Fantasist & Futurist
- Nov 23, 2002
With the third book in his Shattered Sea trilogy coming out on July 16th, and despite a gruelling schedule this year - that has seen him attend conventions across Europe and the USA, and a whirlwind signing tour of the UK - Joe Abercrombie was able to take time-out to speak to chrons...
1. I remember when you first joined the chronicles forums nearly ten years ago, you kept saying "Buy my book". Apparently a lot of people took your advice. So far as I understand it, you are now Britain's best-selling fantasy author, and are published in at least 20 different languages. Do you ever take a moment from your hectic schedule to look back on how far you've come, and enjoy your success?
Well, I think that the downside of being a venomously ambitious sociopath, if there is one, is that one is always looking forward towards the next enemy to be destroyed, rather than smiling upon the heap of corpses you’ve left in your wake.
2. You've had a punishing promotional schedule over the past couple of years, doing cons and book signings across Europe and America. Yet somehow during this time you managed to not only write the Shattered Sea trilogy, but also made it a strong and powerful series. How did you manage to avoid getting burned out, especially when travel could upset your writing schedule?
I guess you break the tasks down into small bits, and make sure you’re making some kind of progress each day. Certainly you do feel burned out at times, certainly you have days where you feel pretty uninspired. I think being a professional means not relying on inspiration, having to find ways to make progress when you’re not feeling particularly into what you’re doing. With every project there’ll always be moments where you feel negative about it, and for me that period tends to stretch from just after starting the project, to just as I’m getting to the end...
3. I have to admit that I was surprised that you took a departure from the First Law world, not least because writing for a completely different world from scratch sounds like a massive challenge. Was this really a problem at all for you, or did you already have ideas or notes on a possible Viking-esque story? Were there any particular difficulties, aside from time management? And what did you find the most enjoyable part of writing it?
I came up with the world specifically for these books, and that was actually quite a nice thing - I’ve learned a lot since I wrote the first law books so it was nice to be able to come up with something fresh, something without all the baggage of all those words written, something specifically suited to the kind of story I wanted to tell. I’ve always preferred to keep the world in the background and focus on the characters. For me the most important aspect of world building is how that different culture effects the way the people think and behave. So working in a different world, a viking-inspired world, was a nice change.
4. I've read - and very much enjoyed - the Shattered Sea trilogy so far. In Half a King the story centred on Yarvi, and in Half the World you focused on Thorn and Brand as main characters. I notice in the promo for Half a War we have a Princess Skara coming into the picture. Does this mean the story will centre on her, or will we see more close up thoughts from Yarvi, Thorn, and Brand?
I’ve tended to switch between many points of view in my adult books. With these, I wanted to almost pull out one or two threads and focus on those, but use different points of view for each book. That allows me to show some familiar characters from the outside, keep some variety in the voices, and keep the points of view roughly the same age while moving time and the story forward. So Half a King is all from Yarvi’s point of view, Half the World all from Brand and Thorn’s. In Half a War those characters are significant in the background, but it’s all told from three new points of view - Princess Skara, the sword-bearer Raith, and Yarvi’s apprentice Koll.
5. For your First Law novels you've worked mainly with Gillian Redfearn as your editor. However, for the Shattered Sea trilogy you worked with the enigmatic Jane Johnson, an accomplished novelist in her own right, but whose editing clients also include George R R Martin and Robin Hobb. How did you find the process of working with a very different person? Do you think this ever added extra pressure, or even dynamics, to your workflow?
I’ve loved working with Gillian and I’m very much looking forward to working with her again - she was the one who pulled me from the slush pile in the first place and we’ve been partners in crime for many years and will continue to be so for many more, I’m sure. But I think it’s a healthy thing to work with different people and have your attention drawn to different things.
Jane is a great editor with a huge and well-deserved reputation, but I’ve actually had several sets of editorial opinions to consider with these books - Nick Lake on the young adult side, Natasha Bardon, a more junior editor at Voyager, and Tricia Narwani for Del Rey in the US, and the timescale has been much more condensed. So rather than gradually working on something with one person, it’s been more of a collating and weighting of a whole set of different opinions - seeing where there was agreement, where there were individual concerns, how that tallied with my own feelings. It has in a way been more pressured but I’m someone who responds quite well to pressure, who needs it to make good progress, really.
6. One of the more interesting things for me to see is how you are getting stronger as a writer. Some of the prose in Half a King and Half the World absolutely sings, yet remains tight, concise, and focused on pace. Has writing YA fiction challenged you to explore different ways to work with words? Do you feel that you are reaching a new level with your craft?
I think you learn new things with every book you write, hopefully. Certainly I think it’s important to push yourself onto new ground with every book, at least to some degree, so you stay fresh and keep growing. With these books, certainly, the idea was to boil things down to their essentials, to keep the story moving as quickly as possible, to keep the writing as tight as I possibly could. I wanted to try to write epic fantasy with the pace and focus of a thriller.
7. To me, one of your greatest strengths so far has been your character writing. Through your works to date you've introduced readers to the memorable figures of Glotka, Logen, Monza, Shivers, Nicomo, Yarvi, Thorn, Brand, and more. Are there any that you have consistently enjoyed writing the most? Is it hard to leave some of your stronger ones behind?
Some certainly come easier than others. Generally I love all the characters I’ve written, I hate all the ones I’m writing now.
8. You've mentioned on your blog that for your next project you plan to write a new trilogy, set in the First Law world. Is there any more news you can share? Or are you still gathering your notes together while you take a much deserved breather after the Shattered Sea trilogy? Any teasers you could offer?
Not a lot more news. That remains the plan but I’ve a few other irons in the fire at the moment, so a trilogy won’t appear any time soon. The next thing will be a collection of my short stories set in the First Law world.
9. You've previously worked in TV editing - how does this affect your attitude to film rights? With the Game of Thrones TV series gaining so much attention, are you encouraging interest in your own film rights, or do you take a more cautious approach? Can we expect to watch any of your stories on a screen any time in the foreseeable future, or are you concerned that visual media might not work so well to capture your characters and voice?
I don’t know that having worked in TV makes a huge difference. I guess I’m a little more familiar with how that business works than I’d otherwise be, but there’s a lot of chance involved in these things. Like pretty much all writers, I’d love to see a great adaptation of my work. We’ll see.
10. You're popular on Twitter for your banter with other best-selling fantasy authors. However, are there any writers or books that you think deserve more enough attention from readers than they are currently getting, both within the genre, and outside of it?
You’ll be horrified to learn that I read very little these days, especially within the genre. Most of what I do read is non-fiction and history. TV and video games are better things to ask my opinion on...
11. Going back to the original question, you've talked previously about changes you've had to make to The Blade Itself for publication. Is there anything in either your First Law novels, or Shattered Sea, that you would have preferred to have done differently? What do you think have been the most valuable lessons you've learned to date as a published author?
Well, the Shattered Sea not so much, since I did those relatively recently and designed the world based in part on a few lessons learned while doing the First Law. No doubt in time I’ll see things I could’ve done differently. With the First Law books, certainly I see a fair few details of the writing that I’d do differently now, quite a few cuts and tightens I could make. I think the main regret, if you can call it that, is that I could have done better with the female characters - more central female characters, more of a range of women both in the story and just in the background. One thing I did very deliberately with the Shattered Sea books was to have a much less patriarchal world, one in which there were all kinds of powerful female characters throughout the story in all kinds of different ways. Having said that, and though my craft has definitely improved, I’m still very proud of the First Law books, and I think there’s a kind of exuberance to your early work, in spite of the rough edges, that it’s hard to recapture.
12. There's a lot of discussion online about the pros and cons of self-publishing. As an established and best-selling author, are you ever tempted to explore this route yourself? Do you think the potential earning benefits are outweighed by the loss of a strong working relationship with a good editor?
I haven’t been particularly tempted myself yet. Certainly the potential of self-publishing has grown hugely over the last few years and it’s great that there are alternatives to traditional publishing. The more routes to market the merrier, really, and competition helps to keep everyone honest. Traditional publishing has been great for me, though. I love working with editors, designers, and all the other professionals that make a publisher. I don’t pretend that I could do their jobs as well as they could, and honestly I feel my time is better spent writing than trying to do their jobs badly. I think people sometimes fall into the mistake of thinking self-publishing is an easy option, but it’s not just a matter of slapping a book on amazon and sitting back to count your millions. The people who tend to succeed as self-publishers take the publishing part of it very seriously, and often have a lot of marketing and business experience. I’ve a lot of respect for them for that very reason. You’re not just being a writer, you’re being a publisher too.
13. The three standalone First Law novels have just been released as an omnibus called The Great Leveller, and we've mentioned possible work on a new First Law trilogy. But how far ahead are you planning your writing? Do you have a mass of notes and ideas of future possibilities? Do you have any definite ideas of where you want to be in another ten years? Or do you find yourself playing by ear more when it comes to deciding on a new project?
I’m not someone who spews out new ideas every day and has boxes full of half-developed stories waiting to be picked up. I tend to develop one idea at a time, rarely thinking more than a project or two ahead. Short stories will definitely be coming out next year, but the adult trilogy I haven’t really started thinking about yet. There are some other things on the go in the meantime...
14. And the obligatory writing question. Are there any specific tips, recommendations, or advice you would give to the aspiring writers out there?
The advice that’s been most useful to me is be honest.
15. Many thanks for your time. Coming to a close, do you have any final words to impart?
Only the ones in my fiction. I urge you all to buy it...
Half a War, the third and final book in Joe Abercrombie's Shattered Sea trilogy, is available from July 16th 2015:
For more of Joe Abercrombie's books, click here: