Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Interview with M.L. Brennan: Iron Night and Beyond

M.L. Brennan is fast becoming one my favorite interview subjects. Her approach to world building and character is always fascinating and she has a way of explaining concepts that boils things down so well, I always find myself amazed that I didn't see it for myself. On top of all of that she's a class act. a laugh riot, and a real pleasure to work with. With an author some compulsively likable, it's no wonder that her American Vampire series has become one of my favorite new series. In our interview we touch on vampire family dynamics, the mating habits of elves, Vampire Batman and meerkats. I hope you enjoy the conversation half as much as I did. 

52 Reviews: In Iron Night, we see Fortitude in a slightly different place than in Generation V but on some levels things have stayed the same. I was gratified that you resisted the urge to make him just another paint-by-numbers urban fantasy hero. With his expanding role in the family business what kept you from moving past the dead end job, chronically broken down car, and non-existent love life? Were you intentionally trying to keep him an every man, by down playing his other-worldliness and grounding him in problems and situations familiar to the audience?

M.L. Brennan: The decision to keep those elements present was a very deliberate one. If I had to point to one area that people were really conflicted about on the first book (some readers loved it, some readers really hated it), it's those everyman elements (some would call them doormat elements) of Fortitude. One thing that bothers me a lot in some book series is when something is presented in the first book as a major character element (a career, a trait, etc.), and then after the events of the first book it's completely swept away and never a real factor again. Right from the beginning of my work on Iron Night I knew that it was important for me to hang onto these pieces.

One thing I really wanted to create in Fort was a real character arc -- and to me that means trying to move things along organically. If suddenly Fort had been an ass-kicking macho guy in the second book, I feel like it would've been a betrayal of the character of the first book. The events of the first book definitely changed him, and he does things in the second book that probably would've appalled or frightened him in GenV, but he's still that same guy. The dead-end job and the crappy car are a big part of his rejection of the values of his vampire family, and as much as things changed, his fear of becoming less human is still there, so it made a lot of sense to me that he would continue to embrace them.
Something that I've tried to be really cautious about with these books is the affluence of Fort's family. I feel like Fort's almost perennial money woes are part of what make him relatable. If he has to bribe someone to get information, I wanted that money to mean something, for it to hurt for him to hand it over. Not just "oh, hey, I'm bribing this guy" but "oh, crap, that was the money that was going to pay the electric bill -- how the hell can I pay that now?"
His desert of a love-life is similar to that. I also won't deny that part of it was a bit of me having some fun with urban fantasy tropes. Something about having Fort be so unwillingly sexually frustrated just makes me laugh -- it also feels more realistic to me. After all, how many of us in our twenties were having as much sex as we wished we were?

52 Reviews: Well, I sure as hell wasn't!

I think the every man angle is what makes Fort such a fantastically atypical protagonist, especially considering how hard he tries to maintain that status. Kudos for not going the Vampire Batman route after the end of Generation V. Though as much as Fort tries to hang on to his humanity, Iron Night certainly shows a slide towards his vampiric heritage. How hard was it to keep that aspect of Fort minimized and resist the urge to have him cut loose and kick a little ass?

M.L. Brennan: Well, if I'd heard the phrase "Vampire Batman" before I wrote the book, it probably would've been a much bigger temptation!
I tend to be pretty conservative about my approach on Fort, so there were actually a few points in the original draft that my editor nudged me to make Fort a bit more proactive -- I think  my first instinct was to just move him a few baby steps forward from where he'd been in Generation V, when what the character needed more like a regular step. There were a few exceptions -- obviously I started putting a lot of pressures on him around the middle to back end of the book, and nothing in terms of his reactions had to be ramped up.
But I definitely see what you mean -- I think it would've been so much harder to be restrained about Fort if I didn't have Suzume in so much of Iron Night, since her default mode is ass-kicking. So that part of my writerly id that enjoys the "let's punch our way through this problem" approach is always kept satisfied thanks to Suze.

52 Reviews: Speaking of Suzume, I sensed a softening of the character even as Fort seemed to gain more strength. Don't get me wrong, Suze is still a stab first, ask questions later sort of woman, but I noticed that while she still has her edge, she seems more subdued, more tentative when it comes to Fort. I took this change as a very subtle way of indicating the shift that is occurring in her feelings for Fort. I applaud your restraint in not rushing the romantic angle but was this softening of Suze also done to make room for Fort's growth as a hero?

M.L. Brennan: There's definitely a balancing act going on, because Fort's growth meant that scenes that before might've been, "Okay, they're trying to get information out of him -- well, that's definitely going to be Suze taking the lead" became more up in the air. I think it ended up working out, though, because Suze herself was growing at the same time. Fort's growth is the more obvious of the two (and, hey, he's the main character, so that's probably never going to change too much), but Suze is, for the first time in her life, caring about someone outside of her biological family. And for a character like Suze, that's going to be a bit scary and uncomfortable. So there are scenes, like the one in the tattoo parlor, where you can see her prompting Fort to take the lead, and kind of hovering over him. Or when Fort and Suze spar, the fact that she can beat him so easily makes her angry because it reinforces his vulnerability to her, whereas the Suze of Generation V would just be smug about it, like "Yeah, do you see that confirmation of my badassness? You know you do."
There's definitely something more subdued and tentative in her interactions, and I love that you put it into those words, because that's exactly what I was going for. When I was researching foxes on the Internet, I saw this video of a fox that this person had been feeding in their yard. After a while, the person put the food bowl in their living room, and left the door open. The fox had been extremely confident about taking the food in the yard, but now they were having to go somewhere new and strange to get the food -- and doing so was also having to show trust that these people weren't going to harm it. And it was clearly upsetting for the fox to do this. I thought about that a lot when I was writing Iron Night, and even more when I worked on the next book, Tainted Blood. For Suze to be friends with Fort -- a real, there-until-the-wheels-fall-off friendship -- put her in a position where she had to make herself vulnerable. And Suze isn't a character who has ever allowed anyone beyond her family to make her vulnerable before.

52 Reviews: Speaking of making room for Fort's growth, I have to admit that I had hoped to see more of Chivalry in Iron Night. Though he gets very little actual page time in relation to the main plot line, I felt there was a definite warming of familial bonds between the two brothers. How do you approach the concept of sibling dynamics when there is an almost two hundred year age difference and the gulf in relative humanity between the two? 

M.L. Brennan: Chivalry and Fort have a relationship that's really interesting to me -- Chivalry's love for his younger brother is really the purest emotion in the series, and in a lot of ways Chivalry is one of the more straight-forward members of Fort's family.
I had a lot of fun with all of the sibling dynamics in the book -- Fort and Chivalry, Fort and Prudence, and also Suzume and Keiko. In all of those relationships there is a big disconnect -- whether it's the age and humanity differences that Fort and his siblings clash on, or the worldview conflict that Suze has with her twin. Everyone's love for their sibling was strong and real -- and they disagreed so fundamentally that they could barely be in the same room. Something about that just makes me interested as a writer.

Back to your excellent question -- the age and humanity gap between Fort and his siblings is absolutely enormous. So I needed them to be tied together by incredible weights.

Imagine living on a desert island with no one but one parent, two siblings, and a large colony of friendly meerkats. You might get very frustrated with your family at times, and go out and play with the meerkats, but even if you became very close with a meerkat, it wouldn't live more than seven or eight years. Your parent will likely pre-decease you by twenty to thirty years -- the companionship you have will be your siblings.

The vampires siblings are the only members of their species that exist in a huge chunk of America, and they don't do much socialization outside of family groups. The humans around them are transient -- dead practically in an eyeblink. Chivalry, for example, will still be alive in another two-hundred years -- and no one else he knows will be, except for his sister and little brother. Fort isn't even out of his twenties yet, so he doesn't fully grasp this, but his brother and sister do -- for all their frustrations with their littlest brother, they understand that they truly *need* Fort. That need is what underpins all of the interactions that the siblings have together, and what forms a large part of the impetus to bridge the gaps.

52 Reviews: What a fascinating and excellent way of explaining the underpinnings of vampire family values. Plus meerkats! 

So given the comparative lifespans of vampires and humans, what led you to the choice to bind Chivalry so tightly to his wives? Given, the differences between the mechanisms surrounding the creation of vampires in the series there seems to be less psychological reasons than the classic human turned vampire to explain Chivalry's choices. Was this done to make him more sympathetic and more humane or for a completely different reasons? 

M.L. Brennan: Meerkats make any example better. There's science on that.
First and foremost, I really wanted to have the existing presence of a human/vampire romance. Humans falling in love with vampires, and the resulting tortured romance have a certain amount of almost inevitability and ubiquitousness in urban fantasy. But those relationships are almost always faded out on before the inevitable conclusion. I wanted to actually bring this relationship to its end. So Chivalry and Bhumika are a pair who the reader first meets after all the sturm und drang of courtship is over. The vampire reveal has happened, as had the woman's decision to embrace a relationship that will cut her own life short. And they *have* loved each other deeply and truly, but now they're reaching the end of the line, which was inevitable since the moment they got together.
Chivalry's love for Bhumika *did* serve to make him more sympathetic and humane in the first book, which was a big benefit for me. But I'm elbow-deep in the third book at this point, and I have to say -- one thing that I absolutely love is that there's a point where Chivalry's love for Bhumika starts making him look LESS humane. It's fantastic.

52 Reviews: Which brings me to Prudence, who shows a surprising and dare I say chilling change in her view of Fort. With the obvious beginning of their mother's decline, should readers expect to see a tug of war for Fort's continued alliegance?

M.L. Brennan: Prudence is definitely trying to "correct" her little brother, and with the weaker Madeline gets, the more overtly Prudence will try to act with Fort. What's always great with Prudence is that her actions are coming from a place of love. A creepy and sociopathic love, which is much more on display in Iron Night than in Generation V. That scene between Prudence and Fort in the basement cell area was one of my favorite to write, but there's a scene in the upcoming Tainted Blood between all three siblings that I think is even better, and really shows all the bizarre levels in their relationships.

52 Reviews: Moving away from Fort's family dysfunction, tell us a little about the most shocking family dynamics in Iron Night. Of course, I'm talking about the elves. Tell us a little about your thought process during the creation process as you expanded the elves from their appearance in Generation V

M.L. Brennan: I'd put in a lot of the broad elements of elves in Generation V -- the population crisis, the attempts to breed back up using unsuspecting humans, and also a bit of the internal stresses between the elves and their partly human offspring. When I started expanding on them in Iron Night, though, I really wanted to make them absolutely inhuman and freaky. To do that I spent a lot of time thinking about how they viewed the world -- what I really came up with was a race of sociopaths. As much as I tend to label Prudence's behavior sociopathic, it really doesn't fit the correct definition, since plenty of her actions are motivated by love (albeit a twisted love) of her family -- she honestly feels that she is trying to protect her younger brothers, or her mother.

The elves, by contrast, are truly sociopaths. Everyone around them exists only in terms of what they can do to be useful to the elves -- either as breeding stock or as something to kill. One of the most important things I established during my creation was how they felt about their offspring -- and in elf society, the whole purpose of having a child, raising it, and educating it, was so that you would someday have a worthy opponent to kill. Once I had that locked into place, a lot of other things really just flowed out of that.

In terms of physicality, both of the elves and their offspring, I wanted them to be recognizable in how we usually see elves in fantasy (so there are the pointed ears, extreme eye and hair colors), but also different. I felt like intellectually there was something almost reptilian about the elves, so I mirrored that in their appearances -- I had a lot of pictures of kimodo dragons which I used as reference points.
Where things get interesting with the elves are their scions, the half-elves. (and every other variation -- a few times I was breaking out a pen and paper to work out the fractions, and somewhere my elementary math teachers were laughing) The elves are fairly rigid in their goals (there are only five of them left), but their offspring are much more all over the place. I tried to construct it almost like a Puritan village church congregation -- you'd have your fanatics, your line-steppers, your grumpily obedient, and then a few doubters on the outskirts who are tied to the church by family.

52 Reviews: We can't talk about the Elves without delving into Fort's first serious potential romantic interest, Lilah. The way I saw the character was a mirror to the Fort we saw in Generation V. A person who is passive, tied to a family more out obligation than any real sense of family, and at heart a kind and decent person who is thrust into a world that is completely at odds with the core of her personality. I loved the character, and the chance Fort has to mentor her in a completely different way from Chivalry or Suzume's approach to mentoring him. While I can't say I was surprised that the chemistry between Fort and Lilah ended in friendship, I'll admit it saddened me a bit. Tell us a little about the process of creating this character, what challenges and surprises did it present and what might we expect for Lilah as the series continues?

M.L. Brennan: Since that's pretty much a perfect list of what I was going for with the character, that's very exciting!

I did want Lilah to be an echo of who Fort was at the beginning of Generation V. I did this for a few reasons -- for one, I wanted Fort to realize how far he had traveled from who he used to be, and also accept that the option of remaining hidden away from the truths of his world and family had never really been a viable option. For another, I wanted Fort to have a legitimate relationship decision between the person who challenged and pushed him and the person who complimented and comforted him, with both being viable options.
In terms of actually building Lilah, I ended up doing a large rewrite on her character in the second draft of the book. I'd made her *too* sweet and mild. There were a lot of scenes of Lilah blushing and stuttering in the first draft, and my editor found the character kind of annoying. I went back and really dug into Lilah's character, finding a lot more strength and building up her need to protect those who were weaker and vulnerable -- like her sister, or a few of the changelings that are seen in the book. I think Lilah is a great example of what a good editor can do with a book -- my editor pushed me to make what had been a fairly servicable character into a character that actually functioned on her own rather than in response to others.
You can definitely expect to see Lilah again. The problems that the elf community, and in particular the rising power of their offspring, are not going away, and Lilah is going to end up at the forefront of that movement. Like Fort, she's growing up and making hard choices.

52 Reviews: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask for teasers for Tainted Blood. What can you tell us about the continuing adventures of Fort and Company? And are there any additional projects your fans should be on the look out for? 

M.L. Brennan: All the area of Fort's life are going to continue to get more complicated. The political situation in the territory is getting even more complicated. Fort is also inching closer to his transition, and there are going to be some very unexpected physical changes. Familiar faces will be back, along with some new players. Kitsune family dynamics start making waves. And I will finally payoff a teaser from Generation V, page 248.
Beyond Tainted Blood (out in November) I have a few irons in the fire, but nothing solid enough to talk about quite yet. But I'm very excited about a few things!

52 Reviews: Since this is our final question, I'm going to follow my usual protocol and let you have the floor. Feel free to promote an upcoming project or another author's work or talk about whatever strikes your fancy. 

Thanks again for being my first second interview. I can't wait to do this again for Tainted Blood

M.L. Brennan: Thank *you* for making me your first second interview, and I'm really looking forward to being your first *third* interview in November!
Right now I'm working on the edits for the third Fort Scott book, Tainted Blood, which will be published in November 2014. This has been a really interesting book for me to write -- I was trying to balance a lot of different elements as well as move some bigger plot arcs forward. There were big questions that I asked myself regarding a consistency of tone, so I did end up making some big decisions that I hope will bear out well for the series.

Once Tainted Blood is off my desk, I'll be doing some serious worldbuilding on another project which is top secret right now, but that I'll get to tell you about later on. This year I have a lot to look forward to even beyond my own big date in November -- I'm really excited to see Django Wexler's next installment the his Shadow Campaigns series, and Leigh Bardugo's conclusion to herGrisha series can't come fast enough for me.
To finish out, I'd just like to take an opportunity to give a heartfelt thanks to everyone who bought a copy of Generation V and Iron Night, and especially everyone who talked someone *else* into checking out the series. I have a lot of ideas for more books in the series, and it's you guys who can make that happen!


  1. I'm not a big UF fan, but I need to try the series...

  2. The author has convinced me to try her series through various interviews. And look at this, I won the first one in a giveaway! Looking forward to finally reading it.