All fiction to some degree takes place in an invented world, with invented people doing unreal things. In a way the upside down definition may be the most useful - fantasy is books published by fantasy imprints and shelved in the fantasy sections. As far as what content makes a book a fantasy book rather than general fiction, it varies with the reader. I guess you know it when you see it. Although magic swords are often a giveaway.
This post is a part of our ongoing interview series with fantasy authors who generally write in the burgeoning genre of gritty / hard / dark epic fantasy. The series began with this book review post, and continued with interviews of George R. R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, and Mark Lawrence.
Today, I’m interviewing Joe Abercrombie. Joe is the author, most famously, of the “First Law” trilogy, and some more recent spin-offs set in that world. Joe’s writing is characterized by dark (very, very dark) humor, grit (as in dirt), and an unhealthy amount of revenge. He’s on twitter, he has a blog, and he was nice enough to agree to answer some questions from me about his writing and its relationship to law.
DH: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the collapse of the “fantasy” and “fiction” categories. Is there anything useful about the distinction? If so, what are the minimal characteristics of books that would stay on your fantasy shelf?
JA: Any question about definitions and categorisations is always a complicated one, with lots of confusions and blurry areas. All fiction to some degree takes place in an invented world, with invented people doing unreal things. In a way the upside down definition may be the most useful – fantasy is books published by fantasy imprints and shelved in the fantasy sections. As far as what content makes a book a fantasy book rather than general fiction, it varies with the reader. I guess you know it when you see it. Although magic swords are often a giveaway.
DH: One marker of the trend toward harder / darker fantasy is more fulsome world-building and world-planning. But you are well-known as a guy who hates maps (recent books excepted!) Here’s a practical question: do you sit down and think about the rules of the world before you start to write, or do you start writing and work them out as you go along?
JA: I don’t know that I’d necessarily agree with your first assertion, there. I think a marker of the trend towards harder/darker fantasy is a greater focus on character and internal life over setting and world building, certainly I see that as key in what I’m doing. But you want the backdrop to be consistent and coherent. So you have some ideas about the rules of the world. Certainly you have some strong ideas about the effect certain cultures will have on the way the characters think. That’s the kind of world building I’m most interested in, I suppose you could say, the kind that has a direct effect on the behaviour of the characters, rather than the kind that specifies exactly how many thousand years the tower of Zarb had guarded Dragonfire Pass.
DH: What do you have against maps anyway?
JA: I love maps. I have loads of them. But I don’t necessarily want to share them with the reader. I want the reader to see the action in close up, not wide shot. I want them to be with the characters, not thinking so much about the setting.
DH: Is there any civil law in your world? By that, I mean a system by which contractual breaches and torts are enforced outside of blood feuds, deeds are recorded, property disputes disposed of? What does that system look like?
JA: It depends a little on the culture. In the North there has been a relatively primitive tradition of ownership by clans, judgement by elders and chieftains, but it’s broken down during a period of sustained warfare and a new king has tried to impose a new and much more centralised system, with varying success. The Union, by contrast, has a well-established aristocracy and a complex and extensive centralising bureaucracy, although with a weak king on the throne and a lot of pressure from external threats it’s become rather a corrupt system, prone to being carved into personal fiefdoms by powerful and charismatic individuals in the government. Hardly surprising, in a way, since the whole thing has been explicitly designed to allow one man (Bayaz) to maintain control. The whole thing’s further distorted by the conflict between old power and new money, as the Union has spread to include more diverse cultures and the merchant class has gained in influence.