Interview with Joe Abercrombie

Q: For the benefit of those of us new to your work, without giving too much away, can you give us a taste of the tale that is THE BLADE ITSELF?

The occasionally mysterious, often bloody, and always entertaining misadventures of Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, Inquisitor Glokta, crippled torturer, and Jezal dan Luthar, sneering young nobleman.

Q: What can readers expect from the subsequent two volumes of the series?

Put simply, a continuation of the story. An epic sweep of love and war, and all that. More hard-edged characters and pithy dialogue. More mystery and magic, more torture and intrigue and a few big surprises along the way. A widening of the scale with some grand set pieces and gruelling action as the characters are caught up in momentous events, all building to a thrilling climax. You get the picture. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. If you’re a rival fantasy author, you’ll cry a LOT.

Q: Since THE BLADE ITSELF is your fantasy debut, could you tell us a little of the road that saw this one go from manuscript to published novel?

It’s been an epic quest, Pat, no doubt about that. I started writing it in 2001, really just for my own amusement. I was a big fantasy fan when I was a kid, played a lot of role-playing games and so on, and had a few ideas hanging about from that time. I’m a freelance film editor, so I end up with quite a lot of time off in between jobs and I thought I’d give writing a try. To my great amazement, I was pleased with the results right from the start. The characters took on a real life of their own and I started to really enjoy writing it. I showed a few chapters to my family, who were astonished to find it didn’t completely suck. That was all the encouragement I needed.

Two years later my first draught was finished and I decided that, since I’d written the bloody thing, I might as well try and find a publisher, and I began to send sample chapters off to literary agents. A year of photocopied rejection letters followed and I became rather depressed. Then a friend of mine who works for an educational publisher happened to be on a desk editing course with Gillian Redfearn, editor extraordinaire at Gollancz. He mentioned, with great reluctance, that a friend of his had written this fantasy book and would she mind terribly if he sent her some (yawn). She read some, liked it, read some more, liked it more. Ten days later I got a call from Simon Spanton making me an offer. I nearly wet myself.

Q: What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

Characters, dialogue, humour, action. And the unfolding of the whole series will hopefully demonstrate that I can put a plot together in a tight spot as well (fingers crossed). The area for which I’ve garnered the most praise, however, is the nice feeling paper in which my books are bound. If you like nice feeling books, you can’t go wrong with The Blade Itself.

Q: Do you have any plans to create a website or a blog where potential readers will have the opportunity to read sample chapters and learn more about you?

I have enormous amounts of plans for all kinds of things, but not all of them get realised. Not many at all, in fact. One might almost say there is a considerable gap between my planning and reality. Blogging scares me. I mean, what if no-one turns up? It’s like you sent out the invites, and filled out the name-tags, and warmed up the fondue, and nobody came to the party. I’d love to have a website. There just always seems to be something else to do. Especially since I now have a six week old baby. Never enough time . . .

Q: What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write THE BLADE ITSELF and THE FIRST LAW series in the first place?

No one thing, really. It’s a reaction to some of the things I didn’t like in a lot of the epic fantasy I read as a kid – cardboard characters, clearly defined heroes and villains with no shades of grey between, a fixation with worldbuilding over storytelling. Not that there isn’t some great fantasy out there. I just thought there was room for some more . . .

Q: Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write THE BLADE ITSELF and its sequel?

Absolutely. Taking a slant-wise look at some of the clichés of epic fantasy was always one of my main aims. Of course, the risk you take when you put a lot of tired old tropes in a book is that readers won’t realise that you’re trying to do something different with them. They’ll just see a book full of clichés. But hopefully, as the series progresses and the tone darkens, it’ll become clearer what I’m up to. That or everyone will have stopped reading.

Q: Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?

I enjoy them all. I try to write in a different style with each of my six narrators, to communicate some sense of what it’s like to be inside their heads. When I finish a long chapter with one it’s nice to move to another. Almost like writing a different book.

Q: Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?

Either one would be rather nice, of course. But in the unlikely event that I was offered the choice (perhaps by the devil?) I think it would have to be the bestseller. Critical acclaim is lovely, for sure, but I don’t think there can be a greater compliment for an author than that a lot of people should buy your book. That means a lot of people reading it, and, hopefully, liking it.

Oh, and the money, of course. I need food and clothes.

Q: Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

There does seem to be a certain stigma attached to fantasy – but I’m not sure it’s so much worse than that attached to crime, or romance, or any niche fiction. They may be closed worlds to a degree, which is part of the attraction for a lot of fans, but the up-side of being part of a genre is that you can find a solid base of very dedicated readers who know what they like and will come back for more. And it doesn’t seem to have stopped Tolkein or Rowling from shifting a few units, or Phillip Pullman from being seen as a heavyweight literary author.

It doesn’t matter what you write, you’ll never be loved by everyone, and the sooner you accept it the happier you’ll be. For me personally, as long as I can find a decent number of readers who like what I’m doing and want to buy my books, who cares?

Q: Pyr are slowly but surely establishing themselves as a quality outfit in the publishing world. More and more, the Pyr logo is associated with quality products and great reading experiences. Your addition to their roster shows how diversified they wish their readership to remain. What differentiates Pyr Books from the other fantasy/scifi imprints out there?

It’s tough for me to say because I still know very little about the US market. Or the British market. Or anything, some would say. But my first impression of Lou Anders, who runs Pyr, is that he knows and cares a lot about what he’s doing, and puts a great deal of energy into every aspect of the books on his list. He seems to have a really good nose for intelligent sci-fi and fantasy, and the great reviews his books get, more or less across the board, are testament to that. I guess the bottom line for any imprint is the judgment of the editor who decides what to buy, and from what I see and hear, Lou has great judgment. I mean, he bought me, after all . . .

Q: The narrative of THE BLADE ITSELF is extremely humorous in tone, somewhat of a throwback to David Eddings’ heydays. Was this something you consciously set out to do, perhaps to differenciate yourself from all those dark and gritty fantasy epics?

I certainly think that fantasy often falls into two types – immensely serious or slapstick. Real life is neither one, and I didn’t want my books to be either. I didn’t make a big effort to make it amusing – I’m not sure that you can. I just tried to amuse myself as much as possible. Some people have found it funny, others not so much. But I feel strongly that something can be humorous and still be dark, often at the same time. After all (said the author with the highest pomposity) you cannot have shadow without light . . .

Q: With Scott Lynch and yourself, Gollancz unleashed two authors who seemingly aim to write “fun” novels. With the emergence of writers like you guys and others such as Naomi Novik, do you believe that the fantasy genre needed this refreshing outlook that was so important during the 80s?

As I’ve said, I think that epic fantasy can sometimes take itself way too seriously. For me a book should first of all be entertaining, carry the reader along. But fun doesn’t have to mean childish, or disposable. If you can make some serious points along the way, that’s all to the good.

Q: THE BLADE ITSELF is the living proof that the internet can provide a lot of exposure for a book. Do you feel that most publishers don’t yet understand the full potential of this tool, in terms of exploiting the wealth of fantasy-related websites, message boards, and blogs?

Yeah, the internet provides a lot of opportunities, I’d say, especially for new authors for whom there’s little or no marketing budget, or for writers still looking for that elusive first deal. For me it’s great to just get opinions about what I’m doing, and some sense of involvement with the people reading the things, many of whom are vastly more knowledgeable about Fantasy than I am. Writing can be a lonely profession, so it’s good to have such an easy means of meeting readers – as long as they like your stuff, of course.

As far as most publishers go I couldn’t really say. The editors I’ve been working with seem pretty well aware of what’s going on. Lou Anders and Pyr are very much on the case, running their own blog and linking to the blogs of all their authors. And I know that Simon Spanton, one of the big important men at Gollancz, keeps his eye firmly on the various chat-rooms . . . possibly at the expense of doing actual work. But then, that’s how he discovered Scott Lynch, and he seems to be doing reasonably well.

Q: Since I already have an “advance reading copy” of BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED, it means that you are hard at work on the final volume of the trilogy. Is it a challenge to bring this series to a close?

Yes and no. I started the series with the ending firmly in mind, so a lot of the planning has already been done. I’ve been thinking about some of the final scenes since the start – the difficulty is in writing those scenes with sufficient oomph, if you will. So far I’m happy with how it’s going . . . but then I always am until someone tells me I’m shit.

Q: In the long run, what will differentiate THE FIRST LAW from the other popular fantasy series on the market?

It’ll be WAY better. But seriously. It’s character-centred. It’s got humour without being slapstick. And it’s under tight control. Fantasy’s always been long and complicated, it’s part of the appeal, but, for me, some series seem to have got a bit out of hand lately. They start well (sometimes brilliantly), then wander off into a morass of endlessly multiplying characters and plot threads, never finding a convincing resolution. I can promise you now that will not happen with The First Law. Three books, delivered no more than a year apart, then end with a bang. That’s my policy.

Unless someone were to offer me money to write more, of course.

Then you can have three hundred.

Q: Anything you wish to add?

Buy The Blade Itself, and its sequels. Buy them in softback and hardback. Buy them again when they come out in America. Recommend them strongly to your friends and family. Then perhaps I can get a World Fantasy Award AND a New York Times Bestseller, and you can ask me which I enjoyed more . . .

Q: Thanks again for accepting to do the interview. I wish you continued success with your writing career, and best of luck for the North American release of THE BLADE ITSELF.

Any time. And thank you.

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Interview by Patrick
fantasyhotlist.blogspot

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