Joe Abercrombie, Best Served Cold Interview

joe abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie is the author of the First Law trilogy and Best Served Cold.  I have been a fan since the first book in the First Law found me in a bookstore, so I was very excited to ask him a few questions.  We talk shop on everything from doing research for fantasy books to the inspiration behind his next book to his favorite curse word and more.

Elena:  What made you decide to be a writer?

Joe:  I’m a writer?  I’m only just coming to terms with describing myself that way, since I spent a few years as a hobby-writer, a few more as a part-time writer, and only in the last year or two have become anything close to a full-time writer.  The idea of writing my take on the classic fantasy trilogy had been kicking around in my head ever since I started reading them as a kid, but I only really started trying to do it when I suddenly found myself with the time to try.  I was a freelance film editor, and so I had a fair bit of time off in between jobs, and decided I needed a worthier project than just playing computer games.  I was surprised to find the product didn’t suck (at least in my opinion), and so I continued.

Freelance film editor…kind of an odd pairing with fantasy author as far as dual careers go.  How did that come about?

I looked for a job after leaving university, and by a series of coincidences too tedious to discuss, ended up working as a runner in a TV post-production facility (making tea for editors and directors, mostly), then became an assistant editor, then a freelance editor.  I worked in that capacity for ten years or more, mostly on documentaries of various kinds and on live music (concerts, festivals, award shows).  The writing was utterly unconnected really, it was just something I took up as a serious hobby in the time in between editing jobs, and started to take more and more seriously over the course of a couple of years once I was happy with what I was producing.  More seriously once I got a contract obviously, though that wasn’t by any means going to support me to begin with.  But I was lucky I didn’t have a job in which I needed to storm out of the office shouting, “I’m better than you fuckers!  I don’t need this any more!  I’m a writer!”  I just started taking fewer jobs and concentrating more on the writing as I started to sell more books and could justify the time off.  These days I do the odd editing job, but more for the variety than because I need the money to keep the lights on.

It’s hard to think of a career to pair with fantasy author that isn’t a little bit odd.  Film editor?  Grocer?  Masseur?  International assassin?  Professional baseball player?  I have been all these things.  Except the last four.

You have said on your blog that most of your reading time these days goes to non-fiction.  If you’re not reading too much of your peers’ work, what do you do to keep yourself apprised of market trends, if you consider them at all?

I am the market trend.  A ha ha.  But seriously, I think if you’re watching the market to see what you should be writing you’re (a) going to write a rubbish version of what other people are writing, and (b) a couple of years too late anyway.  Regardless of trends there will always be a place for quality, original fiction of any kind, and I think your best chance of producing that is to (a) write what you love and not what you think other people might like, and (b) try to be as honest and truthful as possible and find your own voice, and you do that by (c) not reading slavishly within any one genre, especially if you intend to write in it.

How  do you feel about short fiction, both as a writer and as a reader?

Honestly I don’t have particularly strong feelings about it either way.  The fantasy stories that made their mark on me as a kid were more things like Lord of the Rings, Dragonlance, the Belgariad, and later Game of Thrones, all of which are conspicuous for their great length.  Obviously there’s a lot of great short form fantasy out there, but I was always drawn to big, chunky stories, and so those are the kind of stories I always aspired to write.  I wrote my first short story this year, in fact, for an anthology that’s due out in 2010.  Enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’ll ever be my first choice.  Even my short story turned out nearly 10,000 words long.

Can you tell me a little more about your particular process of creating a new story?  For example, does it start with the world, or with the character(s), or with the particular conflict that the story is built around?  (Or does that change from book to book?)  Do you have everything in place before you begin to write anything on that story at all, or is some of it still being worked out as you write?

That’s a really tough question to answer, actually, as it’s very hard to say where the first ideas come from, and the process does vary from book to book, and has evolved somewhat since I started writing.  With the First Law, the idea was to do a more realistic, more humorous, more character-centred take on classic epic fantasy, and so a lot of the plot (goodly wizard draws together a mismatched group of champions in an effort to save the world from an evil wizard, or does he?) and events (small battles, big battles, desperate defences, dodgy quests across varied terrain, etc.) were conscious imitations or retellings of stalwarts of fantasy in general.  A lot of the characters and ideas had been knocking around in my head for years, so it came out relatively easily.  With Best Served Cold I had to develop a new idea on a much tighter schedule, so I started with the Lee Marvin film Point Blank as the basic plot inspiration (implacable anti-hero out for revenge), added Renaissance Italy as the inspiration for setting, changed Lee Marvin into a woman for some reason, cooked up a set of hopefully colourful villains to act as her sidekicks and another set for them to try and kill, and then thought about what different settings and scenarios I’d like to cover.  With the new book it’s again a very different challenge, as it all takes place in the same rough location and over the course of three days, so for epic fantasy it’s very compressed in time and space and requires a lot more careful planning and positioning of characters…

Speaking of The Heroes…Was the choice to write a novel that is so narrowly focused another way for you to consciously re-work and/or reject the usual epic fantasy style of a sprawling tale that covers a lot of ground, a long time, and a lot of different events?

I wouldn’t say so much a reaction against the usually sprawling nature of epic fantasy as it was just an attempt to try something different to other things I’d done.  The First Law was not only a big, sprawling epic fantasy with lots of characters, settings, and separate threads, it also had a sort of mystery structure – the point of view characters, and therefore the reader, don’t have any idea what’s going on to begin with, and the overall nature of the plot only becomes clear right at the end.  With Best Served Cold I was trying something different by having a simpler, more straightforward plot that followed mostly a single strand of action.  With The Heroes I wanted to try something different again with a story that’s very compressed in terms of time and setting but covers a lot of different characters and threads of action within that, meaning they overlap and intersect a lot.  But I don’t think it hurts that it’s a contrast with a lot of what’s in the genre.  Mixing the familiar with a couple of slightly newer ideas is what I like to do, in general.  Being wildly innovative is a lot of effort, and the results are highly unpredictable.

So what inspired this particular story—simply the desire to again do something different, or something like a particular movie/documentary/written account about one battle?

The idea was for a standalone book that combined epic fantasy with grittier, more modern-feeling war stories, that got across the epic nature of a great battle but that also picked out individual stories in it, that got a sense of the randomness, incompetence and futility that tend to characterize war as well as the honour and heroism you tend to get in epic fantasy depictions of it.  I also wanted to use it as a way to investigate the concept of heroism, and how the realities might differ from the presentations we get in fantasy, and in life in general, for that matter.  So I was particularly inspired by some of the broad canvas war movies that cover single battles – things like A Bridge Too Far, Waterloo, Gettysburg, but also by some more intimate recent TV about warfare, like A Band of Brothers and Generation Kill.  Then of course a big range of written military history as well.

Has your writing process changed from what it was going into The Blade Itself?

It would be disappointing if I hadn’t learned anything since then, wouldn’t it?  I started The Blade Itself knowing nothing about writing at all, really.  I used to spend hours going over and over paragraphs, trying to get a sense of rhythm and voice and all those other things, seeing what worked and what didn’t, what was important to describe in a scene and what not to.  These days I tend to plan, then draft out large chunks and revise them on masse.  Bit more economical with time, hopefully.

How difficult is it for you to come up with the different stylistic voices for your different point-of-view characters?  How do you go about developing and differentiating them?

In a way it’s become more difficult over time.  I was always very keen to give each point of view a different style that really gave a sense of the character doing the narrating, so different points of views almost felt as if they were written, or told, by that character.  The voices for the characters in the First Law were relatively instinctive – in most cases I just did what came naturally, as well as trying out a few approaches I’d found elsewhere and wanted to steal, and then applied a lot of trial and error and revision to get them right.  Certainly they took more decided forms over time, as I got more used to putting myself into that character’s head, if you like, and got a more concrete sense of what each of them was like.

So Logen’s little sayings, for example, were just things that came out in the text as I was writing, seemed to give an insight into the man, and then came to be repeated with variations to become running jokes.  With later books I’ve had to reach further for ideas, try out a few different things which come to me less naturally.  But in general I use whatever approaches come to mind and seem to work, to convey some sense of the character who’s doing the narrating.  So there’s varying use of vocabulary – Northmen tend to use simpler words and a lot of contractions, more of a conversational tone without much reference to grammar.  Educated characters like Jezal would use longer words and more formal constructions, a pompous ass like Morveer might use language which is deliberately labyrinthine and obfuscatory.  Like I just did.  Then I might try things with sentence length and shape, the look of the words on the page, so Ferro tends to be written in short, jagged sentences, often with single line paragraphs following longer paragraphs that serve as punchlines of a sort.  Glokta, on the other hand, is written in longer, somewhat more flowing paragraphs which hopefully gives a sense of a more considered thought process.  Then there are specific tricks I try with different characters, so Glokta obviously has an internal monologue in italics, Ferro is colour-blind so there are never any colours in her descriptions, only bright and dark, Friendly is obsessed with numbers, and so on.  Often I’ll write sequences with a more neutral voice to begin with, then do a few sets of revisions where I work purely on trying to make the right voice come through, which often involves revising all the chapters from a particular viewpoint together to get some consistency going.

Do you re-read your books for consistency when you are setting another book in the same world/writing a sequel, or do you keep a database of facts and names, or just hope your editors catch any mistakes?

How dare you imply that I am capable of making mistakes?  I occasionally leaf through to check one fact or another, but generally I find re-reading a little bit painful.

When you re-read your books what do you think about them?  Is it awkward to read your old work, or are you more filled with a satisfaction, like “Yeeesssssssss, there it is, the EXACT book I want to read”?

While writing a book I obviously go over and revise individual sections of it many, many times.  I then revise larger chunks of it together, usually before presenting them to my parents and brother to comment on (something I’ve done right from the start).  Then when I have a complete rough draft it goes to my editor, we discuss it, I revise it, we discuss it again, read it, revise it, read it, revise it, off to the copy editor, read it, act on her recommendations, then finally read the page proofs.  You might well be called on to read page proofs of several other versions of the book later (US edition, mass market edition, special edition, etc., etc.).  In the case of the trilogy, I did read the preceding books as part of a review relatively late in the process to try and make sure I hadn’t made any blunders in continuity, but in general, by the time they’re out the door, I don’t really want to see them again for a while…

Though obviously, I remain hugely proud of their incandescent brilliance.

Do you worry that you might pigeonhole yourself (like M. Night Shyamalan has with his “twist ending”) into always having some sort of “People Suck, War is Bad, and the World is a Bottomless Shithole” type of story/ending?  If so, do you have a problem with that?  Or what steps might you take to get away from that MO?

I try to write endings that work with the books, that are surprising in one way or another, that maybe run counter to expectations.  I’ve never thought of them as that unremittingly bleak, just as realistic within the context of some pretty dark stories and some pretty dark characters.  I think one advantage of being known for such endings is that people don’t necessarily know what to expect next time.  Perhaps my next book will end in a fragrant shower of pastel flower petals, who knows…?

Why did you choose to put such cynically depressing sex into your books?  I mean, we all know it can’t be good all the time…but is it always bad all the time, either?

I don’t know about bad, but it was my observation that sex in epic fantasy, where presented at all, often tends to be pretty both in execution and consequences.  I wanted to present a more cynical, perhaps more realistic alternative, just as I’ve tried to do with the depiction of violence, power or magic.  It may well be that I’ve made the sex (as well as the violence, power, and magic) uglier, messier and nastier than it necessarily is in real life, but then I’m trying to redress a balance, here…

In an Unamunoan twist, the wizard Bayaz pops into your house and declares that he’s changing your wife into one of your female characters, your choice.  Who do you choose?  (Shenkt is not at your back to thwart him, sorry.)

What a great question.  So I can have Ardee West, the passive-aggressive alcoholic, Ferro Maljinn, the emotionally retarded sociopath, Monzcarro Murcatto, the ruthless, brother-obsessed mass-murderer, or Carlot dan Eider, the manipulative traitor.  It’d be just like Bayaz to offer me that choice, as well.

Shit.  I need to write some beautiful, supportive, easy-going heiresses in case this happens.

What is your favorite curse word?

Call me old fashioned, but “fuck” is an immensely impactful, versatile, and useful word with a long and proud tradition in the English language.

Hard to argue with that.  🙂 

You have made yourself very accessible to your fan base (some might say too accessible, since you have a penchant for dissecting bad reviews and everyone knows it’s best just to ignore critics and hope they go away.  I was just wondering why you decided to take that approach with your readers?

That’s really just the approach that’s evolved with time.  After being published for a year or two I thought it would be a good idea to run a website, and in discussion with the guy who put it together with me, to run a blog.  If I was going to blog I wanted to update it relatively frequently, and hopefully have some content on there that would interest people, or at least get a cheap laugh.  I wanted to give some sense of the writing and publishing process, since that had been a total mystery to me before I was published myself.  One thing that had fascinated me ever since being published (and still does, to some extent) was the diverse reactions of readers to my books, and the way that has always made me feel and think (choked with fury, on the whole, of course).  So one thing I’ve always done on my blog is to look at reviews and discuss them, hopefully in a relatively light-hearted manner.  Often they’re a good jumping off point for deeper ruminations on the nature of fantasy and literature.  Sometimes, not so much.  I think as long as you’re not showing up in the comments sections of peoples’ reviews to harangue them about how much other people love you and how they’ve missed the point and how your book is actually really ace and all and basically making a fool of yourself in public…there’s no harm in talking about people’s reactions to your work.  They’re in the public domain, after all.  Why shouldn’t you discuss them?

I don’t know how the percentages of your readership actually break down, but from the people who comment regularly on your blog, it seems a fair number (maybe a third) are women.  Does it surprise you to have that many female readers when your books are rather aggressively male?  Or is it on par with/less than how you expected the gender demographic to break down?

As you say, it’s very hard to have any accurate idea of what the proportion is beyond the anecdotal, but from my experience of emails, blog posts, and signings I’d say you’re about right.  It is a little surprising, given that the books are, indeed, exploding with testosterone, violence, and references to bollocks with predominantly male casts.  But then most readers are women, these days.  Plus I see no reason why I wouldn’t find a good book about well-drawn women just as interesting, if not more so, than a book about men.  Why shouldn’t the same apply to female readers?

Have you noticed significantly different reactions to your books from different nationalities?  For example a different reading from Americans, with our continental dominance, vs. Europeans, with their long histories of Styria-style warring? 

I’d have to say not really.  Readers’ responses are so ludicrously varied (someone cussed me for my bleak endings a couple of months ago, the same day someone cussed me for my happy endings) that it’s very hard to pick out any general trends, let alone ones that are nationality specific.  There’s certainly a difference in the way the different publishers market the books, but that’s a slightly different point.

Have you found any of the countries or cultures you come up with to populate your fantasy world to be more similar to cultures from earth than you had intended or consciously realized when imagining them?  If so, did you work to make them less similar or decide to punch the analogue even further?

In all honesty my world is pretty closely based on reality.  I’ve always been more interested in those things that fantasy has in common with other types of fiction – characters, action, storytelling – than in the things that separate it – worldbuilding, magic, and monsters.  So my countries and cultures are consciously based on real world analogues, which I think helps both me and potential readers have a quickly grasped idea of the nature of those cultures.  So the Styria of Best Served Cold is a kind of exaggerated Renaissance Italy, Gurkhul is not entirely unlike the Ottoman Empire, the Union is a strange mashing together of British Empire, Holy Roman Empire, and Hanseatic League.  This also saves me a lot of worldbuilding and research time, of course, which allows me more time to play computer games.

If your worldbuilding is based on our history, how much consciously directed research do you do for it (if research can be used for finding ways to texturize fantasy worlds)?  What makes you decide you might ought to do some research, if anything?

I might occasionally research a specific detail just by poking about on the internet.  What kind of underwear did people wear in the sixteenth century, for example.  That was research.  Honest.  But one big advantage of writing fantasy is that you’re free to alter details and mash together things from different time periods if you want, in whatever way makes a scene most effective.  In a general sense, though, yes, I read a lot of history, and often find that it becomes relevant, or helps me think of scenarios I’d like to cover.  For The Heroes, for example, which is meant to be a combination of fantasy and war story, I read a lot of military history and fiction, and watched a lot of war-based films and TV, just to get some ideas in my head.  All right, to steal them from other, cleverer people.

What is the coolest factoid you have found, either in intentional research or just something you stumbled into?  If you’ve had a chance to use it yet, what did it become in the context of your world?

Not exactly a factoid, but visiting San Gimignano in Tuscany was a pretty crazy experience.  Stick it into Google images now, you’ll see what I mean.  It’s a town that’s largely preserved in its medieval state (apart from the addition of thousands of tourist shops and restaurants), but in particular the inhabitants of the time competed to display their wealth and prestige by building the tallest towers, and there are still a good dozen or so of these hugely tall and slender medieval towers sticking up all over the town.  It’s an amazing place.  I’d already conceived of Visserine, one of the settings in Best Served Cold, as a city covered in towers, but seeing San Gimignano and getting a sense for the scale of these things really helped me flesh out the idea and give it more, what’s the word?  Poke.

Do you think you’ll ever write in a different world than the one you’ve used for the First Law, Best Served Cold, and The Heroes?

I might some day try my hand at writing in our world, or perhaps a slightly altered version of our world which will allow me to get away with doing shoddy research.  I can’t foresee the circumstances under which I’d write in a different invented world, but never say never.

– originally published 11/23/2009

Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.