In the year, plus a month or so, that I’ve written for Blogcritics, I've been privileged to review a number of wonderful books. They have been from authors all over the globe: India, Spain, Great Britain, and of course North America. Even more special have been the occasions when I've had the opportunity to interview some of them.
This time I was lucky that James Barclay appreciated my review of his latest book, The Ascendants Of Estorea: Cry Of The Newborn, the first of a new series, enough that instead of having me arrested for stalking, he agreed to an interview. My initial introduction to Mr Barclay came from reading his six-part series featuring the mercenaries who made up the group The Raven. They impressed me so much that when his latest book was released, I made a point of ensuring I got my hands on a copy.
If anything, Cry Of The Newborn was even more enthralling than his previous work and different enough that they could have been almost written by two separate authors. Those of you who have braved my writing in the past will know the creative process involved with writing a book fascinates me.
Mr. Barclay's ability to switch gears between the two series increased my eagerness to talk with him. I say “talk” figuratively, as distance and time zones once again made that prohibitive, so I simply emailed him a number of questions that he responded to. What follows is the unedited transcript of our emailed questions and answers.
The majority of the questions focus on the two series and his methods. Don't worry if you haven't had the opportunity to read his work, although you should rectify that as soon as possible. It's not necessary to have read Barclay to enjoy what he has to say about writing and his process.
Due to the length of this interview, it's been split into two parts. Part one will run today and part two will be carried tomorrow in these same pages.
Boring Bio bits: Who, what, and where did you spring from?
I was born in an English port and seaside town called Felixstowe in 1965, making me a very old and grumpy 41. My parents still live in Felixstowe; I’ve got two sisters and a brother and a huge and sprawling number of nephews and nieces that is growing even now.
I’ve had my fascination with writing since I was seven and wrote my first story, which my mother still has. I was always writing something from that day, I think, and my ambition to be a published author began at about the age of 11. Same time I developed the ambition to become an actor.
I did pretty well at school, went to college in Sheffield to do Communication Studies and thence to drama school to study a postgraduate diploma. After that, I owed plenty of cash so went to work in a variety of places, ending up with a couple of marketing and advertising jobs in the City. I left to write full time in March 2004 and am absolutely loving it.
I’m married to Clare; we have a lovely house in a town near London called Teddington. We have a beautiful little Hungarian Vizsla puppy that is a handful but a joy and we’re expecting our first baby in January 2007. Chaos will truly reign in our house.
I was an actor and worked in theatre for about ten years, and I've found it's impacted on my writing style, the amount of dialogue I use, character development, and I seem to use a sort of improvisational style of writing; knowing which characters are in a chapter, what information I want to get out, and what needs to happen, and than just let it all happen.
Have you noticed any traits that you've carried over from your theatre work into your writing?
Yes absolutely. I act out fight scenes and dialogue. I prefer dialogue to describe scene and story where I can and that’s certainly a stage influence. I’m not a massive planner. I have a broad structure and fill in the details as I go – improvisation is about right. I think it adds life and credibility to characters. One of my favourite playwrights is Mike Leigh and he’s a fine example of how improvisation can really work.
Have you ever considered any script writing, or any sort of return to stage life?
I’m writing a screenplay at the moment (a collaboration with a friend) and have ideas for others just waiting to go. As for acting professionally again, yes I’d love to. Bizarrely but fortunately, I was chatting to the man cutting my hair in the barbers the other day and discovered he is an actor/writer/director (and cuts hair for regular income). To abbreviate a long story, I’m auditioning for him next week for a small part in a feature film he’s written. It’s very good; a hard-hitting, gritty drama set on a south London council estate. I’m in line to be a policeman. Should be fun and whether I get the part or not, I’m going to be involved in the production from a script perspective. I’ll see how much I enjoy the process before deciding whether to pursue it again. Oh and anyone out there looking to finance a small budget Brit pic, please get in touch!
What caused the change, why writing novels, specifically fantasy ones?
Well, it wasn’t really a change. I always felt I could do both acting and writing. What happened was that I got disillusioned with acting. So many knockbacks, so few opportunities. I was in work and doing well and my books were starting to get real interest from publishers.
It was a simple choice to concentrate on the writing and it’s proved the right one. It’s funny, despite being an actor, it never occurred to me at the time to write plays and screenplays. I wanted to be a novelist.
I wrote, and write, fantasy because that’s what I have read throughout my life. You should always write in the arena in which you are most comfortable. For me it was fantasy and I felt I could do an equivalent if not better job than other authors out there and set out to prove it. It’s not for me to judge whether I have been a success in that.
I also grew up playing role-playing games and that merely cemented the love of fantasy.
Where did The Raven come from?
The role-playing. A particularly rich few years of gaming in the Dragon Quest system with a consistent group of friends gave rise to some wonderful characters. I played Hirad Coldheart, by the way. I could see the dynamic in the group and wanted to bring that to the written page.
The idea of a band of heroes isn’t necessarily a new one but I think my take was what interested publishers. The Raven were already established as the best and were in fact slightly long in the tooth. The banter, the bond and the method of fighting just worked.
Was it always going to be six books – a sextet?
No. In fact, I didn’t even think of a trilogy at the outset. Dawnthief was written as a stand-alone and it was only when I was in talks with my publisher that I developed ideas for the other two books in the first trilogy. The second trilogy suggested itself as I wrote the first set and because the Chronicles sold well, I was able to write the Legends series.
You've gone from a series of six regular sized books to a duology of massive proportions — I mean, Cry Of The Newborn is over 800 pages long. Was there any particular reason for that?
There are a few reasons as it happens. The Ascendants idea had been rolling around in my head for the best part of 20 years and it was only a couple of years ago that I felt able to deliver on the premise and do the idea justice. I always knew it was going to be a big epic.
We discussed making it into three or four but I’ve never liked arbitrary breaks in books. Each of my books, while it might read better with prior knowledge, can be read alone. I do beginning, middle and end, I don’t finish a book in the middle of the story.
The Ascendants were born out of an idea I had way back in my college years. But I only really developed structure, character and plot during the writing of Demonstorm. I needed to do that in order to put together a pitch document for my editor and agent. Because it was a big departure from The Raven, Gollancz needed to be sure they were doing the right thing in offering a contract.
It was a massive task to get the first book out in just over a year (not something I could have done had I still been at work in the City) and the sequel hasn’t been any easier. I wanted to prove (to myself as well as to anyone else who cared) that I could write beyond The Raven and deliver an epic fantasy on a large scale. I think I’ve achieved that.
The book is 800 pages long because that’s how many pages it took to tell the story. Every book has a natural length, I think. And this is a big one. The sequel is slightly shorter and the next book I write will be half the size or less. I don’t believe in puffing out stories and neither do I believe in editing the life out of a story just to achieve an arbitrary word count. If your story needs to be inflated or hacked so much to fit a target, it’s probably the wrong target or the wrong story. Does that make sense?
That concludes part one of my interview with British author James Barclay. Check back here tomorrow to read the conclusion as we go into more detail about both The Ascendants Of Esotrea: Cry Of The Newborn and the adventures of The Raven.