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Pitched Battle: Joe Abercrombie Gets Personal with "The Heroes"


Prolific and critically acclaimed writer Joe Abercrombie has garnered a wide readership for his First Law series and other fantasy novels in a relatively short time. Abercrombie has established a reputation for inhabiting complex characters whose actions aren’t always morally or ethically sound. In a sense, he’s been mapping out for fantasy a path toward gritty realism, and proven that exploring shades of gray isn’t just interesting but also vastly entertaining for readers.

His latest novel, The Heroes, takes all of the elements that characterize his other books, and places them in the microcosm of three days of pitched battles. For me, reading The Heroes was fascinating--a little like watching the brilliant battle scenes from Orson Welles’ movie Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff) combined with David G. Chandler’s classic The Campaigns of Napoleon (still the best book on the subject, in my opinion, and now available for the Kindle). The Heroes has been well-received, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly that noted "Abercrombie never glosses over a moment of the madness, passion, and horror of war, nor the tribulations that turn ordinary people into the titular heroes."

I caught up with Abercrombie via email to discuss mud, guts, blood, battle plans, and, of course, heroes... Do you study much real-world military history before writing a novel like The Heroes? Even just as a refresher course?

Joe Abercrombie: For the last ten years or so most of what I’ve read has been history, a lot of that military history from a whole range of periods, so there’s always been a lot of this stuff floating around in my mind and it’s been a big influence on my writing from the start, I’d say. That’s especially true of The Heroes, which is a story entirely about a single battle. I suppose part of the intention was to try and bridge the gap between the relatively simple, shiny, heroic portrayals of warfare we often see in epic fantasy and the much more complex, difficult, dirty, wasteful and random impression you pick up from real history. I wanted to present a realistic fantasy battle, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. So I did read a fair bit of war-based fiction and non-fiction before and during the writing of The Heroes, for sure, as well as watching quite a lot of documentary and drama on the subject... Battles, action, and the like can be tense and exciting for readers or…not so much. What’s the difference between success and failure—and what do you keep in mind about this subject while writing drafts?

Joe Abercrombie: It’s a tough one to answer, really, because there are no hard and fast rules and every good writer finds a different way to write well, and every reader will have a different idea about what is successful or not, let alone why. I guess for me the key to a good action scene is much the same as the key to any other scene, really, which is to involve the reader as closely as possible with the character, to render the character’s experience as faithfully as possible, with all the mud, pain, fear and total confusion that entails, and to make the reader feel as though they’re really experiencing those events, or getting as close as they can without being hit over the head with a mace. Ever draw out battle positions and the like, to keep it straight? How does that help beyond the obvious?

Joe Abercrombie: Absolutely, in fact The Heroes has battle maps with the developing situation at the front of each part, which were based on my own childish daubs, rendered beautiful by an artist called Dave Senior, who is a master of map-drawing. Useful for the reader, absolutely essential for the writer in a book like this. The action mostly takes place over the course of three days and within one relatively small valley, so you need to keep a tight grip on where each character is, what they’re doing, what they can see, how they’ll get from here to there, and make sure it all makes sense. If not, you can bet there’ll be someone who picks up on it. How would you define a hero?


Joe Abercrombie: I suppose that’s really the central question of the book. Epic fantasy often serves up some truly villainous villains and some utterly heroic heroes, and leaves us in little doubt about which is which. You get folks with selfless motives, who perform brave actions, and achieve glorious outcomes. I started from the standpoint that in reality very few people, if any, are heroic in every way and in every situation, but that pretty much any of us can be brave, or self-sacrificing, or noble under the right circumstances and when looked at from the right point of view. In particular I took the view that people who are very well adapted to murdering other people with edged weapons aren’t necessarily going to be contributing members of society off the battlefield. For the central characters of The Heroes, therefore, I tried to present six people who are all capable of being heroic, who all have their admirable characteristics, but are all variously cowardly, treacherous, ambitious, vain, selfish, and downright sociopathic. Hopefully that makes them interesting to read about. I wanted to pull the idea of heroism apart, see if selfish motives producing brave actions producing awful outcomes still count as heroic, or good motives carried through with cowardly actions producing positive outcomes, for that matter... What makes the characters in this novel, these heroes, stand out for you? Are any of them truly heroic?

Joe Abercrombie: They all have their moments, but at the same time none of them are admirable through and through, or anywhere close. Bremer dan Gorst, for example, is a peerless warrior whose presence at the front can turn the tide of battle, no doubt seen as a hero by many on his own side, but his motives are often utterly selfish and the outcomes of his actions are to prolong the slaughter. Curnden Craw, on the other side, is a respected veteran who’s always thinking first about doing the right thing, but his inflexible sense of honour can have terrible consequences for the people around him. For your less sympathetic characters, do you have to find something appealing about them to inhabit them and write about them? Or do you generally have more distance than that?

Joe Abercrombie: Mileage will vary, of course, but I think it would be a poor character, and perhaps an unconvincing character, that didn’t offer something appealing. I think I’d have trouble writing a character I found utterly hateful. They have to be understandable. They have to have their reasons. It often comes down to humour, for me. You can forgive a character a lot if they can make you laugh. From a sampling of The Heroes, I’d say your current fans will find much to enjoy in it. What will they find that’s perhaps different from prior books?

Joe Abercrombie: Epic fantasy, by definition, tends to sprawl over time and distance. The Heroes is the story of a single battle, mostly taking place over three days in one small valley, and so I guess you could say it becomes very densely woven—the various characters are always pretty close to each other, their paths crossing and recrossing in various different ways throughout the course of the story as they strive to variously save, destroy, befriend, betray, outwit, outmaneuver, and murder one another. You’ve had novels coming out at a pretty steady clip. Do you have much time to read? If so, any recommendations?

Joe Abercrombie: I must confess that I’m pretty feeble as a reader, and a lot of the time I used to spend reading I now spend writing, planning, thinking about writing. But of the various war-related books I read for The Heroes there’s certainly one I’d very much recommend, which was David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, an account of an American battalion in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Non-fiction from an embedded journalist but written with a novelist’s eye for language and character. What’s up next for you?

Joe Abercrombie: Already a few thousand words into the next book, another semi-standalone set in the world of The First Law, this time trying to combine fantasy with some western influences. Expect narrowed eyes, expansive skies, tough one-liners, and lots of dust...


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