Interview with James Barclay

Background: James Barclay is one of the bestselling Fantasy authors in the UK today. His books Noonshade,NightchildElfsorrowShadowheart and Demonstorm have been widely recommended since the first, Dawnthief, was published in 1999.

Sffworld caught up with James as he prepared for the publication of his brand new series. 

Hello, James. Thanks for popping into sffworld!

It’s a pleasure, good to be here.

Let’s start with some general stuff. (Nothing like dropping you into the deep end!)

You’re having to complete your Curriculum Vitae. Define ‘James Barclay, the writer’….

Fortunate, still learning, determined to improve and be read by more and more people. Desiring to write entertaining novels because that’s what I believe this business to be about. It’s entertainment and not simply a platform for expounding personal political, religious and moral views (though they inevitably inform my work). Determined never to take it for granted, to enjoy it and never to leave a reader thinking ‘hmm, that was one book too far on that subject…’ You have to grow and expand horizons as a writer and not just stick to a narrow field because it works at the moment.

And your writing style/s?

I’m a fantasy writer and specifically so far, an action fantasy writer. I write with pace and intensity and attempt to deliver excitement, emotion, humour and tension. That’s not to ignore characters, far from it. While I always want a clear plot narrative, a novel is about the people who inhabit it. They define your world and their emotional force supplies the base energy that drives a novel. If this isn’t a contradiction in terms, I want to bring realism to fantasy. If a reader can immerse themselves in my people and world and believe in them, then I will feel I have succeeded.

How is James Barclay, the writer, different to the person? If writing is about ‘communicating the experience’, do you think you can/should separate the two?

Not too different, I hope. I try and enjoy every day but it’s true that if I’ve had a bad day writing, I tend to be grumpy in the evening (just ask my wife…). You can’t separate the two in my opinion. It is the joy and the curse of being a writer that ideas happen all the time and you’re never truly ‘off duty’. It leads to odd bouts of stress and tension, despite the fact I love my job and am fantastically lucky to be able to do it full time. Hmm… perhaps Barclay the person is a little more neurotic than Barclay the writer. There is a fear that one day, I won’t get the idea. That would be a loss that would be hard to take. That’s why I wouldn’t try to separate the two. It might make me irritating to live with at times but the other option is far worse…does that make sense?

Yes, I think so. Many writers, like yourself, have said that their writing is something which comes from them and is an amalgam of their own experiences and their imagination.

OK – let’s move on a little. Whilst we’re talking about experiences, let’s take a little look at ‘influences’. I know that you’ve been a fantasy fan for a long while…

Any current faves (books or authors)?

Steven Erikson, David Gemmell (and have been a fan since he began), Louis de Bernieres (not technically a fantasy author but who cares? Anyone who titles a book ‘The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts’ gets my vote. And if you own a dog, you must read ‘Red Dog’. It’s short and utterly wonderful).

Do you these days read other fantasy books? Can you read fantasy for pleasure rather than for information – or is it often just to check out ‘the opposition’?

I read very little fantasy because of the business angle it represents. It’s hard to read fantasy for pleasure. It’s like a busman’s holiday for me and inevitably I’ll be reading not simply for entertainment but to see where other writers are going. I don’t feel I’m in competition, it’s more that when I read a great idea, there’s an element of jealousy. If the book is disappointing, it isn’t the waste of time it represents, more than the missed opportunity. There’s nothing worse than reading a book with a sound premise that doesn’t deliver. Actually, Erikson and Gemmell I do read for pleasure because both are friends of mine and I derive great satisfaction from reading fine books by those whose approach to, and understanding of, writing I respect and admire.

What about outside the genre? Where else do you gain your inspiration?

Inspiration comes from everywhere. It’s a glib answer but it’s true. Anything you read, see or hear can be an inspiration. The key is to see it as such and make a note of it so you can use it when the time comes. I read outside the genre much more than within it. Often very light reading for relaxation but I’ve become more and more interested in history since becoming an author and I have masses of catching up to do there. Newspapers are great and for me, watching the ‘how we did it’ extras on DVD’s can provide a spur on a slow day. If you look, say, at the extras on a Lord of the Rings DVD, what comes across more strongly than anything is else is just how hard these people worked to bring the world to life. The detail, most of which passes the viewer by, was incredible but the fact it was there, and understood, added enormous richness and weight to the end product. No corner was cut and that is a useful lesson. As is getting out only what you put in…

Now that you are a ‘literary superstar’, J what personal ambitions (other than finishing this interview) do you have left in life? A need to write under a secret pseudonym? Sail single handed across the Atlantic? What?

If only that were true… I have plenty of ambitions left. Like 99.9% of us, I want not to have to worry about money anymore and perhaps true literary stardom will be the avenue to achieve that. (grins)

In terms of writing, I want to write successful young adult literature (I have plans…) and expand into other areas of the genre, perhaps more contemporary in feel.

I want to see The Raven on the big or small screen. I think they would work amazingly well visually… grit, humour, action, tension, people you care about deeply. It’s a franchise waiting to take off. Have I sold you yet?

More responsibly, I want to bring up children to have respect for the world and the people who live on it. People able to take responsibility for their own actions and make a positive impact. There’s not enough of that about, if you ask me.

I want to dive with dolphins, travel into space and see England lift the football (soccer) World Cup (preferably in 2006 in Germany).

Looking through your (proper) CV, you’ve been a published writer for six years (Dawnthief was first published in 1999). How did you get that first break?

Well, my stroke of fortune was knowing an editor – I went to school and college with him. Now I can see people rolling their eyes and assuming I was offered a massive hand up, but actually, it was a double-edged sword. It meant that I got professional feedback and encouragement (eventually, after he rejected earlier work out of hand as unpublishable. And he was right, of course). But it also made me very hard for him to publish. He could not afford to buy my series and then be accused of doing favours for friends. It meant I was read by multiple editors at Gollancz before finally, finally getting the nod. It was tortuously slow and I was never sure I’d be published by them until the call came. Seriously, while he did want to publish them, others were not so sure and with me, he didn’t have the luxury of taking a punt. I’ve got all my other rejections (and there are plenty of them) from publishers and agents in a folder, by the way. I used to use them to make me angry, after I’d got upset soon after opening them…

This introduced the very popular ‘band of brothers’ (and sisters!) The Raven. I’ve got to ask this one, for a lot of fans who’ve pestered – have we seen the end of The Raven?

Yes, probably. You can never say never, but I have no plans for more at the moment. Demonstorm was the last scheduled adventure and while I could do prequels, I’m not sure they’d have the same edge. And I could do ‘further adventures of….’ for some individuals but unless a compelling story occurs, it’d smack of a cash-in for me and I’m not interested in that.

The success of The Raven series, particularly in the UK, must have been both pleasing and frightening! Did you feel pressurised after the series’ success? How do you cope with the expectations of fans and reviewers?

I was delighted by the way The Raven took off (ha, ha) in the UK – and remain a little bemused and disappointed the US has ignored them so far. I didn’t feel conscious pressure too much at the time, though looking back on it, I was always anxious when I delivered a novel. I wanted to provide more characterisation, more edge-of-the-seat entertainment and more quality in my writing. But that was for me. I don’t think you can afford to worry about the expectations of fans and reviewers while you are writing. You have to start by writing a book that you love yourself. You have to be enthused as you write it and every time you read and revise it. If you don’t like it, you can guarantee no one else will. Only when you sign off the book for printing can you worry about what fans will think – and that they love what I write is critical. But by then it’s out of your hands of course, so the best way is to go to the pub and not worry about it…

Before being a published writer you had a number of jobs. You are now writing fulltime, without other distractions. How scary is it being a fulltime writer? Is there a change from ‘writing as a hobby’ to ‘writing as a career’?

I haven’t found it scary. I remember talking to Stephen Baxter about it before I took the plunge and he said some took to it naturally, and others went bananas. Fortunately, I’m one of the former. The isolation did worry me because I’d spent my career in offices full of people to talk to. But the buzz of being my own boss and doing what I love best for my job more than makes up for it. And I adapted anyway… most people do to new circumstances. Oh, and by the way, there are more distractions now than ever before.

Having said that, the change from hobby to career is huge, though the reality crept up on me quite slowly. All of a sudden, my writing paid my mortgage and bought me bread and I think it’s vital to keep that in mind. Being a professional means contracts and deadlines, it means quality delivery and it means harder work than most people think. Harder than I thought, certainly. It brings its own pressures but the fact that I have the opportunity to experience them is a constant joy.

Thinking more generally, now that you are a fulltime writer, how would you describe your writing process? Would you say that you were a disciplined writer? Are you one of those writers that has to sit and write every day, and write until you can write no more, or is it a case of writing ‘x amount’ a day and then stopping?

I’m a bit of everything, I think. I am disciplined. You have to be. But that doesn’t mean I achieve what I want to every day, far from it. While I am at my desk by 9am at the latest every morning, I am as prey to distraction and laziness as anyone else. I try and write in one-hour segments and then take a decent break in between plus at least an hour at lunch. I’ll stop at 5pm normally but if I’m on a roll, I’ll just carry on. I use word count in a day to give an indication of progress. I set myself a relatively low minimum I’d like to achieve and that is changeable – it depends on the stage of the book. What I’ll try and do is take a scene and write it completely in the day. Then, I’ll try and visualise tomorrow’s scene so that I can get started quickly the next morning. I don’t tend to read back too much of my stuff day by day, preferring to take it by the week or so unless I think I’ve got something wrong and need to review sooner.

On to the new book, The Cry of the Newborn. It is the first book in the series The Ascendants of Estorea. As it’s a whopping great big book, I’m going to start you off here with a challenge – can you briefly summarise the main plot?

It is about the birth of magic in a crumbling empire. There you go.

Oh all right, here’s a bit more.

The Estorean Conquord is a massive, sprawling empire that has stood for over 800 years. But it is beginning to creak at the seams. Over-expansion, high taxation to fund campaigns, too many citizens in legion service and not in the fields… all lead to growing unrest. Into this are born four children, the results of generations of careful planning and breeding. They are to be the first Ascendants, active practitioners of a magic that has been theorised in great detail but has only shown itself in passive form before now.

It is a wonder that should not need to be hidden but the dominant religion would see them as heretics to be burned. But are they a blessing or a curse? Are their abilities gifts from God or a challenge to Him? How will wider society react to this new power?

The answers will out because a sudden and bloody reverse in the wars against the Kingdom of Tsard plunges the Conquord into chaos. Enemy armies threaten borders, legions fight rearguard actions. And four teenagers are thrust into the heart of it all. How will they react and what can they really do? Are they the answer to the Conquord’s prayers or the final straw that will break it forever?

Can the Conquord survive and if it does, should magic be allowed to live on?

That sounds very intriguing – and complex! The idea for the book has been around in your head for a long time, hasn’t it? Before The Raven, if I remember right?

For ages. I had the first ideas for this series way back in 1988 (I’ve still got the original notebooks). I knew at the time it was a big idea and I’m very happy I decided to let it mature. In 1988 I was a decade from being accepted by a publisher and was naïve in my approach to writing. I’d have ruined it if I’d tried to write it then. It remained a huge challenge all the way through drafting and revision even so but at least I felt capable of doing the idea justice.

This is different from the Raven, then. More historical? Any thoughts on the book being magical realism or historical fantasy?

It’s very different from the Raven. The book certainly has roots in earth history, in this case a roman-esque society and culture. But I haven’t used the Romans exhaustively, rather using the elements I wanted and weaving them into my own world. And because it isn’t set on earth, I don’t think it can be called historical fantasy in the same way that, say Gemmell’s Lord of the Silver Bow is, or Pompeii by Robert Harris. Magical realism? Yes, I reckon that’s pretty accurate but after all, what’s in a label?

Research can be both fun and frustrating for a writer. With the new book seeming to have a more historical element than your previous books, how much research have you had to do?  How much do you think is research a fundamental part of the writing process?

I did a considerable amount of research and enjoyed it very much. And I do think it a fundamental part of the process because it is down to the author to make their novel credible, no matter how outlandish the setting and story. But what is just as important is not using all your research just because you’ve done it. There is a temptation among authors to prove how much they’ve done by planting it in their novel. Bad idea. No one wants regurgitated history. I probably used elements of five percent of the research I did. And even then I went back and removed the odd line and description that was unnecessary and looked a little like showing off.

You mentioned earlier about your determination not to repeat yourself and your desire to continually improve your writing.  How do you think the new series has developed you as a writer?

It’s made me more careful and more rounded because I’ve had to be in order to make the book credible. I’ve learned a great deal about writing young characters (tricky, that) and about constructing a plot narrative and characters on such a wide scale. The empire and the enemy lands in which the action takes place are vast. Communication was a huge problem. So something else it taught me was to keep a very close eye on the different plot threads. I couldn’t afford to let action in one place inform action in another before knowledge could have been communicated. It made for some lovely juxtaposition mind you… people blithely believing in strength and security while two thousand miles away, a disaster is occurring.

What has pleased you most about writing the new book?

I think that I was able to piece it all together into something I think is compelling, credible and a successful departure from my other work. I love the Raven books and am very proud of them, but I needed to prove I could write other styles of book and I think I’ve done that with The Ascendants Of Estorea.

That’s a good point. You wanted to prove to yourself you could broaden your writing style. Certainly, it’s often said that a writer should write for themselves, rather than for a fanbase or a particular market. Do you agree?

Absolutely. Indeed I’ve alluded to it already. The first person you have to satisfy is yourself. If you can’t then you can’t expect the book to sell to anyone. I want to widen my readership generally with this book.

Having said that, is there anyone who you’d like the new book to appeal to particularly?

I’d love it to appeal to people outside the genre but that’s unlikely to a large extent – I think they would enjoy it if they tried it, mind you, but let’s not get into that debate.

OK! Let’s try another debate. The book is the first part of a duology. Why a duology rather than a trilogy? Is it simply one book divided into two?

When we were discussing the new series, my publisher, my agent and me, we were conscious of trying to do something different with what we all felt was an important story. We didn’t want it to appear in the genre as ‘just another trilogy’ and actually, as I got closer to the idea, it became obvious it wouldn’t work as a trilogy because that would mean arbitrary cutting to make three books. The two parts are separate entities with a decade dividing them. And while I suppose you could divide each part into two and make a… I don’t know, a ‘quadrology’, or whatever the term would be, I think it works best as two large volumes. But as in all books, the readers will decide.

The second book, A Shout for the Dead, is due out in about a year’s time. How is that going? As you’ve been thinking about this for a long while, is it pretty much written, or is there much to do?

It’s going very slowly, unfortunately. I’ve had too many distractions this year… got married, moved house… and all take up masses of working time if you let them. And I have to hold up my hand and say that I have fallen victim too often. It means the book is well adrift of deadline at the moment. I’ve done heaps of planning and noting but the sitting down and drafting has been too slow by half. It’s down to me to put that right, which is what I’m trying to do now.

There is an old saying that ‘it’ll take as long as it takes’. I’m certain the extra time spent on the second book will be worth it.

It may be a long way off, but have you any ideas about where next, after this series?

Yes… I have ideas for fantasy, young adult, contemporary with fantasy elements… plenty of stuff ambling round my head. What gets written next is still up for debate. And actually, it’s not that far off. I want to be writing a new novel come next spring.

James – your time on this interview and your honest answers have been very much appreciated. I wish you success with the new book, which I am sure will do very well! Thanks for stopping by!

The pleasure was all mine. Thanks, Hobbit.

Hobbit, October 2005

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