Interview: Max Brooks

We chat to the author of the very first Minecraft novel!

Minecraft: The Island comes out on July 18th and represents Minecraft’s first foray into the world of literary fiction! Who better to take us there than one of the most imaginative minds on the planet?

That mind belongs to the author Max Brooks! Max is known for, among many other things, the brilliant future history World War Z, and he’s long been a big Minecraft fan. Sometimes it’s hard to express what a powerful experience playing Minecraft is - all the things it teaches you and makes you feel - but Max’s book captures it all and condenses it into a riveting tale of survival.

It’s very much in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe: a castaway finds themselves in an unfamiliar land, coming to terms with its rules and strange ways, learning to adapt, to overcome and to prosper! It’s meticulously accurate - Max spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours in-game testing out every scenario - and every chapter teaches the protagonist and the reader a valuable lesson, both about Minecraft, but also about life in general. It’s pretty inspiring stuff.

I caught up with Max to talk all about videogames, survival stories, coping with dyslexia and making your own fertilizer!

Have you always been a gamer?

Max Brooks: I don’t want to say that I’ve wasted years of my life playing videogames - but I guess I have! I’ve been playing games since I was a little boy of eight years old and I got my first Apple II computer. I got into Gertrude’s Puzzles and things like that and I’ve been off to the races since. I’m a huge devotee of Sid Meier and the Civilization games. I war-gamed out a zombie book I later called World War Z using the scenario editor for Civ 2.

I can see how a love of those kind of methodical, historical games would fit with a project like World War Z where you’re working out a sequence of global events.

MB: Oh yeah. What I loved about Civilization is that it gave you different paths to solve a problem - which is also why I think I love Minecraft. I’ve never been a first person shooter person, you know? I feel like with those games, there’s a right way and a wrong way to solve a problem, but what I love about Minecraft is you’re given a task - which is “don’t starve” - and there’s dozens of ways to not starve, right? You can be creative and you can be a problem solver, and I think what an amazing template for the world we live in now! The world is changing so quickly - the old education system of just memorisation and just vomiting out information, that’s a death sentence nowadays. You have to be nimble. You’ve got to be creative and inventive and flexible.

So it’s the improvisational aspect of Minecraft that you enjoy most?

MB: Yeah! Minecraft teaches you how to think and teaches you how to problem solve given your personality - and I think that’s exactly what real life is. You don’t own the world, the world doesn’t belong to you, but you can - as an individual - you can live your life the way you want and solve problems the way you want.

“There are a couple of survival skills that I’ve got under my belt. I can grow anything. I can make my own fertiliser - you don’t wanna know how.”

Both World War Z and The Island have characters overcoming danger through analysis and careful preparation and a lot of hard work - it’s so satisfying to read! What is it about those kinds of stories that attracts you as a writer?

MB: I think, for me, it probably started with dyslexia. I grew up with dyslexia - nowadays they call it a learning difference - but when I was a kid it was a disability, and let me tell you, it felt like one. It did not feel like a “difference”.

I could not learn the way the other kids were learning. I had to become a problem solver. My mother, god bless her, pretty much gave up her career to figure out coping mechanisms for me. And so it’s the coping mechanisms that sort of set the tone for my life. Whenever I approach a problem, I think, “OK, problems are going to happen, but how do I solve them? And how do I solve them given who I am?” So when Minecraft came along, I was like, “Oh my god, where was this game when I was growing up?” I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life for this game.

Do you think writing these books has helped your own survival odds? How would you do if you were personally marooned on an island or faced with a zombie horde?

MB: You know that’s a really good question. There are a couple of skills that I’ve got under my belt. As a gardener, I can grow anything. I grow weird stuff: tobacco, sugar cane, cotton. If we were in a Survival village, I could be the town’s sugar maker. I know how to press it, make sugar from cane. I can make my own fertiliser - you don’t wanna know how. I’ll literally take old chicken bones out of my compost bin and I know how to grind them up into bone meal and put them in the garden, just like in Minecraft.

Max spent hundreds of hours in the game testing different scenarios to make sure he described them accurately in the book. He was kind enough to share a few snaps of his test world - this pic depicting his many prototypes for brick cottages. The one closest to camera was the winner.

“These nine, freestanding explosives tests are part of the 30 or so I did to get the right combination of TNT, gravel, water and glass,” says Max. “I've got another one I tried built into a mountainside with a trapped villager to make sure my character wasn't killed in the blast.”

It’s not a spoiler to say the character comes up against some mean mobs and has to improvise defences. “The boobytrap training grounds were built to test some of the traps my character uses for war,” says Max. “You can see the powered rail at the end of the cliff.”

Max spent a lot of time studying Minecraft’s various forms of simulated calamity. “This hollowed-out shell with the fountain in the middle used to be a model of an all-wood mansion,” says Max. “You can see what happens after the water has been released!”

Those are impressive skills to have! I think I’d be dead within minutes of any adverse situation. This book might help, though! Each chapter delivers a new, really important life lesson. Did you set out to write a book which doubles as this guide to self-improvement?

MB: No, no - the lessons just emerged as I was playing Minecraft! The very first time I spawned was on an island, and I made tremendous mistakes, and I learned from my mistakes and I had tremendous failures, epic fails and I recovered from epic fails and as all this was happening, it dawned on me: this game is a guide to life!

And I was so excited I told all of my other parent friends and ran over to my kid’s school for a teacher meeting - I was so excited telling the principal, “You should have Minecraft courses because this is everything that we’re trying to teach our kids.” He didn’t listen, of course. So I was sort of frustrated trying to figure how to get all this out, and then I got this call saying, “Hey, would you be interested in writing a Minecraft book? Do you have a take on it?” I said, “Oh, do I ever!”

As well as learning to survive, the character in The Island has to deal with the weird rules of Minecraft itself. I really enjoyed the bit where the character comes to terms with the fact that eggs aren’t immediately edible - how did you decide to make it so that the literal rules of Minecraft were part of the story?

MB: Well, I think that’s a great metaphor for life! Putting myself in the mindset of this character in this weird world, it’s really no different than when I stepped out of my parents’ house into the world. One of the most important lessons I put in the book is “Just because the rules don’t make sense to you doesn’t mean that they don’t make sense.” I had to learn that the hard way.

But it was easy for me literally to jump into the world because I always do that with videogames. When I was a kid, I would play a submarine videogame, and my room was the sub and I’d turn the lights down low and when the sub got hit I turned on the hot shower so there’d be steam and blasting water.

Wow, that’s commitment to the fantasy!

MB: Oh yeah - when I commit, I go 110%, otherwise I don’t do it!

“Problems are going to come at you - the greatest skill you can have is how to recover, how to pick yourself back up and keep moving on.”

So out of all the kind of lessons that The Island and Minecraft in general encompasses, which one do you think is the most important?

MB: Honestly? I think “Never give up” - because I sort of look at the people who are successes in life and the people who I admire, and it’s not the people who are lucky or the people who are successful right out of the gate, it’s the people who have had tremendous challenges thrown at them, and they’ve failed miserably, and then they got up and did it again.

What I love about Minecraft is that it teaches you so many emotional life skills, and I think one of the greatest skills it teaches is recovery from failure. That’s really lacking nowadays. It doesn’t matter who you are, problems and challenges are going to come at you and the greatest skill you can have is how to recover, how to pick yourself back up and keep moving on.

I remember once, playing Minecraft, I built the most beautiful house. Actually, I didn’t just build it - I grew it. I grew a house from trees, I planted them all in the shape of a house that I wanted, and it grew and then I built the floors and the rooms. It was so amazing. And then it burned down.

Oh dear. Minecraft does acclimatise you to those sorts of disasters.

MB: It really does! You can have all this amazing stuff and then it gets blown up or burned down and then it’s like, “Well, OK - time to get back to work!” I think one of the greatest lessons of the book came to me by accident, where I woke up one morning, I’m playing Minecraft, and the game suddenly changed. It was a new version, where suddenly you could use shields and mobs were harder to kill. At first I was angry and frustrated and then I realised, “Oh no, this is life.” This is what happens in the world - economies change, technology changes. The world changes, you’ve got to change with it.

You can pre-order Minecraft: The Island here. The lovely cover art is by Ian Wilding - who we interviewed here.