Interview with Joe Abercrombie
Interview by Hobbit.
Hobbit: Hello Joe: Welcome to SFFworld!
OK: new author, first book. Has the lure of fame, money and everything you’ve ever wanted been what you expected so far?
Joe: Fame, money, everything I ever wanted? Not quite yet. But for the time being I’m very happy just to have the book out there, and for a few people to read it, and like it, and want to read the next one. Then I’ll have a swimming pool shaped like a magic sword, please.
Highlight to date?
Definitely getting the first approving e-mails from my (now) editor at Gollancz, Gillian Redfearn, then the phone call from her boss Simon Spanton, saying that they’d like to have lunch with me to discuss my book . . . I was so excited I nearly soiled myself. In fact I might’ve, just a bit.
The book has been in progress though for a while, yes?
First put pen to paper in . . . 2001, I think, though I had made an abortive effort at starting way back, some eight years earlier. Some of the ideas are actually quite a bit older than that, though.
Please explain the intriguing Acknowledgements… (which state: For the Four readers; You know who you are) …was the book that difficult to write?
A lot of work went into making it, I guess, but it wasn’t really hard to do. I started just to see what it would be like, and was highly surprised to find I liked the result a lot and really enjoyed doing it. When I had a few chapters together I showed it to my brother and my parents, a heavyweight audience who would have told me what they thought with no holds barred. They were pleasantly surprised, and highly encouraging, and after that I wrote it for them more than anything. After a couple of years I had a book, and a pretty thorough plan for the other two, and set about trying to get it published. That was also when I finally got the nerve to show it to my wife. As for the four readers – they know who they are . . .
Of course, before you became a writer of novels you worked in film, as an editor – and still do, I believe? Did the skills involved in film editing help you with writing – or did it just make it more difficult?
Yes, I was, and am, an editor of documentaries and live music, and without doubt that has been a big influence on the way that I try and write. A lot of my influences are from film and TV, and I tend to try and think quite visually – to picture the settings, and the people, and the action before describing them. It may sound rich from someone who makes 200,000 word books, but I try always to make every scene do something, and to get it done as quickly and effectively as possible. Get on with it was the rule I tried to follow all the time. No wasted space.
That’s a good point. Although the book is 400+ pages long, and the first in a trilogy, that narrative tautness is noticeable; I did get the impression there was more to this story. How detailed is your own past history of this imagined environment?
I’ve got a few maps and some timelines, in an effort to maintain some kind of consistency, but I’m not one for rafts of source material. The planning of the series is a different matter though – I’d hope the next two books will demonstrate there’s a lot more to the story. Characters and events take precedence over environment, for me.
And being a busy man, where do you find the time to write? Do you have to set time aside or write when you can?
I’m freelance, and so I always found myself with time off (sometimes weeks at a time) between jobs. I started writing really because I needed a project more meaningful than just playing a lot of computer games while I wasn’t working. I still get a lot done in between jobs, but most of my writing is done late at night, after the wife has gone to bed, and the world is quiet . . .
So is this a case of the writing not being too much hard work because you’re enjoying it?
Yes, although as time goes on it does begin to seem more like work . . . just very badly paid work. There are rare times when I get a sudden good idea and feel inspired, and can get a lot done in a short space of time. Then there are times when I really have to grind it out. But nothing beats that feeling of reading back a chapter you’ve just finished and actually thinking it’s good.
Have you had a long interest in Fantasy? What (or who) do you know? Influences?
I was very into fantasy as a kid and played a lot of fantasy RPGs, and some of my ideas date back to that time. I’m not very well read in the genre at all, however, especially recently, and often feel a bit of an idiot when discussing it with editors, critics and more knowledgeable authors (just about all of them). Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (of course), Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea, Moorcock’s Corum and Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire have been the four fantasy series that really made a mark on me, and I’d have to give an honourable mention to a set of RPG supplements called The Enemy Within by Carl Sargent, which I thought were brilliant. But I would say that most of my influences come from outside the genre – I feel that fantasy, especially of the epic series type, sometimes feeds on itself a bit too much.
OK – please name those influences from outside the genre.
Phew, all kinds of diverse stuff, I suppose. I think most authors are probably influenced by everything they read or see and like, so in my case it’s a dazzling cornucopia of ingredients. A lot of what I read is military and general history (Shelby Foote’s Narrative History of the Civil War springs to mind). Westerns, as a genre, both film and book (Lonesome Dove is one good example). Cop shows (big fan of The Shield and The Wire), then there’s Manga (Fist of the North Star and Ninja Scroll), and violent oriental cinema (from Hard Boiled to Sanjuro), and The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, and Q by Luther Blissett, and Dickens, and Lee Marvin, and Street Fighter II, and Final Fantasy, and, and, and . . .
Would you care to explain the opinion ‘I feel that fantasy, especially of the epic series type, sometimes feeds on itself a bit too much?’
With the disclaimer that there’s probably a lot of very original fantasy out there that I haven’t read, I do get the feeling that some authors aim to out-Tolkien Tolkien, if you will, by vying endlessly to be more detailed, complex, and long. ‘Worldbuilding’, a phrase that has pretty much no use at all outside of fantasy, seems to have become an aim in itself, almost more celebrated than storytelling, as though the sets in a film are more important than script, acting, and direction combined.
Now let’s get to the book itself in a bit more detail. Please briefly summarise The Blade Itself.
Briefly summarising your own book is about the hardest thing in the world to do. I’ll have to pussy out on that one and refer you to the back cover.
LOL. Well, my back cover is blank: but I’ll link to my review [HERE] to fill the gaps in.
What did you want to do with the book? Were there specific points you wanted to make, or was it purely for entertainment?
I wanted to write my take on the fantasy epic. I wanted it to have the action and adventure, the excitement and mystery that you hope for from the genre, but at the same time to be based very much on character rather than world. I wanted it to be funny – if at all possible – without being outright slapstick. I wanted it to be realistic – in terms of the setting, the politics, the morality, the behaviour of the characters. That’s what I wanted. Whether I’ve been successful or not isn’t for me to say, really. Perhaps someone else would like to say it. Please?
Does ‘your take’ explain why there are not many of the usual fantasy icons in your book? No elves, for example?
True – no elves, dwarves, or dragons, as I feel that humanity can give you all the breadth you could ever need – but I seem to have managed to incorporate a few fantasy cliches all the same: a mysterious wizard with an incompetent apprentice, a sinister tower filled with ancient artefacts of untold power, a corrupt and decadent civilisation beset by barbaric enemies . . . It’s all so sub-Tolkien! I guess the idea was in no way to break the mould, just to pour a slightly different mixture into it . . .
There’s a lot of mystery with the book – things that may not be as they seem. Was that the attraction for you as a writer?
Definitely. As I said, I’m a big fan of cop-shows and mysteries in general. I’d say that James Ellroy is probably as big an influence on me as any fantasy author, if not more so. In fact, when I’m asked to describe the book to an audience that know nothing about fantasy, I say Lord of the Rings meets LA Confidential. I’m a big fan of twists and surprises.
Was it your intention to write about antiheroes? Though to me the book is about loyalty and honour, most of the main characters seem to have dark pasts or done dark deeds… even Major West, who I see as nearest to a good guy, does things in the book he regrets!
One thing that really disappointed me about a lot of fantasy was that it features battles between very clearly defined good and evil. Characters rarely cross from one side to the other or have any doubts about which side they’re on, and the motivations of the villains don’t tend to be explained beyond ‘I’m evil! Mwa ha ha hah!’ I always found that very dull, unrealistic, and predictable. I suppose I always found Saruman and Boromir a lot more interesting than Gandalf and Aragorn, if you like.
That’s why I chose as my three ‘heroes’ three men who could easily have been the villains of a standard fantasy piece: a crippled torturer, a sneering, self-serving nobleman, and a psychopathic barbarian with a bloody past, and tried to understand why they might behave the way they do, how they might try to see themselves as doing right. As you say, even the apparently good men are capable of evil, and vice versa. I suppose my point was that, in the real world, good and evil are all about where you stand, and everyone has their reasons.
I think those shades of grey in the characters work well and give the book a nice depth. With that in mind, which character came first? My money’s on Glokta!
Strangely, Glokta was the last of the six ‘narrators’ to take definite shape in my mind. Almost an afterthought, in fact, but he seems to have become the star of the show for many readers. Logen was the first character I thought of, although they’ve all changed and developed beyond recognition as I’ve actually written them.
Which is/are your favourite character/s and why?
I like them all. I make a big effort to write in a different way with each of the six central characters, to use different style and vocabulary. After writing a long chapter with one, it’s nice to move over to another. Feels almost like writing a different book.
Humour I always find tricky to read – it works for some, but not others. I thought yours worked – ‘gallows humour’ I called it in the review. How did you find writing it? How important would you say is humour to the book?
Yeah, humour is key, I think. I didn’t want to do something that took itself too seriously, or something that was full on slapstick. Life is neither one or the other. It’s funny and it’s horrible, often at the same time. I didn’t make a big effort to make it amusing – I’m not sure that you can, really. I just tried to amuse myself as often as possible. It seems to have worked for some people. For others, not at all. That’s humour, I guess.
I understand the sequel’s finished. Care to give a hint? Does it follow on directly from the events of The Blade Itself?
Absolutely. This is a fantasy trilogy – one story in three parts. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end and it’s all been carefully planned from the start. I’m not interested in making an endless series that wanders off into the middle of nowhere. Unless someone were to pay me, of course . . .
It does lead to the question of ‘Any ideas about after the series?’
It’s looking like some single books, possibly a bit shorter and more self-contained, set in the same world as The First Law but centred on different places and characters. Perhaps I might even work my way up to another trilogy at some point in the future. All providing someone wants to actually publish any more, of course.
Do you want to move to short stories? (Tales of the Northmen, for example!)
A book set in the North might well be one of the above.
Fancy writing something completely different?
Absolutely, at some point. I’d be keen to try my hand at a straight historical novel, though the research and detail that would be required is quite daunting. One nice thing about fantasy is that you don’t have to think too hard about exactly what type of windows a given building might have, or whether the shirts would have had collars or not, you can just go with whatever seems appropriate. But I’m sure if I run across the right story I’ll give it a try.
Thanks again, Joe.
Oh no, thank you. And ‘Buy the Blade Itself!’ (grins).