Bubble Baths and the Need For Grimdark: Highlights from Joe Abercrombie’s AMA

Joe Abercrombie hopped onto reddit for an AMA earlier this month, and provided fun and informative answers to at least a billion questions. It turns out Lord Grimdark has many pieces of advice to give, on topics including writing (“Never cut out anything cool”), whiskey (detailed below) and cover design (“If there’s one thing that’s always praised about my books, it’s that they’re grip friendly”).

We’ve rounded up some of the highlights below—also be sure to check out our coverage of Abercrombie’s appearance on the Rulers of the Realm panel at SDCC!

ON BOOKS FOR YOUNGLINGS:

thegoldenavatar: What was your specific motivation for writing a young adult novel?
Joe Abercrombie: I’m all about the cash money marvellous. More seriously, after the six big adult books, I felt the need for a change of pace and wanted to try my hand at something slightly different, albeit something that I hoped my existing readers would still enjoy…Also as my kids get older I see the excitement they have about reading, and that reminds me of the excitement I felt reading as a kid. I thought it would be nice to write something that might have a profound influence on younger people, and maybe lead them on to my adult stuff. I talk at a bit more length about writing young adult over here if you’re interested.

Athenepallas: What can you tell us of Half a World (without spoilers)?
JA: If Half a King is the story of a boy who prevails by adopting a woman’s role, the Half the World is the story of a girl who is dead set on adopting a man’s…

Lasidar: Was it challenging writing in the YA genre, given how adult your previous books are?
JA: Every book is it’s own challenge, but in fact there was a real sense of liberation to starting in a new world, with entirely new characters and a new tone, a blank slate if you will. I try to write differently with every point of view anyway, and writing from the point of view of a young adult character naturally gives you a different tone. Much less swearing, sex and violence a bit less explicit (no sex really in Half a King, though there is in the next book), but after writing six very adult books it felt like a nice change of pace. No doubt after writing three YA books I’ll be keen to get my hands dirty again…

ON EPIC FANTASY VS. BRUTAL REALITY:

ZachForTheWin: What was your inspiration for Logan Nine Fingers?
JA: …I guess Logen was my attempt to investigate the gulf between the heroic representation of violence you often see in epic fantasy and the much less glamorous reality.

akiaki007: The First Law trilogy is…one of the few series where I could actually feel my entire body (especially that one when you feel real fear), tightening up when reading through the torture scenes. The nails…. How did you come up with that stuff? Did you read excerpts of what soldiers have gone through?
JA: I sometimes felt the epic fantasy I read as a kid was a bit detached, a bit formal, a sense of seeing things from a distance. I wanted to write in a way that felt visceral, involved, uncomfortably close to the action, that put the reader in the skin of the characters. That was really the approach to the violence, the sex, the torture, to everything.

iamtheunicorn: May I ask who inspired your female characters to act as they do?
JA: I’m pleased with how the female characters in the First Law came out but looking back I would like there to have been more, more diverse types, more central, more women just generally around in the background. Who inspired me? Nothing specific, really. I guess a growing realisation of the limited roles for women in a lot of the fantasy I read as a kid, and a lot of other styles of fiction and media. The world is full of interesting, varied, powerful women. Half of us, in fact. To reflect that reality in a cast of characters strikes me as simply good writing. So it’s something I’ve worked at and continue to work at.

ON WHISKEY:

The_Second_Best: What whiskey would you recommend for drinking while reading Half a King?
JA: With Half a King I’d go for something not overly heavy, not overly light, some complexity and a bit of maritime island character. A Highland Park 18, maybe?

DijonM: What’s your favorite whisky for writing?
JA: The wonderful thing about whisky is its wondrous variety. Very rarely have I tried one I didn’t like. A few favourites, though—Ballantine’s 17 for an easy-drinking blend. Balvenie single barrel for crystalline sour-sweetness. The many faces of Ardbeg, but especially Corryvreckan for its unholy power and peaty dryness. Currently loving a Lagavulin 12 cask strength. Like being smashed in the mouth with a sackful of burned lemons.

ON BATHROOM ACCESSORIES:

Redwinevino: Would you like to see The First Law Trilogy adapted for TV or film and do you think it could it be done?
JA: Would I like to see the First Law books adapted with the same care and success as Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings creating a popular culture phenomenon and causing sales of the books to rocket to unprecedented levels so I can buy a toilet seat carved from a single massive diamond? Yes, yes I would.

ON BOOK SMELL:

Dacona: Is being an author all sipping hot beverages, elbow patches, hearty discourse by a fireplace, and book smells? Don’t say no.
JA: Yes.

ON STANDING DESKS AND BUBBLE BATHS:

TheJDWiley: What’s your writing ritual? If you say “slow jazz and a bubble bath” I won’t think less of you.
JA: Stand in front of the computer. Write.

ON PLOT:

TheSecondApocalypse: Do you plot your novels, or just let the fuckers ride?
JA: Generally I have been a pretty heavy plotter, that’s just the method that’s developed for me. My feeling is you can always go off the plan to accommodate new ideas, but if you have no plan, you risk running off into the middle of a tangly forest. These days I am a little more fluid, though. When you’re writing individual books that aren’t part of a series you have the luxury of revising the entire thing in one go.

ON HIS OWN BOOKS, AND FUTURE PLANS:

The_Second_Best: Something that has always niggled at me but I’ve never found an answer anywhere. When Logan turns into the Bloody-Nine is it magical or is it just a state of mind he gets into after taking a beating?
JA: I try not to explain things too much outside of what’s in the text—I like readers to be able to come up with their own interpretations. Not even Logen can really say what the Bloody-Nine is, after all. But I’m not sure I find a supernatural explanation to be necessary.

Sreeck: What is your opinion on the ‘science vs magic’ topic? There’s a fair bit of debate among the characters in BSC. I’ve heard you speaking that you’d rather keep the magic mysterious and unexplained (which I very much prefer), but so can be science(as you’ve shown with the poisons), say for eg: some kind of flying objects , would be great to see them in a fantasy setting. Your take on such things?
JA: I prefer a low magic world myself, so that the magic seems dangerous, unexplained, unknowable to the characters. I do like progress, though, the feel of a world in flux, so I wouldn’t rule out some level of creeping industrialisation in the First Law world. Not too much, but a little.

CerebralBypass: Any chance of a Bloody-Nine prequel? Or details of his shift in allegiance and mindset?
JA: I’m not a huge fan of the concept of prequels on the whole—it’s hard for me to think of one that really needed to be done. Generally speaking, with novels, I think I’d prefer to move things forward. Going back into the past the reader always knows to some degree how things will come out. However I have written some short stories to sit with the First Law, one for each book, which will appear in due course, and show some key episodes from the past. “A Beautiful Bastard” follows the young Colonel Glokta as he prepares to repel the Gurkish at a certain bridge. “Hell” follows a young acolyte called Temple as the Eaters finally break through the walls of Dagoska. “Made a Monster” follows the idealistic leader Bethod as he struggles to bring peace to the North. If it wasn’t for his psychopathic champion…

Ansate: More of Javra, the giant Paladin chick from “Tough Times All Over” please!
JA: There already is one other story with her in, and probably there’ll be more in due course. She and Shevedieh the thief are sort of my take on Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. A female take.

ThugznKisses: I heard that you were planning a second trilogy set in the South (The Gurkish Empire?) My question is: will this trilogy “wrap up” the story—I guess with a showdown between Bayaz and Khalul? Will any of the First Law characters be back?
JA: The current plan is for another trilogy in the First Law world, as I said higher up, although the focus will probably again be the Union. Whether it will ’wrap up’ the overarching story of the feud between Bayaz and Khalul, I don’t know. It was always something of a frustration of mine that epic fantasies ’wrap up’. They feature an epoch-changing final battle after which everything is different. Battles are often sold to us as final, but the overall shape of the world rarely changes. It hasn’t made me popular with every reader, but I like ragged-ass endings that carry within them the seeds of the next conflict. They feel more real to me.

ON THE GREAT GRIMDARKNESS OF THE FUTURE:

robmatheny80: Your twitter handle is Lord Grimdark… Are you for or against the word ‘grimdark’ being ascribed to the sub genre of darker and grittier scifi and fantasy? Some have said your handle is tongue in cheek, and that you don’t actually prefer the term.
JA: Well I don’t say much that isn’t tongue in cheek one way or another… There was a time grimdark was a purely a negative term for stuff that was laughably over cynical, gritty and violent to no purpose whatsoever. These days people are using it in a positive light to describe a whole style of fantasy that they like. I don’t find it a very useful term myself because no one ever seems to mean quite the same thing by it, and a lot of subtleties and differences tend to get overlooked in the categorisation. But my being for or against it doesn’t really make any difference. People will use words the way they want…

Crumpgazing: A lot of people have claimed your stories are just too grim for them, but I’ve always felt that, despite the darkness, you leave little faint glimmers of hope. I know that you like for the reader to come up with their own interpretations, but do you feel as if you purposefully write “cynical” storylines, or something a bit more ambiguous?
JA: I guess the first law stuff is pretty cynical because I always meant it to stand as a counterpoint to the mass of shiny, obvious, predictably heroic stuff that I saw as dominating the genre at that time. But you cannot have shadows without light, you’d always want there to be some range, some variety, some human warmth, and most certainly some humour to counteract the bleakness.

AUTHORS TALKING ABOUT AUTHORS!

Brian McClellan (Powder Mage series author): Just want to let you know that you’re a personal hero of mine. I read the First Law Trilogy while writing Promise of Blood, which I later sold as part of a trilogy. Reading the cool, flawed characters and fantastic world kept reminding me that authors were still creating new, awesome things in today’s market and really helped keep me on task. Now I write fantasy novels for a living. Thanks for that.
JA: Hey Brian, That’s a huge compliment, thanks. I remember reading A Game of Thrones way back in the 90s and thinking, shit, this is great, I wonder if I could ever do anything like it? So for my books to have had that kind of effect on someone else is a great feeling. As for being a hero, well, you know I don’t believe in ‘em…

PapaNurgle: Which character from Fantasy would you most like to include in one of your novels as a cameo?
JA: Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever.

elquesogrande: Rumor has it that there will be a Ben-Hur style chariot race reenactment during your upcoming Grim Gathering in London with Myke Cole, Mark Lawrence, and Peter V. Brett. How will this play out?
JA: I can neither confirm or deny such rumours. But all who resist me shall despair.

Theusualuser: If you were forced to write in someone else’s world for the rest of your career, whose world would you choose?
JA: There seems to be a market for GRRM’s stuff…

Jdiddyesquire (Tor.com’s First Law Trilogy rereader): Dear Joe, in thirty years do you imagine yourself more as a) Michael Moorcock, b) Thomas Pynchon, or c) James Rollins? Mind you, James Rollins just signed a $15M deal.
JA: I imagine myself as an old, and extremely rich, Joe Abercrombie.

robmatheny80: Joe, can you tell us briefly of some differences between the genre fiction ‘scene’ in the UK versus the US? Thoughts? Feelings? Observations? Gripes? Kudos?
JA: Jeez, man, I’m not sure I know how to answer that except to say that I’ve rarely met a sci-fi or fantasy author, publisher, or reader, either side of the pond, that I didn’t like.

ON CASTING:

JLVD2: If your work were to be adapted to the screen do you have anyone in mind who you think would be perfect for a given part?
JA: I would have to cast Patrick Steward as Bayaz. Make it so.

thekevmaester: What are your thoughts on the TV show Game of Thrones and do you think it has had a positive effect on the fantasy fiction?
JA: I think by and large it’s an excellent adaptation and a brilliant thing for the genre. It’s really opened the eyes of the wider public to the fact that fantasy isn’t just Lord of the Rings. Without doubt it’s done my sales no harm at all.

ON THE CURE FOR DEPRESSION:

mwais: I get too depressed when I read your books, can you help with that? Love your books, I guess I like being depressed.
JA: Easy. Simply buy them and don’t read them.

ON GAMING:

Tunafishsam: Have you ever played any role playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons?
JA: I have played more roleplaying games than Gary fucking Gygax.

Tuffty88: I know you’re a Dark Souls fan, so you clearly have great taste in video games. Knowing this, I’m curious to find out, what are your favourite video games of all time?
JA: Oooh, my video game experience goes right back to the birth of the form, so there are a few. Let’s say Twin Kingdom Valley, Elite, Dungeon Master, Street Fighter II, Baldur’s Gate II, Shogun: Total War, Civilisation, Final Fantasy 7, Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us, I could go on all night…

tomolly: What’s your favorite board game?
JA: Settlers of Catan.

ON WORLDBORROWING:

valhall666: If you could choose to write a book based on another existing fantasy world, which would it be? I loved the rough, gritty texture of the covers of your books, were they a conscious decision on your part?
JA: I do like GRRM’s—not a dissimilar low magic, high grit setting to mine own. Or the Viking world of Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword

ON SELF HELP:

HiuGregg: I picked up a copy of Half a King for about £2-3 the other day in a WH Smith. It was some ways away from the fantasy section, sat in some sort of weird clearance shelf that was full of self-help books. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been wondering, would you class any of your books as self-help books? After all, it’s a well-accepted fact that reading your books helps people see the bright side of life, and cast off the belief that this world is a harsh and unforgiving one.
JA: All my books are self-help. Through them, you can learn what life is truly about.

ON BATTLING GRRM:

Phantine: Let’s say, for his own reasons, Logen ended up in Westros, and became Tyrion’s champion in a duel against the Gregor Clegane. How well does the Bloody-Nine do when fighting the Mountain That Rides?
JA: I always scratch my head at this type of question, because different worlds have different rules, so it’s very hard to ’scale’ the characters. No doubt characters in high magic worlds would have mine for breakfast cause they’ve got super powers and turn into giant robots and shit. I’m more interested in whether the characters are interesting than in who beats who. That said. BLOODY NINE FTW MOTHERFUCKAS.

ON SWEET SWEET VENGEANCE:

boonz: Does the view on revenge you depict in your books reflect your personal thoughts or is it strictly your characters’ views?
JA: I guess I’m always first trying to express my character’s experience, but certainly it would be my view that violence tends to be a negative and destructive cycle, decidedly less glamorous than is sometimes depicted in fantasy.

ON THAT WHOLE ONE STAR REVIEW THING:

Elfhybrid: What is the deal with your one-star reviews? I mean, why read them at all? Is it pure amusement?
JA: There is an entertaining catharsis in owning the worst that people say about you.

ON FANTASY AGAIN:

Arzvi: The first law trilogy turned the fantasy tropes around it’s head. Is there a defining point where you started hating the tropes that you wanted to change them in your work? any particular book?
JA: I don’t think I ever hated them, just maybe got a little tired of seeing them endlessly repeated without a lot of variety or invention or, you know, edge. But tropes become popular because they work, and we love them, and they appeal on some deep level. So writing the first law was all about applying my own take to material I had a deep affection for, applying my own twists and my own voice to the tropes, not somehow taking a wrecking ball of contempt to the genre. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns are clearly born of great love and respect for the form, but a desire to do something new and dangerous with it…

IN WHICH THE CHARACTERS COME TO GLORIOUS LIFE:

leksa4444: Where did you get the idea for Inquisitor Glokta’s character in the First Law series? He is my own favorite. Thanks and all the best from Finland!
JA: In part, the experience of having a bad back.

BlackyUy: Just a reader from Uruguay, wanting to drop by and tell you that I think that Glokta is probably the best character ever. I would love to read a Glokta-centric book. Thats all :D congratulations on the new book, and best of luck in the charts
JA: Why, thank you so much.

obitting: Where is Ferro? Will we ever see her again? I miss her.
JA: SHE’S BEHIND YOU.

IN WHICH ABERCROMBIE NAMES A FAN, OR, A RETURN TO WHISKEY:

MrCaptDrNonsense: I love the names of Northerners in your books. Logen Ninefingers, Rudd Threetrees, Dogman, Black Dow, Tul Duru Thunderhead, Harding Grim etc. Can I (Ben) get named, or do I have to kill someone? If I get a proper Northerner name I’d probably dance a jig and get drunk on Balvennie Doublewood. I’ll probably do that regardless.
JA: Then you shall be Ben Doublewood.
MrCaptDrNonsense: That is really awesome.

A FINAL NOTE, ON TACOS:

callmeshu: Are you a fan of Hard Tacos or Soft Tacos? What do you think this says about your personality?
JA: I eat Yorkshire Pudding motherfucker.

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