Interview with Joe Abercrombie (A LITTLE HATRED)
Joe Abercrombie surely needs no introduction to the readers of this site. As the author of the iconic First Law trilogy (2006-2008), and the standalones set in the same world, Best Served Cold (2009), The Heroes (2011) and Red Country (2012), he has become one of the most popular and influential of modern Fantasy writers. His latest novel, A Little Hatred (2019), is the first volume in a new trilogy that sees him return to the world of the First Law a generation later.
Joe was in the Liverpool One Waterstones for the launch of his new book on September 17th, and was kind enough to speak with The Fantasy Hive there.
Your latest novel A Little Hatred is out today from Gollancz.
It is out today. Very exciting to have a new book out, it’s been some time since my last one. It’s lovely to be out meeting the public and seeing people react to something I’ve written again.
Would you be able to tell us a little bit about the book?
Yeah, sure. The new book is set in the world of the First Law. It takes place maybe thirty years after the first trilogy ended, and so it picks up a new generation of characters. A lot of them have parents or mentors that we know well from previous books, and the world has moved forward into an industrial phase. An early industrial phase, so there’s incipient factories, mills, every river is full of waterwheels, and pollution’s happening, smog’s in the cities, and generally the working class are being driven into the mills and foundries while a new class of investors and inventors become powerful alongside the nobility. So it’s a period of great change and upheaval, from which flows a lot of delicious and exciting drama.
One of the really interesting things about it is that everything’s changed because we’re in the throes of industrial revolution. This is quite different from your standard fantasy…
Yeah, classic epic fantasy takes place in this kind of very medieval world where the sun always shines and glints upon the armour, and you have kings and queens, and knights on horseback, and the world never feels like it ever changes; it’s in a state of stasis, if you like. I like worlds that feel like they’re changing and progressing in the same way that ours does.
Conflict isn’t necessarily a question of good against evil, but the result of social changes, and the tectonic shifting of technology, and the nature of society. I’ve just always liked the idea of technology moving on. That first trilogy that I wrote, the First Law, was very consciously my take on epic fantasy; my Lord Of The Rings if you like, with more filth and morally weird characters and so on. I think this does feel like something that’s more… ‘original’ is a word I never like to use, because although I think a little originality can go a very long way, I like familiarity too. But this does feel like something slightly more original in terms of the setting. It’s not one that I’ve seen in this kind of book before. So hopefully it’s something that readers will find interesting as well.
Another thing that’s different is that you have all these wonderful female characters as viewpoint characters. Was that a conscious decision you made this time round?
I think it’s certainly an evolution over time in my writing. I was very pleased with some of the female characters in the First Law, but there weren’t many. There were only really two prominent ones, and not that many just in the background. It was a bit of a male book. Bit of a sausage fest, is the way some people might put it. And so even while writing those books, and coming to the end of those books, I was aware that I could have done better in that regard; could have got more range and variety into the world and into the writing, and it would just feel more like a real world. Because the real world does have women in it, I understand.
So over time I tried to bring women more and more into the books. Best Served Cold, that was my fourth book, that had a central female character, but still was quite male in the kind of secondary characters. And so with this story as well, moving into a more industrial era, it’s a time of social change, and women are maybe breaking out of their traditional roles a little bit as well. So naturally I wanted half the central cast to be female. And the way it’s worked out, I think the two most successful characters probably are female in this book, which is definitely a reversal for me. In the past I’ve tended to write mostly men, and the women I’ve often been a little less comfortable with, a little less sure of, and it feels like in this book I’ve managed to make myself unsure about the male characters. So that’s been a nice kind of switch.
As with all your books, one of the striking things about it is the way you write characters and their distinctive voices. When you’re writing these characters, how important is finding that voice?
It’s very important, you’re absolutely right. It’s something I try very hard to do, and it feels like the essence of the way I write. Writing that I respond to well from other writers tends to be stuff that has quite a powerful, interesting voice to it, that I would never find myself. So I try to make sure each point of view is not only written from inside the head of the character, but that the prose is infused with their voice as much as I can.
That’s something that develops very definitely over the course of writing a book. Some characters, from the very moment you start writing their point of view, they just have the right voices somehow. Others it takes time to define and think about. Sometimes you’re using quite superficial tricks, structural tricks. Short sentences rather than long ones, or long paragraphs with a little dropped punchline afterwards. So you’re working with the shape of the prose, the length of the sentences, the word choice, whether you use contractions or not, all those kind of things. But you’re just trying to find your way into what things does that character notice?
Savine, for instance, she’s obsessed with fashion and with appearances, and so she will notice other people’s choices, their fashions, their appearances. She’s very interested in their looks. Leo is a kind of guy who’s oblivious to that kind of thing. He’s a man’s man who’s obsessed with action and heroics, and so it wouldn’t occur to him to even think about that. So you think about what details the character will notice, and you’re constantly revising to try and get the voices as defined and distinctive as you can.
There’s that wonderful scene on the train with Vic and Savine where you’re going from one perspective to the other very quickly, and what each one sees tells you a lot about them…
Yeah, I’ve always loved the fact that one of the big advantages of that type of point-of-view style of writing is that you can see the characters from inside their head. And then suddenly you’ll encounter them from the point of view of another character, who sees the world very differently, and sees them very differently. That can create a really nice tension between how they see themselves and how they appear to the world. So, Savine for example comes across as this incredibly shiny, beautifully presented manicured doll almost, but inside she has all these doubts and fears and concerns and worries about things. Vic on the other hand comes across as this brutal, hard, bulletproof hard-ass from the outside, and then inside she has her own doubts and fears and problems. So I’ve always been interested in the sort of dissonance you get when two point of view characters come together.
The other thing that’s always been striking about your writing is your use of humour. How important is humour to your writing?
Very important, definitely. And you’re absolutely right. Tolkien obviously had many wonderful characteristics—I’m a huge fan of Lord Of The Rings, read it every year for years growing up—and he’s a big influence on any fantasy writer I think, but he wasn’t really a humorist. Not a criticism; just his style was a very weighty, mythic one. If Legolas had been cracking gags the whole time it wouldn’t quite have worked.
But in imitating his tone, perhaps not as skilfully as he did it himself, I think epic fantasy as a whole became quite ponderous and doom-laden, and maybe a little bit pompous and a little bit ridiculous even; so that writers like Terry Pratchett, at least at the start of his career, really made hay by puncturing that bubble. You didn’t have to go far to make it absurd. So I’ve always loved humour in writing, absolutely, and especially when you’re working with quite unsympathetic characters, quite ruthless, quite nasty, quite unpleasant characters. If you’re working with violent people, ambitious people, as you often are in fantasy, a lot of their thought processes can be quite savage and quite nasty, and they do some quite savage and nasty things, but you can forgive a lot in someone who’s got a good sense of humour.
So I think that is an essential ingredient in making a book not overpowering in its grimness and unpleasantness. You’ve got to have those hints of wit. It’s not something that’s easy to do; you can’t just go I’m now going to make this scene funny, that’s not really how it happens, at least for me, but while I’m writing anything that is funny I try to keep it in there. And it’s not so much gags as it is hopefully just the wit that derives from the nature of the characters and the way they talk and think.
You are known for unsympathetic, morally dubious characters that we keep coming back to because they’re so compelling. How do you aim for that balance?
I don’t know that that would be a concern that would be foremost on my mind necessarily. I think there’s clearly a balance within a book. So Best Served Cold, for example, is probably my most savage and bloody and cynical book in a way. In it you have a character like Morveer, the poisoner, who is utterly despicable and disgusting. He has no redeeming characteristics apart from maybe being slightly funny at times. But then he’s balanced with some characters who are maybe slightly more appealing, and as some of those appealing characters are dragged down into the filth and become less pleasant, some of the worst ones are maybe slightly redeemed in one way or another, so you’re trying to balance the cast as a whole.
In terms of writing from one point of view, for me it’s kind of more important just to stay true to that person and try to convey the world as they see it. And it’s always been my feeling that the vast, vast majority of people are understandable to themselves. They have their reasonable excuses, at least. Even if they’re not actually excuses that would excuse anything, they still have their reasons and their motives and how they’ve come to the point they’re at. It’s quite a tired thing to say that everyone’s the hero of their own story, but at the same time no one’s the villain of their own story. Traditionally, fantasy often has these shiny heroes and these very evil villains. And I just wanted to peel back the lid on the villains and see why they might behave the way they do.
I found Monza from Best Served Cold particularly compelling from this point of view…
Oh sure. She was one of the characters I found hardest to write, actually, because Best Served Cold was in a way my difficult second album. I’d written the trilogy, I’d got better and better with the set of characters I had in the trilogy, and then I reached the end of it and suddenly had to find new characters and new ways of writing. That really shook my confidence. It was quite hard to do. And because she’s very much the central character of that book and carries a lot of the weight of the plot and everything, Monza was a very tough character to get right. She’s also quite a shiny, hard, tough, not-very-appealing character in many ways. She’s quite brutal, quite savage; insofar as she has a sense of humour it’s a very savage and quite cutting one. In a way, she has to present herself as nastier than she is. So hopefully that character is someone who is slightly redeemed over time as we get to better understand how she got where she did; whereas Shivers, who’s sort of on the other side of the scale in that book, starts as quite likeable and wanting to do the right thing and so on, but as he gets sucked in becomes nastier and nastier, and so the two follow a kind of opposite trajectory in a way that hopefully balances each other out a bit.
Caul Shivers has been with us since the First Law books, through the standalones to the new one now. When you originally conceived the character, did you know how far he’d go?
No, not at all. It’s funny, you’ll know you want to use a certain character, but often you’ll write the character in and he doesn’t really make a huge impact on you. But sometimes people will just leap off the page a little bit and they’ll be interesting straight away, and you’ll want to make more of them. When I was writing Best Served Cold, the question was just ‘what characters do I have left over who are still alive who weren’t points of view before, who weren’t absolutely ruined by their experiences, that I can just kind of slot into this story?’ So there was Shivers, there was Cosca, there was Vitari, and there are some others who hang around too – Mauthis and a few of Orso’s people also return in one way or another. It was just a case of using any good ingredients that were left over really. Then they kind of found their stories as they went along.
In The Heroes obviously there were plenty of roles for violent Northmen, so Shivers found his way in there too. In Red Country the idea was that Lamb would have an implacable enemy from the past following him; it’s a very Western thing. And so obviously using that ‘man of violence followed by implacable enemy seeking vengeance’ trope, you’ve got those two characters on the shelf who have got exactly that relationship there. So it felt like the right time to use them again. And then because Shivers is still around it felt like he fitted naturally into this book as well. So yeah, I’ve kept using him.
Have you been surprised by any of your characters’ longevity?
I don’t think so, because generally you plan it all some time in advance. You think about what would work and they tend to be quite considered decisions. As a reader, obviously you might be shocked when a certain character is killed off—you hope to do that, to shock people. But as a writer you’ve thought to yourself, shall I kill this character? Is this the right time to do it? Is this the right way to do it? And so when you do it, you’re good and ready and you feel that’s the best use of them.
You’ve also written the Shattered Sea trilogy, which is marketed as YA, but they still feel very much like Abercrombie books. Did you feel there was a big shift in writing for a YA audience?
Not in that case. I don’t suppose I tackled it in the sense of ‘what does the YA audience want?’ It was kind of more, what sort of book did I want to read when I was 13, 14? And substantially that’s much the same as I read now really. Perhaps a bit shorter and a bit more focused. So in a way, it was more an effort to write in a different length and a slightly different style. It’s a Viking-influenced book, so it had more of a saga-type feel about it because that felt right for that world. But really it was more just writing from the point of view of younger characters, and the shorter length, and I think that naturally gave it a coming-of-age quality. The edges are slightly filed off on the sex and violence, but not to a ridiculous degree. The plan was always that it was a set of books that would hopefully still work – at least somewhat – for my adult readers, but would maybe appeal to a younger crowd too.
Talking of sex and violence, there’s loads of both in your books. In particular the new book has a lot of what you could call ‘Abercrombie-esque’ sex scenes.
There is a lot of sex in this one!
You have that way of writing it that doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness, the embarrassment and disappointment that can be associated with sex. Is that something you particularly wanted to bring into the fantasy world? Like, it’s hard to imagine Aragorn and Arwen having sex…
And if they did it would be through a gleaming soft focus and waterfall and it would be a wonderful transformative thing for both parties.
I think it was really just applying the same approach that I apply to everything else. The violence is fumbly and messy and not beautiful or skilful; it’s horrible, instantaneous and unpleasant, and I wanted the sex to feel honest and earthy in the same kind of way. It was about trying to get into the heads of the characters and shine a light on their relationships, in the same way I would with the dialogue, or with the violence. I just wanted the sex to feel on a par with the rest.
It’s true that there is quite a lot of sex in A Little Hatred. There are two central relationships, and then those relationships kind of shift and twist a bit later on. And so they all have hopefully quite different relationships as well, and so it gives each relationship a slightly different tone and different feel. But I think if your approach is to do no-holds-barred fantasy that feels honest and earthy, then you have to apply that to everything, which is what I try to do.
Finally, one of the things that’s striking in your books is that you have a range of viewpoint characters with physical and mental disabilities. What drew you to writing from this perspective?
I suppose fantasy that I read as a kid had very shiny handsome young new people who would often come through their adventures relatively unscathed. They would often be quite violent people, they’d be swordsmen, they’d be warriors – warriors for good, but still warriors. Soldiers tend to end up a little bit beat up, injured both physically and mentally. They don’t all come back able to become good kings and sensitive lovers and so on. I suppose it was just a natural result of thinking, ‘what would happen to people who’d had these violent and difficult lives’, and wanting to just get into their heads and see how that would feel.
Thank you Joe Abercrombie for talking with us!
Joe Abercrombie is the author of the FIRST LAW series and the SHATTERED SEA trilogy. His latest novel, A LITTLE HATRED, is available now!