Interview: Joe Abercrombie
by Andrew Brooks
Review by Andrew Brooks
SFRevu *Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTJAbercrombie
Date: 01 September 2008
Links: Website of Joe Abercrombie / Joe's Blog / Review: Last Argument of Kings /
SFRevu: Now that you've finished the series do you feel that you've accomplished the vision you first had when starting out? Or are there things you wish you'd done one way or the other?
Joe Abercrombie: I think there will always be things you'd like to change, and certainly now when I read parts of the first book I'd do the detail of the writing differently. Yes, at times, I cringe. But overall I'm very happy with how it turned out. One of those rare projects in life that has not been a crushing disappointment for everyone involved…
SFRevu: Will we be seeing more of Glokta, Logen Ninefingers and Co. in the future? Any ends you may have left with the purpose of tying them up later?
Joe: I'm continuing to write in the same world as the First Law, so you never know what familiar faces will turn up in the background. But for the time-being I'm concentrating on some new characters and some minor ones from the trilogy, in some new settings and with some tighter, more focused plots. Standalone books. Never say never to revisiting the scenes of old successes, though. Once readers begin to send me hate mail because they so despise my experimental new material, I'm sure I'll be milking the cash cow for the rest of my disappointing career.
SFRevu: Speaking of Glokta, how did his character come about? And are you surprised that he's been so popular with readers, despite that he earns his keep as a torturer?
Joe: It's always difficult to put your finger on one inspiration for a character, but Glokta derives mostly from the experience of having a bad back, which I suffered with off and on for some time. Anyone who's shared that problem will probably find it easy to relate to the frustration, tedium and fury that chronic pain causes. The simplest things (like climbing stairs) become massive undertakings. The world contracts to the boundaries of your own body, and you lose all sympathy or interest in anyone else. I started thinking about how twisted and cynical someone might be who was physically incapable and in constant pain, with no hope of recovery. Ever. Especially someone who had once been a celebrated athlete.
I'm always surprised by how widely the responses of readers vary, but Glokta does seem to be the most popular character overall. I guess most of us have felt that burning hatred of the world at one time or another. Perhaps most of us have dreamed of acting without conscience or consequences. Perhaps towards an abusive boss, I couldn't say. Plus we'll forgive a lot in someone who can make us laugh…
SFRevu: One of the most refreshing things about your trilogy, besides its great story-lines, was the fact that it was a trilogy. Something particularly rare in the field as of late. Were you ever tempted to expound on something you found particularly interesting, but held off on because you needed to squeeze it all into three books? You didn't have to skimp on long paragraphs detailing character's clothing thread by thread, or the ingredients in whatever they were eating in the tavern, while sitting in chairs made from Adylusion pine, did you?
Joe: I was keen to keep it to a trilogy. Three pretty hefty books seemed more than ambitious enough. There was one other point of view character I was planning to introduce at the start of the second book, but when it came to the planning phase I realised there was already more than enough material so I cut that character out entirely. He's just briefly alluded to, and never appears in person. Maybe in another book.
I guess in a long epic there will always be areas that you find interesting, that you'd like to look at in more detail, but I wanted to try and keep the story as focused and fast paced as possible (within the context of a sprawling epic), so in general I stuck pretty closely to my original plan, and to only six points-of-view. Long passages of description? There are a couple in there, I guess, but on the whole I'm more interested in action and dialogue.
SFRevu: Any twists and turns along the way that surprised even you? I realize asking that question might ruin any surprises for those who haven't read so I'll understand if you keep it vague.
Joe: I love films, books, tv series that surprise me, that keep me guessing, so I wanted there to be some good twists in my books, if possible. A few things came to me as I was writing, but in general I stuck to the plan. It's difficult to pull out convincing twists without them having been imbedded in the text up to that point. Obviously the act of writing is way, way more protracted than the one of reading, as well. It might be a year between having an idea for the end of a book and actually implementing it, by which time you've been turning it over in your mind for a while and the surprise for you has probably worn off somewhat…
SFRevu: The obligatory question for all writers: What was your entry into fiction writing like? Did you write short stories or publish any first or just dive right in?
Joe: Just dove straight in. Foolish, it seems now. I guess hefty fantasy series were the formats I'd read and so that was the format I emulated. Doing it again, I'd probably try something a little less ambitious first. One massive book, maybe.
SFRevu: A lot of books, a lot of good books, too, have dialogue that could come out of any one of the character's mouths. But each of your characters has a distinct voice. Is that something you fleshed out in draft after draft, or are there that many voices in your head?
Joe: I was really keen to give each character their own voice, not only in dialogue but also to give chapters narrated from a certain character's point of view something of the feel of that character – to use a prose style that reflected the way they might think or see the world. I felt that would get the reader closer to the characters, help to make them as vivid as possible, which was always my first aim, and hopefully just make the book a bit more varied in feel. My own reading has been quite scattergun and there are a lot of different approaches that interest me, so it helped in the writing as well to have some variety. Moving from one character to another felt almost like writing a different book. I'm not sure I'd know how to write a story with only one voice in it. Some elements of the approaches I had in mind right from the start, but certainly they took a long time to fully take shape, and yes, a lot of drafting, reading over, revising, experimenting and applying what worked more widely.
SFRevu: Getting back to the story you've written, I loved the quest you send Bayaz and Co. on, especially the outcome of that journey. Literally, an example of turning The Quest on its ear. Did you plan for that early on in your drafts or did it just make sense that well of course this will happen when you've got that many different people together?
Joe: I read a lot of history, and my observation has been that failures, mistakes, and idiocy are frequently much more important in the course of events than successes. I hadn't seen that much failure and stupidity in fantasy so I was keen to redress the balance. I wanted my characters grimy, flawed, and difficult, as I have observed real people generally to be, so it made sense that my mismatched group of champions should mostly despise each other throughout. A couple learn grudging respect for one member of the team or another, but in the main they hate each other just as much at the end as they did to begin with.
SFRevu: Bayaz is an interesting character. Normally standard fantasy has the wizened old wizard or hermit or what have you; the kindly grandfather figure, dispensing knowledge and aid and whatnot. But Bayaz is just as brutal as the rest, more so in my opinion, and I loved the ambiguity of his version of his own past. Who do we believe, him or the others?
Joe: I guess Bayaz was my take on the goodly, wise and powerful mentor that's a bit of a staple of fantasy (and other kinds of fiction). I started thinking about how an ultra-powerful, semi-immortal figure might really behave, given how mortal politicians usually seem to behave in the real world. I decided he might not be as selfless, charitable, and righteous as is usual in epic fantasies…
As for who to believe, I guess that's up to the reader. The truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity. Why would I just give it away?
SFRevu: Logen Ninefingers desperately wants to change himself and the way others see him, and we do see some changes or attempts at changes throughout the trilogy. How did you feel about Logen at the end of the series, compared to your thoughts and plans for him in the beginning?
Joe: Change was another thing I wanted to look at. Often change in classic epic fantasy is smooth, even, and for the better. Cowards who learn courage, weaklings who learn strength, fools who learn wisdom. You know the sort of thing. I wanted my character's good intentions to stutter, to come and go with the wind, I wanted them to change half way in one situation, then find themselves reverting to bad old habits in bad old circumstances. I wanted the whole thing to have some of the raggedness and frustration of real life, I guess.
If Bayaz was my take on the fantasy staple wizard, Logen was my take on the fantasy staple of the man of violence. Violence has this glamour, this attraction, especially for men, but in reality is utterly destructive both for victim and perpetrator, and even for those on the periphery. So Logen became a way of exploring that gulf between the heroic ideal you often see in epic fantasy and the dark realities of being a man of violence. I feel very pleased with how that character came out, probably more than any other. He's a genuine contradiction. He's a nice guy, funny, warm, intelligent in his way, he wants to do better, and at the same time he's a mass murderer who's painted himself into a corner where violence has to be always the first resort. Plus he has an awful habit of killing all the wrong people…
SFRevu: Moving in a different direction, is it hard for British fantasy authors to get into the American market? If so, why?
Joe: It's always tricky to generalise. My own experience was that translation rights for my stuff were sold in a few countries, and the first book was already out and selling pretty well in the UK before I got an offer from the US. But there are 1001 reasons why that might be so. Epic fantasy is a competitive market, with a lot of big, established sellers, and possibly UK writers are seen as sometimes doing less commercial stuff.
SFRevu: Are there any differences, do you think, in popular British fantasy and popular American fantasy?
Joe: I don't think my knowledge of the broad sweep of the genre is anywhere near deep enough to have an informed opinion on that. My ignorant knee-jerk perception would be that British fantasists have tended to move away from the more straight-up, epic fantasy, perhaps always feeling very much in Tolkien's shadow, and towards more experimental, more literary areas over recent years, and perhaps left US writers to dominate the ground of doorstopping secondary-world, magic sword based fantasy. Always difficult to generalise, though, and of course there are exceptions.
SFRevu: What do you think attracts us, as readers, to epic fantasy? Why has epic fantasy been going so strongly now? Are most people looking to re-live Tolkien's world over and over again? Is it the hero, or the road less traveled, that readers just can't get enough of?
Joe: Sheesh, that's a tough one to answer. The biggest lesson I've learned since being published, and reading a lot of varied opinions about my own books, is that different people read and experience books in different ways, appreciate, value, and are disgusted by different things, to a degree that is hard to comprehend. Truly, one man's meat is another's poison. So there are probably as many answers to the appeal of epic fantasy as there are readers. As far as the current state of affairs, I do get the feeling that with the success of the Lord of the Rings films and also the massive uptake of fantasy-based online roleplaying games (millions upon millions of players) the tropes of basic epic fantasy have never been so widely recognised by folks that wouldn't necessarily ever come within a hundred miles of a book, let alone a fantasy book. I think that probably represents an interesting opportunity for fantasy authors. If I could just work out the angle…
SFRevu: Any directions you wish more authors in fantasy would go? What's your impression of the current fantasy landscape? Are authors changing somewhat with the times, or is fantasy, by definition, set in the tracks of Tolkien?
Joe: If you're talking of fantasy in general, then obviously it's a big, diverse bracket and there are a lot of subsets of the genre that have very little to do with Tolkien. I guess the major commercial development of recent years is the huge growth of urban fantasy or paranormal romance, which may well soon eclipse epic fantasy in terms of units shifted.
As far as epic fantasy goes, Tolkien is the great figure, of course, more than ever with the success of the films, but there are other important writers, and every new writer will inevitably have their own particular slant, spin, concerns, approach to the material. If they're successful, if they're good, they'll nudge the genre in new directions. Since Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, there definitely seems to have been a movement towards darker, more morally ambiguous, 'grittier' tales, perhaps with a more modern, stripped-back style. I guess writers like Erikson, Bakker, and more recently Scott Lynch are all moving in that direction, albeit in varying ways. Richard Morgan's forthcoming The Steel Remains may well go further than ever with it. But then Pat Rothfuss has had great success with something much more lyrical in The Name of the Wind.
As far as wishing authors were doing certain things, I think it's absolutely proper and healthy that different writers should have their own approaches. The fact that I choose to do things a certain way doesn't mean that I should have to sneer down with twisted lip on anyone who chooses to do it differently, or the readers who might appreciate that approach. Variety is the spice of life. Especially in what is supposed to be the genre of infinite ideas and possibilities…
SFRevu: At the risk of asking you something you don't want to get in the middle of, what do you think about world building in fantasy fiction? Overdone? Needless?
Joe: It's impossible to generalise, really, especially when people use all kinds of different definitions of the term. My own feeling is that if you're going to write fiction set in an invented world, it's virtually impossible to do without a fair bit of thought devoted to what the features of that world will be, which can mean mapping, timelining, thinking about cultures and names and invented languages and all those things, in order to ensure some consistency. Lists and coloured pencils and squared paper and all that stuff. I've got plenty of maps of my own, don't you worry about that. The way in which you incorporate those things into your writing, though, can vary widely (there are as many approaches as there are authors, I guess). My own taste as a writer is very much for a light hand on the world – I want it in the background where it isn't going to interfere with the flow of story and character. I want it suggested, stumbled upon by accident as part of the dialogue and the setting, rather than explicitly shoved to the fore. I've also tended towards a world which is relatively low on the magic and fantastical elements, since I'm more interested in the human aspects and I think sometimes crazy invention can distract from those things. But that doesn't mean I'm not impressed and fascinated by weird and wonderful worlds and ideas when they're well thought out and integrated with the rest of the story in a way that enhances, rather than distracts, from what I consider the key things – the characters and the action.
As with any other ingredient in the mix, it's all in the balance of the recipe. Probably few readers will appreciate a lengthy info-dump about how the uniforms of the city watch have evolved over the last six centuries in the middle of a fight scene. But if the author's meticulously worked-out knowledge of six hundred years of a city's history is employed in effortlessly making the behaviour, the appearance, the dialogue and feelings of the characters more cohesive and compelling, it's work well done. So it all depends on how it's revealed in the text, and also, I guess, whether the ideas are good. Worldbuilding can be stodgy, clumsy, tedious, distracting, or it can be vivid, subtle, fascinating, inspiring.
SFRevu: I've read you're a James Ellroy fan, and that he's been an influence on your writing, any true crime stories with fantastical elements running around in your head?
Joe: I'm a great fan of a lot of crime writing, but Ellroy in particular. I particularly admire the tightness of prose and plot, the brutality and unflinching realism, the skull-popping surprises, the messiness of real life, the loose ends and the sour resolutions. No one's a hero or a villain, they're just varying kinds of scum.
True crime stories with fantastical elements? I'm more interested in fantastical crime stories with true elements. These are the kind of cases you call Inquisitor Glokta for.
SFRevu: It's the old 'elevator pitch to a movie producer scenario' in which you must explain your trilogy in a sentence or two. What do you say? Any chance we'll see The First Law Trilogy on the big screen? Or the small?
Joe: Imagine if Tarantino had made Lord of the Rings. Imagine Conan the Barbarian with the self-awareness of Unforgiven. Imagine LA Confidential . . . with swords.
And The First Law should be coming to a cinema near you any day now. The only things missing are an option, a producer, a director, cast, crew, and hundreds of millions of pounds.
Joe: Oh no. Thank you.