Friday, June 1, 2018

Interview with novelist James Vella-Bardon

Author James Vella-Bardon helps me wrap up the week by chatting with me about his new novel, The Sheriff’s Catch.

James was born and raised in Malta, an island nation steeped in the millennia of history. As a boy he often caught a rickety old bus to the capital of Valletta, where he would hover around the English bookshops to check out the latest titles in fiction.
Growing up he was an avid reader and a relentless day-dreamer, with his standout subject at school being English composition. He also won a couple of national essay competitions. Although he spent seven years studying and obtaining a doctor of laws degree, this did not cure him of his urge to write stories. So, after emigrating to Sydney in 2007 he resolved to have a proper stab at writing his first novel.
The result of this decision is an epic, sprawling five-part historical fiction series called The Sassana Stone Pentalogy. It is the product of nine years of intense rewriting and research, and tells the story of a Spanish Armada survivor who is shipwrecked in Ireland.
The first instalment in the series is a rip-roaring, myth-busting page-turner called The Sheriff’s Catch. Its anti-hero protagonist Abel de Santiago is an Armada survivor who finds himself on the run across Connacht, whilst being pursued by English troopers who want him tortured and killed.

Please tell us about your current release.
It’s very cross-genre: thriller, mystery, horror, action, adventure, suspense, and historical. It’s got a pinch of black humour in it and one reviewer even said that it contains romance!

It’s a breakneck action thriller set in 16th Century Ireland. An edge-of-your-seat page turner which will leave readers white-knuckled so that it has drawn comparisons in terms of its pace to ‘The Da Vinci Code’. The protagonist is a deadly sniper named Abel de Santiago, a Spanish solider who is stationed to the Spanish Netherlands. When his treacherous army comrades kill his pregnant Dutch wife, Santiago deserts the army and hunts them down to Seville. Before he can achieve his revenge he is captured by the men he hunts who sell him as a galley slave, leaving him to row aboard one of the ships forming part of the Spanish Armada. Yet his real troubles start following the Armada’s defeat at the famous Battle of Gravelines, when he finds himself shipwrecked upon the coast of Ireland. For Ireland is a country terrorized by mounted English troopers called Sassenachs, who have orders to find, torture and kill all Spanish castaways. Santiago’s fate appears sealed, so that the reader is instantly confronted with a pressing, life or death question: can Santiago outrun his own fate? I should also add that The Sheriff’s Catch has earned incredible reviews to date on Goodreads and Amazon, and is also the first instalment in a five-novel series called The Sassana Stone Pentalogy.

What inspired you to write this book?
I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code when I was 23, and it was the first novel I could not put down until I finished reading it. Henri Charriere’s Papillon was another novel which greatly inspired me, a highly intriguing thriller which is recounted in the first person. I wanted to write something as addictive as those two books, and when I read the first chapter of Q by Luther Blissett, I knew that I could do it in an original and largely unexploited setting like 16th Century Europe.

The spark of inspiration occurred a year later when I read a small non-fiction book called Ireland: The Graveyard of the Spanish Armada by T.P. Kilfeather yet another book which I could not put down until I had finished reading it cover to cover. The adventures of the Spanish castaways in 16th C Ireland blew my mind, and I knew I finally had a setting to write an incredible novel to rival my favourite historical thrillers which have been a great inspiration to me like Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Adventures of Captain Alatriste, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Tiger, Tim Willocks’ Tannhauser Trilogy, Q and Altai by Luther Blissett / Wu Ming, J.B. Pick’s The Last Valley, Robert E. Howard’s The Adventures of Solomon’s Kane and Robert Low’s The Whale Road. I was definitely also inspired by fantasy series like Tolkien’s and Stephen Donaldson’s trilogies and David Eddings’ pentalogies, which were part of the reason I wanted to write a lengthy yet pacey epic that a reader could be happily lost in.

Excerpt from The Sheriff’s Catch:
‘Take his keys!’ I yelled out in Sabir, feeling like I spoke the thoughts of most present. ‘Take his bloody keys!’

Dimas’s eyes widened as I stood off the bench and pointed at him, still shouting at the other slaves to act. As the overseer made to speak, a brawny arm suddenly curled about his throat, which belonged to a hefty Berber strokesman. The enormous slave nodded at me once, before he spoke to the rowers alongside him.

‘Get the keys.’

He then bent over sideways and shoved the stunned Dimas underwater. The crazed overseer kicked with his feet and twisted and turned, yet it was all in vain as the bulging muscles rippled in the arm of his victim turned aggressor. Meanwhile another slave had already reached Dimas’s side and undone his huge belt, with the heavy clanking keys passing through many hands even before the overseer had stopped kicking. The large Berber then pulled Dimas’s head from the bilge water and wrung his neck for good measure.

‘Be silent,’ he boomed across the benches, ‘and let none escape without my command!’
Having declared himself the leader of the slave revolt, the giant then turned his tattooed face towards our side of the deck, waiting for us all to be freed. When the last shackle was undone he strode towards the steps before us, crying out to the surviving rowers who already milled behind him.

‘Whosoever craves freedom, join with us now!’

A roar was returned as most hurried after him, with only a handful still clinging to their benches in fear. I flung Esteban away as Maerten and I hurried out, scarcely believing our luck as we ran after the fleeing rows of slaves. A swish of bilge water was heard at our feet before we ran towards the steps. As we hurried through the infirmary I could see that it was choked with countless wounded men, who groaned aloud at our passing while the physicians and surgeons stared at us in disbelief.

Upon reaching the main deck we were greeted by a flash of lightning, which streaked the nightly heavens. The sight left us startled before our ears were deafened by a roar of thunder. Our galley continued to lurch leeward as the end of great waves spattered our decks. The scent of the open ocean left me feeling half-revived, as I took in the chaos which Costa had mentioned. Ahead of us, guards beat back mutineers before they too were set upon by the Berber and his freed cohorts. We all swayed to the growing throes of the ocean, and at the prow a despairing nobleman flung gold doubloons overboard and cried out in despair.

What exciting story are you working on next?
My next story will be ‘A Rebel North’, the second instalment in ‘The Sassana Stone Pentalogy’ and sequel to The Sheriff’s Catch. People have asked me to describe it to them, and my reply has always been that while ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’ is more of a rollicking ‘man on the run’ story like Mel Gibson’s movie ‘Apocalypto’, ‘A Rebel North’ is more about a stranger in a strange land trying to assimilate into a different society. So it’s more like Kevin Costner’s ‘Dances With Wolves’ or Richard Harris’ ‘A Man Called Horse’. I’ll stop there because I don’t want to give much more away, except to say that 16th C Gaelic culture is staggeringly interesting, especially when it comes to the status which was afforded to women!

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When experienced structural editors Jessica Hatch and Craig Taylor told me that I could write. And especially a couple of weeks ago when legendary New York literary agent Albert Zuckerman told me that I had talent and lots of energy.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I’ve only written full-time once in my life, back in 2010 when I took eight months out to rewrite my first draft of The Sassana Stone Pentalogy, during which time I was financially supported by my then partner (now my wife). Otherwise it’s always been free time. I estimate that part-time writing is 6 months of a full-time year and that free-time writing is 3 months of a full-time year. All of which makes my final wordcount north of 450k words at the end of 2016 quite silly. I don’t know how I managed it.

My Monday is as follows: drop kids off at school, commute to work, commute home back from work, do homework with kids and put them to bed. Then I crumple on the sofa for five minutes, playing this silly computer game on my iPhone to clear my brain. If there’s any drops of energy left in the rag I then peel myself off the couch and plonk myself on the kitchen table, open my laptop and start to write.

I try to write at least two lines, which most days leads to writing until midnight or 1am. I then pass out on the bed and it’s Groundhog Day again for the following four working days of the week. On weekends I’m sometimes too shattered after a whole day with young kids to do anything at night, but it’s getting easier as my younger one grows older. Needless to say that given this highly busy routine (sometimes my evenings get taken up by admin etc.) I write and read a lot on my iPhone on the train and during the lunch break. Although I hate smart phones which are such an intrusion on our lives, without the iPhone I’d not have been able to do what I’ve done, that’s for sure.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
When short of time I record ideas on my video app on the iPhone, then email the recordings to my author email. I type them out later on at night. I’m a big believer in writing down your idea there and then, which sometimes leads to awkward situations during the day.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An Australian author. Tick, tick.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Check out the ratings and reviews of The Sheriff’s Catch by real (and I mean real) readers on Goodreads and don’t be put off by the ‘historical fiction’ tag. I hate calling my novel ‘historical fiction’, because it’s not - it’s actually a thriller set 500 years ago. So much love and attention to detail has gone into this novel, it’s definitely not your usual airport quick-flick, although it’s as pacey – one reviewer aptly described it as ‘a blockbuster with depth.’ It is a really authentic and original piece of work.

I also wanted to add that the novel trailer for The Sheriff’s Catch (which I created) has been recently nominated in the ‘Best trailer for a book or novel category’ at the 19th Golden Trailer Awards to be held in Los Angeles on 31 May 2018! Still pinching myself and can’t wait to attend this prestigious ceremony.


Thanks for stopping by today, James.

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