Interview with Joe Abercrombie
Over the last few years there are few names that have stood out in Modern Fantasy than that of Joe Abercrombie’s. His original series ‘The First Law Trilogy’ revolved around the misadventures of thinking man’s barbarian Logen Ninefingers. It stimulated minds and tickled funny bones of fantasy fans all around the world.
After a successful stand alone novel set in the same world, Best Served Cold, there is huge anticipation for his latest book The Heroes – out in the UK on January 27th 2011 (published by Gollancz) and in the USA on February 7th 2011 (published by Orbit).
I could reveal to you a bit about the book, perhaps even tell you a bit more about Joe – but instead we thought that you may like to hear from the man himself – That’s right, Mr Joe Abercrombie has stopped by Fantasy-Faction and is ready to answer some question for us. So without further chatter from me – let us begin!
Section 1 – ‘The Heroes’ and Your 4 Book Deal
Firstly, seeing as this is a stand-alone novel – Could you tell readers who have never picked up a ‘Joe Abercrombie’ novel who Joe Abercrombie is and what has led him to releasing his 5th novel in 2011.
Joe Abercrombie is a young, rakishly handsome, and not at all bald author of edgy yet humorous fantasy fiction, deep in theme yet broad in entertainment value. He is releasing his 5th novel in 2011 because, erm, he’s written four already, and failed to deliver in time for a 2010 release.
Great! Now that we are all caught up, could you tell us what to expect from your newest title The Heroes due to be released on January 27th 2011 (UK) / February 7th 2011 (USA)?
Well, The Heroes is a book about war. More specifically, the great majority of it takes place in one valley, during the course of one three day battle, and follows the misadventures of six variously cowardly, selfish, murderous, ambitious, conniving, treacherous and otherwise largely unheroic characters mixed up in fighting on both sides and at various levels in the chain of command. All epic fantasy tends to be about war to some degree, but the way war is depicted is often somewhat shiny and heroic, with victory a question of clever planning and bravery. From reading a lot of military history I had deduced that war in the real world tends to be a more random, dirty, unpredictable business, with victory just as often the result of strange coincidences, personality clashes, mistakes, and bad luck. I wanted to write a story that tried to bridge the gap between that shiny, heroic, epic fantasy perception of warfare, and perhaps a more realistic, world-weary kind of take. Lord of the Rings meets Generation Kill, perhaps?
The Heroes is set in the same world as your previous work… which to many of us can only be a good thing! What I wanted to ask though is; are there any challenges to you as a writer to keep things fresh and exciting as a result of this? For example when editing have there been any cases where you have removed bits that sounded to similar to the previous work? And what can we expect from this novel that we have not seen before?
I think you want to always be trying something a little new – something different in terms of characters, settings, or style of narrative – in the hopes of keeping both you and your readers interested and not becoming a bad pastiche of yourself. But at the same time it’s sensible to give people, to some extent, more of what they (hopefully) liked about your books before. So I guess you look for a balance of the familiar and the somewhat new, trying to focus on what you’re (relatively) good at and interested in. In the case of The Heroes, I’d hope that it maintains the same general approach of my previous work – a tight focus on fascinating and unusual characters, a certain moral ambiguity, a cynical edge with some crunching action and a few inappropriate laughs – but in this case focusing the action very tightly in terms of time and space, which naturally throws the various characters frequently into each other’s paths.
We know of course that your past work has done amazingly well – especially for a British writer in this American dominated genre! What are your expectations for this novel, how much pressure have you put on yourself for it to exceed the previous ones?
Why thank you. I am honestly always somewhat amazed that anyone is interested in this stuff that I started dreaming up in the middle of the night for my own amusement, and seemed to me, at the time, pretty uncommercial. Early signs and reviews for The Heroes seem to be very good so far, with a lot of support from publisher and booksellers, but you try not to expect too much. There will always be people who like it and people who don’t. I hope it will do well, because in publishing you tend to be either on an upward slope or a downward one, and I still need to get a swimming pool shaped like a magic sword.
You have a brand new 4 books deal with UK publisher Gollancz, could you tell us about this deal and what it means for you as a writer?
Well, it’s a deal for four more books set in the same world, probably a standalone and another trilogy. In essence it means I can carry on writing full time for the foreseeable future, which is a wonderful thing, for me at least if not for readers. It’s great to have that support from my publisher, although a sneaking part of me can’t help imagining all those words stretching off into the far distance, and thinking about how long it’s going to take me to write them. Starting a new book is always tough. It takes quite a while to get confident in the concept, to get a sense of how you should write the characters, and that confidence is always quite brittle, believe it or not. At the same time you’re still partly involved with the last book, which has now gone out of your hands and to the public, so you’re becoming enraged by negative reviews, thinking, “how dare they?” or possibly intimidated by positive ones, thinking, “but will they like this new thing? Do I like this new thing?” or what have you. It’s a strange business, writing, one in which you have to very much expose your pitiable inner self to the harshness of an uncaring world…
Section 2 – Writing
How do you feel that you have developed as a writer over the course of these 5 books? What in your opinion has changed/developed (if anything) in your work? Do you think you still have things to learn?
I guess only someone who knows virtually nothing supposes they have nothing left to learn… I think I’ve got a lot better at writing, although I’m probably not the person best qualified to comment on that. My Mum tells me I have. I’ve certainly got more structured in the way I plan and work, and a lot faster at putting together a convincing first draft and then at editing it, which is the same thing as being better because it gives you more time to think, consider, and improve. I suppose I’ve got a little thicker skinned, too, although bad reviews still burn me like sunlight on a vampire. I just smile while I burn, now.
What have been the most surprising things you have learnt when writing your book and meeting with publishers?
I suppose the entire experience of being published is very different to what I might have naively expected before it happened. Much lower key. I hadn’t realised, for instance, that perhaps only 5% of published authors actually make a living out of it. The rest very much have day jobs. It’s taken me four books over five years to reach the point where I can write full time, and I’m always acutely aware that I’m lucky to be in that position and that it might not last forever. And when the hobby becomes your job, as with most jobs, some of the romance disappears, and has to be replaced by hard work.
Do you believe writing is a skill or a talent? If a skill, what suggestions do you have to writers looking to develop their craft?
No doubt in my mind a skill, at least the way I do it. From my point of view it’s a question of putting the hours in. Sitting in front of it. Chiselling and revising. Some days you might hate what you’re writing, think it’s garbage, but you just need to smash your head against it, and tomorrow you might find you wrote some stuff worth keeping. So learn by doing, I guess, though reading a lot of other people’s fiction can’t do any harm either. For me writing’s much more about banging it out than waiting for the muse. It’s great when she pays a call, but you can’t rely on her.
Section 3 – Your Personal Life
How do you spend the hours away from writing and touring Waterstones? What do you like to get up to?
Those few meagre hours I have away from my desk I spend shouting at my two (soon to be three) children, supervising an endless building project which is finally nearing completion after a year and a half, watching tv shows, and playing video games. I also occasionally visit the gym, perennial neck trouble allowing.
In regards to reading, what are your top 5 Books of all time, what are you currently reading and what are you looking forward to?
Jeez, man, who reads books any more? I never know about that whole top five business, it’s not the way my mind works. Different things work well at different things. It’s like if you were asked to choose your favourite tool. Well, a saw’s fantastic, until you need to hammer a nail in. Best book I read last year was The Good Soldiers by David Finkel – non-fiction by an embedded reporter in a battalion fighting in Baghdad, but written with a fictional eye for theme and character. Currently I’m reading a lot of western fiction and non-fiction partly by way of research for my next book, I’ve been especially enjoying Elmore Leonard, that man can sketch a character. I’ve just finished Charles Portis’ True Grit, and very much looking forward to the Cohen brothers’ film adaptation of it. I’m also watching the complete Deadwood. Hell, yes.
Section 4 – The Fans Take Over
Right Joe, that’s enough from me… I’ve been made redundant. I offered my Twitter Followers and Forum Members the chance to ask the questions from this point. We had around 50 in total, however with questions such as; “what is his favourite cheese” coming up amongst them I decided picking at random was a little bit risky and so chose the top 3!
Once this 4 book deal has concluded; do you ever have any plans for writing in a different setting? (Or genre?)
I barely have plans for this deal, let alone after it. I’m not someone who’s especially interested in weird and wonderful settings, so I imagine as long as I write secondary world fantasy I’ll stick to the one I’ve got, though I certainly wouldn’t rule out exploring some weird and wonderful parts of that world. I wouldn’t mind having a go at something set in our world at some point though – perhaps something historical, or somewhat alternative historical. But I’ll have to see what inspires me when those books need writing…
How was your experience writing a female protagonist in Best Served Cold and what pushed you to do so?
I guess as a man I find writing men more natural. There are always some aspects of the female experience you’re guessing at, and that does add a layer of difficulty to something that’s already not easy. Especially when I try to really get under the character’s skin and into their heads. But the ‘First Law’ was very male oriented, so I felt like I needed to try a female lead, partly to stretch myself, partly from a feeling that one’s work is far weaker for not having central female characters that are just as deep, interesting and surprising as their male counterparts, but also because it just seemed right for that character and that book. There’s a rich tradition of female revengers, especially in Italianate settings, so it somehow all seemed to fit together. As for the experience, well she was quite a difficult character to write, and we didn’t really click until near the end of the book. Took me a while to find out what she was about. I had to try a few different things, focus on what worked better, and then somewhat streamline in the editing. Whether that was entirely because she was a she, or partly because I hadn’t had a central character to that degree before, or just because she’s necessarily a hard, driven, inscrutable sort of character I’m not sure. But I think I’m overall pleased with the results, even though I’m sure not everyone will think she’s my most successful or likable character.
When you released your first book what were your expectations for it? Did you expect it to become your career? Does writing for a living meet your expectations?
Well, by the time the first book was released my expectations were reasonable. That was a year after I signed the contract and three or four years after I started writing it. When I started taking the writing seriously, maybe six months after I began doing it, I scarcely imagined it would ever be published, let alone be at all successful. When I’d finished the first book and was sending it to agents and collecting rejections, I certainly thought it wouldn’t be, and I began to think of it as a very uncommercial idea – too violent, too dark but too funny at the same time, too sweary. I started working on some different, much more simple ideas. By the time the first book came out I’d realised that writing was a tough profession in which very few earn enough to make a living, so my expectations were somewhat tempered, and indeed it’s no way to make instant riches, I can tell you that. But these days I can’t complain at all. I’m very lucky in my editor and publisher.
And that’s your lot for now Abercrombie fans! But you can also read our review of The Heroes here!