Why Pierce Brown Might Be Fiction's Next Superstar
At just 26, Pierce Brown’s debut novel, Red Rising, is already being hailed as the next YA fantasy series turned blockbuster movie franchise. So why isn't he more freaked out?
Pierce Brown is a creator of worlds. One of those worlds is the dystopian future in his impressive debut novel, Red Rising. The other exists in his bedroom. The first thing you see in a row of DVDs is the entire Battlestar Galactica series next to Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings. There are carefully curated bookshelves lined with leather-bound fantasy novels and small gargoyle figurines that peer down at you from the top shelves. A framed and ornately drawn portrait of Death Star overlord Grand Moff Tarkin hangs above his desk on an inspiration wall cluttered with Post-Its and Polaroids. “Whenever anyone comes in my room, I always test their nerd IQ,” he says. “If they ask who that is, I just say, ‘Oh, that’s my Uncle Grand Moff. If they know who that is, we’re friends forever — free beer for life, followed by a Star Wars marathon.” Three years ago, at age 23, Brown sold Red Rising to Random House’s Del Rey imprint. Its publishers didn’t just buy the book — they gave him a three-book deal so other publishers wouldn’t be able to scoop him up. That preemptive offer is something that is “rare” for a first-time author, according to Mike Braff, the editor of Red Rising. Both the publishing world and Hollywood are on the hunt for the next huge franchise, and if Brown’s three-book series is what they’re looking for, then he stands to make millions. (Hunger Games' author Suzanne Collins is now worth an estimated $55 million.) Brown has already written the screenplay, which sold to Universal Pictures for seven figures, and Marc Forster, director of World War Z, Finding Neverland, and Monster’s Ball, and Joe Roth, who’s produced films like Alice in Wonderland and the upcoming Malificent with Angelina Jolie, are both attached. Now that his book has finally hit the shelves, his odds of future movie tentpole glory rest heavily on how his book sells. Not that you'd sense any pressure from sitting across from him. “I don't know enough to be nervous,” Brown says, but he sounds a little unsure. “No," he continues, as if trying to shake the hesitation, "because every box that needs to be checked is getting checked. I feel like everything bad that could have happened already hasn't happened; it's been all good news. So there's no reason for me to be worried except my inexperience and general fear of failure. Which I don't really have, but it creeps in on you.” When he sold the novel, Brown was working for the NBC page program and living in Los Angeles in his former political science professor’s garage. (“At that point in my life, I wasn't in a position to turn down free rent,” he says.) Now Brown has an apartment he shares with three roommates, was able to quit his day job, recently returned from vacationing in Istanbul with friends, and his debut novel is finally out. He’s living a rather charmed life, and that roll of the dice that Random House took seems to be paying off, as the book is already being compared to The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Flies, and Game of Thrones. And it’s also gained praise from fellow authors, like New York Times best-seller Terry Brooks, who gave it five stars and said he was “captivated” by the writing. While we are in Brown’s room, he chooses to sit about four inches off the ground in a desk chair whose legs Brown had hacked off with a hatchet. It was his dad’s old leather chair, dark wood and comfortable-looking. “I take this to the beach and I write or read,” he says, gripping the arms. He takes intermittent sips of the beer sitting next to him on the floor. “You just take it out there, and you’re super comfortable.” Every piece of furniture in Brown’s room has a story. There’s an old trunk in the corner next to his bed that’s a family heirloom from the 1800s. He now uses it to store comic books. On top of his bed frame sits a stuffed polar bear named Clawdius that his parents gave him when he was 9 and not feeling well. There’s an unframed canvas next to the door that shows two brothers standing over a dead bird. “That one is the first piece of art one of my friends did,” he says. “It was about a story of him and his brother. The young one on the left, the guy who’s the artist, hit a bird with a slingshot, and didn’t think he’d actually hit it, and then it fell down lame. He couldn’t kill it, because he was so sad and loves animals. So his big brother, Aaron, put it out of its misery for him.” He takes a moment to admire the piece, which is painted over pages of Tom Sawyer. “I like knowing where all of my friends’ inspiration came from.”
Brown reveals his own inspiration mid-hike in Runyon Canyon. He’s brought a backpack filled with snacks, and sports a red hat and hiking boots that look more suited for climbing up jagged rocks rather than the stroll we’re taking. The idea came while he was mountain climbing. “I was reading the story of Antigone," he says before correcting himself. "Re-reading the story of Antigone. So Red Rising came about because after that, I went on a climb with my friends and it's just three of us all roped together going up this steep, steep vertical. And you're alone with your thoughts and this horrible, horrible torment with your calves burning and your thighs burning. For the entire time, I was thinking this would be easier if there was less gravity. So I started thinking about Mars, which is one-third gravity, and then Antigone started bleeding into it, and then other ideas. I started brainstorming with some of my friends.” Like many dystopian young adult novels, Red Rising is a story about survival of the fittest, and involves an arena-like setting to ferret out who will rise in this futuristic society. Colors determine your pecking order in society. Our hero, 16-year-old Darrow, is a Red, which means he’s the lowest caste and sentenced to a life of mining, ostensibly to help Mars become habitable. What Darrow doesn’t know, and quickly unearths, is that the Reds have long been enslaved by the highest caste, the Golds. And over the course of the novel, Darrow seeks justice against the group that has stolen so many people from his life. “The entire story is about rejecting the limits that others put on you, and it’s about evil. And evil is simply greed,” he says as we inch higher up the canyon. “So it’s about combatting greed and combatting selfishness and evil. And also trying to rise above what society has told you that you have to be.” When Brown started Red Rising, he was 22 and living above his parents’ garage in Seattle. He worked at an online startup writing marketing materials, and before that had been part of a political campaign for a senator for nine months. It took Brown two months to get a first draft done, and “a lot longer” to make the edits that would eventually get the book to a place where agents would notice him. While we sit on a bench along one of the trails in Runyon Canyon, he talks about lining his bathroom walls with the rejection letters to remind himself that failure is a huge likelihood. It’s late afternoon, sticky hot, and the trail is unusually empty. Brown peels off the backpack he’d filled with snacks: almonds, apples, and raspberries, all organized in ziplock bags. “I have blood sugar issues,” he says. He lays the spread out between us. Brown moved to Los Angeles in 2011, after writing the book and landing an agent, and started working in the NBC page program. He was giving a tour at NBC when he got the call about a deal with Random House. “I had two tours that day," he says. "I told the tour groups, 'If at any point my phone rings, I'm going to have to answer this.' These people are from Iowa and Minnesota, and they're excited to hear about anything like this. So I'm like their little protégé all of a sudden. I get the call, and then I told the group and I got high fives and I got tipped a lot of money, which was great.”
Brown’s unusual upbringing probably has something to do with his knack for storytelling. His mother, Colleen, owned a publicly traded broadcasting company called Fisher Communications until she recently sold it. Growing up around broadcasting instantly immersed him in the world of telling news stories, according to Colleen. But the real turning point came when his father, Guy, a former banker, bought his 8-year-old son a shovel. “One of the best things that we ever did for him, to foster things, was to let him dig in the yard, because he was doing something,” Guy says. “It was real to him. He wasn’t digging the hole for the hole’s sake — there was clearly a fort. Or a mission. Or something going on. We had holes everywhere. It didn’t matter to us, because we were helping him in his quest, whatever that was. He found himself there. It meant everything to him.” “You’d try to get after why he was digging holes, and he’d explain that they were really traps,” Colleen adds. “He’d have these elaborate stories that went with the holes.” “He was very mischievous, and he was entertaining,” says Brown's older sister Blair. “And he can just rattle off these stories that he has in his head, or that he makes up.” She remembered a home video of Brown that she’d watched recently. “I couldn’t believe it — he was 3 or 4 years old and he was rattling off this story about Captain Hook.” Feeling the need to be entertaining could be, at least in part, a side effect of the family’s situation. The Browns moved around a lot for Colleen’s job, with the family relocating to eight different states throughout the course of his childhood, starting in Colorado, then North Carolina, then Arizona, then Iowa, then Texas, then Seattle, then Los Angeles, and finally back up to Seattle. “I think girls have a harder time than guys do if you're switching schools,” Brown says. “Guys don't get picked on as long as you're OK in sports.” He joined the football, soccer, lacrosse, and baseball teams in high school. “Every high school I went to, I joined in the middle of the year, so sports helped. But you see a lot of bullies when you move to eight states, I’ll say that.” Blair acknowledges that moving around took its toll. “It was hard for us at the time," she says, "but it made us a little more aware of our surroundings than somebody who’s lived in the same place their whole life.” It might be that having to acknowledge each and every new place gave Brown a heightened awareness of details — details that would later come into play when he started writing novels, and an attention for detail that’s readily apparent in Red Rising.
There’s a table off in the backyard that we sit at, and it’s decorated with fall gourds. “I’m an ambiance guy,” Brown smirks. Now that he’s officially a published author, Brown tells me back at his apartment that his day-to-day ambiance has changed a bit. He wakes up early, stays off of all social media, and writes until the late afternoon. Then he cuts himself off from writing for the rest of the day. “Sometimes I get lured back into it, like 9 at night or something if there's a big glass of red wine and it's like, Let's write a battle scene, let's write a romance, and I play the Civil Wars with my red wine,” he says. “Feet up, slippers on and my bathrobe, oh yeah.” Roommates aside, he’s living the life of a writer who’s already successful, even though that success has yet to be fully measured. And while Brown says that he's not nervous about the project, you get the sense that he actually is, and just doesn't want to talk focus on it. In fact, he's started to create other writing projects to keep his mind off of it. And it’s not just working on the Red Rising follow-up that’s keeping Brown busy. He’s also working on ideas for TV projects, which are literally scribbled all over the door to his room. “It’s like Game of Thrones meets Wall Street,” he says of the project, tentatively titled Birthright. His roommate Drew Murray offers up his own portrait of Brown. “He throws on his music, and he’ll close up for an afternoon,” says Murray as he smokes cigarettes in their backyard. “No one can come in and talk to him, unless we have a beer in hand that we’re willing to share. And he’ll come running out with a new idea to show us — he gets so excited, he’s like a little kid — and he’ll have a notebook filled with sketches. He’s no artist, but you can see these creatures he creates, they can be villains, or masks or symbols, and he’s really a great storyteller. The kid’s going to be huge — and look how handsome he is!” “Stop it, Drew. I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Brown shouts out the door at Murray. It isn't the first time he stops him. Brown doesn’t love talking about himself, let alone having other people do it. When you ask him questions, he quickly deflects by asking you the same thing back. And when he answers a question, he tends to include you as part of the response, almost as if to share the spotlight. Even his author profile on the Red Rising book jacket is guarded, and filled with flourishes that make it read more like a piece of fiction.
Pierce Brown spent his childhood building forts and setting traps for cousins in the woods of six states and the deserts of two. Graduating from college in 2010, he fancied the idea of continuing his studies at Hogwarts… Now he lives Los Angeles, where he scribbles tales of spaceships, wizards, ghouls, and most things old or bizarre.“I think Pierce maybe doesn’t even realize just how autobiographical a lot of Red Rising is,” Brown's editor Braff tells me over the phone. “I’ve read that book now, I can’t tell you how many times, edited it several times over. I’m so far into book two, and so far into the characters, that I’m really deep into Pierce’s psyche now. I think that in many ways, he is Darrow. In many ways he’s a guy who rose up from modest to extraordinary means and feels a kinship — ah, this is going to sound corny as hell — but a kinship with people who are social outcasts in one way or another. I think that he’s a person who is deep into two different worlds, and that makes him fascinating and it makes his characters fascinating.” Brown originally says that none of the characters in his books are based off of people in his life. Though he later contradicts himself and reveals that the character of Sevro, Darrow's rival, was based off of a kid he knew in middle school. "Just tenacious and mean as hell," he says. "Nice if you were loyal to him, but he would actually bite you in soccer games." And there is something undeniably familiar about the character of Darrow, and that idea of reaching incredible success, that seems to relate entirely to Brown. Like Darrow, Brown is drawn to people who are underrepresented, or outcast. He says he wrote the book specifically so that “people will find strength when reading the book — the kid who doesn’t want to go out, the kid who’s not social, it would be nice to give him something to motivate him. I was inspired by Enders Game as a kid, and The Once and Future King. All those things motivated me.” And like Darrow, Brown is grappling with the incredible opportunity that’s landed in his lap. It’s taken three years to publish his book, but now it has a fighting chance of being wildly successful. Not that he hasn’t earned that chance. “I’m going to be deemed pretty young for being an author,” he says, “And it came after six books failed.” He tells me that he’ll likely move out of the four-bedroom apartment soon and get his own place. “I’m kind of irritated by the Hollywood scene,” he says. “I only latch onto this space because it’s the first space I’ve had that’s completely mine. I’ve lived in 10 or 12 houses over the course of my life; you kind of start latching on to the things you can control. So now that I’m choosing to move, it seems like a strange thing.” It’s late afternoon, and Brown’s beer is almost empty. “I think that I’m the most responsible roommate, but I can also be the party pooper sometimes," he says. "I’m the one who pays the electrical bills, so I go around turning off all the lights. And I have to be the dad sometimes, and I don’t like that, because I don’t like telling people what to do. My roommates are all such happy go lucky guys, and I carry some of the stress around a lot more." It's the first time Brown says out loud what you can sense is just bubbling under the surface of his otherwise happy disposition: He's in a situation that he can't control — the reception to his book could make him an entertainment kingpin, or, at worst, a working author. But Brown isn't the kind of person who likes to lose control, as evidenced by the fact that he wants to remain extremely involved in the film process — he doesn't want to lose the reins on the world he's created for himself and his readers. “I’m along for the ride," he says, resigned, but smiling. "Hopefully the book is popular, but I can’t count on that. So it’s hard to say." Update: Red Rising was sold to Universal Pictures after this story originally published.