Exclusive Interview with Marcus Sakey, Author of Brilliance

“Brilliance” is described as follows: In Wyoming, a little girl reads people’s darkest secrets by the way they fold their arms. In New York, a man sensing patterns in the stock market racks up $300 billion. In Chicago, a woman can go invisible by being where no one is looking. They’re called “brilliants,” and since 1980, one percent of people have been born this way. Nick Cooper is among them; a federal agent, Cooper has gifts rendering him exceptional at hunting terrorists. His latest target may be the most dangerous man alive, a brilliant drenched in blood and intent on provoking civil war. But to catch him, Cooper will have to violate everything he believes in—and betray his own kind.
SuperHeroHype recently spoke with Sakey about the novel, his process in writing it, and the upcoming adaptation by Legendary. Check it out below.
Was the story always titled “Brilliance” or did you have another title while working on it?
You know, it’s the first time ever that I had the title before I wrote the first word, and this is my sixth book. Usually titles are such a pain. You come up with one and you get married to it and the publisher doesn’t like it and then they say “Give me fifty more.” It goes forever and by the time it’s done you don’t care what the thing is called. Just name it something and let me be done with this. But this one I had from the beginning. The only change I ever considered was I spent a lot of time playing with whether I wanted it to be spelled the way it is (Brilliance) or whether I wanted it to be Brilliants. In the end this one won out by a nose, but I think they both had arguments for them.
Did you ever worry that people would think of this as a pretentious title for a book?
Oh yes, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” You know, it crossed my mind. I hope that’s not what people think. If it makes people glance at it and see there’s a reason for it, then it’s a win. It’s definitely not meant to reflect the writing, it’s all about the people.
I kind of see Brilliance as an espionage thriller that just happens to have superpower elements molded in it, was that your initial idea for the story or did it stem from another idea?
The cornerstone of the idea and the book was always the idea of the “Abnorms.” I was sort of fascinated by this idea of people with these savant-like gifts but without the disadvantages that those people generally have. So for me I always wanted it to be absolutely rooted in things that the human brain is capable of, most of them things that savants throughout history have been able to do or do something similar, but by making it wildly common, an every day reality. By taking away all affects, they can be smart people, they can be dumb, they can be nice people, they can be jerks. That’s all separate from the fact that they have this, it’s an attribute. They have brown hair, they’re tall, and they have a brilliant view of the stock market.
So there was never a question of, ‘Well we have to put people with super strength and super speed in this book’?
No, it was really important to me to avoid that because I wanted the book to feel very much like an alternate present. Something that feels similar enough to our own world that it’s an easy transition in and then I can make the world stranger and stranger through the effects these people have on it.
What were the big influences on this when you were writing it? It reads like a “real world” text, but it’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t think of the more fiction-oriented superpowers while working on it.
I’m a geek of old. I’m a sci-fi fan and a gamer. So it’s not like I feel like I invented this whole idea. But I wouldn’t say that I had influences like I was trying to model it off of these things. It’s drawn some comparison to X-Men, which on one level is deeply flattering. I mean it’s X-Men, but I kind of feel like that comparison is that apt. It’s a little facile. Stories of people among us with abilities we don’t understand didn’t start with X-Men. For me I’ve wanted to it rather than be a small elite group of superheroes, as much as I love that stuff, I wanted to focus more on the other side, what happens when the whole world has to deal with this? You might think you feel one way about the Abnorms until you realize that your child is one and you have to think about it differently. But even so, one of the fun things with the book is that they are objectively better. It’s not a subjective thing, it’s not a question, they are better. But where does that leave the rest of us?
Was there ever a moment when you were writing that you thought of what you would do personally as opposed to what you were thinking should happen in the story?
There’s always a balance with something like this, because this is the first time I’ve written a book of this style. I have in mind that it’s one epic story, this is the first chapter and there will be probably be two more books, telling one arc. It’s always a challenge not to let that just run away, because it’s fun to play in and everything creates other complications. It’s something you wrestle with every day as a writer. But I was faithful to the precept I had from the beginning of what was within the realm of possibility. What they could do. I never had moments where it was like “Crap, if I would make this guy fly that would really be cool.” To me that just would have broken what I was doing.
Yeah I did, nothing to formal. Just notes to myself. If you were to look at it it wouldn’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Yeah, rules to this world and then I spent a lot of fun time trying to figure out what percentage this would be. At what percentage does it just skew things so far so fast that I couldn’t predict where the world would look like. And things like: Is it hereditary? Is it detectable? That’s part of what I love about Sci-Fi stuff in general, someone taking an idea like that and expanding on it and building a world. I just had a ball doing it.
There are some pretty vocal detractors out there that say we have enough superhero/superpower stories, that there’s almost too much of it. Was that something that you thought about when you chose to write this or did it not cross your mind at all?
It crossed my mind, but I think there’s been such an interesting renaissance in superheroes as a genre. Is it a little strange that everything is getting rebooted, often times two years after it was just rebooted? Yeah, maybe, but I think there’s been such depth and intelligence brought to these things that they’re trying for richer stories and more human emotions. They’re making them more, it’s an odd thing to say about superheroes, but they’re making them more real. Like the portrayal of Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy. I was never a huge comic book fan, but my brother was massively into Batman and I read a fair bit and that was the first one that got the essence of Batman to me. The pathos behind it, and the fact that he’s not a good guy. He’s not a nice guy, I love that. I love seeing that kind of intelligence brought to this.
You’re mostly known for doing crime novels, so did you worry that your audience would be turned off by this premise?
Yeah, I did. Not only my audience but my publishers, because it’s a bit of a left turn. My feeling was as I put thought into it is that I read broadly, I imagine you read broadly. I don’t define what I read by one specific genre. I like a certain kind of story told a certain kind of way. More than that, sometimes an idea just grabs you by the throat and as a storyteller I feel like when that happens you don’t let it go just because it doesn’t immediately fit with what you’ve done before.
You touched on it earlier, but how does the future look for Brilliance? You mentioned two more books with an arc, but is that all you’ve seen? Do you think you could do a spin-off or a comic book mini-series?
You know I’m having so much fun doing it that I could absolutely see continuing to play. I want to tell this story and follow it through and then we’ll see. But I think there’s a lot of room for it and I think it would be fun to do spin-offs of somebody’s back story. One of these characters that you get a little hint in the book, but I can’t go into everybody’s whole universe and I think it would be really fun to go into some of those characters further.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the feature adaptation that Legendary is doing, are things still going smoothly over there?
Things are moving incredibly well. It was one of the most surreal days of my life, the day we did the film deal. I say we like I had anything to do with it, I wrote it and that’s the end of my involvement on that part. My film agent was very excited about it and thought it would go big and took it out big. So the day that they started accepting bids we kept getting a new call saying “This studio is in” and “This studio is in” and I’m just pacing around trying not to wet myself. I couldn’t be happier that we went with Legendary. They were the first people that came in strong, they made it really clear that they loved the book and wanted to make it. And I love their philosophy, they want to make movies and they make exactly the movies that I love. Inception, Watchmen, 300, The Dark Knight Trilogy, as a storyteller it’s a dream to imagine your story done that way so it’s fantastic on that level, but I just love those movies and I want more of them. Then we got extra good news when David Koepp signed on to do the screenplay. One of the highest-grossing screenwriters in history and the guy that wrote Spider-Man, yeah that’s pretty exciting news.
Are you going to be involved with the production at all or are you letting them do their own thing?
They’ve been wonderful and they’re certainly keeping me in the loop on a general creative level. But this is what they do and they do it really well, so I’m not interfering or I don’t have an active role in that way. One thing though is that it’s, not just part of a series but of one story. So they’re very interested in being respectful to that and to not doing things that veer off in a wildly different direction. Since at the moment I’m only halfway through the second book, I think there will be a lot of discussion as we move further along of how to set the table for the future. I love that they’re intrigued and interested that way because you hear a lot of horror stories of selling movies where by the time the thing gets shot there’s no resemblance at all to the book. I love that Legendary really want to take the story I told and tell it in their medium the best they can. That’s what you dream of.
“Brilliance” is available now.
(Photo credit: Brett Carlson)