By Chris Hammond
Joe Abercrombie is the author behindthe ‘First Law’ trilogy as well as standalone titles Best Served Cold and The Heroes. Dark, bloody, brutal and very funny, Joe’s quirky fantasy novels have not only hit the top end of the UK’s bestseller lists, they’ve also seen him singled out as one of Britain’s top writers of fiction.
Fantasy literature is steadily becoming mainstream, yet there are plenty of people out there totally unwilling to give it a go. How would you convince a reader to check out the genre?
“I’d argue that fantasy literature always has been pretty mainstream. You don’t get much more definitively fantasy than Lord of the Rings. That’s one of – perhaps the – bestselling fictions ever and was adapted into three of the most successful movies of all time. Seems to me you don’t get a lot more mainstream than that. But if I really had to persuade a doubter? I suppose I’d say that fantasy is a broad church these days with stories and styles for pretty much every taste, and that it can be just as exciting, unpredictable and adult (in every sense of the word) as any other genre. It’s just about finding the good stuff. Namely mine.”
Can you sum-up your First Law books and stand alone titles for readers who are perhaps a little unfamiliar with them?
“Lord of the Rings meets LA Confidential with a sprinkling of Point Blank, A Bridge Too Far, and The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
Is it a help or a hindrance having to construct your own world from scratch?
“ I suppose you could say that nothing is ever created entirely from scratch – usually you’re working with real world touchstones of some sort – and certainly you hope that you’re writing something in which the people and their actions feel real, convincing, truthful. But it certainly helps that you don’t have to do the exhaustive research you might for a historical novel, and that you can mix and match different elements in whatever way best serves the scene. The curly-toed shoes of Medieval Sweden combined with the mercantile structure of Renaissance Italy? You got it.”
You’ve created quite an interesting North/South divide in your books. Were you in any way influenced by real historical and cultural differences between say the South of England and Scotland/North of England?
“ I grew up in Lancaster and went to university in Manchester then subsequently lived in London for fourteen years, so it may well be that’s crept in subconsciously somewhere, but I can’t say it was modern or even medieval Britain that was mostly on my mind. A barbaric, frozen north and a more civilized, temperate south is a classic setup for fantasy and I’m always interested in exploring those classic setups.”
Your books throw up a whole catalogue of characters that genuinely seem pretty amoral and not particularly pleasant. Yet somehow you can’t help but like them. How have readers reacted to your characters, any surprising fan favourites?
“It’s surprising (and very gratifying) that people react well to any of the characters since in the main the ‘heroes’ of the books are, as you point out, varying kinds of scum and could generally just as easily be the villains. Logen Ninefingers, a mass murderer with a split personality and a hankering to be a better man, and Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled torturer with an acid sense of humour, appear to be the two most popular with readers. Maybe that says more about the readers than the characters, though…”
And have you got your own favourite character?
“That’s like asking me if I have a favourite child. I would never say so, but in reality it’s whichever one is causing me the least grief at the time.“
How easy has it been for you to kill off characters? Have you planned the deaths from the start or does their demise just work its way into your writing?
“I’m not always big on killing off central characters. I often find there are more unpleasant things you can do to them. But if you’re getting more value out of them dead than alive, well, where’s my axe got to? Usually my books are pretty tightly planned, that’s just the way my head works. But on occasion when it comes to writing certain chapters or scenes you change your mind about what works best. You have to have some flexibility in there. Sometimes it even helps to keep yourself guessing about what the outcomes are going to be.”
How easy or difficult was it for you to have your first effort published? Do you have any tips for new writers looking for a publisher?
“I don’t think it’s ever easy – I had maybe half a dozen rejections from agents over the course of six months or so before I found a publisher – but having said that there are a lot of skilled editors looking very hard for anything good. Good, of course, is highly subjective though, and partly defined by commercial factors. I’m by no means the expert on this, but I’d suggest it’s sensible to write a brief and very carefully worded covering letter when making a submission to an agent or editor, make sure that you’re sending exactly what’s asked for and that it’s as good as you can make it, and be aware that you’re trying to sell something here. Explain to them why you have something that they need, and that readers will want.”
Your last book Heroes was great. I take it you’re working on a follow up? What can readers expect?
“It was great, wasn’t it? My mum certainly thought so. My dad was more on the fence but he’s a hard man to please. I’m working on another semistandalone set in the same world, not a direct follow up to the Heroes but with a few characters in common with the other books. It has what you might call a western flavor.”
Do you think there’ll be a time when you’ll look to take the story away from the First Law realm and maybe explore another genre or fantasy world?
“It’s a possibility. I’m contracted for four more books in the First Law world and then I might consider something different, maybe even radically different. But then the history is littered with the corpses of writers who tried something different and expected readers to flock along after them. Got to be careful with that stuff.”
Finally, and most importantly, who would win in a fight Gandalf and your own bad-ass wizard Bayaz?
“That fight would never have taken place. Bayaz would have stabbed Gandalf in the back a thousand years ago, blamed Sauron, and used it as an excuse to take charge of Mordor.”
Check out www.joeabercrombie.com for Joe’s blog, details of his books and more.