Here’s an interview focusing on Half a King conducted by my brilliant Italian translator, Edoardo Rialti. The Italian translation can be found over here. But I thought I’d put the English version up for those of you (like me) whose Italian is a little rusty…
Once in Italy you introduced your “First Law Trilogy” as a sort of Lord of the Rings combined with L.A. Confidential; then you spoke of “Best Served Cold” as a Montecristo mixed with Point-Blank, but with a female Lee Marvin. What image would you use to introduce “Half a King”?
Vikings meets the Lion King, maybe, but Simba’s a lot more like Scar than Mufasa this time around…
Why you decided to write a YA trilogy? What was in that kind of fiction which especially intrigued you?
I’d been approached about the possibility of writing some YA books a few years before, and the idea had stuck with me as an interesting one, an opportunity to try a different kind of tone and format, but at the time I was busy with my adult commitments.
By the time I finished Red Country, though, I’d written six big, complex, unapologetically adult fantasy books set in the same world in a row and I felt the need to try something different. I’m a big believer that you’ve got to push yourself as a writer and keep trying new things if you’re going to keep yourself, let alone your audience, interested in what you’re doing. This was a natural break in my adult books, and I thought that a young adult series would give me the opportunity to try something different, but complimentary. Creatively, I obviously wanted to maintain whatever I fondly imagined had made the adult books work – the cynicism, the focus on vivid characters, the crunching action, but I’d need to work with younger, unformed characters, which were a different kind of challenge to the older, experienced, world-weary people I’d tended to center on in my adult work, and I’d be aiming at something much shorter, tighter, more focused. Commercially it felt as though I could still produce something which would appeal to most of my established readers while hopefully reaching out to some younger readers and maybe a type of adult reader who is interested in fantasy but a bit turned off by the big length of some of the stuff that’s out there.
What have been the greatest challenges (style, characters…) on writing such a book? And what has been the greatest fun?
It was certainly a liberating feeling to start work in a new world, where I wasn’t having to consider what characters had done before or what bits of history I’d dropped in. And writing in a short, punchy format where I’m constantly aiming to keep everything as tight as possible is definitely exciting. Each book doesn’t seem like quite the huge project I was taking on with each of my adult books, and the rounds of reviewing and editing end up rushing by. I remember proof-reading three different editions of Before They are Hanged at once and the heap of papers on my desk was head high. But the shortness and focus of these books also means there’s less time for the characters to mature in the writing, if you like. The whole process is more concentrated, more intense, and with a six-monthly publishing schedule, there’s a hell of a lot to get done…
Where do you think lies the difference between a good YA novel and “just” a good, great novel for adults-at least for you? There are things, words or subjects that “should not be showed” to a younger audience, or is the eventual difference in something different?
I honestly don’t think there’s much difference at all. A young adult novel has to have a young adult protagonist, and so there’s likely to be something of a coming-of-age flavour to it. It may well be shorter and more tightly focused than your average adult novel. It may be (but certainly isn’t always) somewhat less explicit in the approach to sex and violence and the language used, but there are no hard and fast rules, and over the last few years there’s been a gradual shift in what can be accepted in young adult literature, to the point that there’s very little you can’t include if it’s done right and works for the story. My own feeling has always been young adults are above all adults, just young ones, and there are plenty of people in that 12-16 age range who read my fully adult work, after all. What I wanted to read at 12-16 isn’t so greatly different to what I read now.
Can you tell us something abut the peculiar culture of your “Shattered Sea” World, as it is reflected in its pantheon? We meet couples of Deites which often overturn our traditional images (or maybe our clichés). Is that just an echo of a different culture as the nordic, viking image of the cosmos, or there’s something more you want to tell?
I’d worked with a very patriarchal society in the First Law, and with the Shattered Sea I wanted a setting that would help me to get a lot of varied female characters into the stories. Women enjoyed a lot of authority and freedom in viking society compared to the rest of europe, particularly in commerce and the management of the households which were the basic unit of viking society. I took that and extrapolated it a bit into a society in which, although fighting and work are traditionally male spheres, money, commerce, and the keeping of knowledge are female ones. As business and trading have become more important, women have become more powerful, and the Ministers, who stand behind and advise kings, are mostly women.
I wanted to extend this division of labour to the gods as well, so they tend to take the form of binary pairs, a male and female deity such as Mother Sea and Father Earth, but I thought it would be interesting to suppose the relationship between a person and their patron deity is almost a marriage. So a male warrior worships Mother War. A female minister worships Father Peace, and so on. Another way of bringing some female-ness into parts of epic fantasy where, for some reason, we don’t tend to expect it.
Yarvi’s journey is interwoven of sayings from his difficult past: wise words by his mentor Mother Gundrig, but also by his hard parents, Queen Laithlin and even the dead King. Can we say that Yarvi’s journey is not just spatial, but also “temporal”, a journey “into” his past, where he will discover a deeper relationships, a new light on his own family and personal history?
Yeah, I think that’s quite apt. A lot of Yarvi’s past isn’t quite as he sees it initially. People he thinks are his friends turn out to be his enemies. People he thinks despise him turn out to have much more complex feelings. He’s also got a lot of self-disgust to overcome as a result of being something of an outcast due to his disability, having been told he isn’t and can never be a real man in the context of this warrior society. So Yarvi has a lot of reinterpretation and reassesment of the past to go about. This is a story about becoming an adult, coming to terms with yourself, accepting who you are.
It seems to me that both “The Odyssey” and “Hamlet” were playing a major part as references of your own tell. Is that true or were you pointing to other stories?
I don’t know that those two were necessarily at the forefront of my mind but I can certainly see the echoes. A kid at a school event asked me if I’d noticed that the story’s very like the Lion King … I pointed out there’s no lions in it, but she definitely had a point. I personally like a classic story retold in a new way, though. I think originality can sometimes be a little overrated. When you pick up a well known and well loved scenario or genre, it creates all kinds of echoes and expectations in the reader that you can then exploit to your own ends…
Many of your stories deal with the great, perennial theme of revenge. Recentely the noir writer J. Nesbo stated that revenge seduces us so much, because it shows our inner, rational nature: we are “creature of consequences”. Do you agree or do you feel there’s something different at stake?
Revenge undoubtedly does appeal to us on a deep level. Who hasn’t fantasised about murdering a room-full of other fantasy writers, after all? Oh, that’s just me…? I think for my part I’d become a bit frustrated with the world-saving style of hero we’ve tended to see in fantasy an awful lot in the shadow of Tolkien. People who always try and do the right things for the right reasons. I find people with good and bad in them feel a bit more believable to me. The best villains are those who have plenty to admire in them. The best heroes are the ones who have to overcome their own darkness. So I like to see protagonists with some darker motivations – greed, self-preservation, revenge.
You are often regarded as a major voice in the grimadark fantasy. Do you think there has been just a caesura between the classical fantasy and the path taken by some of the most beloved contemporary voices, or maybe that things are more complex? My (veeery poor) opinion is that-maybe- only a deep lover of classics can find also a new way for telling the shades, the ambiguities, the untold possibilities of “lighter” stories from our past, as Sergio Leone did with the John Ford’s western, just as an example.
I think you’re absolutely right. No one sets out to spend years writing a giant book series in a genre they hate. The desire to do something new with a form never arises from contempt for the form, but from a really deep love for it, I think, but perhaps a desire to move it on, to jolt it out of a rut, to bring something new into the mix. For myself I was (and am) a huge fan of Lord of the Rings, and read it every year as a kid. I read a lot of the commercial fantasy that followed in Tolkien’s footsteps, things like Dragonlance, David Eddings’ Belgariad, but I suppose after a while I started to become a bit frustrated by what I saw as a lot of repetition and predictability, and the lack of the kind of modern, visceral, exciting edge I saw in a lot of noir and western fiction I was reading. Then I read A Game of Thrones, and of course saw a lot of the grit, darkness, and danger there that I felt the genre had been missing. When I talk to other writers of my generation – guys like Scott Lynch, Brent Weeks, Peter Brett, Pat Rothfuss – they’re all huge lovers and fans of fantasy. They just want to make their own contribution to the genre in their own way.
Once R. L. Stevenson said that the great gift of works of fiction is that “They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must afterwards discover to be inexact ; they do not teach him a lesson, which he must afterwards unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life ; they disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintance of others ; and they show us the web of experience”: would you agree? What would you say is the “gift” or the gifts you seek and receive on writing or reading a novel?
Phew…that’s somewhat of a big question. There’s a degree to which I don’t think you go into writing a book with big ambitions for theme, depth and meaning. You set out to tell a story, to entertain the reader, but if you try to write honestly I don’t think you can prevent your attitudes leaking into your work, nor would you want to prevent it. If you present vivid characters you’ll inevitably touch some readers in a profound way. The books I most enjoy are ones that present unique voices, that express things in a way I would never, ever have thought of, but that I nonetheless find to be true.