Joe Abercrombie needs little introduction. He’s one of the most successful fantasy authors working today and the face of “grimdark” both for the sub-genres fans and its detractors. In this forthright interview Abercrombie attacks the concept of grimdark head on, questions fantasy fictions habit of re-writing Tolkien, and shares his thoughts on writing for young adults.
Ahimsa Kerp is the best new author of pulp inspired fantasy of the last two years. Empire of the Undead was the most compelling apocalypse novels I’ve read since The Stand. His new book, Beneath the Mantle, is a smart riff on Journey to the Centre of the World. He’sa writer to watch, but importantly, to read. ~Damien Walter
Grimdark. What is it?
Joe Abercrombie in discussion with Ahimsa Kerp
“I think any argument that splits the whole vast and varied, weird and wonderful tapestry of fantasy into two opposed camps is fundamentally dumb and doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny.”
Ahimsa Kerp (AK) – Thank you for agreeing to do this! I believe you’ve just finished edits on Half a War, the third book in your YA trilogy Shattered Sea. Congratulations! I recently read Half a King and greatly enjoyed it. And that brings me to my first question. What is your secret to writing good YA? Is it difficult to pitch your story so that it is accessible to both teens and adults? Did you ever consider including a love triangle or gimmicky voice? How beholden to tropes or sub-genres do you feel?
Joe Abercrombie (JA) – I think if there’s any secret it’s just to write very much the same way you would for an adult audience. I wasn’t necessarily trying to write something that fitted into a given category and I’m not expert at all on the current YA field, I was really just trying to write the kind of book I would have wanted to read aged 12-16, and that’s substantially very similar to what I’d want to read now. I think the thing to remember about young adults is that they’re first of all adults – just young ones. They’re dealing with big decisions and serious issues in their lives for the first time and want fiction that speaks to that. Quite apart from the fact that most YA is read by people over 18, of course. For me it was about writing from the point of view of young adult protagonists, and also writing something quicker, sharper, more focused, more compact. Also a slightly different tone with less swearing and less explicit sex and violence, but I’d like to think these are books that are just as challenging and morally complex as my adult stuff, and will work pretty well for my established adult readers.
“Ah, grimdark, grimdark, what is it? I much preferred it when it was an out and out piss-take”
AK – It must have been quite enjoyable to research a Norse-inspired world. Did you read any of the Icelandic sagas? And were there any other interesting discoveries you made that you would recommend for a de facto bibliography?
JA – I have read a fair bit of norse myth and saga in the past. For this I re-read some of the historical children’s fiction I read as a kid – Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, John Cristopher – and found a lot of it holds up surprisingly well. But also adult historical fiction by Robert Low and Bernard Cornwell, Frans Bengtsson’s brilliant faux-saga The Long Ships, a lot of non-fiction about the vikings too.
AK – Joe Abercrombie has become the face of a subgenre: the lazily denominated faux-portmanteau “grimdark.” You’ve called it unheroic fantasy, others use terms like “dark fantasy” or “scoundrel lit” or “nuanced adult fiction.” What would you say are the defining characteristics of the subgenre? Would you include a non-genre writer like Cormac Mccarthy in that conversation?
JA – Ah, grimdark, grimdark, what is it? I much preferred it when it was an out and out piss-take, an insult for stuff that was ridiculous, excessive, absurdly dark, brutal, cynical, humourless. Now some people say they love grim dark, and I never know what people are referring to when they use the word. Nay-sayers try to define everything of value out to support their argument that it’s worthless, supporters try to include everything from Game of Thrones to A Christmas Carol. It’s true that a book like Blood Meridian is a great deal grimmer, darker, bleaker and bloodier than pretty much anything you’ll find in the fantasy section. I guess what I refer to as unheroic fantasy needs unheroic characters, a cynical worldview, often a focus on character rather than setting, blurred lines between good and bad, an unflinching approach to the details of sex and violence and their consequences. Lots of the seedier side of life rather than the shiny.
AK – A common thread of unheroic fantasy writers is an interest and/or background in actual world history. Given that writers who base their stories off history tend to have darker themes, does that lend credence to the idea that grimdark is more realistic? And is that the same as saying it’s less contrived?
JA – Realism is always a tough word to use in relation to fantasy, or for that matter fiction of any kind. I’m sure much shinier and more optimistic writers have taken plenty of inspiration from history too. We’re never aiming for realism, especially when writing fantasy where we’re deliberately doing something exaggerated, larger than life, but we are perhaps aiming at something that feels in some way honest, that says something about our world as it is. And the world clearly does contain lots of darkness, violence, death, despair, filth, pain and etc. so to ignore those things, especially in a book that focuses on war and warriors and mighty struggles, can seem a little dishonest. The world clearly does contain nobility, self-sacrifice, achievement and hope and so you wouldn’t want a story that entirely elides or ignores the possibility of those things but, speaking for myself, the First Law was always intended to sit somewhat on the other side of the scales from a lot of the simpler, shinier, more heroic stuff which seemed to dominate the genre when I was growing up.
AK – A lot of the criticism of grimdark is from people who believe fiction should be escapist. There seems to be a dislike of complex things happening in their entertainment. Where do you think the idea that a work of fiction can’t be both dark AND provide escapism comes from? And how do you think it can be changed?
JA – I think there are two very different strains of criticism to be fair. One that grimdark fantasy is a debasement of a noble genre that should celebrate heroism and shiny niceness and an evil perversion of the legacy of Robert E Howard. I have, honestly, contempt for that argument. Fantasy has always contained all kinds of work from the utterly dark and shocking to the utterly heroic and predictable, and I think range and variety can never be a bad thing. One cannot have light without shadow, after all, he says pretentiously, and I think it’s hard to have an honest look at heroism without also considering the darkness. But I think there’s a much more compelling argument about whether grim dark simply revels in its own filth and violence without questioning it, and that the particular styles of filth and violence play into sexism and racism in a way that is entirely unhelpful. In essence that grim dark is simply new gritty clothes on the same old conservative horse. That I think is a criticism much more worthy of careful consideration.
“By the early 90s it felt as if a lot of people had been rewriting Lord of the Rings for a long time”
AK – When the battle lines between grimdark and high fantasy are drawn up, Professor Tolkien is understood to be on the other side, across from the forces led by you and George RR Martin. But isn’t Tolkien at least partially misrepresented? Lord of the Rings includes the corrupting and pointless death of Boromir, one the great heroes of the realm, the death of their angel-like guide (Gandalf’s resurrection notwithstanding), the corruption of Saruman (another angel-like being), and the protagonist, Frodo, ultimately failing at his mission. Even the happy wedding in Gondor meant that Arwen had lost her immortality in exchange for a relative few years of happiness. Add in Vance and Leiber and Peake, and the fantasy genre has a much darker heritage than the 1980’s would have led you to believe. All of which is to say that perhaps that the backlash against grimdark is more a product of modern sensibilities than it is a reaction to a tainting of the genre. Your thoughts?
JA – I think any argument that splits the whole vast and varied, weird and wonderful tapestry of fantasy into two opposed camps is fundamentally dumb and doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Pioneers of sword and sorcery like Howard, Vance and Leiber were often writing about quite unheroic, gritty, self-serving characters. Trace fantasy further back to, I don’t know, Beowulf and Norse Myth, and you’ll see brutality, antiheroes and withering cynicism being pretty much the historical norm. Tolkien is, for pretty much every fantasy writer, one of their cornerstone influences. I would say so and I’m sure Martin would too. Tolkien did, of course, have plenty of darkness and complexity in his work – indeed I’ve always found Saruman a lot more interesting than Gandalf and Boromir more interesting than Aragorn, precisely because of their flaws and their humanity. I’ve got nothing but love and admiration for Tolkien, I’ve got a fair bit of love for Dragonlance and David Eddings too, if it comes to that, but I think the way in which the whole genre of commercial epic fantasy came to imitate Tolkien’s template, perhaps missing a lot of the subtleties, did lead to a slightly one-noted genre in which things were safe, shiny, predictable. Also, Tolkien, for all his undoubted qualities, wasn’t good at everything. He wasn’t trying to be good at everything. No one is. So he wasn’t much of a humorist. His focus is maybe more on setting than character. His action is not particularly visceral. There weren’t a lot of female characters in his work. These aren’t necessarily criticisms, they’re just observations of where I saw opportunities to take a different, and to my mind complimentary tack, in the same way as Sergio Leone took a different tack to John Ford in making westerns. That doesn’t make Sergio Leone’s westerns a horrific debasement of John Ford’s, it makes them an utterly respectful, natural and necessary development, at least to my mind. By the early 90s it felt as if a lot of people had been rewriting Lord of the Rings for a long time. It felt like it was time to, you know, stop.
AK – What one character from another author’s work would best fit into the world of the First Law trilogy? (Personally, in a genre-mashing showdown, I’d love to see Asimov’s the Mule pitted against Glotka, Bayaz et all.)
JA – I’d be honoured to think that plenty of Martin and Moorcock’s characters would fit quite nicely in amongst mine – Tywin Lannister? Elric? Yes please. But if I had to pick one it would be Jack Vance’s crown prince of utter selfishness, Cugel the Clever, surely one of the most disgustingly compelling people ever put on the page.
AK -Thanks for taking the time to do this, Joe. I have one last question. Neil Gaiman appeared on the Simpsons, and Game of Thrones has also been spoofed. Will Joe Abercrombie ever be big enough for the Simpsons? And if so, given the choice, would you rather write an episode or appear as a guest star?
Writing an episode sounds way too much like hard work. I’ll take a cameo…