Interview: James Barclay Author Of Ascendants Of Esotrea
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. Literally 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 where I've had the opportunity to interview some of them.
This time I was lucky enough that an author 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 James Barclay came from reading his six part series featuring the mercenaries who made up the group The Raven and 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 that the creative process involved with writing a book fascinates me, and Mr. Barclay's ability to switch gears between the two series increased my eagerness to have an opportunity 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 too. 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 enjoy what Mr. Barclay has to say about writing and his process.
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 that 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 post graduate 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 knock backs, 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 twenty 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?
Do you find that you draw inspiration from anything around you? For instance the whole idea in Raven of mankind's unwillingness to consider the repercussions of our actions as it might affect the future, or another people, or even another species or universe. Do you mean for that to parallel anything in current events, recent or otherwise?
When I began writing The Raven, I was writing adventures pure and simple. I wasn’t consciously paralleling current events. Introducing themes came later and I think you can see as The Raven books go on that the issues of blind politics, religion (positive and negative), authoritarian intransigence, arrogance and the potential consequences of an arms race. I was also keen to develop the Raven’s key themes around love and belief making a group of individuals infinitely greater than the sum of their parts.
How about Cry of the Newborn and it's sequel; any parallels there?
I’m fascinated (morbidly mostly) by the controlling effects of a powerful religion on a society. What the Ascendants did was allow me to investigate what would happen if the central tenets of a faith were challenged by a new reality. Blind faith is a dangerous thing and I sought to demonstrate that. But at the same time I wanted to take a balanced view, showing how moderation and acceptance are far more powerful in the long term than denial, denouncement and violence.
As for the sequel, a central theme there concerns the challenge to authority of a power beyond that authority’s power to control. Whether the power is benevolent or malevolent, many of the issues are actually the same but they are realised in different ways. Because the sequel, A Shout For The Dead, is set a decade after the end of the first book, I’ve been able to go into the longer term effect of the Ascendants on their society, on the core religion and on the attitudes of people in authority. And particularly, as the book unfolds, on the huge uncertainty the Ascendants bring. So many what ifs…
Do you ever find any of yourself creeping into characters, or maybe even traits you wish you had. I have this feeling that your favourite character in the Raven series was Hirad.
Well, you’re right. As I mentioned above, he was my character in my role playing all those years ago. I’m absolutely certain I creep into my characters. I try not to but inevitably, a writer gives themselves in whole or part to their story and the outward demonstration of that is going to be in their characters.
There are traits I wish I had… utter confidence and the ability to say exactly the right thing every time would be damned handy. A lovely thing about writing is that your characters can say those words you wish you’d said in a similar situation. They can talk the tough words and fight the good fight like you cannot.
I thought the whole relationship with the dragons in The Raven series was really nice. The Kaan could have squashed our world flat, but chose not to, because of our obvious use to them, still they regard most humans as a blight upon existence. What was your inspiration for their characters and viewpoint?
I’m not sure about my inspiration for them. I wanted my dragons to be enormously powerful. So powerful that no man could ever kill one. I wanted them to be intelligent and to have their own society with its joys and tragedies, conflicts and needs. The idea of a link between dragon broods and other dimensions grew as I wrote Dawnthief. It makes dragons flawed, it means they are reliant on others for their survival and forces them to be benevolent dictators rather than pure tyrants.
The Kaan, typified by Sha Kaan have no particular love for humans because they believe them to have fatal flaws that could lead to the destruction of themselves and hence the dragons. They fear that and hate the fact humans can be so blind and arrogant. Only a few demonstrate the strength of will that they respect. Hirad and The Raven were such people.
I've read reviews comparing the Raven books to the Magnificent Seven the cowboy movie with Yul Brynner and company. Is there any validity to that? Are you even a fan of the material?
I certainly enjoyed the film when I was young. And I’ve seen Seven Samurai since. While I didn’t consciously mimic the ‘band of people protecting the helpless’ theme, it still happened that way and I think the comparison has credibility. I didn’t base The Raven on the magnificent seven but the parallels make me laugh now (Seven people in The Raven, a bald guy, people who’s skills are just beginning to decline... I can see where it comes from).
In the Ascendancy you have created an empire that is very similar to the Roman Empire in the structure of it's military, and some of their social customs; dress, manner of eating etc. Was there any particular reason for that or is it just a period you like and are comfortable with.
I didn’t want to write a medieval fantasy. I wanted to create a different feel and the Romans were ideal. A fascinating society, quite advanced and very ambitious. A system perfect for expansion of empire. Very organised. Perfect for mucking up by dropping the Ascendants on them. I enjoyed the research and learned heaps. One name check for you – Adrian Goldsworthy. A superb historian and expert on the Romans. I owe him.
You worked for so long with a specific set of characters in the Raven sequence, how difficult was it for you to switch gears so quickly into a completely different world and characters?
Very. And that, as much as anything else made it necessary to do. The comfort zone is a dangerous place for a writer, I feel. No matter how successful you are, you can get stale writing the same characters, world and style. You don’t have to look far for people who exhibit that. Even Terry Pratchett doesn’t write Discworld novels all the time despite their enormous success and I reckon the fact that he steps away from that world from time to time has helped keep the series as fresh as it mainly manages to be even now.
What I found tricky was not writing lines or creating characters that were mirrors of The Raven. I had to fight very hard to stop Paul Jhered being a carbon copy of The Unknown Warrior. I had to examine every line of dialogue, every attitude and gesture to make the men individuals. Again, I think I succeeded and as the drafting went on, it became easier because the new characters found their voices and began to shout for themselves.
You included lots of military details, styles of fighting both on land and at sea, compositions of forces, and the engineering techniques involved in early field artillery. Was this all research you did specific to this book, or was it knowledge you had floating around in your brain beforehand waiting for a chance to be used?
It was research specific to the books. I wanted to get the warfare as accurate as I could without becoming dull. The scale of battles was huge and I needed to have knowledge of how they were fought for real to make my versions anything like credible. Again, it was to distance myself from medieval warfare. Roman techniques were organised and devastatingly effective for the most part. What was particularly interesting to me was having to understand how it worked so that I could understand how it might go wrong. Terrain, enemy tactics, weather, the virus of panic. So much could turn order into chaos. I have assimilated a lot more knowledge than appears in the books. I think that’s the right balance.
When I told an author friend of mine the length of the first Cry Of The Newborn, he said thank goodness for British publishing. Was there any balking at the fact that you had produced an 800 plus page book?
Not really but that’s because I had already written six successful novels and so the risk of it falling flat because of its size was relatively small. Interestingly, my US agent has so far been unable to place it and it’s pretty clear that as a first novel in the US (because The Raven is yet to be published there) it is too big. I can understand that. I suspect that had I rolled up to Gollancz with this as my first novel, I would have received a cooler response. As it is, it has done very well here in the UK.
The concept of the Ascendants, humans who can communicate with natural forces and manipulate them is fascinating. How did you conceive of them? Was it difficult to understand their characters and the experiences they underwent when they began to first come into their power?
It was an idea that came to me in an instant and a theme I have always found interesting. I didn’t want ‘standard’ wizards using mystical force to create spells. I wanted to ground the magic in things we all know. The elements are hugely powerful and the thought that they could be manipulated by individuals is both wonderful and scary. It made the fight with the dominant religion all the more bitter since the faith is very much earth and element based.
The four Ascendants were a tough challenge but one I relished and very much enjoyed. I had to keep in mind that they were just young children coming into their teenage years with all the attendant issues. But on the other hand, they are who they are – they were not normal children who were gifted powers, they were born with them. They don’t know how to feel any other way. What they needed was guidance about how to control their power. But no one could really advise them. They were true pioneers and the knowledge of being unique, of being the first to hold such ability is difficult to handle.
The only trouble with an email interview is you don't get that final couple of moments where you say goodbye and the person on the other end of the line says goodbye and you thank each other. So there's no real way to end these interviews without it sounding abrupt, like it does here. But it does have the advantage of providing an easy way of closing the conversation.
The standard ending question of what do you have forthcoming he already answered earlier on, volume two of The Ascendants Of Estorea that will be released in Canada November followed by a third as of yet unnamed book, so there was no point in asking that one. Since he also mentioned that he and his wife are expecting a child shortly, you can bet he will a little preoccupied with baby stuff. (Can we all guess who is not a parent in this crowd – baby stuff, sheesh)
While people in the United States are able to buy all six books of The Raven series through Amazon.com unfortunately they are not selling The Ascendants Of Estorea: Cry Of The Newborn. Whether or not that will change when the mass-market paperback comes out, I believe in November, I don't know. I do know that you can purchase it online through either Amazon.ca or his Canadian distributor McArthur & Company.
I would just like to thank James Barclay for taking the time out of his busy life to answer my questions, and I hope you found his answers as intriguing as I did. If you were at all fascinated or intrigued by this interview, than be assured you will find his books equally captivating.