An interview with author Joe Abercrombie

We quizzed the author of The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged , as he prepares to complete the third part of the fantasy series. You can read the writing tips he gave us last week, over on this page .

SFX: Where did the original inspiration for The First Law books come from?

Joe Abercrombie:
"No one thing, really. I suppose as an author you’re influenced by anything and everything you’ve ever read or seen and liked. Or didn’t. In part it’s a reaction to some of the things I didn’t like in a lot of the epic fantasy I read as a kid – cardboard characters, cheesy heroes and villains with no reasons and no shades of grey between, a fixation with worldbuilding over storytelling. Not that there isn’t some great fantasy out there. I just thought there was room for some more."

"Ultimately, I suppose I’ve just tried to write the kind of books that I’d like to read. An epic sweep of love and war, and all that. Some torture and some intrigue. Some mystery and some magic. A bit of sex and an awful lot of adrenalin-pumping violence. A few awe-inspiring grand set pieces, and several bowel-loosening surprises on the way to a thrilling, shocking climax. Laughter, tears, and a little bit of nausea. The entire gamut of emotions. And, above all, some strong characters with pithy yet hilarious dialogue. That’s not too much to ask for your tenner, is it?"

SFX: What do you think makes your characters (particularly Glotka) so appealing - they ought to be pretty unlikeable people, right? Yet they're attractive to read about. How come?

JA:
"Indeed – a psychopathic barbarian with a bloody past, a grotesque crippled torturer with no mercy and no morals, and a sneering, self-obsessed user are not on the face of it the most sympathetic of characters. I think if they become likable, or at least interesting, it’s because we get to know them very intimately, to understand their motivations and their histories, to think of them as real people. Hopefully they’re funny, which helps a lot. Hopefully they’re surprising, which helps a lot more."

"Glokta, for example, is repugnant, and the things he does disgusting. But at the same time we understand his reasons, we sympathise with his terrible losses and his constant pain. Perhaps his withering cynicism and his hatred for the world and everything in it, especially himself, strike a few little chords with some of us. Admit it. We’ve all been there. You might not want to spend an evening with him, but you can’t help rooting for him."

"Sure, they’re all in that grey area somewhere between heroes and villains. But then I’ve always found the morally complex, conflicted characters a great deal more interesting than the straight up heroes. You can keep Aragorn and Gandalf. I’d rather have a pint with Boromir and Saruman any day. Though, thinking about it, Saruman’s probably more of a single malt sort of guy."

SFX: You've said before that you're not into worldbuilding (maps of the land and so on). What is it about that sort of approach which doesn't appeal?

JA:
"Let me begin by saying that I’m not on some kind of anti-worldbuilding crusade. That would be way too much effort. Honestly, I enjoy a good map as much as the next guy. I drew a shit-load of ’em when I was a kid. I had pencils of every hardness and colour that you or anyone else could imagine. I even drew a few childish scratchings as source material for the First Law. Just to ensure consistency, you understand. I’m not, like, obsessive-compulsive or anything. Not much."

"Clearly, you can’t write in an imagined world without making that world up, and what you make up needs to be convincing, I just personally feel that the worldbuilding aspects of epic fantasy often come to overpower everything else. That people are attempting to out-Tolkein Tolkein, if you will, by vying endlessly to be more detailed, complex, and long. As if the task was to create a set of maps, and hey, now we’ve gone to all that trouble, we might as well sketch in a few pathetic, cliché characters to walk from Zanvonz to Wibwab and have a lame, info-dumping conversation along the way about how their magic system works."

"It’s the equivalent of a film producer blowing his entire budget on sets and costume he’s not even going to use in the picture, and fondly imagining that no-one will therefore notice the abysmal script, acting, camerawork, editing and direction. Of course, there are writers who come up with weird, and wonderful, and magical settings which fascinate and enthral the reader. But, for me, those are only of real interest as long as the characters, and the dialogue, and the plots are on the money as well. So worldbuilding, yeah, great, where necessary. But not at the expense of the things that actually make a proper story, eh?"

SFX: Who are your inspirations? You've mentioned LA Confidential in the past, but are there any SF and fantasy authors you admire?

JA:
"Yeah, I often feel that a lot of my influences come from outside fantasy, especially these days, and outside of literature altogether, in fact, in film, TV and animation. But I read a lot of fantasy as a kid, which obviously was hugely influential on me. Tolkein, of course, he bestrides the genre like a colossus. Le Guin, whose Wizard of Earthsea had a big impact on me, and demonstrates that fantasy doesn’t have to be massively long-winded to be effective. George RR Martin, who made me realise that fantasy could be ruthless, surprising, and morally ambiguous. Michael Moorcock, for his crazy worlds and his crazy names. And David Eddings, who provided the kind of template for eighties fantasy that I have tried to twist and corrupt for my own evil purposes. You know, kind of the way Sauron twisted elves to make orcs?"

SFX: When will we see the third instalment on the shelves? And have you decided how the story is going to wrap up?

JA:
"The thrilling conclusion to the trilogy, Last Argument of Kings, should be flying off the shelves in March 2008, and all will be shockingly revealed. I’m just finishing it off now, in fact. A few details still to work out, but I’ve had the ending more or less in mind since the start... Me, living in a big-ass mansion, with a pool shaped like a magic sword."

SFX: What's the best thing about being a successful fantasy author?

JA:
"My toilet seat carved from a single massive diamond. It’s kind of cold when you first sit on it. But it soon warms up."

Joe Abercrombie was speaking to Dave Bradley, from Paris no less. Read his advice to Pulp Idol entrants in the latest issue of SFX, and find out about his books here .