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Exclusive Interview with AJ Dalton

 

A J Dalton’s Empire of the Saviours (on UK release from 17 May 2012) has been getting great advance reviews on websites and in the likes of SciFi Now magazine (April edition). We’ve taken the chance to catch up with the Gollancz debut author, to find out what all the fuss is about and what is at the heart of his writing.

Adam, can we call you Adam?

Sure. I go with ‘A J Dalton’ on the books just because it sounds a bit authorly. You know, PD James, JK Rowling, JRR Tolkein, etc. Slightly poncy of me, I know, but I was a bit giddy when I published my first book (Necromancer’s Gambit), and got stuck with that version. Once you’ve chosen your ‘author name’, websites (meta-tags and search terms) and banks (for paying in miserly royalty cheques), not to mention marketing people, don’t want you changing it.

Empire of the Saviours has been getting some rave reviews. What’s so original or different about this novel?

Well, it starts traditionally enough, with the main character (Jillan) growing up within a repressive Empire controlled by beings who pretty much feed off the population. Jillan is victimised when he manifests forbidden pagan magicks. He kills a classmate during a confrontation and has to go on the run. Different factions try to hunt him down and use him for their own ends. We see different social values, political ideologies and philosophies of being collide. It all gets very messy, and quite painful, for a number of characters. Essentially, then, the plight of the individual represents far larger themes of existence. Such themes are important to all of us, I suppose, and it’s also nice to think that an individual can make a difference.

But don’t go thinking the book is preoccupied with heavy issues like the meaning of fish. Far from it! There’s a lot of humour, plenty of sword and sorcery, Heroes, Saints, a golem, a dark wolf… oh, and a naked and crazy holy man.

Were there any fantasy cliches you wanted to avoid in the novel? The flipside of that: were there any key elements you wanted to get in there?

If a cliché is used in a fresh, comic or original way, then it isn’t a cliché anymore. Fantasy is a genre and there are certain things that have to be in there or it just isn’t fantasy. You’ve gotta have a warrior (metaphor for anyone struggling in life), a quest (life’s journey) and a bit of a scrap (life’s challenges) going on. Unlike some authors (whom I shan’t mention cos they get very touchy about it), I think there should be a bit of magic thrown in too. It doesn’t have to be a white-haired wizard throwing thunderbolts around. It can be something far more conceptual. A trick of the mind or a foreign influence. Magic is a metaphor for something that can’t be explained, that defies us or that won’t be tamed. It is the collision of competing philosophies. For all that, it’s really quite hard to get some decent magic constructed and going on at the centre of your book. The flaming stuff just won’t let you pin it down. But you’ve gotta try. It’s important. More important than anything else in life. I think fantasy literature is more important than any other sort of literature. I’m utterly scandalized that they don’t allow genre fiction to win the Booker Prize. Not even Tolkein would get a look in. It’s a disgrace.

The novel’s part of a trilogy. Was it always your intention to write it that way?

Actually, it was always my intention that Chronicles of a Cosmic Warlord should be a five-book series. The publisher said they thought the synopsis only warranted a trilogy. ‘If I was George RR Martin, you’d let me do a series of five,’ says Adam. ‘But you’re not George RR Martin,’ points out the publisher. ‘Good point,’ Adam concedes. So, it’ll be a trilogy of trilogies instead, if I have my way. Nine books. Stephen Donaldson-styley. Ha!

Looking at your bio, you’re obviously extensively travelled. Do you think that’s informed the way you write, and the ideas you come up with?

Yes and no. I’m a big believer in ‘travelling in the mind’. You don’t have to go and learn about loads of other countries to be a decent author. People tend to be the same all round the world. Living in other countries did help me appreciate the UK a lot more, however. Why did I travel so much then? Well, there was a recession back in the 90s and I’d been unemployed so long it wasn’t funny anymore. I went to teach English where someone wanted me. Having said all that, when you travel and see signs and traces of a ‘lost people’ (be it in the UK or elsewhere), it’s quite spooky. It’s haunting. It gives the landscape echoes of meaning, ancient meanings that we can’t quite grasp. Something whispered that we can’t quite catch. Edgar Allen Poe was far better at conveying that sense of the supernatural than me, but I try. Michael Moorcock is far better at conveying that sense of the eternal. Seeing Stone Henge makes you imagine the so-called ‘pagan’ peoples and cultures of the UK who are now lost in time. Seeing the pyramids makes you try and imagine the Nubians and others who ruled pharonic Egypt long before it became the Arab Republic of Egypt. I’m a big fan of Time Team, of course. Anyway, back to the point. I travel to places and know a sense of ‘loss’. We all seek what has been lost, I think. Our imaginations try to rediscover lost people, lost civilizations, the pagans who came before us, the pagans we’ll never know but without whom we wouldn’t be here. By what magic, faith and ideas did they achieve something as long-standing as Stone Henge? For me, those things are the essence of fantasy and the human condition. It might be quite an old-school idea of fantasy, but it’s a part of the ‘lost’ idea of fantasy, I think. It’s a trace or sign of it anyway.

Did you have a eureka moment where you thought, “Yes, I’m now an author?”

I really began to feel like an author when I got the first piece of fan mail that wasn’t from my mum. It made the 25 years of trying to ‘make it’ and the stress-related hair loss all worth it.

What advice would you give to any aspiring authors?

Actually, there’s a whole slew of advice for aspiring authors on my website, from the creative side of things, to the business aspects of being an author: www.ajdalton.eu. Beyond that, there’s no formula for success, particularly when fashions come and go so quickly in markets these days. When you start writing something, it may be in fashion, but by the time you’ve finished it, it’s likely to be out of fashion (e.g. vampires have been done to death, if you’ll pardon the pun). Given that, it’s sensible to have a range of manuscripts and synopses for different sub-genres of fantasy or whatever you’re interested in. I’d always recommend entering a number of writing competitions (say, one a month for a year), as it’ll see you completing pieces on a range of themes in a relatively short period of time, pieces which will actually be read by someone in the publishing industry. The main challenge in becoming an author is not doing the writing itself, but selling it to someone (which is tricky if you can’t even get them to read your stuff). Oh, and don’t believe people who tell you, ‘A good book will sell itself.’ What pish! The best product in the world can fail without good marketing, and the worst product in the world can succeed with good marketing. Finally, don’t take rejections as comments upon the quality of your work (unless the rejection explicitly states that your material sucks), since it’s likely to be fashion and taste that decides what is accepted and what is rejected. It can be difficult sometimes, but you’ve got to believe in yourself and the importance of your work. Keep the faith. If you ever find me at a literary convention, I’ll help you cry into a beer or two if that helps.

So Empire of the Saviours is out on 17 May 2012. How long are you going to leave readers waiting for a follow-up? Six years? Longer?

[Laughs.] Don’t worry. I’ve already finished book two, Gateway of the Saviours (due for release in 2013). It’s even bigger, scarier and funnier than Empire of the Saviours. And the holy man still won’t put any clothes on.

Want to win a signed copy? We have 5  SIGNED early reading copies to giveaway! To enter send an email to competitions@orionbooks.co.uk with the subject line: EMPIRE OF THE SAVIOURS and the answer to this question: What is the title of book two in the Chronicles of a Cosmic Warlord trilogy? (Closing date 25th May 2012)