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[INTERVIEW] Marcus Sakey on THE BRILLIANCE TRILOGY, Writing Process, and the Weirdness of Hollywood

Marcus Sakey‘s thrillers have been nominated for more than fifteen awards, named New York Times‘ Editor’s Picks, and selected among Esquire Magazine’s Top 5 Books of The Year. The firs two books of his Brilliance Trilogy  — Brilliance and A Better World — have sold more than 600,000 copies. Connect with him on twitter @MarcusSakey.

Marcus kindly answered a few of my questions about his newest release, Written In Fire.

Anthony Vicino: For those at home who haven’t read the awesomeness that is Brilliance or A Better World, why don’t you give us a little taste of Written in Fire. What’s it all about?

Marcus Sakey: First off, thanks! Much appreciated.

The Brilliance Trilogy takes place in an alternate present where 1% of the population is born with exceptional gifts. Known as “brilliants,” these are otherwise normal people whose brains work in such a way that the most powerful of them can, say, see patterns in the stock market, or sense your secrets from your body language.

The question is, when 1% are objectively better, what happens to the other 99 of us?

And the answer is, read the series.

AV: You’ve proven yourself a master of the mystery/thriller standalone, but The Brilliance series is somewhat unique in that it’s your first series. What were some of the unique challenges you faced in tackling such a broader project?

MS: It was a love-hate relationship. I love these characters and the world they inhabit, so it was a delight to return to them with each book. On the other hand, I didn’t want to just write a series—I wanted to write an epic, on story that spans three books, where decisions made in the first impact the last.

Which sounds great in theory, but holy crap was it hard to do.

AV: Can we look forward to more series from you in the future, or will you be returning to the standalone?

MS: This is such a copout answer, but it will always be whatever the story requires. For this idea, there was no way I could cover the span in one book. It would have been like 1200 pages, and would have exhausted everyone, including me.

My next book is a standalone. After that, who knows? Depends what idea seduces me. And despite the frustrations, it really is fun to have the extra elbow room of a series.

AV: It seemed you’d already discovered your voice with the release of your debut novel, The Blade Itself, but I’m curious, how has your style or narrative approach changed (if indeed it has) in the years since?

MS: It’s a constant evolution, which I think is part of the point. No matter how long you spend at creation, you’re always a student. Stephen King is open about the fact that he continues to learn the craft, and if King hasn’t got it figured out yet, what the hell hope have the rest of us got?

Personally, one of the most helpful things I learned was three-act structure. For my first four or so novels, I built the structure intuitively. It worked, but it was always terrifying. Once I came to really understand the mechanics of three-act structure, my life got a great deal easier. It doesn’t tell you how to write your book, but it helps you understand why things aren’t working, or what kind of beat needs to come next.

For anyone trying to get it, I recommend a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat. That was the one that broke it open for me.

AV: With the release of Written in Fire, the entire Brilliance series has recently undergone a dramatic facelift, moving from what some considered to be the most unique cover-work on the market, to a slightly more traditional, eye-catching thriller’esque cover. What were your thoughts on this transition?

MS: That’s an interesting question. I used to work in graphic design, and I directed the first two covers in some great detail, working with a talented designer named Jeroen ten Berge. We went through probably forty or fifty drafts of each, starting with pencil sketches. I loved those covers. Still do.

However, you kind of put your finger on the reasoning behind changing them. They were very striking, but not to everyone’s taste. And frankly, “eye catching” and “thriller-esque” are words that you want describing your covers.

So much of the sales end of the book business has to do with expectations. Ultimately, it’s about the book, and my hope is that once you start Brilliance, bam, you’re hooked, you’re in for all three. But first you gotta take a look.

AV: Brilliance was picked up by Legendary for a movie option back in 2013, and for awhile it seemed everything was slotting nicely into place (David Koepp came on to do the adaptation, some big name stars like Will Smith and Jared Leto were trotted out as potentially playing Nick Cooper), but there hasn’t been a lot of word on the project in recent months. For those of us at home dying to see this movie, can you share some insight into when we might see Nick Cooper hit the big screen?

MS: Hollywood is a deeply odd place. There are so many factors that have to go perfectly, so many schedules and visions that have to snap together for a film even to be made, much less be good.

For a long while, everything seemed to be in place for Brilliance. The script was great, the production team was visionary, the actors were serious players. We were actually about five weeks from shooting when things fell apart for a variety of, frankly, uninteresting reasons.

That said, we’re in the midst of some very interesting discussions, and I hope to have some announcements in the next few months. Fingers crossed.

AV: What are you geeking out about these days? Any good movies, t.v. shows, books?

MS: I’m always geeking out about something. Right now it’s Mr. Robot, which I’m about four episodes in and loving. I’m also rewatching Battlestar Galactica for like the third time and floored by how good it continues to be. I just wrapped up Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy and loved every minute of it. I’m forty hours into saving the world in XCom 2 and have the aliens on the run. And I’m halfway through Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky and completely enchanted.

About Anthony Vicino (12 Articles)
Anthony Vicino has erected a word-fortress in the cyber-slum over at where he writes about anything and everything SFF related. Stop over and see what he's scribbling on the wall.
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