Today, it gives me great pleasure to turn this blog over to author Joe Abercrombie who has kindly taken the time to field your questions and comments on this May’s BOTMC fantasy selection, The Blade Itself. Regulars to this blog know that I’m a big fan of Joe’s work, having read and thoroughly enjoyed his First Law series, the third and final installment of which I scored as a result of Joe’s connection to none other than our own Baron Destructo (details: http://josephmallozzi.com/2007/12/16/december-15-2007/). Thanks to Joe for making the time for us and thanks to all of you for taking the time to read the book AND take part in the discussion. Over to Mr. Abercrombie…
Greetings everyone, and welcome to Joe Mallozzi’s blog, and the discussion of this month’s fantasy book, The Blade Itself. My thanks to Joe for providing this wonderful and annoyingly well-attended forum for the discussion of my favourite subject:
Or more specifically, my writing, which is as close to me as I generally get. Dog Sick is always a hard act to follow, but I will do my humble best. Some would say that Dog Sick to my writing is an almost effortless segue to make.
My thanks to anyone who read, enjoyed, commented on, and most importantly, bought my book. Those who didn’t enjoy it so much have, of course, a perfect right to their own opinion, but in this case it’s just an opinion that is totally, totally wrong. Like those guys who think the earth is flat.
Moving on, as there’s a lot of ground to cover and you all really want to hear about Stargate. The First Law is my own take on the classic fantasy trilogy. I was a big fan of epic fantasy as a kid, but after a while (with many notable exceptions, of course) I was finding the commercial end of the genre all too predictable, unconvincing, uninvolving. That and I felt it was taking itself way too seriously. So I set out, like a Hobbit from his front door, all unknowing of the dangers that lay before him, to try and write the kind of book I’d want to read. Something with the action and adventure, the magic and mystery that readers look for in a fantasy, but focused very much on the characters rather than the world. I tried to make those characters as surprising, as morally ambiguous, as funny and horrible as I’ve found real people to be. I wanted to write something that was really capable of surprising the reader, and above all I wanted it to have a sense of humour without being all-out pastiche.
It looks from the responses that in general people really enjoyed the book, which is enormously gratifying. It’s a feeling very close to people saying that they love me, personally. In fact I’ll take it as that. A few points that seemed to come up frequently that I’ll give some general responses to first, if I may. And I may do anything I please. This is my blog now:
A few of you noted that the world seemed unobtrusive compared to some other epic fantasies they’d read, which is nice, as that was very much the aim. My feeling was that, following on from Tolkien’s lead, epic fantasy often becomes focused on the creation of an immensely detailed world, with story and character sometimes suffering, or at least becoming slow paced as a result. Fantasy is too often told in huge wide shots, if you like, with great sweeps of richly realized world, but with the characters tiny and intangible little figures in the distance. I wanted my books to be all about characters, and the world to be just the backdrop. The sets against which the action takes place. Sets that stand up to some scrutiny, that look convincing, perhaps. Not shoddy sets. But firmly in the background.
Perhaps the thing that I get most emails about from irate punters is the lack of a map. I’m kind of divided on this issue. I do like a good map, and have a load of my own as background material in an effort to ensure consistency, but I can also see some strong arguments against their inclusion in this particular series, the aforementioned focus on character and story over world being the strongest. Ultimately, it was a decision by my publisher to go without one, but a decision that I totally support and am happy with. I go into it in more detail here: http://www.joeabercrombie.com/2007/10/maps-craps.html
Along with some gags that you will no doubt find hilarious.
Second most mentioned thing in emails, the use of so-called ‘modern swearing’. Different readers will find different things anachronistic, out of place with the supposed time period, and some readers will just find profanity offensive, but to me there’s nothing modern about swear words, or their use in conversation. I’d find it bizarre if people didn’t swear in a book, especially the kind of people we’re often talking about in this book, and the kind of life or death situations they put themselves in. Again, I’ve gone into it in more detail on my own blog before: http://www.joeabercrombie.com/2007/09/zounds-swearing-in-fantasy.html
Again, with hilarious consequences.
Phew. So now, on to some answers to specific questions. My apologies if I’ve missed anything out, but there were quite a few to think about. See you on the other side…
I like that you like that I caught your attention. I definitely will go places, and I totally agree with you about the talent. I guess as an author you’re inspired by everything you read, see, experience, and particularly like or loathe. But my Mum was a particular inspiration (awwwwww), in that she brought me up to have a love of, and understanding for, a wide range of literature.
Dyginc writes: “Mr. Abercrombie, here are several of questions.
1) I have read that you had done some editing on Musical documentaries…I was wondering if you have a song that might have sparked a scene or played in the background as you typed.
Generally no, I try to go for silence as much as possible. But a few exceptions. You must now prepare yourself for the most pretentious sentence ever rendered in English. The one significant exception is a scene in Last Argument of Kings of a dance following a marriage, which I had the idea for while listening to a string quartet perform Marin Marais’ 17th Century masterpiece Les Folies d’Espagne in a church in Venice. I never do this type of thing, believe me, but when in Rome … or Venice, in this case. I was deeply moved. I later, therefore, wrote the scene with that music playing. It came out pretty well. Maybe I should do it more.
2) I was wondering if you have been approached by anyone to make this series into a movie.
Approached at the most basic level – are the rights available? Why, yes, yes, they are! Long silence stretches out, while tumbleweed floats through my study.
Yes, to some degree. I won’t say who, though.
If you’re talking about the Blade Itself, then you’ll see him in the second book. But I’m assuming you’re not, so certainly not in the next couple of books after the trilogy, which will be standalones set in the same world, but focusing on different characters, some of whom we’ve met, some we haven’t yet. After that, who can say what old friends we’ll come across?
Quite a few. As a reader, or a viewer, I most appreciate books, shows, films that are able to surprise me, and my feeling was that epic fantasy as a genre doesn’t do that enough, and that gives you the chance to double shock people because they’re not expecting it. So I was keen to work as many twists into the plot and characters as I could – some that you’ll see coming a mile away, but might still surprise you in the way they happen, some that you won’t see coming at all. Of course, to really shock people you need to establish a baseline in which they feel they know what to expect – that’s part of the attraction in working within a well-established form – so the first book doesn’t deliver nearly as many surprises as the second, and particularly the third.
Yes, I have created a map. No, you can’t see it (see above).
Aaargh. Difficult question. You may be shocked to learn I don’t read that much these days, and a lot of what I do read is non-fiction. So in fantasy it’s mostly long established folks – George RR Martin, Ursula le Guin, Jack Vance, Tolkien, of course. Outside – Dickens, Charles Palliser, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Shelby Foote, James Ellroy, and blah blah. Loads. I’m also a big admirer of the writing in some of the recent crop of US TV series. The Wire, the Shield, Deadwood, the Sopranos, Stargate: Atlantis, etc.
As a child, I used to have one sugar, I then cut it to half. These days I have none. Since I drink at least 700 cups of tea a day my calorie intake would be colossal.
No questions, only a positive response! That’s what I like to … oh, you do have questions? Favourite character – that’s kind of like saying which of your children is your favourite, you shouldn’t have one, and if you said it would only embarrass and upset your entire family and cause lifelong problems, but in actual fact your favourite is probably whichever one is causing you the least grief at any given moment.
What conditions do you prefer to write in/under? claustrophobic closet with a single guttering candle to provide light? A sundeck with the birds flying overhead, and classical music playing on the stereo? At odd moments on the laptop while communing with the muse?
I prefer to write under no pressure. Unfortunately, those days are long gone. I therefore write hunched uncomfortably over my desk looking like a cross between Richard III and Inquisitor Glokta, in the midnight hours, knackered from having been kicked in the face by a 1 year old all night.
Your website indicates Logen was your original main character, the “thinking man’s barbarian”. Have you found any of the other characters to have pushed Logen aside as your most interesting character, or does he still remain a personal favorite?
Well, Logen was the longest established character in my mind, but I guess there are three central characters in the series, Logen, Jezal, and Glokta, each of which give me a chance to take a slantwise look at a kind of clichéd stereotype within traditional fantasy, and investigate a different, perhaps a more realistic angle on the traditional fantasy tale. Logen was my attempt to look at the nature of violence in fantasy, the celebration of violence, almost, and its treatment of violent men as heroes, Jezal was my look at the cliché of the boy who is guided to a special destiny by a mysterious old mentor, and through Glokta I was trying to investigate how power and politics might really work in a fantasy world, among other things.
Will one of the sequels to The Blade Itself lay out a map of the world the characters inhabit, or will that be left to the readers’ imagination?
Probably not, though see above. I wouldn’t rule out making some sort of map available, but as long as people are mildly irritated by the non-inclusion, I am perversely tempted to continue…
Have you considered producing a book of short stories, and are you planning another multi-book series, or have any ideas on a stand-alone novel? In a related vein, do you see yourself staying in the fantasy genre for the foreseeable future, or are you interested in trying out other forms of fiction?”For the foreseeable future, staying in fantasy. I’m contracted to do two more books, standalones set in the same world but with different characters and settings, and some tighter, more focused plots. There may be another standalone after that, then possibly another trilogy. I’m still tossing some ideas around. It’s a very different feeling having to suddenly come up with an idea and implement it in a year or so to a deadline, than to let ideas settle and incubate for, well, your whole life, then take your time working them up as a hobby, so that change is taking some getting used to. Short stories? I doubt I’d do a collection of my own, but I’ve been asked about maybe contributing to some anthologies. I might well give that a go, if I can find the time.
It was an afterthought. The book wasn’t named when it was sold, but I’ve always liked titles that are drawn from quotations (“for whom the bell tolls,” and so on) as it gives them an interesting resonance. I was looking for a title, came across this quote, and it fit well with some of the themes of the book – the inevitability of violence, the celebration of the weapon, and the man of violence, within classic fantasy without much consideration of the darker implications…
– how difficult/easy was it to keep the characters straight as you unfolded them? I found I was flipping back to see what I missed with some of them.
I keep a timeline for each character, and when I would add in a past event I’d locate it on there so that hopefully there’d be no embarrassing errors made (not as far as timeline goes, anyway). I was keen that the characters, and the world, should feel like they had a life before the story began, and that (at least for some of them) life should continue at the end. That they shouldn’t be the unformed farmboy who basically is a blank page at the start of the book, and ends as a neatly wrapped up King of the World, or whatever, having gone through a transformative quest. I wanted them to feel real, to leap of the page in their imperfect glory, or something.
Partly see above. The meaning of that quote for me is that weapons themselves create violence, and it ties in to Logen’s story, and indeed to my ham-fisted attempts to investigate the presentation of violence in fantasy. He could turn the sword down, but he chooses to take it, and hence he makes violence inevitable. But much more important than that, it sounds cool, and who doesn’t like cool-sounding things? Plus the reference to Homer gives me a completely undeserved, but much appreciated, aura of intelligence.
I talked a bit about profanity higher up, but just to reiterate – Obviously what any given reader finds anachronistic will vary, but there’s nothing contemporary about the “f” word. Pretty much all swear-words have long and proud traditions in the English language, and the more offensive, often the older they are, generally much older than most of the words and usages that never raise an eyebrow.
Funnily enough I had that same query from my US editor – whinging is a word that doesn’t seem to get much use outside of England, maybe even the North of England, meaning something close to whining, but with more of a wheedling, irritating edge. Kind of like what I sound like when I complain about a negative review.
I was very keen at the start to write each character in a different way, and for the style to convey some sense of what the character was like. For me, that’s the essence of good writing – prose that conveys a sense of the people and the action. Some of the ideas of how to go about that I had come up with (stolen from other, better writers) right from the start – so Glokta’s italicized thoughts, for example, I did right from the off, or the Dogman’s earthy Northern mode of expression. Others came to me as I went along, then were applied to earlier sections of the book, and the whole approach developed over time. So Logen’s chapters were written much more technically to begin with, but after trying the more dialect-based approach with the Dogman, and being happy with the result, I moved Logen’s chapters more in that direction.
1. Each character has a really distinct voice, often highlighted through a phrase repeated during chapters from their perspective (ie. Glokta’s “why do I do this”, West’s “why me”, Dogman’s “damn but he needed to piss” etc). Were the phrases and specific language used an intentional device to develop characterisation, or was something which just happened while you were writing?
I would refer the honourable gentleman to my previous answer. Specifically on the catchphrases, in general they were things that just appeared as I played around, then as I revised the book I would pick up on phrases that seemed to encapsulate a given character and apply them in other parts of the text. They have the added advantage that once they’ve been used a few times they become an expectation that you can deliver in a slightly different way to make an in-joke. Everyone loves an in-joke.
2. I’m really interested in how you feel about it now that you’ve published the next two books, because readers often change their perceptions of a first book after they have finished the series (like Joe M). Without giving too much away about the next two books in the series, could you share some thoughts on what you think of The Blade Itself as the first in the series?
As I was saying earlier, to shock people you need to establish a baseline, to twist or break conventions you need to establish yourself as part of the convention. I’m much more interested in working within an established form than in doing something wildly innovative and unrecognizable, because people bring all kinds of expectations to an established form that you can then work with. Dust-covered man bursts through swing doors into a saloon and shouts, “give me a whiskey!” All kinds of feelings, echoes, expectations about the kind of story we’re telling are created for the reader. Water-covered man walks through some sliding doors and into a toy-shop and says, “give me a glass of water.” We’re nowhere. So The Blade Itself, as the first book in the series, is largely concerned with establishing the form we’re working in, in introducing the characters, in setting up the mysteries. Hopefully it does that in an entertaining, intriguing, exciting, and at times surprising manner, but it is very much the first act of a larger story, and you do need to read the rest to fully understand the point. In that I think it fulfills its roll beyond admirably. But then I would, wouldn’t I?
Deviating slightly from my earlier answer about them all being equally loved, I did find the Dogman’s chapters particularly easy to write. But perhaps that’s because there are relatively few of them compared to some of the others. Like a nice salad after four days of nothing but spaghetti. You might like spaghetti, but the change is still welcome.
I think it helps to plan pretty thoroughly, especially when you’re writing a big, complicated series in which the first book will probably be published before you even start writing the third. When I first started I had only a rough idea of the characters, of how some of them might inter-relate, of certain scenes or sequences I wanted to do, and how I wanted some of the plotlines to end, none of it really written down. I started with that, experimented with the approaches for the different characters, saw where it took me for a few chapters. Once I was starting to be happy with the results I was getting, it became clear I’d need to plan much more explicitly, so I worked out most of the overall arcs, divided the whole series into six parts, thought about roughly what each character would be doing in each part. Then once I started writing each part I’d do a thorough plan in which I’d work out exactly what the chapters would be, whose point of view they’d be from, roughly what the content would be of each. Generally I’d follow that plan pretty closely, though obviously new ideas come to you as you’re going. Man, that was a long and tedious answer. I guess what I’m trying to say is, writing a series without a plan is like building a house without a plan. There’s a good chance it’ll collapse half way through and kill everyone involved.
I spent a year collecting rejections from most of the UKs leading literary agents, so being published at all felt pretty damn good, I can tell you. Obviously you have to have confidence in your own work – if you didn’t like it yourself you’d never get past the first page let alone spend years writing stuff without any guarantee of any pay-off at the end – but that’s a long way from believing anyone else will like it, let alone that it will reach any kind of decent readership. Now the first book has sold over 40,000 copies of the UK edition alone, is printed in four other countries with editions in a further seven or eight languages forthcoming. When I sit back to consider it, it’s quite weird to think of that many people reading (and some of them even enjoying) stuff that I dreamed up in the middle of the night for no-one’s amusement but my own. My shriveled little raisin of a heart flickers with brief warmth. That said, one rarely does have time to consider it, as there are always new things to get cynical and depressed about. Difficult new books to write, bad reviews of old books, other people’s successes, hangnails, things like that.
1). Was any of the Union political back story/undercurrents inspired by current events?
Perhaps not directly from any specific current events, but certainly from a general world-weariness and cynicism about politics and power in general. I was particularly keen to give the politics and the treatment of power a sense of reality, of human complexity, as distinct from the beneficent monarchies, wise wizards, and motivelessly evil dark lords that one often gets in classic fantasy. I wanted it to be a human world, like ours, where the villains all had their reasons, and the heroes’ reasons often weren’t all that pure. Sometimes worse than the villains, perhaps.
2). What was the inspiration for these great characters? Was the plot created first or the characters? How did you imagine them all fitting into the world?
Difficult to say – whether plot or characters come first is a bit of a chicken and egg question. I guess they take shape together. As for the inspiration, a whole range of things and it varies from one character to another. The basic idea of Logen had been in my head for very many years, since my early teens even, but he didn’t acquire that world-weary edge until I’d started to develop one of my own. Glokta was a much more recent notion, which grew largely from the experience of having a bad back (see more below). Other characters were my attempts at twists on some fantasy archetypes – so Jezal a variety of the classic boy-hero, Bayaz of the irascible old mentor wizard.
Yeah, certainly they were intentional. The little play within a play was supposed to be reminiscent of Hamlet, and is written in my version of cod-Shakespearian blank verse (rhyming couplets with a little drop line, but whatever, close enough for most). There are quite a few little references to other books, films, plays, historical happenings throughout the series. Some might say I shamelessly copied better work than mine. I would say I made intriguing homages. Bonus points to anyone who can spot the references to the Outlaw Josey Wales, Volpone, Lonesome Dove, Excalibur, the battle of Gettysburg, and about seventeen thousand to Lord of the Rings.
The books are set slightly differently – the text is less dense so there are more pages in the US version, but Lou Anders at Pyr, my American publisher, has a policy of not ‘Americanising’ text or spellings at all. He publishes books exactly as the writer intended. So the text in the US and UK versions are identical, apart from possibly the odd typo that got missed in the first set of proof-readings, and the spellings are all the British ones.
I’ve watched Conan the Barbarian many times. I have played a vast amount of the Total War series of computer games.
Tough one … I guess I’d usually recommend that people wait for books to be published in their own territories. You’ll get them cheaper and support your local publisher, make it easier for them to bring more books from overseas in the long run. And, of course, you’ll probably have a shorter wait for the next book. But then if you really can’t wait to be sprayed with assorted body fluids…
As you can tell I hate too much violence in a story, especially torture, so I’m really surprised that you won me over with your book. I really loved it.
How do you gauge the level of violence used in your writing? Do you have to make a conscious decision how far to go in terms of whether to include graphic stuff or to tone it down for readers of a sensitive disposition? (that would be me ).”
Sex, violence, swearing, are tricky areas. You know that you will probably be alienating some readers when you get relatively graphic. But you can’t really take that into account when you’re writing. You have to write first of all for your own taste, write exactly what you’d want to read, and most of all write what you feel is honest. Returning to my Mum (which I always seem to do), she gave me the best piece of advice I’ve had about writing, which is, “be truthful.” With every piece of description think, “is this true? Does that thing really look that way, feel that way, sound that way?” With every piece of dialogue think, “would that person really say those words in that situation?” If you do that, never resorting to the easy cliché (which is harder than you might think) you shouldn’t go far wrong. Applying the same logic of absolute honesty to sex, violence, and language, my own feeling is that you have to be completely explicit there too, or at least faithful to your own sense of how it should be, providing you don’t become repetitive, or desensitize the reader with too much splatter. I think if you tone down your own instincts in order to make your work more palatable to the perceived taste of some readers, you risk becoming mediocre. And it’s much better as a writer to be loved by a few and hated by many, even, than for everyone to just say, “meh.”
“Kriegsklingen”, “Feuerklingen” and “Königsklingen” don’t reflect very much of those books’ content… well, I haven’t read the last book yet (I’m sure it will also be a 10/10 with an extra point for the ending ), but I’m quite sure, there won’t be any blades belonging to kings that will play a prominent role in it…
However, my name as a title for your first book after the famous “Klingen”-trilogy would boost sales beyond imagination… hmmm, my imagination is limited – but yours is not.”
It’s always interesting to see how different publishers repackage things for their own markets, and you really have to trust your foreign publishers to know their market and what approaches will be successful. Unfortunately, the method of abstract titles drawn from quotes doesn’t really seem to work outside of English, so the books have needed to be retitled. In Spain The Blade Itself is “the voice of the swords,” in France, “the eloquence of the blade,” and in German simply, “warblades.” Jensklingen, though, has indeed a nice ring to it. I will see what I can do…
Michelle writes: “Hence my question for Mr. Abercrombie: what are your strategies for keeping the characters and their stories straight in the readers’ minds?”
I think I spoke a little higher up about keeping a timeline, and trying to give the characters a history so that key events might keep being thought about or mentioned. Aside from that the approach of trying to write in a different style with each character, of having some writing tricks and catchphrases, I guess helped me to visualize what each character was like, which in turn, one would hope, helps them come through convincingly and memorably to the reader.
A lot of authors write characters superficially, not REALLY understanding them. When someone who had/has similar problem to the character reads it, they see right through it and hate the portrayal; it’s false and wrong! In this case Glotka’s portrayal was perfect! Was this just spot on writing or does he know someone in a similar situation that helped to flesh the character out?”
It IS spot-on writing, yes, you’re absolutely right about that, however there is a story there. If I may just quote it verbatim from another interview I did:“Inquisitor Glokta was born out of the experience of injuring my back, which I did pretty frequently over a period of about five years. It gives you a strange, savage and twisted outlook on the world when every movement is painful. I suspect many of those who’ve been unfortunate enough to suffer from back trouble will instantly know what I’m talking about. Things you take utterly for granted, things you normally do without thinking about them — getting out of a chair, using the toilet, climbing a flight of stairs, coughing even — become exhausting, terrifying ordeals. You see the remote just out of reach. Oh god, oh god, oh god. How much will this hurt? Your world contracts to the limits of your own pain. You come to hate everyone and everything. Lying there one day, staring at the ceiling, I can remember thinking: What if this was your life, and it was never going to get better? How bitter, how cynical, how venomously ruthless would you become? How utterly indifferent to the pain of others. A man who felt like this all the time would be a woeful, a disgusting, a pitiable thing. But with nothing more to lose, nothing more to fear, he would also be a terrifying one…”