Monday 16 August 2010

INTERVIEW: James Barclay

Long time friend of the blog, James Barclay, took time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with us about life and writing. Whilst he's now a known name in the world of Fantasy its been a long hard road and there's been casualties along the way.

Here he talks to us about his which of his titles is his favourite, how he's adapted over the years, an authors personal delusion and the essentials that he just couldn't do without...

Falcata Times: How would you say that your perspective has changed about selling your own work with multiple novels under your belt?

James Barclay: It’s funny because my immediate reaction was to assume that I was more relaxed but that isn’t the case. When Dawnthief was published there was massive excitement and plenty of hope. Ten books later, I have a little less excitement and a whole lot more expectation. I have developed a fairly accurate gut feel about how well a book will do as well. That’s both a blessing and a curse, I find.

Then there’s the internet and marketing. It’s completely exploded in the last ten years and authors need to be aware of the sheer number of forums, blogs, review sites and stores there are out there. Selling a novel is a global (or certainly trans-Atlantic) operation from day one. Authors need to be able to respond to the live nature of the internet so it isn’t just doing the interviews and writing blog posts on their own websites. Being available for live podcast, forum chats and there to respond on individual forum threads... all of this and much more is part of the author’s job. This is not a complaint, by the way. I absolutely love it.

A third thing is foreign language translations. Again, when Dawnthief came out, I had no real awareness of the value of being sold in local markets around the world. But they are incredibly important. It’s a trap to assume that English language speaking markets are going to be enough. For me, Germany and France are absolutely key and I’m delighted to be published there and in every country in which I’ve got a translation. There are quite a few now and I do what I can to make sure I stay published overseas.

Lastly, I pay far more attention to my backlist sales as time goes on. Dave Gemmell used to tell me to keep a close eye on the progression of sales of all my books (and he was a man who always knew the total sales of each one of his novels and he had thirty plus). The reason for this is that you are not a helpless bystander. Backlist books can be reinvigorated with fresh covers, blogs, website contests and such like. And every author needs to be aware that maintaining back list sales is a key plank of their business.

FT: How would you sell yourself as an author?

JB: As tall, dark and incredibly handsome. I have a really good imagination, you see. And I’m happily delusional.

But returning to the real world if I absolutely must... I’m a writer of character-driven action novels. When you read my books, you get flawed people, real people, involved in events that commonly spiral out of control and so strain sanity and courage to the limits. Sometimes beyond that breaking point too. You get excitement by the bucket load and action, combat and battle sequences that, if I can flatter myself for a moment, are up there with the best in the business.

You get uncluttered writing and you get the feeling that the characters are involved in things that really matter. You get writing free of preaching yet containing themes I feel are important to discuss. I just don’t ram them down your throat or batter you about the head with them.

My aim is not to educate you about the world and all its problems, politics and so on in some awfully clever allegorical fashion; it is to leave you knowing you were immersed in a complete and credible world, were intelligently entertained and that you should really tell ten friends to go buy themselves a copy.

FT: How would you say that your experience of writing and publishing has changed your methods of writing?

JB: Actually, I’ve changed my method of writing fundamentally just recently. I’m on record saying how I don’t like to do too much planning beyond knowing who is alive at the beginning of a novel, who is alive at the end and the broad journey that is to be completed. That stopped working during the writing of Ravensoul and it was in the drafting of a young adult novel that the system fell apart completely.

So I’ve re-examined how I write and why and I think I’m probably more conformist as a result. Now you can argue that I’ve matured a bit but I’ve come to the realisation that I need more certainty in what is coming next these days. So I do plan now. Not for months or anything but I do a complete storyboard of a book before I write to give me the basic skeleton.

That doesn’t mean things won’t change during the writing of a book but having a framework makes the whole process feel more robust and secure and actually enables change rather than works against it. That’s because you can see where change will lead rather than racing off in headless fashion, hoping it will work out.

The result, I feel, will be better crafted books with fewer inconsistencies and manuscripts that give my editor fewer sleepless nights. Elves book one, Once Walked With Gods, is the first using the new method of working. And I think it’s worked rather well.

FT: With the experience that you've gained now, what do you wish you could have told yourself when you were starting out that you now know?

JB: Don’t be in such a bloody hurry all the time – if it isn’t the very best you can make it, don’t give it to anyone. Challenge everything you write. Don’t be afraid to admit that everything you’ve written in the last three months is total crap and start all over again (that happened with the Elves book, by the way). Do the extra read-through you know you should do because you’ll find a great big clanger, guaranteed. Read your final draft out loud to yourself because it really, really helps.

FT: What characteristics of your protagonists do you wish that you had yourself and why?

JB: Well, besides the physical strength and speed of some, there is one particular characteristic I do desire. You see, characters in books and not just mine, are very often invested with the capacity to say exactly the right thing. Whether it be a call to arms, the perfect riposte, the well-chosen words of sympathy, or the speech that defines courage, characters can say these things with no more than a blink of thought. I’d love to be able to do that. I’d love to have the courage to say some of the things my characters say.

And if I may pick on Hirad Coldheart, I wish I had his utter confidence in himself, his actions, and in those he loves. The thought that he or they might fail simply does not enter his head. Uncluttered belief. It would make life delightfully simple, wouldn’t it?

FT: Which of your characters are most like you and why?

JB: Actually, I don’t think any of them are particularly like me. I think all of them contain little bits of me or my alter ego. For instance, Ilkar’s sense of humour; Paul Jhered’s grumpiness; Arducius’s humanity and Baron Blackthorne’s patience. I think if I had to choose one, it would probably be Ossacer from the Ascendants series and that is because he has no great extremes. He has empathy, can be naive, is perhaps too trusting in others at times and finds himself disappointed that human beings are so routinely cruel to one another. He has no great reserves of courage but he is not a coward. He tries hard all the time. I think I share those things with him.

FT: What of life’s little addictions could you not live without and why?

JB: There are a couple of things I’d really miss if I thought I could never have them again. One is computer games, particularly high quality FPS games like Call of Duty or Half Life. I love losing myself in them when time allows (which is increasingly rare, it has to be said). When I’m drafting a novel as now, I don’t have any installed because they are too keen a temptation.

Another is a really good pint of real ale. Hop Back Summer Lightning, Oakham JHB, Grand Union Gold. There are others. Something about the taste of a fine pint brings on pure contentment. And of course after five such things, I am ten feet tall and bullet proof.

By the way, I do not consider films, sports and books to be addictions. These are just simple necessities...

FT: With regular trips for book tours around the country as well as to various Conventions, what is an absolute travel essential that you couldn't do without?

JB: I am a Luddite so I don’t consider phones, laptops and all that stuff to be essential. Besides, they are more so people can know where I am whereas, frankly, I enjoy the liberation of being out of touch but that’s another story.

For me, it has to be a notebook and at least three pens. If there is one thing I utterly hate, it’s being on a train, plane or whatever and not being able to scribble down bits of draft, ideas, plans and the like. Even worse, to find your one pen has run dry. It just makes me extremely and immediately grumpy. It needs to be a notebook that will fit in a jacket pocket as I don’t like being encumbered so something A6 size is about as big as it gets. You will rarely see me without one.

FT: Previously you've had some problems when others have criticised your work, how do you think you've changed to adapt to it or would you say that you're just the same?

JB: I’ve got to say I don’t really recognise that as me. I think I take criticism extremely well and, where I can, respond to honest criticism in an honest and open fashion. I think people have the absolute right to hate my work and write about it.

Where I do have a problem (and you might be referring to this) is being criticised for not being like other authors with whom I share nothing but the genre in which we write. You know, dislike my work because you dislike my work. That’s fine by me. Don’t dislike it because it isn’t like George Martin or Steven Erikson. This is like me saying “I totally hate that apple because it is not a banana”. Ridiculous, no?

I have also had the odd poor review based on an erroneous detail. And I will never have respect for such reviews. If a reviewer can’t be bothered to pay attention when they read my book, and then criticise it based on things that don’t even happen within it, why should I respect the review?

FT: On long journeys, reading is often the pleasure of choice, who's work will you grab at the airport to ensure a good journey?

JB: Absolutely it is, but I have a three year old son and so my reading on aircraft is currently extremely limited. Hypothetically, though, I’d probably grab a Robert Harris book. I’ve loved every one of his novels I’ve read so far and I think I’ve read most of them. Lovingly researched, cleverly written and always page-turners. If you haven’t read Pompeii, you’ve missed out. Likewise, Imperium. Great stuff.

FT: Out of all your novels, which is your favourite and why?

JB: Oh, blimey. This is an increasingly tough question, if that makes any sense at all. The shortlist is: Elfsorrow; Ravensoul; Cry of the Newborn

And I’m going to have to plump for Elfsorrow. This was the first of a new trilogy and my fourth book. It was the book where I began to feel that my experience as a novelist was really starting to enhance the quality of my writing in all areas. It was the first (but not the last) book where I cried while writing a scene. Ravensoul is another, by the way. It was the book where the elves were properly introduced and I’ve always been genuinely happy with my take on this fantasy trope. I particularly love the TaiGethen and ClawBound callings. This book also features one of my favourite non-Raven characters – Captain Yron. Love him. I just think Elfsorrow is a high quality novel from front to back.

FT: With everyone having their own personal view as to who should be cast in a film version of their work, who do you think should play your principle protagonists and why?

JB: This is always fun and you’ll have to excuse some of my choices as I still see some of the actors as they were a few years ago. I’ll stick to casting The Raven as these books are most likely to be made into films (I’ve had interest a few times but sadly no massive option deal thus far).

Hirad Coldheart – Hugh Jackman. Think Wolverine with braided hair and a big sword and you’re just about there. He’s a fine lead actor in action films.

Sol/The Unknown Warrior – Christopher Judge. Fans of Stargate SG-1 will know him. He has the physique and sheer presence to carry this part off. A decent actor too.

Ilkar – Me. Because I would have to have a role in any film and could carry off the character no problem. Make up will do the rest... And I do act, by the way.

Denser – Alan Rickman. I love Alan Rickman. A great actor and, with the beard he sports in Die Hard, he looks the spit of my image of Denser.

Erienne - Julianna Marguiles. Good actress and looks like Erienne. That ought to do it.

Thraun – Kevin Sorbo. Another look-a-like and for a beefcake he can act a bit.

Ry Darrick – Brendan Fraser. I really like him as an action actor and he’d be good as an ex-cavalry General occasionally struggling with the fact he’s not in charge any more.

Is that enough for you?

FT: Authors are generally a superstitious lot and upon completion of novels follow a certain ritual, what is yours and how has it changed from the original?

JB: Ah, mine is, or was, a very simple routine. It used to be the case that I’d always finish a novel late at night or in the early hours of a morning. Once the words ‘The End’ were typed at the base of the first draft, I’d go and pour myself a brandy and sit on the back step taking in the air while I drank it.

I don’t tend to do that anymore as I write full time and will normally finish draft one during office hours. I’m not big on brandy when the sun is up so I merely walk away from the PC and take the rest of the day off. I enjoy the feeling of pressure easing from my shoulders. Quite often, this leads to me loading up a favourite shooter game and playing it guilt-free.

FT: What was your impression of an author’s lifestyle and status and how has that interpretation changed since you've published a number of books?

JB: I’ve wanted to be an author since I was 11 years old and went through many ideas of what the life of an author would be. Mainly, it involved being welded to my desk poring over books and maps and pieces of paper while preparing the perfect manuscript. As I grew up and began to write, I got an inkling of how much hard work it actually is to construct a novel, particularly when you have a full-time job as well.

I never saw it as an easy ride, or glamorous or anything like that but when I gave up work to go full-time as an author, I wasn’t prepared for the evils of distraction. It is amazing how much you can find to do instead of sitting down and getting the words on paper. The trouble is that there is this notion that there is always tomorrow and one day you wake up without enough words and way too close to deadline day. I try and avoid that if I can. I know others suffer with the solitude but that has never bothered me.

I think I felt it would give me a sense of freedom and escape but it isn’t like that. In fact, these days I keep pretty strict office hours, have my PC calendar set to tell me when it’s break time, which work I’m doing next and when I should down tools and go and pick up my son from nursery.

I’m sure that’s a function of my office working life being organised that way for years and years. I guess you default to what is comfortable in working practice. One thing that hasn’t changed is that I have always felt fortunate to be a published author and even more so to be able to do it full time. Few enough of us get to do the thing we love most of all as a career.

As for status, well I don’t care much for that so I’ll leave it to others. I have little time for authors who assume superiority because of their job. And anyway, fantasy authors are not held in great and wide regard when compared to other genres. Being a fantasy author is half a good chat up line... ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m an author’. ‘Wow, amazing. What do you write?’ ‘Fantasy.’ ‘Oh.’

FT: What are the best words of wisdom or tip that you'd give to a new or soon to be published author?

JB: Well, I’d get them to look at my answer to question four. I’d also encourage them to really enjoy it. You only have your first book published once and the feeling of subsequent novel publications is not as magical. It’s wonderful every time a new book comes out but it’s different to that first time when you go and see your book on the shelves, rubbing shoulders with all those authors you admire. You’re one of them now and that is a lovely thought. But the high doesn’t last.

Slightly more boringly, new authors have to learn to market their book. Sitting back and letting your publisher do it is not an option. It’s part of the author’s job. This does not mean spamming forums and such like. It’s about blogging, offering yourself for interview, being active on forums to get your name out there (and do try not to mention your book with every post...), contacting local bookshops to see if they’ll do an event, all that sort of thing.

And finally, don’t let up. Your second book is quite probably more important than your first. That is where you start to build your reputation. But a really crap second book can hurt you.


Mark said...

Great interview. Well done both of you.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping for some news on a return to the world within the Ascendants duology. A great world with some great ideas - plenty of room to flesh things out.

Angela Addams said...

Great interview...lots of wonderful advice and information there...especially about taking your time with your work...that's a big issue for me...I'm always in a rush!