This is a worldbuilders blog.
Over the last couple years, I've done a lot of interviews. I'm guessing somewhere between two and three hundred.
While I always enjoy them to some degree or other, I have noticed that a lot of questions tend to be the same. And things tend to be rather formal. Rarely does anyone ask me stupid, fun questions like, "Who would you rather kiss, Samuel Delany or George Martin?"
So when I started collecting books for the fundraiser, I thought I'd try doing some interviews of my own. Just to see what it's like on the other side of the desk, so to speak.
Joe Abercrombie is the first of these. He's donated some books (see below) I thought he might be willing to have some fun because he wasn't upset when I encouraged a roomful of people in Manchester to "mess up his pretty face."
I've talked about his books before on the blog. So I won't repeat myself here. Instead, let's get right to it...
Okay. Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Joe. Can I call you Joe?
We're all friends here. You can call me Mr. Abercrombie.
First let's get the introductions out of the way. Assume you met someone at a dinner party who had never heard of you. Assume you wanted to impress this person. Also, assume that you are really drunk. Let's say… five drinks. Drunk enough to brag but not drunk enough to slur. What would you say?
Don't you know who I am? You're joking. You do know. You do. You don't? I'm REALLY awesome. You'll just have to take my word for it, because I haven't won any awards. I've been passed over for being too edgy/safe/literary/commercial. I personally believe it's all politically motivated. I was nominated for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer, though, and the David Gemmel Legend Award. The Blade Itself is published or forthcoming in . . . let me see . . . 14 languages, I think? I do particularly well in Germany, like the Hoff. Come back. Come back here! Where are you going?
Let's start with an easy question, Mr. Abercrombie. If you were a tree, what sort of tree would you be?
An immense, thrusting, unconquerable English oak, starving the pitiful lesser saplings of other fantasy authors that crowd about its mighty trunk of all light and water, spreading its suffocating canopy across the fantasy landscape and making of it a blasted desert.
So which of these other pitiful other authors are you reading right now?
I am reading a book called Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan, a gory savage medieval Norse magical werewolf book. It's good. Out next year, I believe.
I am also reading a vast selection of bathroom, kitchen, radiator, insulation, wallpaper, furniture, and architectural catalogues.
Are you researching for some sort of bizarre fantasy DIY crossover novel?
Renovating and extending a house, but now that you've made that suggestion I may start. I think DIY/fantasy is an underexploited sector of the market.
If you had to pick your favorite book of all time, what would it be?
Wow, man, that's a tough question. I'm totally split between Best Served Cold and Last Argument of Kings. I tell you what, you can have the deciding vote. Which of those two is your favourite book of all time?
Of those, I'd have to say that Best Served Cold is my favorite. I have four of them on my coffee table and they work really well as coasters. Not only is it all title-ironic, but the thickness of the book makes it a great insulator.
I knew you didn't really want those books for some kind of charity giveaway…
Nah. I'm fixing up my house, too. I just throw all the books into a shredder and stuff the paper in the attic. Speaking as a conneseur of fantasy literature, your book has some serious R value.
You're relatively new to the publishing world. How has getting your book published changed your life?
To begin with, not very much. Publishing is, as you probably know yourself (and probably like most businesses when you get closely involved with them) a slow, unwieldy, mostly unglamorous, and largely unprofitable business. I'm still waiting to sweep down some marble steps in a white suit with a dirty martini in my hand while crowds of beautiful people applaud me.
For me it was a relatively slow burn – there was a year's wait between signing a contract and the first book being published, in which I continued pretty much as normal, just a bit more smug. There was a steady ramping up of excitement prior to the first book appearing, then a strange and eerie silence when it actually went out there.
All this time I was still doing my day job as a tv editor and writing in my spare time pretty much as I had been before I got a deal. But each book that came out in the trilogy did better, and dragged along the ones that came before, plus further rights were sold in foreign markets, which meant that I've gradually been able to commit more time to the writing without leaving my family to starve.
These days I've more or less given up on the editing and I'm lucky enough to be able to write full time, so I guess you could say that my life is totally changed since I was first published, but it's been a slow metamorphosis rather than an overnight transformation.
I wanted to ask about the film editing. You've done work for people like Barry White and Coldplay. Was it a cool gig? or were you the film equivalent of a code monkey – all of the work, none of the glory?
As you're probably well aware, editors in the book world often do a lot of the work for a fraction of the glory, and tend to serve as scapegoats for the wrath of readers. If people like a book – well written. If they hate it – badly edited. And the odd thing is that it's virtually impossible to tell from the finished product how good the editing is, as you've no idea what state it started in.
Editing in the TV world is not entirely dissimilar, and usually the aim of editing is to be entirely invisible so the audience is caught up in what they're watching. So the general public will rarely notice good editing, only bad.
Plus in TV you're part of a big team – directors, producers, executives, cameramen, and many more, all with important roles to play, and where directors and cameramen are always going to spend time on location, editors will typically work after the event, locked away with flickering screens in a darkened room, for hours on their own, struggling to shape the metaphorical silk purse from the sow's ear. So the glory is minimal. Having said that, it's a cool gig in that the work is pretty varied and creative, the pay is pretty good, and the freelance lifestyle gives you plenty of time off. If it hadn't been for that free time between jobs I might never have started writing.
How often do you check your amazon sales rank?
At one point it was getting a bit silly, so now I have to strictly limit myself to five times an hour. This has become a great deal easier since I discovered Sales Rank Express, a web application that allows you to check all your sales ranks simultaneously. Or those of everyone at your imprint, for that matter.
How many copies of your own books do you currently own?
Hard to say, since most of my books are packed up in boxes, but since I get sent several dozen of any new UK release and half a dozen of each foreign language edition, plus extra books whenever anything's reprinted, a lot more than is decent or functional. I'm currently looking at about fifteen UK and US Best Served Colds, a box full of new Blade Itself Mass Market Paperbacks, A box of Swedish Blade Itselves (Itselfs?) where they split the book in two therefore doubling the number I got sent, a stack of Russian ones, a Czech Before They are Hanged, and my Mum's old copy of Beowulf. I didn't write that last one, of course.
It's a strong possibility that there are more of my books inside my house than outside it.
What's the most shameful self-promotional thing you've ever done?
I am a venomously ambitious sociopath incapable of the feelings of shame or guilt.
Assume for a moment that you're me. (I'm from the American Midwest, so I have an abundance of shame and guilt.) Can you remember anything you've done that would make me blush with shame?
I can't remember anything particularly egregious, but in general as a writer you've got to do anything and everything you can to persuade people to read your books, especially when you're starting out. There are no points given for lights under bushels, and if you don't seem to be excited about your own work, how can you expect anyone else to be excited about reading it? But I can tell there's some story you're itching to tell. Come on now. Don't be shy. That beard isn't real, is it? I knew it.
It's real. But it's not really promotional. I use it to strike fear into the hearts of my enemies. And it makes it easier to dress up as Animal from the Muppets.
Speaking of, how do you feel about Muppets?
I feel some feelings of fuzzy nostalgia, but it's not a subject particularly close to my heart. I was more into Thundercats.
I'm curious because soon after reading your trilogy, I watched Labyrinth. In the special features, Jim Henson said, "When I go see a film, when I leave the theater, I like a few things: I like to be happier than I was when I went in, I like a film to leave me with a up feeling and I like picture to have a sense of substance." What is your personal philosophy about your books? How do you want people to feel when they leave the theatre, so to speak?
Nice question, and a tough one to answer. First off I'd like them to feel they've been entertained – thrilled, amused, tantalized, titillated, surprised, or some combination of the above.
Entertainment is the number one priority as far as I'm concerned. I'd like them to feel they've met some vivid, interesting, unusual characters, and that those people will stick with them for some time to come. And I suppose ideally I'd want them to be left with some questions about fantasy in general, about the role that simple stories of good and evil with happy endings play for us. But deeper points are optional – you have to accept that most people aren't going to take away everything you try to put into a book, and may even take away messages you never intended.
Above all, of course, I'd like people to shut my book with a burning need to pick up the next one…
I ask because... well... Your books are *dark*. I mean, I pride myself on writing some fairly gritty fantasy. Uncaring universe. People abuse their power. Bad things happen to good people. All that. But your stuff... it's a whole different level. I don't know if there are good people in your world. Everyone's just a different flavor of bastard. Many of them are endearing bastards, but still… I guess that's what I'm curious about. Are you purposely trying to portray a world that is unremittingly grim? Are you attempting to do the opposite of leaving the reader with that "up feeling" Henson mentioned?
Yeah, interesting question. It wasn't ever my intention to present something darker-than-thou, if you like, to do something punishingly cynical and depressing. I guess what I was mostly trying to do was present something that ran counter to the classic epic fantasy I'd read as a kid, and since a lot of that was quite sanitized, morally simple and optimistic, I have ended up with something quite grim. But then epic fantasy often flirts with very dark issues – with war, corruption, treachery, torture, buckets of violence – and the protagonists somehow come through the metaphorical filth with their armour all shiny.
I wanted to present a greyer, more complicated world with greyer, more complicated characters. As well as looking at the damage both physical and emotional that combat with edged weapons might really cause. As with anything, responses vary. Some readers find it unpalatably, or perhaps unconvincingly, dark and cynical, others find it relatively mild. I've even been taken to task for my cowardly happy endings, so, you know, one man's meat and all that…
What's the most hurtful thing someone has ever said in a review of your book?
Reactions of extreme distaste and hatred I actually quite enjoy, because they're at least strong reactions, and there's a good chance one person will love a book for the exact reason another despises it. Accusations of tedium or mediocrity I find most wounding.
Do you have a particular piece of grammar that you screw up regularly?
My spelling sucks when typing at speed. When reading sections back I find I have typed 'of' instead of 'off', 'there' instead of 'their' (or the other way round), and 'to' instead of 'too' with alarming frequency. I am also involved in an ongoing battle with my editor over my use of the word 'behind'. She insists on frequently adding 'him', 'her' or, 'them' afterward. I refuse, arguing the qualification is implicit in the context. But in general I don't think grammar should be taken too seriously. It's like manners. They are guidelines, not laws, and can be easily circumvented if you do it with charm.
If you could pick one person from all of history to punch, who would it be?
I once broke my hand punching a pile of paper in a rage. True story. I would therefore elect to punch a small person with a nice, soft face. Napoleon, maybe?
Judging by that answer, can I assume that your delightfully gritty fight scenes are not based on any personal experience?
I held a sword for the first time not very long ago, and it was quite a scary experience. You could feel how easy it would be to kill someone with it. I was slightly worried I would accidentally kill someone by moving my arm around quite gently. Makes you feel like a big man, though.
Alexandre Dumas wrote his nonfiction on rose-colored paper, his fiction on blue, and his poetry on yellow. Do you have any little rituals that help you write?
Of late I have attempted to impose discipline onto my process, by working in two two hour blocks each day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, in which I only write, do not use the internet, and ignore all distractions. The rest of the day I am free to do whatever I like, replacing the old system of working at an incredibly low and inefficient level all the time, and feeling guilty whenever I wasn't writing while only actually really writing for about five minutes each day. The first day I tried it I wrote about four thousand words, responded to about a hundred emails, cleaned half the house and went to the gym, and I thought my life was changed. But it seems I am finding it harder and harder to commit to those magic two hour periods. Something always gets in the way.
I recently made a joke about Transition Putty on my blog. That being, of course, what we writers buy at Home Depot to smooth out our rough transitions. If you could have some sort of handyman tool like that, something like Plot Spackle or a Character Level, what would it be?
Once you've applied the transition putty and given it good time to set, can I also suggest an orbital segue sander. I find one of those with a really fine paper can make your transitions so smooth you won't even realize there their. I mean they're there.
I would have a description jackhammer. Dialogue and action come relatively naturally to me but I am sick and tired of the back-breaking effort of digging up all my descriptive passages by hand. I could also use the descripto-hammer to noisily smash up the descriptions of other authors and mix the bits into a kind of low-grade descriptive aggregate. I could then wedge it between sections of dialogue I am otherwise too lazy to link together properly, and I doubt anyone would notice the poor construction quality of my books until they all collapsed in an earthquake, by which time I would have sunk the profits in a hedge fund and be living it up in Bora Bora. Also, enormous power-tools make you feel almost as big a man as swords do.
An ending measure would be useful too, since I could then get a categorical reading on whether the endings of my books are shit or good. Readers don't seem to be able to give me a consistent measurement on that…
Thanks again, Mr. Abercrombie. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat. Not to mention chipping in some lovely books for the fundraiser. '
Least I could do. Pleasure talking to you and best of luck with the fundraising.
* * *
In order to help out with Worldbuilders, Mr. Abercrombie has been nice enough to donate the following lovely books.
- Three copies of the first edition UK printing of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. Signed by the author.
- Three copies of the first edition USA printing of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. Signed by the author.
Remember folks, for every 10 dollars you donate to Heifer International, you get a chance to win these books and many, many more. So head over to my page at Team Heifer and chip in.
If you want details about what books are being given away, and how the whole fundraiser works, you can go to the main page for the Worldbuilders fundraiser HERE.
Auctions coming soon. Stay tuned.
With special thanks to our sponsor, Subterranean Press.