SF Site Interview:
Part 1 | Part 2 |
Let's start with a little bit of background, James. You're originally from Felixstowe? And you came to London to be an actor?
Yes -- Felixstowe is a small town on the Suffolk coast. It is the end of the road, the end of the A14. The only thing
you can do in Felixstowe, if you want to go further, is go to Zebrugge! A ghastly Belgian town! I was born and bred there,
grew up there for eighteen years and then left to go to college and studied communication studies at Sheffield
Polytechnic (when they had Polytechnics!)
Why on earth did you choose communication studies?
Actually I didn't! I went there to do (and this is bizarre!) electronics control and design engineering. Oh yes! Having
done "A" levels in physics, chemistry and maths and stuff -- but after a fortnight of not understanding a word
of what they were saying... I found it very tortuous. But the only thing on that course which I
liked was two hours of communication studies. Everyone had to do it.
What does that entail?
It's two hours of... erm...
Talking about talking!
Pretty much! Talking about the industries you might go into... it was very vague.
And you managed to extend this for three years?
Yeah! I thought this was quite good. I'd met a couple of the guys that were on the course and so I thought rather than
just drop out I see if they'd let me change over, which they did fortunately. It's a bloody good course. It's a
degree in common sense really, but it contained media as well, sociology, psychology of language and
linguistics. We made videos and radio programmes. It was good fun.
What kinds of thing have the people that were on that course gone on to do?
They've done various things. There's one guy who's a freelance editor. There's another one who went on to do
another degree in sports management. He reckons he only got into that because he'd done communications
studies. There's a few that lecture at college still, there's a guy who's just made his first feature film as a
director and has done quite well and another guy who is a production assistant on the Channel 4 Top Ten series.
So, three years at college and then you decided to try your hand at a career in the theatre?
Always liked to act, it has to be said. I've always done the old "am-dram", schools plays, things like
that. Like most of us who want to act, I expect. The thing was that when I actually left college I had no idea
what I wanted to do but because I quite liked acting, I thought, bugger it -- I'll think I'll stay in education
and do a year's training. I did a one-year post-grad course at The London and International School of
Acting. Some of the teachers were great, some were horrible but that's life for you! Some of the
students... well, same spectrum really! I got life-long friends out of one or two of them and others I
hope I never see again.
And did it teach you anything?
It taught me that I didn't want to be an actor! That wasn't because I didn't enjoy the acting process or didn't
like performing arts -- it was a very general course, we did loads of dance and singing and speech. All the
usual stuff you do -- dialects etc., but crammed into a year. But what I didn't like was largely the attitude
of the people who thought they were in power. I saw that getting worse when I got outside with directors
and producers. I found it an impatient and utterly selfish profession and that anyone who had any power
over you would use it immediately. Rather than negotiate, they would just declaim and demand and be quite
rude about it! And I thought, well actually I don't want to do this. This isn't any fun at all.
Do you have problem taking criticism?
No. I have a very thick skin about criticism. Being a writer that's one of the things you have to learn
pretty fast. It's not criticism; it's just that if you dared to question someone on what they thought, it
would be "I'm in charge. You will do it this way or you don't do it at all." It is that sort of
attitude -- my way or the highway!
But it is supposed to be about freedom of expression.
It is. It's about working together to make something better rather than someone telling you what to
do and then slagging you off for not doing it exactly the way that they've got it in their mind. The
trouble with a lot of these people is that they couldn't actually communicate. They couldn't actually
tell you what it was they wanted -- until they shouted at you enough for doing it the wrong way that
you eventually found the "right" way.
Did you discover this was the case in every area of the theatre in which you worked?
No -- not at all. I didn't do much when I got out of drama school. I did a one-man show and various bits
of fringe, profit share -- I did a student film, a bit of corporate stuff. Where I never got to -- which I
would love to have done -- was sort of top fringe theatre or repertory theatre, which might have given me
a completely different slant on it all. Though of course, it could have been the other way round,
discordant the higher up you get -- I don't know!
And were you writing throughout all of this?
Yes. I never ever gave up writing ever since I started.
And when did you start?
When I was eleven. That's when I started writing stories. Obviously they were pretty awful. My mum's
got most of them at home.
You wanted to be an actor? Didn't you want to be a writer?
Yes I did -- I was still doing it. I just didn't think I was producing anything that was good enough,
frankly. For me. And if isn't good enough for me then it certainly isn't going to be good enough for
And what form was this writing taking?
Well, I suppose it started getting serious when I was about sixteen or seventeen and I knew enough
language to write something half decent. I did a lot of short stories, a lot of what now I would
What sort of genre?
Science fiction and fantasy, generally speaking. The sci-fi was very contemporary. It was all about
odd things happening on Earth and how people might react to that. I wrote a story about birds flying
round houses! It was a good short story, one of my best stories still. I'd noticed some birds sitting
on top of a roof one day and I thought what are they doing? Are they just sitting up there having a
chat? Occasionally one of them would get up, dive off, fly around a bit and then go and sit down
again and I thought, OK -- is this some sort of performance they're giving here? So I made a story out of it.
Did you sell it?
It went into a magazine in Sheffield, yeah. Unpaid!
So, what about your first professional sale?
Nothing before that?
No. That one story was the only one I'd ever got published. I don't think I was really good at a short
story, that's the thing. I would try and cram too much in to something that was short and not succeed.
So, what made you try a novel -- or did Dawnthief begin as a short?
No it didn't. That was always going to be a novel...
...or three novels?
Not at the outset. About halfway through I realised there was more to come. I'd written my first full-length
manuscript whilst I was still at college. It was bit of a glorified Star Trek episode when you look at it
now, but it was quite fun. A fusion of fantasy and SF styles, if you like, and the idea's quite nice. It
would have to be utterly ripped to bits and put back together though before I'd ever give it to a
publisher. But it was a good discipline -- probably 110,000, or 120,000 words.
Have you got a large draw full of stuff that you could go back to and rework?
Well, I've got a couple of novelty type things that are half done. I gave up doing them when
Dawnthief got going -- that started out as a comedy actually.
The Raven books?
For years and years, I used to play a game called Dragonfrost. It's a class game with a good gaming
system. We used to write chronicles of these, like a diary of events (I've still got them at home
now) and they are funny. And I thought well, you can make a novel out of this sort of thing and it
would be funny -- and it isn't! It's all private jokes when you come down to it.
So the inspiration for Dawnthief and the subsequent novels, comes from gaming?
Yes. Gaming and other fantasy novels.
Were you always a hungry reader?
Probably less hungry now than I was. But that's a time thing. I'd like to read more. I've always
devoured books. My books are action and adventure all the way through and that was the sort of book I
enjoyed reading when I was younger -- and still do when I can find a good one. John Marco's stuff for
example. The people that inspired me were people like David Gemmell, Alan Dean Foster (he's written a
couple of cracking books), there's a Niven/Pournelle and Barnes book called The Legacy of Heorot
which is science fiction but is just fantastic -- an hundred miles an hour all the way, it never lets
you go. A brilliant book. I was looking at that and thinking that if I can recreate that sort of
activity, those peaks and troughs and stuff then I could actually do a good book. What I didn't want
to do was a sort of "stable boy becomes king" book because I am bored of reading those. I wanted to
steer away from this "someone's mythical destiny" thing. Don't get me wrong -- there have been great
books written like that but what I like about someone like Gemmell's books (I'm thinking of
Waylander and Legend), these characters are already at the top. Already
respected. When The Raven came, I wanted to have people that were already good, maybe even just
over the edge so you haven't to go through that damn great learning curve. I thought that was a bit
of a waste of time. If you're going to stick them straight into an adventure then they already need
to be capable of doing it. And then you give them something too big for even them to do and them
still have them do it -- and that's what builds the tension.
Are the members of The Raven based on archetypes -- or have they developed their own identities now?
They began fairly stereotypical and to be honest (and it's a fair criticism of the first book) a little
bit two-dimensional at time. They don't really develop emotions, many of them, until
Noonshade. But as I've written them -- particularly through dialogue and action/reaction,
that sort of thing -- they have developed identities far beyond what I envisaged when I first started
out. When I first started doing Dawnthief (and you have to remember this was when I was in my
late teens and early twenties) they were a vehicle to push the story along rather than being the
story itself. The characters really ought to be the centre of everything. What they do is make the
story exciting, but the characters have to drive it by being real. When I first started writing
them, of course, they weren't like that. I think there are vestiges of that still in Dawnthief
now, which I never managed to quite iron out.
That is really interesting. One of the things that strikes me about your depiction of The Raven as a
group of people is that they are astonishingly real. They argue and drink a lot of coffee and sit
round the fire and have a go at each other...
Well, they've been together, the ones that are there from anywhere between four and ten years. So that
sort of easy conversation, the bickering and the jokes is right.
Is that part of it easy to write?
I do find it easy to write, yes. It's one of the bits I enjoy the most -- having a conversation between
members of The Raven and just seeing how it goes. Sarcastic comments come out and I might ascribe them
to one person, but actually no -- he wouldn't say that, but this guy would say that and you just let it go.
You've got a great thread of tension running between two of The Raven -- Hirad and Denser. That's based
on a real emotional centre.
Yes. They both have this unshakable belief in the way they want to do it being right which is why they
collide. But the whole point about The Raven and I hope this is coming out, is this quite unshakable
loyalty they have for each other and that is the reason why, in the end, that they will win. This loyalty
to each other is more important than anything -- which is what Denser doesn't understand in
Dawnthief. He works it out eventually but The Raven believe that this loyalty is what has kept
them alive for maybe ten years and let's face it, they're right.
Even though they're all pretty likable, you don't seem afraid to bump them off occasionally! You seem
very unsentimental about them. Where does that come from and why are you tempted to do it.
Because I think it's not realistic to keep them alive all the time. They live in this brutal, violent
world and they make their money by fighting. Inevitably at some stage it is going to go wrong. Someone's
either going to get hurt or killed. So they only ever have life-threatening injuries. Readers may still
think "Yeah, yeah, yeah he may have lost both his legs and his arms but he'll grow them back somehow
because there'll be some spell or something," so I think they have to be allowed, or things have to
happen that mean that some of the characters die. I know it seems a bit unsentimental but it is
difficult. I really don't like doing it.
If you put you're characters in real peril, your readers care about them. If they can be hurt, the
situations become more believable.
They're normal people now. They're flawed and vulnerable. The moment you make something too powerful, it
becomes dull -- because it is unbeatable. Which is why magic is flawed in these books as well. It is
quite difficult to cast, you've got to concentrate and it makes you tired so that you can't do much at
once. If you could, you could just rule the world being one magician.
The magic is a very central part of the world you've created. It has carefully set out structure. How
did you arrive at this? Has it evolved around the way the novels have developed or was it the other
The "College of Magic" system has been visited a few times in books and of course, role-playing games
love having colleges of magic so that they can have good ones and bad ones and yes, I would have
definitely borrowed some ideas from those sources. It makes it recognisable to people that read it. I
didn't want it to be too obscure or too clever because if people don't understand the magic system it
becomes confusing and then not interesting or enjoyable to read about, I think. I'd rather make it
entertaining. What has happened though is, as the books have gone on, I've gone off in different
directions and have delved deeper into the ethics and morals of each college.
The Xetesk college are the blackest certainly, but your other colleges seem less well defined, though
this latest book brings the Dordovans into focus a little more -- and they're pretty dark too, it seems.
It's not so much the colleges but the people that run them. In Dawnthief, there is Stylian -- who
is the Lord of the Mount of Xetesk in the first couple of books. He has seen that he needs to relax the
rules because basically it's not good for business. But he keeps hold of the reigns of power quite
tightly so that when he needs to draw it back in he can do it. He just loses his head -- literally in
fact! He goes a bit bonkers when someone walks in takes his crown whilst he's away doing questionable
deeds. Dordovan, on the other hand, is ostensibly a reasonable sort of middle ground between the bad
guys in Xetesk and the goody-two-shoes in Lystern and Julatsa, but actually there are people in power
there who will stop at nothing to keep themselves in power. That's what makes that college dark. In
Nightchild they are fearful of losing their identity and so they will kill, maim, torture,
whatever it is to keep themselves that way.
The spells cast in your novels all have sort of trademark names. Is that deliberate?
Ha! Again I hold my hands up as that is slightly borrowed from role-playing.
And there is price for casting magic in your novels. It exhausts the mage quite quickly and so any fighting
unit has to be made up of warriors as well as magicians. This is the basic make up of The Raven.
Yeah -- and Ilkar, the elven mage in The Raven when you first meet them hardly ever uses an offensive
spell. He's there to shield The Raven from magical offence from wherever. You could argue that magic is
the artillery of this world. The other guys are the sort of foot soldiers and Ilkar's casting armour
effectively against this artillery.
SF Site Interview:
Part 1 | Part 2 |
Copyright © 2001 John Berlyne
John Berlyne is a book junkie with a serious habit. He is the long time UK editor
of Sfrevu.com and is widely acknowledged to be the leading expert
on the works of Tim Powers. John's extensive Powers Bibliography "Secret Histories" will
be published in April 2009 by PS Publishing. When not consuming genre fiction, John owns
and runs North Star Delicatessen, a gourmet food outlet in Chorlton, Manchester.