Joe Abercrombie is a British dude. A British dude who just so happens to be making waves in the Fantasy field at the moment. His first novel, The Blade Itself, was released to critical (and fan) acclaim in 2006, with many in the UK and Canada putting it right near the top of the genre right behind Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Soon to be released in The United States, it is sure to garner similar critical success.
The sequel to Joe’s first novel, Before They Are Hanged was recently released in the UK and Canada and faired just as well, if not better, with fans and critics alike, firmly placing Joe, who is hard at work on the concluding novel of the trilogy, Last Argument of Kings, as an author that everyone should be keeping an eye on!
Joe writes stories brimming with charming, charismatic characters who readers just love to hate! If you’re a fan of the sharp wit in Joe’s novels (or even if you haven’t read them), I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by Joe! He’s just as dastardly and biting as any of his characters! So, without further adieu, I leave you with the interview.
Q. Joe, first off Iâ€™d like to welcome you to A Dribble of Ink and congratulate you on the release of your second novel, Before They Are Hanged
Many thanks, Aidan, pleasure to be here.
Q. Can you describe your journey, from film editor extraordinaire to published Fantasy novelist, perhaps sparking a glimmer of hope in the hearts of some of my readers?
Iâ€™m not absolutely sure that every director Iâ€™ve worked with would agree with your use of the word extraordinaire but yes, in my other life, when I peel off the spandex and put my velvet mask back in its case, Iâ€™m a film editor â€“ mostly of documentaries and live music. Concerts, festivals, stuff like that.
Iâ€™m freelance, so Iâ€™ve always had quite a bit of time off in between jobs. For the first few years I spent that time mostly sleeping and playing video games, but after a while I decided I needed a more worthwhile project. Iâ€™d been a big fantasy reader and roleplaying gamer as a kid, so Iâ€™d had some characters and world ideas in mind for a long time, and I thought Iâ€™d have a go at writing an epic fantasy trilogy with all the edge and mystery of a thriller, and all the humour and moral ambivalence of real life. I mean, how hard can it be, right?
Obviously I anticipated that this would be yet another half-arsed project that would turn out to be rubbish and Iâ€™d get bored of in ten minutes. Imagine my amazement when the characters took on a life of their own and I actually started to like what I was coming up with. When I finally gathered the guts to show it to my family they were also astonished to find it didnâ€™t completely suck. And believe me they would have told me if it did. So I carried on, and after around two years, had the first book finished.
It would be safe to say that Britainâ€™s literary agents were not immediately convinced of my genius. I spent about a year sending sample chapters off to them, as is the usual advice, and accumulated a small collection of bland, photocopied rejections wishing me luck elsewhere. I was actually very close to giving up and writing something which I thought might be more commercial, when I was contacted by Gillian Redfearn, from Gollancz, an editor truly deserving of the word extraordinaire. A friend of mine who works for an educational publisher had met her on a copy-editing course, and had, with some embarrassment, mentioned that a friend of his had written a fantasy book and would she like to take a look at it.
I sent Gillian a few chapters and she liked them, and wanted to see some more. I sent her the whole book plus a synopsis for the whole series, and a couple of days later got a call from her boss, Simon Spanton, making me an offer. I donâ€™t mind saying that I nearly wet my pants. Alright, I did, just a little. A year later The Blade Itself was in print in the UK. German and Spanish editions have followed. American and French will be out later in 2007, and Russian, Finnish, Polish, and Czech some time thereafter.
So thereâ€™s the journey. I started writing The Blade Itself in, I think, 2001, and it was published in March 2006, so I estimate it took me about ten times as long as it took Frodo to get the One Ring from the Shire to Mount Doom. And before you ask, it was a quest every bit as fraught with peril and lined with heroic deeds. As for striking a spark in the cold, dark, rotten hearts of your readership, they will have to be the judges.
Man, that was a long answer.
Q. Long answers are good, Joe. By the time weâ€™re done, this interview might be long enough to appear on your bibliography! Your first two novels have met with a lot of success from both critics and readers alike all over the world and, with the impending release of The Blade Itself in The United States, the buzz surrounding you and your novels is sure only to grow. What measures do you take in these turbulent days to keep your head from expanding to the size of a weather balloon?
Well, the response to the books has generally been very positive, but my family and friends are always willing to help out by telling me how crap I am. Then I have a great editor chomping at the bit to point out my deficiencies. And of course there are always readers who donâ€™t like your stuff. Iâ€™ve read that I write like an eight year old. Iâ€™ve read that Iâ€™m the very definition of mediocre fantasy. Itâ€™s funny how, however high youâ€™re flying, being told youâ€™re disposable tripe can always bring you back to earth.
Q. The first thing that struck me about your novels is the title, both of which are lines of poetry from our own world, but have little direct connection to the stories at hand. What prompted these striking and esoteric titles?
Iâ€™ve always liked abstract titles, Iâ€™ve always liked clever sayings and quotations. What better than to combine the two?
Man, that was a short answer.
Q. Short answers are good, Joe! We wouldnâ€™t want to lose readers with long, rambling discourses on self indulgent topics, would we? On that note we come to the next question: many would agree that your main strength as a storyteller lies in your complex, relatable and exceptionally realistic characterizations. Did these characters give birth to the story being told? Or did the story itself dictate their creation?
Firstly, thanks very much. For me the characters are the absolute heart of any book, so praise for them is almost as good as saying that Iâ€™m beautiful. In fact Iâ€™ll take it as if you did say that.
As for whether characters or story came first, I suppose thatâ€™s a chicken and egg question. I started with the shape of the plot, the key events and the various endings pretty much in mind, as well as a good notion of the characters â€“ their backgrounds, their personalities, and how Iâ€™d write from their points of view. But both characters and plot certainly shift and develop in the telling, and influence each other. The story brings different characters together, they relate to one another, change and strike sparks, and send the story off in new directions. So characters and story are indivisible in my eyes. You cannot have one without the other â€“ brothers eternal, like light and darkness, war and peace, or Simon and Garfunkel. Though obviously ignoring Simonâ€™s hugely successful solo work.
Q. You mentioned earlier that when you first began work on The Blade Itself you expected it to be â€œanother half-arsed project that would turn out to be rubbish and [youâ€™d] get bored of [it] in ten minutes.â€ What can you tell us about these other projects that lasted no more than ten minutes? What was different with this trilogy?
When I said projects, I didnâ€™t necessarily mean writing projects. I was thinking more of stuff like, say, cleaning the bath. Iâ€™d only actually tried to write fiction once before, about six or seven years earlier, just after I left college. It was more or less the same series, with some of the same characters, but it came out rather pompous, generic and self-regarding, and I quickly lost interest. It just didnâ€™t have that spark of humour and personality that Iâ€™d like to pretend my work has these days. I guess the past few years have taught me to take myself rather less seriously.
Q. One thing that is hard to miss about your characters is that many of them, while protagonists in your novel, could very well be antagonists in anotherâ€™s novel. Did you intentionally set out to create such wonderfully dark, twisted, but ultimately likable characters? Or was it just the result of your own… erm, deficiencies as a human being?
One thing that Iâ€™d often found disappointing in the fantasy that Iâ€™d read as a kid was the very black and white nature of the morality in the stories. Heroes were smooth of limb, sharp of eye, and irrevocably committed to righteousness and self-sacrifice. Villains were evil for the sake of it, and usually featured some kind of physical disfigurement/speech impediment/horns, pointy tail or flames for eyes that marked their villainy out for all to see.
Iâ€™ve always found the morally complex, conflicted characters a great deal more interesting than the straight-up heroes. You can keep Aragorn and Gandalf. Iâ€™d rather have a pint with Boromir and Saruman any day. Though, thinking about it, Sarumanâ€™s probably more of a single malt sort of guy.
I wanted my characters to reflect my experience of the real world, in which everyone is capable of being heroic or disgusting, depending on the circumstances and your point of view. No-one really thinks theyâ€™re the villain, right? We all have our reasons, our explanations, our excuses. So as my three central characters I went for three men who, as you say, could easily be the villains of a classic fantasy tale â€“ a crippled torturer, a sneering, whining, spineless nobleman, and a barbarian psychopath â€“ and tried to really get inside their heads, understand what their motivations might be, give them some kind of humanity. Above all I wanted characters that were capable of really surprising the reader â€“ with glimpses of compassion, of humour, of stupidity, of violence. I suppose theyâ€™re both the heroes and the villains of this particular story.
And my deficiencies as a human being? How dare you imply that I have any?
Q. The one exception to this rule seems to be Collem West, a generally likable fellow with a clean, honourable history, who is only now discovering another, more sinister, side to his personality. Was he created to balance out the other protagonists? Or are there other reasons for his involvement in the stories?
West certainly serves as a counterpoint to some of the more obviously dark characters â€“ a man who seems likable, generous and honourable, but is capable of some pretty unpleasant things under the right (or should I say the wrong) circumstances. Heâ€™s certainly a useful contrast with Jezal dan Luthar, who seems to be a complete shit, but under the right circumstances is . . . well, still a shit, really, but a relatively harmless one.
Q. As an author who puts heavy emphasis on his characters, how important is worldbuilding to you?
Not unimportant. Iâ€™m not on some sort of anti-worldbuilding crusade. Crusades are dusty, have bad food, and my hair doesnâ€™t respond well to the heat. You canâ€™t really have secondary world fantasy without some element of worldbuilding, and what you do in that line has got to be convincing and consistent. I enjoy a nice map as much as the next guy. I have pads with every different size of squares, and pencils of every hardness and colour that you or anyone else could imagine.
But worldbuilding is well down my personal list of priorities, as a reader and therefore as a writer. A long way behind characters, dialogue, plot, action, humour, and all the other things that make a story. To me it equates to the set design on a film â€“ the sets need to look good, and make a convincing backdrop, but thatâ€™s what they should be â€“ the backdrop. No amount of great sets will make up for rubbish script, acting, direction, and all the rest.
Not to knock books where worldbuilding is to the fore â€“ itâ€™s the one major thing that sets fantasy apart from general fiction, after all â€“ but youâ€™ll find no shortage of that kind of work in the genre. I wanted to try and do something at least slightly different.
Q. As someone who focuses their energies less of worldbuilding and more on characterization, what was it that initially drew you to the (worldbuilding-heavy) Fantasy genre?
Partly the feeling that I might be able to find a slightly different take on the formula, but also all the things that Iâ€™ve always loved about fantasy â€“ the action and the drama, the magic and the mystery, the love and the war. And the not needing to do excessive amounts of research.
Q. One thing that bothered me while reading was the lack of any maps in the novels. Is there a particular reason for the missing maps? Is it something we can expect in the future?
No maps was ultimately the publisherâ€™s decision. If theyâ€™d insisted on a map they could have had a hundred of â€™em. But if it had been my choice, I probably would have come down on the side of no map.
To use a film metaphor, I feel that epic fantasy is often told too much in wide shots, which is to say we are shown vast events from a great distance, we are shown little people in a huge landscape, we perhaps lack that feeling of closeness with, and understanding of, the characters. And thereâ€™s no wider shot than the whole world on a page, right?
I wanted my readers to feel like they were right there with the characters â€“ right inside their heads, if possible â€“ part of the action rather than floating dispassionately above it. I wanted to tell a story as close-up as possible, so you can smell the sweat, and feel the pain, and understand the emotions. I want a reader to be nailed to the text, chewing their fingernails to find out what happens next, not constantly flipping back to the fly-leaf to check just how far north exactly Carleon is from Uffrith, or whatever. The characters often donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on â€“ they donâ€™t have a conveniently accurate map to hand, why should the reader?
But I might put a map or two up on my website at some point, maybe. After all, everyone loves a good map, donâ€™t they?
Q. You seem to be in tune with the internet, making regular appearances on forums such as those found at SFFWorld, and yet your personal website is rather bare at the moment! Are there any plans for a full fledged web site?
Any second now the snappily titled www.joeabercrombie.com will be up and running, bursting with extracts, news, opinions, home-grown wit and other exclusive content. Honest.
Q. Any words of wisdom you wish to share with aspiring writers? Perhaps something you wish someone had told you long ago before your embarked on this crazy journey?
This might sound strange coming from me, but donâ€™t be shy. If youâ€™re serious about getting published, approach every agent and publisher you can find, tell every person you know and a lot you donâ€™t. It might be all a question of one lucky break, but the more people you involve, the quicker luckâ€™s going to find you.
Q. Any last words, sir?
Drink more water, eat more fruit, and buy The Blade Itself.
So, there you have it folks! I hope you were as entertained reading the interview as I was conducting it! You can find my reviews of The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged Here and Here, respectively.