Just did an interview with Sergio Vivaldi at Italian website Portal of Dreams. You can find the italian translation over here, but Sergio came up with some really interesting and insightful questions so I thought I’d post the English version over here too. There’s been a slightly odd publication order in Italy, starting with the Heroes, then the First Law, and most recently Best Served Cold, with Red Country due soon and Half a King coming out later in the year, so the interview focuses on Best Served Cold…
SV: You built a complex society in Styria, especially when compared with the relative simplicity ofThe First Law or The Heroes. The inspiration for the social and political situation you created is renaissance Italy, and I can’t think of a better world for a bloody and gruesome revenge tale. Are there any other source of inspiration for it? And what did you change to make it fit into the same world ofThe First Law?
JA: I tended to base the cultures in The First Law loosely around some real-world historical analogue, partly to make things a little easier for me, and partly because I think it gives readers a shorthand to imagine the places and people we’re talking about. So Styria is a land of feuding city-states much like renaissance Italy, and Styrians had featured quite centrally in The First Law in various roles, though the action never went there. Nicomo Cosca was a mercenary general very much like the Condottieri Francesco Sforza or Sir John Hawkwood who held much of Italy to ransom at one time. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by the diversity of Italy during the renaissance, and the combination of simultaneous bloody upheaval and fantastic creativity in the arts, in science, in finance, in governance. Given the rich tradition of Italianate revenge stories it seemed the ideal setting for Best Served Cold. The different cities each give a slightly different feel to each part of the book, and the central quest for revenge gradually expands and is drawn into the background of Machiavellian warfare and political squabbling.
The main change? No pope. And an immortal sorcerer who gains his power by eating the flesh of men, of course…
SV: Monza Murcatto is the main character, she is a mercenary leader that you described as “ruthless, intelligent, dedicated and single-minded”. She is very complex and has a very peculiar voice, unique among all characters in your other books, at least those already published in Italy. Which side of her personality was the harder to write?
JA: Monza was a difficult character to write for many reasons, maybe the hardest time I’ve ever had with a character. Even while finishing The First Law I was conscious that it was a very male set of books set in a very male-dominated world so I was keen to try my hand at a woman in the central role. But I think, for a male writer, writing a woman does add a certain level of difficulty, as there are elements of the female experience you’re slightly guessing at, you probably have a lot of experience with how groups of men behave together but not groups of women, and that can somewhat undermine your confidence. So it’s something I’ve had to work at and continue to work at.
The First Law was also an ensemble piece, with three central characters sharing the spotlight, whereas Monza is very much the central character of Best Served Cold, and the driving force of the plot, with a lot of the story being told from her point of view, so there was a lot riding on getting her right. Plus she’s a character who comes across as very cold and hard initially, and is perhaps humanized and made more relatable as you learn more about her. That’s a more difficult trajectory to work with, I think, than an initially sympathetic character you later start to question (like Logen had been in The First Law).
So there were a whole set of factors making Monza a difficult character to write. Some of the minor, much more simple characters, like Friendly or Morveer, pretty much sprang on to the page as fully formed as they needed to be. Monza was far more complex and multi-layered, and it wasn’t until I finished a first draft that I really got a sense of how she needed to be, then it was a question of doing a lot of revision and cutting down to really get her working.
SV: Shivers is the other main character of the book, and he seems to have a lot in common with Monza at the beginning. He claims that he wants to do the right thing, become a better man, a purpose similar to Monza’s when she was planning her life once she left Orso’s service. We know what becomes of him in The Heroes since it was your first book published in Italy, but would you say that Shivers is a younger version of Monza, despite the background of the characters? Did you write Shivers with that idea in mind when you started to work on Best Served Cold?
JA: I suppose you could say that Shivers is following a similar path to the one Monza has followed – starting off optimistic and becoming gradually more cynical in a world at war. But within the book they are in some ways opposites, and follow opposite trajectories. Shivers is a man who professes to want to do good, but finds himself all too often making the easy, wrong choices and, without too many spoilers, ends up on a dark road indeed. Monza, on the other hand, is someone who has learned to present an extremely hard face to the outside world, has a truly evil reputation, but we learn over time that though she certainly can be ruthless and single minded, there is also a softer, more hidden side to her, that many of the dark acts of the past for which she is blamed were not entirely her fault, and that she is perhaps not beyond redemption.
SV: The protagonists of your novels are all anti-heroes, they are often broken in their bodies, I’m thinking of Monza and Glokta, or engaged in a race for power like Bayaz, or any other flaw you intentionally built within your characters. It is a way of reversing the most common fantasy clichés, but I wonder if the idea of crafting a more classic hero and then dropping him or her in a race for power ever crossed your mind. You started doing something like that with Jezal, but it was clear the plan was to make a parody of it from the very beginning. I have to admit a hero in one of your books would be the ultimate surprise.
JA: The fantasy I read as a kid was often full of very heroic heroes, flawless in mind and body, who have heroic motives, perform heroic actions, and achieve heroic outcomes. Who fight the good fight with absolute commitment (and often immense violence) andemerge mentally and physically unscathed. That didn’t seem to me either a particularly realistic or interesting portrayal. So I’ve always been much more interested in the flawed, the damaged, the ambiguous. My feeling is that no one is heroic in every way and in every situation, but that everyone is capable of being noble, selfless, admirable, at the right time and under the right circumstances. Heroism is all a matter of where you stand.
The Heroes was really a long meditation on exactly that notion, and presented all kinds of variations on the theme – Gorst was a peerless warrior who could turn a battle with his own prowess, but he was also a self-hating coward who could hardly bring himself to speak on behalf of his friends. Calder was a physical coward and a double-dealing rat, but he also loved his wife and his family and was able to bring about peace. Who is the hero, then? In Best Served Cold, Monza is seen as a villain by most, a figure of hatred and fear, nicknamed the Snake of Talins and the Butcher of Caprile, but in learning more about her we see many admirable qualities: loyalty, commitment, bravery, intelligence. These are the kind of heroes that interest me.
SV: Your characters change a lot in the course of your novels, usually turning into their opposite by the end, but I think you also have a lot of fun trying to show the readers just how many opposites it is possible to come up with, or at least it seems that way. It also seems acts of violence, committed or suffered, are the key to start the change. Would it be correct to say that violence is the engine of your books, the element that brings them forward? Is violence the instrument you use to shape your characters?
JA: That’s a really interesting observation. Certainly violence has always been one of my central concerns. Epic fantasy tends to be about war, or at least have war as a background, and many of its central characters are warriors, swordsmen, men of violence of one kind or another, men who do a lot of fighting. But often there is some kind of dehumanized enemy for them to face (they’re not murdering people with all the attendant difficulties, but orcs or demons who can be dispatched without conscience) and they come through not only without lasting physical injuries, but without any real emotional damage – they can carve through hordes of enemies and still be good friends, sensitive lovers, and noble kings.
I suppose my feeling was that men who are very good at killing other men with edged weapons are unlikely to make good neighbors in peacetime. That violent men are often damaged before the violence, and end up damaged a great deal more. I was keen to look at the costs and the consequences of violence. So in some fantasy stories the violence is almost incidental. It changes nothing. My characters are definitely transformed by it, transformed physically by the damage to them, transformed emotionally by the damage they’ve done. Best Served Cold is really all about the price of violence, the cost of revenge.
SV: When you published your first books some people said you were setting a new standard for fantasy literature, but you always rejected that idea. Yet, some people consider your novels as a turning point for the genre in recent years and I myself heard someone make your name during a conversation while blaming “all these new fantasy writers who just hate Tolkien”. Do you hear this kind of comments very often? And how do you deal with them?
JA: I’ve always considered myself as trying to do something similar with fantasy to what Sergio Leone did with the classic John Ford western. Or perhaps what Clint Eastwood did with the Sergio Leone western. To take a genre that has become perhaps a little formulaic, a little predictable, and try to shake it up with a new and grittier approach. A close-up, visceral approach that focuses tightly on the characters rather than the scenery. But to me it’s a little ridiculous to say that Sergio Leone doesn’t admire John Ford – of course he does. The desire to experiment, subvert, reinterpret, hopefully breathe a new and different kind of life into a genre is born out of a huge admiration and respect for a genre and its great practitioners. In the same way I don’t see myself as terribly revolutionary – I’m interested in presenting my own take on a classic form, working with the expectations and the archetypes that have developed in that form, hoefully making people think a little bit about what they expect and why.
But no doubt Leone was often harangued by fans of the classic western for perverting and debasing their noble genre. And no doubt he shrugged his shoulders and got on with it. I try to do the same…
SV: Your next book in Italy, due next fall, is Red Country. I could not read it yet, but I know there is an old friend coming back, Logen Ninefinger, and I’m so excited about it that I’m tempted to just buy it without waiting for the Italian edition. Anything else you would like to share about Red Country?
JA: Funny that we’ve just been discussing westerns, because if Best Served Cold is an Italianate gangster revenge story, and The Heroes a war story, then Red Country is my take on the western. It’s set in the same world asThe First Law, of course, so no six shooters or stetsons, but it takes place in a lawless border area, a wilderness into which civilization is just starting to expand at the expense of the indigenous people, and it features my takes on a lot of classic western archetypes: standoffs in windswept streets, wagon trains, gold rushes, tough settlers facing the unforgiving wilderness, and, yes, used up men of violence drawn back into their bloody ways…
SV: Your next books are moving forward and leaving the world and characters you started with: this summer Half a King will be released and I heard there is another novel following it that takes place in the same world. Looking at the reviews coming from ARCs, it looks like Half a King will be another amazing book. Any plan on what’s next?
JA: Half a King is the first of a trilogy of shorter, tighter books taking place in a different, Viking-inspired world and aimed in part at younger readers, though I hope they’ll still give my established readers everything they expect from a book of mine (a little less swearing, maybe). It comes out in July in the UK and US and I’m very excited to see how it goes down. Those three will all be published within a year, then there’ll be a collection of my short fiction in the world of The First Law released hopefully in early 2016. After that, a bit of a break, I think, then it will probably be another adult trilogy set in The First Law world.
SV: Thanks for your time and good luck with your next books, I am looking forward to reading and reviewing them on my blog.
JA: Thanks a lot for your insightful questions. It’s been a pleasure…