I never intended to write Red Rising. Then again, I never intended on becoming a writer either.
In hindsight, it checks out. Storytelling has always been a peculiar and significant source of magic in my life. If my parents got a hold of you and maybe a glass or two of vino, they’d say I was always going to be a writer. They’d tell you stories about how I’d fall asleep in my car seat chattering some nonsense about dragons, cowboys, and misunderstood aliens. Personally, I assumed I was destined to be an astronaut. But math and I have always shared a mildly antagonistic rapport. So here we are.
Until I was seven, my parents would read me stories at night. Sometimes from the Bible, or abridged classics, or a collection of folk tales. But it 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. Sometimes he’d sneak into the pantry and bribe me into telling him where my parents hid the cookies. He was a diabetic with a mad sweet tooth.
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). Once he even said he rode out a flash flood atop a floating barn roof with nothing but Coca-Cola to sustain him for three days. I’m pretty sure the barn roof was also floating down the bayou, but I could have embellished that in the listening. Most of the stories were made up, of course. But back then it made him a giant. It made him seem like the keeper of some great hoard of knowledge—an initiate in a magic world I’d yet to set out into.
That’s how stories have always felt to me—huge, magical, strange. Over sized emotions and worlds stuffed between the flaps of a book or told across a campfire. Even the worst help you escape your world, while the best help you understand it. I needed that as a kid, because I never much felt like I had a place on this planet.
My family moved seven times before I was eighteen. I went to more than ten schools. I lost track, to be honest. Might have been twelve. Anyway. Friends were interchangeable, temporary, the longest only lasting four years. It was always a new ecosystem. A new bully, a new principal’s office, a new law of the cafeteria jungle.
My parents were selfless when it came to raising my sister and me. But I must have driven them to their wits’ end. I didn’t get on well in most of the schools. I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I struggled even to read and spell, having to use Hooked on Phonics to keep up with classmates in some schools. While in others I sprinted past them and got so bored I’d get extra work sheets just to shut me up. 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.
I often felt like an alien, but I was too young to realize most of us usually do.
I found refuge in books and for a little while in the forests of Iowa, which I could populate with the characters from those books. But when I exchanged the rural school there for a private school in Texas, I reached a sort of crucible.
In Texas, we had no backyard. I was used to a Goonies lifestyle—roaming the woods, exploring old barns, building forts, and playing ‘dodge this huge clump of dirt’ with neighborhood hooligans. Then suddenly I was tossed in mid-year into the ecosystem of an all-male school designed to groom young men for ‘excellence’. It was Lord of the Flies with starched collars and roller backpacks instead of spears and rocks. And the school itself was rigid—the sort that cares far more about its reputation than your education. With many teachers, you either shut up and fit, or you got left behind.
So, I shut up and tried to make myself fit.
Very quickly I began to understand what most adults know: The world doesn’t give two cents about us, never mind what we want to do with our lives. It wants us to conform. To sacrifice individuality for predictability. I felt squashed and retreated even more into books, especially after the early death of a friend.
Even with that retreat, 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. Hell, I couldn’t even get into AP English.
The realization that it was possible to actually write myself came during a muggy Dallas summer just after school had ended. I was off to college soon, thinking I was going to be lawyer or something ‘excellent’. I was not terribly excited about all that. So, of course, I was reading. My dog was sitting on my chest and I flipped to the back of the book to see the picture of the writer. Shit, I thought. This erudite master of the written language is a baby. Like, five years older than me.
It came down like a thunderbolt: Well, if he can do it, why the hell do I have to be a lawyer? James Spader is one on TV. James Spader is awesome. And even he looks like he’s not having that much fun, and his best lawyer friend is William Shatner. Being a writer, being a weird scribe who seldom shaves and rarely leaves the comfort of his pajamas, well that sounds far more interesting.
I started writing that night. Eighteen bizarre pages of frantic chicken-scratch that would become the first chapter of a seven-hundred-page fantasy novel containing as much literary merit as a package of Hot Cheetos (which are the best, by the way). But the seal had broken. I was liberated. Free. 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 daydream stories instead of making friends in college. 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 and a half rejection letters in return. I was twenty-two, on the wrong end of a relationship gone south, and very dramatic about it all. So dramatic, that I was about to quit writing, realizing I just might be shit at it, and maybe they were right to keep me out of AP English.
Then I read the play Antigone. In it, a young woman dies for the right to bury her brother. I enjoyed Greek plays, particularly Sophocles. And I had read it before. Twice for school. But it hadn’t resounded before the way it did that time. Maybe I wasn’t looking for stories when I first read it. Maybe I was reading for quizzes instead of for learning. Whatever the case, a week later, I went on a mountain climb with friends at night and saw Mars bright in the sky. A little seed had been planted by Antigone, and it started to grow. And grow. And grow. What if I take Greece, put in the stars, add spaceships, add opera, add Romans, add twists, betrayal, and blood galore!?
Two months later, I had Red Rising.
So why the hell does all this personal stuff matter, you’re rightfully thinking. Why include it in my website instead of the brass tacks of my earthly existence?
It matters, to me at least, because I think it’s important to understand why someone writes. If I knew why more authors wrote, I would have been able to see myself in them. I would have known what was possible. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s possible and you need if not a blueprint, some sense that someone like you has walked the path before, found it just as thick with bramble and fog, yet pressed on and found that it led to their heart’s delight.
You see, I’ve come to view human society as a clumsy colossus of interest groups stitched together by necessity. It trudges along, crushing many things underfoot. Most on accident. Some out of malice. Like any creature, it wants to survive. That’s its prerogative. To do that it needs parts, not people. Gears to make it run. Fuel to feed the engine. Our society, Darrow’s Society—it makes no difference. They are all the same. They need conformity. But we humans have a natural rebellious streak in us. Call it free will.
We don’t very much like being told we’re gears. Often, we’re not told. Society distracts with toys, with bread and circuses, with hyperbole and patriotism, because those at the top benefit most when those in the middle and at the bottom pay attention least.
I felt this 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 want to encourage you to hold fast and shape yourself.
I got lucky with Red Rising. I know that. 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.
About the Author
Pierce Brown is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, and Iron Gold. His work has been published in thirty-three languages and thirty-five territories. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is at work on his next novel.