“I span the entire geek spectrum.” – Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie is primarily known for The First Law trilogy, and his particular take on the fantasy genre: violent, witty and wicked. And if you frequent his blog at all, then it comes to no surprise that he’s quite the consummate geek.
Joe took the time to talk with me a few weeks ago about his new book, Best Served Cold, just released in the U.S., as well as a variety of geeky subjects including D&D, the Acorn Atom, font sizes and the books that influenced his career.
I think it’s safe to say he’s one of us.
GeekDad: How has fatherhood impacted your writing?
Joe Abercrombie: Well the second kid has been more of a shock than the first one, in a way. I think you’re expecting the first one to be this life-changing thing—and it is, absolutely—but I wasn’t doing massive day-to-day parenting with the first kid, since I was still working full-time at that point, and also working on the book. With the second one, though I haven’t been able to avoid my responsibilities, really, to the same extent. So I’m getting a lot more involved. So much more actual time has gone into it. And there’s a new house, as well. And the new house is a bit of a wreck and needs a lot of work, so there’s quite a lot going on. The writing is not moving forward rapidly, should we say.
GD: So life has changed in different ways than expected?
JA: Yeah, and writing is a weird profession in that what’s just gone out is last year’s work. The machine takes a long time to come up to speed. But once it’s going it sort of goes on by itself. So if I get held up with this book it won’t show for a while. (laughs)
GD: What’s your writing process like in general?
JA: I do quite a lot of planning; I generally try to. I outline quite a lot. I spend a couple of months just sitting there and I think about the idea and roughly what the thing is; I think about what characters want to be in it and then I gradually start to flesh those things out. Then I gradually kind of plot it out and then work out what each chapter’s going to be and what points of view they’re going to be written from. And then sort of plunge in and start to work out how I’m going to write the different characters. So it’s quite methodical.
It’s not a stroke of genius type thing, it’s a lot of sitting in front of it and endlessly revising. A lot of trial and error. And a lot of revising.
GD: You can certainly feel the depth of planning, something that makes it stand out in the genre, in your writing. Unfortunately it’s not something you see that often in fantasy.
JA: Ah, that’s nice of you to say that. But that’s always one of the things that always frustrated me about a lot of the fantasies I read when I was a kid. It tends to be quite formulaic and it doesn’t often surprise you. I got into reading a lot of noir and a lot of thrillers as well, and I really admired the plotting about those and the way that they can surprise you. And obviously to surprise people and to have twists in the tale, you have to plan quite carefully.
GD: Absolutely. And it’s a much more enjoyable read that way. Every once in and a while you want that boring epic fantasy because it’s comfortable, but in order for the genre to survive—beyond fantasy geeks, even—it’s got to challenge what we expect.
JA: It’s a combination of the two in a way, isn’t it? It’s providing something that’s familiar enough, very recognizably part of the form, but at the same time offers something that’s a bit new in terms of the style, or the way it’s written, or the way characters behave. In a way it can be quite small deviations from that established form that make it more interesting. You know I’m kind of more interested by Westerns. Like say Unforgiven, because it obviously is a Western, but a different kind of one, if you like. So that’s what I was aiming for with fantasy.
GD: You have a background in film and TV; do you feel like that influences the way you write your novels?
JA: I think maybe. I mean, certainly it was a big influence on me. I had a rough time doing [writing] when I was twenty, just after graduating. It was pretty poor what I wrote, I think. It didn’t have any self-awareness, it didn’t have as much of a sense of humor. It was kind of classic fantasy, really.
But then I worked 10 years in between and tried again and it certainly took on a totally different feel. Editing TV is a very interesting job because you sit in a room with one other person, the director, for hours at a time. And you have to find a way to get on with that person. And you have to be not precious about what you do as well, because you might edit a sequence and the director goes, “No no no no no,” and wants something completely different. So you have to grit your teeth and agree to it. But that gives you an opportunity to look at it again with different eyes and think of a different way to do things.
So that was an important experience in terms of working with an editor myself, and taking on criticism, which is never easy to do. And… it was very useful training for pacing, because as an editor you have to fit everything into a certain length of time.
GD: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Best Served Cold, your new release.
JA: I suppose what I always had in mind to write was a trilogy. And when you’re writing a big trilogy, or at least when I was writing this one, you don’t really think about what comes after. Because it seems like quite the task to get that done and maybe even published. It feels impossible, really. But then as I was coming to the end of the third book, my agent said to me, “What are you going to do next?” And I realized, with this sense of horror, that I’d probably have to write a book every year for the rest of my life, if I want to do it seriously which, well, let’s hope, is another forty books or something. And I’d used up all my good ideas already, so I needed to think of something new.
And that position you’re in, it’s very different than just doing it for a laugh in your spare time, as I did with the first set of books. So I looked around for a bit of ideas, and I wanted to do something that was a standalone, something a bit more tightly focused because I didn’t want to get into doing a very, very long series where new readers didn’t have a chance to jump in. I wanted something that could be an introduction, or a bit of a continuation. And so I thought about films that I like and one thing that came to mind was Point Blank; and what I like about that was [that it was a story about] revenge. I thought revenge stories are easy to understand, and they’re very violent. So it plays to my strengths, there (laughs) and in terms of setting I’d always been fascinated by Renaissance Italy—you know, Machiavelli and feuding city-states and so on. I thought I’d write something that was a combination of fantasy elements and thriller elements, and keep it relatively short.
But basically it’s a revenge story about a woman who is a mercenary—a very successful mercenary—who is betrayed by her employer and sets out to wreak terrible vengeance on him and his henchmen, one after another, with grim, and occasionally hilarious consequences.
GD: Now your main character, Monza Murcatto, is a woman. Did the character and gender come together at once?
JA: It’s kind of hard to [recall] those decisions after the fact. It just always seemed the right thing to do. There is a healthy tradition of female revenge stories, but I think it was also that I’d done a lot of male characters—the First Law [trilogy] is a very male book. When you start out writing I think you go for what’s within easy reach, what you can easily make authentic. Obviously having experience with groups of men, and how groups of men behave around each other, those are the kinds of things that I just automatically reached for without even really thinking about.
I thought it would be a good thing to try and stretch myself a little bit and try having a woman as the central character. And it just kind of seemed the right role and the right character just the right way to do it. It seemed to make sense. It presented some little problems, I think. It’s a little bit trickier; it was for me, anyway. And I was a bit unconfident with it as I started… and it took a while for that character to kind of come together. Also because she’s very much the central character of the book and it sits on her shoulders, really. It was important that it worked, and so it took a while to get the right tone with it. But I think it got there in the end.
GD: Well, Monza certainly comes across as very complex, and doesn’t fit into many of the female fantasy stereotypes, which is refreshing.
JA: I just want to make [characters] feel as real as possible. I mean, the idea with her was the same as any of the male characters, really. Just to make them real and convincing and kind of multi-faceted and surprising… as much like real people as they can be. Because fantasy often has these archetypal characters in it, almost based on all those other characters you’ve read about before, or that the writer’s read about—that are based on that other barbarian, based on that other knight in shining armor—rather than any other sense of reality.
GD: What kind of books did you read that contributed to your upbringing, as far as fantasy and science-fiction?
JA: Well, a huge range, I guess. Certainly Lord of the Rings was a big thing for me as a kid, and I’d read it every year, and was really fascinated by that. I went from that into playing a lot of role playing games, a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and similar sorts of things. I played a lot of those.
And I also read—let’s use the word cheesy—80s fantasy, that was really big at that time. Dragonlance and David Eddings and you know, classic fantasy. But also Ursula K. LeGuin and Michael Moorecock, and things like that were not so much in the shadow of Tolkien, if you like. And you know, a bit of classic sci-fi as well, that my dad had sitting around on his shelves. When you can’t find anything else you reach for your dad’s books, don’t you? Grudgingly. But at the same time all sorts of general fiction. My mum was an English teacher and she always was at pains to make me read quite widely and read a few Classics. Dickens and Jane Austen are in the mix there somewhere, I think.
And then as I got older I started to read all kinds of other things. And then in the 90s when I had just about given up fantasy I read George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and that changed my idea of what you could do with fantasy, in a way. I think that probably reading that was quite influential in trying to do something myself. It opened my eyes as to what you could do with fantasy while still being commercially successful.
GD: Was your upbringing pretty geeky?
JA: Yeah, I’m 34 now so I kind of grew up with computer games. They were born around the same time as me, and I started playing Space Invaders when I was tiny. I think it was an Acorn Atom, the computer that we had when I was really little. It was 2K. But we upgraded it to 12, which was probably the most powerful computer in the area at the time. And I played a lot of text adventures. So I’ve always had computers and consoles and things. Very into computer gaming. Prior to being married I would say I spent most of my time playing computer games—and I’m including work and sleep. It was quite a big use of my time, really. A lot of Street Fighter II in college, as well.
GD: What games are you playing now?
JA: I’m playing Infamous at the moment, on the PlayStation 3, which is good. It’s not amazing, but it’s good. I’m finding myself less and less interested in PC games. I used to spend a lot of time playing PC games, a lot of strategy, and that kind of thing, but it’s kind of frustrating how quickly PCs become obsolete and unable to run the latest software. So the great thing about a PlayStation or an Xbox is that they’ll always run. And now a lot more sophisticated games are coming out on consoles, where before they only came out on computers, really. I still continue to play things quite a lot but obviously time is a lot more limited. If I get a half hour in the evening, I’m lucky.
GD: I think some writers get sucked in a little, you know? Gaming can be quite a time-suck.
JA: I would like to have that even as a backup. But it’s “I should be writing, but I’m actually grouting my bathroom.” Or “I should be writing but I’m wiping the sick off my baby.” So I’m not even getting the opportunity to use gaming as a time-suck at the moment. Which is a shame, because I’m going to run out of inspiration soon. The next book’s going to have to be about a barbarian who puts a bathroom together, something like that, because it’s what I know.
GD: As far as writing and computers go, what do you use?
JA: Well, Microsoft Word, oddly enough. Occasionally people ask me, “is there any software that will make you a better writer?” And well, ultimately, a pad and a pen will do it. I barely scratch the surface of any of the features; literally it’s just body text, and occasionally if I’m feeling freaky, a dropped capital. But yeah, Word.
At the moment I’ve got a big 24″ monitor which has been the biggest revelation for me, computer wise, for quite a long time. With the 24″ monitor I have two A4 pages side-by-side, which is a nice level of readability. So that’s handy. And a good keyboard is handy, as well. I have a Logitech one, a flat one. I just find the action is good, for me. But you know obviously it varies. But yeah, it’s a good sized screen. And I can kinda of just pick it up and take it away with me.
GD: You and text and that’s it.
JA: At times I’ll just zoom right into the text, and make it huge. It makes me feel kind of powerful when I’m typing. The words are an inch tall, and you think, “This has got to be important! This has got to be good now!” Weirdly it allows you to sort of concentrate on individual sentences in a way you don’t when they’re smaller, which is sort of odd.
GD: Have you caught any good movies lately? I’m assuming Star Trek is out over there in the UK now…
JA: Yeah, it’s been out for a while now, I’d love to see that. I’m a big fan of the Next Generation. Although I was a bit underwhelmed by some of the Star Trek that’s followed. I thought TNG was great, so it’s like once you’ve liked Star Trek you never quite get it out of your head, I think. So you always hope that anything that comes out will be good.
But at the moment we’re watching “Burn Notice“. It’s cheesy as anything, but it’s actually very good. It’s like a very clever person pretending to be stupid. But I’m finding TV more and more interesting on the whole and films less and less. It just feels like a lot more interesting stuff is going on in television, and people, even actors. Ten years ago it would have been inconceivable to have film stars in [television]. I can remember when Michael Douglas was on “Friends”–it was like, “Wow! A film actor in TV! It’s amazing.” But now you wouldn’t bat an eye, it’s just become kind of normal.
I just think TV is becoming more and more interesting in a way. Films are more and more derivative, you know, whether it’s Transformers 2 or Shrek 5, or it’s yet another iteration of another kind of clone of something else. It’s a bit depressing in a way. It seems like television is filled with much more vivid and interesting ideas. I’m very excited to see what HBO does with the George R. R. Martin series, which has the potential to be really quite something.
GD: You’re very open on your blog about the publishing business. Was your plan always to write fantasy novels, get published? Or has it taken on a life of its own?
JA: It was never a plan at all. I don’t think I ever planned anything. I certainly wasn’t someone who has always written, particularly. I was relatively good at doing creative writing at school, and so on, but only within the context of a class full of kids picking their noses. It was never a big ambition of mine, to be a writer.
Because I was a video editor, I was freelance, I ended up with time off in between jobs. So I had this time on my hands, and really, you can only play computer games for so long, all week, before you start going, “I should be doing something more productive with my time.” And being an editor is a nice job, because you come in and do a lot of projects, but it’s a bit like being a plumber—you never really own what you working on. It’s never really your thing, it’s the director’s thing, so I kind of felt the need for something that was my thing, I suppose.
I’d always had ideas about fantasy, and I’d read a lot of fantasy as a kid, so it seemed like a natural thing to have a go at writing an actual fantasy series. So that was how it started, I suppose, just because I had the time.
I was kind of surprised and pleased by what came out, and got a lot of encouragement from my family, and I wrote it for them as much as anything. And then eventually I had a book, the first book of a trilogy, and I started shopping that around, and got a lot of rejections from agents and things, and it just happened to find its way into the hands of my editor, now.
And in terms of transparency, I think it’s just interesting to discuss it. Because you go on chat rooms and forums and see people talking about it, but [they] don’t necessarily understand how it works. People will email me and say, “Hey, you should make a film out of your books!” And I think, well, yes. But it’s not really my decision, ultimately. Or they’ll say, “Why haven’t you made your books available on audio?” And I’ll say, “Well, I’d like for them to be available on audio, but I’m waiting for someone to make me an offer.”
So yeah, it’s an interesting business. Part of the thing with the commercial aspect of it is that writers, new writers—and I think this was true of me, as well—they don’t really think of themselves as trying to sell something in the way they present it and the way they try and pass it to agents and publishers. They don’t pass it on in a way that demonstrates an awareness of the commercial aspects of the business. They don’t say, “This is a book you need and you can make money out of because it appeals to this demographic.” They tend to think, “I LOVE ORCS! This is a book about orcs! You’ll love it!” Because it’s all about what they’ve done, and not what they’re going to do for you. I think that if you’re selling a book, being aware of the fact that you’re selling something is always handy in a cover letter.
GD: So, what’s going on in the next few months? What’s on the horizon for you?
JA: Well, we’ve got an architect trying to sort the house out we have got to get actually planning, and we live in Bath—probably planning is easier in the States, I don’t know, I suppose it depends where you are—but in Bath, which is kind of a historic city, it’s hard to get things through planning. So I think the next six months will be a lot of conferring with the architect and trying to convince planning officers that we are doing the right thing. And then also actually getting tenders from builders, which I won’t be able to afford (laughs) so that’s what I’ll be doing for the next sixth months, mostly, as well as watching the kids get older, getting our eldest into a nursery.
And the other thing is, with the books I’ve gotten into this position [with the last book] of saying to my parents, “I’m not that confident about this one, I’m not sure if it’s going to work”; and now I’m saying “I’m not that confident about this one, I’m not sure it’s going to work,” about the next book. [Except] the last book is actually out and done and gone. And I’m going through exactly the same kind of thing again. Scary.
Thanks to Joe for the interview!