I never intended to write Red Rising.
In fact, I never intended to become a writer at all.
Storytelling has always been a peculiar and significant source of magic in my life. t was the stories from my grandfather I remember best. I'd sit for hours listening as he talked and smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes on the patio. Eternally grumpy or joyous, never in between, he told tales with madcap passion. Each was taller than the next. They were absurd. Truly, irrevocably absurd - full of tricksters and backwater bandits and clever outsiders and logical gaps as wide as the Mississippi (which according to him could be ten miles). It made him a giant, the keeper of some great hoard of knowledge - an initiate in a magic world I'd yet to set out into.
My family moved seven times before I was eighteen. I went to more than ten schools. Friends were interchangeable, temporary, the longest only lasting four years. A new bully, a new principal's office, a new law of the cafeteria jungle. I didn't get on well in most of the schools. I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I had too much energy. Tested well, performed poorly. Disliked studying, didn't mind fighting. Those few celestial teachers who gave mutual respect to students, I loved with my whole heart. But those who didn't, I abhorred, and told them so, which always went over well.
It wasn't until I left high school that I realized it was even possible to be a writer. Up to that point, writers were strange giants. Tolkien, Heinlein, Huxley, Shelley, Homer, Rowling stood tall as mountains, distant as the Moon. They were revered institutions, masters of complex literary mechanisms. I wasn't one of those unearthly creatures.
On a muggy summer night just after high school ended, I started writing. Eighteen bizarre pages of frantic chicken-scratch, the first chapter of a seven-hundred- page fantasy novel containing as much literary merit as a bag of Hot Cheetos. But the seal had broken. I knew what I was, even if I suspected I was dreadful at it. Whenever a mentor would chuckle when I said I wanted to be a novelist (which happened often), or whenever a friend would smirk and humor me (which happened even more often), I took the doubt as rocket fuel. I would write anywhere: from the hallway floors between classes to the passenger seat of my car, to the DMV waiting line. When I had work, I would wake up when it was still dark and fuel my manic stream of prose with half liters of coffee. I was obsessed. Elated.
Agents were less elated. I wrote six books in five years and received more than a hundred rejections in return. I was twenty-two, and I was about to quit writing, realizing I just might be shit at it.
Then I read the play Antigone. I had read it before for school. Maybe I wasn't looking for stories when I first read it. Whatever the case, a week later, on a mountain hike, I saw Mars bright in the sky. A seed planted by Antigone began to grow. What if I took ancient Greece, added stars, spaceships, opera, Romans, twists, betrayal and blood!?
Two months later, I had Red Rising.
Sometimes it's hard to know what's possible and a person needs some sense that someone like you has walked the path before, found it just as thick with bramble and fog, pressed on and found their heart's delight.
I've come to view society as a clumsy colossus of interest groups stitched together by necessity. Like any creature, it wants to survive. To do that it needs parts, not people. Gears to make it run. Fuel to feed the engine. Our society, Darrow's Society — no difference. They need conformity. But we have a natural rebellious streak in us. We don't like being told we're gears. Society distracts with toys, with hyperbole and patriotism, because those at the top benefit most when those in the middle and at the bottom aren't paying attention.
In school, my creativity was almost driven out of me. And that's just school. It's not poverty. It's not systematic oppression. It's not discrimination. It's just school. But if something so benign can do that, how unbearably easy it is to have ourselves shaped by others.
I got lucky with Red Rising. I'm lucky to have stumbled onto Darrow and Sevro and Ragnar and Mustang. Luckier still to be able to share this world with you. But I think it a disservice to pretend Red Rising came out fully baked, or that I always knew I'd be an author. It didn't. I didn't. I almost wasn't.
Pretending otherwise would encourage you to believe that this was easy. That's often the image people want to sell – divine inspiration and all that. It's sexy, sure. But it discourages those who have yet to reach out for their own dream. Who feel they have to compromise.
If I had a nickel for every time I've seen people talk themselves out of a great personal endeavor, I'd sell my books for free. Sometimes it's diving into an art form. Sometimes it's a move to a different city. Sometimes it's daring to pass up money for their dream. It doesn't matter. Fear is planted in them by society or someone they trust. They're told it's impractical, so they do nothing. They're told “Oh, no one makes it in publishing” or “Do you know how hard and long medical school is?” So, they soldier on safe and sound and smaller than they want to be.
My grandfather wasn't a perfect man. But the vastness of his stories and the childish joy that filled his eyes when he told them convinced me that there was magic in the world. It made me set out to try and find it. To catch it. To bottle it and learn to make it mine. Now I get to write about spaceships in my pajamas.
I hope my books help remind you that there is magic in the world. That we are more than integers of flesh, more than gears in someone else's machine. We can be as big as we make ourselves to be, and the only smallness in your world resides in the hearts of those who seek to tether you to the ground because they don't know how to leave it.
That's all for now. Back to my spaceships I go.
Per aspera ad astra.