Joe Abercrombie: Fiction on the Edge
Joseph Edward Abercrombie was born on New Year’s Eve 1974 in Lancaster England and lived there until going to the University of Manchester, where he studied psychology. He moved to London and worked in television until taking up prose writing in his mid-twenties.
Though he sometimes publishes short fiction, Abercrombie is best known for his gritty, complex ‘‘grimdark’’ epic fantasy novels. His debut The Blade Itself (2006) was shortlisted for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel, and launched The First Law trilogy, which continued with Before They Are Hanged (2007) and Legend Award finalist Last Argument of Kings (2008). His next books were standalones set in the same world: revenge fantasy Best Served Cold (2009), war novel The Heroes (2011), and fantasy western Red Country (2012); all three were British Fantasy Award finalists and Legend Award finalists.
He recently embarked on a new young-adult fantasy series, set in a new Viking-inspired fictional universe. The first volume, Half a King, is out in July.
Abercrombie was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2008. He lives in Bath with his wife and their three children.
Excerpts from the interview:
‘‘I thought I’d have a go at writing again, just out of curiosity, around 2001. I was straightaway much more interested in what came out. It seemed to have a different tone to it, and a voice of its own that it hadn’t had before. I was excited to experiment. A whole load of things were very serendipitous. It seemed to me I was doing something strange and unusual in writing something quite gritty, violent, and morally ambiguous. Just before that, someone bought me Game of Thrones and said, ‘You used to read this fantasy stuff, didn’t you? You should give this a go.’ I said, ‘Oh, God. I know exactly what’s going to happen. The noble guy will save the kingdom and then blah, blah, blah.’ So that book was surprising, and I saw expressed in it a lot of things I felt were missing from commercial fantasy, from epic fantasy. It demonstrated that you could do something recognizable as epic fantasy but still be dark and challenging and gritty. Game of Thrones was a big inspiration, making me think this might work. At the same time I wasn’t that familiar with the landscape of what was going on in the field as a whole. When I finished The Blade Itself and started thinking about trying to sell it, I felt it was too dark, too strange, too mixed in its tone. But actually fantasy had been moving in that direction for some time without me realizing it.”
‘‘I wrote The First Law trilogy, which is my Lord of the Rings, you might say. When you set out to write something that big as your first project, inadvisably – it was planned always to be a trilogy, roughly that shape – you never look past finishing that. The idea of finishing one book seems inconceivable, and you’ve still got two more to write, so you never look past the end. As I was writing the third one, my editor Gillian said, ‘So what’s your next one?’ I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ It suddenly occurred to me that I might have to write 30 more books. What was left? I’d done torture, swords, axes, maces, spears. I’d mined that world. I thought I’d do some single books and I started thinking about films that I liked, and I thought I’d combine the fantasy thing with some more filmic ideas.
‘‘I thought about Point Blank, the Lee Marvin film. I like that a lot because it has this twist in the plot, and it’s a weird, interesting gangster revenge thriller. So I thought, that’s one plot line, and it became Best Served Cold. Then A Bridge Too Far was another. Fantasy’s always fascinated by war, but it’s often a very unrealistic, heroic faux version of warfare. It doesn’t show both sides. These war films that cover a single battle often cover both sides, and sort of analyse how warfare works and how these little twists of fate ripple out and have profound consequences. That was The Heroes. And Red Country was my attempt to do a western within a fantasy setting.”
‘‘All my previous novels were interlinked, but the YA series beginning with Half a King is in a totally different world. I wrote six books all in one world and felt I needed to try something different in order to keep the batteries charged. Also, although it’s great to have this wealth of backstory and characters that are established that you can reach for to fill slots in the book, it also becomes a burden as well, because there are all these old stories and relationships. You put two characters together and suddenly think, ‘Oh, well, they’ve met before. They met in that other book, didn’t they?’ There’s kind of a weight to drag with that stuff and I wanted to try something quick, very focused, very fast. I was interested in writing something for younger readers, as my kids are getting older. My children are seven, four, and two. I felt like it would be nice to have something to share with them. Doing stuff that’s very gritty and very adult, that was what felt natural at the time, but it’s not the only way to go. I’m not massively familiar with YA, so I wasn’t aiming to write a book that was in that category necessarily. I was just aiming to write a book of mine that might appeal to young adults.
‘‘I’ve written the first one in the series, and I’m halfway through the second one. It’s much shorter than some of the things I’ve written. It’s got a single young-adult point of view, which is a different thing for me. I’ve tended to have old, experienced, used-up characters. It’s set in a slightly Viking-influenced world, and it follows a character called Prince Yarvi, who was born with a crippled hand, so he can’t hold a shield or tie a knot or draw a bow, or do any of the things that are expected of a man in his society. He ends up training for a minister’s position, a sort of advisor and healer and diplomat, which is traditionally more a woman’s role. Then his brother and father are killed, and he’s thrust into becoming king himself. He doesn’t necessarily have the tools to make it happen, and has to use what he has, which are the tools he’s learned in order to be a minister, rather than a warrior. He has some hardships to negotiate, let’s put it that way – I won’t spoil anything.
‘‘They’re going to come out within a year: July, January, July. They’re short. I did the classic thing of saying to my agent, ‘I think I’ll have these finished by July. Then I’ll have all this time on my hands to get the next thing planned, because the books will be coming out yearly.’ As soon as we got into the meeting, he said, ‘How do you feel about publishing these every six months?’ I think that’s a healthy thing if you can do it, especially for a younger readership who haven’t got the patience to wait.
‘‘There’s no right way to do anything, particularly. There’s a way that feels right to you as a writer with a certain story. I never feel like anything I do is a manifesto of how it should be done. It’s healthy that we’ve got a bit more edge, a bit more range, in epic fantasy now. There’s no shortage of stuff that’s quite traditional if that’s your bag. I’m always surprised by people saying, ‘Fantasy’s so dark and horrible now. It’s really upsetting.’ I believe Tolkien’s still on the shelf if that’s what you’re after. You get people who complain about one thing or another. People complain about the cynicism of this kind of fantasy, who find it unrealistic. You get people who complain about the swearing. I had a guy e-mail me the other day and say that he was reading The Heroes and he was really enjoying it, but then he had to burn it. He was concerned his book group would see what he was reading and be upset by it, and he wanted me to know there are still people who can’t tolerate blatant sin. The great thing about book burnings is, they still have to buy the books. You get people who are upset because they feel they’ve been tricked, because they thought they were getting a story in which you had redemption, where these nasty things would come good, because that’s what they’ve got in similar stories. When they don’t get that, they feel they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them. Because you ‘pretended’ to be a fantasy story, and they know how those stories go, and you surprised them, and that’s upsetting. You gave them a can of Coke and it actually had piss in it – that’s their reaction. Some people don’t want to be surprised. I do want to be surprised!”
One thought on “Joe Abercrombie: Fiction on the Edge”
It’s interesting how everyone centers around George R. R. Martin as a sort of maverick — when I read the first books (quite a few years ago now), I don’t recall noticing anything genre-violating.
But I may have just been obtuse. I can’t claim I was much of a, uh, discerning reader back then, anyways.