Novelist Joe Abercrombie burst on the British fantasy scene with his trilogy The First Law, a grim and bloody epic of characters equally damaged and damaging. His reputation established, he visited the world again with two standalone novels, Best Served Cold and The Heroes, and has just released Red Country. While touring the country to promote the book, meet his fans and talk about his work, on the evening of Thursday 25th October he passed through Edinburgh and spared a few moments to talk to Geek Chocolate.
Geek Chocolate – The First Law trilogy, where it all started, was described as “fantasy with the edges left on.” Was that a deliberate response to the preponderance of fairies and princesses and easy solutions through magic, a genre that was fine for escapism, but whose divorce from reality made it irrelevant to serious modern readers?
Joe Abercrombie – Yes, I suppose is the short answer to that. When I was a kid I read a lot of fantasy of quite a typical post-Tolkien style, eighties and nineties commercial fantasy, and there are certain patterns that develop. It’s quite predictable, shiny, morally simple, focused maybe on the setting over the people, and in writing my own take on it, I wanted to maintain the things I liked about it but hopefully introduce unpredictability, a sense of realism, and some moral ambiguity, I suppose you might say, and also a bit of a sense of humour. That was kind of what I had in mind, very much a reaction to what I’d read as a kid, and also a lot of things I’d read in wider fiction, a lot of noir fiction, James Ellroy, people like that, and the kind of modern unpredictable edge they brought to things, I wanted to do something similar.
GC – Fantasy is often looked down upon by the literary mainstream, even more so than science fiction, yet in the past few years has enjoyed an enormous resurgence in popularity and critical acceptance, even acclaim. You’re part of that, and another obvious touchstone is George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. What changed, and where did it start?
JA – I’m not sure that much has changed, I mean I think it’s still very difficult to get book pages to show a lot of interest in fantasy, as it is with many genres. I’m not sure fantasy is treated so much differently to romance. Crime, I suppose, is one that’s taken more seriously, but I think many genres have always been frowned upon.
There’s always a bit of a victim mentality within genres, how cruelly we are treated by the mainstream, but I think in a sense, you know, Tolkien after all, Lord of the Rings, you don’t get more fantasy than Tolkien, one of the biggest selling books of all time and has spawned one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, so you don’t get more mainstream than that. Game of Thrones, likewise, huge sales and massive success, and other hugely successful things of recent times like Harry Potter, Twilight, Charlaine Harris’ True Blood, they all contain fantasy elements of one kind or another, so I think fantasy is and always has been very much mainstream, as in read by a lot of people.
Whether it gets huge admiration from the literary press, I suppose, in a way that’s possibly asking the wrong question and looking for the wrong thing. I guess it’s up to them what they want to read and report on and readers will buy what they want to read.
Best Served Cold
GC – The obvious career move for a film editor looking for a change would be screenwriting or directing, but you chose fantasy novelist. Why?
JA – I think because it’s cheap, in fact free, more or less, if you’ve got a computer or even a piece of paper, you can write. It’s something you can do in complete secrecy without telling anyone in the small hours of darkness. As a film editor, I really enjoyed that job, but often you’re brought in to do your little bit of the process with a big team of other people, and having done your job, made your little contribution, you then move on, you take no responsibility and you gain none of the credit, really, for something that is very successful, so I wanted something as an additional pastime, I suppose you might say, that was my baby alone and that I could take total control of, and writing seemed like something I could do fast and cheap and have a go at without necessarily making a huge deal out of it. And also I’d read a lot over many years and felt like I might be able to give it a go, and having started, I started to become quite excited about what I was producing,
GC – Something that may not be understood by those who just read books or watch films is how important structure is to how we interpret something, and the different ways that can be played with to tell a story in a different way. How much does your training as a film editor feed in to your writing?
JA – I think quite a bit. I think one very important area is that an editor often has to do what they’re told by a director. Authors obviously are used to being their own bosses to a degree, and I think often find the experience of being edited quite difficult, whereas I was used to my wonderful sequences being torn apart for the creative needs of the director’s script, or whatever it may be. I think I was quite used to dealing with other people and killing my babies, and I’ve always enjoyed that process of taking on other opinions and trying to incorporate them.
So that was one area, and another I think is maybe the pacing, and the way that you go about structuring a given scene, where you go into it, where you come out of it, what’s necessary, what isn’t, good beats that you can leave the scene and come into a scene on, so that kind of thing, definitely, the language is the same whether it’s in book form or in visual form.
GC – You can gain knowledge of scene construction from watching a well-made film, but to write sword fights and epic battle scenes requires a different kind of experience. How much research did you undertake, and was any of it practical?
JA – I would like to say much of this is autobiographical, based in my time in the secret service, or whatever it may be. Not the case at all. I make it up, is the bottom line. I guess I’ve always read a lot of history, and military history in particular, and so I try to make it feel authentic and convincing so far as I can, but I think, one thing is when you’re writing fantasy, you’re not necessarily striving for absolute realism. You’re striving for a kind of enhanced, exaggerated, slightly over the top style, really.
People don’t want things to be completely realistic, and generally I think you just have to try and keep at it, put yourself in the position, and you probably extrapolate fr
om those experiences that you have had, like getting hit over the head by a set of muggers or something along those lines, and you take that experience and then enhance it in order to get a sense of what it might be like to be hit over the head with an axe, for example, that kind of thing. You act and you invent and you make it up.
GC – Red Country has a frontier feel to it, driven herds across the plains and through rivers and throwing planks together to form townships. Why this change, and again, was there practical experience involved?
JA – Not so much practical experience unless you count watching a lot of westerns, and obviously playing Red Dead Redemption for many, many hours for professional reasons. I had to do that for work. It is very consciously a take on the western, I guess you might say a combination of western and fantasy, and I’d long been a big fan of westerns. Having finished the trilogy, which was obviously my take on epic fantasy, I was looking for more focused stories to try in the same world, and so I thought about film type plots.
Best Served Cold was almost a fantasy thriller, I guess, The Heroes a fantasy war story, and so with this book I want to have a take on a fantasy western. Not so much with the six guns, the Stetsons, the chaps, those kind of things, but with, as you say, the lawless frontier, the grizzled characters, the narrow eyed standoffs and the windswept streets. I wanted to give it a western feel without being too overtly western.
GC – You have three children now, and family is a theme that runs strongly through Red Country, though more in regard to siblings, Shy seeking her kidnapped brother and sister, Caul seeking revenge for his brother. Do you think being a father has changed the way you write, the themes you cover?
JA – I’m not sure. That’s a tough question to answer. I think everything you experience obviously finds its expression somewhere in what you write, I daresay. I don’t feel as though I’ve vastly changed, but certainly it gives you more of an insight into what it’s like to be a parent and what it’s like to be responsible for children. I’m still working on that, obviously, as I’m sure we all are who have kids. It certainly changed the day to day discipline of how I work and where I find the time to work. Has it made me look at things differently? I don’t know, I’m not sure it has actually. I think I’m still pretty cynical and dark at root.
GC – Unlike many fantasy worlds, yours is very monotheistic, with a named God. Why did you choose that setup?
JA – I suppose, well, the Union, the central culture, they don’t really have a religion of any kind, or they have a sort of ultra-patriotism, a nationalism, if you like, in place of religion, and the Northmen have a sort of almost an ancestor worship, a kind of a Norseish religion where they worship the dead, or revere the dead who died gloriously, that kind of thing. In the South, yeah, as you said, they have a monotheistic religion which is the only really established religion in the world, and I don’t know, I suppose that seemed right to me. I didn’t want it to feel very religious generally, and in the trilogy, religion’s not a major factor within it. GC – It’s often confined to profanity and desperation.
JA – It is oftentimes. Fantasy is perceived as often being full of religion where the gods are real and they walk the earth and things like that, and I wasn’t interested in the wilder excesses of magic, I guess you might say. I wanted to keep things straight and normal. And also not being particularly religious myself, I’m not sure I had a huge amount to really say about it and bring to the table in terms of a point to make.
In this book there is a bit more about religion, just because it felt like the right time and the right setting. The real American west is full of god and people who are taking god into the wilderness, so it felt like the right time to consider a character who was more moved by religion, maybe.
GC – The Waterstones edition of Red Country has an exclusive short story, Freedom, as did the previous novel. In the age of the dominance of online retailers undercutting traditional bricks and mortar shops, it’s good to see that support. How did it come about?
JA – I think, in essence, my publishers obviously talk to Waterstones a lot, and one thing they’re always keen to have, if they think they’re going to be able to sell a good number of books, is to have some exclusive content which they hope will then, as you say, pull people into the store rather than them picking things up online. So Waterstones like to have that, and usually they can be prevailed upon to order a few more if they can get that. So it seemed like a good idea to do it. And also, after twelve months or so, those stories revert to me and they can be used for other things. In international markets, the foreign publishers can translate them and use them for promotions of one kind or another, so it’s a useful little extra to have, and probably a whole set of stories will end up getting bound as an anthology sooner or later.
GC – Indeed, the short stories you’ve written, The Fools Jobs andYesterday, Near A Village Called Barden, have been specific projects. Are there more floating out there, and can we anticipate, either in the short or longer term, a collection.
JA – There are the two that I wrote for The Heroes and Red Country and also one that was part of a multi-author anthology previously, and there’s two others I’ve written that haven’t been published yet that are for multi-author anthologies that are grinding their way through the publishing process and will appear at some stage, though probably not for a while. And eventually, those and other stories that I write will get collected together and produced in an anthology that will definitely happen, but probably not for some time, because the rights on them have to elapse first before you can then even consider publishing them yourself.
They might appear individually as e-books, or as 99p short stories electronically. That obviously is one thing that e-books have allowed you to do is release things that you wouldn’t be able to bind because of the finances of it.
GC – It’s almost like, as the music industry has albums and singles to promote them, finally the book industry can release singles.
JA – Exactly. And that serves as a very effective tool, if people want to check out an author, they can spend 50p, 60p on a short story and see if thei
r style is for them.
GC – You don’t write dainty novels you can slip in your pocket so much as great thumping door wedges, though the flipside is, should you be waylaid by highwaymen and not have a sword to hand, the hardback editions are perfect for beating off assailants. Novels have doubled in size since we were kids. Why the change, where did this come from?
JA – Yeah, I mean Lord of the Rings seemed like a giant, giant book when I was a kid, and The First Law is a little bit longer, a fair bit longer probably, 100,000 words longer, and is short by the standards of things like Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time, fourteen volumes, maybe 300,000 words apiece, it’s a giant work. Why, I dunno, it’s a tough question to answer. I guess there’s a perception that readers like more of the same once they’re into a series, once you’ve grabbed them, they’ll continue to follow it and so for publishers it offers a kind of security where they feel that they can continue to keep an audience enthralled, and it they’ve got ten volumes ahead of them… Brandon Sanderson’s new series is ten volumes, he’s just published the first. I guess his publisher can say, okay, we’ve got something solid for the next ten, twelve years, a spine we can organise our list around where there’ll be some steady revenue. Publishers like them because they’re predictable, maybe, readers like to have something predictable and constant going on. For myself, I wouldn’t ever want to write anything longer than The First Law I don’t think, 600,000 words seems enough. If you can’t make your point there, then you’re probably never going to get around to it.
The Blade Itself
GC – The covers of your books, the maps by Dave Senior, the weaponry by Didier Graffet, the almost parchment feel of the covers, give a very definite feel to the series. How much input did you have on that?
JA – I’d like to say it was all my idea. It was the idea originally of a guy called Simon Spanton who is one of the editors at Gollancz to do the parchment look that The Blade Itself has, then it’s steadily developed and evolved a little bit. It was a very successful look to the trilogy, and it achieved a very difficult aim of not scaring off either fantasy lovers or more general readers.
There’s always a worry with fantasy covers , put a dragon and a sword on the cover and appeal to your core market but maybe other readers won’t be that interested or try and give it a more general, more literary look, perhaps fantasy readers feel it’s not for them, but maybe you hit a wider public. So to achieve something that can hit both markets is a tough balancing act, and I think it did that well and at the same time created quite a brand and an individual look that makes them recognisable on the shelf.
It was very successful, I think, and in doing the other three books we then extended it to make the parchment into a map to maybe add the weapons to give it a bit more going on, and probably after this we’ll have to think of a new direction to take it while hopefully retaining some of that flavour.
GC – The UK reprints of The First Law had very stylish artwork by Chris McGrath, but the Orbit editions in the US of the recent books have been bold, almost gung-ho, beautifully done, but the antithesis of the disillusionment of the actual stories. Was that an American marketing decision?
JA – Yeah, it was very much their choice to go their own way. It was their treatment and their idea and my feeling has always been that unless you really don’t like the treatment that you are shown, you’ve got to let the publisher do what they think is right for their market and give them the chance to prove that it works. That was their initiative. It’s based around sports photography, I think was their idea. Explosive sports photography. They showed me some shots of linebackers surrounded by breaking glass and stuff, and I was like, okay, go for it.
GC – There are hints that automation and technology are becoming factors in the kingdoms. Is that something we may see more of in the future?
JA – Yeah, I’ve always noticed that a lot of fantasy worlds are eternally medieval worlds in a kind of stasis that never seem to change for hundreds of years, and I wanted there to be a sense of progress and development and culture flexing and straining at the seams in the way that it has done in real history, so I’m interested in coming industrialisation. The next few books may start to look at that in a bit more detail.
GC – And when might we expect a new volume, and will it be more of the same or a new direction entirely?
JA – Maybe a few side projects of a more different nature, but there certainly will be more books in this world and of this kind of size, and not entirely dissimilar. I suppose I’ve always felt you don’t want to become totally rigid in what you do, you don’t want to do the same thing over and over, but at the same time you don’t want to do anything wildly different. You want to give readers some of what they expect from you, but something slightly different each time. They always say they want more of the same, but really they want something a little bit different.
GC – Joe Abercrombie, thank you so much for your time.
JA – Thank you, a pleasure.
Red Country is now available from Gollancz and is reviewed here
Special thanks to Joe for his time and to Jonathan Weir for arranging the interview