Kings and Thrones in Fantascy: An interview with Saladin Ahmed and Joe Abercrombie
by Cristina Jurado @dnazproject
It was the beginning of March in Dubai (United Arab Emirates). A cool breeze stroked the creek in which the Intercontinental Hotel was, the setting for the Dubai LitFest, one of the main cultural events in the Middle East and, certainly the high of the literary season for me. Fate, destiny, coincidence, luck or a combination of them all worked to bring together Saladin Ahmed and Joe Abercrombie to this festival. Both were announced in the beginning of the year as the authors of the next releases in Spanish for Fantascy: Throne of the Crescent Moon and Half a King were translated into Spanish. I decided to take this providential opportunity to meet them in a very noisy place, the restaurant of the hotel, and had a conversation in which we spoke about their books, about Fantasy as a genre and about their craft, among other things. Well, I really just questioned them and they very graciously answered and interacted with each other. This is the complete transcription of that meeting.
Thanks to everybody in Fantascy and Penguin Random House for helping organizing the encounter and, specially, thanks to Saladin and Joe, Joe and Saladin, for your interesting, captivating, intelligent and funny talk.
Cristina Jurado: Thank you so much for being here with me, Saladin Ahmed and Joe Abercrombie. I just want to start with a brief description of the novels that are going to come out in Spanish in the next few months. In the case of Joe Abercrombie is Half a King (Medio Rey) and I want you to describe briefly what is it about.
Joe Abercrombie: Sure! Half a King is, I guess, a young adult (YA) fantasy novel set in a Viking-style world. It follows a character called prince Yarvi, who is the second son of a king. He is been born with a malformed hand, so he is unable to hold a shield, or to row, or do many things that are expected of a man in this society -this warrior society-, which he finds himself in. He is being trained to become a minister, which is a kind of adviser, a keeper of knowledge, a healer, traditionally a female role and quite an important one. But when his father and brother are horribly killed, he is forced to become a king himself, and he tries to use his skill of cunning knowledge and expertise to overcome so much more physical enemies.
CJ: Now we are going to proceed with Saladin Ahmed. His novel is called Throne of the Crescent Moon (El trono de la luna creciente). I´m going to let him present his novel.
Saladin Ahmed: Throne of the Crescent Moon is an adventure fantasy novel that it takes its inspiration, rather than in European History, in Islamic History. It is set in an invented made-up world. That world bears a resemblance to medieval Bagdad rather than Medieval Britain. It stars Adoulla Makhslood, who is an old man who´s profession is being a monster hunter. He finds himself at the end of his life, ready to retire, and yet, as things often go, he cannot quite retire. There are still dire forces threatening the city that he loves, so he finds himself at one last quest. As his aging body and tired soul are having to mobilize themselves, he faces this last challenge.
CJ: One of the questions I want to ask you both, as writers of fantasy is, why fantasy? And why epic fantasy?
JA: Epic fantasy sells very well (laughter). It´s also what I´ve read a lot as a kid. I think we all, as writers, tend to write, at least to begin with, the kind of thing we like to read, the kind of thing we enjoy reading. For me, I grew up reading a lot of fantasy. I played a lot of role online games. I became quite steep in fantasy, I suppose, on the shining, heroic, quite predictable kind, and felt the lack of some of the darkness, and grits, and counter-focused elements you find in noir pictures and westerns, and some of the other books I was reading. So I suppose, for me, writing epic fantasy, it´s being about bringing some of that noir sensibility, the more modern style approach, the side-focus on character, the grittier and the more anti-heroic, more morally ambiguous characters into that epic fantasy setting. That just what´s always interested me.
Historical fiction needs a lot more research and that´s hard work and I would rather avoid hard work as much as I can. I think that fantasy gives you the opportunity, as well, to combine a lot of different influences and ideas, different historical periods in all kinds of different ways. If you want to write a slightly western-style scene, or sequence, or book within a fantasy setting, you can do that. If you want to write more like a romance, you can do that. It´s very flexible and fluid, and gives you all kinds of opportunities. You don´t have to necessarily sit down and very punctiliously and carefully work out exactly how the world was, exactly what kind of windows had, or what kind of trousers people would wear in a given time period. You can just throw different combinations together in whatever way suits the drama of a scene. You don´t have to do a lot of research.
SA: For me, Throne of the Crescent Moon was almost inevitably the first novel I was going to write because, like Joe, I grew up reading a lot of heroic fantasy, playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and stuff like that. It really shaped the way I see narrative and the kind of archetypes that I´m attracted to. Somehow, like Joe also, when we write, we sort of write what we love reading. But we write modifying it according to who we become since those golden days of reading. For me, one of the great lacks that I saw in epic fantasy was a concern with settings other than a version of Medieval Europe. Because of my background (I´m of Arab descent), very naturally I started imagining what these seem archetypes of the virtuous holy warrior, and the cranky old wizard, all these sort of familiar figures, and thinking what those would look like in a more Arab and Islamic context. And also became an opportunity, because of that, to start to question not just the setting, the sort of superficial furniture, but also the kind of values that that would entail. So, this is why my protagonist is an old man, who is sort of protecting his homeland, rather than a young man who is going out and exploring new worlds. Arab culture is for a number of reasons, and especially in the 20th century, very concern with questions of homeland and defending tradition, rather than breaking it. That was very important to me, to convey in this mode that I love so much, and other things that for me are just personal poetically, not so much about the Arab setting. I´m a leftist kind of guy in my political outlook, so I got tired of reading books that were all about princesses and kings and nobility. I wanted to think about “what if the guy hunting the monsters and going on a quest was essentially the equivalent of the garbage man,” except of his working class job is killing monsters. Those intersections, the clash of cultural difference and geographical difference, for me fuse, very intuitively, with my geeky love of the more traditional fantasy.
CJ: I want to talk about the violence in epic fantasy. I guess it´s part of the genre, and it makes it incredibly attractive to young audiences. What do you think that violence brings into the stories: credibility?, a reflection of the times?, or just sells adrenaline?
SA: For me, this is a fraud question from the beginning because I´m a lefty but also something close to a pacifist lefty. I don´t like violence and I don´t think that violence is a very sustainable way to solve problems. And, yet, we have this inheritance of how problems are solved in genre fiction, whether is superheroes, or space battles, or knights and dragons: you solve problems by killing and blowing things up. It was like squaring a circle for me to put my personal attitude towards violence side by side with the fact that I hate real world violence, but I love watching martial arts film where one guy just bits the shit out of thirty other guys in the room. I had a bit of a cheat in my book, most of the targets and violence are essentially unanimated monsters. I have to think, as I get more and more further into the series, about more violence between people, and the cost of it. My main character is a very weary figure and he is weary partially because of the blood and killing that he has seen in his life. It was important to me to trying to maintain the action, dazzling fight scenes and, at the same time, to question where all that leads. There are some quite bloody scenes, although my novel is generally suitable for a thirteen year old. I hope those bloody scenes didn´t come cheaply, that we can look at this violence and be entertain by it, and let if rise our adrenaline as you said, but we need to think about what it really means if you are in a culture that is solving problems with swords and arrows.
JA: I suppose epic fantasy is a very violent genre, it always has been. It usually takes place against a kind of background of warfare. It often features violent people as the main characters: in The Fellowship of the Ring there are warriors, fighters, killers… some other characters, like Aragorn, is a swordsman first of all, a fighter. He fights his way through a lot of orcs, if those were people, one would be horrified. I suppose epic violence is very violent, but it concentrates on the outside, on the heroic and “shinning” aspects. I was always interested in what that contrasted with how is war in the real world, how damaging violence is for both the victims and the perpetrators, how often those who come back from war come back very damaged, very unlikely to become noble kings and good husbands, specially if they are very good at killing people with weapons. I was very interested in investigating that, looking some characters who feel very deeply the consequences of some of the violence, both they are committing now, and what they´ve done in the past. They were struggling with what they have done, unable to escape the consequences of what they´ve done. Time often gives us magical ways to escape consequences, to heal wounds, to repair damage and I wanted to look at characters who didn´t have that option, who caused a lot of damage and were very damaged themselves. I wanted the violence to feel very real, visceral, involving and personal. I didn´t want to look from above, from a distance, and describe simply the big battle scene from the top of the tower. I wanted to feel like if you were really in the midst of it. I tried to bear in mind that kind of simultaneous attraction and repulsion we feel towards violence: we are fascinated by it, but we are also horrified by it. I tried to look at that, and be as honest as I could about it.
CJ: When I read Half a King and Throne of the Crescent Moon I found some similarities, not just because they are both fantasy, possibly epic fantasy,…
JA: And because they are superbly well written, of course.
SA: Yes, yes.
CJ: …because they are superbly well written, of course, and both writers are equally attractive
JA & SA: Oh, yes, yes
JA: … as it happens
CJ: I thought it was very interesting, even though the main character in both books have not the same age, but we have Yarvi in Half a King, which is a main character- and we have Rasheed in Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is the second most important character, a youngster also in the process of learning. As you mentioned before, Saladin, I though that could appeal to younger audiences. Both characters are examples of bildungsroman, the initiation kind of novel. I want you to comment on the importance of this initiation in the novels.
JA: In Half a King the idea was to write a novel that was partially aimed at younger readers. Young adult fiction is became a very wide canvass. There are all kinds of work in there, all kinds of genres and types. The one thing you really have to have in a YA book is a YA protagonist. I´ve read a lot of used-up, old world-weary cynical characters, autobiographical I suppose you can say. During my carrier, my adult books tend to feature some of those types of characters, so I was quite interested in trying a character who was almost “unformed”, who was coming of age, who was finding about the world, and was perhaps a little cloistered. It was quite an interesting experience for me. When you write a book that is from the point of view of a character who is fifteen or sixteen years old or so, inevitably there is a coming to age quality to it. This particular character goes through quite an ordeal. He has to find his own way of negotiating very dangerous and tough situations and, hopefully, to learn his own road to adulthood, and take responsibility for his own life. I think that´s a kind of very classic story, and one that we are always interested in hearing again, with slightly new “furniture”, with a new type of character and a new angle. I guess the same way the First Law book was my take on epic fantasy, Half a King is really my take on that coming-of-age tale.
SA: For me it´s interesting because, tonally, Throne of the Crescent Moon could easily be a YA novel, except for the fact that the main character is an old man. Almost everything else about the book could fit very neatly into the subgenre of YA fantasy. Rasheed, who is the main character’s assistant -his partner- is kind of the second character in terms of the amount of page time he gets. He is a young man in his teens, literally cloistered –he grew up in a monastic order-. He is just coming of age in this city full of, to his eyes, sin and decadence and all this. He is starting to wrangle with his sexuality and all of these thing he didn´t have to face growing up in this kind of warrior monk monastery. Having him in there, for me, was almost a subversion; traditionally, he would be the main character. This young man would be the focus of the story. My main character –Adoulla- would be the kind of advising wizard. Instead, my aim was to focus on the old wizard who has seen a lot, and to have this other character to provide a counterpoint to his world-weary-bitter and tired voice. There are a couple of other characters who serve that function -Zamia is another one-. The bildungsroman was not making this book at this point, then. There is this character from a bildungsroman fantasy who happens to be in this other sort of story. In another world, Rasheed would be the main character of his own book, but this is not the story I wanted to write.
JA: That duality, pairings that represent the two sides of the same cord, like Holmes & Watson –the genius who lacks the humanity, and Watson provides the humanity Holmes could never have-. Yarvi again has some old guys around him, who provide that aging experience and old weary voice. He is the essential naive voice, if you like. Similar in the First Law book, without even thinking about it, I had a young guy who was counterbalanced by a sort of older mentor. It is a timeless set up in a way, that pairing, that complements each other.
CJ: One of the things that I also like about both your stories is that they have, as you Saladin mentioned in your presentation before, strong female characters. Some of them are quite different that the stereotype. I can think of Laithlin, the mother of Yarvi. I thought it was a lot of like Cercei in certain ways. Also Mother Gundring, who was a presence throughout the story even though she wasn´t there, but she was. In the case of Throne of the Crescent Moon, of course I thought of Zamia, this wonderful character -a shape-shifter- that can become a lion. She is also very important in the plot. Why did you choose to make those characters like that? What did you wanted to achieve?
SA: As I was saying throughout the presentation here at the Festival, that´s an archetype, that kind of woman warrior like Xena or whatever warrior princess archetype, this woman who can beat up any men around her, like also in martial art movies. Those movies are a big influence in the action side of this novel. That kind of kick-butt women characters is a statement. It was inevitable that one of those types was going to end up in my book. In my particular instance though, having that kind of character also served an important purpose that is part of the whole ethos of what I am doing in this book, which is to dismantle stereotypes that existed in the West about Arabs and about the Islam. With the figure of Zamia, in particular, it was about stereotypes about Arab women, and about what the role of Arab women is, how they conduct themselves. So I just had the most kick-ass character in the book, a character that can literally tear a guy to shreds, who was going to be this teen Arab girl. That was wired there almost from the beginning. I had this couple of characters that I knew they would be there from the beginning, and she was one of them. There is also a prominent older woman character, Litaz, who is an alchemist of sorts. She really is in there because… she came out of the story but, when I looked back and analyzed what I was doing, which I wasn´t doing consciously at that time, she is in there as a kind of scientist figure in the novel. She is the most rationalist of any of the characters. She is in that role partially, I came to realize, as a counterpoint to the notion of female characters as the emotional sounding board for the novel, and the embodiment of the novel´s heart rather than its brain, if that makes sense. Having a character that coldly measures everything and reduces everything around her to a mathematical formula, I think is much more powerful if it´s a woman, because we are not used to thinking of women as that sort of figure. If anything, she is the book´s Mr. Spock. I think there is something interesting when you have a woman in that role rather than a man.
JA: When I wrote the First Law, without thinking about it, I reached for a very patriarchal faux-medieval sort of epic fantasy society. Most of my characters were men. I was minding male archetypes, I guess, like the wizard, the boy who will be a king, and the man of honor, and that kind of things. I made them all male characters. I realized overtime I´m not done too well in terms of female characters, and in terms, generally, of just having women present in the story, even in the background. So when it came the time to write in a new world, I was quite keen that it should be some mechanics within that world that would very easily allow me to have some women in the story.
CJ: Like Sumael, for example?
JA: Exactly, yes. I hit this idea of having the warrior´s sphere and the sphere of work, and war being the male areas of control. And women have always been given the responsibility of the households and wear the key of that household around the neck. The household has grown and has become the whole area of property, and money and currency. The Queen is responsible for her husband´s property, so that makes her responsible for the money of the kingdom: she is become the chancellor and the supreme merchant. So merchants and ships captains are often female, a lot of crafts people are female, because they´ve taken over their husband´s businesses and things like this. Half a king has a lot of variety. I wanted to write many types of different women in the story, if I could. I´ve done some quite “male” women before, some badass women if you like, which is great. I love those kind, but I wanted as much variety as I could. This story is happening at a time when money is becoming more and more important, as it was in the Viking world. As the Vikings expanded into Asia, they brought a lot of silver home. Therefore, I wanted female power, and the power of money to be becoming much more powerful, almost unbalancing the nature of the culture. Forces acting against that are almost what set the story into motion. So I have Laithlin, the mother of the main character, who is quite cold, calculating, very cunning merchant, a banker really. She is becoming very powerful by virtue of her innovation in money. You also have a ship´s captain, who becomes very important over the life of the main character.
CJ: I cannot pronounce the name.
JA: Shadikshirram! She is a very dangerous and quite physically powerful woman. There is also Sumael, who is a navigator and is very valued, and effective, and important because of her ability to read the stars and find a way from one place to another, which is quite a key and limited skill. I really was keen to get just as much variety as possible. The next book has, again, a very different range of women, with a woman in the central role this time: a girl who is very keen to try to impose herself in the male sphere and became a warrior. I was interested from the start to make sure this time around I got a good range of women in there.
CJ: What is it with people and disabilities, either physical or emotional? Well, often times when there is a physical disability there is also an emotional one attached to it. Why is in the stories?
JA: I´ve always been fascinated, I supposed because a lot of the fantasy I read as a kid featured a lot of very perfect heroes, a lot of physically perfect and emotionally very sure of themselves and confident heroes. I guess I thought people who have fought a lot of battles are likely to be to some degree injured or left emotionally or physically very damaged by their experiences. I wanted my characters to reflect that. I often have very scared, very emotionally and physically scared characters. I thought that there are people in real life who struggle with disabilities of all kinds, constantly. There would probably be many more or so in a medieval style society, if you like. Many of these characters were know to be born like that, in one way or another. There are quite few very noted Viking figures, which were disabled one way of another. There is a famous figure called “Ivan the boneless”. Nobody knows why he was called “the boneless”. He was supposed to be carried into battle on a shield. He couldn´t walk properly but he was an extremely powerful and important figure. So there is a good tradition there, and an interesting area to mind. I´m interested in the way people who are not perfect, who don´t have all the advantages, make themselves known and have a big impact in the world, maybe through means that wouldn´t be considered normal in that culture. I´ve always been fascinated by those kinds of people and I feel we don´t see enough of them in fantasy. So I wanted to put in a few myself.
CJ: (To Saladin) Would you consider the main character in The Throne of the Crescent Moon, emotionally wounded?
SA: Yes, I would. His parents died a violent death like in Batman. His physical exhaustion was a pretty big thing for me. I´m asthmatic, I get wheezing easily, I was a geeky kind of kid in that way. As Joe said, so often in fight scenes there is this gleaming well-oiled muscled Hero who swings a sword for hours without tiring. I´ve got a couple of characters like that in there, but my main character´s physical exhaustion was a very big thing that I wanted to convey. He spends a lot out of the book physically winded, the fat old guy walking up the hill, he has to stop to catch his breath and he might get killed when he is doing that. The toll that Adoulla represents is a physical and certainly an emotional one: from a lifetime of seen people die around him and killing some people, he has what we called now PTD (Post-Traumatic Disorder). He is trying to get some distance from that life and some peace. There are also minor characters that are physically and traditionally disable figures in that society because they are very prominent figures in the Arabian Nights, which is a very big influence on the book. Partially because of what Joe was saying, there was a lot more disability that had no –I don't want to say cure-… there was no means of dealing with that physical disability. Many conditions that now may be treated early on …
JA: Like asthma?
SA: Yes, like asthma or just all sorts of things. Those figures are going to be actually fairly large in certain percentages of the population. People are going to get ill and that illness leaves a physical mark, a toll on the body in a pre-industrial era in a way that doesn´t probably so much today. The cities in the Arabian Nights are full of one-legged guys or one-eyed women or whatever. Those figures are not necessarily at the center of the novel, they are a lot of Adoulla´s friends –he is a street guy- have some sort of physical disability of one sort or another.
CJ: Let´s talk a little bit about the writing craft. I want to know about the process that you follow to write your work, if you write outlines, or character cards, whatever is interesting about the process of writing in your case.
SA: I have the limited experience of only having one novel under my belt and having struggle mildly with the second one. I did outlined quite extensively. Literary fiction differs from genre fiction that the latest has such a heavy emphasis in the plot. I don´t know many genre writers who don´t outline in some way or another, just because there is so much invested in the building of suspense in the structure, what happened before what happens, the characters have to go here before they can find this thing, and they need to do this… it´s much more of an emphasis in fantasy that it is in, let´s say, traditional literary fiction. If one is writing a genre novel, and unless you are one of those very exceptional rare people who can just have them pour from of them, I think that outlining is pretty essential to the craft. I do a lot of outlining and also a lot of deleting, probably more that what it is healthy. I´m a poet by training, actually, so I get very perfectionist about each line and paragraph and how they connect together. I tend to just scrap things when they are not working. I edit as I write, essentially. When my editor bought the novel, this is one of the things she remarked. She said “I´m so glad I won´t have to edit this”. She was pretty happy with the level of polish. That´s because it takes me forever to write: I got three, or four, or five drafts of a paragraph, scraped them; three, or four, or five drafts of a chapter, scraped them, before I actually get down what I need. My advice is, don´t do that, because it would take you four years to write a novel that could take you a year, otherwise.
JA: My process developed a lot and tends to be a little different with each book. I was a very exhaustive planner. I wouldn´t start any book without planning any more than I wouldn't start a house without a plan, the chance of a dangerous collapse was high. So a plan is always a good thing to have. You can always move off the plan later, if better ideas occur. But without a plan you never know where you are going to end up. I plan quite carefully. With these books a started planning a little less exhaustively. I tend to start with a good idea of where the book is going, breaking it up into parts and, then, I plan each part as I get to it. By the time I get to the start of that part, I usually have a much better idea who the characters are, how the relationships are developing, what´s making better sense so I can plan more tiredly as I come into it, imagining the whole thing at once. It´s easy to throttle a project by planning it too much. It´s nice to start writing and, hopefully, get some excitement about what you are doing, get a feel for what your doing, let the characters talk to each other and develop a little bit so you feel “Ok!, This is going to work. I like the feeling of this”. And then, when you start planning with that in mind, it´s a bit more vivid, more vibrant and lively. So I try to let the writing and the planning to work together a bit more, these days. Beyond that, what can I say? I think everyone has to work out the right process for them.
SA: I would like to say, for the aspiring writers out there that, in particular in fantasy… I started to freelance editing occasionally as a side line, and I see a number of unpublished novels from aspiring writers, and a great many of them read like rings of notes that have been dumped into a novel-like shape. I think that comes from, essentially, people imitating Tolkien, and feeling like they need to do all of this world building, like they need to have all. You have a handful of authors who have an entire language mapped out or a map with every town and city for the whole world, even though the action takes places in this much of the map, and yet they haven´t written a lot of actual interaction between characters or not a lot of a plot happening. Having a skeletal plan at least, a skeletal outline, is close to essential for most of beginner writers because, I think Joe is right, you can get very bought down in that kind of planning, and loose the joy that can generate the energy when you are actually writing. I have a very specific tip that it worked for me and that I´ve seen it work for other writers-another writer once gave to me- which is: write the first three chapters of your book and, then, write the last chapter. Like that, you know where this is going and, of course it will change, of course it won´t not stay the same, but you´ve got an end point and you´ve got your beginning point: you are building a bridge. It´s a trick and it won´t work for everybody, but it´s worth trying.
JA: I did that almost without thinking about it, I think, not when I was writing the first book but, as I was starting to write the second book, I kept having ideas about what the final few scenes might be. Because when you are suddenly grit to it, here there is another dialog and another and another… things start spilling, like dominos falling, I just typed out a few paragraphs of a scene until I got all bored, but then the end will start to develop and, by the time I got to the end, I actually have written pretty much the last ten to five chapters. They needed tweaking and changing but, basically, it was all there. Again, I think that´s an excelent advice, because, if you know what the end is going to be, if you know where the end is, in a way that dictates the rest of the book.
CJ: What do you think the Spanish audience can get out of your books?
JA: I would hope that Spanish audiences would get what any other audience would get, which is a thrilling mixture of page-turning adventure, vivid characters, thrilling action, roaring excitement, little bit of sex…
CJ: And sex?
JA: In the YA books obviously you don´t have too much explicit sex but a little light romance, some nuzzling, perhaps. Just a good story: some shocks, some twists, some surprises, something page turning and exciting with a few humor on the way. That´s what I would hope for.
SA: You forgot modesty (laughing).
JA: I´m the very God of humility.
SA: Like Joe, one hopes that the story that is been told can transcend languages. I hope that what English readers have told me, what they found there, this interesting world with characters that they want to continue living with, a very exciting plot, and fun fighting scenes, the traditional staff of fantasy novels. Particular to the Spanish audience would be the influence of Arab culture and civilization which, of course, is a big part of the history of Spain. Maybe Spanish speaking readers generally, but particularly the readers from Spain, might find some sort of reflections of architecture, the long cultural shadow of the Moorish Empire. You´ll see some neat reflections of that in what is still a very exciting– noir fantasy novel.
CJ: To end this wonderful conversation, Joe, is there anything you want to ask Saladin?
JA: When is your second book coming out?
SA: I knew you were going to do that (laughing). 2016 in English, at least, in the beginning of the year. And hopefully, not too long in Spanish.
CJ: Great! And is there anything you want to ask Joe?
SA: How did you get so handsome?
JA: (Laughing) It´s nothing special, just seven or eight hours in the gym, it´s eating carefully, is a crippling skin care regime… all those things. Careful shaving! I spend two to three hours a day shaving
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