Law and Hard Fantasy Interview Series: Joe Abercrombie
All fiction to some degree takes place in an invented world, with invented people doing unreal things. In a way the upside down definition may be the most useful - fantasy is books published by fantasy imprints and shelved in the fantasy sections. As far as what content makes a book a fantasy book rather than general fiction, it varies with the reader. I guess you know it when you see it. Although magic swords are often a giveaway.
This post is a part of our ongoing interview series with fantasy authors who generally write in the burgeoning genre of gritty / hard / dark epic fantasy. The series began with this book review post, and continued with interviews of George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, and Mark Lawrence.
Today, I’m interviewing Joe Abercrombie. Joe is the author, most famously, of the “First Law” trilogy, and some more recent spin-offs set in that world. Joe’s writing is characterized by dark (very, very dark) humor, grit (as in dirt), and an unhealthy amount of revenge. He’s on twitter, he has a blog, and he was nice enough to agree to answer some questions from me about his writing and its relationship to law.
DH: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the collapse of the “fantasy” and “fiction” categories. Is there anything useful about the distinction? If so, what are the minimal characteristics of books that would stay on your fantasy shelf?
JA: Any question about definitions and categorisations is always a complicated one, with lots of confusions and blurry areas. All fiction to some degree takes place in an invented world, with invented people doing unreal things. In a way the upside down definition may be the most useful – fantasy is books published by fantasy imprints and shelved in the fantasy sections. As far as what content makes a book a fantasy book rather than general fiction, it varies with the reader. I guess you know it when you see it. Although magic swords are often a giveaway.
DH: One marker of the trend toward harder / darker fantasy is more fulsome world-building and world-planning. But you are well-known as a guy who hates maps (recent books excepted!) Here’s a practical question: do you sit down and think about the rules of the world before you start to write, or do you start writing and work them out as you go along?
JA: I don’t know that I’d necessarily agree with your first assertion, there. I think a marker of the trend towards harder/darker fantasy is a greater focus on character and internal life over setting and world building, certainly I see that as key in what I’m doing. But you want the backdrop to be consistent and coherent. So you have some ideas about the rules of the world. Certainly you have some strong ideas about the effect certain cultures will have on the way the characters think. That’s the kind of world building I’m most interested in, I suppose you could say, the kind that has a direct effect on the behaviour of the characters, rather than the kind that specifies exactly how many thousand years the tower of Zarb had guarded Dragonfire Pass.
DH: What do you have against maps anyway?
JA: I love maps. I have loads of them. But I don’t necessarily want to share them with the reader. I want the reader to see the action in close up, not wide shot. I want them to be with the characters, not thinking so much about the setting.
DH: Is there any civil law in your world? By that, I mean a system by which contractual breaches and torts are enforced outside of blood feuds, deeds are recorded, property disputes disposed of? What does that system look like?
JA: It depends a little on the culture. In the North there has been a relatively primitive tradition of ownership by clans, judgement by elders and chieftains, but it’s broken down during a period of sustained warfare and a new king has tried to impose a new and much more centralised system, with varying success. The Union, by contrast, has a well-established aristocracy and a complex and extensive centralising bureaucracy, although with a weak king on the throne and a lot of pressure from external threats it’s become rather a corrupt system, prone to being carved into personal fiefdoms by powerful and charismatic individuals in the government. Hardly surprising, in a way, since the whole thing has been explicitly designed to allow one man (Bayaz) to maintain control. The whole thing’s further distorted by the conflict between old power and new money, as the Union has spread to include more diverse cultures and the merchant class has gained in influence.
DH: You’ve mentioned that your next trilogy (set in the First Law world) will have some “creeping industrialization.” Can you expand on what that means? Does industrialization imply law?
JA: I’ve always been interested in worlds that develop. Epic fantasy often features medieval sandboxes that have remained much the same for thousands of years. In our history cultural and technological change is behind a lot of conflict, and I want to reflect that in my invented world. So in the First Law books there is already upheaval as a result of cultural progress, the rise of the merchant class, the growing importance of commerce, greater centralisation of power in the North. In the Heroes gunpowder is beginning to appear. In Red Country there’s an expansion of civilisation into an uncivilised west and some stirrings of steam power. Changing technology certainly means changing law, maybe increasing bureaucracy, maybe conflict between establishment and new ways of doing things. In my case it probably means a period of dangerously unbridled capitalism such as accompanied the industrial revolution in Britain and America.
DH: Most commentators laud your writing as mixing dark fantasy and dark humor. (See also Steve Erickson). Why do you think classic high fantasy was traditionally so humorless?
JA: Well Tolkien, for all his many great qualities, was not really a humorist. He was aiming at something huge, mythic, powerful, and for better or worse writers of epic fantasy that followed him in the 70s, 80s, 90s tended to ape his approach and become rather self-regarding, perhaps even a little pompous in tone. But there has always been a rich tradition of humorous, seedy, selfish characters in sword and sorcery. I guess I’m thinking of writers like Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance. I very much wanted to bring some of that humour back into epic fantasy.
DH: What do you think of fan fiction?
No hugely strong feelings. I don’t see that you can stop it if you want to. I don’t see that it necessarily does great harm. I’m not sure I’d want to read any written about my characters or settings. Might make me feel a bit strange.
DH: What’s the biggest legal challenge you face as an author?
JA: Well, hopefully, if you have a good agent and a good publisher, they should be managing all those aspects and leaving you to just get on with the work. Something like managing a film agreement can be extremely complex and specialised, but if you pay for the right advice (or your agent brings in the right advice, anyway) you should be well covered, well represented, and well rewarded in due course. Piracy is a challenge, I guess, but it’s not one that I lose huge amounts of sleep over. My feeling is you’ve just got to provide a reasonable, slick, easy-to-use legitimate channel and most people will be more than willing to pay.
DH: Could you imagine your characters ever executing revenge in a courtroom instead of on a battlefield? Is the idea ridiculous because courtroom justice is boring to read about, or because it is bloodless to execute?
JA: I guess a lot of westerns focus on the conflict between law and lawlessness. One of the two central characters in Red Country is a lawyer for a mercenary company, responsible for drawing up contracts with employers and seeing them executed in the most profitable way. In the end he sees of a bloodbath with a piece of legal chicanery. Inquisitor Glokta uses let’s say quasi-legal means to achieve political ends. The right kind of victory in a courtroom can be just as satisfying as on a battlefield. It’s all in how the plot is constructed.
DH: Which of J.R.R. Tolkein’s habits/writing tics is most irritating?
JA: I’d like to have seen some better female characters from him.