Ownership and Back Pain

April 28th, 2008

I did an interview recently with Marcus Lanyon, a London-based artist and occasional reader of edgy yet humorous fantasy, for a piece about ownership in The Royal College of Art Magazine, mostly focusing on working with the staples, cliches, tropes etc, of an established form, and how one goes about trying to twist them, turn them, make them one’s own.

Now I know that the vast majority of the readers of this blog probably already receive the Royal College of Art Magazine, but in the unlikely event that some few of you are not that high-brow, and have accidently stumbled wide-eyed into the fountain of culture that is my work, Marcus has kindly given permission for me to reprint the interview here. Enjoy, or possibly don’t. It is in your hands…

Poking Frodo In The Eye

Joe Abercrombie’s novels have been variously described as “deliciously twisted and evil” and as “a seminal work of modern fantasy”. Picking up the well-entrenched genre of fantasy by the ears and re-positioning its bloodied nose as something worth engaging with once again, Marcus Lanyon spoke with him about regaining ownership of this spiky-helmeted genre in a fresh, innovative way, process and putting your back out…

1. The fantasy genre is full of staples, tropes and well-entrenched stereotypes – you could say it is owned in particular by Tolkien and the standards he laid down in his work. How do you place your work in relation to this? How have you re-claimed it and made it your own?

I’d like to think of what I’m doing as standing in relation to Lord of the Rings (and the classic epic fantasy that’s been strongly influenced by Tolkien) in the same way as – if I can use a cumbersome extended metaphor – Unforgiven stands in relation to High Noon. A slantwise look at the cliches of the form from a more modern, cynical, realistic perspective, perhaps even a bit of a satirical riff on the form at times, but first and foremost a strong example of the form. I hope that I’ve got something to say about the ways that good and evil, power and violence are traditionally represented in fantasy, but at the same time I hope that above all what I’ve written is a cracking fantasy tale, and can be enjoyed purely on that level.

I think humour is a key area as well. For all of Tolkien’s great strengths, I don’t think most people would make much of a case for him as a humorist, and the genre has tended to take itself rather seriously ever since, or, perhaps in reaction to that, to take the mick out of itself with full-on comedy. I wanted to sit somewhere between the two – incorporate the humour of everyday life, maybe. The odd chink of light only makes the darkness harsher by comparison, to my mind.

2. When absorbing influences, inevitably the creative process is part of one long evolution of the ideas that went before. You took a very particular genre, one that is filled with orcs, elves and magic, and somehow very successfully merged it with contemporary ‘punch’ – honest human flaws, everything a shade of grey and peppered with sex, violence and loss. Did the two ever come into conflict?

As you say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and every artist or author tries to incorporate into their work all the different things they’ve read, seen, viewed, and liked or been affected by (sometimes without even realising it, I’m sure). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot of admiration for Tolkien and a lot of love for epic fantasy as a genre, but at the same time I’ve read a lot of more general fiction and non-fiction, been very influenced by film, and more recently the movement in TV towards much more realistic, difficult, morally complex material (with shows like the Wire, Deadwood, the Shield and so on that certainly have, as you say, contemporary punch). So I’ve done my best to combine the things that I enjoy in fantasy – the adventure, the epic scale, a little bit of mystery and magic – with some more modern-feeling, stripped down prose and dialogue, and some more morally complicated, shocking, unexpected plotlines.

I’ve tried as hard as I can, in fact, to bring the classic and contemporary elements into conflict wherever possible. As you say, there are certain expectations on the part of the reader when they read a book like this, and you can use those to surprise them. For me, that’s what makes writing in a genre with a lot of well-established cliches so interesting. I should point out as well that there are a lot of other authors who have been doing interesting, difficult, and surprising things in fantasy ever since Tolkien and, indeed, before. But, especially with the success of the Lord of the Rings films, orcs, elves, magic, and climactic struggles of good against evil still do seem to define fantasy in the public consciousness.

3. Your characters inhabit the book through the third person limited perspective, a method that really sucks the reader into the action, up-close and intensely. Would you say this gives you a greater range of options with illustrating them throughout the books? Or do you enjoy the control it gives you over focusing the reader’s eye on certain details?

The big advantage of this approach for me is the feeling of closeness it gives the reader to the characters, and the feeling of involvement it can give with the action. Epic fantasy tends to be about huge events, about tiny characters within a vast landscape, and I wanted very much to focus on the people, and on their individual experiences of the events. I’m not so interested in the troop movements in a battle, for example, (though those have to make sense) as I am in what it feels like to be there.

4. Further to ‘focusing’, you are also a professional film editor. Has this affected your development as a writer – certainly the action scenes have a very cinematic flow to them?

My background is mostly in documentary and live music rather than drama, but definitely my experience as an editor has had an effect on the way I write, certainly it’s been invaluable experience as far as pacing is concerned. It may sound strange from someone who writes pretty chunky books, but I try to make every scene as lean and effective as possible, and cut out everything unnecessary.

5. The character of Inquisitor Glokta – a tortured war hero turned torturer himself – is a repulsive yet strangely attractive character who consistently finds himself wrestling with control and ownership of decisions that have wide-reaching impact. Could you tell us a little more about him?

Inquisitor Glokta was born out of the experience of injuring my back, which I did pretty frequently over a period of about five years. It gives you a strange, savage and twisted outlook on the world when every movement is painful. I suspect many of those who’ve been unfortunate enough to suffer from back trouble will instantly know what I’m talking about. Things you take utterly for granted, things you normally do without thinking about them – getting out of a chair, using the toilet, climbing a flight of stairs, coughing even – become exhausting, terrifying ordeals. You see the remote just out of reach. Oh god, oh god, oh god. How much will this hurt? Your world contracts to the limits of your own pain. You come to hate everyone and everything. Lying there one day, staring at the ceiling, I can remember thinking: What if this was your life, and it was never going to get better? How bitter, how cynical, how venomously ruthless would you become? How utterly indifferent to the pain of others. A man who felt like this all the time would be a woeful, a disgusting, a pitiable thing. But with nothing more to lose, nothing more to fear, he would also be a terrifying one…

6. The process of writing fiction is arguably one
of self-absorbed control; a true puppet master. This is then passed on through editors and such – what is your relationship with this process? Do you rely on the input of trusted others or do you fight for how you want it to turn out?

Perhaps I’ve just been very lucky with my editor, but I think there’s a common misconception that book editing is often a battle between the creatively-minded author and the commercially-minded editor, and that publication inevitably involves some compromise between the two. My experience is that my editor and me want exactly the same thing – to make the book as good as possible (and, secondarily but hopefully following on from that, to shift as many units as possible).

The editing process is a key opportunity to look at certain parts of your story through new eyes, make improvements and solve problems you perhaps haven’t seen because you’re just too close. You might not always agree with the change an editor suggests, but it usually has a way of focusing your attention on a problem and making you come up with an improvement of your own.

7. Your debut, The Blade Itself, is now published in eight countries, in seven languages, with seven different titles. How do you feel about the inevitable changes that this incurs – the ‘lost in translation’?

In terms of the content it’s hard to say, since I don’t speak any languages other than English at a high enough level to have much of a notion whether the translations are good or not. But clearly in terms of titling and covers there are some pretty significant changes that I can comprehend. When you first see a very different treatment of the book it can be pretty surprising, but different markets have different tastes, and you have to trust the publishers in those markets to know their business and present the books in a way that’s going to sell. Being completely honest, there’s not much other choice anyway.

8. When you end a character’s life, a creation you have perhaps incubated for years, does this element of ownership affect you at all? Do you feel a duty of care – a twinge of loss, even – or is your relationship with them purely technical?

If you do decide to kill someone off, for a reader that might seem a single moment, but as a writer it’s a decision you came to probably months before when you were first planning the book, thought about at length, developed, tried to write in the most effective way, then revised frequently over the course of months of editing. So I don’t feel there’s necessarily that emotional element involved. Nothing you could call a twinge, anyway. For me the duty of care is more towards the reader – to give them the most effective, intense, surprising experience possible. If you can help produce that strong response by killing off a character, then that character will have been very well used. Nothing to be sad about, from my point of view. Having said that, I do think that in general there are more interesting things you can do with a character than kill them off…

9. In terms of ownership, how would you react to a cinematic treatment of the trilogy (also something you have experience of) – as obviously the transference of novel to film incurs a change to the whole piece – would you be happy to let your baby go or would you retain some authority over its development?

When you sell film rights to your book, I think you do just that. It’s sold, and you have to step back, and accept that there are all kinds of tough decisions inherent in turning one thing into another that you, as the original creator, might find impossible to deal with. I think films, or any other piece of art, tend to be most effective when they’re largely the result of one person’s vision, and a film should belong to its director. I doubt it would be possible to retain any authority, but even if it was, I’m not sure it would be desirable.

10. Last Argument of Kings was recently published, wrapping up the trilogy. Is there a sense of satisfaction or a sense of what next?

The odd thing about writing is that publishing schedules can be pretty lengthy – anything from 6 to 18 months between finishing a book and seeing it on the shelves. You feel a great satisfaction when you finish the first draft, and again when you’ve completed the first edit and tightened and improved it. But the process of refinement is ongoing for quite a while, so there isn’t really that sense of putting it down, done, that a reader might have. By the time you’ve completed more editing, copy editing, and a proof read, you’re probably more than happy to wave goodbye to it. So though the third book has only just been published, strangely enough it feels like something I finished quite a while ago. Something slightly separated from me in a weird sort of way, since I’m already more than half way through the next book – a standalone this time, though set in the same world – and wrestling to make that work. So I’m very happy with the trilogy, very satisfied with how it turned out and, on the whole, the response from readers. But at the same time, yes, the question of “what next” is one that I don’t think a writer can ever escape from…

Posted in interviews by Joe Abercrombie on April 28th, 2008. Tags:

6 comments so far

  • m.q.zed says:

    Nice interview. Much more serious this one than usual.

    Loved the insight into Inquisitor Glokta’s character creation. Maybe you could write about other character’s creation process someday when you have time.

  • Great interview. Having shattered my femur at one point (only took me 12 months to walk again) I alway kind of associated with Glotka a bit more than the other characters. I Mean, I’ve got all 10 of my fingers, I’m not that good at magic, etc… etc… But being bitter and in pain, that, I’ve done before.

    On a complete side note, my Wife, who has no interest in the fantasy genre at all (I won’t share what sort of blasphemies she utters) is reading ‘The Blade Itself’, I’ll let you know what she says (if you care).

  • mq zed,
    One cannot be hilarious all the time. Occasionally would be something.

    Some readers find the descriptions of Glokta’s pain repetitive, but I hope those who’ve suffered from chronic pain themselves recognise the utter waste, tedium, and frustration of it.

  • Ady Hall says:

    I was just itching to comment on Glokta’s position at the end of LAOK – but it’s just too big a spoiler.

    Excellent interview – and wonder if there’ll be any personal experiences evident in ‘Best Served Cold’…

    Guesses anyone?

  • m.q.zed says:


    but that’s what people’s lives are, a series of repetitions. I don’t think Glotka would have been as enjoyable to read if you had written him differently.

    The character I identify the most with is West/Furious. I’m not trying to help command a war, although sometimes it feels like it. But dealing with big egos and trying to keep everyone happy just so you can do your job can be extremely stressful and frustrating. My passive/aggressive take on things make my husband joke that I might go mental one day and lose it completely. I’ll start taking kick boxing classes or something when the headaches start.

  • daft sod says:

    As a reader I tend to forget things about characters. The constant repetition of certain dispositions was not repetitive for me. It just added depth. Glokta was my favorite character anyway…

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