An interview with Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie

In 2002 Joe Abercrombie began the writing of a fantasy trilogy based around the adventures of Logan Ninefingers. The First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings) has since been published in eight countries, seven languages and with seven different titles. Best Served Cold, a standalone book set in the same world, will be released on June 18, 2009. Joe Abercrombie kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in February 2009.

Congratulations on making the long-list for the David Gemmell Legend Award. The book that wins this prestigious award will need to contain the spirit or tradition of David Gemmell’s own work. Was David Gemmell an author that you particularly admired and do you agree that your work has the same essence?

Joe Abercrombie: I think the award is a great idea, since Heroic Fantasy doesn’t get a lot of attention from traditional genre awards, but for this first year I believe the long-list contains anyone put forward for the award for their publisher, so I’m not sure I can revel in much glory there, much though I love glory as much as the next author, if not considerably more. If I make the short-list of five I’ll do some revelling, though, since that will mean that a lot of actual flesh and blood real readers will have voted for me. I’ve probably got as good a chance this year as I’ll ever have, since some of the real big-hitters haven’t had books out in the relevant period, but there are a lot of interesting new authors coming along lately, so I’m not holding my breath.

Gemmell I guess is known for tough and glorious heroic fantasy with some morally grey characters, so I would have thought our books are in roughly the same ballpark, but other people I’m sure are better qualified to make judgements about our respective essences. Obviously it would be a great compliment to be likened in any way to such a successful and much-loved author, probably the most important British writer of heroic fantasy in the last twenty years or so.

Over the past 4/5 years it could be said that you have lived the dream of many an aspiring author – you signed to a major publisher, received public and critical acclaim and became a respected author. Has this experience been everything that you thought, and perhaps hoped it would be?

Joe Abercrombie: Ah, living the dream. It’s been a heady whirl of dirty martinis, baths of banknotes, under-sea bases, marble staircases, celebrity parties, outrageous demands by my agent, TV appearances, billion-dollar endorsements, caviar for breakfast, rhinestone-encrusted tuxedos, white puppies in my dressing room and so on, and so on.

I think the world of publishing, let alone genre publishing, is a great deal less glamorous than most people imagine. Of course the names that spring to mind are your Rowlings, Pullmans and Pratchetts, but they’re very much the exceptions. For your average sf/f release 5,000 sales might be considered a good run. Thanks to the fates, my excellent editor and publisher, and my family’s unstinting support, I’ve done a good deal better than that, and the trilogy has steadily gained ground with each book, but even so it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve even been able to consider writing as my main occupation, and I’m in a lucky minority to be able to do so.

Having grumbled about all that, it is of course a brilliant feeling to see my books translated into other languages, to get emails from folks all round the world who’ve really enjoyed or been able to relate to something that, in essence, I dreamed up in the middle of the night for no one else’s amusement but my own. Still a strange and wonderful feeling…

Hollywood approaches you asking to turn your books in feature films. What would your answer be? If you would answer yes, are there any actors that you would love to see playing your creations on the silver screen?

Joe Abercrombie: My answer would be, “show me the money”. Seriously. American currency is very useful in the current climate. And, although few books that get optioned are developed, and few that are developed ever get made, the publicity even from an option is a useful thing and could potentially bring your books to a wider audience. Can’t knock that. Audiences are really good. I think, as a writer, you have to be prepared for a movie looking nothing like your imagining. When you sell a book, you do just that. The film-makers need to make their own film from it.

Those casting questions I can never answer. There’s something really weird about imagining these private creations of my own mind being rendered in flesh and blood. I have a hard enough time with the US cover of Best Served Cold, which features a photographic representation of the main character from that book. Not that it’s a bad one at all, but I can’t look at it without thinking that some model had to dress up, hold a sword, and try to look dangerous.

There are some pretty graphic descriptions of torture in your books. Is this something you researched or do you just have a very dark mind?

Joe Abercrombie: It wasn’t so much something I researched as something I thought about. I was often mildly annoyed by depictions of torture in books and on tv that seemed to focus on causing pain to people. Torture depicted as a kind of fetishised game with rules. It occurred to me that it would be much more effective, given a legal system that did not value the rights of the accused particularly highly, to threaten to maim someone for life and provide simple and immediate evidence that you were entirely willing to go through with it. Pain is one thing, the imminent threat of losing all your fingers, forever, is quite another.

I think most people have dark minds, they just don’t necessarily share with you what’s in them. I try to be as honest and forthright as possible. I admire writers who say what they really think, so I try to do the same.

Your new book, Best Served Cold, contains some of your favourite characters from The First Law trilogy. Was it hard to leave characters behind or were you perhaps more than happy to bid farewell to some?

Joe Abercrombie: Favourite is maybe the wrong word – Best Served Cold contains some minor characters from the trilogy that I thought might stand up to closer examination, as well as some new ones, while a couple of more central characters from the trilogy appear in the background. Cameos, you might say.

It was hard to leave characters behind in the sense that you become comfortable with them over time, especially over the course of a trilogy, and it’s easy to find their voice and write from their point of view. New characters are much more challenging, time-consuming and troublesome – perhaps like a snooker player learning to play with a new cue. But I think as a writer it’s good not to become too comfortable with characters, or styles, or formats, and to try new things, stretch yourself, at least up to a point. You might take some wrong steps along the way but that’s better than staying put where it’s safe and warm and quietly going boring. Probably.

The other thing to bear in mind is that, while for readers they might spend a few weeks with these characters and be keen to know more, for me it’s as if I’ve been stuck in a lift with them for five years. It’s got awfully stuffy in there…

Best Served Cold will be released on June 18, 2009

Synopsis
Springtime in Styria. And that means war.
There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.
War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employer’s taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.
Her allies include Styria’s least reliable drunkard, Styria’s most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that’s all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started…
Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge.

Joe Abercrombie books reviewed