British author Joe Abercrombie kicked off his remarkable fantasy trilogy, The First Law, with The Blade Itself, published by Gollancz UK in 2006. Readers loved the book, and the critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. A five star review in Starburst included this:
You’d never guess that The Blade Itself is Joe Abercrombie’s debut novel. He writes like a natural. There are great characters, sparky dialogue, an action-packed plot, and from the very first words (‘The End’) and an opening scene that is literally a cliffhanger, you know you are in for a cheeky, vivid, exhilarating ride.
The second and third books, Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings, proved that The Blade Itself was no flash in the pan – the three novels are equally strong. This series takes the conventions of epic fantasy, pounds them to a pulp, wrings them out and hangs them up to flap in a chill wind. It’s a twisted, funny, absorbing journey. With Last Argument of Kings due for its American release this month, I was delighted when Joe agreed to an interview with Writer Unboxed.
Here’s the first part of our Q&A.
Q: Firstly, congratulations on The First Law trilogy. I wish I’d written it myself! Your books contain all the qualities I love in a novel – excellent writing technique, depth of character, originality and ‘heart’. I picked up The Blade Itself when it first came out on the basis of a well-written cover blurb, including this:
Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught in one feud too many, he’s on the verge of becoming a dead barbarian – leaving nothing behind but bad songs, and dead friends.
I liked the cover description of the book as ‘noir fantasy with a real cutting edge.’ Now that I’ve read all three books, I realise the trilogy is a lot more than this. It’s a dark and gritty story in which the graphic violence is tempered by subtle humour. But the winning factor for me is your compassion for a cast of complex, flawed characters. I hope we can explore the issue of characterization in more depth later. But firstly, could you talk a bit about using the tropes of epic fantasy to create a story that breaks the stereotypes?
JA: Firstly, thank you very much, especially about the compassion, I don’t get accused of that too often.
As a reader I like nothing more than to be surprised. So I like a lot the notion of writing within a well-established form, partly because there will be an established audience for it and an audience is always nice, but also because readers will come with a whole range of expectations about the types of characters and situations they’ll encounter, and how those characters will behave or those situations play out. Give them what they expect a couple of times and they’ll be sure they’re on firm and familiar ground, which hopefully will make it doubly shocking when you pull the rug out from under them.
Q: I was surprised to read in one of your other interviews that the manuscript of The Blade Itself had quite a few rejections before it was picked up by Gollancz. Was it the degree of violence that made publishers wary? The language? Was the series harder to sell in the US than in the UK?
JA: Yeah, I spent a year or so collecting rejection letters. I still have them somewhere with my swimming badges and what have you. Many of the UK agents that specialize in SF&F rejected it. I guess they didn’t like it, or at any rate didn’t think they could sell it, or just weren’t looking for that kind of thing at the time. It’s hard to say why, exactly, as they never really tell you that, just send you a basic rejection letter, thanks but no thanks, best of luck elsewhere. The series did have a different and less impactful opening to begin with, which was the first thing my editor got me to change, so that might have had something to do with it. I was very lucky that some of the manuscript got passed via a friend to Gillian Redfearn at Gollancz, and she liked it. I got an offer a week later.
It wasn’t until the first book had been out in the UK about ten months that we got an offer from a US publisher. Lou Anders, of Pyr books, bless his good taste. But it can be difficult for British fantasy authors to get picked up over there – they produce a lot of the stuff themselves.
Q: I checked out your bio. Your experiences as a pupil at a ‘stiflingly all-male’ grammar school, a psychology student, a dedicated computer gamer and a script editor must all have contributed to your skills as a novelist in one way or another. But they don’t fully explain how you came to be such a technically accomplished writer. You mention in your bio that there is, or was, a much earlier version of the story of Logen Ninefingers, a manuscript that never saw the light of day. How old were you when you wrote that? Was Logen just a cardboard cutout barbarian in that early story? How did you go about building him into what he eventually became?
JA: I think I was maybe twenty when I made that first effort, though some of the ideas for world and characters went back a lot further than that. I only got a few chapters in and pretty much every aspect of it was cardboard cutout, which was probably why I gave up. It’s odd, because although the events described were largely the same as the ones in the opening chapters of The Blade Itself as published, that first effort just totally lacked either the humour or the cynicism that appeared pretty much straight away when I tried again maybe seven or eight years later. It was also lacking Glokta, who was the last of the main characters to take shape in my mind. It was also lacking any real subtext, any theme or commentary on the genre. Thinking about it, it was lacking anything that made it of particular interest to its author, let alone a reader.
Logen was maybe a bit more thoughtful than your average barbarian even in his first incarnation, but he didn’t have that edge of world-weariness, the sense of humour, or nearly such a dark side. I guess, on the specific issue of Logen’s development, in the intervening years between the first effort and the second I had some minor contact with violence which was enough to make me appreciate how totally divorced from reality is the heroic ideal about fighting that is often portrayed in heroic fantasy. Violence has this glamour, this attraction, especially for men, but in reality is utterly destructive both for victim and perpetrator, and even for those on the periphery. So Logen became a way of exploring that gulf between the heroic ideal and the dark realities of being a man of violence.
Q: The maturity of your writing in The First Law, in particular the way you characterize your POV characters, seems remarkable in a first novel / series. Could you talk to us about how you sharpened your craft between that first attempt at writing epic fantasy and the satisfactorily grown-up final trilogy? What else did you write? How did you learn?
JA: Between the two attempts I didn’t write any prose fiction at all, but I read a fair bit, and a pretty wide variety, as well as a lot of non-fiction. In particular, I read George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones and its sequels, the grittiness, moral ambivalence, and unpredictability of which had quite an impact on me, as I’d never really read fantasy quite like that at the time. I also worked as a film editor – of live music and documentary rather than drama – which meant collaborating with directors in writing scripts and voice-over, though usually very much as second fiddle. Still, I think editing was very important experience as far as structure, timing, and brevity go. In documentary you often need to find ways of expressing a point within very limited spaces and I was lucky to see some real experts at it. I guess I also watched a lot of film and TV in that time, and most of all started taking myself a lot less seriously.
But none of that was really focused specifically on trying to write fiction at all. As a freelance I found myself with time on my hands, thought I’d pick up the story I’d tried to write those years before. I mean, how wrong could it go? Now we know. Mostly it was trial and error, learning on the job, and trying to combine (steal) all the ideas and approaches I’d read or seen and liked outside of fantasy with those I’d long admired inside. I also had vast help and encouragement from my family, all considerably more intelligent than me, who read and commented, critiqued and destroyed me as appropriate, and indeed still do. There’s nothing more valuable to a writer than the opinions of clever and ruthless readers.
Q: Humour is a vital element in these books – not laugh-out-loud humour, but a bitter and twisted irony. With the Northmen it’s an earthy camaraderie, a grin in the face of impending death. In The First Law bad things happen to good people and good people do bad things. It’s especially confronting to have so much of the story told from the POV of Inquisitor Glokta, once a tortured hero, now a crippled torturer. But Glokta’s is the most humorous voice. By giving us his direct thoughts in italics, you get us right into his head. This character could easily have become an over-the-top caricature. You manage to make him highly sympathetic, even when he’s conducting some gruesome procedure. Did Glokta’s scenes require a lot of reworking? Did getting so close to him give you sleepless nights?
JA: Humour’s a vital element, certainly. Real life can be both funny and tragic, sometimes simultaneously. Epic fantasy, especially of the grim and gritty variety, runs the risk of getting pompous and doom-laden at one end, or becoming an out-and-out piss-take at the other. I was keen to try and hit the middle ground, if possible. I think if it’s done right, the humour only adds to the darkness and vice-versa. If nothing else it certainly makes for a more entertaining read.
As you say, few of the characters are particularly heroic, some are pretty loathsome. I think humour’s vital to making those dirty-grey characters to any degree appealing. We’ll forgive a lot in people who can make us laugh, on the whole. Then when they horrify us it’s twice as unsettling.
As for the sleepless nights, not really. I have a one year old for that.
Q: How did your editors feel about the graphic torture scenes? Were you asked to tone them down?
JA: Ha ha. How little you know my editor. She wanted them toned up, in the main. When trying to sell the books, I was worried they might be too violent, too graphic, too profane to have any appeal. But in the dozen or so years since I stopped reading a lot of fantasy, tastes have very definitely shifted in the direction of grittiness – in violence, in language, in sexual content – and left me well within the commercial middle-ground from that point of view. Much to my surprise and delight.
Next week, Joe Abercrombie discusses one of the most striking elements of his writing, his approach to characterization and ‘voice’.
Photo credit: Lou Abercrombie.