Night Angel | a Brent Weeks Interview

Travis Johnson Photography
Photo by Travis Johnson Photography

Our guest this week is Brent Weeks, author of The Night Angel Trilogy, recently published by Orbit Books.  Unless something changes in the next few weeks before the end of the year, The Way of Shadows will be my favorite book of the year. Not since Wes Unseld (NBA Players for the Bullets), in 1969, have I seen a rookie that has put together such a strong first showing.  Brent was a great fellow and even as I pull off an embarrassing interviewer faux pas and asked him pretty much the same question twice, and he answers them both, what a guy.  Now without further delay, let us all welcome Brent Weeks.

Damon:  Is the character Azoth based on yourself or someone that you know?  How attached to your characters have you become?

Brent:  I’d have to give a qualified no. I didn’t have anyone in mind when I wrote Azoth, and he’s very different from me in some significant ways. At the same time, I did invest a lot of myself into him. But I feel the same about Momma K or Logan. I have become quite attached to my characters, but that doesn’t stop me from making them suffer or even die. If everyone sat around in my novels giving compliments and singing Kumbaya, there’d be no story. I was surprised only twice by my level of attachment to the characters. The first because I wasn’t that attached, and the second because I was too attached. I’m giving this interview in early November, so I’m not going to talk about the time I was too attached, but it happened at the end of Shadow’s Edge. And if you haven’t finished The Way of Shadows, stop reading and skip to the next question. [SPOILER ALERT] During the coup at the castle, Logan’s dad gets murdered, and when I wrote that, it didn’t affect me at all. I’d been planning for him to die all along, from the first lines I wrote for him. It was only much later in the editing process that I read it more as I hope readers do, and kind of got my hopes up for him. Whoops.

Damon:  For the readers, this is a trilogy that is being released pretty quickly, how did that come to happen?  Was this your choice or the publishers choice?  Does this mean no more books after the three in this world?

Brent:  I actually had a near-miss with these books getting picked up elsewhere, and the editor there was really excited about the idea of rapid publication. He was on the verge of making an offer for the trilogy when he got downsized. Ouch. I’m glad to say he landed on his feet elsewhere—nice guy—but by the time he did, Orbit had scooped up the trilogy. So I think my agent presented the trilogy to them with rapid publication in mind. Orbit was already thinking along those lines, so they hopped right on it.

My next trilogy will not be set in Midcyru, but I absolutely do plan to return. I’ve already done a lot of the mental work for a future trilogy or series in Midcyru—you’ll see prophecies scattered about the Night Angel Trilogy referring to some of those things. But I didn’t feel I was ready as a writer to take on the scope and complexity that I envision for that story. So I’m going to give myself some more time and experience so that when we come back to Midcyru, the story will be something really special.

Damon:  How long did it take you to write the trilogy?

Brent:  About five years, though I did write myself into some story dead ends in that time, spent six months writing a screenplay, and was trying to acquire an agent and then a publisher.

Damon:  How do you feel about the artwork of the books, how much input did you have on the covers?

Brent:  Orbit was very generous to include me in the discussions of the cover art, which they really didn’t have to do. I sent a couple of terrible ideas their way; they shared their idea of a single image that would give readers in one glance an idea of the central idea of the story. The center of The Way of Shadows is clearly the relationship between Azoth and Durzo, apprentice and master. So we kicked around the idea of Durzo looming behind a young Azoth, hands on his shoulders. It could have worked, but we thought that might give the impression that this was a book for a younger audience—and it’s not. There’s some pretty brutal stuff in these books. So we decided one figure, clearly an assassin, maybe threatening. I said I love a white background because if you’ve got some assassin in black on a black background, he (and the book) just disappears. So they took that to Calvin Chu. He asked me what my assassin would wear. That was easy: pretty much anything. They’re masters of disguise and they train with all kinds of weapons, so I said, dress and arm him however you want. They took it from there, and I’m delighted with what they came up with. Lots of readers have given me—an author they’d never heard of—a shot solely because of the covers, and that’s the most I could hope for.

Interviewers Note:  Do not clean your glasses, do not adjust your screen, I asked the same question twice.  Shame on me.  Thanks to Brent for keeping it going.

 Damon:  How much input did I have to the art, what do I think of them?

Brent:  Contractually, as a new author, I had zero say. None. But Orbit did include me in the discussions for what kind of feel they were going for. For the last fifteen years, everyone in fantasy has been doing these covers, sometimes with gorgeous artwork, that tell a story. Sometimes there are bad guys on the back cover, sneaking toward the campfire on the front cover. I remember my first reaction to those covers—they were awesome; it was fun to pick out all the little details, and all the bright colors were eye-grabbing. But… now you walk past a shelf of fantasy books and it’s like there was a Crayola riot. It’s so busy that all those colors just become noise. So I really like what Orbit’s done: give the cover a single focus so you can tell from fifteen feet away if it’s the kind of book you’re going to like. My books have an assassin on the front. If you don’t like assassin books, you’re not going to like these. So I feel these covers do a great job both of standing out and of getting the right readers to pick them up and check them out. That’s all I can ask.

Damon:  A lot happens in the books and even though they are large it can feel like maybe we are missing some stuff, how long were the books before edit?

Brent:  My books definitely start out longer, but hey, if I can’t flesh out a world for you in 650 pages, that’s my fault. With a story that moves this fast, I think sometimes you get a view like you’re looking out the window of a speeding train. You get a good sense of the landscape, but the details are lost. That’s something I’m working on doing better—how to write prose with velocity that still keeps details sharp. I’d call it prose in bullet time, but the metaphor might break if I bend it that far.

Damon:  How did you find the happy medium to grittiness and violence in the book, I thought this was something that you did rather well?

Brent:  I think it’s a delicate balance, and quite honestly, it depends on the audience. What strikes a 25 year old gamer as cool could deeply shock a fourteen year old (or from my time teaching fourteen year olds, the opposite), and come across as gratuitous to a 40 year old. I try to write honestly first. Violence is both awful and fascinating. So sometimes I wrote in such a way as to shock with its awfulness—and I tried to show the consequences of violence, so that these books aren’t just glorying in destruction and showing how creatively I can kill people and blow stuff up. We have a very high tolerance for depictions of violence, so I felt that could be more graphic without being conscience-numbing. On the other hand, there was a scene of attempted sexual abuse in the first book. First, I wrote it at the same narrative level I’d written other scenes. Then I ended up taking several steps back. There’s something so viscerally awful about the abuse of children that I felt we could move the camera back and still give the characters appropriate motivations and scars.

Damon:  Also I felt that the amount of magic worked out well to the overall story, where did you come up with your ideas for the magic in the world?

Brent:  Magic is one of the coolest things about fantasy. As a fantasy writer, I have the freedom to do whatever I want. You can’t have the reveal in a murder mystery be that actually, the gunman never left the locked room—he stayed in it! How? He was invisible! Da da-dum! You’d have your book thrown across the room. At the same time, that freedom is like a winding mountain pass with no guard rails. If your character can channel fire, don’t you dare show her shivering in the cold. For that matter, if fire magic is common, why are people still using campfires rather than nice stoves? If magic can be used to create illusions, why would anyone ever trust that just because they saw Grognak kill Thag that the killer really was Grognak? You open plot holes for yourself every time you make new magic. And you can bet some of your readers will see ones you missed. Given all this, I made magic rare in my world. I thought of my mages as the professional athletes of this world—extremely uncommon. You’re about as likely to meet a Tiger Woods or a David Beckham in our world as you are to meet a Durzo Blint in Midcyru.

As for where I get my ideas for magic or anything else, let me put it this way:  Doctors rarely have to wander the streets to find patients. They just go to work every day and magically, sick people show up. Sure, doctors set up a conducive atmosphere we call a hospital, but mostly, they go to work and the work appears because they know what to do once sick people show up. Writers are the same. Everyone has ideas, and most aren’t that original. Writers just manage to pay attention to theirs, filter out the lame ones and ones they aren’t excited enough to write or skilled enough to write well, and then use the good ones. That’s what we do.

Damon:  Movie or video game, what would you like to see your world turned into first?
Brent:  Movie, of course. Every action movie has a crappy tie-in video game these days. Just kidding. I’m a huge gamer, and I feel like videogames have progressed to point where movies were in the 1930s. There’s a ton of potential, but I think there are very few people who have much idea how to craft a powerful narrative into an interactive medium. The games that take advantage of the freedom possible, like Grand Theft Auto 4, end up with trite narratives because the main story has to allow for too many possibilities. Those that take advantage of the atmospheric possibilities of the medium, like Bioshock, end up being like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel with only one choice: do you kill the little girls or not? What if you killed one just to see what it was like, then felt bad and never killed another one? Sorry, you’ve taken the “kill the little girls branch of the story,” you’re now a bad guy.

So I would be fascinated to work on artistically cutting edge stuff like that, but only if I could really get my hands dirty.

Damon:  From everything I have read on the web, you are really getting a positive buzz, since the first book has been out and doing well has anything changed for you as an author? Are you caught up in the hype?

Brent:  I get fan mail! That’s weird. But I have to confess that the thing I’ve been looking forward to the most hasn’t happened yet. It seemed that whenever I used to tell someone that I was a writer, the first question they asked was, “So, are you published?” To which there are only I’m-a-loser answers. When someone tells you they’re an actor, do you ask, “Have you worked with Angelina Jolie? No? How ’bout Spielberg? No?” So I keep waiting for that previously awkward question, but now all I get are empathetic ones. Unbelievable.

Honestly, most of the changes in my life have been things like how do I keep up with fan mail and web site maintenance—and giving interviews *grin*—while trying to write faster than ever before?

I don’t think I’m caught up in the hype, and I hope I never am.

Damon:  Who and what are some of your favorite authors and favorite books? Any favorite video games?

Brent:  George R. R. Martin, Tolkien, Orson Card, Rowling, early Robert Jordan, Poe, and Walker Percy. Fable 2 and Fallout 3 right now.

Damon:  When did you first realize that you wanted to be an author, and when did you first start to get glimpse of this story that you have written?

Brent:  I started writing my first fantasy novel after reading a bunch of Edgar Allan Poe stories in seventh grade. It wasn’t until I took a creative writing class at college while I was studying at Oxford that I decided the heck with being a lawyer or something I could make money at, I was going to write.

Kylar appeared first as a minor character in a novel I started that summer, eleven years ago.