- For the benefit of those not familiar with you and your work, what can you tell us about James Barclay the author?
Well, I’m an English fantasy author. I’ve been writing ever since I was eleven years old, it’s just something I’ve always done. My first book was Dawnthief. It was published in 1999 and kicked off the stage of The Raven, my group of heroes. There have been six novels in the series so far and another to come. In between, I’ve written a novella and a big sweeping epic fantasy duology but more about that later, I think.
I’ve always written in the fantasy genre, and I don’t see myself moving away in any serious way for the foreseeable future. I love what fantasy provides. The escape it gives me as a writer and a reader. I’m proud to be associated with the genre. I don’t pretend to write literary fantasy. I’m a thriller writer at heart and though later books have considerably more depth in terms of subject and detail, I’ll not lean too far from action, I don’t suppose.
I write the sort of books I want to read, the sort that I was not finding when I set out to be a novelist. I love the thrills of a good action novel, the pace, the repartee, the bordering-on-the-outrageous stunts that heroes can pull. I love watching characters grow throughout a series, seeing them develop far away from their roots… y’know, just like real people. I get criticised for my characterisation at times but I think it unfair. People are deep and complex and as a rule reveal very little about themselves in the short-term. They are also inconsistent beyond their basic principles. That’s probably the only consistent thing about us all…
I try to write books that entertain. I don’t wish to teach or preach. I want readers to have fun, to get engaged with my characters and become lost in the action. I think I get it right quite a lot of the time.
- You made a name for yourself with The Chronicles of the Raven and Legends of the Raven. Without giving anything away, what can you tell potential readers about those two trilogies?
In a nutshell, they are heroic action fantasy. Very fast paced; heaps of action and pithy dialogue; characters you grow to love but should not become too attached to if you can help it; plots that involve love, friendship, honour, courage and redemption; also scheming, cheating, politics, assassination, treachery, hack and slay. Violence too. Because the world is one of sword and magic fighting. These two things equal much blood and death if you ask me and I don’t believe in sugaring the act or consequences of violent action. I leave that to Errol Flynn.
It’s well-known that the genesis of these books was a role-playing game called ‘Dragon Quest’ I played many years ago with a group of friends. And a super game system it was too. The group of characters in that game became ‘The Raven’ and the first novel, Dawnthief is a classic quest novel to a large extent. But I laid down some markers concerning action and lack of sentimentality nonetheless. The other five books in the two trilogies are not classic quest novels, not to my mind anyway.
The Raven are a group of mercenaries just past their prime but still the best fighting team in their world, Balaia. They take on one last big payday before retirement and end up in a fight to save the world from the return of an ancient evil. To do that they have to cast a spell so powerful it can destroy everything. Tricky business. That’s the guts of Dawnthief. All the later novels carry over story threads and consequences. I have invasions of dragons and demons, I have elven plagues, I have warring magic colleges, I have young children invested with power they cannot control.
And in the midst of it all, I have The Raven doing what they do. Their methods are sometimes questionable and you could argue they are morally grey but they believe in themselves and in the good that will ultimately come of their success. Some of the heroes make it to the end of each book but I don’t guarantee which ones. The ante is upped with each outing of The Raven. The consequences of failure become so much broader and all-encompassing.
Go out and buy, I say. Take a ride and don’t look back…
- Again without giving anything away, can you give us a taste of your latest series, The Ascendants of Estorea?
Totally different to The Raven. These are two books that deal the birth of magic in a crumbling empire. That empire is Romanesque, tatty at its outer reaches and beginning to rot at its centre. The magic manifests itself in four children who are the product of many generations of genetic selection to produce the first humans able to manipulate the elements around them.
The first novel, Cry of the Newborn, charts their development through a war that threatens the entire empire. They have to survive prejudice, religious intolerance, fear, hatred… you name it. And to a large extent, no one can teach them how to use what they have been given. Theirs is a true voyage of discovery. But the book isn’t just about them. It is about those who seek to save their empire, people who you can admire without necessarily agreeing that they should succeed, by the way. But there is room for love, humour and joy too. No day is perpetually dark.
The second novel Shout for the Dead is set a decade after the end of the first and deals with the consequences of war, the emergence of the Ascendants as a group defended by the empire machine but hated by the empire’s dominant religion. And it deals with the descent of one man into madness, delusion and his succumbing to the poison of overwhelming power. Now in this novel there are a few perpetually dark days. That’s probably because of the armies of the marching dead doing their master’s bidding.
Both books keep faith with my desire for dramatic action but I deliberately paced them slower than The Raven because I felt there was more to tell. More detail to be drawn, more character depth to be teased out. Great battles to fight and scenes to illustrate. They have scope and energy, these novels. Or they do to me. I loved writing them for the challenges they presented.
- What’s the progress report on the new Raven novel you are working on? Any tentative release date yet?
Progress is excellent. The novel is called Ravensoul. It’s with my editor now and he is enjoying it. So far. I think he’ll do so to the end. I’ll know in a few days. The release date was going to be August 2008 but I understand that’s been put back a little now. October seems more likely.
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write the Raven series in the first place? What about The Ascendants of Estorea?
I mentioned earlier that The Raven came from a role playing game. But the spark wasn’t the quests and scenarios we undertook. I still remember sitting round the table, looking at these men and women, my friends, completely rapt by entirely fictitious events being played out on paper, decided on the roll of a dice and of given flesh by our imaginations. The desire to survive, the bond of the characters and the sheer energy we generated when playing, these are what provided the spark for The Raven. Because the group dynamic was so real. Bloody hell, the arguments we used to have, the joy at a victory and the sadness we all felt when one of our number died. Amazing. I wanted them to live on and so I wrote about them.
As for the Ascendants, well, I first had the germ of the idea way back in 1986 when I was still at college. For whatever reason, I knew then that it was too big for me to do justice to at the time. So it lay and festered away for a good long time. In essence, it’s so simple. The premise is: what happens to a world if on one day, there is no magic, and on the next, there is? The consequences on so many levels, personal, religious, societal, cultural, economic.. are enormous. Of course I needed to find the characters to make it work but at its heart, it is just one question.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
I’d have to say its the action sequences. Battles, skirmishes, chases, hand to hand, one on ones, whatever. I do love writing that stuff. For me it’s all about making it credible. Well, credible enough. You have to give the reader the feeling of being right there in the middle of the blood and the fear, the noise and the stench. No battle runs true. Even chaos is too ordered a term, I sometimes think. I tend to write my fight scenes straight off the top of my head. No going back until the editing process, no choreography. I visualise it and I write what I see.
Mind you, I think my plotting is pretty good too. That isn’t chaotic. A sound plot stops the reader drifting off so I keep everything relevant. Everything moves the story along. I think some authors forget plot when their ideas get too grand. Readers can get lost in the expounding of theory upon theory. Then it doesn’t matter how cool your characters are. Got to maintain focussss.
- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write both series?
Kind of. In The Raven, I used much conventional fantasy stuff. Elves, dragons, magic colleges and the like. And I know some readers get turned off by elves and dragons but I needed races of that sort. Some authors try terribly hard to make new races and they are almost always pale imitations of fantasy staples. Why make it so hard? If it inhabits forests, has pointy ears and lives a long time, then it’s an elf. If it breathes fire, comes with leathery skin and scales, it’s a dragon.
Naturally, I wanted my own spin on both. So dragons have a complex society among themselves and are dimensional travellers, seeking links between themselves and other worlds to make them stronger. They live, love and die as families. They do not sit on gold. They have real purpose. They even love architecture, well some of them do, but being a bit clumsy with the average chisel they have to persuade others to build for them. Luckily for them, persuasion is none too tricky when you’re a hundred feet long and can incinerate flesh and bone at a considerable distance.
My elves have a deeply religious society involving multiple gods all linked to elements and the nature of the world they inhabit. They have two religious warrior castes tasked with defending the faith from outsiders. They are historically isolationist and intensely private. Incursion and invasion are treated extremely severely. These are not hoppy skippy singing elves. They live in a rainforest, a harsh environment, and it has made them very tough indeed. They use neither long bow nor horse. How could they? Actually, why does any forest-dwelling species ride horses so well? Horses are useful in open spaces, not dense woodland. Anyway. They are not tribal, their racial divisions run along the relative longevity of various genetic models of elf. Some live thousands of years, others live a few hundred.
For me, it’s not about ignoring fantasy staples and conventions, nor is it about trying to develop whole new races and setting yourself deliberately outside the norm, if you like. Because my books are about entertainment, I don’t want readers to have to ingest complex detail which is largely unnecessary as far as plot and pace are concerned. I want them to be comfortable with the world I’m writing in so that the story can live unencumbered. Have elves. Have dragons. Have dwarves if you want. Whatever. Just don’t write imitations of Gimli, Legolas and Smaug.
With the Ascendants, I wasn’t trying to break any convention. I did want to write about another world other than one based loosely on medieval England but it wasn’t to prove how clever I was. I just felt that legions and togas worked better in the atmosphere I was trying to create.
- Characters often take on a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?
That would have to be Paul Jhered from The Ascendants of Estorea. He began life as a bit part player in the books. He is the Exchequer of the Gatherers – the head tax man, the iron fist of the Advocate (she who runs the Empire of Estorea, though I call it a Conquord, not an Empire). But he just stood up tall and demanded more involvement. He took the place of the character I had identified to do all that he does in the books. And his development as a character, the journey he goes on through the first book in particular, was one of my most rewarding writing experiences. Jhered finds depths inside himself that he did not know existed. Neither did I. Like I mentioned earlier, characters are unpredictable and therefore endlessly fascinating, it’s what brings them to life on the page. I’m very proud of Jhered. He’s currently my favourite hero and given my love of The Raven, that’s up against some pretty stiff competition.
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?
New York Times Bestseller. Don’t get me wrong, I love the respect and recognition of my peers and my genre when I get it but I’m going to have to be horribly commercial and say that selling a lot of books to a wide audience is more important than a gong. Mouths to feed, career to build and all that sort of stuff.
- Are there any news pertaining to an American book deal?
Nothing yet. We’re hoping the new Raven book will finally knock over the first domino. It’s a question of patience and continuing to prod away where we can. I’m with a terrific agent and so in the best hands. It’s frustrating because I genuinely believe my work would be enjoyed by readers in the US. Indeed I have plenty of fans over there but all have had to shell out more than they ought to read my books. There’s even a school in New York studying my writing this year. But I can gnash my teeth all I want. US publishers are horribly commercial too and so they should be. So while I’m frustrated, I’m not complaining. Confused maybe…
- Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the covers that grace your books?
I think we all need to be honest here. Covers help to sell books. People have picked up my books because they liked the covers, or more specifically, the colour of the covers. Put it this way, it’s terribly PC to say that you need to look at the whole person to know if you are attracted to them. And I’m sure that, eventually, it’s true. But in the first instance, that’s crap. Which of us has ever asked out another on a date if we find them physically repulsive? The unfortunate might be the most intelligent, witty and loving person in the world but first impressions are important, critical even. They just are.
So it is with a book and its cover. If it leaps off the shelf to us, we are more likely to take it to the checkout. If this was not the case, all we would have would be plain covers with title and author name on the front in plain type. Covers are marketing and sales tools. Powerful ones too. And that means that cover art has to work very hard. It has to stand out from its peers and it has to either lead the reader into the story within, or engender a reaction in the mind that prods the reader into a purchase. I disagree wholeheartedly with covers that are not representative of the world within the pages but I can see why that is sometimes done.
I’m very happy with my covers. The original Raven covers were paintings by Fred Gambino and gave me the start I needed with readers of the genre – no doubt that Fred’s Dawnthief cover attracted readers. After all, in the early days when it was selling heavily, there was precious little other information, nor many reviews. The later covers moved me into a different sphere. We went for silhouette-style covers using black and a strong second colour. And they worked very well on the shelf. We’re going to re-jacket the series when Ravensoul comes out and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the new artwork. I’m equally happy with the covers for the Ascendants books. A variation on the silhouette theme and one that works very well.
I’d like to say I felt the same way about some of the covers on my translations. I can’t. Some extraordinary artwork there. My French covers, for instance, are fabulous, really beautiful stuff. I won’t name and shame others though. But the thing is, publishers in their own countries know their marketplace. Or they should. So while I might not like what I see, I have to respect what they are trying to do.
- More and more, authors/editors/publicists/agents are discovering the potential of all the SFF blogs/websites/message boards on the internet. Do you keep an eye on what’s being discussed out there, especially if it concerns you? Or is it too much of a distraction?
There are some terrific blogs and boards out there and they are becoming a more and more useful resource for the genre from publisher to fan. As an indicator of trends and views, they are incredibly valuable though there is a band-wagon tendency on some boards which is not healthy. When a board is not properly controlled, an author can be praised to the heights or lambasted unfairly without any balance being shown. Blogs don’t tend to succumb to this, fortunately.
Absolutely I keep an eye on discussions. I love to know what’s out there and what people think. I’m a moderator on the sffworld boards because I think I can be of use, particularly on the writing forum there.
And heavens, yes, I take great notice when I’m being discussed. There’s nothing I like more than having my ego buffed to a dazzling shine, after all. Mind you, it isn’t all sweetness. My books have traditionally polarised the fantasy audience and so I get a bit of a kicking every now and again. I do comment on discussions of my own work but I’m very careful what I say. I don’t do self-promotion on message boards. I think that’s a sad way to go. I very much respect negative opinion even though I rarely agree with it. Authors need thick skins and the rise of the message board and blog means that opinion is out there in the public domain far more than even five years ago. That’s life. We none of us like being insulted and there is a fine line between criticism and insult which some posters need to learn. But if a criticism is thought out and articulated, what else can I do but accept it?
Does it distract me? Yes, but I keep a lid on it.
- Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
Oh lord, who knows? There’s a big part of me that doesn’t care any more. I certainly used to. Now I just let the detractors get on with it and let them read the books they believe to be literary and not fantasy. They are, of course, wrong. Nearly every work of fiction could be described as fantasy if you want to go down that route.
I agree with you, there is a great body of work out there that should be read by a much wider audience than it is. It’s frustrating. SF&F are huge on TV but too many viewers would turn their noses up at the books that have given rise to the TV they love so well. You will hear that ‘anyone who likes books with elves and magic is a nerd’ yet the same people will have read and loved Tolkien ‘because it is a classic’. Sigh.
I don’t think there will ever be a day when we can point and say; ‘look, we have the respect of the world of literature!’ It’ll creep up and we won’t even notice. I think there is growing respect and appreciation of the talent working in our genre but each step is vanishingly small.
- Here’s a chance for you to make your pitch. Why should jaded readers spend their hard-earned money on your novels?
The Raven. Pace, action, entertainment and escapism. Laugh one page and cry the next. Get away from your world for a moment and have some fun. It’s a rush. Strap yourself in and enjoy it.
The Ascendants. Immerse yourself. Come to Estorea and witness the birth of magic and the genesis of a new breed of human. Fight in the legion frontline. See the decisions taken at the highest levels of a vast empire. Follow heroes into battle. Taste the fear of the fight, the sweetness of victory and the bitterness of defeat. Grow with children learning to live with powers no one has had to cope with before. Live it and love it. Or Paul Jhered will come round your house and, err, persuade you it’s the right thing to do.
- Anything you wish to add?
Three vaguely linked thoughts…
Never stop reading. Never stop talking about the books you read. Pass your books to other people. No, wait. Make them buy their own copies, dammit. Books are wonderful. Not just fantasy. All of them. That’s because they make people talk. Love or hate a story you read, you have an opinion so get out there and tell others about it.
I feel very fortunate to be an author and it’s something I never take for granted. I feel a responsibility to produce the best work I can every single day. If I don’t, I stand to let people down and that is not acceptable.
I’m constantly surprised by the warmth and welcoming nature of the SF&F community. I’ve made good friends among fans, authors, agents and publishers. I love the fact that I’m not at war with my competitors. Mainly because I don’t view them as competitors. I don’t think other genres have such a closeness between author and reader. Long may that continue.
Interview by Patrick
Copyright – Patrick fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com