Historical Novelist James Vella-Bardon Talks Persistence, Goal-Setting, and Meeting Al Zuckerman
I provided developmental editing services for James Vella-Bardon's debut historical novel, The Sheriff's Catch, in fall 2016. After our collaboration, he scored a publishing deal from UK-based crowdfunding publisher Unbound, and has been on a roll ever since. (Learn more and purchase your copy at JamesVellaBardon.com.)
That's not to say that Vella-Bardon was an overnight success. In fact, he'd put in nine years of hard work, research, and rough drafts before he even approached me. Now, I'm glad to say that he's reaping the benefits.
Vella-Bardon sat down to answer these questions in May 2018, as he prepared to travel to Los Angeles to support his book's trailer at the Golden Trailer Awards. (See video below.)
1. What inspires you to write what you do?
I suppose the fact that I was born and bred in Malta had a great bearing on my chief sources of inspiration.
One could argue that throughout the last two centuries, the main cultural influences in Malta were 50% Anglo-Saxon and 50% Continental European. Which is probably why in recent years I have been greatly inspired by fiction written by Europeans, which is often translated into English from another language.
There are exceptions to this, like Bernard Cornwell’s excellent Sharpe’s Tiger. However, my other favourite works of fiction are Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (translated from Spanish), Tim Willocks’ The Twelve Children Of Paris, which was released in French before it was subsequently published in English, and the works of Wu Ming (who formerly called themselves ‘Luther Blissett’): Q and Altai, which are translated from Italian.
The common thread among all of these novels is that they feature a European protagonist, usually an excluded underdog who is possessed of a certain fighting ability, who has to use all of his grit, ingenuity, and martial prowess to get through a pretty hairy – often dystopic – episode during the early-modern period. Tim Willocks’ The Religion, set during the siege of Malta, and J. B. Pick’s The Last Valley, set during the Thirty Years’ War, are two other novels which were a great influence on my writing. I’ve also been influenced by novels from other genres, stories like Henri Charrière’s Papillon or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, not to mention the works of fantasy by JRR Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, David Eddings, and Stephen Donaldson.
I made the shift from fantasy to historical fiction when I was in my mid-twenties, because I was tired of the usual Dark Lord vs. the rest of the world plot which had been done to death (with few exceptions like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series). I was also tired of the slew of historical novels set in ancient Rome, medieval times, and the days of the British Empire during World War II, so I started to become intrigued by novels set in Continental Europe during the sixteenth century, which the French call ‘the Great Century.’
[I]t’s only been possible because I patiently met the challenges which were presented to me by various editors and worked hard to meet them.
I wanted to write an exciting European historical thriller, something that wouldn’t be a dry airport read and which sidestepped the usual formula so that it was wildly unpredictable. A story possessed of a certain literary quality without being as long-winded and tiring as those stories that are usually long-listed for the Booker Prize, i.e. books that contain clever use of language but provoke little emotion and in which nothing much seems to happen.
I wanted to write something gripping like Henri Charrière’s Papillon or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. A book that a reader wouldn’t be able to put down, which educates and entertains in equal measure. A story that – like Trainspotting, A Game of Thrones, or Robert Low’s The Whale Road – would be highly thought-provoking and would really get under the reader’s skin. Nothing makes me happier than when readers tell me that they were so rocked after reading my book that they even dreamt of it!
With all this in mind, the exhilarating and bloodcurdling events surrounding the Spanish Armada shipwrecks in Ireland were the spark of inspiration which led to my writing The Sheriff’s Catch. I poured all of my energy, love, and passion into it for years, and I’m really happy with the result.
2. What does your writing nook look like?
I often find myself writing on the kitchen table (see above) or in the garage downstairs. My wife and I both work and have two young kids, and we’ve got no relatives around to help us. So at the moment it’s a bit of a struggle to keep our house in perfect order, and I often find myself dreaming of the day when I'll be working on a five-metre-long oaken desk in my personal library, which will contain all of my favourite novels!
Over the years I've also found myself writing in the car and in the park alongside the tennis courts across the road from my house. In the days when I held a job at a big Australian bank, I would often sneak into meeting rooms during the lunch break, with a highly-strung receptionist often seeking me out and throwing me out of them!
3. What has been the most challenging part of editing your book? The most rewarding?
The Sheriff’s Catch is the first installment in a series of five books which I wrote over the last nine years, called the Sassana Stone Pentalogy (TSS).
Nine years is a long time in which to write a book, but I hadn’t really dedicated myself fully to creative writing before that, so that I had to work a lot to brush up on my use of English and to pinpoint my voice.
I oscillated a lot between the somewhat-flowery use of English which I had picked up in Malta, and the bone-dry succinct English which is often used nowadays. It takes time to find your voice, and a famous author once said that you have to creatively write a million words before you start to find your feet. I rewrote the original draft of TSS many times over the years, and I suppose there will still be a few more years of hard work ahead. But it was a lot of fun and a great education, and I got to work with some great editors and other literary professionals, each of whom challenged me in different ways.
In 2010 the critically acclaimed author Dexter Petley read the very first draft of TSS, and challenged me to write in a more literary style and to develop more female characters.
London-based super-agent Jim Gill subsequently read the rewritten draft later on in 2010, and his reply encouraged me to delve even further into the historical setting, so that 2011 was entirely devoted to research. Between 2012 and 2016 I worked on redrafting and finalising the book, which ended up becoming a five-part series. In 2016 I was very fortunate to secure the services of experienced US editor Jessica Hatch who was instrumental in pushing me to believe in my writing and who showed me that I had found my voice. She also urged me to rewrite certain scenes before I was signed up by respected UK crowdfunding publisher Unbound.
I had three months in which to secure the crowdfunding target of £4000 in presales, which was secured in less than six days.
After being signed up by Unbound I worked closely with acclaimed English author and structural editor C. M. “Craig” Taylor in 2017, who, like Jessica, helped me to believe in my voice and urged me to add more backstory and action scenes. This was probably the toughest part of the editing process, because of what he required as well as the urgent time constraints which were imposed by Unbound’s publishing deadline.
I think it’s important to take your time with your project and to get it right before you share it with the world. Following my hard work under the guidance of Jessica and Craig, The Sheriff’s Catch took Unbound’s literary platform by storm, holding the top spot for three days in all genres following its launch and topping over 370 published and unpublished works of fiction and non-fiction, written by various highly talented celebrities and award-winning novelists. I had three months in which to secure the crowdfunding target of £4000 in presales, which was secured in less than six days. This was partly achieved thanks to a novel trailer I put together on a shoestring budget, which has gone on to be nominated in the Best Trailer for a Book or Novel category at the 2018 Golden Trailer Awards.
Prior to publication the novel was also serialised on popular UK digital book club The Pigeonhole, which was used by Ken Follett to promote A Column of Fire, the sequel to The Pillars of the Earth. Two hundred fifty readers worldwide read the novel, and the feedback was just simply incredible: a lot of the highly encouraging reviews I’ve received to date can be found on GoodReads and on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.au.
A couple of weeks ago I was left pinching myself when legendary NY literary agent Albert Zuckerman (who was attending the Sydney Writers’ Festival) requested a copy of the novel and then asked to meet me for an hour. I was very honoured by this and also pleased to hear that he liked the novel and that he thought I had talent and drive.
It’s been a pretty bright start when you consider that I was first published only two months ago. And it’s only been possible because I patiently met the challenges which were presented to me by various editors and worked hard to meet them. There are always more challenges around the corner, but it’s best to meet them head on, get the mistakes out of the way as soon as you can, and kick on with your calling.
4. Any tips for aspiring writers?
I don’t think getting published is as hard as people think, if you want to pursue a genre that’s popular and therefore commercial. There’s a lot of very poorly written stuff that does very well on the bestseller lists because it fits the genre that big publishing houses are looking for.
Don’t get me wrong, success is never easy, and although I haven’t actively sought out wholesale commercial success, I would keep the following in mind:
- An agent is your key to a big traditional publishing house that will put a lot of money in pre-publication marketing (which can cost $2,000-3,000 or more and which you should ideally have in place even if you self-publish).
- Most agents generally work in the traditional space, making a 15% commission on the 10% royalties an author traditionally makes on the sale of each novel. This might mean nothing to you, but it takes on a whole new meaning when you understand that unless a publisher shifts hundreds of thousands of copies of your novel, then the agent is going to end up with a negligible return for their hard effort. They might actually ADORE and secretly WORSHIP your book, but they’re operating in an increasingly tough business and not a fan club. If your work is part of a genre that’s not hot or which might be cross-genre, you’ll need to look at alternative routes to publication like self-publishing or smaller presses like Unbound who offer authors a greater cut of the profits. It’s never easy and fiction is crushingly competitive, but take heart: ours is a great time in which to be a writer.
- If you like to write anything like the bestselling books on the NY Times lists, Amazon, etc., then you’re very likely on your way to getting an agent and then a publisher. But to do so, you may have to imitate, imitate, and imitate some more, and your creative instincts will not always be comfortable with that.
- If you’re not actively seeking commercial success, I’d recommend that you find an idea you absolutely love and stick with it. Do not go anywhere near a literary agent or a publishing house until you've written your manuscript and then read it ten times over. Pay good money to hire Jessica Hatch or another good, committed, and experienced editor and obtain an editorial review. Listen to your editors and do everything they say. Then review your manuscript five times more, poring over each last word and paragraph and hire your editor to read it again. Once you’ve taken on their second round of feedback and patiently reviewed your manuscript twice over, you can then start submitting it to literary agents. Have the best manuscript you can possibly have, and someone in the industry will take it up.
- I think that it’s probably best to have an agent so that you don't have the bad cop/good cop with the publisher yourself. It’s said that they also coach and develop you and should have the right contacts.
- Give it all you've got, then shoot for the moon so that you can land among the stars. And as my Australian creative writing teacher and novelist Terry Dowling told me over ten years ago: if you find out that you're not cut out for it, then that in itself is a valuable lesson.
5. What’s next on your world domination agenda?
The next big ticket item is attending the Golden Trailer Awards in Los Angeles at the end of this month [May 2018]. After that I can't wait to get stuck into reviewing and rewriting my protagonist Santiago's next adventure, A Rebel North. I’m excited by the prospect of applying everything I’ve learned to date to the manuscript, to try and make it as good as – if not better than – The Sheriff’s Catch.