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Monday, September 17, 2012

Author Interview: James Calbraith

Today I am pleased to present to you all the sixteenth in a series of Author Interviews. Recently I sat down with the Internet-addicted James Calbraith and our conversation went something like this:

Paul:  I like to start my interviews by asking if you have any writing rituals?
James:  I try not to. I have precious little time to write as it is, and I try not to encumber myself with any additional limitations. I have a little laptop that I carry with me wherever I go, so I do a lot of writing while commuting or travelling. When I’m at home, I write lying on the bed with a bowl of corn flakes on one side (I picked up a habit of eating it like pop-corn in childhood), and a bottle of water on the other (dry corn flakes dehydrate your mouth very quickly).

Paul:  What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?
James:  I won’t be very original with my choice of favorite authors: JRR Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Philip K. Dick. I used to think these three had written all that ever needed to be written in terms of fiction. I do need to add Strugatsky Brothers to the mix, giants of Russian sci-fi, a household name in the countries of Eastern Bloc, but not as well known in the West as they should be.

In high school I read almost exclusively science-fiction, and some fantasy but only if it was written by established sci-fi authors. Right now the only books I can stomach are historical essays and biographies, preferably of great rulers. I have a soft spot for a 19th century British historian, Mandell Creighton.

Paul:  If someone had the power to step into your creative mind what would they see?
James:  Facts. An unorganized jumble of dates, names, events, maps, army movements, dynasty squabbles, trade agreements. I’m a historical fact junkie – I read encyclopedias and books like ‘Cambridge History of China’ for fun. I can sometimes spend hours at a time on a Wikipedia binge. This is what gets me going, this is what fuels my creativity. A good fact is worth a thousand words of fiction.

Paul:  What is a typical day for you? 
James:  There is little variety on weekdays, as I have a full time office job. I wake up at 6:50 and take the 7:20 train to work. I write on the train. I work 8 to 5, with an hour’s lunch – during which I write. I take the 5:19 train back home. I don’t write on this one, because it’s too crowded. I eat dinner with my wife and after that it’s either writing or leisure – mostly leisure as at this point my mind is too exhausted to focus on anything other than repeats of panel shows on BBC iPlayer.

Paul:  Do you have a favorite character in each of your series, aside from the lead? If so, which one and why? 
James:  Ooh, that’s a spoiler question, as my favorite character does not appear until brief mention in volume 2 and is more fully fleshed in volume 3. Of the characters in the first book, my favorite is Edern – a Banneret of the Royal Marines. He’s a member of Tylwyth Teg – a Faer Folk race of Welsh mythology. He started as just somebody the main characters could talk to instead of just constantly conversing with each other, but he had grown to a fully fleshed person, at least in my mind. He’s become a sort of “Lando Carlissian” to my “Han Solo” character. I enjoy playing with the idea that if the Faer Folk were real, they would have to start working in normal jobs when the industrial revolution started tearing through their forest homelands.

Paul:  In all the years you’ve been publishing your work, what is the biggest mistake you made that you could share so others can avoid making it? 
James:  The biggest mistake was to give up on writing for good in about 2007. I wrote my first novel then, and I was proud of it, but it was rejected by all agents. I now see the many shortcomings of what was really just a first draft – if that – but back then my ego was shattered and I got a three years-long writer’s block. That’s three years wasted when I could have been honing my skills and writing something else.

Paul:  How do you find the time to write?
James:  Prioritizing. I had to give up on most of my hobbies to write. I used to play MMORPGs for hours a day – that’s gone. There are weeks when I do barely anything else in my spare time.

I don’t think I’d be able to write as much as I do without the technological progress of the last few years. The computers got small enough to carry one around all day in a tiny shoulder bag. The cloud storage means I can access all my files and notes on the go. A smartphone in my pocket gives me constant link to the world’s entire knowledge if I have to research something quickly. All these advances mean it’s much easier to find the time to write than it would have been, say, ten years ago.

Paul:  What is one thing you hope I do not tell the readers?
James:  I don’t read as much as is expected of a writer. I had been devouring book after book in my childhood and youth but now my attention span has been so devastated by years of internet addiction that I find it increasingly hard to focus on a full-length novel.

Paul:  If you are self-published, what led to you going your own way?
James:  I was thinking of going indie for a while, ever since reports started flooding in of how easy and satisfying it is to be published on Amazon, and how terrible the legacy publishing process can be if you do not luck out on a decent agent and editor. I was sitting on the fence for a few months – sending my queries out to agents on one hand, polishing the manuscript for self-publishing in the other - but what drove me to the edge in the end were the…covers. I browsed through the traditionally published fantasy novels in the bookstore and I could not believe my eyes how terrible some of them were. I knew the authors had very little say in how their books turned out. This was something I could not abide; as a self-publisher, I could fully control every single facet of the publishing process and that was something that sounded very appealing to me.

Paul:  Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
James:  I start with a world. It’s a remnant of the days when I was a Game Master. I come up with characters, throw them into a carefully developed setting, give them a nudge forwards and see what happens. I have a general plot outline and it helps that many events in my book actually happened so I know roughly what should happen in the plot. However there have been many times when the actions my characters took had stumped me and I had to step back and think how to proceed from there. It may sound strange but I’m sure other writers will know what I mean.

Paul:  Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
James:  Both. The more I write the more I learn and more critical I become, so even if my writing improves, I find more and more things to correct.

Paul:  Do you have to do much research for your stories?
James:  An exhausting amount. I write historical fantasy, with an emphasis on historical. I strive to have the level of accuracy on par with the likes of Bernard Cornwell, except there are no dragons or wizards in Cornwell. J When possible, I try to do research on location – in open-air museums or old monasteries...

Again, I am indebted here greatly to the advances in technology. I could not write these books without the internet. I can’t imagine having to sit in a physical library for days, trying to scour dusty tomes for a snippet of information. Writing my book that way would take ages. Google and online libraries sped up this process tenfold. 

Paul:  What is your most recent book? Tell us a little about it
James:  The Shadow of Black Wings is the first volume of a historical fantasy saga inspired by events surrounding Japan’s opening to the West in the middle of the 19th century. It tells the story of a Welsh boy stranded on the shores of Yamato, a land which had been cut off from the rest of the world for the last two centuries. It has everything – dragons, wizards, steampunk, samurai… The main characters are aged between 15-17, so it could potentially be categorized as Young Adult, but I prefer to call it “an adventure story for all ages.”

Paul:  What inspired you to write this book?
James:  My obsession with history and Japan. I try to travel to Japan every year, I just can’t get enough of this country. Apart from awesome food, culture, nature and cities, it has one of the most fascinating histories. The Japanese are masterful storytellers and they are very proud of their legacy, so you can’t really move around Japan without stumbling upon monuments, memorial plaques or famous buildings every few yards.

A lot of this history is not really known to a Western reader. We know of the 16th century events – the first Tokugawas, the samurai wars - because of Akira Kurosawa’s movies and James Clavell’s “Shogun”, but the events around which my book’s action happens have only recently begun to be explored: Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai” and David Mitchell’s “Thousand Autumns…” being the only major examples I can think of. For the average Japanese, on the other hand, 19th century is probably the most important period in their history apart from World War II. I’ve decided I wanted to tell that story in a manner accessible to a broad Western audience – through a fantasy novel.

Paul:  Do you also write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
James:  I write short stories, on and off, mostly science-fiction. I’ve been published a few times in Poland, once in the magazine eFiction and my short anthology is available on Kindle.

Paul:  Do you have any pieces of work that will never see the light of day?
James:  I like to think anything I’ve ever written can one day be rewritten, edited and published. I don’t like to waste good ideas – they come all too rarely.

Paul:  Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
James:  I’ve entered this year’s ABNA – Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – and reached semi-finals in Young Adult category. It was thrilling and satisfying to watch my work beat 4950 other manuscripts, but ultimately I’m not sure it had any real impact on my writing career. I did get a nice Publisher’s Weekly’s review for free out of it, though.

Paul:  How much marketing do you do for your published works or for your ‘brand’?
James:  I’m exploring various ways of marketing. I’m not big on social networking; I am not much into Facebook and Twitter, but I do like Google+ and that’s where I’m most active. I plan to do some paid advertising when I have two books released. It’s all in a phase of experimenting at the moment.

Paul:  What’s your favorite / least favorite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
James:  My favorite and most surprising aspect of writing my last novel is discovering how different plot elements manage to fit into each other, observing how the story is born from various bits and pieces, single events and character traits.

The least favorite part is doing the final edits where I have to re-read my own book time and time again looking for missing commas and semicolons. The worst part of it is, in the end, always something gets through. There’s nothing more aggravating than finding a misplaced quote mark in the published version.

Paul:  What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you have any hobbies or party tricks?
James:  I walk. Loads. At least ten miles on a weekend day, if the weather is nice. I live in South London, which means I have access to both the terrific hiking paths of the North Downs, and the urban trails of the City and Thames. That’s enough to last a lifetime and never be in the same place twice. It also feeds my addiction to history – London is a two thousand year old city and you can feel it on every step. Not far north from where I live are the ruins of a Roman villa and fields of lavender brought in by Roman invaders. A bit further south Saxon graves dot the hillside. A Tudor manor lies to the West, remains of Brunel’s pneumatic railway to the East. To me, there’s no better place I’d rather be at the moment.

Paul:  Well thanks, James. I wish you every success for the future.

About James Calbraith: James Calbraith is a 34 year old Poland-born writer, foodie and traveller, currently residing in South London. Growing up in communist Poland on a diet of powdered milk, Lord of the Rings and soviet science-fiction, he had his first story published at the ripe age of eight. After years of bouncing around university faculties, he moved to London in 2007, found a decent IT job and started writing in English. His debut historical fantasy novel, "The Shadow of Black Wings", has reached ABNA semi-finals and was published in July 2012. He hasalso published a set of science-fiction short stories, "Transmission".

James's Blog: James Calbraith
James on Twitter: @eadingas
James on Facebook: James Calbraith
James's latest book: The Shadow Of Black Wings (Amazon)

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