the primary force for order to survive (irrespective of whether it’s good or bad) was the Christian religion in the West. Without wishing to drop too many spoilers… the civilisation that collapsed in my trilogy was ours (with fifty or so years added to it). Others rose and fell afterwards but without reaching the same technological heights. So the Broken Empire is a vision of what might survive us a thousand years down the line.
Along with the church all manner of scraps of civilisation survive, many of them in the language. Jorg, for example, exclaims on occasion ‘Christ on a bike’ without any knowledge of what a bike is. His companions sing a corrupted version of American Pie, thinking it to be a nonsense song.
DH: Is there any civil law in your world? By that, I mean a system by which contractual breaches and torts are enforced outside of blood feuds, deeds are recorded, property disputes disposed of? What does that system look like? If you modeled that system off of some real world analogue, what was it?
ML: My world only exists after I’ve looked at it, so for me it only makes sense to say ‘have you written about any civil law?’ I’ve written about church trials of those suspected of breaking church law. I’ve written about harsh summary justice delivered on behalf of nobles against those suspected of banditry, and I’ve written about ‘legal’ traditions such as the rights or expectations of nobles or their families when losses are suffered at tourney etc. But no, there are no over-arching laws in the Broken Empire – it’s a collection of a hundred small kingdoms, some grouped into larger states, each with their own, often transitory, laws.
DH: Are there lawyers in the broken empire? What do they do?
ML: I’ve not written about any, but there are powerful banking clans concentrated on one particular kingdom and one imagines they have all manner of financial statutes that must require lawyers when they come into conflict or question.
DH: There’s a church in the broken empire. Is there a canon legal system? Could you imagine a time when any ruler in the world would bow his or her head to that legal system for reasons other than strategy?
ML: There’s a pope and a setup that resembles Catholic Europe pre-Protestantism. There will be conflicts of interest between the heads of state, the kings, dukes, lords etc who rule over the various fragments of the Broken Empire, and the representatives of Roma. How those conflicts play out will depend on the strength of the noble in charge, the loyalty and piety of their people, and the condition of the noble’s own faith.
DH: One remarkable aspect of your work is the leanness of your prose. Can you talk a bit about your writing process? How do you omit so many needless words?
ML: I just don’t find I need them. I’ve always found a single powerful line that reaches into the reader serves far better than paragraphs of fussy description.
DH:What do you think of fan fiction and the state of American/British copyright law?
ML: I’ve not read any fan fiction and don’t have much of an opinion on it. As long as it’s not being sold I guess it’s fine.
I have to admit I don’t know much about copyright law (either side of the pond). I generally assume it says it’s wrong to take my books and offer them to people (for sale or for free) without agreeing a contract with me. The main problem with it seems to be enforcement. Nobody is interested in enforcing it, and when authors or publishers try they are either ignored or warded off with bureaucracy, making requesting the removal of any work from a site an expensive/time consuming business. Clearly it should be easy to point at the work and say ‘Unless you’re claiming to have the right to distribute this (in which case prove it) then take it down, or better still, check before you put it up.’
DH: Which of J.R.R. Tolkein’s habits/writing tics is most irritating?
ML: It’s been a while since I read Lord of the Rings… I can’t recall anything as being particularly irritating. I guess I found the number of songs thrown into the mix to be a bit tiresome, and I was never a fan of Tom Bombadil… But generally – I’m a big fan.