Joe Abercrombie’s very good taste can be seen soon as he has J. R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin among his most important literature references. Actually, it seems what most distinguish him from the other two are the R.R. they have between their name and surname, because for the rest, Abercrombie’s prose is as poetic as Tolkien’s and as brutal as Martin’s; traits that can be seen in his literary debut, The First Law trilogy, which last in his subsequent independent novels.
Adria’s News talks to Joe Abercrombie at the Celsius 232 Festival and realizes that despite his youth, it all seems to indicate that his name will soon be among the greatest authors of fantasy, although he doesn’t want to be limited to this genre. He’s written adventure novels, a war story and even a western. “I have tried a lot of things, like Tarantino”, he admits, “although I’ve done it in a much better way”.
Your fellow writer Adrian Tchaikovsky has warned me. He says that you bite. Should I be afraid?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t be afraid, no. I only bite when I’m angry or upset and I’m sure your questions will be hugely complimentary, so it shouldn’t be a problem.
I don’t think so either. You already came to Celsius 232 last year. Why are you here again?
Well, they asked me to come and I had a great time last year and I get on very well with the organizers, so I just enjoy hanging out here. And I think it’s a good place to come again. There’s a nice atmosphere here.
The big star last year was George R.R. Martin. I guess you talked with him…
Yes, yes! I think he’s a guy who is very much down to earth. Success hasn’t gone to his head, he’s very grounded, very ordinary, really, and he enjoys working with other writers a lot, writing on anthologies, plus he’s always been part of the fandom and a figure in conventions.
Maybe he’s so grounded because he met success when he was older…
Exactly, and he’s always been very inclusive and a very good guy to talk to and he’s obviously become a huge figure now, it’s quite intimidating. But he’s one of the very few living writers that have been quite influential for me. I read A Game of Thrones back in the 90s and it was like a light bulb for me.
On your webpage I read an article in which you say that if you hadn’t read A Game of Thrones you probably wouldn’t have written The First Law trilogy.
Yeah, yeah, I think it’d have been something very different, in a way, so yes. Also, there are not many other writers I could name that had this personal input, so it really left a mark on me.
Three very thick books compose The First Law series. It’s a very heavy debut, right?
Looking back it’s not the cleverest move, in a way. I should have done a couple of short stories; that’d have been the sensible thing to do, but I suppose you end up writing the sort of thing you’ve read and that was the format I was interested in, and when I thought of writing something epic fantasy trilogies always attracted. That was where I wanted to go.
Why a trilogy, then?
The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy…
So I assume you are one of those writers who contemplates The Lord of the Rings as a Bible…
Yes, because it is, in a way. It is for me, and I think three is a natural shape, it makes sense, it’s a start, middle and end, and it’s a kind of an introduction, a development and a conclusion. Three acts it’s a shape that makes sense, look at the theatre… And three big books seemed a solid number.
After the trilogy you published a few standalone novels. But they were all set after the trilogy and not before. Why?
I guess the thing I most get asked is to write Logan’s history, Logan’s childhood. I’ve been asked this for so long and I don’t know I feel that going forward is generally the best way to go. It’s easier making mistakes going back and mess up your own timeline a bit and I like the idea of the ambiguity in the past, you know. I suppose that the past is made of stories of the people in the present so you don’t know exactly what truth is. I’ve done a few short stories that are kind of pick up episodes that are important in The First Law and that was a collection that will come up in a year. So I think I’ll keep going forward in full-length books.
Best Served Cold is your first stand-alone novel. Did you already have the story time ago or did you start to think about it when you finished The First Law?
I think when you set up a big epic fantasy trilogy, finishing one of these books seems impossible, you know? And when I was getting towards the end of the third book, I thought “What will you do after this is finished?” And it was horrifying, and I thought I might have to write another 30 or 50 books if I wanted to make of this a career.
So you needed some ideas...
I liked the idea of writing something shorter, more focused. I didn’t want to do a huge series of books, I wanted to write something that people could go back and things still make sense, so I decided to write these standalone books, each of them with a slightly different style; for sure, they’re not quite as heavy and complicated, but they happen in the same world and pick up some minor characters, pulling them to the foreground. And I was thinking of films, mostly, to get the basic plotlines of these books. Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967) was the basic structure for Best Served Cold, the gangster revenge thing. But I wanted to have a female main character because I’ve been very male-focused on the trilogy.
You have seven big chapters, seven characters on each team, seven cities and seven victims. Why seven?
I suppose seven seemed like a good number. I thought about six or maybe five, but it would have been to short or a bad length for me, and I think it works nicely. I wanted this sort of repetition, a city, someone is killed… I like this idea, but I wanted to make it as varied as possible, developing the villain’s personalities and the cities, to give each one a real feel, which would then go into the language in the whole sense of it. Sipani is a city with mist and…
Actually, Sipani is something close to the anagram of a famous real country. Was that on purpose?
No, I don’t think it was, but things happen. For example Styria seems to be a part of Austria, and I didn’t realize this at the time, but the idea was giving as much variety as I could, and I also think seven short stories unified into one whole is a good thing.
You based the book on the Italian Renaissance and a lot of names remind me of Latin: Vitari, Stolicus, Victus, Verturio, etc. Was that on purpose?
Yes, my approach to names is always to imitate real life, and I wanted them to sound Italian or even Spanish, especially if I’m thinking in a given culture, because that gives a special feeling and helps the reader to link things.
Why do you write following the point of view technique?
It always made sense to me; it’s the way to write. I think in the Tolkien era the trend was writing in the omniscient style and it’s quite powerful, quite flexible, but it gives you a sense of distance. I think it’s not as involving. The thing I like of the point of view is that it gives you the best and worst of each character in first person, it gives you a sense of immediacy but it allows you to keep some secrets too, so it’s a very flexible way of writing though it’s very involving too.
In between each bloc of chapters you wrote a few pages of Monza’s (the main character) backstory.
She is very ruthless, but we discover over time that she is greater than this. So the idea was to use those chapters to reveal her back-story, a justification of her reasons and maybe feel a bit different about that character at the time knowing her trajectory better.
Monza ends up pregnant. Whose son is that?
Well, I suppose you can leave without necessarily knowing. It could be Shivers’ or it could be Rogont’s. You have the question, but you know it’s going to be raised as Rogont’s son, although quite possibly it isn’t. I often like to write without being certain about some things.
I think Nicomo Cosca is one of the best characters of your story.
Yeah, I suppose he’s the classic condottiero, the kind of the guy with a big sense of humour, a guy with great qualities but also with massive and tragic flaws and flamboyant personality. I was based a little on Don Quixote. And Nicomo Cosca appears in the first three books too, but I was fascinated by the idea of a guy who is fearless on the battlefields and has a huge charisma, but who is also a demagogue and has a destructive and selfish influence.
George R.R. Martin wrote that Best Served Cold is your best book.
One thing I really like of my standalone novels is that I wanted to try something slightly different each time. The Heroes is a war story with point of view but it takes place in certain time and place. Then, Red Country is almost a western with two central points of view, so is a bit more focused. I try to do different things each time and as a result people differ on which is the book they like the most and I’m very pleased with that, actually, because it keeps your audience fresh. But I think Best Served Cold is my most unpleasant book. It’s savage and the characters are darker. I suppose I went as far as I wanted to go to make my characters unsympathetic. I think some people find it too cold, though. I think I realized afterwards that the fact of having unsympathetic characters forces you to question more and more. So it’s, I think, my most divisive book, but that’s fine. I don’t wanna be making everyone delighted all the time because you run the risk of being bland.
You used to be a film editor.
I used to be a film editor, mostly music, events and some documentaries too. But I began writing at the same time.
I think I can see this in your style. On Best Served Cold, you play a lot with parallel editing, at the Cardotti part, for instance. How has editing influenced your writing style?
A lot, definitely. You are influenced by everything you like and what you don’t like. So editing helped me to pace the story. You also learn things. For example, if you are constructing a sequence, you start to realize what you don’t need to show, so writing is about the things you don’t write. You don’t have to describe everything. And the classic mistake of the novel writer is to describe everything they see and they are not focused on the important things.
Do you like Tarantino’s movies? Because I can see a bit of The Bride in Monza…
Yeah, many people said that and obviously they’re similar stories, but I don’t thing Kill Bill was an influence, I didn’t like the film that much, although I think the tradition of revenging women is one that goes back a long way: the Italian revenge dramas, the Shakespeare stuff… I was weirdly thinking of Point Blank.
Tarantino’s last movie is a western, like your last novel.
I like that one a lot more. I think he’s an oddly frustrating filmmaker; Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were just brilliant at the time. But he became very distracted doing his take on various themes, as I have done as well. I’ve obviously done it in a much better way [Laughs]. So I liked Django Unchained, although I found it uncomfortable because westerns tend to be quite silent, so it was a strange combination.
You have recently signed a deal to write four more novels. We know one will be another standalone book, but will the other three be a trilogy?
Yes, they will. That’s the plan. They’ll be shorter books, aimed partly at younger audience, and they’ll be full of twists.
You are a young writer. Are you going to build another entire world or are you planning to use The First Law one for a while?
This new thing is a different world, certainly unrelated, so yes, I think I will but I also think I’ll be coming back to The First Law world, because I’m less interested in the world than in the people in it, and I think there’s an infinite number of stories you can tell in that world, after all. Plus I quite like the fact that you build up this history and when you bring an incidental character you can choose a character you’ve seen before who becomes more important. I like the sense of a living and developing world.
Will we see a TV Series of this?
I hope so. Have you got 300 million dollars?
Maybe after selling this interview…
If you do, give me a call. You know there are always things going on but I think as a writer you’ve got to focus on the writing and if a great filmmaker comes, fantastic, but you can’t count on it. So I think in the end if the right set of people wants to buy the rights perfect!
In your series there are kingdoms that want to separate from the rest and others that want to gather together to become larger entities. Here in Spain we have several regions, like Catalonia, that want to become independent. What do you think about it?
Well, in the UK we have both Wales and Scotland. It’s a tough one: where to draw the line? But every case has a different history. For example, in Scotland violence rests in the past while in the Basque country it’s quite recent. The Spanish civil war is almost living memory and the British one is much more remote. I don’t know a lot about Catalonia except that it makes nearly all the money, right? So that’s a difficult one.
- Interview with George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire).
- Interview with Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle).
- Interview with Neil Gaiman (American Gods).
- Interview with Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn)
- Interview with Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).
- Interview with Joe Abercrombie (The First Law series).
- Interview with Steven Erikson (Malazan Book of the Fallen).
- Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt).
- Interview with Dmitry Glukhovsky (Metro 2033).
- Interview with Lisa Tuttle (Windhaven).
- Interview with David Simon (The Wire).
- Interview with Christopher Priest (The Prestige).
- Interview with Ian Watson (Artificial Intelligence).
- Interview with Robert J. Sawyer (FlashForward).