In the final part of our interview, British fantasy author Joe Abercombie talks about battles, fantasy names, the art of juggling three separate story lines, and what’s in store for him now his trilogy, The First Law, is complete.
Q: Before They Are Hanged, the second book in The First Law, is structured around three sets of characters – one set on an epic journey, another in a besieged city, a third waging war out in the countryside. They don’t all converge even at the end (I didn’t mind because I had the third book all ready to read.) Did you write Before They are Hanged in chapter by chapter sequence or did you work on each separate strand on its own? What was your planning process for the book – deciding where to cut between threads, keeping the timing correct and so on?
JA: I tend to mix and match approaches as it seems appropriate, and to try and keep myself as interested as possible. In the case of that second book, which as you say is split into three separate strands, I wrote each strand separately, then intercut the different chapters, later perhaps introduced some links between them. I tried to vary the rhythm to keep things interesting for the reader as much as possible, so as the three stories all come to a climax half way through the book, they cut faster and faster between with shorter and shorter chapters. Kind of a trick applied from film editing, I guess.
Q: Names of people and places in epic fantasy are all too often a mish-mash of different cultures and times, or inventions full of x’s, z’s and apostrophes. I was convinced by the names in The First Law, which are loosely based on various real language groups, such as Dutch, Spanish and perhaps Arabic. How did you decide on your names? Is your world loosely based on the Mediterranean region?
JA: I think you’re right that names in fantasy are hugely important, and potentially can render a character interesting or ridiculous at a stroke. I agree that it’s particularly irritating when names don’t seem to have any consistency or meaningful root. Tolkien obviously solved that by inventing whole histories and languages to draw from. I took the route of least resistance by – as you observe – basing my various cultures loosely on real-world equivalents so that I had at least some kind of template to draw from. Stealing them, in essence, but partly in the hope that the names might carry in them some echoes of the real world cultures from which they were drawn, give readers a kind of shorthand to identify the kinds of people we were talking about. So the Union I based around a kind of Holy Roman Empire (largely Germanic) with some banking and commerce from medieval Flanders and a political system closer to the Venetian Republic. That produced names like Sult, Marovia, Valint and Balk, Bremer dan Gorst. Gurkhul was more like an Ottoman Empire that had absorbed a whole range of Middle-Eastern and African cultures, producing names like Uthman-ul-Dosht, Khalul, Mamun, and Ferro Maljinn. With the North I went for something slightly different, a kind of Viking or Scots culture, but with a northern English tilt to the language, and in which the men were given names when they reached manhood related to some deed they’d done or the place they’d done it – things like Rudd Threetrees, Caul Shivers, Forley the Weakest, and Black Dow.
The names of key characters had often been ones that I’d had in mind for a long time, some going right back to my gaming days as a kid. I tried to take a lot of care to make the name fit the person as well as the culture from which they came, to give some indication of their character right away.
Q: You seem to enjoy writing extended, intricately choreographed combat sequences. The fight scenes in these books range from hand-to-hand bouts between two men to massive sieges, cavalry charges and so on. Then there’s the magical warfare. What’s your approach to writing these scenes? They work especially well because you put us smack bang in the middle of the action, complete with all its sounds, smells, pain, terror, aggression.
JA: The basic approach, as it is throughout, is to try and give the reader the feeling of being down there with the characters, of really seeing the events, feeling them even, from the point of view of the people involved. It was my feeling that a lot of epic fantasy, following on from Tolkien’s example, tends to focus on the massive, the epic, the world and the huge events rather than on the individual experience of those events, and the characters themselves. So we’re given tiny people in a vast landscape, a story told in huge wide shots. I wanted my stuff to be focused much more on the people and their thoughts, feelings, emotions, for the world to be the backdrop, for the story to be told in the tightest of close-ups. Uncomfortably close-up, even.
In terms of the action scenes, that meant trying to focus on the small-scale and communicate some sense of the chaos, randomness, confusion, and terror that I think any combat, let alone close combat with edged weapons, would involve. I wanted the whole thing to feel visceral, earthy, and very dangerous. As real as possible while still having that slightly larger than life feel that is one of the appealing things about fantasy, for me.
Q: Your next novel will be a stand-alone. The end of Last Argument of Kings was wide open for a sequel. Do you plan to bring back Ninefingers in the future?
JA: A few people seem to feel the ending of the trilogy is very open, but for me that wasn’t about leaving room for a sequel, more just trying to create the feeling that life goes on, like it does in real life after great events. Rather than glorious victories and bright futures for all, or neatly tragic deaths in battle, most of the characters pick up the pieces and carry on one way or another. Some things change for the better, some for the worse, a lot don’t change at all. The resolutions of conflicts have the seeds of new conflicts within them. For the time being I feel as if I’ve made the points I wanted to with those characters, at least in central roles, but you never know who’ll show up in the future.
Q: After the success of The First Law you’ll probably be under pressure from readers, your agent and/or your publisher to produce a certain kind of novel. It can be difficult if these expectations don’t match up with what you actually want to write. How bloody-minded do you plan to be about this?
JA: I’ve always had tremendous support from my publisher so far – but I guess you’d expect that as long as you keep selling books. As far as readers go, it’s only natural that people will want more of what they liked last time, so some people will always be disappointed if you take a new direction. You can’t take that too seriously, unless it becomes a unanimous storm of abuse. I think it’s vital to keep trying new things, new characters, new approaches, new styles, in order to maintain some freshness, even if you put a foot wrong here or there, otherwise readers will just steadily, quietly, get bored and walk away. I guess it’s a question of striking a balance between doing something new, trying to develop, stretching yourself and keeping your own interest, and still giving the majority of readers what they want and expect.
Q: The first of your two stand-alone novels, Best Served Cold, is due for publication in June 2009. What have the main differences been for you, tackling these new projects as a published (and critically praised) author? Has success changed your work ethic?
JA: I have a work ethic? Success (if you can call it that) certainly means more bits and pieces to do around the writing – interviews, blogging, answering emails, working on pitches for the sale of subsidiary rights and so on, which can take up quite a bit of your time and energy. I dread to think how distracting these things are for seriously successful authors. Also the shift from writing being a serious hobby to being serious work can be an uncomfortable one. You only have the one deadline, it can be a long, hard way off, and motivating yourself hour after hour, day after day, week after week is something of a culture shock. I’m lucky in that, as a freelance video editor, I don’t have to quit my job and commit to writing full time – I can take editing jobs when I want to or when I need the money, and write the rest of the time, which helps to break things up and keep me interested.
Best Served Cold has certainly been a different, and more challenging experience to the trilogy. I realize now that a lot of the ideas for the trilogy went back years, and when I came to write them they all spilled out effortlessly (didn’t seem like it at the time, but it sure does now). Coming up with new ideas for characters, and plot, and situations within a few months then implementing them within a few more has certainly been a challenge, some wrinkles of which I’ve still to iron out. But the advantage of writing a single book is that you can let it develop as you go along then revise it en masse. With a trilogy, when the first book is published before you even start the third, you have to be pretty sure of your ground right from the start.
Q: Were you tempted to write something completely different after The First Law – perhaps not even a fantasy novel? What factors brought you back to the same world for these next two books?
JA: I certainly don’t rule out dipping my toe in the waters of a different genre at some point or other, but for the time being I feel like the world I’m working with is plenty big enough for a few more stories. Once you’ve gone to the effort of building the sets, why tear them down just to build new ones? Especially if your focus as a writer tends to be on the characters and their interactions. I like the idea of a series of loosely interconnected books that share some themes, some characters, some settings, and I have a few ideas for some more in the same world.
Q: I see you were on a recent list of 100 most popular SF&F writers. That’s pretty impressive on the basis of one trilogy. Your reviews have been quite glowing. How do you keep your feet on the ground?
JA: Well … it’s always nice to appear on these lists, but you can’t take them too seriously, they’re always skewed in all kinds of ways, and particularly to recent stuff.
Reviews are never universally positive, of course, and bad ones are always a healthy glass of cold water flung in the face of your ego. Ironically, good reviews can be more humbling, because they’re always for books that you finished ages ago, and can therefore only place more pressure on what you’re writing now. I find I spend a lot more time worrying about the next mountain that needs climbing than congratulating myself over the last one. Beyond that, a good editor is obviously invaluable, and should be attended to wherever possible, as they give you the opportunity to look at your own work with fresh eyes. And my family read my stuff and tell me what they think, with no holds barred.
A writer’s most valuable ally is a reader who isn’t afraid to tell them they’re rubbish.
The US edition of Last Argument of Kings will be released on September 23. It is published by Pyr.