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A Conversation With James Barclay
Part 2 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


Fred Gambino

Fred Gambino

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

What about some of the other aspects of world building? Balia is not a huge place.
No, not at all. It isn't big, though there are other continents, which you start getting opened up to you.

I noticed this in Nightchild. It is the first time we've gone beyond the confines of this large island.
It is. I was finding that is going to get restrictive but on the other hand it was important that the Al-Drechar, the people that Erienne takes her daughter to in Nightchild, were a long way away and no-one knows where they are. They're only really a myth to anyone on Balia.

There haven't really been any prior hints in the previous novels that there was life outside the island though.
No, the only hints you get you know the elves aren't from there -- they're from the south. That's all you really know. You could argue that that is "a mistake" and that it's something I should have brought out a bit earlier, maybe in Noonshade. You do hear about the southern continent now and again but only properly in Nightchild. In the fourth book there's plenty of action on this southern continent.

So you were finding your geography confining? How long does it take to ride from one end of Balia to another?
God, I don't know. Several weeks if you're going thirty miles an hour. It's not that small really, but then it's not the size of Africa.

But it is big enough for the Wesmen to be the bad guys of folklore that you don't meet that often until they start attacking.
That's true, yes.

And so did you have your own map drawn up -- like the one that feature in the books.
That's it really. Pretty much a reproduction of my own. I kind of wish they'd printed it up a bit more. If I had to gripe, that's the only thing I'd gripe about. I think maps are pretty important and they're very common in fantasy books. If you're not describing the Earth but rather an alien land then people need to know where the hell it is you're talking about. I think it is important. It's the same reason I put the cast of character in as well.

I loved the fact that the cast of characters in Dawnthief is out of date by about page three!
Well, you can't give people too many clues about who's going to snuff it, can you!

In terms of plotting these books -- and we've talked about Dawnthief being something you started quite a while ago -- how far ahead were you planning? Further than Dawnthief.
When I started it in my late teens, no. Not at all. But as the book was drafted and then ripped up and redrafted (something I did about three times!) and as it developed and I got older and a bit wiser about structure and things and working with Simon [Spanton, the editor] at Orion in the latter stages, adding atmosphere and more strings to the books bow if you like, that is when it developed out of all proportion to how it was when I was eighteen. It is unrecognisable really, apart from some of the central elements of the story. It became apparent to me that I could do a lot more and when Orion were keen on buying Dawnthief, they were also keen to know that there was not just one. One fantasy book is very hard to sell. Three is a lot easier. That is the nature of fantasy fans I think. Certainly me. I don't tend to read one off fantasy books myself. I quite like a series because it's got potential for great scope.

Of course, for the writer, if you go to the trouble of inventing an entire world... may as well exploit it!

What is your rule for the invention of fantasy names?
What an interesting question!

So often I read stuff where every five minutes the writer is throwing a new stick fantasy name at you -- The ring of Hochty-mochty, the village of Smoozlenobble etc! You seem to have got it right in your books.
I'll tell you something I try not to do -- and occasionally I fall into it. I try not to have names that are difficult to pronounce. Now "Xetesk" is one and I know it has confused people but I just like the X at the front so that's tough! I could have made it a Z, but Z makes it a bit sort of crap fantasy. I don't use Z's very much at all. But the names are not horribly dissimilar to names you find here on Earth but they're unusual in that you couldn't say, oh well that's like an Indian name, or that's like a Russian name.

But there's clearly a lot of thought goes into the naming. Have you ever named a character and then thought, oh no, that name's not right?
Yep! Done that! Several times in fact! As the character grows it just doesn't fit them any more. It's a bit of a trade secret but in Noonshade, the High Mage of Julatsa -- an elf called Kerela -- she was a bloke when I first wrote the book. I just changed the sex completely because it just worked better that way.

Because I wanted more strong female characters and I also wanted her to be tough and uncompromising because that's how I want elves to be. My elves aren't skippity-hoppity pansies living in the trees and wearing flowers in their hair! Nothing like that! They're a very fierce race and do all sorts of unspeakable things when riled. They're very protective of themselves.

Why did you want more strong female characters? Is that pandering to the female market?
Yes. Absolutely. And because I think that's probably how it would be. So far I'm refusing to have female warriors. I don't care what you say -- you've got be extraordinarily strong to wield a big sword for eight hours. You've gotta be big. Al the guys in The Raven if they're fighters, they're between fifteen and eighteen stone and it's all muscle. Because that's what they do every single day. Certainly women would probably be stronger as a race in these books but I still think the men would be stronger. And if you're going to be a top warrior in a place like this, you're going to have to be big.

Were you deliberately thinking "I need more strong females" so that your readers would be pleased?
So that I'm pleased as well. You need to please yourself first. If you can't please yourself, you're not going to please any reader at all. It was a criticism of Dawnthief that there wasn't particularly a strong female character but I'd always planed Erienne to come to the fore as the books went on. But you have to introduce her first. She can't be strong the moment she steps in. She demonstrates and develops her strengths as it goes on. But I don't want her to be the only one because then it's tokenistic.

There is a huge body count in all three books. Lots of people die in lots of different gruesome ways! What is your knowledge of swordplay?
I've read quite a lot about it and I've seen quite a lot of programmes. I watch, quite avidly medieval history programmes. There was a great programme about the battle of Talworth that I saw a month ago, which gave loads of insights into the damage a sword would do to you or what would happen if you were hit by a crossbow bolt or whatever. They were digging up skeletons with big holes and cracks in, that sort of thing. But the amazing wounds that people would survive and live to fight another day! I remember in this thing they found a skull, which had been smashed all down the right hand side of its jaw and the pressure injury had also shattered the skull all the way across the top. There was this big line right across the top of the skull where this one bloke had taken off half this bloke's jaw, shattered his skull and lived! They found that a different wound had actually killed him. I bet he had a headache most of the time! I think it's just amazing what you can survive, but also the collateral damage. I've said this before -- it's not like sort of Errol Flynn sword fighting, all skipping about, prodding each other with epées. It's not like that. This is six foot of sharp, heavy metal and if it hits you it's going to cause a hell of a mess unless you're wearing metal. Even then, it'll break bones inside metal. The concussive effect of it is extraordinary. I don't think you can romanticise that. There's a line between being gratuitous and being realistic and I'm trying not to cross that. I don't think that's right either. But if you hide the fact that sword fighting is hideous and brutal then I think you're doing a disservice.

How do you manage to covey the scope of these huge battle scenes? Your writing has an almost panoramic quality to it. We see the "fog of war" but you also manage to give us individual moments within that.
That's deliberate. The way I have developed it is that I'll probably have sketched on a little map where people might be drawn up. I think it's a mistake to try and describe an entire conflict because you're always asking the reader to stand above it and look down on it and watch it all happen. I don't think that's terribly interesting as battles are about individuals. What I'm trying to get over is the scale of the noise -- then it's just like zooming in. You zoom in to a particular conflict, have a bit of sword play or spell casting or what-have-you and then you might zoom out to somewhere else and catch up with what's going on there and then zoom back in again. That's a good way of keeping the pace going and I've done that deliberately. Viewpoint is important too. If the writer skips viewpoint and dots around, no one knows where you are in a battle scene. Though battles are confusing, they need to be comprehensible [to the reader] and so I try and make sure that I'm only looking through one person's eyes. The other thing I do is once I've sketched out the initial thing, I don't plan anything at all. I just let it go. I just write it and write is as fast a possible. You can pay as many plans as you like, but as soon as you go "Aaaarrrggghhh" and run into battle, it's all blown to shit. The whole thing. The wrong person dies or someone is stronger than you think or whatever it is. It becomes totally chaotic -- people make mistakes. So, I'll write and then someone might make a mistake in what they're doing while I'm writing that and I'll think -- oh, I shouldn't have done that! And then I'll think, well, why not? Go with it and see where it takes us. That can lead you into much better areas and again it helps keep the pace up. It means that it's not a battle by one, two, three... etc. it's a battle by one, two, twenty-five, forty-seven, three, four, ninety-eight... etc.

Within these battles our allegiance is always with The Raven in spite of the fact that they're horribly maiming people, horribly murdering people...
...they wouldn't consider it murder...

...this is my point. How do you manage to keep the moral high ground without condoning or condemning the acts you're describing?
That's interesting. They are morally grey people, The Raven, without a doubt. They are mercenaries and they are killers.

Is it a case of you making your baddies so BAD?
Or that what they're doing is so bad. In Nightchild, it's even greyer whether the bad guys are the bad guys and which side The Raven should be on. That's up for grabs.

But you don't make that decision for the reader.
I try not to. In Dawnthief and Noonshade it's a lot easier. In Dawnthief you've got the Wytch Lords wanting to destroy the colleges and have dominion over the whole continent. They have to be stopped. But should The Raven be going after the spell to stop them? -- That's the moral question there. Is there another way? In Noonshade, it's a big whole in the sky, getting bigger. The dragons are going to come through, there'll be horrible mayhem and the whole place will be absolutely wiped out. The interesting thing there is that The Raven in Noonshade don't get involved in a great amount of fighting. That in itself could be seen as being good -- though the way they go about it may not be seen as being wholly good. They do it the way they know best -- if someone gets in their way, they will ask for them to get out of the way and if they don't, they'll move them!

If it true to say that though they're a bunch of mercenaries, it is only in the first book that they're actually doing anything for money?
That's right yes. One of the things that they find hard in Dawnthief is almost stepping outside themselves. One of the reasons they almost don't take the job on is they don't want to work on their own -- that's not what they do. They work as a unit inside a line of fighting people and it makes them uncomfortable. But they feel that they have to as it would appear that they're the only people who can help this guy do the right job and save the world. In the second book, they're told to do something by a brood of dragons and that's why they do it.

Not forgetting that the future of the entire world is at stake and that there is no alternative!

And this extends into the latest book. They have to complete their task for the greater good.
But which outcome is the greater good is the interesting question. It's very ambiguous and they're split within themselves. They not all necessarily batting on the same side or for the same reasons.

You've written some [so far unpublished] science fiction? Are you now going to stick with fantasy?
For the foreseeable future, I would say yes, although I've got some idea which although they have fantasy elements, they would be set now. There are going to be six books in The Raven series altogether -- two sets of three -- and after that I've got another fantasy idea to work on.

Is it more restrictive writing fantasy than SF? I find it interesting in that the guidelines are more clearly set down in fantasy before you start.
Yes. I suppose so. It's interesting how people are starting to push those boundaries a bit. John Marco's a case in point in that he's got machines in his fantasy books, which I personally like. That's very, very difficult to get right and I think he's done a really good job. He's got war labs and flamethrowers, that sort of thing. There are boundaries and they are quite wide, but what I've done is set my own and you have to be credible within the boundaries that you set. For instance, there's a boundary in the magic in terms of how powerful it can be; there's a boundary in how good anyone's ever going to be with a sword and I'm not going to give them magical armour to make them magically better because I think that's crap. But I think in terms of you not having the scope of the entire universe and making up any race you like, I think, yeah, it probably is more restrictive.

Because the tropes in fantasy are so well defined -- a few horses, some swords and a spell or two is all you really need! -- How is it possible to be original?
There is an argument which says that anything in fantasy (or anything at all!) has already been done to a certain extent and I would go along with that. There is very little original you could actually make up in terms of story and concept perhaps, but where I think The Raven books score, personally, is with The Raven themselves. Their dynamic and how they go about things. I think people enjoy them as a group of people.

These are purely character driven books really.
They are. And the action is unrelenting and people like that. Well, I like it personally and I hope other people do! Dawnthief isn't original as such -- it's a classic quest story. They've got to go and find things that go and make something else that then does something else. Classic quest. This was pointed out in the review I got from Stan Nicholls who said it's not what you tell; it's how you tell it! That's what he liked about it. And I tell them to entertain, so you're not going to find me doing a chapter's worth of describing a forest. If it's a forest, I'll tell you it's a forest -- it's got trees and bushes and there you go. We all know what a forest looks like -- you don't need me to tell you. I think that's bluffing with words, padding out. I don't get lost in endless description of the colour of the sea.

What's next? Are the next three Raven books planned and outlined already?
As planned and outlined as they get before I sit down and write them, yes! I'm half way through the fourth one right now.

What about the business of working with an editor. How has the process worked for you? All three books so far have expressed great thanks to Simon Spanton in the dedication page. What has his role been?
The simple and trite answer is that he's made them better than they were when I gave them to him in the first place. Simon is very astute and he's been a fan of The Raven idea for quite some time. I talk to him probably four times a week. We might natter about an idea or we might just say, "Hi, wanna go out for a beer?" He has ideas that he passes across, I might develop them and pass them back or it might be me and he'll say, that won't work because of X, Y and Z. Because he's very close to it, he's very good a seeing what will work. He's just a good editor of books, full stop. He might read a chapter and say, "Look, I know you've gone for pace here, but it hasn't worked because of this, this and this -- you need to put this, this and this right." Now, I could say no -- because that's my right but I would be a fool because I think he knows what he's talking about. He criticises, he's very honest, but you've got to have that.

What is the level of his input? Where does it cross over into a collaborative process?
It certainly isn't that! We don't actually work together on the book per se. I might ring him up and say "I want the elves to be X, Y, Z" and he'll say "Yeah. Good." And then we'll chat a bit more and he'll make a suggestion or two, which I might or might not take up. That's about as far as it goes in terms of collaboration. He would never try and dictate. He might make a suggestion or two, which I might take up or not. It's good to have someone to sound off. It's like giving a couple of chapters to your mates and saying, "what do you think?" -- but because he's so close to it, I don't have to give him bits of paper. I can just say, "You know what we talked about last week? Well, what about this?..." He still sees his main job as getting the manuscript, reading it and improving it as he goes through. I had pages and pages and pages of line marks for Nightchild. It's irritating to get them as you hope you've given in something that is perfect -- which, of course, you haven't. If you look at it, he hones to improve, not to put his mark on it. There are probably editors who like to think that they really own the book whereas Simon doesn't do that. He's sympathetic rather than dogmatic.

Which is the best of the three books?
Noonshade, I think.

I think there are a couple of reasons for it. One is that I was told it was really hard to write a second book. But I had a great time writing it. I absolutely loved it. I found Nightchild much, much harder. I was having a difficult year anyway, personally. With Noonshade, I felt that I'd learned a lot out of Dawnthief and it was a dead slick story. I thought it worked really well. I felt the characters had gained plenty of depth and I felt the fighting scenes were better and the whole thing was hanging together. With the three or four characters that I brought in there was no wastage. It was just tight. Nightchild though I really like. About last September, I didn't like it at all. I was really, really worried about it. I make a mention in the acknowledgments of a guy I walked to pub with in Killarney. I was talking to him about it and he just made a comment out of the blue and it changed the whole course of the book. It was completely random. It was missing something which would have made it a much, much better book and he quite by chance said "Why don't you..." and bloody hell! It was so obvious!

I want to touch finally on your opinions of the current state of British fantasy. There seems to be a constant glut of fantasy coming out right now.
It's a growing genre. I think there are some excellent writers writing it. I haven't got the time to read it all but I will try and read a book by an author -- I might not read any more (I've only ever read one David Eddings book, for instance).

We get a lot of American fantasy as always, but there is also a definite rise in the volume and quality of Australian fantasy right now.
Yeah! It's an interesting thing. I think the fantasy market is obviously growing out there. I sell quite a few to Australia I'm told, though I've no idea what the numbers are.

Have your books been published elsewhere? Is there a US deal?
There isn't a US deal, which is frustrating -- but that's reality for you! It took David Gemmell twelve years to get anything reasonable in terms of deal over there. SF is a little different but, according to Simon [Spanton], American publishers only think they should be bothered with American fantasy writers.

There are all sorts of debates. There's a web site I look at from time to time where they actually talk about the difference between American and British fantasy.

Which are...?
I think the key difference between a lot of US and UK fantasy is the moral greyness of an English fantasy novel and that it's not necessarily got a hell of a happy ending. It'll have a positive ending but it might not be an all singing, all dancing, go-get-em, lovely, fluffy ending and I think a lot of American fantasy does do that. That doesn't mean that it's bad in any way but I think that's what American readers -- or American publishers think American readers -- like. Some of the forums that I monitor would differ greatly, quite markedly from that but it's not their choice because they're not the American publishers, they just read what they get. It's very interesting, but very frustrating. They are coming out in Poland and Russia at the end of July. That will be funny, to get a book with my name in which I can't understand a single word! And in France as well, I think next March.

Is it important for you to crack America?
Yes it is. Not least, financially, it's a good place to be because the audience is so massive. Also, the more American publishers resist buying any British fantasy -- let alone mine -- the more you want to get there and show that it is good, it is popular and that people are buying it.

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 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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