An interview with fantasy novelist Rick James

SN: Sisters Noire (unless otherwise indicated, interviews conducted by Ed Evans).
RJ: Rick James.

 

 

SN: I read on your blog that you have worked as a teacher. Could you please give a little background about you?

 
RJ: I continue to work as a teacher in three areas that inform my work and the work – I hope – of others – 1) EFL; teaching foreign students the language and culture 2) a writing teacher; teaching people as on my blog about what have I learned working with the world’s foremost editors, and 3) a speaking and vocal coach, which is great for helping a writer define character traits, voice and motivation. Link here: http://www.antimotivationalspeaker.webs.com/

 

SN: Please briefly explain what it is you write

 

RJ: I write fantasy fiction that is in sync with the internet age; an age of science and of reason and, er, advertising. I personally don’t think a fictional evil army of darkness from an alternate dimension would stand a chance to “out-evil” a trio of young protagonists such as those in my book, due to the fact modern kids are too savvy as regards the conventions of fantasy fiction, and thus would always know what was “coming next”. This knowing, self-referential vibe is new for books (though common in movies), and is where I feel my work really tunes into the Zeitgeist. Either way, it’s tons of fun, and it is that aspect that caught my publisher’s eye; basically, every time you have a typical fantasy trope in my books, such as a “wise old elder sage” talking pseudo-Norse gobbledy-gook along the lines of: “to find the magical Stone of Eragorn will be a hard and dangerous journey” you have a kid counter: “forget the journey … cuz! I’ll just find it on EBay.”

 

SN: Does your book have a title?

 

RJ: Regrettably, due to contractual and marketing obligations I am not allowed to reveal this yet! Stay posted …

 

SN: What genre would you say your book falls under? Is it a sub-genre of fantasy?

 

RJ: Tricky. In a sense it is a new genre, spanning and incorporating many genres, due to the self-referential aspect. How to name it? I personally don’t believe in magic or in the supernatural, and, thus, the “fantastical” goings on in my books require science to satisfy the protagonists and help them defeat it – so they simply Google the answers they need! The genre, then? Maybe it’s “Internet Steampunk” – replace an array of Victoriana contraptions with Google and the net. How about “Sci-Fan?” Or a “mash-up of mash-ups?” Hard to say. Maybe the critics will define it for me.

 

SN: Could you please explain a little about the genre for our readers? (if a sub-genre)

 

RJ: As mentioned – and I am about to post a blog article about this on my site – I write plausible, fantasy with the fantastical elements “explained”. If a magic wand is waved – fine. But I want to know the science behind it. If a ghost is spotted, sure. But I want to know the mechanics behind the EMF that potentially allows for this phenomenon. If a goblin or elf (god forbid!) rears its annoying head, I want to know the anthropology, lifecycle and evolutionary providence, or I’m bored. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, being patronised and cheated is another.

 

SN: What inspired you to start writing?

 

RJ: I have always written in one capacity or another, and then I came up with this concept that got me noticed – though that potted history makes it seem easier than it was.

 

SN: What are your favourite books/TV shows and have they influenced your writing?

 

RJ: My favourite books are an eclectic lot: His Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman, The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemmingway, The Trial, Franz Kafka and 1984, George Orwell and others too numerous to list. I mainly watch movies made from books to assess the story elements that are universal (I am a screenwriter), as well as a lot of fantasy/sci-fi stuff, comics, manga and anime. Check out my article http://thefantasynovelist.wordpress.com/2011/07/ to see how I view the world from the perspective of films.

 

SN: Do you have a specific writing style?

 

RJ: As above, I like to experiment with styles. Teaching English has taught me to be flexible and expressive: English as a language does not, in my opinion, exist; English as a versatile dialect does. I am frequently criticised for this opinion, but I suggest anyone unhappy with this notion should check the evolving history of the language for 300 years from 1066 – and get over it! You can’t master a discipline until you accept its conventions or, indeed, lack of them.

 

SN: Does your novel have a clear message?

 

RJ: Yes. My message is: A person must face their demons in order to be a complete person and in turn help others face theirs. If these demons turn out to be flesh and blood, well … I think many of us would agree we’ve faced our “demons” in the flesh; a person or persons who somehow represented what we fear most in ourselves, creating anxieties, tensions and situations that had to be overcome. (Anyone who failed to spot that last sentence as a near text-book definition of a story “villain” needs to contact me!)

 

My books ultimately pose this very interesting question: If your “demons” were to be personified in physical form and were to sit opposite you, then what form would these “demons” take – who or what would they look like, and what would they say to you? Now that (for most people) is scary as heck! My book is stock full of these scenarios, ones I think we can all relate to.

 

SN: Is the book based on real life events?

 

RJ: To an extent, conspiracy-style. Most names, places, historical events are well documented. By definition of my genre-defying concept, I have to make sure if my actual readers do Google stuff in my book, it is all there. Art imitating life imitating art… But I will leave it up to the reader to decide – Da Vinci Code-style – how much is “true”.

 

SN: Is/or would you like writing to be your career?

 

RJ: Already is, really. Off the back of this book the bills are starting to get paid through writing – thankfully. No mean feat. And I still keep my “day job” writing corporate copy and essays etc.

 

SN: Can you share a little of your work with us?

 

RJ: As above, really.

 

SN: How hard was it for you to reach the publication stage? Do you have any advice for writers seeking representation?

 

RJ: Hard as heck – isn’t it always? I think every writer has experienced that. But the landscape is changing a lot, and I describe my journey in detail to on my blog. The key is to network, and to always ensure you have a new angle on what makes your work a bit different, as well as a comparison of existing titles. Also, always have your promotional ideas at hand to discuss with a publisher. I am professional public speaker and put myself forward as a “personality” for interviews, teaching and talks; something like that. Bottom line: a good book … a great book … a work of genius is not the sales pitch anyone is looking for, even if such a claim were true. Regardless, no one will ever know if it’s true unless your book is published, promoted and delivered into the hands of your readers! So either way, a writer has to hustle!

 

SN: Do you suffer from writers block? If so, how do you combat this?

 

RJ: Actually, no – a free-associate thinker, I am a compulsive worker and if I stall in any area I simply transfer my efforts to another piece of work, hence the actual output is seamless, and I can recommend anyone try the same.

 

SN: I started reading your blog “The Fantasy Novelist” (http://thefantasynovelist.wordpress.com). So far I have found it informative and I like that it is written in an active, conversational manner. The “show, don’t tell…” post caught my eye as I have read a lot of books that I would say use both writing methods. Are there any other rules in modern writing that you consider at best stuffy, or at worst, counter-productive for a fledgling writer to rigidly adhere to?

 

RJ: Very good question. In public speaking, by way of analogy, almost all the “rules” and “conventions” are passé, and I have written a manual on that subject here http://antimotivationalspeaker.webs.com/apps/webstore/products/show/2280293

 

(Any of your readers who would like a copy can have this with my compliments.) The same, I fear, is true of the rules of writing because they pigeonhole the activity and negate the creativity, thus defeating the object of the exercise – a creative Catch .22 if ever there was one!

 

Thus, the term “rules of writing”, if you look closely, is a bit of an oxymoron. You might as well have “colour swatches” for painting masterpieces! Sure, learn the basics, but don’t cling to them! The post you discussed was rather angrily received in some quarters by writers, I feel, who are too keen to rigidly adhere to “rules” rather than risk genuine creativity. English has more exceptions than rules and thus it is here where genius can flourish. So, bottom line, yes, learn how to build the box sturdily and well, but only so that you can think outside of it.
As regards specific “rules of writing”, they are too vague to counter – what we really have is a collection of meaningless aphorisms that make mediocre teachers feel a bit better about themselves. For example “write what you know”. How exactly does that “rule” help? Again, one would have to assume this means write your characters from the perspective of your own emotional experience, perhaps? Then why not say that? Make it clear. I can in two hours give you the complete theory (as opposed to “rules”) of novel writing, clearly and concisely, and anyone can ask me. A teacher must be clear and not rehash other people’s trite “rules” and third hand conventions.

 
SN: What challenges have you faced in your writing? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in the writing process?

 
RJ: Three things: editing, editing and editing!

 

SN: Do you have a typical writing routine?

 

RJ: I have to write when I can, usually early morning and weekends.

 

SN: What motivates you to write?

 

RJ: I am motivated by the chance to get my “big” creative, intellectual and philosophical ideas into an entertaining commercial format that many will read and absorb – if you get good enough, you can do that. I would cite Animal Farm, George Orwell as an example of this. That is what I am aiming for – if it can be read on many levels then readers across the spectrum can get what they want from it. I am also a screenplay writer and that is the number one consideration of commercial screenwriting: a high-concept idea that is accessible to everyone; if you achieve that, then your “big ideas” can be present as subtext. Thus, you can have your cake and eat it, and I want my readers to get that out of my work!

 

SN: Is there a lot of research involved in your writing?

 

RJ: Tons! The more research you do, the more you can leave out. Period. I will generally write 100,000 words and by the time the additional research is clear and the ideas are polished and concise, I can ditch 30,000 words! But I don’t know which 30,000 words have to go unless the research is sound. I liken the process to handing a block of fine marble and a chisel to someone and saying “I want you to carve me Michelangelo’s David” to which the person replies “how do I do that?” and the answer: “Easy! Just remove all the marble that doesn’t look like Michelangelo’s David.” It really is as easy and hard as that, despite the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of the exercise.

 
SN: Do you have any advice for other writers?

 

RJ: Did you hear the joke about the writer who got into writing for the money? Exactly! It is a good joke! Funny and true! My point is: if you can live without writing, do – it’s very hard work for little if no money most of the time. Otherwise, keep honing your craft and you’ll get there, and it is certainly rewarding in itself.

 

SN: Do you see yourself in your characters?

 

RJ: Definitely. This gets back to our updated definition of “write what you know” – all the ideas, philosophy and world-view are mine, otherwise characters tend to become two-dimensional “stock characters”. (Robert Langdon and Eragon et al, you know who you are!)

 

SN: Are there any particular tools you find useful in your writing?

 

RJ: Observation and talking to people. Also, I recite and act out my characters to get the descriptions and pace I need. Anyone interested in seminars where I lead these activities, please get in touch.

 

SN: Is there a specific way you plan your writing?

 
RJ: My editor has pulled me up on this. To make the process easier, I adhere to creating the synopsis/chapter breakdown and then writing it up from there. However, there is a lot to be said for just writing what you want and see where it takes you. Sometimes a journey is more interesting without knowing the destination when you begin.

 

SN: What books/authors have influenced your writing?

 
RJ: Again, Hemmingway. There are many, many writers who write well, but he writes differently – and be damned! Also, Orwell packs a mean punch. In my genre, I would have to say Phillip Pullman. However, ultimately a writer must find his or her own style and “voice” and this “influenced by” notion recedes. Defining influences, I feel, is for critics and posterity – a writer should get on with writing.

 

SN: Do you envisage your story as part of a series? if so will there be recurring characters?

 

RJ: Yes. That is the big idea. Where you have a group of young characters “facing their demons” in physical form, I would argue you essentially have by definition the subtext of every narrative ever written back to the first cave paintings and by extension of that logic every narrative yet to be written, so, er, I’ll have to crack on and write those – which should keep me busy! I already have the first two books in two other interrelated series written. Oh, one of these needs to be illustrated and I would be interested to hear from anyone who may like to be involved in that. Dark and Gloomy, Where The Wild Things Are-style illustrations.

 

SN: Do you have writing plans once you have finished your book?

 

RJ: Sequels, sequels, sequels! Also, the games are looking good!

 

SN: Can you briefly explain the setting or settings in your book?

 

RJ: My books are physically set in east London in many east London locations – but the action does shift “Wrinkle in Time”- style (another favourite book of mine) across dimensions. If you’re wondering exactly how and why a fantasy concept that is essentially larger than LOTR in scope would find a natural home in a part of town that is sometimes dangerous and deprived, then your surprise is as great as mine was. But the logic is inescapable: If you were looking to find, say, a trio of kids to fight the forces of darkness, how in the heck do you think a trio of middle class wet-behind-the-ears magician dilettantes (HP et al, you know who you are) could do it? No, you would need a trio of hip, street smart kids that are scarier than anything they have in the dark dimension, and the street kids round here are precisely that. So that fun concept is the engine to this series.

 

SN: Can you briefly explain your core characters?

 

RJ: Basically, as above. Ethnic. Hip. Cunning as a trio of foxes. In other words: “Street” … innit.

 

SN: Thank you very much, Rick.

So You Think You’re Dieselpunk?

A stubble faced man wearing a slept-in looking suit and bowler hat puffs on a smoke. ‘What brings a dame like you to a dive like this?’ he asks in a scratchy, cigarette-bathed voice.

The girl (hoop skirt, hand fan, cogs and sprockets on her violet fascinator), her eyes intent on the raggedy man, replies, ‘And why, pray, would that be any business of yours?’

Ding-ding-ding! And here folks, we kick off the second part of “So You Think You’re Steampunk?” with a little more clarification of this puzzling genre. Or possibly a little more muddying depending on your receptiveness to my introduction of another sub-genre – Dieselpunk.

What on Earth is Dieselpunk?

More digging and I’ve discovered an offshoot of Steampunk called “Dieselpunk”. Among a plethora of other “punks” this one resonated on account of summing up neatly movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Dark City, comics like V for Vendetta and games like Bioshock. That is, a World War 2 period style with noir qualities (makes sense, noir, a cheap by-product of little money following the wars was a style part created accidentally through budget constraints rather than actual thought to create a new genre). So we aren’t talking about a sex pistol doused in petrol. Also, as Wikipedia states, this sub-genre is sometimes known as Decopunk –

…referring to the Art Deco art style (including its Streamline Moderne variant). The genre combines the artistic and genre influences of the period (including pulp magazines, serial films, film noir, art deco, and wartime pinups) with postmodern technology and sensibilities. First coined in 2001 as a marketing term by game designer Lewis Pollak to describe his role-playing game Children of the Sun,[15] Dieselpunk has grown to describe a distinct style of visual art, music, motion pictures, fiction, and engineering. Examples include Crimson Skies, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Dark City, the BioShock series[16], and even Fisher-Price’s Imaginext Sky Racers toy airplanes for children (http://www.fisher-price.com/fp.aspx?st=2726&e=skyracers).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberpunk_derivatives#Dieselpunk

I’d argue the world of Batman in its many incarnations and re-imaginings could often be classed as an example of Dieselpunk and also the world featured in many of Ed’s scrawlings on hotel coasters circa the last five years would certainly fall under the Steampunk/Dieselpunk umbrella. Interestingly these worlds can and will collide – for example Steampunk is often described as taking place in a Victorian setting but featuring alternate histories with “futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them” (to quote the Steampunk Wiki entry again – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberpunk_derivatives#Steampunk). Then take a look at Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy which includes more than three separate worlds – Lyra’s alternate Steampunk-y Oxford and Will’s modern/present world (our own).

So You think You’re Steampunk?

Today girls and boys, I’d like to kick off my research on “Steampunk” – well you call it Steampunk, many call it a way of life, but to each her own.

so what is steampunk? A silly game of adult dress-up? High fashion for grown-ups? Or maybe it’s all about movies and video games, books and television? As it turns out, lots of things fall under the steampunk umbrella.

Wikipedia states:

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s.[1] Specifically, steampunk involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used – usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain – that incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them; in other words, based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc. This technology may include such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne or real technologies like the computer but developed earlier in an alternate history.

Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of “the path not taken” for such technology as dirigibles, analog computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s Analytical engine.

Steampunk is often associated with cyberpunk. They have considerable influence on each other and share a similar fan base, but steampunk developed as a separate movement. Apart from time period and level of technology, the main difference is that steampunk settings tend to be less dystopian.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steampunk

But then all sorts of things fall under steampunk for their atmosphere if nothing else – literature like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and perhaps more interestingly (as it doesn’t really fit the mold of that wiki quote), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Also movies like Spirited Away and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, comic books like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and video games like Bioshock. Even Batman – and I’ll argue this (if I even need to) in an upcoming post.

My job, with my interest in both history and fantasy is to seek out this peculiar genre in and out of games, literature and film, analyse it, give it a bash and examine the cogs that fall out when I do so.