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Friday, November 13, 2009

Travels through Balaia: An Interview with James Barclay

Visit James Barclays site here
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of Dawnthief here

I have been a fan of James Barclay's writing for at least 4 years since I discovered his Raven series in the library one day. I am extremely lucky to be able to sit down and interview James Barclay for Fantasy Book Critic.

James Barclay's Chronicles of Raven series was recently brought to the US this September by Pyr. In this interview Barclay explores who he'd most want to be in the Raven series, talks about his upcoming new series released in 2010, and even has exciting news regarding the Legend of Raven series.

Cindy Hannikman would like to thank Mihir Wanchoo for helping out with some of the questions. And a very special thanks goes out to James Barclay for participating and Jill from Pyr for helping arrange the interview.


1. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself for those that are unfamiliar with James Barclay?

People are unfamiliar with me? Who? I want them caught and shot now. And now, returning to the real world, briefly at least... I’m an English fantasy author (I have to say ‘English’, partly because I feel parochial sometimes but mainly because there is a Scottish author who shares my name. He writes comedy stuff). I’m heading towards my mid-forties at breakneck speed; I’m married to Clare; we have a son, Oscar, who is three in January 2010; and we have a dog, Mollie. She is a Hungarian Vizsla for those who want to know. We all live very happily, if rather noisily, in a place called Teddington which is about half an hour south west of London.

I had a career in financial services marketing and advertising that began in 1987, which went hand in hand with my novel writing between 1998 and 2004 and it was in March 2004 that I managed to go full time as an author. That was a great day and I’ll forever be grateful that I get paid for doing the thing I love the best. Not many are so lucky.

I’m best known in the UK and Europe for my books about ageing mercenary team, The Raven. They are designed to be action packed thrill rides and pretty much achieve that, I think. Heroic Action Fantasy is their official title, I’m told. Plenty of humour in there too, and, I like to believe, characters that grow on you whether you like it or not. There are seven books in the series. Two linked trilogies and a seventh tale that fits terribly neatly at the end of it all. I’m proud of the fact that The Raven had their genesis in a dice-based RPG I played about twenty five years ago. The influences are there to see in Dawnthief but fade away quickly after that.

I’ve also written an epic duology entitled, ‘The Ascendants of Estorea’ which is based in a Roman-esque society and deals with the birth of magic in a land that has not seen its like before and manifests itself in four teenagers. Two novellas have sprung from this mind too. One, ‘Light Stealer’ deals with the invention of Dawnthief. The other, ‘Vault of Deeds’ is a comedy, don’t you know. Loved writing that. Just loved it.

Oh and before I forget and before anyone needs to be nudged back to consciousness, I’m an actor too. Stunningly unsuccessful from the moment I left drama school way back in 1987 (hence the office-based career) but just recently doing the odd bit of work. A small role as a detective in a gritty Brit-pic is going to be followed by a larger role as the same detective in the sequel. The first film is called ‘The Estate’ and it’s out in some form or other in 2010.

Being English, I’m a lover of many sports in which the English are not the best. Not at the moment, anyway. Cricket, football, rugby union. I play tennis too. Fairly badly. Love films but hardly ever get to the cinema. Love cooking too. Love playing shooters and strategy on the PC. But mostly I love watching my son grow. That is simply wonderful.

2. What started you writing? Did you have any influences that helped you get started?

I’ve just always done it. If I had influences to begin with it would be my whole family. I’ve two sisters and a brother. I’m the third in line, by the way. All of us love reading and so I was always around books and learned to read very young. I merely took it one stage further and began to write my own stories too. My first recorded work is about an Inuit kayaking along a glacial river. I wrote that when I was six and had a broken arm. I remember it because I couldn’t hold the paper down and every line veers downwards after a good horizontal start. Basically, I never stopped. It’s been fantasy stuff since I was about eleven.

3. Did your background in acting and theatre help you in writing?

There was time when I would have said ‘No’ to this but actually I think it did and does help. While my writing is certainly, and deliberately, not massively detailed, it is very visual. I literally do see my characters doing whatever it is they do and saying whatever it is they say. Perhaps every author does but I place them as if on a stage so I know where each one is in relation to the others. My dialogue has the feel of a script about it when I’m writing it and I’m always fully conscious of pace and where I think I might lose the audience. Like an actor, I don’t get it right every time but there are instincts you develop as an actor that I’ve brought to my writing for sure.

4. Some writers have detailed outlines and know what will happen when. Some writers just let their characters take the wheel and go where they go. Which writer are you?

There are times when I’d love to be the former but I am very much the latter. For me, being the latter means there are times in the writing process where I can feel quite at a loss which way to go next and that is never a good feeling. But I counter balance it by not being constrained by anything choreographed before I start to type. It’s meant that I’ve changed endings, beginnings, who lives and dies.. pretty much everything. This is nearly always beneficial as I’m not afraid to ditch something that isn’t working and also can see when a character is shouting for more attention.

My favourite example of this is in the first Ascendants book, ‘Cry of the Newborn’. I had a bit-part character in my head. Sort of chief tax-gatherer type. I was going to use him as a demonstration of the power of the empire. But from the first moment he rode into a village and began to speak, he was destined to be so much more. He just oozed interesting conflicts. Paul Jhered, Exchequer of the Conquord. Only an idiot has a taxman as a hero. I am that idiot.

5. The Raven series started out in the UK in 2002 (and probably in your head a while before that). It's been 7 years before it made it to the US. Why do you think there was such a delay in bringing it across the pond?

It had been in my head for absolutely ages. It even had a brief outing as a comedy novel. Short-lived, thankfully. Actually, Dawnthief first graced the shelves in July 1999 so it’s been a whole decade stuck this side of the Atlantic. I don’t really know why it took so long to make the transition. I guess like when you’re trying to sell your first novel, there is no guarantee, however good it is, that it will fall in front of the right person ever. UK fantasy may not have been all that popular in the US last millennium or something. Perhaps there was a flood and I was in the backwash. Who knows? All I do know is that it was utterly frustrating and that I have to give huge thanks to my US agent, Howard Morhaim who never gave up trying, and of course, Lou Anders at Pyr books who took The Raven on.

6. What do you think makes the Raven series appear so timeless that it can be accepted so many years later as if it were written just yesterday?

That’s a very good question and one I’m delighted to be asked. Plenty of chance for ego-buffing and all that. When I think about it seriously, it’s down to language and the treatment of some of the standard fantasy tropes, mainly. I deliberately chose modern language for dialogue as well as everything else. Mostly because I can’t write in olde worlde style and frankly, don’t want to. Unless you are really good, it comes out hackneyed and stilted. Not doing so had the benefit of keeping it fresh. I know swearing in fantasy books is terribly common now but even my few expletives raised some eyebrows at the time. In an earlier draft, there were many more. Even so, someone sent their copy of Dawnthief back because of the ‘crude and gutter language’ it used. God knows what they’d make of an Abercrombie or a Lynch...

I tried to put a new spin on fantasy staples too. Dragons have a raison d’ĂȘtre beyond burning things and sitting on piles of gold. As the series develops, you find that my version of elves casts them as a very different animal to any in book or film I’ve seen. But in the Chronicles, it is the heroes who get the main treatment. The Raven are not all-conquering and most certainly not immortal. They are very much individuals, they bicker, fight and moan. They don’t always pick the right option. Their plans do not necessarily pan out the way they want. Some of them even hatch children. And while they always want the right ultimate outcome, they’re morally grey. We have to remember that they begin as hired killers. These are not people who wear white hats. But it makes them real, if you like. They’re only human (or elven...). People related to that ten years ago and they still do.

7. So far are you pleased with the reaction of the Raven in the US?

Delighted. I mean, I may only have seen the good reviews so far but reviewers have been amazingly positive and that gives me a warm feeling, don’t you know. Naturally, sales can always be better but they’ve been most decent and that’s just fine by me. I hope that continues.

8. Every writer enjoys all the characters in their book. Who is your favourite? And who did you enjoy writing the most?

Oh, blimey, this is really hard. I could give you a long list but if I really, really had to choose one, then... after a run-off with Ilkar, it would have to be Hirad. This is because he is so simple on the surface but so terribly complex behind his loudmouthed bravado. He is the heartbeat of The Raven, the driving force of passion and belief that brings them through the tough tests. Hirad is incredibly brave, extremely skilled and occasionally foolhardy. He has a quick temper with friend and foe alike. Yet his capacity for love is enormous. And his loyalty to those he loves is bottomless. He is witty and plays on his lack of education and barbarian upbringing (barbarian in my books means uncivilised. I get criticised for calling him a barbarian because he doesn’t fit into the fantasy-standard definition. Me, I looked in the Oxford English dictionary and he fits that definition just fine). If you had to pick one man to stand with you in a desperate fight, it would be Hirad every time. Love him.

But who did I enjoy writing the most? Well that is different. Writing Raven characters across the seven books is occasionally very difficult and hugely emotional. And while I draw great satisfaction from getting them right, ‘enjoy’ isn’t always a term I’d always use to describe the process. Blubbing at your PC is not enjoyable, it just isn’t. Surprising, yes. So I’m going to choose a character from Elfsorrow which is the first book of the Legends trilogy and his name is Captain Yron. He’s one of those like Jhered (see above...) who began as bit part players and ended up as pivotal. He’s grizzled, cynical and difficult to please. He’s a career soldier, far more loyal to his men than his masters. He’s falling out of love with the machinations of Xetesk and reveals himself to be a man of integrity and heart, a man who refuses to take the easy way out. I loved writing his journey in the book. The sideshow of his tutelage of a young soldier in his command was an unexpected gift to me as I wrote. It was just a shame he didn’t have a place in any other volumes.

9. Are there any future plans for the Raven both in the US or the UK?

Well, I can announce here that a deal has been done with the magnificent Lou Anders and Pyr Books to publish the Legends of The Raven trilogy. I hope Ravensoul follows them on to the bookshelves of the US. As far as I’m concerned, after Ravensoul, there won’t be any more novels about The Raven themselves. But that needn’t be the end. Film and TV are mediums in which I think The Raven would thrive. I’m working on a screenplay of Dawnthief when I can as well as examining how I might adapt the novels for multi-episode TV. Options are still available, by the way J. I’m currently working with developers on a Raven rpg/strategy computer game and we’ll see if that bears fruit. Signs are positive but money is scarce... I’m a big gaming fan by the way so as far as I’m concerned, any Raven game will be brilliant or not made at all.

10. You have a new series starting in 2010. What can you tell us about this series? What can we the readers expect as far as writing style?

Well, it’s a new trilogy of books concerning the Elves of the Raven’s world. It covers their bloody and difficult history over about three thousand years up to the point where the spell, Dawnthief, is discovered, which itself is about three hundred years before the Raven are born. The Elves live on a continent far to the south of Balaia, called Calaius. It is dominated by rainforest and the elves are a complex lot, riven along lines of longevity that are linked to the gods they worship. They also do not ride horses. Nor do they use longbows.

The first book, ‘Once Walked With Gods’ deals with a breakdown of elven society, the unwelcome intervention of humans and the trials of a fallen hero. Subsequent novels deal with consequences, the ongoing conflict between elves and man, the development of characters and, like always with me, each book reaches a proper conclusion rather than setting up the next (which it will also do but not as its prime driving force). I know that’s vague but I’m not through the second book yet and given an earlier answer, you wouldn’t expect me to know too much detail, would you?

The writing style owes a great deal more to the Raven than the Ascendants of Estorea. The books will be back to pace-driven action fantasy with, I sincerely hope, characters people can love, hate, shout at in frustration and cry over, as well as dealing with themes that matter. I hope readers in the US are not waiting ten years for them. Going out and buying the Raven now will help reduce that wait J.

By the way, that isn’t the only new work I’m involved with. I’m writing a series of Young Adult novels too, first one scheduled for Spring 2011. More on that anon but I’m both very excited and a little nervous to be stepping outside the relative security of the fantasy genre and into mainstream fiction.

11. Let's put you in Balaia for these questions. Would you want to be a part of the Raven? Do you think they would even accept you in the exclusive group of theirs? If not, what role would you be playing in Balaia (mage, rogue warrior, even a bar owner in a small city!).

Well, I suppose I can dream of being in any way brave, strong and enduring enough to be part of them though I doubt very much they’d want me with them. Fighting has never been a strong point of mine. Nor violent confrontation of any kind. I write about it instead. Far safer. I think I’d be a mentor to mages. A skilled mage in my own right but rather than seek the highest positions of college power, I’d school those wanting a life as a mage in exactly what it means. Sounds a bit pappy, I suppose but it would leave me at the centre of things, respected, admired and with few enemies. These are things that benefit the desire for a long life...

12. This year was the debut for the David Gemmell Legend award, what are your thoughts on its inception? How involved were you with the award process & how do you foresee the future of the DGLA?

Dave Gemmell was a very good friend of mine, a mentor and pillar of strength. His death was desperately sad for me personally and a disaster for the genre because he was such a champion and was writing at his very best with the Troy series. I will always miss sitting in his house in the early hours talking about authorly things and feeling blessed that I met him one day on a train to Paris. That’s a tale for another day.

So for me, the DGLA was and is a fitting tribute to the undisputed king of heroic fantasy and a man who believed personally in the five key pillars of his work – love, friendship, honour, courage and redemption. I’ve been involved in the process from the very start but the real driving forces behind it have been Stan Nicholls and Debbie Miller (the author, Miller Lau). All of us have been touched by Dave’s generous spirit as a friend, tutor or mentor. Dave was best man at Stan’s wedding. Their friendship goes back decades. On the night, I had the honour of opening the event by dramatising a speech from Legend. It was the call to arms Druss gives the defenders of Dros Delnoch on the eve of battle against the Nadir. It was an emotional moment and well-received I think. Later I hosted the raffle which was just a blast.

The future for the Award is bright so long as we keep working and promoting it. We need to raise funds too and that is always a challenge. We’re going to expand the number of categories and do as much as possible to keep it front of mind as voting begins, right through to the awards night itself. The inaugural night far exceeded my expectations but I still think there are things we can do better. I’m excited about the future for the award. It deserves to be the premier fantasy award hosted here in the UK. Anyone who wants to know more about the DGLA, please get along to for all you need to know. There’s even a link there to the audio from the 2009 event so if you want to hear my speech, you can.
13. You must be tremendously overjoyed with England reclaiming the Ashes this year. But from a purist's point of view, which series win was more thrilling/satisfying, the 2005 or the 2009?

Utterly overjoyed. Even more so given our dreadful thrashing in Australia last time around. It was a fine series, introducing plenty of new players to both sides. But the 2005 win was both more thrilling and satisfying. We hadn’t won for what seemed like ages and the Aussies were a hugely strong side. Ponting, Hayden, Clarke, Watson, Gilchrist, Langer, Warne and for a couple of tests, McGrath. We were strong too. Vaughan, Flintoff, Pietersen, Harmison, Hoggard, Jones and Giles. A proper heavyweight contest with no let up, not for one ball of a session. Brilliant stuff. Apologies to all those non-cricket fans for the list of names but for those who follow the sport, these were big names in a huge series. And beating the Aussies is everything to an English cricket fan.

14. What order do you recommend readers read the whole Raven series in? Can the Legend of Raven be read and understood without reading the Chronicles of Raven?

Well, and I would say this, read them from the beginning. The chronology is: Dawnthief, Noonshade, Nightchild. Elfsorrow, Shadowheart, Demonstorm, Ravensoul. Absolutely, yes the Legends can be read and understood without reading the Chronicles but why would you? Think how much action, emotion, character and sparkling dialogue you’ll be missing. You also get the free benefit of seeing how my writing improves from one novel to the next. What more could a fantasy fan want?

15. Anything else you'd like to include?

Well I think I’ve managed to discuss most of my life in one way or another. So much of it has revolved around The Raven, it seems, whether as an rpg in my teens or as writing novel upon novel about them. It’s been quite a journey. It’s a strange thing to live with characters for such a long time. They really do become an integral part of your life. I’ll look back on them with great fondness always. It was a double-edged moment when I finished Demonstorm. That was to be the last of them and I found myself utterly at a loss even though I had the Estorea novels to write immediately afterwards.

Being able to return to them with Ravensoul was an unlooked for pleasure and once I was done with that novel, I was able to walk away feeling somehow more complete. It seemed the tale was not told at the end of Demonstorm. It is now.

Oh, and finally, in that dice-based rpg? I was Hirad. Who else?


disrepdog said...

Great interview :-)


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