We chat to Max Brooks about his new Minecraft novel!
Max Brooks has only gone and written another book set in Minecraft! The Mountain is the sequel to his first Minecraft book, The Island, in which we follow the inner thoughts of Guy, a man who wakes up and finds himself having to survive in a weird world of blocks.
He's figured out how to punch trees for wood and build a shelter for the night, but things get real for Guy in The Mountain. He decides to strike out across the sea to see what else the world holds, and he lands on a frozen taiga coast. There, he encounters another person called Summer! Having learned how to survive on his own, now Guy is going to learn how to survive with someone else...
You don’t need to have read The Island to follow what happens in The Mountain, but if you have, you’ll love returning to Max’s super-detailed descriptions of Minecraft’s doings. And either way, you can get a flavor of the book's amazing setting by exploring Summer’s mountain base in a FREE adventure map that’s available now!
I talked with Max about how he found a great story in the clash of Guy and Summer’s personalities, and why that story is important in our pandemic-ridden times. But I had to first ask about what in the Overworld Guy is thinking when he decides to set out on his boat at the start of the book.
Alex: Why did he have to leave the island? It was nice there!
Max Brooks: I always knew that in the next book the character has to leave the island, because growth couldn’t come from being in a comfort zone. The challenge was that I’d never written a sequel before. I’m very dyslexic, so to get back into the language and tone, and to reintroduce me to the character, I listened to the audiobook of The Island over and over again to get me back into how Guy sounds and how he thinks.
Alex: Oh, Jack Black read the audiobook, didn’t he?
Max Brooks: Yes! Sean Astin reads The Mountain audiobook (check out his tweet about recording it!). I went to high school with Sean Astin and Jack Black, so having us all here is a class reunion.
Alex: What a class that must have been! Was it difficult to write a sequel to The Island?
Max Brooks: You know, I imagined there’d be a sequel as I wrote it, because I figured that learning how to live with yourself is just the first part of growth. But writing The Island was actually a lot tougher than The Mountain. I must have done ten rewrites because the character was initially a Robinson Crusoe, and I wrote my first draft in the voice of Daniel Defoe, which is very dry and boring! (Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe in 1719!) I had to figure out a way of writing someone alone on an island with their thoughts, and so I invented Guy's animal friends – all the conversations with Moo are basically his thoughts projected onto this cow. The Mountain was a lot easier because I could have the back and forth of real conversation!
Alex: Yeah, you have a whole new character! Can you describe Summer? She is very different to Guy.
Max Brooks: Guy has to think and then talk through everything, and Summer is a do-er. She rushes in where angels fear to tread. I think a lot of that comes from the biome she spawned in. Guy had this island, this safe space where he had time to think and talk it out, whereas Summer spawned in the taiga, this frozen wasteland. This was the early version of the taiga, when there was almost no food, and she was freezing all the time, living on zombie flesh, and mobs came at night from every direction, so she had to fight for her life. I think it helped shape her, and so when confronted by a problem, Summer is more likely to jump in and then deal with the consequences, as opposed to Guy, who’d take a couple of days, maybe a week, to look at all the angles.
Alex: So if they’d spawned the other way around, maybe Guy wouldn’t have survived in the taiga...
Max Brooks: I think it’s a fair assumption that Guy wouldn’t have survived the night.
Alex: Sobering stuff! But when they get together, we realize their two personalities work together well.
Max Brooks: Summer pushes Guy to be bolder and more aggressive and to take action. And Guy pulls Summer back and forces her to stop and consider what’s happening. So between them, they’re a pretty formidable team.
Alex: She’s also quite proud. She takes a while to respect poor old Guy!
Max Brooks: That was the whole point of this book. Book one was: you’ve got to learn how to live with yourself. Book two is: you’ve got to learn to live with someone else. That makes this book timely. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of kids are basically trapped on the islands of their homes, and they’re going to have to leave those islands pretty soon and reintegrate, and that’s going to take a lot of social skills that have maybe atrophied. You have these two characters who are king and queen of their kingdoms and then they come together, so it's about the compromise of their friendship. How do you tell someone what you’re thinking without upsetting them? And how do you listen to them? Friendship is very complicated, when you think about it.
Alex: I love that this reflects the way you have to be social when you play Minecraft.
Max Brooks: That goes back to why I wanted to work on these books in the first place! I’m not exaggerating when I say that I believe that Minecraft is the greatest single teaching tool since Gutenberg’s printing press. I think we’re entering a whole new world, where everyone has to be flexible and entrepreneurial and creative, and there’s a million ways to solve problems. Videogames of the past don’t teach that, but Minecraft does. ‘Hey, listen you just learned how to solve problems in steps!’ You punch the tree, you make the crafting table, you make the simple tools, then the more advanced ones, and then you move on.
Alex: As a book writer, you must be used to working alone. Did you draw on your own experience for The Mountain?
Max Brooks: Yeah, in one way this book was a lot tougher for me than the first because I work alone. I’m also an only child, so I grew up in my room. For me, dialogue is always tough, in everything I write. Is this how people talk to each other? I’m not a hermit, obviously! *laughs* I have friends! But I have to think about how my wife and I talk to each other, how my son and I talk. Dialogue is a challenge.
Alex: You’ve also worked on a free Marketplace map of Summer’s base.
Max Brooks: Yeah! When you go into the map, it’s way after Summer and Guy have moved on, so the mountain you’re seeing is not exactly as it was in the book. Actually, that was another huge challenge. I was two-thirds of the way through writing The Mountain and I sat down to play the game, and the whole Nether had changed, top to bottom! But instead of getting angry, I realized that was probably the greatest life lesson! When the world changes, you gotta change with it.
Alex: Just like The Island, the book is incredibly detailed.
Max Brooks: Research is very important to me in everything I do. I don’t write that many books because I have to spend years researching. With something like Minecraft, I live under the fear of someone saying, “That would never happen!” So I played thousands of hours of Minecraft, making sure the physics of the game work in the book. Plus, there are certain things that just happen in Minecraft that you could never think of on your own. In The Island, my character shoots his last arrow at a creeper and hits a bat that happens to fly by. That really happened when I was playing Minecraft!
Alex: A lot of the fun of these books comes from the way they feel so real.
Max Brooks: Yeah, and also, with everything I write I want to build trust with the reader. I want them to know that when they read one of my books, they can trust me to take them on a journey through a land that I know – that I’m their tour guide.
Alex: I enjoyed your insights into what Minecraft smells like. Netherrack, that was an eye-opener.
Max Brooks: You know, I’m very lucky to have such a wonderful editor, Sarah Peed. On the first book, she pushed me, asking what the Island feels like. What do things taste like? What does the breeze feel like on your face? What does the grass feel like under your feet? I want the book to be an immersive experience, and I thought, netherrack, it should smell sulphurous. It should smell like farts. Yeah, I said it! When you drink Night Vision, it should taste like carrot soda, tangy and bubbly and a little bite on your tongue. I wanted people to feel like they were there.
Alex: Thanks so much, Max!
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- Alex Wiltshire