This week’s Writers of Fantasy Interview is with RJ Barker, who talks to us exclusively about his debut fantasy trilogy, Age of Assassins! I met RJ at FantasyCon by the Sea earlier this year and knew right from the get go that this is an author who is going places, so we’ve nabbed an exclusive with an author you should deffinately look out for.

If you’re an aspiring author yourself, this interview also touches on the writing process and beyond! Check it out!

r-j-barkerYour debut novel, Age of Assassins, is coming out through Orbit next year (2017). What can readers expect?

STABBING. A lot of stabbing. And there’s intrigue and magic and then more stabbing in AoA (which is a quite a cool looking shortening). Also, Mystery. I love 1930’s crime and in a way AoA is based around that idea, sort of Agatha Christie[1]: you have a castle, a cast of characters and you know someone wants someone else dead.

Girton, the lead, is fifteen when we meet him and extremely capable. There’s a fluidity to the action sequences that I think readers will enjoy and they’re backed up by some real emotional heft. Girton himself is likeable, he’s funny and driven to do the right thing even when it’s not in his best interests. One of the first comments I had back was ‘I’d quite like to go for a drink with him[2]’ and I thought, yes, that’s what I’m after, this might be the one. Oh, and antlers. Antlers play a big part in it (as they should in EVERYTHING.)

I like antlers.

How much writing of novel-length had you done before? And do you see common threads and themes in the kinds of things you enjoy writing about?

This is novel number four. The first was rubbish. The second I love but know needs reworking and probably has quite a niche appeal. The third, a space opera, nearly got picked up but in the end wasn’t really commercial enough. It might have been that I could have self published it or found a small press that would have taken a chance on it but when I first started writing seriously I’d made a promise to myself that it would be one of the a big publishers or nothing. It seemed like a completely ridiculous ambition at the time, but I’ve never been short on ridiculous.

As to common threads, I like outsiders but not outsiders in a strong, silent mysterious way. I tend to write people who are outside and wishing they could come in, but don’t know how to do that. Which I think is a feeling we’re all familiar with. And people who are good, because I think generally people are. In a lot of ways the difference between good and evil is more about how much of your own best interests you’re willing to put aside for others than it is about intent.

r-j-barksWhat the best part of writing for you? Where do you feel most at home; story, characters, prose, dialogue etc?

I don’t really think like that to be honest. I just sit and write, there’s no compartmentalising of each bit as it’s all part of a whole and I approach it in that way. In fact, there’s no conscious thought in any of the writing I do, it’s all done entirely by feel. I don’t really plan much of anything or note take in any serious way[3] (if I have an idea and then I can’t remember it later it probably wasn’t a very good idea). I have a few ideas in my head that I like and then launch off with them in mind and see how it goes. If I start thinking about how to write I stop writing.

Words have a shape and a presence and writing, for me, is the process of chopping them about until they make the right shape in my head. Invariably, this is not quite the same shape as the one in editor’s heads.

Writing is probably the most comfortable I ever feel. Girton, the lead in Age of Assassins, is very easy to write. So easy it feels like cheating, like I’m simply taking dictation. AoA’s first draft was written in six weeks and content wise it’s not changed a huge amount.

When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?

I can’t remember not having a book in my pocket or not enjoying making up stories and there’s always been that internal monologue running as a counterpoint to my real life. I might only be walking down the street but in my mind I’m running a subtly different world, not dramatically different, not even explainably different really, it’s just the knowledge that a separate and more interesting world to the one I live in exists. And I’ve always written: poetry, short stories, scripts but never with any real agency or point to it. Then I became very ill and coming out of that it was clear I was never going to be able to work in the normal way again. So I thought I would see if I could do something I enjoy that other people might want to read, sort of repay all the joy and escapism I’d been lucky enough to experience in books. Pass it back, if you will.

Age of Assassins is part of a series; was that always the plan? Why did you feel is suited that format best?

It’s difficult to explain this without giving an awful lot away. I intend each book to stand alone, Girton is a bit player in a bigger history and I’ve always liked that idea. History is fascinating but we generally find ourselves fascinated by the big players and I wanted to write something about a person in the background, someone who, in a written history, you may only ever find a fleeting reference to but his actions are just as pivotal as any battle. So we get three big moments in the history of the Tired Lands seen from Girton’s perspective. CJ Sansom does this wonderfully in his Matthew Shardlake books, set in the Elizabethan era.

How do you build your characters? Have any surprised you as you’ve developed them?

Again, don’t build characters. They appear from the ether as part of the story. I’ve always had this idea that stuff is out there, floating around. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had an idea and then a year or six months later something along similar lines appears. It may just be a conflux of influences exists at a certain point in time but I prefer the idea that ideas float about and you have to grab them out the air. Same with characters.

What else are you working on besides Age of Assassins?

Whatever comes along. I’m on the outskirts of David Southwell’s astounding Hookland project (@hooklandguide) and I write the odd short, more for my own amusement than for any expectation of them ever being read. Very occasionally I blog some nonsense or other. And I have a lot of ideas in bits that I’ve started and then been lured away from by something more shiny. And I suppose, like every writer, I have that pet idea that I’m just not quite good enough to tackle yet – but one day…one day…

  1. A very violent Agatha Christie where Poirot isn’t above stabbing you in the face.
  2. Not sure I would, might get a bit stabby.
  3. I do write the odd note but very rarely refer back to them. I feel the need to write ‘stabbing’ in this footnote just for the sake of continuity.

Thanks again to RJ for doing this interview with us! You can find him on Twitter @dedbutdrmng

For more of our Writers of Sci-Fi and Fantasy interviews, check out our ‘Interviews‘ tag.

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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.