RJ Barker is an author of epic fantasy, most notably for his Wounded Kingdom trilogy, Tide Child Trilogy (you can find my full review of that one here), and The Gods of the Wyrdwood, a new trilogy from Orbit Books.
Interview with RJ Barker
Hi and thank you so much for answering my questions! To start off, what first got you interested in reading and writing fantasy?
Well, I’m more interested in reading and writing full stop. I don’t have any real allegiance to a genre it just happened to be a fantasy novel that sold, so that’s what I’m doing right now, but it could just have easily been SF or crime. I like to write, and it’s the people that interest me as opposed to genre. Though I do like to make stuff up, and invent things, but that’s always secondary to the characters. I’m writing about people and everything else is a tool to let me do that, whether they’re on a boat made of dragon bones like in The Tide Child books or a down at heel northern council estate in the RJ Dark Mal & Jackie books.
Both of your trilogies are very different in style, with one being a single, focused POV while the other is more expansive in its scope. How was the experience different (if at all!) between writing these different kinds of books?
There’s not really any difference, for me anyway. Each book needs a voice and when you’ve found that voice you just take off. Girton’s voice was very particular and it made it really easy to write because I’d found it and then it felt more like dictating his story. The voice of The Bone Ships was a lot more considered as I wanted it to sort of feel like a story being told to you, and I wanted the voice of the book to be very particular. So I suppose there was more up front thinking about The Bone Ships style of writing but once I had got the voice locked in I was off.
In something like the Tide Child Trilogy, how did you decide your POV character? I thought it was really interesting that in a lot of way Lucky Meas was the “main character”, but most of it came from Joron’s perspective?
I seem to be more interested in side characters, because there’s a good argument to be made that Girton isn’t the hero of the Wounded Kingdom books; traditionally it would be Rufra. I think I’m less interested in people who are already great at something, I like flawed people who have to struggle and by meeting Joron at his lowest point you get to experience everything with him. The lows and the highs so it’s a much more involved point of view.
I have to know – what inspired the gullaime?
Ah, what a wonderful creature! I think there’s definitely a bit of skeksis in there, but Gullaime sort of sprang into existence fully formed. Originally it was going to be bird creatures and wind wizards until a friend misheard me and said ‘bird wizards?’ and everything just slotted into place. I like the fact that as a character Gullaime so angry, and they are righteously angry so they never have to apologise. Everyone else has to come round to their point of view.
Between your two trilogies you dive quite deeply into issues of disability, gender, race, and sexuality in your worldbuilding. Why did you decide to incorporate these into your worlds and stories? How do you get in the heads of these diverse characters?
Well, in my real life I know all manner of people, it would seem weird not to have them in my books. And having grown up as someone who was quite odd and never really fitted in I know how important it is to be able to find yourself in the media you enjoy. Before I wrote I spent a long time playing in bands and that was because I found people like me in music, it never really occurred to me that working class kids from the north of England could become writers – even though I always loved books. Maybe if I’d had a role model I’d have done this a lot sooner. As to getting into their heads, people are people. The idea that who you love, or how your body is makes you so different I couldn’t understand someone has never really occurred to me. Though, at the same time there are experiences people have had that I have never had and will never have, and I try not to stray into their territory, and if I do then it’s good to get someone with a better understanding than me to read it. As a general rule of thumb people are people first, not whatever label we stick on them as a society, so if you treat everyone as people you won’t go far wrong.
Do you have a particular character that you most enjoyed writing for?
I enjoy them all. I love to write, though writing Gullaime always filled me with a real sense of joy.
What books/movies/shows/etc. are you currently enjoying and recommend?
I recently finished watching Lockwood & Co with my family and I can’t recommend it highly enough, it’s absolutely wonderful and my son assures me it’s really captured the spirit of the books. Reading wise I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick and have read Tokyo Vice and Under the Banner of Heaven which are both superb books and wonderful bits of writing as is Micheal Connolly’s latest Harry Bosch book, Desert Star.
You have a new trilogy coming out this summer! Can you give a little tease to readers about what to expect?
Something entirely different from The Bone Ships but still recognisably by me. It’s a strange and dark. I kind of think of it as the third of my ‘landscape’ trilogies. The Wounded Kingdom was all about moorlands and empty sweeping landscapes, The Tide Child books were all about the sea and The Forsaken is mostly set in and about forests. Maybe calling it folk-horror epic fantasy, works, maybe.