Joe Abercrombie (2009)

I did this interview with Joe back in 2009. He’s a very nice man, although I am insanely envious of his success. He was living in Bath while I was there. We had mutual friends, and was invited down a few times to attend their gaming group. Annoyingly, I never could. Can you guess why? Ah yes, parenthood… From Death Ray #19.

Blood and Iron

War, death, blood and wit. There’s plenty of all in Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy world, the kind of place Tarantino would have invented if he’d read more Tolkien and watched less grindhouse as a kid. We like it, we do.

I’ll let you into a secret. Heroic fantasy shaped and formed me. It made me, at least in part, what I am today.

And then it started to bore me to death. When I picked up a new book, I had an uncomfortable feeling I had read it all before. I had. But I love fantasy, so I keep on trying, always looking for something fresh, a new take on the old stories.

With Joe Abercrombie, I think I may have found it. His is an intensely believable reality full of bone popping violence, death, skullduggery and disease. This is not your typical machine-wash medieval fayre, but two steps away from the grim actualities of life in a pre-industrial age. Like his latest book, Best Served Cold, about a mercenary captain in a fantasy version of Renaissance Italy whose quest for revenge gets out of hand. (See the review here).

It’s heroic fantasy right enough, but not in an airbrushed kind of way.

All of which Abercrombie set out to achieve. A 34-year old Lancastrian (the Yorkshire biased DR team grudgingly salutes him) raised on RPGs and fat trilogies, Abercrombie found himself in the profession of video editor, all glam and media, but also intermittent. With time to spare, he had two bold attempts at redefining the genre. The first was not so successful, the second… Well, 250,000 book sales for his First Law trilogy tells that story right enough…


Death Ray: I just read Best Served Cold. It was great, and I really appreciated the fact that it was a standalone…

Joe Abercrombie: The First Law followed the path of the classic epic fantasy, so I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do a standalone book because I’ve got no patience with huge series. Sometimes they tread water, they inevitably have longeurs. As a reader, if someone says to me, “Oh, you should read this,” and then you go into a shop and they’ve got part six and part eight, and you think, my God, I’ve got to read these to get up to speed? It’s all a bit intimidating.

DR: Why Renaissance Italy?

JA: I’ve always been very interested in it – Machiavelli, feuding city states, dodgy popes and poison; at the same time, the vitality of the Renaissance. So as a setting that seemed a bit of a gimme. Having done a more classic medieval style setting, I wanted to go for something that was a little more advanced, a little bit more cynical and nasty, though the first one’s pretty cynical and nasty to be fair!

DR: I liked the ensemble cast, it had a sort of Ocean’s Eleven feel.

JA: Characters are the absolute essence of it for me. If you’ve got good characters, then you can forgive other shortcomings. If the characters are boring and unconvincing… nothing makes up for that, for me as a reader anyway.

DR: As befits the flamboyance of the setting and the characters, there is plenty of humour.

JA: I think a sense of humour is vital. I love things that have got some wit and are fast on their feet. Fantasy tends to be very solemn and self-regarding, or on the other side there is slapstick, self-consciously piss-taking fantasy. There doesn’t tend to be a lot of the middle ground, the humour that we have in real life.

DR: It’s also very visceral, very bloodthirsty. Where are you coming from with that?

JA: It’s personal experience, it’s basically just autobiographical. I’m a very dangerous man in real life… No, it’s a reaction to what I read as a kid, the feeling that that was often very sanitised, though I think a lot’s changed. People like George R.R. Martin, they’re writing grittier stuff, but in the popular consciousness, fantasy is still dominated by shiny armour. Also, fantasy tends to be about the world, about the big wide shots and the huge sweeping grandeur and not very much about the people. I wanted to focus on them, and part of that was focussing on their experience of violence. So it was trying to bring a sense of what you get in a show like the Sopranos, if you like, portray violence as harder and more unpleasant.

There’s a lot of thought in fantasy about how beautiful swords are, but not much about how horrible the wounds they produce might be. One thing that interests me is giving a more realistic sense of the dangers and the price of it.

DR: Your world is only a couple of steps away from a historical novel. A lot of fantasy authors do this. I suspect the real reason is well, I couldn’t be bothered to do the research…

JA: That’d certainly be part of my answer! But quite early on I had a character that needed to be thrown out of a window, and I was thinking, ‘Hmm, so how big windows would they have? How big would the panes of glass be, how difficult would it be to throw someone through one?’ And then it suddenly occurred to me, hold on, it’s fantasy! I can have whatever style of window feels right for the scene. And that is a big appeal of it. It’s cheap and easy and you don’t have to research, but you can also combine a bit of 15th century Sweden with a bit of 10th century Norway if it gives you the right drama. You can take all kinds of liberties. It can be a bit larger than life. I like that. Sin City, if you like, over the top. Lurid!

DR: Well, it certainly works, and you even manage to make a point about men’s lust for but horror of violence…

JA: First of all, the thing I try to do is make it fast and exciting and entertaining that has got to be the first priority. Any kind of have to be totally secondary to that. Hopefully those things arise out of trying to depict characters as carefully and as truthfully as you can do. Otherwise it can overwhelm most reader’s palettes.

I’m put in mind of the game Metal Gear Solid. It has this hamfisted anti-war message combined with ‘Wow! Look at these guns! Ooh, you can look at every gun you’ve got and you can zoom in and zoom out and you can attach little bits to it, wow man these guns are so cool… Oh, but war is so wrong…’ I think that men do have that. For all my blathering about the evilness of violence, my books are reveling in it at the same time as well.


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