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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Interview with Joe Abercrombie

Read Fantasy Book Critic’s REVIEW of “The Blade Itself

Thanks to Jill from Pyr Books, I was sent a review copy of Joe Abercrombie’s debut “The Blade Itself” and an interview with the author was arranged which Joe obligingly agreed to. As grateful as I was for the chance to talk to Mr. Abercrombie, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to come up with any questions since Joe has already been interviewed so thoroughly by Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, A Dribble of Ink, SFX, & more. After completing “The Blade Itself” though, which turned out so much better than I was anticipating, I just had to dig a little deeper into the crazy mind of Joe Abercrombie. And wouldn’t you know it, the interview turned out to be one of the most enjoyable interviews that I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of. So if you haven’t read a Joe Abercrombie book yet, I’m hoping the following Q&A will persuade you to get off your assess and correct that little oversight :D

Q: In my review of “The Blade Itself” I wrote that your book “is simultaneously an homage to fantasy of old, a satirical riff on clichés common within the genre, and a contemporary revision” and you responded on your blog (thank you very much!!!) that I got you. So breaking it down, what parts of “The Blade Itself” best represented your homage to the genre, your mockery of clichés, and revisioning of familiar ideas?

Joe: It’s a homage to the genre in that it incorporates a lot of classic settings and events. A magic tower. A frozen North and a desert South. A fencing championship. A decaying empire beset by enemies without and within. A quest into the unknown for an ancient artifact of great power, that might save the world, or destroy it. You’d think you’d read it all before except…

It’s a satirical riff. As one reviewer put it, “it focuses on the rubbish side of life to humorous effect.” I think epic fantasy can sometimes take itself a bit too seriously. It’s important to make your readers laugh. Then when you kick ’em in the nuts it’s twice as painful. And then, of course…

It’s a modern revision. The characters aren’t ever quite what they seem to be. There are no heroes, no villains, and no right sides, just people trying to stay alive in desperate circumstances. And things don’t always come out the way they do in the stories. Clichés, tropes, whatever you want to call them – they create expectations that help you surprise the reader when you do something differently. And surprising the reader is what I’m really interested in.

Q: From what I’ve seen so far, the sequel to “The Blade Itself” is getting even more positive reviews than the first book. What makes “Before They Are Hanged” (currently available in the UK and due out in the US March 2008) a better novel in your opinion?

Joe: I read them both recently, in sequence, in an effort to make sure the third book didn’t contain any howling errors, and I certainly feel the writing is better in the second one – smoother, leaner, more controlled. Also, there’s a lot of setting up to do in the first – the world, the characters, their history. In the second we can get straight into the story, and the relationships between the characters, which for me is the key area. I felt it was a big step forward in pretty much every way.

Q: “Last Argument of Kings” (Click HERE for a synopsis and extract from the book), which concludes The First Law Trilogy, is set for a UK release March 20, 2008 via Gollancz. What’s the latest progress report on the book, and how do you feel it stacks up to your other books in terms of story, writing-wise and entertainment value?

Joe: The book’s finished and advance reading copies should be going out to the lucky few in the next month or so. Again, I feel it’s an improvement in pretty much every area – a widening of the scale and an increase in pace and drama, but with the added bonus that you get the conclusion of the various plots, and the shocking truths are revealed before your weeping, laughing, disbelieving eyes. Hopefully it will demonstrate where I’ve been going all along, and put the previous two books into a slightly different light as well. After all, the end of a series is really its most important part, and the part where I think readers are most often disappointed. I don’t think anyone who’s liked the other two books will be disappointed with this.

Oh no.

It’s an epic sweep of love and war, a sprinkling of sex and a whole lot of violence, witty banter, moral complexity and bad language, topped off with a cartload of pant-wetting surprises . . . what more could a fan of fantasy, or anything else, possibly ask for?

Q: Well, it’s probably too much to hope that I’ll be one of those ‘lucky few’ to get an ARC so when can US readers expect “Last Argument of Kings” to hit bookstores?

Joe: “Before They are Hanged”, should be flying out of US bookstores in March ’08, and, with any luck, “Last Argument of Kings” will be following six months later, in September, a mere year after they first bought “The Blade Itself.”

Q: Excellent! So the plot for The First Law trilogy was pretty much mapped out from the beginning I believe, but I’m sure changes have been made since then. What have been the most significant changes to the trilogy?

Joe: I’m pretty careful in my planning, and I don’t usually end up writing anything that isn’t important in some way or other, so there haven’t really been any major cuts made from the manuscripts (at the level of whole chapters, say). From the planning standpoint, I did originally have a seventh point-of-view character in mind who was going to come in at the start of the second book. By the time I got there, though, it felt like I had more than enough content already, so he hit the cutting room floor, and is little more than a name mentioned in passing. Perhaps in another book…

In terms of the editing, the most significant change made was that the Dogman chapters were originally written in the first person (as an ‘I’ rather than a ‘he’). I try to use a slightly different approach with each character, and this was something I was keen to have a go at. It worked very well for those chapters, I think, and gave them a real sense of intimacy, but Simon Spanton (editorial director at Gollancz) found it more than a bit weird in the context of the rest of the book, which is all written in the third person.

I was very reluctant to make that change, initially, and it took quite a while for me to come around to the idea, and to alter the writing, technically, in a way that still gave the chapters the same feel. In the end I think perhaps those chapters lost some of their punch, but they came to fit much more happily into the rest of the book. So a good decision, overall. Maybe I’ll try fiddling with the first person again at a later date…

Q: I think that would have been an interesting dynamic, but like you said, there's always next time. As a writer, what have been the biggest improvements that you’ve made from your earliest incarnations of “The Blade Itself”, and in what areas would you like to get better still?

Joe: The main thing is that I’ve got quicker – my first drafts, though far from good, are a lot better than they used to be – and that’s the same thing as being better, because it leaves you more time for the reading over and refining which is 90% of the work in any case. Plus it leaves extra time for me to pontificate on my blog and scour the Internet for the very slightest breath of opinion about me or my books expressed in any language anywhere in the solar system.

In terms of further improvement, I feel there is definite room for growth in the area of my advances. They are still far too small for my taste.

Q: LOL. In one of your interviews you stated that for you characters and story take precedence over environment and worldbuilding. Why and what do you feel are the keys to writing a great story and characterization?

Joe: What’s more important to you? Your family and friends or your house? One’s your life. The other’s the setting for it. That’s a no contest in my book. Worldbuilding’s great, in its place, I just don’t feel that it should ever cramp the characters or the story. It should always be revealed in passing, as the background for the action, never be the focus of anything.

For me, the key to great story is unpredictability. I love to be shocked when I read something. Of course, to really surprise someone, you have to establish a baseline within which they think they know what’s going to happen. This is one of the attractive things about writing within a genre. Readers come along with a set of expectations ready-made for you to twist to your own evil purposes.

The keys to great characterization are humour and honesty. If a character can make you laugh, you’re already a long way towards being engaged with them even if they’re otherwise disgusting.

But, of course, different readers will all have different opinions about what makes a great story or characters for them, as well as what the balance should be between worldbuilding and action. So, in the end, there are as many answers to these questions as there are people in the world, as there are grains of sand upon the beach, as there are stars in the clear, cold, infinite night sky.

That, my child, is the greatest fascination, and the greatest frustration, of being a writer.

Can I get any more pompous?

Q: Very well put :) In August you announced a two-book deal with Gollancz for two more novels set in The First Law universe, the first of which is titled “Best Served Cold”. You provided some details HERE, but could you tell us how far along you are with the books, in what timeline they fit in relation to The First Law Trilogy, and the possibility of writing a sequel to the trilogy or providing prequels about such characters as Logen Ninefingers, the Northmen or Glokta?

Joe: Best Served Cold is planned out and the first of seven parts is mostly written, but new characters mean new approaches, and I’m still experimenting with exactly how I’m going to write them. As you say, characters are the most important thing for me, and it can take a while for each of them to really develop their own voice. The book takes place in Styria, a land of feuding city-states, intrigue, betrayal and good hair, maybe three years after the end of The First Law.

Honestly, the second book isn’t much more than a twinkle in my agent’s eye right at the moment, but it will probably be a kind of fantasy war-story, set in the North, and focusing on the events leading up to and including a single climactic battle, as seen from both sides. Expect blood on the snow, plenty of fur, and big men swapping darkly humorous one-liners. Zing.

When it comes to prequels and sequels, at least focusing on the same main characters, I feel it’s generally better to quit while you’re ahead (though there may be some varying opinions about whether I’m ahead or not) than flog a dead horse. I think to improve as a writer you need to try new things, new characters, new types of story. If you keep on pedaling the same old same old then ultimately readers will tire of you, and there’s always some hot new writer waiting in the wings with something fresher. You’ve got to change and develop, even if that’s going to mean some wrong steps along the way.

But never say never. Dead horse flogging can be a surprisingly profitable business and daddy needs a swimming pool…

Q: What about other non-First Law related projects? Anything that you’re working on or ideas that you could talk about? What about branching out into a different format, such as writing a comic book, or a videogame or movie script? Any thoughts?

Joe: Well I was approached recently, entirely out of the blue, about the possibility of doing some writing for a well-known US Sci-Fi TV Show. I can’t say which one, in case it’s a less good one than you’re thinking of, and you’re disappointed. But I’d certainly be interested in having a stab at it if I was asked. On the whole, though, trying to write a novel a year, maintain the blog, work the day job, and help bring up a one-year old keep me pretty busy. Giving myself more work isn’t necessarily my first priority.

Q: Well that’s definitely a workload ;) As you mentioned, you’re also working a ‘day job’ (freelance film editor). What will it take for you to become a full-time writer?

Joe: Enormous sales? Because I’m freelance I don’t have to give up in any final sense, I can just take jobs here or there if I want or need to, and write the rest of the time. Plus, despite the wonderful publishers I work with, writing is fundamentally a very lonely profession, and it’s nice to get out of the house from time to time. So I don’t know that I’d ever want to write completely full-time, even if it was a financial possibility.

Q: That’s a good point. Now interestingly, I’ve read that you’re not very “well-read” in fantasy literature and that a lot of your influences actually come from outside the genre. Do you think this gives you an advantage in bringing a unique perspective to the genre, and if so, why?

Joe: Possibly … in the same way that an industrial architect might bring unfamiliar and innovative techniques to house design, maybe?

Honestly, though, I think uniqueness (if I dare use the word) is sometimes a bit over-rated. Much beloved of critics but perhaps not so much of readers. You can be unique and still be, for want of a better word, shit. A man with an arse for a face is unique, but I don’t know that I’d want to be him. To write an appealing story, I think you need to balance the original with the familiar, and for me, quite small nuances of style and approach can be enough to make some familiar components fascinating all over again. If it’s a choice between the two, I’d much rather be good than unique.

But clearly either one would be something.

Q: Speaking of outside influences, film & television were a major inspiration in your writing and “The Blade Itself” definitely has a ‘visual’ feel to it. So has there been any progress in bringing the book to the silver or small screen, or any format for that matter, and if so, can you share any details? If not, what would be your dream adaptation?

Joe: A couple of approaches at the most basic level. Are the rights available? Yes they are. Stony silence while tumbleweeds roll past.

I think we must concede that chunky fantasy series, even ones as relatively slim as mine, are rarely going to be that attractive to producers. They’re always going to be an enormous, expensive challenge to film. The Lord of the Rings movies have raised the bar spectacularly and stuff like Red Sonja and Hawk the Slayer probably wouldn’t cut it any more (if they ever did in anything other than a slightly camp, mildly titillating way), so I’m not holding my breath.

My dream adaptation would be one that meant I didn’t have to work. Ever again. Of course that might not stop me working. But it would be very nice to have the option.

Q: In fantasy literature, cover art is a bit of an issue, especially how important it is in selling a book, how fantasy covers are considered generic, the difference between international & stateside covers, et cetera. What are your thoughts on this subject, how do you feel about your covers so far, and why are the US/UK covers basically the same?

Joe: Well cover art will always be an issue, as in 99% of cases it’s really the key marketing tool a publisher has for a book. Naturally they tend to be generic, because it makes very good sense, especially in a genre, to imitate books that are already successful. It’s a not-very-secret code that says to readers, “hey, you liked that book with the dragon and the horned helmet? You’ll love this book with the dragon and the horned helmet. It’s a dragon and a horned helmet sort of a book. You like those. Buy it. Buy it now.”

However creative publishers want to be, and however creative some authors and some readers would like the publishers to be, it’s very, very difficult to escape that simple commercial reality. Books have to sell, and generic covers really help them sell. Genre books rely on genre readers, and if the genre readers can’t find the books, who will?

Having said that, Gollancz are probably the most adventurous SF/fantasy imprint in the world when it comes to the design of their books. My own covers I actually like a lot (not that I had much to do with the ideas, really, very few authors do). I think they’re basically very pretty and get across some sense of the content, don’t turn off genre readers, but equally they’re not embarrassing to a more mainstream reader. They’re the one aspect of the books, in fact, for which I’ve never heard anything but praise. They’ve also got steadily better, and I really love the most recent one – I think that will be a beautiful book, in every sense (ha ha). I’m not generally a fan of literal cover art (a painting of the hero on a charger, sword aloft) because, unless they really hit the nail on the head, which they rarely do, they tend to cramp the reader’s imagination in quite a fundamental way. So these work well, for me.

US and UK covers are more or less the same, with some minor changes to the lettering, because Lou Anders from Pyr liked the UK cover and thought it did the job he wanted it to do. If it ain’t broke…

Q: Now that you’re officially a published author, what’s the best thing about being one, the worst, and what’s the biggest misconception of an author?

Joe: Misconception – that we’re all over ten feet tall. I am, in fact, just a shade over nine feet. But my eyes do flash with a mysterious fire.

Worst thing – bad reviews. Reading one, however insignificant the writer, is still like being stabbed in the face with a cheese-grater.

Best thing – my toilet seat carved from a single massive diamond. It’s kind of cold when you first sit on it. But it soon warms up.

Q: In other interviews, you’ve chronicled your journey from first starting “The Blade Itself” to finding a publisher, and finally seeing the book published. What about finding a US publisher? How difficult was that and why Pyr Books?

Joe: To be honest, that wasn’t a decision I was particularly involved with. I sold world volume rights to Gollancz, and they’ve then been responsible for selling the rights on to other markets wherever and whenever they could get interest. Put simply, Pyr were the first publisher to make an offer for the US rights, perhaps a year after the book was first published in the UK, and I was delighted to say yes.

Having said that, I’m very happy with Pyr. Lou Anders, who runs the imprint, is a man with great taste, a sharp eye, and a keen sense of humour, and he puts great effort and enthusiasm behind everything on his list.

You can put the knife down, now, Lou.

Q: (Thanks to Chris from The Book Swede for the inspiration behind this question) What is the one question that no one ever asks you, but you wish they did, and how would you respond?

Joe: Would you be willing to sell film rights in The First Law for an obscene quantity of money?

No, I have my artistic integrity to consider. Only kidding. Where do I sign?

Q: As a film editor, you’ve been working on documentaries and live concerts. I’m assuming you’re a pretty big music lover. Who are some of your favorite artists and albums?

Joe: The band who’ve been on my CD player more than any other over the past year or two are the Killers. Love both their albums. Beyond that, anything and everything. If you’re going to spend six weeks working on a concert, and hear the same music over and over and over again, you have to get to like it. Narrow tastes is an option that leads quickly to insanity.

Q: The Killers, not bad ;) So another hobby of yours is videogames. I don’t know if you get much time to play nowadays, but what are your thoughts on the latest Next-Gen systems? Also, feel free to list any favorites :)

Joe: Oh, my days. It’s the dream question. My thoughts on any system, next-gen or otherwise, are that they’re only as good as the games you can get on them. At the moment there doesn’t seem to be anything out there really floating my boat. In general, I feel like there’s too much emphasis on graphics and not enough on gameplay. Maybe I’m just getting old, but beauty does nothing for me unless there’s something going on upstairs as well. Alright, that’s a lie, but you know what I mean.

As for my favourites, well: Elite (the biggest leap forward in gaming ever by a country mile), Dungeon Master (the great-grandfather of fantasy RPGs), Street Fighter II (most of what I did at University), Final Fantasy VII, Shogun: Total War, Baldur’s Gate, Resident Evil 4 and many, many, many more.

Q: In reading I don’t think you check out much of the current fantasy being released, but surely there must be some newer authors that have impressed you with what their doing? Any opinions or recommendations?

Joe: I haven’t read his book, but that Pat Rothfuss is certainly impressing the hell out of me with his sales, and the breadth of excellent opinion he’s generating. All the signs seem to be that he’s going to be next big, big thing. Then of course there’s Scott Lynch, who needs no introduction to anyone with access to the internet, and there’s Tom Lloyd over here in England. Hey, what do you know? I’ve just realized that all four of us are published by the same imprint – Gollancz in the UK. There must really be some very clever people running that list.

In spite of appearances.

Q: What about books? What’s been in your reading pile lately?

Joe: Reading’s for squares, man. But seriously. The last book I read was “Hawkwood” by Frances Stonor Saunders, and it’s non-fiction about the first great English mercenary captain to fight in renaissance Italy. Good stuff. I read a lot more history than I do fiction, on the whole. Reality is far more insane than fantasy, a lot of the time.

Q: Very true that. Well, all good things must eventually come to an end, so do you have any closing remarks?

Joe: The same as usual. Drink more water, eat more fruit, and buy “The Blade Itself”. Hey. It’s still great advice.


Anonymous said...

Huh. I thought this was a decent book, but I never quite put my finger on why I liked this book and not Acacia, the other epic fantasy I've read this year. I think the problem with Acacia was that the world-building overshadowed the character development. But I liked The Blade Itself because of the great characters. I hadn't quite realized quite how un-obsequious the world-building is in Abercrombie's book.

Angela/SciFiChick said...

I just received The Blade Itself from Pyr the other day. I'm looking foward to it!

Aidan Moher said...

Terrific interview, as always!

Looks like you had as good a time working with Joe as I did on my blog! Always interesting to see what he comes up with in each new interview.

A Dribble of Ink

Bob Lock said...

Great interview,
Joe's risible responses to many of the questions give you an insight to the mind behind all his excellent characters. I was interested to see this from him:

In terms of the editing, the most significant change made was that the Dogman chapters were originally written in the first person (as an ‘I’ rather than a ‘he’). I try to use a slightly different approach with each character, and this was something I was keen to have a go at. It worked very well for those chapters, I think, and gave them a real sense of intimacy, but Simon Spanton (editorial director at Gollancz) found it more than a bit weird in the context of the rest of the book, which is all written in the third person

I mentioned on Joe's blog some time ago that I liked the way he handles some of the character's POV:

I especially like the way you handle POV and how we get to see inside of Glokta's mind. Another thing I thought great was your use of (now, I'm not sure if this is correct but I'll give it a bash)third person limited omniscient? Where, for example in Dogman's POV you describe what the narrator sees with Dogman's turn of phrase (dunno if that makes any sense!) but however, whatever it's called and however you did it I thought it worked extremely well.

I suppose I was over complicating things there and it is really just first person but I find it strange that Simon didn't like it, it was one of the things that endeared me to the books and this too:

Glokta's third person POV yet we get to see inside his mind when he's thinking in first person. I thought it was cleverly done, but oh well... Looking forward to Last Argument Of Kings :)

Robert said...

I'm so glad everyone is enjoying the interview! Thanks for sharing your thoughts King Rat & Bob Lock, it's always a pleasure to see you here Aidan, and I can't wait to see what you think about "The Blade Itself" Angela :D


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