Into every generation a Slayer is born, as well as a top class author. For my father’s generation, that author was J.R.R. Tolkien; for my generation, that author is James Barclay. An author of consummate skill, I first read his books nearly two years ago now, and instantly fell in love (with the writing…). Soon after James and I started emailing each other, me professing my undying love for his writing, him gratefully accepting it saying that there was “nothing like buffing the ego up to a dazzling sparkle.”
James Barclay is one of three authors I consider 10 out of 10 (the other two being Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb). His realistic storytelling – which, as we discuss, includes a distressing penchant for never letting a character live for too long – is what makes him brilliant.
So come and join me in my interview with James Barclay, and find out about the man behind the books!
Geeks of Doom: First of all, tell us who you are.
James Barclay: I am James Barclay, author of The Raven series of action fantasy novels, and the Ascendants of Estorea duology.
GoD: Where do you reside? How long have you lived there? Are you married, children, dogs?
JB: I live in Teddington, Middlesex. We’ve lived here for almost three years and lovely it is too. I am married, to Clare. We have a son, Oscar, who is almost 18 months old. We also have a dog, Mollie, our two year old Hungarian Vizsla.
GoD: When did you start writing? When did you realise that writing would become your life?
JB: I started writing when I was 11 and never stopped. I’ve wanted writing to be my whole life pretty much ever since but I didn’t realise it might actually happen until Dawnthief started selling very well shortly after publication. To make it a reality was down to me after that…
GoD: What story came first, the Raven or the Ascendants?
JB: The Raven. Just. I remember making my first notes on what became the Ascendants when I was at college back in 1983, over two decades before they were published. But I’d already begun writing the early drafts of The Raven when I was at school. These drafts were, of course, rubbish and that why I didn’t get Dawnthief into print until 1999.
GoD: I hear that you’re working on a seventh Raven book. Is it part of a new trilogy? When does it take place, in relation to the other books?
JB: I am indeed. In fact, I’ve finished it and it’s at the typesetters at the moment. It’s called Ravensoul and it is a stand-alone, not part of a new trilogy. The events of Ravensoul take place ten years after the war related in Demonstorm.
GoD: Who is your favourite character from the Raven series? And why did you kill him off?
JB: Hirad Coldheart is my favourite. Utterly fearless, passionate and loyal. A man you would want to be fighting next to you. He’s headstrong too, sees the world in black and white and acts on that. Not always the right thing but you know that everything he does is backed by complete belief. I didn’t kill him off – he died saving the people he loved. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
GoD: OK, so you may not have killed off your favourite character, but you certainly have a penchant for killing everyone off, left, right and centre. Can you explain this morbid penchant of yours?
JB: Well, it isn’t gratuitous, that would be wrong. The fact is that The Raven live in a dangerous world. Their chosen profession as mercenaries, fighting with sword and magic, brings them into extreme danger day after day. Saving the world is not a business without risk. It just seemed to me (and it still does) that to have all my heroes survive every battle is just not credible. Eventually, inevitably, they will die or be seriously injured. They are heroes but they are not invincible super heroes. Simple, really.
GoD: Where did you get the idea for making the Elves favourable to tropical climates? For that matter, where did you get the idea for the Raven series?
JB: I think everyone who writes about Elves wants to put their own spin on them. Or they should. I certainly didn’t want to create Tolkien-esque elves trotting around rather pretty English woodland. I felt that if I wanted a race of elves with particular skills, they needed to live in a place where those skills would need to be developed merely to survive. Keen eyesight, keen hearing, stealth, speed over short distances, short bow use. Seems to me the rainforest is a very tough environment and an ideal place to hone such skills. I also wanted them to be hard as nails and disdainful of other races. The impenetrability of the rainforest is ideal once more…
As for The Raven series, that’s more simple. I used to be a dice based roleplayer in my youth and the group of characters I and my friends developed were the genesis of the Raven.
GoD: Ah, so you were a bit of a nerd then, in your youth? I assume that, because role players do not have a great chance of being the school jock or high-school cheerleader. Can you tell us a bit about your favourite character that you played?
JB: I wouldn’t call myself a nerd. I was vice-captain of the first XI cricket team too. And a lead in school plays. And deputy head boy. But hey, I love my nerd side too. Those who scoffed at rpgs missed out if you ask me. Anyway, the favourite character I played has to be Hirad Coldheart. Very risky man to play since he was always first through the door, first into the fight and first with an ill-judged word or three. But immense fun. Technically, he’s still alive too but I haven’t played the game for over twenty years now.
GoD: I note in Wikipedia, source of all that is true and right, that you also wrote a novella, Light Stealer. Where can people find that, and is it very attached to the Raven storyline?
JB: Light Stealer is a novella set 300 years before The Raven and deals with the discovery of the spell Dawnthief and its creator, Septern. You can order it from amazon or direct from www.pspublishing.co.uk. I’ve just submitted another novella to PS, by the way. It’s my first foray into comedy and I’m rather pleased with it.
GoD: Can you tell us a little bit about it? And, being an English fantasy writer, did you receive any inspiration from the works of Terry Pratchett?
JB: The novella is to be called The Vault of Deeds and it’s essentially about financial impropriety at an educational institution. Technically. What it is most of all is a gentle poke at the whole genre, employing clichés with great abandon and, I hope providing laughs, excitement and entertainment.
As for the great Pratchett, I think it’s hard not to take inspiration from his work. He’s proved fantasy can be very, very funny and that gives great hope to those of us dipping our toe in to the water. I’m not trying to ape him, of course, that would be well nigh impossible. But I do want people to laugh the same way as they do when they read a Pratchett.
GoD: Will you be returning to the Ascendants?
JB: There are no plans at present though there are many ideas knocking about
GoD: Why in HEAVENS NAME not? I liked it!
JB: Thank you for liking it! We need to find ideas with legs that can develop the original concept in the right direction. That means I need to let my thoughts coalesce and then sell the idea to my publishers if I can.
GoD: You mentioned to me that the six Raven books were being repackaged, can you describe what they’ll look like? Were you unhappy with the black and random colour of the first six? I really liked them, the covers were what drew me to your work in the first place!
JB: The new covers will each focus on the detail of a single weapon which will be drawn by a professional artist. Ravensoul, for instance, features the hilt of a sword. Striking and impressive it is too. I very much liked the two-colour silhouette covers. They worked really well. But from time to time, it’s good to re-jacket to remind people the books are out there and maybe expand the audience that little bit…
GoD: You spend a lot of time on your website, blog, and forums. Are you one of those authors who recognizes the power of the internet for good? Rather than evil and porn?
JB: The internet is a wonderful tool for meeting people from across the world and having contact with fans. It’s a great marketing tool too. But it is a random place, largely unregulated in real terms and home to all sorts of seditious nonsense. That’s the price we pay and it’s down to individuals to realise that not all that is written is gospel truth. And porn has its place on the net just like it does in every medium. It just needs to be secured from those who are too young to see it and need to be protected from it. Same as fanatical extremism and the like.
GoD: Your sports blog suggests to me, insightful one that I am, that you like sports. As an author, a love of sports is not necessarily something one would guess. How long have you loved sports, have you played sports, if so what?
JB: You have a razor sharp mind, my friend. I have always loved sports. I went to my first football match when I was seven and have never stopped going. I am a keen player of tennis, play cricket occasionally and used to play paintball at tournament level. And yes, I consider paintball a sport. An exhilarating one at that. I love to watch sport too… football, cricket, rugby union, tennis, darts, athletics. The drama and theatre of live sport is just amazing.
GoD: As a fantasy writer, a role player in your youth, do you see yourself as unique in your additional love of sport? As a fully fledged nerd/geek, whatever you want, I myself find that I am almost entirely unique in my love of watching any sport.
JB: Unique, not quite. However, I’m probably unusual in my total devotion to sport as well as our beloved genre. Can’t help but generalize… it seems to me I am in a minority wanting to leave convention sessions to get football scores or watch the cricket.
GoD: As an Englishman, do you admit that the English may have invented cricket, but Australia have perfected the sport?
JB: I laugh. Australia are currently better than us but these things are cyclical. No one will ever perfect cricket. More Ashes in 2009 and that will be a magnificent series.
GoD: Your Wikipedia entry notes that your “love for writing spawned from a love for reading.” It also credits your brother with introducing you to Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Who were some of your favourite authors as a kid? What were some of your favourite books?
JB: Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, JRR Tolkien, Alan Dean Foster, Dave Gemmell (a bit later), Harry Harrison, Arthur C Clarke, Ursula LeGuin. The list goes on. Non-Stop by Aldiss is a fantastic book that I recommend to everyone. I remember loving Elric too but remember very little about the books now. I read Lord of the Rings five times before I was thirteen. The Tar-aiym Krang by Alan Dean Foster was one I also remember really loving when I was young. I was also into Biggles and other boy’s own adventure stuff.
GoD: You read LOTR 5 times before age 13? That’s thoroughly impressive! Do you think that Tolkien’s writing can be read by anyone of any age? Do you think that, the oft-used comment that he is over descriptive is true, and if so, a detractor from his work?
JB: I don’t know. He’s a writer of his time as are we all. You musn’t forget that LOTR was published n 1954. His descriptive style is beautiful but it is over fifty years old and styles change. I don’t think Tolkien can be read by anyone of any age. No author can. His style doesn’t detract from his work, it is a central part of it. Anyone who reads Tolkien has to be aware of his background and the time in which he wrote. Comparing him to 21st century authors is daft. After all, no one compares me to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, do they?
GoD: Now that you’ve matured, theoretically, has your reading diversified outside of Sci-Fi and Fantasy? Have your favourite authors changed much? What have you read in the last 5 years that you liked?
JB: Very much theoretically. I always read outside of SF&F though the genre was my dominant pick. Favourite authors these days are Robert Harris, Louis de Bernieres, Dave Gemmell and Rob Grant. I rarely seek out multiple books by the same author unless I utterly love their work. So many authors, so little time.
Books I’ve enjoyed in the last five years… Imperium and Pompeii by Robert Harris, Troy by Gemmell, Red Dog and The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (that whole trilogy which all have long and wonderful names) by de Bernieres, Incompetence by Rob Grant, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Currently, I’m reading Marley and Me by John Grogan. A lovely book.
James, thank you so much for spending the time to talk with me, answer the questions, and be such a great sport about this. Geeks of Doom, and I thank you. Anything you want to say in closing?
It’s been an absolute pleasure. I’ve not too much to add. This is a great genre in which to work. Authors, fans and critics alike are all genuinely passionate about the genre. It is a terrific community, very friendly and one that is expanding with the internet as its driver. Long may that continue and long may the breadth of quality writing we are seeing at the moment continue too.
Make sure to check out James’ website and Barclay Talks Sport, so keep your eyes focused on Geeks of Doom, because the moment Ravensoul is released, I’ll be at it and reviewing it for your pleasure!