Brent Weeks Talks The Burning White, Representation in Fantasy, and What’s Next

This week, Brent Weeks delivered The Burning White, the final book in his brilliant Lightbringer series. The series already feels like a classic of modern epic fantasy, evolving from book to book into one of the most layered and character-driven stories in the genre’s recent history, sporting a truly unique and coherent magic system and—critically—delivering a truly satisfying ending.

Shortly before the book’s release, we had a chance to talk to Weeks about all things Lightbringer—and find out what’s coming next from this most talented writer.

Over the summer you posted a photo of the manuscript for The Burning White on Twitter and it looked… massive. The final book clocks in at 992 pages. Was there ever a moment where you considered splitting it into a fifth AND sixth book?
It’s funny you ask. My agent, editor, and accountant all had the same question. Seriously though, there was hardly ever a moment when it wasn’t on my mind. It was actually enormously helpful when my agent (the stellar Don Maass) told me to forget about how long it was and just write what needed to be there, and that we’d worry about the length of the book later. By the time I finished, I had a book that was almost 400,000 words long. To put that in perspective, my first novel got turned down at several publishers because at 150,000 words, it was “just too long.” So this book is massive—but to me, it feels like one book. There’s a unity to the work that I felt would be damaged by splitting it up.

And yet with that said… we writers of multi-volume epic fantasy make tradeoffs between the grand story of the series and the smaller stories of each volume all the time, so in terms of craft alone, I could’ve split it. So long as they see that the story is moving forward, fans of epic fantasy tend to be very forgiving, and they understand that it’s murderously difficult to tie up so many plot threads.

Paradoxically, it was the fans’ very generosity that made me really want to finish this in one volume. Because epic fantasy fans are so patient and do give authors like me so much creative freedom, I wanted to reward their faith. I want readers of a Brent Weeks book to feel that they’ve gotten an incredible deal, that every time I publish a book I’ve given them my absolute best effort, that they get a big book to sink their teeth into, that my books reward rereading, and that I’m getting better with every new book. To me, having a reader be deeply satisfied with the literary feast I’ve laid out for them is the most important thing.

Such a big book also causes headaches for everyone on the business side of things—from my editor to production people to copy editors to sales and certainly bookstores as well—so this wasn’t a decision made lightly. When I got the first fully laid-out galley copy, it was 1,264 pages. That’s not manuscript pages double spaced from my printer. That’s the typeset, finished, everything-is-done layout. I think someone kind of freaked out, and so they ended up messing with margins and whatnot just to get it down to the slender volume of 900-some pages it is today. If you look at it on the shelf, it actually looks shorter than The Black Prism, despite having roughly twice as many words. When you pick it up, you’ll immediately notice it weighs almost a pound more!

I’m curious about the sources—fantasy books or otherwise—that informed the series in its conception and in the writing. Can you point to anything that helped you get a handle on particular aspects of the plot/world-building/etc.?
The bulk of my reading at this point is history. Lightbringer is a faux-Mediterranean world circa 1600, so some of [my[ core ideas about the world started with Italian renaissance history about the messy divided loyalties in the Borgia family (also the inspiration for The Godfather). I knew that I wanted blindspots in people’s moral systems to be part of this world, and I wanted to do something I didn’t see depicted in fantasy when I was growing up, so I read up on slavery in the Mediterranean, starting with ancient Greece and Rome. I read up on how the major Abrahamic religions bounded slavery: from Levitical law, to Paul’s letter to Philemon (a deeply but delicately subversive document), to slavery in the Islamic world—both as written in those texts, and as it was actually practiced. Let me tell you, not enjoyable reading!

What was a pleasure was that the great epics of the Mediterranean world were always looming in the background for me, [especially] Homer and Dante, who respectively champion contradicting moral systems whose tensions are still with us today. I also did reading on the history of stuff like lens-crafting (I had to give my world colored lenses long before their making was [devised] in ours, but I figured that tech would have been explored earlier because of their need for it). Then I got to read lots of fun and complicated stuff about color theory, perception, and even a recently declassified military brief about using millimeter wave radiation for riot dispersal. (We can now make people feel like their skin is on fire—allegedly without doing any permanent harm.)

Writing all that out, I guess there’s a reason this series is almost a million and a half words long.

Now that the series has wrapped, can you talk about how it conformed to your earliest plans? Did anything about the ending surprise you?
From the beginning I had a couple different endings in mind for one of the main characters in particular: a more and a less tragic ending, let’s say. But I’m not, to this point in my career, a scene-by-scene outliner. It’s more that I have lots of destinations in mind: character arcs, exciting moments, and big reveals. I started with plans and a lot of potential conflicts baked into the world, the magic system, the politics, the intra-familial politics, the religion and where the religion falls short of its own ideals—but I didn’t know exactly how and where all those were going to come into play. I’ve found that when you throw characters with big personalities and strongly conflicting desires into tense situations together, it makes for great drama, but you can absolutely face situations where you say, “Yes, it would be awfully convenient for me if Karris would say this thing right now, but she has no reason to trust this character enough to say that…. Crap.” The price I pay for characters feeling more organic is that I have to do a lot more rewriting.

I tend to trust my intuition as I write. I say that ADD is my superpower—though it’s my great weakness, too. For example, if a big looming conflict starts to feel like something I’ve seen done a million times, I tend to get bored—so I trust that readers have also seen it done a million times, and that I’m risking boring them.

That leaves me with a problem and an opportunity: I either find ways to make that looming conflict feel fresh, or I change it, even if it dashes my plans.

Over the course of the years of writing this series, certain intuitions of coming difficulties did come to moments of crisis. I mean, originally, I pitched the idea to Orbit as the Lightbringer trilogy. After I turned in the first book, [and] was gritting my teeth grappling with the outlines of this huge story, and emailed my editor and said, “I don’t think I can do it in three books. Let’s call it the Lightbringer series instead.”

That email was supposed to make it to my UK editor (multinational corporate synergies ftw, right?). But it went down a hole somewhere instead. So the UK still got books labeled “trilogy,” and I became a guy with a five book trilogy! (“A” guy, not “the guy.” As with most things worthwhile, Douglas Adams did it first.)

There was another moment a few years into the series where I identified a possible but hugely ambitious finale for a certain character’s arc and had to ask myself if I had the writing chops to pull it off—”Can I write that series of scenes in a way that feels true, is deeply moving, and isn’t a retread of how other, better writers have done it?” It took me a while to decide, screw it, I’m gonna try. I’d rather be a hugely ambitious failure than a safe mediocrity. I’m happy to say that—eventually—it paid off. I think the best writing is done when the writer is stretched on the rack between daring and terror.

But it didn’t happen on the timeline I hoped.

I finished the book, turned it in to my editor, and didn’t feel awesome. Unlike with previous books in the series, I didn’t announce it to my fans at all. I’d fulfilled my plot promises; the ending was fast-paced and exciting, but it just didn’t feel like it was something I was going to be proud of for the rest of my life. Both my agent and editor thought it was really good and ready to publish… But I went with my gut. I told my editor I needed more time.

She said, “Like, a couple more months? Production won’t be happy, but we might be able to compress—”

“A year. I need another year.”

Silence.

I went back to my desk, threw myself at some of the pacing problems, cut nearly a hundred thousand words (400 manuscript pages), wrote another hundred and fifty thousand words (600 pages), and things finally, finally came together in a way that I’m really proud of.

I’m happy and relieved to say that, when I showed them the finished product, both my agent and editor told me that the delay was totally worth it.

Now I get to hope fans agree!

I should also note that those who want to see some of my early notes as I was writing the series can follow my Throwback Thursday posts here.

In this series, you’ve done an excellent job of writing characters from all genders and backgrounds (I love the subtle details, like the way the default pronoun for drafters is actually “she”). How do you approach representation in your writing?
I’m so glad you noticed! I think that, paradoxically, great writing is more universal when it’s highly specific, and that it makes the most impact when it’s unflinching. So, not many of us have felt what it’s like to grow up multiracial and fat, but we’ve all felt isolated, different, excluded, and unacceptable. We haven’t kept secrets that will change the course of history, but we’ve all felt, “If you really knew me, you’d reject me.”

Epic fantasy gives the length of a tapestry to show many characters, so I wanted to engage with the diversity of human experience as broadly as I could, though always within the context of telling a gripping, fast-paced story. One physician wrote me that he’d identified something like thirty medical conditions various characters deal with, and I love that he noticed—but I want people to be able to read and only notice that this world feels big and real and different from ours. I want readers to get a sense that there are a lot of different ways these characters approach and understand their world. What I don’t want is to shoehorn in my historical research where it doesn’t serve the story: “Oh, this peasant has worn-down teeth. Do you know why? Because in this time period, they grind their grain between stone wheels, and bits of the stone itself get into their bread. Thus, over time, it sands down their teeth.”

I wanted to address issues of representation in ways that were organic to the characters on their own terms and were relevant to the story. I tried to portray power structures and characters that felt real and different from each other in all sorts of ways, and from there trust my readers to draw their own analogies to our world. However, because their world is different from ours, sometimes these characters are worried about very different things than you or I are. Sometimes layers I had in mind for certain characters didn’t even make it to the page explicitly, because telling a gripping story was my foremost concern: most people notice when they meet a woman with dwarfism, but they might know a colleague for years and never realize they’re asexual.

It’s tricky. When you have a cast of hundreds, you can’t put the entire life story of every minor character onto the page. As a writer, I don’t want to reduce a character to being defined solely by their disability or most obvious trait, but Caelia Green simply doesn’t get much time on the page, and her height is something people notice about her right away. When you add in that the point of view characters have their own blindspots and prejudices, and can be oblivious, or self-absorbed—and one in particular is even deliberately cruel—it gets even dicier!

I don’t think I always got things right, but I really made an effort to emphasize the humanity of my characters first.

You put so much detail and subtle threads into your stories people get a little crazy with the fan theories (we’re 100% certain Gaspar Elos is coming back in The Burning White). What’s the craziest/best fan theory you’ve seen?
Oh, whenever I’d get stuck, I’d just go read the fan theories about whatever brilliant thing I obviously had planned, and steal that.

Kidding… though it has occurred to me. Honestly, I don’t frequent those threads, but I do check in once in a while to see if fans are guessing what I hope they’re guessing. One of the main jobs of a fantasy writer is exposition—it’s teaching! And teaching is an interactive endeavor. I want to understand how much my readers understand so that I can bring them along on this wonderful journey. Of course, some readers are more sophisticated, more careful, or more experienced than other readers, so this too has to be layered. For example, a plot twist can actually work just fine when readers see it coming (it makes them feel masterful—which many of them are); it works best when a reader doesn’t see it coming but feels they should have afterward; it doesn’t work at all if they’re simply lost.

That said, I have seen fans from time to time who are scarily accurate. In a couple of cases, I’ve recruited them to become beta readers. They think this is to help me catch continuity errors and the like, but really it’s to silence them. They feel like they have privileged information and it’d be a breach of trust to tell everyone what they know, so they don’t. Whew!

This series has been a long journey. Have you begun planning for what’s next?
Lightbringer has been so demanding that I’ve hardly taken a breath for twelve years. It was just this past summer (after I turned in the book!) that I went on a four-day vacation and didn’t bring my laptop. For the last decade, I’ve always worked on vacation. I’m told that means I was doing it wrong.

That said, I’m not really a guy who can take an extended break. No matter how hard writing can be, I miss it when I’m not doing it. I’m already six chapters in to a new novel that’s set in the Night Angel world. I don’t want to share too much about it yet, but I’m really excited about how it’s going. I’ve been daydreaming about this book for a long time, so it’s been awesome to finally get to tackle it.

I’m also using this time to do a lot of what I term my continuing education: reading books about writing, trying out techniques that work for other authors, and reading outside of my genre to see what writers in other genres do really well.

I’m feeling enthusiastic, fresh, and challenged, which I think bodes well for what’s coming next.

Are you still saying no to a Lightbringer TV show or film adaptation?
Yeah. It’s simpler. Lightbringer would be extremely difficult to adapt well, so my faith that a great version of it could be made is low. Now, I’m not pretending I’m too pure to take Peter Jackson’s phone call or something, but I don’t see books as a second-rate to television or movies. I don’t need a TV show in order to feel like a success. That was never my dream. So for the time being, what Hollywood has to offer me is mostly distractions from doing what I love and do best. Maybe someday.

You mentioned the Night Angel universe as a place your returning to. Do you feel the same way about Lightbringer—or do you think you’re done with this setting?
Well, you might not ask that question after you see what I’ve done to the place by the end of The Burning White

(I do have part of a novella written for that world in a different time period with more about a particular antagonist, but I’m still debating whether that’s what I want to finish next.)

What new or recent fantasy/sci-fi books are on your must read’ list right now?
I so wish I could answer this question, because I have some books on my own To-Be-Read Mountain that people I respect are really excited about—but all of my reading for the last few years has been either out of genre or older books in the genre. Gene Wolfe isn’t really an up-and-comer, is he? (Though he’s new to me!) Nassim Nicolas Taleb isn’t really fantasy, is he? (Though I’m sure some of the economists he so frequently mocks might like a word about that…) A few books I hope to read soon are Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter, Jade City by Fonda Lee, and the Unfettered III anthology edited by Shawn Speakman.

Is there a fantasy writer out there we’re all sleeping on, in your opinion?
I have a few suspicions only: first is that we’ve been missing some astonishingly good fantasy that’s self-published. (The stigma of self-publishing has faded to a wonderful degree, but I don’t think it’s all gone.) Second, that we’re going to become more and more aware of fantasy from other parts of the world: some of it already published and hugely successful, like Ashok Banker from India and Jin Yong from China.

The gorgeous ARC of Jin Yong’s A Hero Born landed on my desk, and I read the cover: “300 Million Copies Sold.” Wow! I thought. Three million copies sold—and I’ve never even heard of him.” Then I did a double take. Not three million. 300,000,000.

Third, I think there will be a fresh influx of international talent inspired by Game of Thrones’s success around the world.

Okay, just between us… who is the Lightbringer?
You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. You’d think I was just trying to lead you astray… but then you’d wonder. Did I put the iocaine powder in my cup, or in yours?

But okay. You asked for it. The Lightbringer is Liv Danavis.

The Burning White is available now, and you can find the other books in the Lightbringer saga here.

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