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James Barclay Interview

James BarclayThe last few years there have been a ton of new faces in SFF that we have highlighted on Fantasy-Faction. Today we will instead be speaking with someone who has been writing for longer than we’ve existed as a website and whose work has been featured here almost every year since then.

James Barclay hit the fantasy scene with Dawnthief in 1999. Since then he has produced multiple books and series in multiple genres. He even wrote an article for the Fantasy-Faction Anthology entitled, “The Preservation and Evolution of Elves”.

But I’m sure you’d rather hear about his writing from James himself. So on with the interview!

How would you describe the Raven books to a new reader?

Beautiful works of unfettered genius. Only after the sucker, I mean, esteemed reader, has bought the lot will I come clean and admit they are moulded from the first clay of heroic action fantasy, stocked with flawed heroes in a dangerous world where those heroes can die and where their foes grow ever more uncompromising, ever more powerful. They are books to entertain you, to make you laugh and cry, as I laughed and cried while writing them. They will keep you off-balance and might even lay claim to being grimdark before that was a thing. Actually no… grimlite, perhaps and certainly grimheart (love that term from Ed McDonald). More than anything else, though, they’ve got Hirad in them. And everyone who meets him, loves him.

As a P.S. I was once described as the ‘Sergio Leone of the genre’ for the Raven books. That’ll do nicely.

The character interaction and humorous dialogue really stood out for me in the Raven series. When you created books, what did you have in mind to separate them from other mercenary/assassin-based fantasy?

Dawnthief (cover)I suppose there were a few things. You’ve touched on dialogue and interaction and those were central areas. I had tired of reading the grand language of an imagined past in fantasy novels and deliberately set out to use modern language (partly so I could use some top swear words, obviously, but mostly because I felt it added to pace, made my characters more relatable and kept dialogue uncluttered).

The Raven are far more than just a mercenary team. They’re a family with their bonds of love forged over long years fighting, living and even dying together. So, they bicker and fight like brothers and sisters with another having to step in and take the role of parent to pour oil on troubled waters. And they get at each other like only family really can, knowing the lines that cannot be crossed and what it is that brings a smile to another’s lips. However deep the disagreement, there is always love, belief and unconditional trust. That is the essence of The Raven.

Beyond that, in general narrative, I wanted every fight to be as brief, visceral and shocking as sword and magic fighting should be. Devastating magical weapons, extremely sharp pieces of metal employed by strong, skilful warriors… the maths is pretty straightforward. That’s not a unique thing to do but when Dawnthief was published, back in 1999, the language style, humour and properly brutal and chaotic nature of the fighting were definitely not the norm.

And beyond that? Well, I just wanted to write the sort of books I wanted to read but couldn’t find.

Can you describe the road to publication and how it felt to finally see the publication of your first novel Dawnthief?

Tortuous, frustrating and occasionally horribly stressful but worth the knock-backs, the punches to the gut of belief and the feeling of occasional helplessness.

You could argue that I had an advantage because I was at school, and then college with, my first editor, the amazing Simon Spanton. And in terms of having my work read by an editor who then sat in the pub with me to tell me all the (many) things that were wrong with it, I did have an advantage.

Dawnthief (cover 2)But when it came to acceptance of Dawnthief for publication, that was a rocky old road. For starters, Simon wasn’t sure he should be publishing me at all. He felt the book was good enough for publication and that it was a good fit on the Victor Gollancz list, but he had to declare a conflict of interests and he had his exemplary reputation as a commissioning editor to protect. As a result, we had to go way further than the normal checks and balances.

Excerpts of Dawnthief were circulated widely and, basically, one dissenting voice would have been enough to sink the dream. The time between Simon calling to say he wanted to publish it but… and the call to say we could go ahead was interminable. Weeks. Weeks being that close. When I did get the call, I was in an open plan office (I used to be an advertising manager for a city investment firm) and failed to contain my joy. I took a load of people to a bar for champagne. I floated through the rest of the day.

These are precious memories and anyone fortunate enough to be published should hang on to them. The other is that moment when I first saw a copy of Dawnthief on the shelves of Waterstone’s – Leadenhall Market to be exact. I was on my own and I cried. Just a little. There can never again be that feeling of seeing your book up on the shelves like that, in the same space as Asimov, Clarke, Banks, Moorcock, Hamilton, Gemmell, Feist, Tolkien… what a fucking rush that was. Did I feel like a fraud? No. Just honoured to be in exalted company. I’ll never forget it.

There’s been quite a British Invasion making its way into mainstream fantasy fiction over the last few years, with many of last year’s most exciting and critically lauded books being from UK Based writers. As one of the forerunners of this wave, what do you think is the reason for the mass appeal of British fantasy?

Yes, they’d never have done it without me and all should be eternally grateful, abase themselves at my feet and shower me with gifts of money but mostly beer.

On a slightly more serious note, I think there are several reasons, the first and biggest being that we are mining a rich vein of extraordinary writing talent in the UK right now. Have been for years. We needed a British version of GRRM to push the door wide open and we found him in Joe Abercrombie. I think also we’re at a point in time where the quality of editors, agents and publicity and marketing operations is incredibly high too. The perfect storm – great writers being uncovered by sharp-eyed agents and editors, and those books being edited brilliantly and marketed very effectively worldwide. You cannot discount the rise of social media. It makes a nonsense of international barriers and information and knowledge flow unchecked. It puts a massive audience at your fingertips. As we see daily, when that information is, to be tactful, a pile of steaming bullshit, it’s a terrible thing. With publishing, it’s amazing.

If you had to choose from all of your novels (or series) the one you’d describe as your magnum opus, which would it be and why?

I can’t hear the words ‘magnum opus’ without a picture coming to mind of Baldrick thrusting a tiny scrap of paper at Blackadder and announcing, ‘And this is mine. My magnificent octopus!’ (For those not in the know, Blackadder is a peerless historical comedy running over four series and starring Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson among other great actors. And if you’re not in the know, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN FOREVER?)

I digress.

Cry of the Newborn (cover)I’m going to have to plump for Cry of the Newborn which is the first in my epic duology, The Ascendants of Estorea. And not just because it is massive and needs you to own a reinforced shelf. It’s the route to the page that sets it apart. It was published in 2005 but I can trace the first germination of the idea way back to 1985 when, while at college, I scribbled down a note (and I’ve kept all my note books) wondering about the changes that would come to a world with the birth of magic.

Something inside me then, and for about fifteen years, told me I wasn’t mature enough as a writer to take it on and do the idea justice. And anyway, I was already working on what would become, Dawnthief and then the next five Raven novels.

But the idea continued to develop, and notes were written, and plots and characters and story arcs considered, dismissed or reworked. By the time Demonstorm (the sixth Raven novel) was being drafted, I was desperate to get writing and lucky enough to be commissioned to do so.

It was a true labour of love. From planning to research (and boy did I love researching Roman warfare) to scoping the scale of the empire and working out how, where and why it would begin to crumble having over-stretched itself; to the considerable cast of characters and the epic story arc; to weaving in the multiple narratives. It was at once wonderful and infuriating; a vast world to lose myself inside and an impenetrable shell of changing plotlines, characters doing unexpected things and rabbit holes of wasted weeks.

Funnily enough, the thing about the whole process that will live with me forever and that I use in talks and the like (apart from how to write epic battles yet retain personal peril) concerns a central character. The hero, actually. He came from nowhere. A bit-part on a journey who, from the moment he rode up to meet my young magicians, simply demanded a greater stage. His name was Paul Jhered and he was the head taxman of the empire. Absolutely the wrong man to rise to the rank of hero and protector of bloody whining entitled irritating children but working his personal journey was an object lesson in retaining an open mind as an author.

I’m enormously proud of the result. Three hundred and five thousand words, for heaven’s sake. I’ll never write a book of that magnitude again.

Magnificent octopus indeed.

After spending years in the fantasy genre, you decided to try out military sci-fi with Heart of Granite. What influenced the shift? And how would you describe the book to your large contingent of readers?

Heart of Granite (cover)It wasn’t a conscious decision, that’s for sure. I’ve always said that you have to follow the idea and see where it best fits. I’ve got a story about how this particular idea came to me but it’s not directly relevant. The thing is, when I began to but flesh on the bones of the notion, it became clear very quickly that it would have to sit in a hi-tech world as opposed to a classic fantasy arena.

I relished the opportunity of writing in a different area of the wider genre – the ability to use modern and future technology, unrestrained language and give voice to two people who will surely always stand among my favourite characters – Max Halloran and Alexandra Solomon. Being naïve, I didn’t think I was writing a science fiction novel (in my head, it was y’know, ‘future fantasy’ or something like that) and I might have been a little freaked out by the thought given my bibliography to this point. Lucky then, that I was able to indulge my delusion that it was a fantastical adventure thriller until I was well into the process.

Heart of Granite is an action-based thriller focusing on top drake pilot, Max Halloran, and the truth behind a terrible disease, known as ‘The Fall’, that afflicts all pilots eventually. It weaves political machinations, the desire for power and money, and the cheapness of the lives of military personnel in the eyes of those in power into a very human story about love, courage, belief and determination.

It takes place on a future Earth in a war that has become stalemate and where a great risk must be taken to try and secure a decisive victory. Max Halloran, cocky, cool and brilliant in the air, is part of the elite Inferno-X squadron of combat drakes (bio-engineered fire-breathing reptiles) based on-board the mighty, kilometre long, Heart of Granite. All he really wants to do is fly and fight until The Fall takes him as he knows it must. But he hears something he shouldn’t and, as is typical with him, he can’t keep his mouth shut. It might be a way out or it might be the death of them all.

That’s all you’re getting. I love it and I loved writing it. And you’d better love it too or Max is coming round your house to ask why. With his drake.

What have you read recently that you can recommend in the fantasy genre?

Have to be honest here and say I don’t read masses of fantasy these days but that’s a relative term since I used to read all of it. Best most recent reads are Godblind by Anna Stephens, Blackwing by Ed McDonald (both really promising debuts from authors I hope go far) and right now, I’m reading an ARC of Blood of the Four by Chris Golden and Tim Lebbon. It’s bloody excellent. Really, really good. Out sometime soon, I think.

Who were some of the writers that influenced your decision to become an author?

When I was but a lad of eight or so, my brother started giving me books to read… Moorcock, McCaffrey, Aldiss, Tolkien, Clarke, Heinlein, Le Guin… that’s some list for a young lad in the 70s. I was eleven when I first knew I wanted to be a novelist. Others came after of course, that moulded the area of the genre in which I would write but it was giants like these who kicked it all off.

How often do you write these days, and aside from writing what takes up most of your time?

Elfsorrow (cover)I write every weekday. I gave up work back in 2004 to go full time as a writer and have tried to keep office hours ever since if only to get enough hours sitting, or standing quite often these days given my new desk, in front of a computer or a sea of index cards. I don’t give myself specific word counts until I’m moving towards the end of a draft and impose a deadline. What I try and do, if I’m writing as opposed to planning, is complete one scene and begin the next one each day so I have a start point the next day (got that tip from David Gemmell and it works well for me).

I have a young family (boys of eleven and six) who take up much of the rest of my time which is why I don’t often write in the evenings or on weekends and never when I’m on holiday. Children don’t stay that way for long and to not enjoy being part of their growth and development and to indulge in the sheer fun of being around them would be a crime.

I’m also an actor, under the name Scott Barclay because in our actors’ union, Equity, every name registered has to be significantly different. Some selfish bastard called James Barclay had already registered my name, dammit. Anyway, I’m not particularly prolific because I’m mostly a writer but I do days on film and commercial when selected and try and do a couple of pieces of theatre a year – I was in The Importance of Being Earnest last November which was a superb experience. I love the work when I get it – the chance to be in such a creative and collaborative environment is a great way to re-energise myself for my writing. You can go a bit stir-crazy working alone every day, after all.

I notice you are quite active on social media, and extremely willing to reach out to your readers. How important do you believe social media and reader interaction is for authors, especially newly published ones?

I touched on this above. Social media is a key driver for publishing. I think it’s very important for all of us, not just new authors. Readers have come to expect, even demand, more personal interaction with authors as a result of social media and I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve made firm friends with people who started out as fans of my work, after all. Establishing a presence and being honest is really important. I’ve no time for people whose entire social media presence is a façade.

On the whole, I’ve found it to be a hugely supportive and constructive community. You do get some twats in your timeline on occasion but, hey, that’s what the block and mute buttons are for.

What’s next for you? Can we anticipate a return to fantasy and are you willing to disclose any info about upcoming projects?

I’m going to be vague about this question at the moment. I’m working on new ideas for novels and have a screenplay in development which I’m hoping to write with a great friend of mine sometime this year if we have time. As for what is ‘next’, well that’s slightly up in the air. There should be news fairly shortly. Sorry to be mysterious. Actually, no, I’m not.

I confess to not having gotten to your Elves series yet, as I have been reading in order of publication. Where do they fall chronologically and how do they add to the world of The Raven?

Part of me is so furious you haven’t already read EVERYTHING I have ever written ever ever ever that I want to refuse to answer. But, being the total professional I am (in my dreams), here goes.

Elves Once Walked with Gods (cover)The Elves trilogy describes the history of the Raven’s world from about three thousand years before we meet the Raven themselves right up until fairly shortly before the opening of Dawnthief. So, if you’re picking up my work today, you’d start with Once Walked with Gods for the full chronologically accurate experience.

They describe the difficult, dreadful and bloody history of elves and humans (and my version of elves are isolationist zealous rainforest dwellers) detail the growth of magic amongst the elves and introduce some of the characters and elven disciplines familiar to readers of The Raven series – specifically, Auum, Duele and Evunn who are members of the TaiGethen, effectively special forces elves (and they really are double-hard bastards); and the ClawBound who are a mysterious class of elf emotionally and mentally linked to rainforest panthers.

Raven fans have really enjoyed these books but they’re very much a stand-alone trilogy and leave nothing left undone. Yes, that is an understated sales pitch. And here is a (read my books) subliminal sales (read my books) pitch. And here’s a slightly more overt one: READ MY BOOKS.

On another subject, I never pimp my books, it’s so uncouth (read my books).

Thanks again to James Barclay for stopping by and talking with us today! If you’d like to learn more about his books you can visit him on his website or follow him on Twitter @barculator.

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