Just James! Fascinating in-depth interview with the bestselling author – James Fahy

My Meet the Author spot this month is focused on bestselling traditionally published author, James Fahy. Creator of the The Changeling fantasy trilogy and the Urban Gothic vampire series Phoebe Harkness. James is also a major influencer on Instagram, where he shares snapshots of his life and family shenanigans, as well as featuring amazing recipes and cooking tips. Although an extremely busy man, James is a keen advocate of authors from all walks of life supporting each other – be they newbies or seasoned writers, traditionally published or indies.

First of all, thank you so much James, for taking the time to come onto A Little Bit of Blake this week, and I’d like to start by congratulating you on the launch of the latest book in the Phoebe Harkness series, “Paper Children”.

Thanks, Julia. It’s been a while coming since Phoebe 2, for enough reasons to fill a whole interview all on its own.  I wrote Changeling 3 after the second Phoebe book, then, due to my own clumsiness, got into a bit of a traffic accident which led to a fun year of operations and physio. Once everything was back off hold though, I wanted to get Phoebe 3 out there asap. Excited that it’s finally here!

As an author myself, I know what a crazy head-rush launching a book is, so, how do you feel it went? And do you have any traditions or routines you like to follow when publishing a new book?

Book Launch time is one of my favourite times. All the solitary slogging away behind the scenes, where it’s just you and the screen finally come to fruition. I spend most of my time in the run up weeks to launch in a whirlwind of emails and phone conversations with the Publishers, my Agent, the art dept who are dealing with the cover, the marketing guys who are telling me where and how they’ll be pushing the book… it’s an odd sensation really, as writing itself is so solitary, but then at the ‘birth’ there are suddenly so many people involved and it turns into a bit of a circus. I also have great fun running teaser campaigns on Social Media, promos, booktrailers and giveways. I think any author would agree it’s a little bit like a personal Christmas when you have a new book out. Great fun but a bit exhausting.

You’ve probably been asked this before, but can you pinpoint what or even who inspired the character of Phoebe Harkness within your imagination, and was the fact that Oxford appears to be one of your favourite places a contributing factor to basing Phoebe’s world in a dystopian version of this city?

My decision to write Phoebe largely stemmed from my frustration at how a lot of male writers seemed to handle female characters. I read a lot of Urban Gothic and paranormal, and while there are some great ones out there, there are also so many books where it seems the only way a woman can be portrayed in a book as ‘strong’ is either to make her a completely stone-cold b***h, or have her be this perfect and unrealistic goddess. In my life, I’m surrounded by strong women, in my family and friends, and I wanted to write a female lead hero who was badass AND human. Phoebe is sarcastic, resilient and tough. She’s also socially awkward, clumsy and makes mistakes. I didn’t want to shy away from presenting a fully rounded person, and that’s where Phoebe came from. It seems to have worked well, I get so much feedback, especially from female readers, either telling me they ARE Phoebe, or they want to be her best friend. That’s pretty gratifying to me as a writer. One of the oddest questions I get asked is ‘as a man, how do you write women so well?’. Which I think is odd, because I’m fairly sure no one ever asked JK Rowling ‘as a woman, how do you write teenage boys so well?’.

As for choosing Oxford, well it’s my hometown, so it’s where my heart lives, and I know it inside out.

 It’s such an amazing city, and there’s so much history and architecture to mine there as a writer. Phoebe’s world is a closed in walled city, so I had to choose one that was interesting enough and had enough substance for me to play in for more than one book. I can’t imagine Phoebe being set anywhere else now.

Phoebe Harkness is now a trilogy, do you intend for it to remain so? Or can fans expect more from her? If you’ve truly written the end on that story, which direction will your writing take you in now and can you give any hints as to what your readers can look forward to?

Will there be more Phoebe after Paper Children? Hmm… readers will have to read the last page if they want to know. (evil cackle).

The next book I will be releasing will be book four of the Changeling series, which my Erlking readers have actually started baying for blood for now. I think if I moved to anything else before putting that one out there in the world, they would actually come for me with torches. It will be hot on the heels of Paper children though, promise!

After that, I have more than one project I’m working on. Two standalone novels, both of which hopefully will surprise readers familiar with my work, as neither of them are quite like what I’ve written before. My Changeling series is radically different in tone and voice to the Harkness books, and I really enjoy singing in different notes that way, so you can expect something a little chilling, and something a little historical. I’m keeping details under my hat for now though.

I know as writers we’re not allowed to pick a favourite book – as parents are not allowed to have a favourite child – but is there one of yours that holds a special place within your heart?

Book? Or child?

There’s more than one book that’s special to me, for different reasons. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner contains the spark that lit a fire in my younger mind that would one day spread into the Changeling series. I’m not sure I would ever have come to Erlking or the Netherworlde without Garner. Likewise, there’s a little-known book by Thomas Burnett Swan called Day of the Minotaur. I read it when I was around thirteen, and it started my obsession with mythology and faerie tales. It’s probably the reason I studied classics at college and later at Uni, and these themes still flavour a lot of my writing, so I owe a lot to that book.

Are you one of those authors who wrote as a child? Or is it something that came later in life?

Oh, I’ve always written. I think it was a bit of an outlet for me when I was a child. I was very solitary. I wasn’t one of the popular kids and I think I had a bit of a reputation of being a weirdo. My childhood was a strange and quite lonely one. Most friends I had were adults. I could hold better conversations with them and none of them ever tried to push me down the stairs at school. I was bullied at both primary and High school and hated both. I didn’t really start making friends or become comfortable in my own skin until I left high school and went to college. I met good people there and started to realise that the world was bigger than school, and I could carve a place in it, even if only through sheer bloody-minded determination. So, writing as a child was escapism for me. I could be anyone, I could go anyway. I could get away from my own life. I think you need that spark, that need to explore other places than your own life, in order to start to be a writer. Everything that comes after that is just practise, trial and error as you hone your skills and find your voice.

I’ve seen it stated many times that unless you write every day you cannot consider yourself a proper writer. Now, I have my own views about that statement, but was wondering what your take on it is?

I get that some people say that, and I can see the sense in it, in that, like exercise, if you fall out of the habit, you can get flabby and it can be difficult to get back into your stride. But I also think that, like exercise, sometimes you just need a rest day. Everyone is different. Some people have to write every day, others won’t stop until they’ve written a self-appointed ‘words per day’ target.

That doesn’t work for me. I can go a couple of days without writing. Sometimes I just need to switch off. I do get antsy though if I go longer than a week, as I write full time, so I really have no excuse not to. Although I give myself a mental break, as I have other things in my life too. I’m father and main carer to my family, two of which have special needs, so I have a lot of adult responsibilities, a house to run like clockwork, and everything else to manage too. A burned-out writer is a bad writer, that’s what I think anyway.

I know from your Instagram page that your hobbies and interests are broad and far ranging, but when you’re not writing, what is your favourite thing to do?

I can’t ever really sit still. I’m a very fidgety person, so I get very antsy (and no doubt irritating to everyone around me) if I have nothing to do. Even if I’m reading, it’s usually in a multitasking way, book propped up in the kitchen while I’m cooking, or balanced on the bike at the gym.

I love cooking and baking and am a self-confessed foodie, as anyone who follows me online already knows. I’m the only one who cooks in my house. My other half isn’t allowed in the kitchen, it’s my realm. There’s something very relaxing to me about cooking, all the stages of preparation, method and ingredients. It’s almost meditative. And the fact that it all comes together in the end into something delicious is like alchemy. Plus, I get huge satisfaction from seeing people enjoying things I create. Whether that’s my books or the food I put in front of my family. Maybe I still get a dopamine hit from pleasing people and feeling appreciated, blame my childhood!

Other than cooking, I’ve gotten back into exercise and being healthy in a big way. (yes, I’ve become one of those horrible people who actually enjoys going to the gym). It’s so good for clearing the mind, releasing stress and tension, and just making you feel better about yourself. I treat it like therapy, it gets me out of my own head for a while. After my stupid accident where I nearly died, I think I’ve scared myself a bit, and realised how fragile we are. Bodies are not disposable; I feel the urge to look after it now. I’d like to be around for a while longer!

When I do make myself relax, I adore horror movies. I will watch anything as long as its not torture-porn, (boring). Very few movies actually scare me. The ones that do impress me are those that don’t rely on lazy jump-scares, but the ones that unsettle and get under your skin. The ones you find yourself thinking about days later.

Like me, you are very careful to maintain your family’s privacy online, but how do you feel about those authors who share every tiny detail of their lives on social media?

It’s not for me to tell other people how to police their own social media. Some people are clearly happy enough to have their whole lives on show, but for me personally, it’s an area I’m very wary of.

The nature of my job means that I consider myself (to some degree) to be available and approachable. I’m happy splashing my own face everywhere and being public property, but when it comes to my family, they didn’t sign up for this. I don’t mind being in the public eye, but my OH is a very private person, and my kids are kids. They have a right not to be constantly exposed to however many followers I have. I’m fair game, I’m happy with that, but they all know and live with ‘dad’ and ‘husband’ me, not ‘jamesfahyauthor’ me. There’s so much danger online with security these days, if you’re in any even semi-public profession. You might see the odd, very occasional family photo on my feed, if it’s a special occasion and I have everyone’s agreement, but otherwise I don’t even give my other half or children’s names out, simply because out of the people who follow me on social media, a heck of a lot of them are people I don’t know. You never know if there are stalkers or oddballs out there. (judging from some of the more random Direct Messages I get on Insta from total strangers, quite a few, it seems.)

You seem to have struck a happy balance on Instagram, posting a lot of non-book related posts and stories, and of course as a traditionally published author with the backing and promoting of a publishing house there is less need for you to promote your own books. But I was wondering how you felt the unsupported indie author should best try to promote themselves and their books on social media? And is there anything you feel they really should avoid doing? (Sorry, that’s a lot of questions within a question)

That is a many levelled question! Okay, I’ll try to answer each bit of it.

Firstly, yes, I’m pretty happy with what I call the ‘casserole of nonsense’ that makes up my little insta-world. I see some accounts where it’s a writer and EVERY single post is about either their books or writing, and I fully understand why they might do that, and if it works for them, then great. But nobody is just one two-dimensional thing. I think it’s far more interesting and varied to your followers for them to actually get to know you, through sharing your other interests, your sense of humour or oddities. Open up a little to people instead of just being a rolling infomercial, that’s what I say. My feed is a blend of writing and promo pieces, whatever I’m reading, lots of landscape and nature photography, food, and many a silly selfie when I have some random topic on my mind I want to chat to people about. It works well for me, it might not for others.

You’re right in saying it’s a benefit to have a publisher when traditional to help with marketing, promoting etc. (and I should hope so too, they do, after all, take a cut of what you’re books make, so any writer would expect them to work as hard as they do themselves to make the book a success) – in my case they do. My publishers are wonderful and always enthusiastic.

I’m not sure I self-promote any less than an ‘indie’ writer though. I do all the same things on Social Media, teasers, giveaways and competitions, book trailers etc. mainly because I genuinely enjoy that side of things, its just another way to be creative and play with the world you’ve created in your books, but in a different format. I love image and video editing, so it never feels a chore to me.

As for what people should avoid doing? Well, I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re traditionally published or indie, or self-published, (I actually don’t like people hanging on the distinction as though it has any real bearing on the writing. A book is a book.) I have a lot of writer friends, both traditionally published and self-published, and the ONLY advice I would ever feel qualified to give if they asked, would be to be genuine. If you follow or interact with other people online, do it because you want to, and you find them interesting, not for the fact that they might be ‘useful’ to you further down the line, or that you think they might buy or review your book if you’re nice to them.

People are very, very, good at sniffing out insincerity that way I think. I chat on a regular basis to a lot of my followers, and for most of them I have no idea at all if they’ve read my books, or if they just like talking to me and following my posts. And I don’t ask. I don’t push my books onto people. If you make a genuine connection with someone, it’s been my experience that at some point you get a message saying, ‘oh btw I just bought your book and I’m loving it’. That’s far more satisfying to me.

My only other never-do rule (that I stick to myself as well) is never plug your own book uninvited in someone else’s comments section. I just think that’s such terrible manners, and always so awkward. Online friends are not each-others free advertising space. If that person wants to shout your book out, they will, (and if you’ve made a genuine connection, they really will). Shoehorning a ‘great pic of your pet budgie, Laura. It reminds me of a scene in my bestselling new novel soon available at amazon and other outlets’ just makes me absolutely cringe! I’d never do it, and when I have it done to me it makes my cynical mind wonder if that person is only my ‘friend’ online because I’m a handy soapbox.

I’m always more than happy to support and shout out other writers, (and I do all the time, we’re all in the same business after all, and attention is not cake. Someone else getting a shout out does not mean less love for me) but I know a couple of traditionally published writers who would never shout out an indie writer, and equally, I know indie writers who only shout out indie books, or create closed (to me) posts asking indie discussion questions I cant contribute to. It’s a bit sad that the division even exists. I think it’s self-defeating and I tend to ignore it and just do my own thing.

I know you avoid Facebook and have been quite vocal about your dislike of it, can you tell us why you think Facebook and Instagram are such different beasties when they are owned by the same company and are basically the same concept?

They operate very differently, (for me) Facebook works like a town hall noticeboard, where I can hang a post with some info about my writing, or what’s going on, and maybe people will see it, maybe they won’t, but it feels much less immediate and less like a conversation than Insta does. What I like about Insta is that there is this sense of a cohesive Bookstagram community, and it’s a bit of a false picture. Everybody doesn’t know everyone else, and we’re not all standing in a big circle holding hands. It’s more like countless smaller circles that are always moving and interlocking, little sub-pockets of people, and each of us is in (and moves in and out of) several of these shoals at any given time. That’s fun for me to explore.

I like that I can fill my grid with my posts, (which I think of almost as a blog) whereas on IG stories, I probably do most of my interaction with people, as it’s silly, disposable and very light. You can put whatever you like on there. I follow certain peoples IG stories much more than I follow their grid, because their stories are so entertaining. Largely on Insta, I live in DM’s, where I normally have a ton of conversations going at any given time. Its like texting a ton of friends at once, and some of these conversations you could scroll up a year. Its wonderful for me, as a writer, to make that connection and to build that kind of long-term relationship with a reader.

Autumn is here and the endless posts of falling leaves and pumpkin spice with everything are once more upon us. Do you have a favourite season? Or do you find something different to enjoy in each one, and can you sum up in a few words what each season means to you?

I don’t have a favourite. I love them all for different reasons. (I know a lot of people hate winter for the horrible weather if they have to commute, but I work from home so I get to escape that – but I did it for years before I was able to write full time, and the horror is still in my memory)

Okay, in a few words then:

Spring always feels hopeful to me. Winters are long and dark here, and there’s something about seeing that first fuzz of green on the bare trees and the days starting to get lighter that makes me feel I can breathe again. I love blossom, spring always feels like a celebration.

Summer: this is when I escape to my cottage on the island off Wales, so it’s my super happy family time, always full of busy adventure, exploring and outdoor fun. Summer is beaches and cliff walks, my kids covered in ice-cream, and sand all over the car. G & T in the garden in the evenings, and big family BBQ and parties.

Autumn: for some reason I always seem to be releasing a book in autumn, so its always busy! I love the light in this season, and the crisper air. Deer parks and woodland walks, with lots of hot and filling autumn food.

Winter: I do love all the festivities, Christmas, new year, fireworks and bonfires, and of course Halloween is my favourite time of year full stop. Mulled wine and cosy nights snuggled on the sofa reading. Bliss.

As I’ve mentioned before, you feature a lot of recipes and share with us the wonderful looking meals you create on Instagram. You seem to have a strong preference for Asian cooking, and I wondered what your favourite meal is?

I spent time in Japan, which is where my love of all things Japanese comes from. I speak well enough Japanese to get by, and I love the elegant simplicity and artistry of Japanese cooking. For a long time, my favourite dish was Nabeyaki Udon, which is a comforting noodle and egg broth full of smoky dark flavours. More recently, in the last few years, I discovered a love for Korea, and I’m an absolute addict for K-drama. I’ve watched so many, and I love everything about the culture, from the music, the fashion, the food and the cultural atmosphere and social rules. I plan to head to Seoul once I can speak the language well enough (I’m learning Korean at the moment – I love languages) and see it for myself. Korean food is robust and punchy and full of bold flavours and smells. My new favourite thing is Bibimbap, which I have gotten pretty good at making. So tasty!

Did you watch a lot of TV chefs as a child? Growing up, I have vivid memories of a mumsy Delia Smith and a permanently drunk Keith Floyd whom my family watched more for entertainment value than to learn to actually cook from.

No, not really, but everyone in my family cooked growing up. My family is Irish on my fathers’ side, and Italian on my mothers, and both clans are huge, and all foodies. I started cooking when I was very young, and I cook with my own little ones now. I think it’s important you learn young to be self-sufficient. I still remember being shocked when I first went to Uni and one of my flatmates in halls couldn’t iron a shirt or boil an egg. TV Chef wise, I love Mary Berry, as she’s always up for a laugh, and I have the biggest crush on Nigella Lawson. Everything she makes always looks so decadent

What do your family think of your books? I appreciate your daughters are probably too young for Phoebe Harkness, but have they read The Changeling series? Or perhaps you’ve read it to them?

My eldest, who is ten, has read the Changeling Series and loves it. With a writer in the family she’s been reading since she was born, so her reading age, (according to her school anyway) is around fifteen now. She writes as much as I do and told me she wants to be an author like Dad when she grows up. I told her not to wait until she grows up, write now, and she does. Our house is fully of stories. I haven’t read my books aloud to them, (they both like to squirrel themselves away in reading nooks in the playroom and read in peace) but I’ve done readings and talks at quite a few schools, including my daughters, which I think she was equal parts proud and mortified about. Any book talk I’ve done is always fun when it’s with kids. They ask the best questions.

Can you remember a book or series that had the biggest impact on you as child, and maybe were the influence behind your own writing career?

As I’ve said earlier, Garner’s Brisingamen is my mental bedrock, for reasons I can’t really articulate. I think it was my first encounter with the idea of a magical world intersecting with the real world, something I’ve gotten my teeth into with my own writing. I was (and still am) a huge Tolkien nerd, long before there was any whisper of movie versions. I must have read Lord of the Rings countless times. It’s the scope and depth of the world building that gets me, and I think Tolkien laid out the unspoken guide for pretty much every fantasy writer who followed him. Ironically, the vampire nightclub, Sanctum, which lies below the streets of Oxford in my Phoebe Harkness books, is entered by the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien used to meet and chat with CS Lewis and the other inklings. It’s a regular haunt of mine, and one of my favourite pubs to sit and write in in Oxford. It’s hard not to feel inspired when you’re sitting with your notebook in the same spot he used to sit and write in.

Do you have any favourite authors now? And what is it about them that appeals to you?

I’ve always adored Clive Barker. It’s been a thirty-year love affair since I first picked up one of his books, and I think I own everything he’s written. He’s known for horror due to classics like the Hellbound Heart (and the Hellraiser movies that it inspired) but he writes the most original and weird fantasy, he’s just a master storyteller. His writing is always lyrical, almost poetic. I think what I love about Barker is that he never pigeonholed himself or limited himself to one thing. He’s written horror, fantasy, children’s books, he’s a filmmaker, a director, an artist with great work in paint and sculpture. It’s something I aspire to do too.

Neil Gaiman is another, for similar reasons. His seminal Sandman series opened my eyes to graphic novels, and how you can hide stories within other stories. He doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable or controversial subjects, and his writing is always filled with a kind of quiet, unobtrusive hope.

Of the classic authors, which ones have you read and is there a piece of classic literature you think should be compulsory reading in every school?

I did a BA and MA in English and American Literature, so I’ve probably read most of the classics. Uni was useful for turning me onto them, and writers I might not have explored, and the poets. It really forces you to widen your reading and to read outside of your comfort bubble. There are some amazing minds in the classics, and its rewarding to spend time with them. It would be hard to choose a favourite, but I love Hemmingway and Henry James, Tennyson and Coleridge, and Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is a book that is so beautifully written, I read it once a year.

I’m not sure about compulsory reading in school. My school read ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ and ‘Hobson’s Choice’, both of which I found drab, grim and depressing. But we also, if I remember right, read Roald Dahl’s autobiography, which was absolutely fascinating.

I think I would suggest that every schoolchild reads Charlottes Web, because there a lot of depth in that book, about friendship, about growing up and rites of passage, and about sacrifice, death and dignity. People pretend to kids that these things don’t exist, but death and struggle are all around us in the real world, and you can arm a child against them if they’re taught to understand things like grief and love, and how to have a conversation about them, and to learn to be brave.

And some quick-fire questions for you:

Favourite ice cream?

I’m not an ice-cream fan. You can have mine.

Marmite, yes or no?

Absolutely yes. On crumpets please.

If you weren’t a writer, what other career would you like?

I’d love to expand into screenwriting and directing, maybe acting, who knows where the path leads in the future.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

More popular, hah! I always wanted to be a writer. I’ve very single-minded

Favourite TV programme as a child?

There was a kid’s show called Knightmare, where kids had to run around CGI dungeons solving riddles and puzzles. I used to run home from school in time to tape it on the VCR. That and the Crystal Maze.

Favourite TV programme as an adult?

I’m a huge American Horror Story nut. Been here since season one. I’m a loyal veteran.

What do you put on your fish and chips?

It used to be cheese on chips when I was down south, but I’m a northerner these days, so salt and vinegar for me, and lots of it. (still not friends with chip-shop gravy though)

Sweet or salty popcorn?

Salty everything. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I could drink soy sauce from the bottle. (don’t do this though, too much can kill you)

Tea or Coffee?

Both. I don’t get people who feel the need to take sides in the tea/coffee war. It’s like the Austen/Bronte divide. I like both. Maybe I’m just greedy.

Should the death penalty apply to people who constantly talk in cinemas?

Maybe not the death penalty, but I do think cinema ushers should be able to take them out with a blow-dart and a horse tranquiliser.

If you could invite one famous person round for dinner, who would it be?

Just one? That’s tough. Maybe Tilda Swinton. I’d love to cook for her and just have her talk at me while I’m cooking.

After your family and pets, the next thing you’d rescue if your house was on fire?

I have a box in a cupboard under the stairs full of old photos, from my grandparent’s generation. I haven’t had any of them digitised yet, so I’d grab that because they’re irreplaceable. Everything else is insured.

And finally, the biggie – Pineapple on pizza, yes or no?

Sure, why not? In a world where people are smearing mushed avocado on bagels and roasting Kale, we need a little anarchy.

And on the subject of anarchy, I’d like to again wish you every success with the latest Phoebe Harkness book – and I’m sure that Paper Children will be a worthy successor to books one and two in the series – Hell’s Teeth and Crescent Moon

I’d like to say a big thank you to James Fahy for giving up his time to come and talk to us. He’s a very talented writer and all-round nice guy and if you’d like to follow his Instagram page yourself or find out where to buy his books, then all his links are below.

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