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A Conversation With James Barclay
Part 1 of an interview with John Berlyne
July 2001

James Barclay
James Barclay
James Barclay was born in 1965. He was brought up in Felixstowe, Suffolk, and attended college in Sheffield before training to be an actor. He was an extra in the film, Onegin, but his screen appearance ended up on the cutting room floor. He works in London as an advertising and promotions manager for an investment house.

James Barclay Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Nightchild
SF Site Interview: James Barclay
SF Site Review: Noonshade
SF Site Excerpt: Noonshade

Nightchild

Fred Gambino
Noonshade

Fred Gambino
Dawnthief

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 anyone else.

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 call novellas.

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?
Dawnthief.

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 way around?
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.


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