James Barclay Interview
You all know by now that James Barclay has become one of our favorite authors. Action. Character. Tragedy. Humor. Love. He somehow manages to blend all these themes perfectly. So when we got the opportunity to interview James, we jumped on it with fanboy glee.
So here you have it…
1. Hello there, James. Glad to have you here at our illustrious blog. Our tradition here at EBR is to give the authors we are interviewing a chance to brag. So let loose, James. Tell us what makes you and your novels awesome.
Hello. It’s lovely to be here and sit for a while where I normally drop in only too briefly. Brag, eh? Well, you know how we authors hate to talk about ourselves in any but the most self-deprecating ways but I’ll do my best.
It’s like this. My books are awesome (good word, that) because they’re fantastically exciting heroic action fantasy thrillers and because they are so much more than fantastically exciting heroic action fantasy thrillers. That’s (partly) because every blow in every fight lands in one of my readers’ hearts. And THAT’s because there is a moment, in every Raven reader’s journey, when it dawns on them that they really, really care. They feel like they are reading about family and that makes the wounds hurt, the tears sting and the laughter the purest of releases. And there is nothing they can do about it. (And can I just say at this point for those of you who didn’t wait until that happened, it is absolutely your loss. Absolutely.)
All this means that I am not awesome. The awesome people are the readers who get The Raven. Get the facts that while they are extraordinary individuals, they are prey to the same things as the rest of us; love, loss, grief, fear, laughter. They bicker, they moan, they fight and they would die for those they love. And in amongst all that, they struggle to save their world for the ungrateful, the unborn and the unworthy. This is what heroes do.
Ah, now that means The Raven are awesome, doesn’t it? And I created them. So that makes me awesome too, doesn’t it? Excellent. Then all is well with the world.
2. We’ll start with some easy questions before we put your feet to the branding irons. When was it that you realized you wanted to be an author?
I was eleven. A tender age indeed but it was then that I made both my career choices. Actor and/or writer. Simple really and a triumph of youthful optimism over common sense. On the other hand, since I’ve now published ten novels and two novellas plus just recently appeared in a feature film, it all makes perfect sense.
3. Give our readers a little back-story on how you got published.
You have to understand that I have always loved writing stories; right from infant school, as soon as I could write. So a back story could be a gargantuan exercise, a bit like the long form version of Marx’s ‘Capital’. So I tell you what, I’ll start when I was sixteen and began to take it all rather seriously.
It was at that time that I began to write the most horrific derivative bunch of toss. Some might say I never stopped doing so but they are few and even now, they are being hunted down. I wrote a novella length thing for an English project and I was in competition with my mates for body count. Next was a pompous fantasy/sci-fi fusion for another school-based project and following that a proper novel length piece that was really a long Star Trek episode. I mention all these because within them are the germs of the character and action-driven novels I eventually published. And to point out that, at sixteen I was an embarrassing distance from being publishable.
Happily, I can fast forward to the time it became apparent that The Raven was a proper idea, worthy of expansion and eminently publishable so long as I could imbue the story with enough quality and other writerly stuff like plot, character and a coherent narrative structure. It’s no secret that the genesis of The Raven was table-top dice-based fantasy role playing and readers of Dawnthief will no doubt sense that though it is not apparent (in my mind anyway) in Noonshade and beyond.
I remember very well, my twenties and the various iterations of Raven novel ideas and how they began as a sort of comedic entity shot through with horrible violence and ended up the grumpy but magnificent world-savers we know and love. I submitted Dawnthief all over the place, along with much other work, and have many a rejection slip to show for it.
Mine was the classic patience and belief journey and it was not until I submitted to Gollancz the first time that hope was truly kindled. Even then, the comments were not wholly positive and amounted to a rejection with an invitation to resubmit. ‘The idea is fine.’ I was told. ‘But the book is like a skeleton with no flesh on the bones. The world is incomplete and there is no notion of existence beyond the sphere of the main characters.’
That is not a direct quote but it sums up the conversation pretty well, I think. But I took it as massive encouragement and to cut a long back story slightly shorter, I worked my arse off to improve what I had and nearly did it second time around. Third time around, I got the call every aspiring author dreams of. I only filled up when I saw Dawnthief on the shelf for the first time. That’s the moment when you know it’s all for real. That was 1999.
4. Elves. We typically hate them. For whatever reason, yours don’t rub us the wrong way. Lately there seems to be a collective eye-roll when elves are mentioned in the synopsis of a novel. Why did you personally decide to go with elves in your Raven stories, and why start another series that focuses on them?
I don’t think I ever thought about not going with elves. They were present in much of the stuff I read as a youth and were always there, irritating the crap out of my characters in role playing games so to me, they’re part of the family.
I also didn’t ever think: “Hmm. Got elves here, I really need to make them different.” They just came out as they came out. Now of course, they are different from the more classical ideals of the trope and I think that has helped me a great deal because people aren’t reading about the hoppity, skippety, portentous-speaking, effeminate horse-riders they are used to.
But I think the key to writing a well-worn trope like elves is not to keep on reminding people they are elves. You have to remember that they are as unremarkable in the fantasy worlds they inhabit as are humans. So readers find out about them by degrees just like any other character. And, in the same way I don’t remind you a human doesn’t have pointed ears, I don’t remind you that an elf does. My elves are different by dint of their culture, their homeland and their religion. Just like humans, then.
As for the Elves series well, for every reader who cannot bear our faerie cousins appearing in a fantasy novel, there is another who cannot get enough quality work about them. This was of course of interest to the commercial side of the Barclay/Gollancz partnership. There’s more to it than that, mind you. The elves of Calaius have been a fascination to many of The Raven’s readers, particularly the TaiGethen but for the whole elven cultural package too. And I have grown to love them and have wanted to write more about them for years.
And why not? Rain-forest dwelling, isolationist and super-religious beings liable to remove your liver and show it to you before you know you’ve been attacked are fascinating on many levels.
They have complex societal and religious structures tied to the rain forest and what it gives them. They are subdivided into ‘threads’, each of which has a different typical lifespan and this has been the seat of every inter-racial problem they have ever experienced. The protectors of their faith, the TaiGethen, are an elite fighting force like no other in fantasy and every action they take is in the name of their god.
They are an incredibly proud and ancient people who cannot quite reconcile themselves to their own internal problems. And then some idiot goes and invites humans in to shift the balance of power. And shift it they do.
Enough of that. Suffice to say that I think my elves are a genuine breath of fresh air in the genre. The first Elves book, Once Walked With Gods, is my best-selling trade paperback so far. That’s because it’s really, really bloody good, by the way.
5. How has the reception been to your release of novels here in the US? Why did it take so long for them to make their way over here?
It’s been really positive, thanks. The Chronicles trilogy sold very well and was positively reviewed by some exceptional review sites. Can’t think of any particular names off-hand… I’ve had great feedback from readers too and that is particularly gratifying. Of course we could always sell more and I firmly believe it is incumbent on every man, woman and child in your vast and magnificent country to furnish themselves with Chronicles novels. The Legends series is only just coming out now so it’s too early to say if they’ll repeat the goodness; but if the early reviews, and Raymond Swanland’s astonishingly fine covers are indicators, then we should do very nicely indeed.
Why did it take so long? I haven’t a clue. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Sometimes I think books slip between the cracks in the pavement however well they do in other countries and such it was with mine. That’s life. I know that Lou Anders at Pyr Books was surprised to find the rights still available and I’m really grateful to him for getting them on US shelves. Sure I could have wished to have been published in the US ten years ago but then I’d not be working with Lou Anders and frankly, that was worth waiting for.
6. In a similar vein, why oh why aren’t your Ascendants of Estorea novels here in the US? Can our US readers expect them anytime soon?
I think with the Ascendants the scene is a little different. I know editors in the US looked favorably on them when they were first written but the sheer size was off-putting – don’t forget they would have been my first books published in the US and would have been a tough sell. The first book is three hundred thousand words long and that would have represented a major leap of faith.
If the Raven sell well enough through Pyr then maybe they’ll want the Ascendants too but that’s in the lap of the gods and Lou Anders. Is that tautological? Probably. Anyway, I do hope US reader get the chance to see the Ascendants. I’m immensely proud of those two books – about the birth of magic in a Roman-esque empire teetering on the brink of implosion, and manifesting itself in four young people – and again they’ve garnered plenty of praise over here in the UK.
We’ll just have to wait and see.
7. How far ahead do you plan novels? Your Elves series is going strong in the UK, but have you thought past it at all?
Generally speaking, by the time I’m in the final throes of a series, I’ve got firm ideas and a proposal for new novels, series, whatever. Right now, I’ve got many notions running around in my head. Some are stand-alone and others are multi-book sequences. But I don’t spend too much time agonizing over these things when I’m bang in the middle of a series like now. Ideas suggest themselves and I write them down. There, they ferment away and some demonstrate great potential while others dissolve or are subsumed into other, better notions.
By the way, I’m diversifying slightly as well. I’ve got a young adult trilogy out on proposal at the moment and we’ll see what comes of it. I’ve many other YA ideas too right now which is a good thing. They’re all within the broad church of our magnificent genre but more contemporary in nature.
8. What do you consider your greatest weakness as an author?
I’ve always had this tendency to charge into drafting a novel before I’ve tied down enough of the direction, plot, character development and all that stuff. Once or twice it has worked spectacularly well but more often than not, the opposite is true. I’d like to tell you that I’ve eradicated it from my working life but that would be a massive lie.
The first Elves book was, I thought, going terribly well and then I read a good chunk of the draft and had to start from scratch because it just wasn’t working. The same happened with the second book. I think it stems from me being able, in the past, to hold so much more in my head in terms of the complexities of a novel and now I can’t do that nearly so well.
The positive I take from it is that, in the past, I might have tried to mould what I had into something acceptable and then have an almighty struggle come editing and revising to make the book right. These days, painful though it is, I’ll stop, file the original under ‘utter bollocks’ and start again to ensure the result is of far higher quality from the first completed draft. It saves a lot of time (and certainly a lot of hassle) in the long run but at the time, it hurts baaaad.
9. Who do you consider your main influences?
First up has to be David Gemmell. First I was a fan devouring every book and later, hugely fortunately, a very good friend of his. We spent many a fabulous hour jawing away over things like the nature of heroism, how to make fights better, ways to develop character and the state of anything and everything. His attitude to work and his fans, his methods and his sheer professionalism have affected me greatly. I will be aspiring to his heights in all of these things forever.
The other main one is not a who, it is a single book. It’s ‘The Legacy of Heorot’ by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes. Bloody hell, what a book and what an influence it had. For me, this is the only text book you need on how to write character driven action novels in probably any genre. If you want to write that sort of stuff, then once you’ve read my books (having bought a pristine set), then go get the source text. It sets the bar high, very high.
Inevitably, all my influences stem from my formative years and from before I began to write novels with a ghost of a chance of being published. I don’t feel I’m influenced by any of my contemporaries. For those I rate highly, I reserve emotions such as jealousy, awe and massive respect.
10. When you aren’t writing or planning your next novel—we know right? How dare you do anything but write!—what occupies your time?
The demands on my time are many and various. Number one is my son, Oscar, who is four in January. Watching him learn, develop and grow, and engaging in all his play and his imagination is simply joyful. For another, I’m chief cook in the house and get bored of recipes easily so I like to experiment if I get the time. Then there’s the dog. She’s sitting with her chin on my thigh at the moment and if I should misspell a word anytime, it’ll be because she’s nudged my arm for some attention.
Because I’m nearly middle aged, I do like pottering around in the garden and because we own an old house, there is an endless list of repairs and the like to keep the place upright and passably smart.
Increasingly rarely now, I play computer games. I’m a PC gamer though Oscar and I muck about on the X-Box Kinect and the Wii from time to time. Nothing beats a quality shooter and of course, the daddy of them is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. When the elves book is done, I’ll go back and play that again, then play its slightly lesser sibling before charging into book three (see question 8 above).
I watch TV but only either late at night or at lunchtime when I get to catch up a little bit with stuff like Stargate Universe and The Walking Dead. I hardly read at all… only for research these days.
The fact is that fatherhood is the dominating part of my life after the day’s work is done and quite frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
11. You’re in a bookstore, in the SF&F section, and a customer mistakes you for an employee. He/She asks you to recommend a novel. You can’t recommend your own novels (because OBVIOUSLY the customer has read them all). What book/series do you recommend?
The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss. Beautifully written.
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch. Just brilliant.
The Troy Trilogy – David Gemmell. The man at his very best and written just before he died (indeed, the third book was co-written by his amazing wife, Stella after his death).
Germinal – Emile Zola. It is an utterly gripping, terribly depressing and achingly brilliant novel about the effects of a strike on a poverty-stricken mining community in northern France under the second empire. Right, not SF&F but there is more to life and this book, written in 1885, is extraordinary.
12. What do we have to do to have cameos in your next book where we die violent deaths?
You want that? You got it. All you have to do is furnish me with your ideal fantasy versions of your names in the style of those already in The Raven and I’ll do the rest. That’s you, the Elitist crew, not the earth’s population in general.
13. Again, James, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. As always, it has been a pleasure. Any last words for the readers?
Yes I have. In one way only, I want to be like JK Rowling and find it easier to create a list of those who haven’t read my books rather than the lengthier one of those who have. So go and buy my books and then make all your friends do likewise (and their friends and so on and so forth). Much appreciated.
Seriously though, this genre is full of richness and talent and variety and extraordinary people. Never walk away and, if you can, get one more person to read your favorite genre title. This is surely the true path to global enlightenment.
Thanks for inviting me in. No need to get up, I’ll close the door on the way out.