FantasyCon interview: Joe Abercrombie - SciFiNow

FantasyCon interview: Joe Abercrombie

British fantasy’s hottest name talks moral ambiguity, sword sizes and spaghetti westerns

It’s been an incredible few years for Joe Abercrombie, the first book in The First Law Trilogy was released in 2006, and five years later he’s a Sunday Times bestseller, and as far as the BBC are concerned (having him appear on their Worlds Of Fantasy series), every bit the equal of Michael Moorcock, Terry Pratchett and China Miéville. He makes a pretty fitting ambassador for FantasyCon, then.

Hello sir, are you looking forward to FantasyCon?

I certainly am.  I haven’t actually been to FantasyCon before, so being invited as a Guest of Honour is a real . . . honour.

Your career feels as though it’s really exploded over the last few years, what was the last thing that really surprised you?

I’ve been surprised by pretty much everything since The Blade Itself was released in 2006, honestly.  Obviously you believe in what you’re doing – if you didn’t like what you were producing you wouldn’t bother – but there’s a big difference between that and putting it in front of other people for an opinion.  So in a sense I’ve always been surprised that anyone was interested in a bunch of stuff which I dreamed up in the middle of the night entirely for my own amusement.  To me it feels like it’s been a relatively steady growth, rather than an explosion, though certainly a lot of things came together nicely for the UK release of the most recent book, The Heroes.  We hoped that it might make the hardcover bestseller list, but we were really surprised that it got as high as number three.  Very pleased, though, obviously.

As one of the leading lights in visceral fantasy, what’s the secret to striking that balance between the real and the unreal?

Like those lights that lead people to their doom in swamps, huh?  I guess, as with so many things in writing, there’s no right answer to that question – every writer needs to find their own formula and what works for one story, world, set of characters may not convince with another.  My own preference as a writer has tended to be to keep the fantastical elements – the magic, the monsters, the focus on setting in general – to a minimum and to put the characters and action in the foreground, and to make the characters and action feel as honest, truthful and realistic as possible.  Well, perhaps slightly exaggerated – what’d be the point in writing fantasy if you can’t take a couple of liberties?

Game Of Thrones is a hit and even Harry Potter has a fair bit of bleakness to it, why do you think people are hungry for morally ambiguous fantasy at the moment?

There certainly is a fair bit of morally ambiguous fantasy about, but it feels like ever since The Sopranos debuted there’s generally been a hunger out there for more morally complex stories of all kinds.  It’s no surprise that fantasy has followed that trend to some degree, especially since George RR Martin proved back in the Nineties that you could do something challenging, surprising, and morally ambiguous while still producing highly commercial epic fantasy.  These days guys like Scott Lynch, Richard Morgan, Steven Erikson, Scott Bakker, Peter Brett and plenty more are all pushing at the envelope of what you can do in epic fantasy in different and interesting ways.

Having said that, I occasionally hear people bemoaning the lack of heroism and derring-do in modern fantasy and that surprises me, as my own feeling is that there are still a lot of long established and relatively new authors still very successfully writing pretty traditional stories, and a lot of the old ones are still in print.  I don’t intend that as a criticism, incidentally, I think it’s a good thing that there should be plenty of variety on the shelves.

Do you spend much time reading up on medieval history and comparing different types of swords?

Hah.  Well, yes, as it happens I do have an excellent book of photographs of swords throughout the ages.  But I read a lot of history from varied periods, and I try to avoid making the background of my world too self-consciously medieval, or for that matter faux medieval.  I want ideally to give the whole thing a somewhat timeless, universal quality.  I want it to feel relevant.

On the subject of lots of reading material, you’re clearly mining the Old West for inspiration at the moment – what can you tell us about your next project?

Well, I’ve tried in my last few books to combine the fantasy world I’ve produced with some other styles of storytelling I enjoy.  So Best Served Cold was an attempt to produce a kind of fantasy thriller, The Heroes a fantasy war story, and this latest project is, as you say, a fantasy western.  So it takes place in the same world as the rest of my work but features characters, settings and situations with perhaps a slightly western-like bent.  No six-guns but a lot of lawless frontier, grizzled killers, narrowed eyes and sweaty standoffs.  I’m a huge fan of westerns, from John Ford via Sergio Leone to Clint Eastwood, so this is proving interesting . . .

Your blog is brilliant, how important do you think it is for authors to have an active internet presence?

Well, first of all thank you, I try to have fun with it.  I think when you begin blogging you have all kinds of things to say, opinions to share, and over time it gets harder to fill the space in a sense – you tend to see the same arguments and controversies repeat themselves – but I think it’s important to set your level of involvement and try to stick with it.

Whether it’s vital for authors to have an internet presence?  I don’t know.  Certainly it’s a useful tool, increasingly so, and it can be a lot of fun having a medium through which you can relate to your readers.  Writing can be a lonely profession, after all.  But I think in the fascination of being able to see instant feedback to our work we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of readers will probably never look up our blogs, or a chatroom, or an internet review.  Good old word of mouth is still king.

FantasyCon 2011 is held September 30-October 2 at the Royal Albion Hotel, Brighton – get your tickets here!