Interview: Joe Abercrombie

March 27, 2015 Bookish 3

Joe Abercrombie *squeal* recently visited Australia and I was very lucky to have the opportunity to sit down and talk to him about his newest release, Half the World, the second book in his YA series The Shattered Sea. He’d only recently arrived in Canberra after a three-hour drive (“not much to see on the drive down!”) and had a reading in half an hour, but he sat down over a cup of coffee with me. But first, as usual, a little about the book:

Interview: Joe AbercrombieHalf the World (Shattered Sea #2) by Joe Abercrombie
Published: 3rd February 2015 by HarperVoyager
Format: ARC, 400 pages
Genres: Fantasy
Source: Publisher
GoodreadsThe Book Depository BooktopiaBookworld

Sometimes a girl is touched by Mother War.

Thorn is such a girl. Desperate to avenge her dead father, she lives to fight. But she has been named a murderer by the very man who trained her to kill.

Sometimes a woman becomes a warrior.

She finds herself caught up in the schemes of Father Yarvi, Gettland’s deeply cunning minister. Crossing half the world to find allies against the ruthless High King, she learns harsh lessons of blood and deceit.

Sometimes a warrior becomes a weapon.

Beside her on the journey is Brand, a young warrior who hates to kill, a failure in his eyes and hers, but with one chance at redemption.

And weapons are made for one purpose.

Will Thorn forever be a pawn in the hands of the powerful, or can she carve her own path?

Congratulations on the publication of Half the World. Did you always know the story was going to be dual point-of-view this time around?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I sort of planned to start [the series] with a single point of view when I was introducing the world and getting things set up – just to have that one tidy, focussed, point of view and one simple, streamlined story. I’ve written many complicated, many point of view in the past, generally, and so I felt like the opportunity to write something entirely focussed on just one character was a new and interesting thing for me. So that was what I was trying to do with that book.

With the second one, I wanted to move time on but keep the characters the same age, so starting with two new points of view seemed interesting. And because there wasn’t the same load in setting things up I felt like I could alternate between two characters more easily.

[At this point we were interrupted by a lovely lady asking us if we wanted coffee.]

Yeah, so the two points of view seemed like a more natural way to go, and that was always the plan. The third book moves on time a little bit, and has three points of view.

Oh that’s a nice symmetry – one, two and three points of view for books one, two, and three.

[Joe suppresses laughter] Yeah, that was kind of the point.

That’s very clever!

[laugh] Yeaaahhhh. Well hopefully it works. I think it gives each book a slightly different feel. People may be a little bit surprised. Hopefully you get to see the central character from the first book from the outside …

That was my next point! Seeing Yarvi from the outside, from a different point of view, to see him older, was exciting. In the first book you get a good sense of who he is because you’re in his head for the whole book, and it’s great to see how others think of him, what he does, and how he thinks.

Yes. The third book continues that. He, in a way, is the central character to the series.

This is great, you’re answering all my questions about what’s happening next!

Oh right? [laughs] Well. Yeah so, three points of view in the third book. Two male, and one female. Very different sorts of characters again. Probably more of a complicated plot – there’s the war – and more political as well. Whereas the second book is quite a straight forward journey from one place to another, this will follow three people doing various interwoven, related things.

One of the things that really struck me about the second book were the fight scenes, especially the major fight scene near the end which is told from different points of view, is broken up over a few chapters. I think it’s really clever, I hadn’t seen a one-to-one duel told like that before: it’s either told all in one go, or it’s skipped and you find out who won afterwards. The scene was really detailed, and I wonder how much work went into that scene.

I suppose a fair bit, but I’m not sure necessarily much more than goes into another kind of scene. Obviously there are a few fight in [the book], and they’re quite key. They’re key for the development of the characters as well, and for the development of the plot, so it’s important to get them right. It’s important they be exciting, interesting, and be distinct, one from another, so it doesn’t become repetitive mush, a bog of fighting each other. You want to get some feeling out of the characters and some drama that’s distinct in each one.

So a fair bit of time goes into it. I think about getting the drama right, getting the fight to have key moments within it, to have a story being told. For me, I always revise things a lot afterwards, so I’ll rough it out and then I’ll go over and over and over it, fine-tune it, and kind of boil it down. So the revising is always important.

I thought it was brilliantly executed, it was one of my favourite scenes in the book.

[laughs] Thank you! There’s so many great scenes, so that’s high praise. Thanks.

[Joe and I are both laughing.]

The word count of these books is so different from the word counts of your other books. Did that put a limit in any way on the scope of what you want to write, or does it help you?

I think that it results in a slightly different type of book, for sure. That was very much the idea in the first place. One thing I really wanted to do with these books is write shorter, more focussed books. Partly because they take less time to write, partly because it’s a different format. I tended to write big, quite weighty, quite complicated, long books before. I wanted to try something distinct which had a lot of page turning forward motion, that had no wasted space in it. A friend of mine talks about ‘life and death on every page’ and I kind of find that a little bit heavy-weight so ‘a slap in the face on every page’ was what I kept for my motto. So that you should be constantly excited, constantly asking what’s going on. From a character point of view, the dialogue, whatever it may be, a surprise on every page to draw you on, excite you. So that was really the aim with these, to keep it fast and quick and tight.

I like the story world, and I particularly enjoy seeing things that I almost recognise that the characters are seeing. When they’re describing for example, the remnants of a bridge that’s fallen in the river, I can imagine what it must have looked like but they can’t. That’s one of my favourite things about the series: the world. I wondered whether you also enjoyed describing things that are familiar to you in that way.

I think that’s the fun of a setting like this – it’s not a totally new idea. Without spoiling anything, there is a previous civilisation that was a lot more advanced than what’s there now, following some kind of catastrophe. So you’re not exactly sure where it is to begin with, you may work it out later, I don’t know. The next book may have further clues. I really enjoy the characters not being in on the joke. So it’s something the reader can easily pick up on, but characters aren’t necessarily aware of.

I always try and stay tightly in the point of view, if I can, so I try and describe everything from the point of view of the character. I like it when you’ve got two points of view, and so the reader knows things via one of them that the other doesn’t necessarily know as well. Any of those kind of tricks where the reader feels in on the secret is, I think, good. But definitely, describing the modern world to an ancient person is really interesting. I enjoy it.

Will we ever find out what happened to the “elves”?

Well there are hints there. I don’t like making things explicit, I never do. People often ask me about my other books – what exactly is going on with this or that. You don’t always find out what exactly goes on with things in life, so I quite like there so be a few mysteries around. I like to leave a few loose ends, and a few unknown things.

[The coffee arrives.]

Remind me what the question was again? [laughs] I’m distracted by coffee …

The elves. I was hoping for some clues.

Oh yeah. Well I think there are people around who are looking at the maps and pouring over the text. They’ve kind of worked out where things might be, what certain places must have been in the past. So there are clues there, but I wouldn’t want to make it too explicit because I think that would spoil the fun of it. You don’t want to be absolutely sure what things are, I want here to be a certain ambiguity.

That’s one of the great things about books as well. If you showed this stuff visually it would be pretty straight forward, straight away, what we’re dealing with, but because it’s a book the vagueness of words and the way things are described, you can leave a lot of ambiguity. And I like the readers to have to do some work. When I’m reading I don’t want everything spooned up to me, I want to have things that I can work out and feel pleased with myself that I’ve discovered it.

I haven’t worked out where it is, or where it might be. I’ll have to go look it up and see what fans are saying.

Well, yes. Absolutely!

I read a dystopian book recently where there were lots of clues about where the story is set, but none of them made sense to me!

With any kind of twist or anything along those lines, it might work beautifully for some readers. There might be a few readers who pick it at just the right moment, saying ‘yes I got it’ just was it’s revealed, and then others who say that was too stupid, I got it straight away, bored all the through – ‘when’s the big reveal, oh there it is, I knew it the whole time’. It’s about getting a balance between the few that will find it really obvious and the few that will be shocked and amazed.

What might be on the cards for you after Half the War?

I’ve got to finish that, I’m slaving with the edit at the moment. The second book – I have several editors on these, I have an American editor, two adult fantasy editors and a YA editor in the UK, all of whom who have their own opinions. Sometimes they agree and sometimes they don’t. The second book they all agreed on, and they hardly had anything to say: “It’s great, it’s great. Fantastic”. I was expecting the same with the third book, but it wasn’t quite the same. It was more ‘Yeah it’s great, but here are 50 pages of notes’. It’s quite a lot of work and it’s going to take me a bit longer to finish up than hoped.

The next thing after that is probably some short stories. I’ve written a lot of short stories for the First Law world over time, some for multi-author anthologies and some to go along with special editions of books, so there are seven or eight out there. I’ve written three more and I will need to write a couple more, then it will be enough to put together a collection of all the stories I’ve done in that world. That will be the next thing to appear, probably next year some time.

That’s exciting!

That will be interesting, I’ve never down anything like that before. The market for them isn’t as good as it is for full length fiction so it’s a tougher market for short fiction than it was, but it’s an interesting thing to do. It’s mostly been written, so it shouldn’t be too hard to finish up.

After that, probably another trilogy in the First Law world. Back to the other stuff! I’d be surprised if I write works quite as long as I used to again. Writing these has made me feel like I can tighten everything up a bit. But they’ll split the difference I think, in the 150-180 thousand word space. A little shorter than the other ones have been. The trilogy will move time on in the First Law world.


That’s the plan!

I think the short story idea is really cool. I like pitching short stories to people who haven’t read an author before, to introduce them.

I think it’s very good for that. That’s why the multi-author anthologies are quite good because you go in with a lot of other stories, and people buy for the Diana Gabaldon story or the George Martin story, they’ll happen upon yours and maybe you get a new reader that way.

My next question is about the romance. I saw a tweet today, you tweeted a snippet from a one-star review earlier …

[interrupts] “Soppy tween romance?”


It’s the first one star review for this book.

I thought that comment was unfair. I liked the romance. But not everyone has to like it, I know.

There’s is always going to be romance. You can’t get away from that, to me it’s a fundamental part of life. To some people maybe it’s not, perhaps it seems extreme or strange, I don’t know. In the end, these are young adult books. They’re about people coming of age and discovering themselves. If you totally ignore romance and relationships, it’s kind of one mode, there isn’t a lot of romance in the first book, that was something I largely avoided, so I felt there had to be in the this one. And there is again in the next one. So tough to the person who said tween romance, they probably won’t read the next one anyway.

Oh no!

You can’t please everyone with every book. Generally people have been really positive with this book.

I’ve seen more authors do this on social media: sharing snippets from reviews. Both positive and negative. An author (I don’t remember who) tweeted about how difficult it was to read negative reviews one after another – he was picking one to read out for charity – and so I wondered about the impact of negative reviews.

There was a time, when I started writing, when I would be absolutely terrified by reviews. Terrified might be the wrong word: when I’d find a new review my hands would be shaking because I’d be so nervous to see what it’s like. It’s incredibly personal to put a book out there, or at least, it needs to be if the book is going to get any interest at all. It’s tough, initially, to face bad reviews, and the first bad review I got, it was horrible. It was really tough to deal with. Over time, your skin does thicken, it has to, and you have people who compliment you and really appreciate your books. You start to understand that it’s not like a big film.

When you have a big film, you want to make hundreds of thousands of dollars so you appeal to a broad base. With a book, you don’t. You can have hundreds of thousands people hate it, but if a few thousand people like you then you can be successful. So it’s not that important that a lot of people like your book. In fact, if everyone likes it, it’s because it’s not being read widely enough, it’s because the people who hate your book aren’t buying it, and that’s a problem. Because you want new people to buy your books. I think you’ve got to see negative reviews in a positive light.

Sometimes you can learn from them. Not always, rarely perhaps. But occasionally there are good points made and things worth learning. Often there’s more to learn from a negative review than a positive one. My feeling is it’s a bit ridiculous to be always puffing yourself up, and drawing attention to your five-star reviews without discussing the other side of the coin. That’s why I started talking about my reviews.

These days it’s become quite a fraught area. When I was doing it back when I was blogging – 2006/2007 – it wasn’t such an issue whereas these days there’s a lot of friction about authors and interaction. It’s a bit harder to do, I kind of miss it. There was a time you could talk about this stuff as part of the experience of being an author, without calling down the wrath of your readers on somebody. So I share anonymous snippets now, for a while I was tweeting a one-star review every day.

You find hilarious things, just bizarre opinions that you can hardly believe anyone would have. It makes you realise that the way different experience a book, they way they read a book, what they’re looking for in a book, is so different to you. It’s a wonderful thing. “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and let a hundred schools of thought contend” as Chairman Mao had it. It’s good to have that variety, it’s good there’s loads of readers and loads of tastes out there.

Alright, we have to stop here, I don’t want to make you late for your reading tonight! Thank you very much.

It was a pleasure!

This interview has been lightly modified to improve its flow. In particular, I’ve taken out all the interruptions, most of the laughter, and tidied up the times when either one of us struggled to articulate what we were trying to say (it happened a lot). In the original version of this interview, it was stated that Mark Lawrence had tweeted regarding one star reviews. Mark Lawrence has since informed Specfic that this was not the case.


I want to thank Joe for taking the time to speak with me. I had a lot of fun, and I hope he did too. I hope he enjoyed his brief visit to Australia as well! I’m also grateful that HarperCollins Australia was able to organise this wonderful opportunity for me!

I think it’s funny, in hindsight, how the interview morphed into more of a conversation. It’s the first interview I’ve done face-to-face, and I’ve learnt a lot!

Finally, I wanted to apologise that it took me so long to post it up! It’s been over a month since we did this interview, but with my being unwell and all the craziness in my life right now, this is the earliest opportunity I’ve had to post it up.

3 Responses to “Interview: Joe Abercrombie”

  1. Nathan (@reviewbarn)

    I am one of those that has done a fair bit of speculating about where in the world these Elves were populated. I would gladly share what I figured out thus far =)

    Hint, it is not a whole lot, but more than a touch.

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