Joe Abercrombie (13.04.2009)

Interview with Joe Abercrombie

Literatopia: Hi Joe, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Would you tell us a bit about yourself, first – who are you and what kind of books do you write?

Joe Abercrombie: I am 34 years old, with two daughters, worldly-wise and rakishly handsome. I used to be – and still am on occasion – a video editor (mostly of documentaries and live music). I guess I’d describe my books as unheroic fantasy. Something along the lines of Lord of the Rings meets LA Confidential with a sprinkle of dark humour.

Literatopia: In June your new book “Best Served Cold” will be published. What’s in store for the readers? Will they meet old acquaintances or will you bring in entirely new characters?

Joe Abercrombie: Bit of both. Best Served Cold is a standalone, which takes place in the same world as the First Law trilogy but a different part of it, and features some new characters, some minor characters from the trilogy in more central roles, and a couple of familiar faces in the background. It picks up a few threads left dangling but is very much its own story. The idea was to produce something that could be read on its own as an introduction, or read after the trilogy as a continuation of the life of the world. Hopefully it fulfils both those roles rather than failing to do either…

Literatopia: Male characters dominate the First Law-Trilogy. Was it fun, then, to have a female main character, Monzcarro Mercatto, in the next book for a change or was this something you didn’t especially look forward to?

Joe Abercrombie: It was a bit of a challenge, definitely, if only because, as a man, your female characters will always be exposed to a degree of scrutiny that your male ones won’t be. And although the approach is fundamentally the same as with the male characters – to make them as multi-faceted, interesting, funny, surprising and real as I can – there are always going to be some elements of the female experience that, as a man, you’re guessing at. Plus I have a lot of real life experience with how groups of men act without women present, but not so much with how groups of women behave. That all tends to undermine your confidence a little, make you second guess yourself more than you would when writing a character of your own gender. Monza was particularly problematic since she was very much the main character in Best Served Cold, and carries a lot of the story on her shoulders. The First Law was much more an ensemble piece with several central characters. So it took quite a while for me to really get a concrete sense in mind of who she was. It wasn’t until I’d finished the first draft of the book that I started to be happy with her character and the way I’d written it. Then it was a case of revising the stuff I’d written with her at the start to suit my overall concept of the character.

Literatopia: Monzcarro Mercatto’s campaign of vengeance immediately reminds one of Ferro (First Law-Trilogy). Do these two characters have more in common than only their motives?

Joe Abercrombie: They’re both hard and pretty ruthless women, certainly, single-mindedly fixed on vengeance and with hard lives behind them. Ferro is relatively peripheral, though. We don’t get to know her that well, and what we do know is unremittingly hard and inpenetrable. Monza is much more central, and as a result, a lot more complex. She has a bit more human weakness to her.

Literatopia: Expectations are high concerning “Best Served Cold”. How does this influence you? Does it mean more pressure on you or does it spur you into giving your very best?

Joe Abercrombie: I think it certainly means more pressure. There’s a world of difference between writing a book as a hobby, on your own terms and in your own time, and suddenly having to come up with a concept and characters and implement them within a given time-frame. I’ve found Best Served Cold a lot more difficult to write than the trilogy, which had been incubating in my mind ever since I was a teenager, really. Whether the pressure has improved my work, well, that isn’t really for me to say. I’m certainly happy with the results myself, in the end, even if the process was tough.

Literatopia: One of the reasons we as your readers are so excited about “Best Served Cold” is your outstanding first novel, “The Blade Itself”. Why do you think this one was so successful? Was it mere chance or was there more to it?

Joe Abercrombie: Well, the first book sold well when it first came out, but I wouldn’t say it was an instant hit. But with each book that has come out the whole series seems to have done better and better. I’m certainly lucky in my UK publisher, who have supported it throughout and given the series a great cover treatment. It certainly helps that the series is a trilogy that has all come out within a relatively short time frame and concluded in a way that hasn’t disappointed too many people. Other than that, I guess the success is just due to the simple brilliance of my work. I’m joking, of course.

Or am I?

Literatopia: You started working on rough drafts of “The Blade Itself” during your time at university but then left off and only took it up again in 2002. Why did you stop working on it? Was the break essential for the quality of the book?

Joe Abercrombie: I started trying to implement some of the ideas when I was 20, mostly as an exercise to improve my touch-typing and hopefully therefore make me more employable. Between you and me (and all your readers) it was a bit rubbish. The same events as at the start of the book as it’s been published, but without the distinctive tone that makes it interesting. It didn’t have a sense of humour. It didn’t have any personality. It didn’t particularly excite me, so I very much doubt it would have excited anyone else. When I restarted I was … 28? I had a lot more life experience, had read a lot more widely, and above all had learned to take myself (and fantasy as a genre, perhaps) a lot less seriously. The results were immediately much better (at least to my mind). So yes, the break was absolutely essential. Without it, the books wouldn’t have happened, and if they had, they would have been poo.

Literatopia: With the First Law-Trilogy you created something very different. While writing it, where you ever afraid you wouldn’t meet the “demands of the market” by not producing high fantasy?

Joe Abercrombie: I started writing it entirely for my own amusement, with no thought for anyone’s tastes but my own. It was only when I’d finished a draft of the first book and started trying to sell it, started sending it out to agents and started gathering rejections, that I began to worry that it was uncommercial. Too nasty, too violent, too sweary, too unusual a mixture of tone between dark and funny. But I think tastes have broadened a lot over the last ten years or so, and left me in some pretty commercial territory. Which is nice.

Writing and being a writer

Literatopia: The covers of the German editions are kept a lot simpler than those of the original English publications. How much of a say do you have concerning the design of the covers? Do you generally like them or are there some you honestly dislike?

Joe Abercrombie: I have no say at all in any of the foreign language covers, or even their titles, so it’s always interesting to see what different approaches the various publishers come up with for their different markets. In Germany there seems to be a very distinct and successful style for epic fantasy covers at the moment – simple, dark, often with a weapon on the front and a short, snappy title which recurs throughout the series. Markus Heitz and Bernhard Hennen’s books look not dissimilar, and I guess those signals help readers towards the kind of books they’d like, which is as it should be.

Absolutely honestly, I like the UK covers (which I do have some input into, especially for Best Served Cold) a lot. They give my books a unique look. It’s harder to feel particularly strongly about the german cover treatments, as they’re much more generic. But whether or not I like them, artistically, is somewhat beside the point. Above all, I like covers which sell the books. Writing books is my business, selling them is the publisher’s, and you have to trust them to know their market and produce a treatment that works. Judging by how Heyne are doing with the books in Germany, they know their market.

Literatopia: “The Blade Itself”, “Before They Are Hanged” and “Last Argument of Kings” amount to a total of 2400 pages. Where did the idea for such a complex series come from? Did something inspire you, for example a certain book or incident? How did you manage to stay focused and hold on for such a long time? Did you ever have moments where you thought ‘I can’t do this, I just can’t go on’?

Joe Abercrombie: It’s mostly my reaction to the classic epic fantasy I read as a youth – Lord of the Rings, of course, but all kinds of other things as well. I guess you take ideas from everything you read or watch or experience and like, or particularly don’t like. I’m influenced almost as much by film and tv I watch as I am by books, and I read a lot of history as well, these days, so some ideas are drawn from my reading there.

In terms of staying focused, I wrote as a hobby to begin with, enjoyed the process and was really pleased and surprised by what came out – it seemed to have a life of its own. That sustained me to the end of the first book. I lost enthusiasm a bit as I collected rejections from agents during the year after I finished The Blade Itself, but I carried on writing the second book even then, if at a sluggish an uninspired speed. I’ve never really felt like I wanted to give it up, though I must admit that when I got close to finishing the trilogy I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that if I was going to do this professionally I’d have to write another book every year or two for the rest of my life… That’s a rather daunting thought, but you just have to take it one plan, one line, one scene, one chapter, one book, one task at a time.

Literatopia: When and how did you start writing? Did you suddenly sit down one day and decide to try it or was it a more subtle development, you writing down stories you’d made up as a way of recording them, then going back to improve them? What did your first tries look like?

Joe Abercrombie: Apart from the one abortive attempt to write my fantasy masterpiece when I was twenty and a few bits of juvenilia, I’d never seriously tried writing before my late twenties. I’d always wanted to do it, felt maybe I could do it, but I started largely because my day job left me with a lot of time off, sometimes days or weeks between jobs, and I felt I needed a project more useful than playing computer games to occupy me. I tried writing again, was really interested by the results, and it went from there.

Literatopia: How do you go about writing a novel? Do you have memos, character profiles and rough drafts of story lines carefully laid out or do you just sit down, write and let the story develop just as the fancy takes?

Joe Abercrombie: I plan pretty carefully. In particular I’ll tend to have a good idea of the end of a story before I begin. For me, starting to write without a plan would be a bit like starting to build a house without drawings, by just slapping the bricks wherever seemed a good idea at the time – liable to end in disaster. I wouldn’t say I do rough drafts – when I finish a chapter it’s usually not far from what I have in mind since I’ve worked out the tone I want, the plotting it needs to cover in some detail. But I certainly go through a lot of rounds of revision when I finish a chapter, finish a part, finish the book. Everything can always be a little more polished.

Literatopia: You prefer fantasy to any other genre. What is it about this one genre that is so fascinating to you? Is it the possibility to create new worlds and write about supernatural things or something completely different?

Joe Abercrombie: It’s an interesting question, since I’m much more interested in the realistic elements of my stories than in the fantastical ones. I don’t have a lot of magic in my world, not a lot of exotic races or crazy locations. I guess I’m more interested by what fantasy has in common with all other kinds of literature, than in those things that set it apart. Which maybe makes me a strange kind of fantasy author, I don’t know. Still, fantasy gives you freedom to make characters, events and settings a little larger than real life, and I like that element of it. You can use whatever makes the story most dramatic, whatever feels consistent and effective, without having to slavishly research how it really would be.

Literatopia: Is there an interview question you’ve been waiting for for years without it ever being asked, one you think that should have been asked? If so, which one is it? Would you answer it for us, too?

Joe Abercrombie: Would you like us to give you five million pounds, now, free of tax?
Yes, yes I would.


Literatopia: On your homepage you blog about you and your books. How important do you feel it is to keep in touch with your readers? Do you enjoy taking center stage and signing autographs or is this something you feel very uncomfortable with?

Joe Abercrombie: Writing can be a pretty lonely profession sometimes, so I’m always fascinated by anything any reader says about my books, and I certainly enjoy the contact I have through the blog. Signing books and so on – I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. Provided someone turns up, of course.

Literatopia: You started out a psychologist, became a screenwriter and ended up an author – how come? What made you try yourself at writing screenplays?

Joe Abercrombie: Not quite. I did a psychology degree but never used it professionally, I then made tea in the tv industry for a few months, became an assistant editor and finally a freelance video editor, working mostly on live music and documentary, which I did for ten years or so. I’ve never written screenplays, though I’ve been involved a lot in writing scripts for documentaries, which was an important experience, I think. When you see experts at that, you really get an idea of how to boil things down to their most essential few words. Which is why I write giant doorstop novels…

Literatopia: Do you think screenwriters have an advantage in developing a gripping story? Would you say your experience in psychology and in screenwriting is accountable for your success as an author?

Joe Abercrombie: I would refer you to my previous answer. Screenwriting, not so much, but the editing experience has certainly been useful. Accountable for the success? A little bit, maybe, but certainly not exclusively. Some important things that video editing does teach you, though, quite aside from any technical skills, are how to work as part of a team, how not to be too precious over details, and how to get on with the person sitting in the chair beside you. All good things to learn as a writer.

Literatopia: What do you think about Creative Writing classes offered at some universities and colleges? Do think they are useful or a waste of time?

Joe Abercrombie: Very hard for me to say, since I’ve never done such a course myself, and I’m not sure what they teach or what’s involved. In that sense, clearly it’s not essential to do a creative writing course in order to be a writer. I guess mileage will always vary as to whether they improve your writing or give you opportunities to get it published. I know some courses have great records as far as producing successful authors goes.


Literatopia: What can your readers expect from you in the future? Will you stick to fantasy or will you try something new? And – the most important question – will we see Glokta, Logan and Bayaz ever again?

Joe Abercrombie: I wouldn’t rule out writing in other genres, but for the time being I’m very happy with fantasy, and with the world and characters I’m already working with. I like the idea of books that link in to the larger world and themes but can be read alone, in which characters we knew vaguely before are fore-grounded so that we can really see what makes them tick, while others we know well appear in the background. I’ll probably do at least three standalones before maybe thinking about another trilogy. As for Glokta, Logen, and Bayaz, I daresay they might appear here or there in the future. Whether they’ll be central characters again, I couldn’t say. I’d never rule anything out that might sell books…

Questions sent in by our readers

Reader’s question: Glokta is a very prominent character. It’s often the case that the funniest and most bizarre characters that got most of the author's attention have some autobiographical traits to them. How much Abercrombie is there in Glokta? Or is there a completely different protagonist who represents you more closely?

Joe Abercrombie: I guess there’s a fair bit of Abercrombie in all the characters, since all their words and thoughts come out of me in one way or another. I guess they all represent some different side of me, greatly exaggerated, of course. Which is a slightly unsettling thought, in a way. But we do get particularly close to Glokta’s thought processes, because of the way that character is written with his thoughts in italics, so I guess through him you get particularly close to me.

That’s a really unsettling thought…

Reader’s question: What was the essence of the most aggravating critique you ever received?

Joe Abercrombie: Any review that is not obsequiously positive is unbearable to me. But I guess criticisms are only really aggravating when you know they’re just a little bit true.

Reader’s question: What made you give a crippled torturer a central role? Was it sudden inspiration or a secret affinity?

Joe Abercrombie: There’s nothing secret about my affinity. Glokta probably thinks more like me than any of the other characters. But in a sense it was sudden inspiration – he was the last character to take shape in my mind, and appeared quite quickly. He wasn’t even in the original version of the book I wrote aged 20. The other characters had all been incubating for long years prior to that in one form or another, right back to childhood, in some cases. So I guess you could say Glokta is the most adult creation in the cast.

Reader’s question: Do you have a role model? What kind of books and by which authors do you like to read?

Joe Abercrombie: I wouldn’t say I have one writing role model. I like any books that seem honest and truthful, that seem to have something genuine to say about people. That seem born out of real experience rather than just trotting out the same old clichés. Most of what I read these days is history of one kind or another. Non-fiction, mostly. Real life is often far more bizarre than the strangest of fantasies.

Reader’s question: Where does the name Abercrombie come from? Do you think it’s a suitable name for a fantasy author? Is it maybe a pseudonym that has a special meaning to you?

Joe Abercrombie: It comes from Scotland originally and means, I believe, “mouth of the crooked river”. Suitable name for a fantasy author? Not sure, really, it’s the name I was born with. I was encouraged to pick a shorter, more punchy pseudonym that might fit more comfortably on a cover, but I decided to stick with my own name. Anything else would have felt a bit strange…

Reader’s question: Do you plan your main characters to the last detail; do know everything about them? Or do you leave some things unclear so as to be surprised yourself from time to time or to be able to give the story a different direction, if need be?

Joe Abercrombie: Usually at the start of the writing I’ll have planned pretty carefully what each character’s role in the story will be, I’ll have an idea of their history, their appearance, their personality, and the way in which I’ll approach writing from their point of view. But naturally all those things develop as you go, often quite radically, and I’m always ready to grab at any good idea I might be lucky enough to have. Such ideas are unlikely to send the story in a radically different direction, but they certainly might help the story to more convincingly or entertainingly go in the direction I’ve already planned for it.

Literatopia: Thanks a lot!

Joe Abercrombie: My pleasure.

Autorenfoto wurde der Homepage von Joe Abercrombie entnommen. Copyright by Lou Abercrombie!

Rezension "Kriegsklingen"

Rezension "Feuerklingen"

Rezension "Königsschwur"

Rezension "Königsjäger"

Rezension "Königskrone"

Neuerscheinung im September: "Racheklingen"

Dieses Interview wurde von Angelika Mandryk für Literatopia geführt. Alle Rechte vorbehalten!

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