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A Conversation With James Barclay
An interview with Wayne MacLaurin
August 2000

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: Noonshade
SF Site Excerpt: Noonshade

Fred Gambino

Fred Gambino

How did an advertising and copywriting manager come to write fantasy novels?
It's been a long and tortuous route and I've actually only been doing both together for around 18 months. I've been writing fiction (mainly Sci-Fi and Fantasy) since my mid-teens, most of which will fortunately never see the light of day, but it's part of the learning process, I suppose.

I've wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember but my employed career was one I fell into completely by accident.

I enjoy it as much as I can enjoy any office job and investments (the industry in which I work) is very unpretentious, which I do appreciate. Before starting work, I had no definite ideas what I wanted to do, barring two ultra-precarious options, one being a novelist and the other an actor. The latter hasn't amounted to much yet and, though I was disillusioned with some of the people I met during training (some are my friends to this day but none of them act still), I'd love to act again -- though my job and writing make that difficult right now.

I've latterly moved away from the level of copywriting I was doing and concentrate more on adverts than brochures and letters. That's a good thing since writing all day and then facing the same task (though more entertaining) all evening was starting to get to me a little.

I've been in the workplace for 13 years now and never gave up on the dream of being published. Underneath it all, I always believed I was good enough and, despite the knock-backs, got encouragement too and kept going. Eventually it's paid off and it's become a point of interest around the office, which is handy, not just for a few sales, but because it's inevitable that I have to do some author work in office hours -- not much, they pay my wages after all, but they are very understanding.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
Forcing myself to sit down to write after a hard day's work in the office can be very tricky, but once I'm there it's great and often feels like I can go on forever. But there is sacrifice involved and because I've got a job, the writing comes at the expense of my 'spare time'. But there are a couple of things I use to get me going.

I ask myself, 'do you really want to be a full time writer?' If so, sit down and do it. After all, a writer writes -- it's a cliché but also a truism.

I also look around at what dedication can achieve and I find that inspiring. Particularly athletes -- the regime of a top athlete is extraordinary but they give up what they have to in order to achieve their dreams. I used to be one of the many that said 'I'd love to write a book,' and now, having been fortunate enough to have been published, I give the same response I was given: 'Well, sit down and write one, then.'

In terms of filling the pages, inspiration is hard to pin down. I wouldn't say I had a great imagination but what I can do is see how things will work and I have the confidence as I write to let that develop. You'll never find me meticulously planning a book before I start to write. So, I draw inspiration from anything during the process -- the way the light plays on a lake; a snatch of conversation; people's expressions; the shape of clouds; the scent in the air. Anything can give you the nudge to find an answer to the next question your writing poses and I never go anywhere without a pen and a notebook. Things will happen to help and inspire you; you just have to have confidence they'll happen at the right time.

Which of your contemporaries do you feel best match your style?
Thanks for putting the question that way round! I'm known, at the moment, for the pace, action and dialogue my books contain. Also perhaps for the lack of sentimentality, and for that and the action, it has to be John Marco. He captures the brutality the way I think I do -- sword and magical fighting is terrible, brutal. If someone smacks you in the arm with a 6-foot long piece of sharpened metal, you don't clutch your wound and go 'ouch!' before swinging into another attack. Instead, you probably die trying to stem the blood gushing from the stump. It's not pretty or clean and it should shock with its violence.

In terms of things like dialogue and pace, I'm not sure -- I think my love of dialogue comes from reading endless play scripts. If you're careful with words you can avoid endless descriptive paragraphs and I think that aids the pace of my writing in the Raven series.

You can see I'm struggling here and that's because I don't really like to liken myself to others in terms of style. I suppose in building uncompromising characters who are heroes but not in the classic mould, I'd look to David Gemmell. Waylander, Regnak and John Shannow are all examples of that. For me, though, a single hero isn't enough, hence The Raven because I enjoy the endlessly changing interaction of the characters.

I'll leave any other drawing of parallels to readers and reviewers, I think.

How long did you work on Dawnthief before it was published? What was the biggest challenge?
I would say three years in its most recognizable form, though it had other vague incarnations before that. The trouble is, without a contract, you really are writing with no end in sight besides the satisfaction of finishing and that becomes small incentive after a few rejections. That can make focus difficult and it's easy to put the manuscript down for weeks at a time, which I did.

I always retained belief, as I mentioned earlier, but making the pieces into a publishable whole was a long process and undoubtedly the biggest challenge. Imagine -- you send it off to publishers, agents and readers and you think it's great. Most of the time it comes back with a short rejection note. That's hard to take but it's part of the game. What I heard from my eventual publisher who agreed to read the whole thing having read the first three chapters and synopsis, was that the original Dawnthief was a 'good spine of a novel but too linear.' He estimated it needed 30,000 plus more words of atmosphere, back story, world definition and character placement.

As you can imagine, getting back in the saddle time after time is tough. Looking at your 'perfection' and then tearing it apart to make it better requires spirit and that old chestnut of belief, but what I can say is, all the effort is worth it. Never give up if you believe you've got something. Being published is humbling and wonderful.

A key element of the series is magic and the relationships of the various schools. Did the need for the intra-college conflict and co-operation drive this element of the story or did the college structure come first?
It's fair to say that the college structure came first but only as a result of the development of a central character interaction theme.

When I was developing the relationship between Denser and Ilkar in Dawnthief I always wanted to make college ethics and morals central to Ilkar's animosity towards Denser. But it quickly became clear there was much more potential to it than that and as the novel evolved, and I thought more about the books to come, I decided I needed to formalize the college structure.

That led to a consideration on the basic level of spell sets each college had developed, how they went about replenishing their mana for casting. On a more macro level, I wanted to understand for myself how each college was structured -- taking in council organization, whether they built towers or not, why and how each college had developed away from the other three and what particular alliances or conflicts rumbled on. In historical terms, there used to be a single magic college and so there were bound to be similarities in organization despite the moral reasons for the split.

Having established the structure, it made the conflict/co-operation angles more coherent and, going forward, offers all sorts of opportunities for themes as the series goes on.

Balaia is a magical land, so the college structure and place in the psyche of the land and its peoples is crucial. By the way, I'm developing a website (slowly!) and I'll go in to all this in much more detail there for any people who are interested. I'll let you know when it's up and running, probably around November time.

By now our readers will have had a chance to either read Noonshade or at least read the excerpt.  Can you give us a hint at where the third book is going?
Glad to. Whereas Noonshade is a direct and immediate sequel to Dawnthief, the third book, Nightchild, picks up The Raven a few years later. It still deals with the issues left unresolved in Noonshade. It brings in to play simmering conflicts among the colleges, adds a growing anti-magic backlash among the general populace and involves the search for the child of the book's title.

But it isn't just a race to find a lost child. It's a power struggle between colleges on either side of the ethics divide, with control of Balaia as the potential prize. And as for The Raven, it's a very personal chase because the child is Denser and Erienne's daughter.

When you started Dawnthief, did you have a pretty good idea of where the story was going beyond the first book or is your writing more of the "lets see where it goes" style?
Not at all. It began as a book alone and only as it developed did I get ideas for more. Even when I signed with Orion (who own the imprints of Victor Gollancz and Millennium) for a three book deal, I only had single page outlines of the two books following Dawnthief but there had already been a great deal of development not committed to paper.

Having said that, I don't plan books chapter by chapter and event by event before I write. I like to have a broad outline and let it develop as I write and that means elements I hadn't considered at the outset becoming major factors in the final draft. In Noonshade, the 'Demon Shroud' around Julatsa is an example of that, as is the Protector defence of the Septern Manse.

All I definitely know, as I start a book, is who is alive at the beginning and end, who will be involved as the plot unfolds and what exactly has to be achieved by the time it finishes. Everything else (well, almost everything) is up for grabs.

Do you have anything planed beyond the third novel?  Are you going to stick with the Raven for a while or would you prefer to do something completely different?  I guess your editor might wish to influence your choice if The Chronicles of the Raven becomes the next Wheel of Time, but some authors seem more comfortable sticking to one cast of characters or one world (Feist, Jordan, Cook) while others seem intent on never doing the same thing twice (Dave Duncan, Martha Wells).
There's lots on the drawing board that I'd like to develop and by no means all if it is anything to do with The Raven. I don't think I'm spilling any secrets to say that I'm looking to do three more Raven books after Nightchild but following that, I'll definitely be moving away from them. It'll be a wrench to leave them, though; I'm very attached to them.

I've got another fantasy idea brewing away, though how many books it will run to, I'm not sure yet. I'm quite excited about it, but it's one of those concepts that's going to need careful development -- something that's at odds with the way I've been writing the Raven series.

Also hanging around is a series of children's books. They won't be fantasy, though there'll be fantasy elements in them. I'm working on an ecological theme.

Aside from that, I'm working on a non-fantasy TV series with a friend of mine and I've got a couple of screen and stage play ideas in embryonic form.

In a way it's frustrating because until I can move away from full-time work, I haven't really got enough time to devote to development of other ideas while I'm writing Raven novels. Still, alleviating that frustration is certainly an incentive so I may as well use it positively.

What eventually runs in terms of future novels is never certain, of course. The publishing world is ever-changing so I'll be working closely with my agent and publishers to try to ensure any future projects don't miss the market.

Copyright © 2000 by Wayne MacLaurin

Wayne MacLaurin is a regular SF Site reviewer. More of his opinions are available on our Book Reviews pages.

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