James Brogden is a writer of horror and dark fantasy. A part-time Australian who grew up in Tasmania and the Cumbrian Borders, he has since escaped to suburbia and now lives with his wife and two daughters in the Midlands, where he teaches English. When not writing or teaching he can usually be found up a hill, poking around stone circles and burial mounds. He also owns more lego than is strictly necessary.
Release Date: June 4th 2019
Publisher: Titan Books
KR: Could you tell me a little about yourself please?
When I was thirteen I got the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules for my birthday, and it came with the adventure module ‘The Keep on the Borderlands’. I knew nothing about how an adventure module actually worked so I didn’t do anything as sensible as actually read it, because I was too excited about the map, with all of those winding tunnels and empty chambers, so I spent hours populating it with monsters, traps and treasures nicked from whatever I’d been reading or watching on TV. It ended up as a mad, glorious, utterly incoherent mishmash of Tolkien, Hitch-Hiker’s Guide and The Dark is Rising. Only then did I actually start reading the text and realised what an idiot I’d been and how I’d wasted all that time. Except I hadn’t. I’d enjoyed myself immensely creating monsters, sadistic traps and absurd puzzles to make life hell for my players.
When I was younger than that I used to construct elaborate military bases out of old wooden blocks, Star Wars action figures and lego, all completely out of proportion with each other. I built plastic models of tanks and planes and pirate ships from kits – I was never interested in painting them, just building them. Growing up in rural Tasmania, me and my brothers had dens all over the place: a tree house, a lair under the water tank, and in the barn in the field next to the house we made hay-bale forts of such dubious structural integrity it’s a wonder I made it to adulthood without breaking every bone in my body. The point of all of this is that something in me has always wanted to create tiny worlds, and writing stories is just another extension of that.
KR: What do you like to do when not writing?
If I’m not writing, I’m reading. When I can, I get out into the countryside to investigate weird places with interesting stories, and occasionally I’m able to get out into the mountains to get a bit of head-space. Recently I’ve been working on conquering my fear of plummety death by tackling some ridge walks in the Lake District. When it gets blustery that can be… interesting.
KR: What is your favourite childhood book?
So, so many. If you mean something that still has resonance for me as an adult I think it would have to be ‘The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang’ by Hans Press. It’s a series of detective stories in which the reader discovers clues in fabulously detailed full-page illustrations, and belongs to a genre with the wonderful name of wimmelbild. The intricate world-building captivated me then and still does, and I think it’s part of what makes me want to write stories – the impulse to create tiny worlds. But that was when I was 11; I devoured Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles when I was 15.
A person changes so much during their childhood – is in fact so many different people – that it’s very hard to pin down one book as being an all-time favourite.
KR: What is your favourite album, and does music play any role in your writing?
Impossible to say; I have different favourites for different moods. Mostly I listen to music when I’m driving, which means an unholy mixture of Dad Rock, 80s pop, metal and industrial (lots of Nine Inch Nails), though recently I have felt brave enough to admit my hitherto-secret love of a bit of 70s disco funk. Whatever gets me through the commute, basically. I tend not to listen to music while I’m writing because I find it a distraction, but if I do it’s movie soundtracks, something low-key and ambient. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is pretty good for that.
KR: Do you have a favourite horror movie/director?
Again, not fair; horror is such a wide category. I suppose when Hallowe’en comes around I’ll watch Poltergeist again, which is technically a ghost story, and Aliens is always a classic – but is it horror or SF? See what I mean? I like my horror with a thread of black humour so I keep coming back to films like Dog Soldiers, American Werewolf in London, or Slither, because I think terror and hilarity have to go hand in hand. I read somewhere that in other primate species the smile (i.e teeth-baring) can be a fear reflex or a sign of submission. I don’t get on well with movies (or books, or people, for that matter) that take themselves too seriously.
KR: What are you reading now?
I’m currently bouncing between ‘Soon,’ by Lois Murphy – which is a wonderfully claustrophobic supernatural thriller set in the Western Australian outback – and a book about cunning folk in English history, which is research for the next story.
KR: What was the last great book you read?
I’m a huge fan of the ‘Expanse’ series. I think Abraham and Franck are in the process of creating what will ultimately be seen as a classic of science fiction. They’ve placed carefully crafted and believable human stories in an epic sweep with meticulous world-building, which you can read as simple space opera or shrewdly observed allegory of our contemporary political and cultural concerns.
KR: E-Book, Paperback or Hardback?
Paperback if I’m trying a new author or something that’s just grabbed me on a whim; hardback if it’s by someone I already like and intend to keep; ebook never. Screen words aren’t real. Ink on paper is real. A book is a tactile experience, it has a unique topography and weight, the paper absorbs the oils from your fingers and so retains a trace of every person who has read it. A row of books on a shelf is a geographical cross-section through a human being’s life.
KR: Who were the authors that inspired you to write?
Graham Joyce and Neil Gaiman, for the revelation that you can unnerve and enchant without having to adhere to simplistic genre tropes. Clive Barker, for the similar idea that you can be disturbing, lyrical, nightmarish and poetic all at the same time. Susan Cooper and Julian May for showing me that myths can take living, breathing form in stories. Christopher Fowler for making me cry with laughter while scaring the pants off me. Stephen King, obviously, for making it look so bloody easy and so much fun.
KR: Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
If I’m being left to my own devices I have a set of key scenes or landmarks that I try to connect with a coherent narrative, and see where that goes. That was how I wrote The Narrows and Hekla’s Children, but without an externally imposed deadline the process is quite a bit slower. Since I’ve been working for Titan, my editors like to see a fully realised outline so they can get an idea of how to market it and make suggestions, which is fine with me because I have no clue about marketing and I’m happy to take advice from other professionals who want to make the book as successful as possible. It also forces me off my backside to actually get the thing done in a reasonable time-frame.
KR: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
As far as I’m concerned there are basically two kinds of research – the kind you do because you are a very organised professional writer who plans ahead, and the kind that brings everything to a screeching halt because you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. For example with The Plague Stones, I knew that I wanted to set a major part of it in the fourteenth century so I read up as much as I could, especially about people’s religious outlook and their attitude to natural disasters such as, for example, the Black Death. What I didn’t envisage was having to read a lot of background research on the European Marriage Pattern (just don’t ask) in a failed attempt to justify having one of my characters being married at the age of 14. Sometimes you just have to stop in the middle of what you’re doing to paper over a hole in your knowledge, and sometimes it can force you to radically rethink fundamental aspects of character or setting. Because there will always be one picky reader who will say ‘Well actually I think you’ll find that particular form of crop rotation wasn’t introduced until the late 1500s but you have very clearly stated that…’
TLDR: I do just enough to make it sound like I know what I’m talking about and hand-wave the rest, hoping that the story will carry the readers over the dodgy bits.
KR: How would you describe your writing style?
One word at a time, repeat until finished. I don’t mean to sound flippant, but I’m not the one to make that call. It’s for the reader to describe my writing. I’ve heard some say that it’s tight and plot-driven, while others say that it’s plodding and dull. <shrugs>
KR: Describe your usual writing day?
Because I have a mortgage-paying job as a teacher I basically have two types of writing day. During term time, when my brain is thoroughly fried after a day of attempting to hold the attention of nearly two hundred adolescent boys, let alone teach them anything, the most I can do after I get home is maybe a bit of work on the outline, wrangling out plot points, making character notes, details of settings and what have you. Creating actual sentences isn’t going to happen. By the time the ‘holiday’ rolls around, hopefully I’ve got enough of a structure that I can sit down and bash out the story. Then I’ll work from about 8 in the morning until lunchtime, run errands or go to the gym in the afternoon, watch Tipping Point and have my tea, then aim for another hour or two in the evening. If after that I come away with 3000 words I’ll consider it a good day.
KR: Do you have a favourite story/short that you’ve written (published or not)?
Again with the favourites. Might as well ask me which of my children is my favourite. ‘The Pigeon Bride’ will always be special to me because it was the first story that I submitted to a magazine; it won a competition and proved to me that I could actually do this writing thing. ‘The Narrows’ was my first published novel, so that’s always going to be special. ‘Hekla’s Children’ got me an agent and helped me level up to the mid-list, so that’s special too…
KR: Do you read your book reviews?
Yes, even though I know I shouldn’t, because there’s nothing I can do at that stage.
KR: How do you think you’ve developed as an author?
Well I’ve got faster, that’s for sure. My first novel ‘The Narrows’ literally took twenty years to get published. The most recent one, ‘The Plague Stones’, was probably no more than a year, and the bulk of the first draft was completed over the summer of 2018. Most of that is because of writing to a contract – as I say, external deadlines really focus the attention.
KR: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received regarding your writing?
Keep the chapters short – approximately two thousand words. That sounds oddly specific, I know, but it makes a real difference to the pace of the story and for me, pace is very important.
KR: What scares you?
Being asked what my favourite anything is. Losing or hurting those that I love because I’m a fallible human being masquerading as a competent one. Also spiders.
KR: Can you tell me about your latest release please?
‘The Plague Stones’ is about an old tradition called the Beating of the Bounds. Every year the residents of a privileged neighbourhood called Haleswell complete a ritual whereby they go around the old medieval parish boundary with the local vicar, blessing the boundary stones. This is something which really happens in many places around Britain, and in reality it’s just a bit of folklore. However in Haleswell, it has a very real purpose, because centuries ago their ancestors committed a terrible crime and the village has been cursed ever since, and the Beating protects them from something that has been trying to get to wreak revenge for six hundred years. Then a new family moves into Haleswell and takes over guardianship of one of the old parish stones which is in their back garden. This year the Beating fails, for Reasons, and undying medieval vengeance ensues. With scythes.
KR: What are you working on now?
Something to do with pagan fertility gods and human sacrifice on a suburban allotment, but it’s at a very early stage.
KR: You find yourself on a desert island, which three people would you wish to be deserted with you and why?
You can choose…
a) One fictional character from your writing.
Scattie, from ‘Hekla’s Children’. If anybody’s going to survive, it’s going to be her. I go where she goes.
b) One fictional character from any other book.
Robinson Crusoe, just to see the look on his face.
c) One real-life person that is not a family member or friend.
Ray Mears, for the same reason as a). Again, I’m surviving this thing.
KR: Thank you very much James.
You can follow James on Twitter @skippybe
You can find out more about James by visiting his official website www.jamesbrogden.blogspot.com
The Plague Stones
Fleeing from a traumatic break-in, Londoners Paul and Tricia Feenan sell up to escape to the isolated Holiwell village where Tricia has inherited a property. Scattered throughout the settlement are centuries-old stones used during the Great Plague as boundary markers. No plague-sufferer was permitted to pass them and enter the village. The plague diminished, and the village survived unscathed, but since then each year the village trustees have insisted on an ancient ceremony to renew the village boundaries, until a misguided act by the Feenans’ son then reminds the village that there is a reason traditions have been rigidly stuck to and that all acts of betrayal, even those committed centuries ago, have consequences…