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Exclusive: 'Red Rising' author Pierce Brown on his dystopian epic

Red Rising cover art and author, Pierce Brown
Red Rising cover art and author, Pierce Brown
Random House Publishing, Joan Allen

Newly-minted author Pierce Brown was the recipient of arguably the greatest birthday present of all-time: The realization of a life-long dream. Random House pushed the publication of his debut novel, “Red Rising” up by two weeks, to Jan. 28, to give him that gift.

Brown set aside some time, on the day before release no less, to discuss all things “Red Rising”. In this first installment of our multi-part interview, we’ll reveal what Brown had to say about playing favorites with characters, the joys of digging into worldbuilding minutiae and the possibility of taking another stab at his earlier manuscripts.

“Red Rising” is the first entry in a planned trilogy, and as readers will soon come to learn, that’s a very good thing, as Brown’s debut novel heralds the arrival of a great new voice and a new series to geek out about.

The first book follows Darrow, a member of the lowest caste in a color-coded society, as personal tragedy causes him to be thrown into a dangerous quest that requires him to infiltrate the highest caste of society in an effort to take them down from within. Unfortunately for Darrow, their elite academy is less a school and more a battlefield, and plenty of the other students would rather see him dead than see him victorious.

The world Brown creates is a fascinating and complex one, and much like one of his greatest sources of inspiration, J.K. Rowling, as part of his process he creates plenty of details that readers may never get the chance to see for themselves.

“My editor’s main job is to cut down my worldbuilding. There’s so much fun stuff in there, you know?” Brown said before listing off a few examples. “Going through how they raise the Pinks, the psychological imperative they have in maintaining the Obsidian population. Things like the stratification protocol, which is a thing they develop on Venus to apply to the colors, so they have hierarchies within colors to further stratify colors, and to stop them from uniting. It’s such a rich world, it kind of takes over and I’m basically along for the ride half the time,” he explained.

Brown further credited his editor, Mike Braff, with giving the world he created the right balance of detail and story focus.

“The fact that it seems easy is a testament to how good my editor is, because basically my favorite part is worldbuilding, and I’ll do these huge info dumps and go on tangents for about two pages, and he’ll be like, Pierce. Question mark. What are you doing?”

While Brown and Braff’s combined efforts absolutely yielded a world that's both is rich and a story that’s well-paced and compelling, hearing the author discuss his process and sources of inspiration affords some truly fantastic insight and reinforces the smarts at the core of “Red Rising”.

For example, ask Brown which elements of this world and society were the most fun to create, and he’ll point not to the most central castes of the tale, the ruling Golds and the lowly Reds, but to some of the lesser-discussed colors whose existence supports the reality of the Reds and the Golds.

“The Golds are extremely based on Roman and Greek mythology, and Roman culture, so I don’t think that they’re the most interesting. ...The Obsidians and Pinks I think are the most interesting to me, because they are the two castes along with Red, that are slaves. All the other castes are technically free men, but...Reds and especially Pinks and Obsidians can be sold like commodities. I think it was very interesting crafting, in my mind, the world that would support this as a reality,” he explained.

“What does that mean economically? What does that mean socially? What does that mean in terms of their lingo, or how they relate and talk with Pinks and Obsidians in day-to-day encounters? And then...obviously there’s genetic manipulation and eugenics in play, but how do they influence the psyche of the Pinks and Obsidians to maintain a stable caste, particularly in a society where the dissemination of information is so simple and vast?”

Reading the book, it is immediately apparent that Brown has plotted this tale in great detail, though hearing that he has not only asked himself such questions, but answered them definitively, gives even more credence to the now numerous comparisons to the likes of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. However, when viewed in the context of such detail and intricacy in craft, it’s clear that Brown’s work cannot be dismissed as derivative.

After reading but a few pages, or chatting with Brown for just a few moments, it also becomes clear that nothing in “Red Rising” is done without thought. Take, for instance, the fact that when various students in command training begin to earn nicknames like Reaper, Mustang and the Jackal, it’s not merely because those names sound cool, but because research into comparable situations inspired them.

“When you look at a lot of the military histories, and even modern military history, everyone pretty much refers to each other by nicknames. Now, they’re usually not nearly as cool as Mustang and Jackal, they’re usually like Quake, because one time a guy had an epileptic fit, or they’ll call a guy Piss because he pisses his pants before battle,” Brown explained. “I have a lot of friends who have been in the military and they said that it’s really accurate, except that you never want your nickname. It’s not Iceman or Maverick, it’s surely a pretty terrible one,” he added.

“The Jackal is referred to in almost a pejorative way, and he will be referred to that way by Golds in the books, because they look down on him for what he did. Even though they live in a society that says to do everything you can to win, they look down how he crosses certain boundaries,” Brown said of the origin of one of his character’s nicknames.

Though the Jackal does not rank among them, Brown did disclose his favorite characters.

“Eo and Sevro have always been my favorite. It’s impossible to make Darrow the favorite character simply because he is the story in a lot of ways. For me, he transcends character, so he’s the town, he’s the action, he’s so many different parts of the story, that...I can’t really cut loose with Darrow,” he said.

“When you think about your main character, there’s all this...tension, within me at least, because I know the path I have to take him on. I know how difficult it is to maintain his character throughout, but with a smaller character, it’s really a chance to take a vacation from your main character and have someone to throw spice on.”

“When I was writing Eo, it really spoke to this part of me, I guess the romantic part. She was this glimmer of hope in the darkness, and then Sevro is just fun to cut loose with. He’s basically free-form thinking and I almost never edit what he says,” Brown explained.

“Red Rising” is Brown’s first published novel, but it is by no means his first run at crafting memorable characters and vast worlds. Prior to bringing Darrow to life Brown wrote six complete manuscripts, but don’t count on them to see the light of day anytime soon.

“Whenever you write it’s a snapshot of where you are mentally in that moment, at least for me. So going back and brushing off some of these old manuscripts seems like a very daunting thing. To be honest, I might not do that, because I’m in a different place than when I created a lot of those stories, so I don’t know if I could really relate to them."

"I think the voice I can offer now is a lot more interesting, particularly considering how I’ve been influenced by my editor Mike Braff, my agent Hannah Bowman and a lot of different things that have happened in my life since then. So if I did revisit the ideas, I doubt I’d keep much of the writing,” Brown said.

“There are so many ideas, that you just come up with on a day-to-day basis when you’re a writer, that it’s very difficult to want to go back to an old fling, so to speak. ‘Cause, you’ve already got that catharsis, you’ve already got it out of your system, so why would you go back unless it’s this thing that’s burning a hole in you?”

Stay tuned for more from this exclusive interview with Pierce Brown. We’ll reveal some hints as to what readers can expect in book two, the inspiration behind one of those bloodydamn excellent made up words, what Pierce thinks his characters would get up to in our world and much more.

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