When did you first decide to become a writer?
I honestly can’t recall a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. It was less of a conscious decision and more of a realisation about my own nature. I think the only real question was what kind of writer I wanted to be. When I was young, I loved books, cinema and comic books equally and I dreamed of writing stories for each of those mediums. I used to draw and paint a lot as a child and the idea of writing and illustrating my own graphic novels always appealed to me. Similarly, the visual storytelling inherent to cinema, as well as using light and sound to bring different worlds and atmospheres to life and create an end to end sensory experience for people to get lost inside, seemed to map to the way my brain worked.
When I’m writing, I’m often visualising the story unfolding and simply describing what I see in words or hearing the characters inner thoughts and dialogue and transcribing it. This was certainly the case in my debut novel. It was almost as if the story already existed somewhere, out there in the darkness, and was being transmitted into my brain. It’s more than just words and images however. It could be an atmosphere that I sense, like a feeling from a waking dream, that I want to recreate and share in a story.
David Lynch talks about the need to keep your mind open for ideas to come to you and I can absolutely understand that having gone through the experience with my novel. It was like electricity flowing through me. Until then, I had never been possessed by an idea to such an extent. I was physically compelled to put pen to paper and bring the idea into the world. In some ways, I’ve always felt that ideas – perhaps being open to them or having that connection to the place where they come from – is my real talent, and the particular medium I choose to express or capture the idea is secondary. I’ve obviously gravitated towards writing since I was a teenager, but I enjoy working in different mediums and I would like to return to painting and filmmaking one day.
It was in my teens that I began to paint less and write more. I had an English teacher when I was 17 who was a turning point in my development as a writer. She was fresh out of university and very passionate about literature. Her enthusiasm was genuinely inspiring and she saw something in me from the beginning. While the rest of the class was studying Dubliners by James Joyce, she gave me her copy of Ulysses to take home. That was the first of many books she loaned me from her own collection. I eventually worked up the courage to give her some pages of my early writing and she became one of my first editors and literary confidantes. She encouraged me to study English Literature at university and introduced me to academia and research. I had always written stories since I was a little boy, but through her influence I became a student of literature and began to read and write in a more serious and focused way. She died suddenly at the age of 32 and I made a promise to myself that if I ever became a published author I would include her in the dedications within my first novel.
I continued to write throughout my university days and seriously considered a career in academia, but after I graduated I found myself unexpectedly becoming a journalist instead. This detour was meant to be a useful and practical day job for an aspiring author that would keep my writing skills sharp while I worked at getting published, but it turned into a career in itself. My 10 years as a journalist undoubtedly influenced my writing while also providing me with hundreds of potential stories to absorb into my fiction. It also taught me that life is so often stranger than anything we could imagine and that you just have to open your eyes to find any number of stories waiting for you. Journalism unexpectedly became a part of my identity as a writer and it’s probably no coincidence that in the novel I draw on my experiences working on newspapers and magazines in Newcastle and London.
The writer I’ve become brings together all these different aspects of my background – my love of stories and my imagination, my years as a student of literature and academic researcher, and my professional experience as a journalist. This is probably the reason why my first novel is a hybrid of literary fiction, journalism and biography.
What appeals to you about writing?
I love stories and I wanted to be able to give people the same experience that I have had so many times when reading a great book. When I’m immersed in a story, whether it’s a book, film, or another medium, the whole world disappears and I’m transported somewhere else entirely. A good story can evoke every emotion and take you out of the everyday. I just think it’s one of the most beautiful experiences in the world.
What would you say are your key influences?
I’ve always been surrounded by stories. My father filled my head with knowledge from a very early age, in particular the stories of people’s lives, while my mother encouraged my imagination. You could say he made sure I always had one eye on the world while she inspired me to look inward. I would sit up late at night to listen to my father’s stories of films stars, writers, artists, musicians and significant cultural figures, from Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, and Muhammed Ali, (including the latter’s visit to South Shields near where my dad grew up) as well as many other people and events, often giving me the inside story, rather than the ‘authorised’ truth, and explaining where fact and fiction were met by myth. He educated me on the history he had lived through from the 1950s onwards, but also introduced me to a wide range of philosophical concepts and ideas. No topic was out of bounds, from time and space to religion and we would often talk passionately about our ideas right through the night.
I also remember watching and discussing Woody Allen films like Annie Hall, Manhattan and Stardust Memories with him into the early hours, as well as the occasional Western from his childhood like Shane. He always spoke to me like an adult and even when I didn’t fully understand everything that he was telling me, I was always listening and learning from him. Even though his own interests lie in biographies and non-fiction, my father is a natural born storyteller. He’s a raconteur in the classic sense. His interest might be in real history, but at the same time he never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
My mother on the other hand has a very vivid imagination. If we were going on a train journey she would ask me if I could see the monsters hiding in the shadows of the tunnels and encourage me to tell her a story from that starting point. She also introduced me to more contemporary films from the 1970s and 1980s, many of which were probably unsuitable for a young child in retrospect, but which thrilled and scared me in equal measure. The 1980s was also a great time for dark children’s fantasy films and I watched the likes of Labyrinth, The Never-ending Story, The Dark Crystal and The Princess Bride dozens of times during my childhood.
It was also around this time that I began to collect American comic books, Marvel Comics predominantly. They might not be considered serious literature by many, but like children’s literature I think some of the very best writing and most original ideas are often taking place in these mediums rather than in literary fiction, and they certainly had a great impact on my developing imagination. I think it would be a huge mistake for anyone to overlook the brilliant writing, ideas and stories that have come from comic books. There are particular examples such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which have rightly garnered genuine literary acclaim, but there are many lesser known examples (Fables, The Unwritten, Lucifer for instance), even in mainstream comics, where great work is taking place. I’ve been fortunate enough to interview and work with a great artist in the field of graphic novels, writer and artist Bryan Talbot (who actually features in my novel discussing his difficult working relationship with Ezra Maas), and he has spent a career helping to establish the medium as a serious artistic form.
In terms of key literary and artistic influences, I would have to say David Lynch, Samuel Beckett, Paul Auster, Raymond Chandler, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Philip K. Dick. Particular books, such as Lanark by Alasdair Grey, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm, Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut and many, many others also need to be on the list. I have a particular interest in detective stories as a genre, particularly metaphysical detective stories which subvert and play games with the conventions of the genre. I read a lot of philosophy, cultural theory and scientific writing too and enjoy trying to make complex ideas accessible through my writing and bring them to life within the context of an imaginative story (there are sections on truth and language, and also on quantum mechanics in the novel). I’m also very interested in the power of stories and storytelling, narrative voices, and the relationship between reader, writer and the world.
Philip Pullman is another key influence, particularly His Dark Materials. I was fortunate enough to meet him a couple of years ago at the Durham Book Festival and his advice for my own writing was very simple – write the books you want to read. It was especially encouraging because that’s what I’ve always done, never more so than in my debut novel in fact. It’s the synthesis of everything I love about stories and literature and the world and all of the ideas that fascinate me. Paul Auster – another writer whose work I admire – has talked about how his novels catalogue his interests and obsessions and I can very much identify with that. The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a story of obsession on multiple levels.
What kinds of challenges do you think face writers today?
I think writers face the same kinds of challenges they have always faced, alongside a few new ones. The way people consume stories has evolved due to advances in technology and digital media, so increased competition is a factor, not just with other writers, but with the new mediums themselves – social media, smart phone apps, computer games and more. The way we share and consume information has changed dramatically in the last 30 years and this has inevitably impacted the work of writers. People have a finite amount of time in any day and more demands on their attention than ever before, but I think the fundamental human need and desire for stories is the same. That’s the ray of sunlight for writers and artists everywhere. If you give people a great story, a brilliant idea, or a work of art that moves them, shocks them or makes them think, then you’ll get that same pure and beautiful reaction that great writers and artists have been eliciting for hundreds of years. In that moment, all of the distractions of the present will be revealed for what they really are – meaningless. Great art still has that power.
How did you come to write your debut novel?
I was approached to write a biography about the artist Ezra Maas on the back of my days as a culture journalist interviewing artists, writers, and musicians from around the world. I had also worked as a ghost writer on one or two biographies as a freelancer and word had got around that I had a skill for separating fact from fiction. However, for my first book under my own name I wasn’t interested in writing a straightforward biography. As a writer, my real interest was fiction. At the same time, discovering the truth about Ezra Maas was a prize too great to resist. My solution was to create a combination of the two, literary fiction and biography, journalism and detective story. It also reflects my interest in finding new and original ways to tell stories through the inclusion of letters, newspaper clippings, phone transcripts, academic references, and emails alongside biographical chapters and postmodern prose fiction. In this way, the novel’s experimental form reflects my varied background and the different fields which have contributed to my development as a writer.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas will be published and released by Dead Ink Books, a small and ambitious independent publisher who specialise in literary and experimental fiction from new and original voices. They seemed like the perfect fit for the kind of novel I wanted to create and I was excited to join their stable of authors. Dead Ink Books is funded by Arts Council England and supplement their budget with crowdfunding from readers and supporters. My novel is currently crowdfunding through pre-orders until 31 August. Anyone reading this interview who likes the sound of my novel should order a copy now if they would like to get their hands on the book before it is released in shops later in the year. The novel is available in hardback, paperback and e-book formats and every order. The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is the culmination of my development as a writer over 20 years and the first step in my career as a published author. I’m very excited for the book to be born into the world at last and to find out what people think of it. I think the novel has the potential to be many things, but most of all I hope people agree that at its heart it is simply a great story; the kind that helps you escape the everyday and takes you to another world.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is published by Dead Ink Books.
About the Author
Daniel James is a writer and journalist from Newcastle upon Tyne. As a journalist, he was a finalist for Young News Writer of the Year in the Press Gazette Awards and he spent seven years specialising in arts and culture interviews and feature writing. Daniel was also the editor of The Bleed Magazine, an independent multidisciplinary arts magazine with contributors from around the world. You can follow Daniel on Twitter @danjameswriter and you can find out more about him at danieljameswriter.com.