To follow up my review of ‘Age of Assassins’, I invited the author, RJ Barker to talk a little bit more about the book, and himself. To me, the story was one of the best kinds, in that you could see the little bits of the author shining through. In reading AoA, I felt as if I was getting to know RJ. This made the story all the more personal, not just from a character and characterisation perspective, but also because this was a story from the author’s heart.
Also, it has kickass assassins, sorcery, antlers…
Much antlers…(or so I can imagine the meme saying)
What more could you want?
(Except more antlers – I have it on good authority that you can never have too ‘much antlers’ – this could be a whole other meme)
*Note: RJ loves a footnote – scroll to the bottom of the post to find them!
Hi RJ! We’ve spoken before, (during a previous interview mini-series on 2017 debut authors) but for those that have yet to come across you, in 50 words or less, introduce yourself.
Oh, I’m RJ, tall, friendly, big hair, and still a bit shocked to have my debut coming out through someone as big as Orbit.
And, in the same spirit, introduce your debut, ‘Age of Assassins’, in 50 words or less.
A murder mystery with stabbing, intrigue, magic and massive antlers. The massive antlers are the most important bit. Though I do seem to be in a minority about this.
Why THIS story? Did you want to tell the story of ‘to catch an assassin, use as assassin’ as the official tagline says, or did you want to tell the story of Girton Clubfoot?
That gives me a level of forethought I don’t really possess. I was writing something else, more Sci-Fi based and merrily trotting along with that when an almost complete story jumped into my head. I don’t even remember thinking about Girton Club-Foot and why he was what he was, he just appeared and I knew it was right. It was probably the easiest writing experience I’ve ever had. His voice was such a familiar one, it felt like talking to someone I had known for years.
‘Age of Assassins’ is told through the eyes of Girton Clubfoot, a trainee assassin, in the first person perspective. Did you set out to tell it in this way? Are there any particular advantages or disadvantages to the first person POV?
Before this I’d written a space opera in third person, more to see if I could than anything, and that found me an agent and we spent a lot of time working on it but I really prefer first person. First person is what I’d always choose to read and what I like to write so I suppose one of the reasons writing Age of Assassins (AoA) was so easy for me was it was coming back to what I like. I find first person really playful too, you can hide things and hint things and sort of lead the reader in a way that they’re always just slightly ahead of the character which drags them (the reader) along. Writing a novel is a lot like doing a difficult puzzle, but writing in first person makes it more like a game, for me anyway. There was a lot of joy in writing this book, it was like being released from a catapult.
Some of the recent fantasy ‘hits’ have been told in the first person perspective. What is it that sets Girton apart from these other characters?
I don’t know. I don’t think in terms of other books or compare myself because I will always find myself wanting. There’s always something someone else will be doing better than me and I don’t sit and think about a character in terms of ‘a bit from this book and a bit from that one,’ either So it’s hard to know. Girton is an odd mix of capable and naïve. On the one hand he is capable of killing you without breaking a sweat and he’s been taught about people and taught well: how they work, how to trick them, how to get past them; but he’s never been around them so he doesn’t quite understand the social conventions that allow him to fit in. He’s an innocent abroad in a lot of ways. Just a very dangerous one. He’s also an outsider, and like most outsiders he’d really quite like to fit in, if he could just work out how.
There’s a belief that authors put ‘a little bit of themselves’ into their stories. Is that true in the case of Age of Assassins, and by extension, Girton Clubfoot?
I think you have to put yourself into a book. It’s a synthesis of all your experiences, and reading and everything you’ve absorbed. (I cover this in a bit more depth in the upcoming guest post.)
Within the story, and through Girton’s experience, you tackle some pretty big themes regarding ‘growing up’/’coming of age’, e.g. bullying, acceptance, friendship and first love. How did you go about writing these? Did you plan for them or did they naturally appear and evolve as you embarked upon the journey?
They naturally appear. I don’t really do any planning and what I love about writing is the act of discovering the story you’re telling. I generally know the end and a couple of things I’d quite like to happen but how I get there is always a mystery until it is happening.
Cliques and groups are always a part of life, to some degree, and although I’ve been lucky enough to be accepted by loads of different types of people I’ve never quite felt like a fitted in, so there’s probably a degree of that brought to Girton. On the other hand, adversity is a very good way to show a character’s strength so if I ever feel a bit bored when writing I generally throw something unpleasant in for Girton to deal with. How he deals with it is often as much a surprise to me as it is to him.
I’m not a fan of labels, but I’ve already used one in mentioning ‘coming of age’. Other labels that could be applied to Age of Assassins include ‘murder mystery’ and ‘grimdark’. Would you agree with these, and why?
It was written as a murder mystery. That was/is what I think of it as and I do love a good crime books, Christie, Conan-Doyle and a lot of the more modern crime writers like Ian Rankin, Robert Crais or James Lee Burke. Orbit and my agent both see it as Epic Fantasy and it does have a lot of elements of that, probably flavours of fantasy from a decade or so ago as I’ve sort of struggled with the “grimdark” thing that has been very popular. I think partly because it came along when I was very ill and I had enough pain to deal with, thank you very much, and partly because I tend to read to be uplifted. That’s not to say grimdark is bad, there are some really good writers operating within that label, but it’s not for me, at the moment. Girton’s world is very gritty and hard, but he’s a pretty moral character, and the trajectory of the book is pretty hopeful. Though there’s also a sense of melancholy to it.
Grimdark lite, maybe? No, Glumdark. I like that more. I am writing glumdark.
Except it’s often quite funny. Girton’s got a bit of a sense of humour.
Not selling that label very well, am I?
Bringing this back to focusing on you- how did you get into writing? What made you want to write? And how long have you been writing for?
There’s always been books and words. Books have made me happy when I was sad, been full of friends when I was lonely, broken my heart when I was elated. Books and music are the two constants in my life and, oddly, I use them for opposite purposes. I like books that are quite positive and uplifting (except when I don’t) but I like music that is either sad or angry, two things I am generally not.
But, yes, anyway, books have been a constant in my life. When I was playing in bands I always had a book with me and even in music it has to have words in it or I’m not that drawn in. But there has always been words, always. I love them, they are the ultimate game, constantly changing and shifting. I’ve been writing for about thirteen years, seriously for about seven of those but in reality I’ve probably been doing it all my life.
What was the hardest thing about writing Age of Assassins?
Cope editing it. I’m about to start copy editing AoA 2 in a few weeks. Excuse me, I need to go and weep quietly for a while.
What did you learn from writing Age of Assassins? Either about yourself, or about the publishing world?
This answer isn’t really about learning, as I learn in a very unconscious way, but being among writers and book people felt sort of like coming home after a long trip away.
If you could change anything, anything at all, before the book is released, would you?
Nothing. Never look back, learn from the (inevitable) mistakes you make and keep going forward.
Any advice to would-be writers out there?
Don’t quit. Enjoy doing it.
And finally, in 10 years’ time what’s the one thing that you want readers to remember from Age of Assassins?
That’s a hard question, Mike. I am frowning because I generally disagree with having to think about hard questions. I think I’d probably like a reader to see the cover and remember meeting someone they liked, or something that made them feel good.
To finish, there’s something new that I’d like to trial with you. A simple quick-fire question round, no more than 3 word answers. Answer with the first thing that comes into your head – no cheating!
Which RPG character class would you be? NPC Shopkeeper.
Ebook or physical pages? Don’t care.
Favourite drink whilst writing? Orange, no bits.
If you could have another author re-write your book, who would you choose, if you had to? Iain M Banks.
Deity of choice? Eris.
Perfect first date? Cocktails in Leeds.
Music to listen to whilst writing? The Afghan Whigs.
Is there any theme/subject you won’t include in your story/writing style? Graphic rape.
Which is mightier – the pen or the sword? Pen, given time.
If you weren’t writing fantasy, what genre would you write? Crime or SF.
RJ Barker lives in Leeds with his wife, son and a collection of questionable taxidermy, odd art, scary music and more books than they have room for. He grew up reading whatever he could get his hands on, and has always been ‘that one with the book in his pocket.’ Having played in a rock band before deciding he was a rubbish musician RJ returned to his first love, fiction, to find he is rather better at that. As well as his debut epic fantasy novel, Age of Assassins, RJ has written short stories and historical scripts which have been performed across the country. He has the sort of flowing locks any cavalier would be proud of.
1. Not consciously anyway.
2. This is not true. Shocking that I would make stuff up, I know. Copy editing is hard but it is also fun in it’s own way. And besides, I imagine how hard I find copy editing is not nearly as hard as it is for the poor soul who has to copy edit me and cope with some of my ideas about grammar. Sorry copy-editor.
3. OR ANYTHING.
4. The safest of all RPG professions.
5. I don’t really drink alcohol much any more so this is kind of lie BUT my first ever date with the lovely MrsRJ was in a cocktail bar and that turned out pretty well.