Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: James Barclay interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on November 19, 2009

British author James Barclay is perhaps best known for his high fantasy Raven novels. Thanks to Pyr, who has recently published the first trilogy here in the states and will soon be publishing the second trilogy, James’ work should be readily available at your local bookstore or library. Check him out.

No stranger to the world of gaming, James talks unabashedly about his gaming background, what his long road to publication was like, offers some helpful advice to the would-be-writer, and recounts his adventures playing Boot Hill with a gang of incompetent outlaws.

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Author’s website:

Could you explain what your Chronicles of the Raven series is about?

The Raven are the premier mercenary team on the Northern Continent of Balaia. Peerless in their trade, they have been fighting together for ten years. Six warriors and an elven mage who make a habit of never being on the losing side. But after a decade of fighting, they are just beginning to lose their edge. That’s age for you, particularly when your job is standing in line, fighting all day.

Thinking of retirement, they take just one more job, body-guarding a mage named Denser who is carrying a valuable artefact to deliver to his masters. It is a fateful decision. Without going into enormous detail, Denser isn’t quite what he seems and he leads the Raven into an increasingly desperate bid to save the world.

And so it goes… The Raven never do quite get to retire but they aren’t really mercenaries any more either. They are a group of people who, for better or worse, find themselves at the centre of conflict and cast as heroes or villains at every stroke. They are old friends. They bicker and moan, they fall out. They are mortal and fallible. But they are utterly loyal to each other. They have an unbreakable bond which sets them apart from the rest.

While the four colleges of magic bicker and fight, the Wesmen from across the mountains are gaining in strength and unity. To the south across the ocean, the elven nation is stirring as an old magic rears its head. Amongst it all, the Raven do what the Raven do. Because it’s all they can do. For some people, the world will never become a place that no longer needs you.

The books are written to be fast-paced heroic action fantasy. The Raven are characters readers have grown to love because they feel real. They are heroes but they are vulnerable. You get thrills, you get joy and you get sorrow. You get love and loss. You get men, elves and dragons, but not as you might expect them. You get betrayal, battle, desperation and the sweet taste of victory. What you don’t get is bored.

Pyr is just now publishing your first US editions of the series which were originally published in the UK almost 10 years ago. It’s very nice to see the books coming out here, but I’m just curious how this all came about. Would you mind explaining it?

Well, the wait to be published in the US has been a long and frustrating one. I never really worked out why they didn’t sell in the US in the early days but that’s just life, I guess. So you wait and work and never give up. I have an excellent US agent who felt the same way. That sometime, if we kept at it, we’d find a publisher. Then Pyr and the magnificent Lou Anders happened along. A newish imprint for science fiction and fantasy who looked across the Atlantic and were interested in what was happening here as well as finding talent closer to home.

They’d already enjoyed success with new UK fantasy authors like Joe Abercrombie and Tom Lloyd (both splendid people. Joe is a big gamer by the way, not sure about Tom) and when Lou enquired about the US rights to The Raven he was surprised and delighted to find they were still available. He snapped them up and the rest of history. The Chronicles trilogy, Dawnthief, Noonshade and Nightchild are all published now and we have just tied up a deal for Pyr to publish the Legends trilogy, Elfsorrow, Shadowheart and Demonstorm, beginning late in 2010. This is great news. I’m very excited about it.

Stepping back a bit, what was the process like for you in getting your first novel published?

Oh blimey, it was long. That’s what I remember most. And frustrating and depressing. It required the acquisition of a very thick skin and a firm belief that the sheaf of rejections meant nothing and that I would get a deal sometime…

Loads of writers have experienced that and all you can do is work harder, improve and resubmit. Eventually I got a bite. I submitted letter, synopsis and chapters as requested to Gollancz and heard back that they were really interested but wanted more development of the idea. What my editor-to-be said was that the work as it stood was fine but was like a skeleton without the flesh on the bones. He wanted to feel more about the world and what The Raven’s actions meant. So, off I went and did considerable redrafting, finally delivering a complete manuscript for consideration sometime in mid-1998.

The call to say I was to be published remains among the happiest moments of my life. I was at my desk, being an Advertising Manager for an investment company at the time. A decent job but not my dream job. I took the call standing up and had to sit down sharply before my legs gave way. ‘You’re now an author,’ said my editor. ‘How does that sound?’ I think I was wearing a stupid grin and there were a few tears as well. When the phone went down and I convinced myself it was not all a dream, I took the department out for champagne.

Funny thing is, after that, there is this interminable wait to be published. What with contracts, editing, copy-editing, setting, covers, final proof-reading and all that, Dawnthief did not appear on the shelves for a year. Of course, I had another book to write because Gollancz bought the whole trilogy but the desire to see my book on the shelves just grew and grew.

Two other moments of great emotion were seeing my books for the first time, actually getting my hands on a copy. And seeing one on the shelves of a bookstore for the first time. That made me well-up too. These are feelings to savour because they only come round once. I still love seeing my books on shelves but the first experience is truly unique. I hope as many of your readers as possible get to experience it.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I have been a massive gamer for thirty years now. I’m forty four and I first picked up percentile dice at the age of fourteen when my brother ran a Dungeons and Dragons night for his mates round our house. I totally fell in love with it and it wasn’t long before I’d set up a group with my own friends and we were playing far too much for my parent’s liking since we were all supposed to be studying for exams and the like.

Thinking about it, my gaming past goes right back to my early years. I’m one of four children and our whole family used to sit round a table on a Sunday afternoon to play a board game. Cluedo, Totopoly, Mine A Million, Helmsman, card games as well. Some of those games may be totally unfamiliar.

But I guess the die was cast. From D&D, we went to AD&D of course but never really liked the system. Eventually, we moved to the brilliant Dragon Quest system and we played that for six years until college was over and we all went our separate geographic ways. During that time, though DQ was the central plank, we played Bushido, Boot Hill, Car Wars, Space Opera, Toon and Gamma World too.

My history of video games is no less long. I was brought up on the coast, in a town called Felixstowe in Suffolk. We had a couple of arcades and I spent far too much time and money playing sports and shooter games there. That led directly to playing games on the earliest of computers and consoles. The ZX Spectrum, Commodore PET and Commodore 64, finally settling on the Commodore Amiga which was a fabulous console for its time. Late 80s I think.

Then PCs happened. Oh Lordy. I’ve played games on PCs since the late 80s and early 90s. Real classics like Red Baron still spring to mind. I’m primarily an FPS, sports and strategy game player and I won’t bore you with every title. Some highlights are Command & Conquer, FIFA Football, Return To Castle Wolfenstein, Dungeon Keeper, Lemmings, Severance, Championship Manager, Grand Prix, Medal of Honour, Call of Duty, Medieval: Total War, Civilisation, Ghost Recon. There’ll be others but you get the picture

Right now, I’m playing Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood and, the moment it drops through the door, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

Yes, occasionally. A game I left out of that last list is Guild Wars. It was good fun. A few of my old gaming mates and I used to meet up and do quests. But I haven’t played it for months now and doubt I’ll go back to it. I’ve sampled Call of Duty online but to be honest, I find it all rather random and don’t bother with it too much. Maybe I’m just rubbish at it but I spend far too much time dead. I prefer campaign based games these days. I still get together with three friends every now and again. We link our PCs up and sit around a table and reminisce while playing games like Ghost Recon and Call of Duty. Great fun.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

There are many that I still smile about. I think we were the most incompetent bunch of outlaws in Boot Hill history. We’ve dropped lit dynamite in the wagons we were driving, gone to sell grog to the Indians and found ourselves wandering the plain in just our long johns, tried to rob a train only to grease the wrong part of the rails and get taken apart by a Gatling gun. But the crowning idiocy was trying to get bounty on a notorious gang, follow them to their hideout, spread ourselves around to cover every door and window and only then decide to discuss in loud voices exactly what we were planning to do. Following the countdown, we rushed the place and were terribly surprised to find them waiting for us. Not a one of us survived.

I’ve got so many more. Some real triumphs from DQ, like managing to hack the forelimb clean off a basilisk while looking in a mirror to avoid being turned to stone. That caused serious celebration and spilled coffee as I recall.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

Yep. Huge. The Raven is based on the group of characters from my Dragon Quest days. Hirad, The Unknown Warrior, Richmond, Ras, Thraun, Erienne, Ilkar and Denser. All were rolled up characters when they started, immortalised now in print. The influences are all there to see in Dawnthief, which is a classic quest novel in many requests. But the link fades as the novels progress.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

Occasionally. Not every day is a good writing day. Reading and re-reading your work does get dull. It is a solitary profession and that can mess with your mind sometimes. But look, no job is all joy and no sheer hard work. No job worth doing anyway. Those who work hardest at their craft tend to get the best rewards. For a writer, that means spending countless hours in front of the PC getting words on paper. When it’s going well, it’s beautiful. When you can’t see the way to the end of the scene, it’s horrible and frustrating. But a writer writes. If you walk away the book won’t write itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I utterly love my job as a writer. I am extremely lucky to be getting paid for doing the thing I love most. If I could get paid acting work, I’d be even happier but you can’t have everything (though I’m working on it…). The point is, a professional sports person only reaches the top through practice on the training ground. Ask Tiger Woods why he’s the best. Roger Federer, Phil Taylor (if you’re a darts fan), Venus and Serena Williams. A writer only improves by writing, rewriting and rewriting again. Not all of it is joyful. That’s life and I’m not complaining.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

I’d say right up there is getting an email from a fan who has really loved my work. Someone who has got from the book everything I hoped they would. Reading such messages makes all the off days and difficult stuff so utterly worthwhile. Please, write to your favourite authors and tell them why you enjoyed the book. I don’t care how big they are, the personal stories always matter.

There are also the days when you sit down and never want to stop. Days when you’ve written three thousand words by lunch time and you know that they are all good. Days when the work is finally done and you are so buzzed you can’t concentrate on anything.

That’s two things but there you go.

When do you find time to write?

Well, I’m lucky enough to be a full-time author so I get four days a week. On a Tuesday, I look after my son, Oscar. There is no better way to spend a day off than with him. He’s three next birthday and the reason why I get up in the morning and do what I do. He goes to nursery the other week days and that’s when I get writing. I also tend to do some work in the evenings. Emails, interviews, reading. Not too much. Wind-down time is really important.

How do you tend to escape these days?

There isn’t too much time for escaping but when I need to I will still put on a game and get lost in the action. That still works. I watch films on DVD, things like Flash Forward on the TV. I also turn off the mobile phone and leave the house. Being out of contact is liberating. Just for an hour or so. We have a dog I walk every morning and that is a good way to get rid of any demons and tension before the day starts. I play tennis occasionally and we go out on our push bikes as a family when we all need a change from the walls of the house and garden. I’m not a big reader these days. I do read but time is so short and I’m normally knackered come the end of the day and end up snoozing into my book, however compelling it is.

So its lots of small things used to break up a day. Best of all is being with Oscar. Children are amazing and watching him grow and learn and blossom is the best way to forget anything bad ever happened.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Picking up on some of what I said earlier, I think there are a few things every writer needs to know or appreciate. Some of it sounds really glib but I’m surprised how often I hear from people who don’t apply the basics.

For starters, a writer writes. If you don’t write, you aren’t going to finish a book, a short story a poem or even a letter. That means you have to sit down and do it. Just a bit every day until it’s done. A great piece of advice I got from another author, Stan Nicholls, when I was starting out was “write to a finish”, another way of saying this is, “don’t get it right, get it written”. A basic error is to go over and over and over the section you’ve done, trying to get it perfect. For one thing, it never will be perfect and for another, it’s stopping you getting to the end. That is the time to go back, read, rewrite and improve.

And here’s a quick editing tip. When you reread, read out loud. If you stumble over words or they don’t sound right in your ears, they probably aren’t. Time to change them.

When you’re submitting, submit exactly to guidelines. Generally, that’s a letter, a synopsis and the opening three chapters but publishers and agents have individual quirks. All of it is equally important. My editor says that if you can’t write a letter you can’t write a book and he will judge a writer on that because he gets such a high volume of submissions. He doesn’t have the time for anything else. He needs to be interested enough to move to the synopsis. Always, always send in the first three chapters. If you don’t it only begs the question, why if you don’t. The opening of your book has to grab editors like it must readers. But you know all that.

Another quick tip. Try and find the name of the editor or agent you are sending your submission to (this is after you’ve established that they will be remotely interested in your sort of work). This gets it to their desk, not merely the department in general. A quick phone call to the publisher or agent should get you the info you need. Also, importantly, this does mean that you can expand your possible number of submissions. If a publisher has four fantasy editors, there is no reason why you shouldn’t submit to each one in turn. Just not all at the same time. Ever.

And finally. Getting rejected is hard. Waiting for responses is interminable. Most of us get knocked back a few times. Even such giants as JK Rowling and Stephen Donaldsdon have been turned down before being accepted (and boy are some editors regretting those decisions). All it means is that one person on one day didn’t like your stuff. You just have to suck that up and submit to someone else (after you’ve made sure your submission is absolutely as good as you can make it). Believe in yourself. If you don’t , no one else can be expected to.

You wake up to a world where your Chronicles of the Raven series has been made into an RPG. What character race and class would you play and why?

Elven mage. Definitely. I get to live a long time, though not necessarily forever. I’m naturally good at casting because mana, the fuel of magic, is an integral part of me. I have an excellent range of spells I can learn, both offensive and defensive, healing and harming. I’m pretty tough in terms of constitution and if I’m really scared, I can run back to my homeland and call on some seriously hard bastards who will come to my aid… probably.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Yeah. Don’t let anyone tell you that gaming is a waste of time. Clearly it isn’t. My early gaming years have had a direct and massively positive influence on my career. Gaming means you aren’t getting into trouble anywhere else. It’s only anti-social to those who have a) never tried or b) never actually been online or linked up on a LAN. Surely this is more productive than sitting round a table in a pub with a few mates, sending texts to other people.

Be proud of the genre you read. For some reason I still can’t fathom, there are authors who deny they are sci-fi or fantasy authors and readers who deny they read the genre. Fantasy and SF contain nearly all the best ideas, wonderful imaginations and beautifully realized worlds and characters. I am proud of what I write. Join me!

Oh, and finally, go look on the Xbox live site and find the trailer thing about Project Natal. This is the future of console gaming…. It’s controller-free, it really is.

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