If you’re a fantasy reader and haven’t read any RJ Barker then stop mucking about and get to it. The author of The Wounded Kingdom and Tide Child trilogies, Barker cooks up beautifully singular worlds and stuffs them full of characters you can’t help but love.
Eager to find out more, I clambered onto the weathered and stinking deck of a bone ship only to be clapped in irons by an even more weathered and stinking crew. They took me belowdecks to meet RJ and so the interview began…
JW: Your fantasy worlds are some of the last places I’d want to live (That’s very much a compliment by the way). We’ve magic-ravaged landscapes in your Wounded Kingdom and seas full of everything that wants to eat you in The Bones Ships. Are the inhospitable natures of these settings a conscious choice or something that just sort of happened?
RJB: It’s just sort of happened. I think it’s in part meant to run as an allegory to the fact the societies these people live in are terrible. So you have these terrible places to live running alongside places that are also ruled terribly.
But I’ve also come at why these lands are terrible in different ways. In the Wounded Kingdom it’s a terrible place because people have made it terrible, there’s an ecological allegory running through the whole series with magic used as a metaphor for oil.
In The Bone Ships it’s a bit different, I don’t think we tend to think of the sea as a dangerous place now in the same way we have done in the past. We know on some level that it’s big and wet and may kill you, but in the past that danger was far more real. A sailor of the 17thc had a 1/16 chance of being lost overboard, and quite often ships went out and just never came back, big ships and small fishing boats. And there was this belief that terrible and dangerous things were lurking out there. So I just took that and ran with it.
The Bone Ships is full of sea shanties. Now sea shanties are all over TikTok and Twitter. Is it fair to say you’re the foremost social media influencer of the 2020s?
Undoubtably, I mean you only need to look at how popular antlers and taxidermy have become in interior decorating to see how my influence spreads. My advice is get in early on land-squid before my next trilogy gets out there. Land squid are going to be lit.
Duly noted! Talking of Bone Ships, I love the relationship between Joron and Meas, with all its ups and downs and shifts in attitudes. It’s both delicate and assured. Were they your starting point with the trilogy, your way in?
Characters are always my way in because I tend to keep the narrative very close so we are essentially seeing through their eyes and that allows you to do fun stuff like the evolving POV of Girton as he grows in the Wounded Kingdom books. But I also think that both The Bone Ships and The Wounded Kingdom owe a debt to C.J. Cherryh’s Morgaine books and the relationship between Vanye and Morgaine which I read at just the right age for it to have a massive impression on me.
But I’m also interested in friendship and how it evolves and Joron and Meas, are very much an exploration of that, where Girton and Merela was more of a parent and child relationship.
I can see the Morgaine influence now you mention it. With that and both your trilogies the most proactive and assured character isn’t the viewpoint character and the viewpoint character starts off uncertain of themselves and the world, at least at first. Why does that set-up click for you?
I suppose it comes back to the (often misused) writing maxim of ‘write what you know’. We all go from not being sure of the world to becoming a more sure of ourselves and our place in it, version. It’s also a good way of questioning the world. People who aren’t sure of where they belong are more likely to start asking questions so it’s handy for that. But I think I will probably try something different in the future, just to change things up a bit.
You’re not afraid to use your celebrity to bring attention to important social issues. I’m talking of course about cats turning into owls.
Is feline owlerisation an issue that’s affected you on a personal level or is it, as with Heathrow Town Council’s recent public information films, merely a concern over dangers to airspace?
Well, this has affected me personally. My cat is AWFUL, he bites, hunts us, pounces on us and it has not escaped my notice that we also have owls in the woods outside our house and I can’t help thinking these things are connected. If you doubt me then just know that every time I say, ‘are you hanging around with the owls again?’ he refuses to answer. Pretty damning really.
We’ve both played bass in rock bands. I tried to think of similarities between playing bass in a band and writing a novel but I’ve kinda hit a wall to be honest. Are there any similarities to be drawn or was this entire paragraph a mistake from the outset?
Pretty sure there are no similarities. Being in a band has a really good sugar rush where suddenly it all clicks and you look at each other and know it’s working, or you get on stage and the audience react and you don’t really get that with writing. Sometimes you knock out a really good sentence and you might say ‘yes!’ out loud and surprise your awful cat so it bites you and runs away. If he makes you bleed, that’s pretty metal though.
I have to ask, man. What is it about calcium that stirs your imagination so? There’s all that sea serpent bone in Bone Ships, obviously, but there’s a fair amount of antlers in Assassins and, if your twitter is anything to go by, quite a lot on display around your fireplace too. I’ve never believed those rumours about you being raised by monastic elk, so what gives?
I’ve always really liked bones, and skeletons and things with horns. I blame 2000AD’s Slaine for the antler thing though. There’s a picture of one of Slough Feg’s drune lords drawn by Mike McMahon and I can still see it when I close my eyes and it just struck a chord. And I’ve always been interested in the folklore of the UK and antlers and skulls tend to be objects of power and I think it just stuck.
McMahon’s Slaine art rules! So is visual stimulus a thing for you when you write? Do you seek and devour images, maybe pin them above your writing desk? Your novels always strike me as wonderfully visual.
I don’t have pictures or pinterest or anything like that, it’s more a store of things in my head. I always think of what I do as ‘method writing’ (so pretentious) in that I get quite lost when I’m writing and I’m doing my best to recount the story in the voice of the character and as they see the world.
Then sometimes I see mental images like a tableaux, just a single really clear image of a place or an act and I try and draw that in words. But it’s all very real and vivid to me when I’m writing it, and the writing is always a bit of a disappointment as it never matches what’s in my head.
So what’s next? Another trilogy? Something set in one of your previous worlds? If you can give us the slightest wafer-thin hint that would be truly awesome.
It will be another trilogy, I’ve been loosely describing it as Robin Hood with land squid, though there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s probably more ‘fantasy’ than The Bone Ships on first glance but I promise plenty of weirdness. I’ve been seriously considering dropping acid for research purposes but sadly I’m a responsible parent so I’ll have to give that a miss.
Shame. Maybe we could do a workshop at Eastercon on the Sunday; make for an interesting closing ceremony, that’s for sure. But I’ve gotta know more about these Robin Hood with land squid thing! Are the land squid the Robin Hood/Merry Men part of the analogy? Or are the Squid the bad guys? Or is your equivalent of Nottingham Castle one big fucking squid? Honestly, I’d put none of these things past you, mate…
Ha! It’s more about approaching things in the creation of a world. I find that if you take a thing away then the solving of the problems that creates is a good way of building a new world. In this case it was the removal of (among other things) horses, as they are such a fantasy staple.
I’m not suggesting we’re going to get people riding round on squid, cos that’s not what I’m going for, but I’ve always been a big SF reader and the invention of a new ecology really appeals to me. So the squid are part of that. But only part. As is Robin Hood, it’s a signpost and a starting point, just like the Arthurian legend was for the Wounded Kingdom books.