The Twelve(ish) Days of Authors – Day 8 Pt. I, James Calbraith

24 Dec

Joining us next from London, England is ABNA semi-finalist, James Calbraith! James originally hails from Poland, though he has spent many years traveling, which is heavily reflected in his debut series, The Year of the Dragon, in which he indie-published the first book, The Shadow of Black Wings, which made the Amazon US & UK Bestseller list for Alternative History and Historical Fantasy. Two more books, a novella and a collection of short stories have also been published. You’ll find links to the Amazon and/or Goodreads pages on the covers below or you can go to his website.

Without further ado, welcome James!


Tell us a bit about The Year of the Dragon series, and who you think would like it.

In the middle of the 19th century, a young dragon rider named Bran travels to Yamato, a mysterious land on the brink of a revolution. That’s the one-sentence summary. It’s a historical fantasy: there’s magic, dragons, samurai, magical creatures and lots of war and politics.

I would hope everyone will like it 🙂 But I can see how the book may not be everyone’s cup of tea. This isn’t just an adventure story, where a boy and his dragon (and their team) go from point A to point B and finish off the bad guys in the process. There’s history going on in the background, and it’s important history. There are several plots happening at once, and the story unravels through many points of view. In the best tradition of epic sagas, I’m trying to show the complexity of real history – and real human relationships – in a fantasy setting. People who like that sort of thing should enjoy my books most. But really, most readers should find something for themselves. The books are quite eclectic like that. There’s even an old-fashioned crime drama unfolding at some point 🙂

I was surprised that even though dragon riding has shaped the world in The Shadow of Black Wings, all dragons eventually go feral thus a rider couldn’t stay with a single dragon. What was the inspiration for this?

I don’t think there is any one direct inspiration. If I did read something similar somewhere, it must have lodged in my sub-conscious instead of memory (and you don’t want to rummage in my sub-conscious 🙂

Mainly, I wanted to do away with “the boy and his dragon” cliché. In most dragon books, a dragon binds with the rider “for life”. It’s a cool concept, but by now quite outdated and overused. My dragons are not as smart or sentient as most – they are mounts and beasts of burden, rather than life companions. But they are still DRAGONS, so they can’t be tamed easily and forever.

Tell us a bit about your writing style – is there anything you find really easy or, really hard?

Worldbuilding is my favourite part – as many reviewers have noted, it’s also what I do best. If I could, I would simply write about the worlds in my head – the history, the geography, the bestiaries… unfortunately a novel needs a plot 🙂

One thing I always had a problem with was creating likable characters and believable relationships. The Year of the Dragon series is probably the first time I managed to succeed in that – although, of course, that’s for the readers to decide.

I don’t mind writing short or long form, but when I’m in the middle of writing a novel it’s really hard to switch to short story writing mode – and vice versa. I haven’t really written anything new in short form since starting on The Year of the Dragon novels.


Were there any unique challenges you faced when writing an alternative history novel?

Probably striking a balance between what I thought the readers should know, and what they need to know. When you are neck-deep in detailed historical research for years, at some point you lose a grip on reality. My books are genre fiction, aimed at a broad audience, not a set of dissertations. Most of the readers will not be aware of the intricacies of 19th century Japanese politics, or advances in agricultural technology during industrial revolution. They also don’t need to be told about it, if it’s not necessary for the plot. The first draft of “The Shadow…” read in places like a lecture. Thankfully, I got better 🙂

Did traveling affect your research for The Year of the Dragon, or did travel inspire the setting in any way?

This series would not have existed without my travels. I was suffering from a writer’s block for about four years, until I decided I should start writing about what I saw on my journeys.

You can’t – well, you can, but you really shouldn’t – write a decent book about a different culture without spending at least some time inside that culture. I would never dare to write about Japan without having spent there at least a few months – despite all the research I did prior.

Steampunk seems to have exploded in popularity over the last few years. What, to you, defines steampunk as a genre?

I try not to use the term “steampunk” to describe my book, except when necessary – I prefer the term steam fantasy. The setting of my story is Victorian England, but the steampunk elements are subdued; there is plenty of steam, but not too much “punk”.

Right now, especially in USA, “steampunk” is mainly an aesthetic movement. Gears, leather, goggles, valves and tesla coils, all harmless fun, not much thought put into it. There isn’t much reflection of what late 19th century was really about, especially in England and the Empire. The “punk” element seems to be gone from the genre definition altogether. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne not only presented imaginary inventions based on the 19th century tech, but also explored their impact on the society and civilization. In an ideal world, this is what “steampunk” should be. But I know it’s not anymore, and that’s fine – words change meanings all the time.


In the spirit of sharing, tell us about a book by another author you adore.

Anything by Ursula K. Le Guin. This will date me terribly, but she’s my second most favourite author of all time. Like the Japanese masters of calligraphy, she has the ability to encapsulate a whole world in a simple sketch; her books – especially early ones – are tiny by today’s standards. Barely more than novellas. But they pack more punch than most of today’s doorstoppers. That’s a lost talent.


You’ve published the first three books in the series, another one is due out shortly, in addition you’ve published an unrelated novella. Do you have any other projects in the works that we should know about?

I’m working on an audio version of the first book right now. I would like to write two more standalone works in the near future – another epic fantasy novella (or novel) with a more romantic twist, and a non-fiction book about wacky 19th century inventions. If I have time. But The Year of the Dragon is an on-going project that might take me years to finish, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do anything else.

Do you find working on a series more or less complicated then working on standalone solitary titles?

Both are equally hard. Perhaps a series is a bit easier, because it doesn’t require a change of mindset between one work and another. I can move on from one volume to the next almost seamlessly, whereas with standalones, I need at least a few weeks, if not more, of break to cleanse my mind.

What has been the most rewarding part about self-publishing thus far?

Watching the sales and downloads trickle. It may sound shallow – “writing is not about financial success!” – but each sale or free download meant a new reader, and what’s more important to a writer than readers? Traditional publishing doesn’t give this visibility, and in today’s instant gratification world that’s an important distinction. I don’t know if I could stay motivated to write new books if I didn’t see the previous ones finding readers.


Who is your favorite fictional villain of all time?

Emperor Isaac Dornkirk from Visions of Escaflowne.

Escaflowne was – and still is – the best anime series I’ve ever seen, one that influenced me the most, and had some of the best characters in fiction, ever. Emperor Dornkirk is magnificently cunning, and has a God-like ambition – to control Fate – two traits that make a good villain. A third important villain trait is complex motivation. Dornkirk is not evil; he’s merely misguided.

Do you have any resolutions for 2013?

I don’t really do resolutions, but I have plans. Finishing volume four by April, releasing all four books in a bundle. After that, either starting on book five immediately, or taking a break to write one of the two projects mentioned above.

A dream would be to reach and remain in Top 100 Fantasy on Amazon. But that’s not really a resolution, is it?

You can check out James’ books on Amazon and Goodreads.


2 Responses to “The Twelve(ish) Days of Authors – Day 8 Pt. I, James Calbraith”

  1. James Calbraith January 2, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    Reblogged this on James Calbraith and commented:
    Doing some New Year cleaning – here’s a small interview I did just before Christmas.


  1. Press and Reviews | The Year of the Dragon Steam Fantasy Series - November 19, 2014

    […] Candace Knoebel – The Shadow of Black Wings – Author Interview Literary+ – Interview with James Calbraith Paul Dorest – Author Interview: James Calbraith L.T.Getty – The Twelve(ish) Days of Christmas – James Calbraith […]

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