Joe Abercrombie interview: Half A King, writing, and younger audiences

Nick catches up with fantasy author Joe Abercrombie to find out about his new book, and why your mum needs to read it...

For those interested in any way at all with smart, adult fantasy (and in this new Game of Thrones dominated world, who isn’t?), then Joe Abercrombie should be an author whose work is at the top of your reading list.

Joe burst onto the scene in 2006 with his darkly violent, funny, and fresh The First Law fantasy trilogy. A former video editor, he quickly established himself as the hottest new British fantasy author of the 21st century and rightly earned plaudits and success with his work. He then followed up the trilogy with three stand-alone novels set in the same world, but taking the genres of the revenge thriller, war epic, and Western and filtering them through his own fantasy lens. The results were again hugely enjoyable.

Now after a break of two years, he returns with something slightly different: Half A King, the first in a brand new trilogy, set in a new world, and apparently aimed at a more Young Adult readership. Joe kindly took some time to answer our questions about the new novels, and his work in general…

You have a new book coming out very soon, would you mind telling us a bit about it?

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It’s called Half A King and follows the misadventures of Yarvi, a prince born with a crippled hand and hence unable to take a man’s place in the warrior society he lives in. He’s trained to be a Minister instead – somewhere between priest, healer and advisor, but when his Father and Brother are killed he’s forced to take the throne. With disastrous consequences…

It’s the first in a trilogy, which are being released very close together, 3 in 12 months. What different pressure has this added to the writing process?

It’s meant a tight turnaround, but then the books are a lot shorter than my others have been. Obviously the first one was written before the deals were signed, and the second one will be well finished before the first is published, with the third well underway, so with any luck all the hooplah around the publications won’t interfere too much with the writing.

You’re known for a very adult type of fantasy. So why the switch into Young Adult (kind of)?

I’d written six big books of a relatively similar, highly adult type, and I just felt the need to try something (at least a little) different. As my kids grow up and start reading their massive excitement about books is reminding me how I felt reading as a kid, and making me feel I’d like something to share with them, but also maybe that I’d like to be writing something that can impact on and influence younger people in a way you maybe can’t with a more jaded adult audience.

I’d been approached a few years back by Nick Lake, young adult editor at Harper Collins, about the possibility of writing something for him and the idea stuck with me a little. It seemed like a good opportunity to try a slightly different style, a different world, a more tightly focused kind of story, and potentially bring in a whole new readership while still producing something that my established readers could enjoy. Honestly, the acorn hasn’t fallen all that far from the tree. It’s not quite so explicit in the sex or violence departments, it has a young adult protagonist and therefore a coming of age element to it, but I think it’s still very recognisably a Joe Abercrombie book.

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What would I say to convince my Mum to read this, or any of your other work?

Mum, please, please read this right now. If you don’t, the author will have me killed. The Uruk Hai are already on their way. I can hear them marching, in my dreams.

One of your strengths as a writer is world-building, and taking familiar conventions and making them seem fresh and exciting again. So with this in mind what were your inspirations and research required for the new books?

My big inspirations were really the books I read as a kid. I was thinking of the historical fiction of Rosemary Sutcliff, John Cristopher’s post-apocalyptic Prince in Waiting series, which always felt tough, unpredictable, authentic, never talking down to its audience. I was also thinking of some more modern viking fiction, though, from people like Robert Low, Bernard Cornwell, Frans Bengtsson’s classic The Long Ships, and read a lot of history in preparation.

Do you think writing for a slightly different audience has reinvigorated your writing? Recharged the batteries so to speak?

It’s definitely been good to try something new. I haven’t really altered the way I write all that much, honestly, but a new world, without the weight of history and established characters and relationships, is quite liberating.

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The First Law trilogy is the work you’re best known for. Eight years on from The Blade Itself being published, how do you feel about those three books?

I feel the house they paid for is beautiful. More seriously, despite seeing a lot of things I’d do differently and a few mistakes made and opportunities missed, I’m immensely proud of them. They’re fantastic, fantastic books. Everyone should read them. Or at least buy them.

Do you have a favourite of them all? Including the stand-alone novels set in the First Law world…

One thing I’m really pleased with is that there’s very little agreement on which book is my best or my worst. I try to do different things each time and I hope they succeed (and fail) in different ways. I think The Blade Itself has an impact of newness, a kind of rough-edged exuberance you can’t necessarily repeat. But then Before They Are Hanged is much slicker and better plotted, Last Argument of Kings has the satisfaction of resolution and plot threads coming together, and the various standalones all have different appeals. I think The Heroes is possibly the one that came together best, though, perhaps the most original and the most technically accomplished, with many different threads and characters all interweaving in quite a short space of time.

Which character do you enjoy writing for the most?

Generally, whichever one is pissing me off the least at any given moment. The smaller, more incidental characters that are often based around a single intense character trait (like Friendly with his obsession with numbers, or Morveer with his overpowering arrogance and self-satisfaciton) I usually find pretty easy to write. The more complex, more central, more plot essential characters often take more time to take shape in my mind.

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What can we expect in the future?

Undoubtedly the emergence of new economic powers throughout the world will cause continued political and social upheaval. On a less global note, once the last of this trilogy, Half A War has been published, hopefully in July 2015, there’ll be a collection of First Law short stories in 2016, and the current plan is for another trilogy in the First Law world thereafter.

Does fantasy need a certain grimness/darkness these days to be a) taken seriously, and b) successful?

No, I don’t think so. I occasionally hear people bemoaning how dark and hopeless fantasy has become of late, and in the wake of Game of Thrones cynicism and moral ambiguity do seem popular, but as far as I can tell there’s still a lot of very traditional stuff being published very successfully, and it’s not as though Tolkien or his imitators have gone out of print. For me the best route to being taken seriously or being successful is to forget about whatever might be fashionable and write what you find truthful, honest, exciting.

I really enjoy the fact you discuss the actual business of writing so much – The Heroes special edition has extra content detailing all the various stages of writing the book. Is it important for you to share the process in a cathartic manner, or does it come from trying to demystify writing for the readers?

In the modern age where writers are expected to blog and converse with readers, it’s always seemed a natural thing to discuss and talk about. I suppose when I was first published it’s amazing how much I didn’t know about how publishing works, so I’ve always enjoyed maybe lifting the lid a little, on my own process and how the industry functions from where I’m sitting.

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What’s your average day/week like as a writer? How was making the leap into writing full-time?

I was lucky in that I was a freelance TV editor before I started, so I always had a certain amount of time off in between jobs. In a way it was making better use of that time that prompted me to try writing in the first place. After getting a deal, I was able to devote more time to it, maybe turn down a few jobs so I could write, and as the writing became more successful the editing work naturally faded away until I was writing most of the time, then more or less all the time. That happened around the time I was having kids as well so my lifestyle just naturally drifted from one form to another. I never had to storm out of the office telling everyone I was better than them now.

What first made you want to become a writer? Was it a certain book you read, or lack of them?

I was always a big reader of fantasy as a kid, player of roleplaying games etc. But I started to get a bit frustrated with the formulaic nature of epic fantasy, felt there were more interesting things that could be done with it. Then reading A Game of Thrones was a big thing – demonstrated that you could do something edgy, dangerous, shocking and still stay within epic fantasy.

From conception of an idea to publishing, how long does it generally take to produce a book?

The big adult books took me between 14 months and 3 years to write, usually around a year and a half once I was writing full time, though the editing and finishing of one book and the planning stage for the next tend to blur into each other a little. These shorter books have been more in the 6-10 month range.

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Do you think it’s important for writers to be approachable? You seem like the type of person you could have a brilliant chat with over a pint, while others seem a bit more aloof…

There’s no doubt my social skills are highly developed. No one in the universe anywhere is more humble and easygoing than me. I think it’s useful to be able to interact with readers in a non-disastrous way, especially in the modern age where being a personality on the internet can be a useful tool. But I also think people can get carried away with that side of things. In the end it’s the writing that will make you a success.

Finally, one piece of advice to aspiring writers out there?

Every day, get dressed.

Joe Abercrombie, thank you very much!

Half A King is released in the UK on 3rd July. Author photos were taken by Lou Abercrombie.

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