If you follow James Fahy on social media (let’s face it, who doesn’t, and if you don’t you’re seriously missing out) you will know that he is not only a prolific writer; author of two bestselling series, The Changeling Series, a feast of all fantasy lovers, and the witty, deliciously gory, urban gothic, Phoebe Harkness Series. He is also a serious ‘foodie’ and known for his beautiful scenic photos.
There is no doubt of James’ wordsmith talent, culinary flair and witty persona, but catching a glimpse of the layer just beneath the filtered selfie; that is not always so obvious.
Over the past couple of years I have had the great pleasure to get to know this man, and his books, a little better. So, over coffee, I dug a tad deeper to find what made him spark, what shaped and inspired the writer he is today.
So, go grab a coffee, pull up your favourite chair, sit back as we go on a time-travelling adventure behind the pen and profile of writer, James Fahy…
Q – James, thank you for joining me for coffee, let’s start with something bookish. Is there one book, either classic or a little-known, maybe obscure, that you wish you had written yourself?
Oh none of them! There are thousands of books that I adore, in each one of those categories you’ve mentioned, but I wouldn’t have wanted to write them myself, or they wouldn’t be the same. One of the beauties of reading is spending a little time inside someone else’s mind and sharing their imaginings. I love that communion between writer and reader. There’s no other art form that’s quite as personal or quite as one-to-one, and I wouldn’t want to hijack another’s vision. I have plenty of my own ramblings to share.
Q – We all have those favourite writers that have inspired through their words, but if you could ask one writer from the whole of history, just one question, who and what would it be?
I’d love to sit down with Tolkien for a pint and a pipe in the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, and ask him what he thought of all the fuss his work has caused, and if he could ever have imagined, at the time of writing, how something he considered to be a ‘humble project’ for his own amusement which in his stated opinion would ‘soon be forgotten’ would instead have caused such ripples through the world, and fired so many imaginations. He set the template and wrote the guidebook for so much literary fantasy which came after, and there’s not a writer in the field who hasn’t been influenced by his tremendous legacy. I imagine, knowing what I do of the kind of man he was, that he would find it all quite baffling.
Q – Is there that ‘one book’ that has had a huge impact on your life, from either your childhood or maybe more recently?
There are a few books that have, for different reasons, stayed lodged so deep in me in one way or another, that they’ve become part of the fabric of who I am. Songs do that with people too I think. Some writing defines small parts of us and never goes away we absorb it and it can change how we view the world, people and life. This is why writing and reading are amazing and powerful.
Mrs Dalloway had a huge impact on me, with its stream-of-consciousness writing, something I’d never come across before. With its beautiful, quiet imagery and its astounding mastery of pace. I adore it and read it reasonably often. It’s a masterpiece. Henry James’ The Aspern Papers is another which moved me in ways I didn’t expect it to. It’s not one of his more famous, like The Golden Bowl or The Turn of The Screw, but for me, the magic of the Aspern Papers is the skill and exactness in which it manages to capture the spirit of Venice. I’ve never read a book that does it quite as well. You can smell the mouldering plasterwork, the faded frescos, and see the ripples of sunlight lapping off the water onto the underside of bridges. As with all James’ work, there’s a tremendous sense of longing and dignified sadness in that story, which is just perfectly matched to the idea of Venice for me. When I read something that captures a place with such exact skill and art, it’s the same feeling as marvelling at an astounding sculpture, or a breathtaking painting.
There’s a fairly unknown book I had as a child called The Day of the Minotaur, which was a powerful book when I read it, at something like twelve or thirteen years old, (a battered old paperback with a pulpy cover). It was based on a retelling of several old Greek myths wound together, and as well as being wonderfully told, it also contained probably the first erotic scene I’d ever read, (there was no internet when I was a kid!) A coming of age moment between the hero and a mythological goddess who ruled over bees and honey. I’ve always found honey a little bit sexy and sensuous since. I don’t think the story would have had the same impact if I’d first read it as an adult now, but the timing in my life made it magical, and also began my interest in myths and monsters which would go on to flavour much of my own writing, even now.
So really, I suppose the common factor between these examples, are all things that move me. If a book can make you think, it’s done its job. If a book can make you feel, then it’s exceeded its expectations.
Q – What’s your favourite read so far this year?
I probably have a few, for different reasons, but I’ve been drawn a lot to shorter stories this year, as it’s been a busy time and I’ve been having to fit reading in as and when I can in between real life. (things have finally calmed down now though).
I adored Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura, Thin Air by Michelle Paver, and the collection of short stories Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro. They’re all beautiful and haunting in their own way. I won’t go into them here, but I’ve shared my thoughts on all of them over in reviews on my Instagram feed.
Q – Other than being a writer, is there another vocation that pulls on your heart, that in an alternate universe you would be doing?
I think if I wasn’t a writer full time, and had any other career, I’d still write on the side, because I don’t think that’s something you can turn off. But I might enjoy being a chef, or a travel photographer and journalist. I’d love the idea of working with National Geographic at some point. I love nature, different cultures, far flung places and photography. Anything that celebrates the world, in all its colourful diversity. Maybe one day when I have an empty nest I’ll grab a backpack and disappear up a mountain for a few years, but that won’t be for a while.
Q – If you had to describe yourself in just three words, what would they be?
Carbon based lifeform. Would that be cheating? Hmm, okay then, I suppose: Ambitious, Curious, and Appreciative.
Q – James, as a lover of words myself, ones from my childhood always seem to cling to my memory, particularly those used by my grandmother. Is there a word or phrase that conjures up nostalgia from your youth?
The only ones that come to mind are the fact that my grandmother always said ‘yis’ rather than ‘yes’, and for years growing up, I thought it was a word all in its own right. My grandmother had many wonderful qualities, and I remember little things she did, more than things she said. My Grandfather died quite young. It won’t be long until I’m older myself than he ever was, which is a surreal feeling, but he always polished his shoes by the fire every evening. Long, long after he had passed away, my Grandmother would keep his shoes polished and next to the fire. They were always gleaming, years after he had died. That tells you everything you need to know about both of them and why I love them so much.
Q – All those who follow you on social media will know your love of food and cooking. Is there a dish or recipe, one from your childhood that has remained a staple in your life?
My mother made, (and still makes) the finest cheese, onion and potato pie in the northern hemisphere. I’ve inherited her light touch for melt in the mouth pastry, which I’m very pleased with, but I’ve never been able to get the filling as light and fluffy as she does. It’s such a simple dish, and I have it very infrequently, maybe four times a year at most, as for me, it feels like a very special treat, not to be squandered with overuse, which might dilute its delight. But just the smell of it cooking is the smell of my childhood home, comfort and everything else you associate with childhood.
Q – Obviously, books have always been a constant in your life from a very young age, but was there a distinct moment you knew you wanted to create not just read?
Not really, because I’ve always written, as far back as my memory goes. I wrote my very first books somewhere between seven and nine (depending which family member you talk to) it was quite long and folded and stapled and I was very proud of it. I didn’t own a computer until I was sixteen years old, (I know, unheard of these days, but I’m showing my age). I taught myself to type very quickly with two fingers, and I think that’s when I started writing much longer works, with the ease to go back and edit and change so easily. I can type the ‘classical’ way, but to be honest, even now, everything I write is only ever with my two index fingers and middle fingers. (I can match anyone’s ten-fingered typing speed with them though, if anyone wants to challenge me!)
Q – OK, a little fun one. We’re in on the production for Hell’s Teeth, the first movie in the Phoebe Harkness franchise. It’s casting day, which actors are your favourites to portray which two characters, and what scene from either of the Phoebe books are we watching?
Ooh, I decline to answer this one, at least the first half of it anyway. For some characters I can easily see certain actors playing them, for others, I’ve never been able to settle, and I know that characters look slightly different to every reader, (and I quite like that fact). I wouldn’t want to name a specific actor and then potentially offend a different actor who ended up getting picked for the part when production actually rolls! I will say though that scene-wise, I would like to see the scene where Allesandro is on fire and carrying the bitten and unconscious Phoebe down the ultraviolet corridor into blue lab, as that image is the picture that popped, unbidden and unexplained, into my head one day, and the entire book sprang from it, and me asking myself who on earth these two people were, and what had happened to bring them to this point.
Q – Is there a quote from one of your books that especially resonates with you?
There are a few, but I don’t want to toot my own horn and say ‘wow, how amazing is this that I said?’
There are certain parts of both my Phoebe Series and my Changeling Series where I felt I managed to say ‘exactly’ what I wanted to say, and those are the golden moments authors live for. But you’ll have to go and hunt for them. I like Calypso’s speech about the nature of Grief in ‘Drowned Tomb’, as I was grieving myself when I wrote it, so I feel it comes from a place of honesty. I also like the scene around the campfire in Isle of Winds, when Robin, Karya and Woad, having only recently met, are explaining their backstories to one another, and have in common that they are all alone in the world now. One of them makes the suggestion that perhaps they can all be alone together then, and it won’t be so bad, and that for me quite captures the whole point and spirit of Erlking as a haven for outcasts, and a place where those who don’t fit in, or have nowhere else to turn, can call home.
In the Harkness books, Cloves and Phoebe both have a lot of wicked off-the-cuff remarks or throwaway comments. They’re both tremendous fun to write, but I particularly enjoyed writing Cloves’ conversation with Phoebe where she explains why, when the world ended, she would crawl over the Mona Lisa if it meant dragging one more person inside the safety of the wall. Phoebe values culture and the past, Cloves is very pragmatic, but I thought the scene showed another side of her, in the way I wanted it to, and wasn’t too heavy handed. I adore emotion in books. I abhor Schmaltz.
A lot of the Harkness series deals with the themes of prejudice, judging other types of people, and racism to some degree, and Kane puts it better than I could in real life when he gives his speech to Phoebe about the inherent need in mankind to find some unifying ‘other’ to hate to feel better about themselves.
Q – I know from experience it’s easy, almost a must, for our own personalities to seep into our characters; which of your characters exhibits a distinct personality trait of yours – good or bad?
I think there’s a lot of me in all my characters. There has to be, right? There’s probably more of me than I’d like to admit in Oscar Scott from the Harkness series. His personality is a little too carefree, maybe a tad too carelessly flirty and a bit self-obsessed, but he means well. I think much of that character comes from a much younger version of me, looking back at myself with the benefit of mellowed age. There’s also plenty of me in Cloves. She’s very much my subconscious, and it’s fun to let her be as brash, snarky and tactless as she is, as through her I get to say a lot of things I wouldn’t in real life.
Q – So, James, while I fire-up the Tardis, have a think. You can go back in time to any point in history; where are we heading and what book are you taking with you?
Ancient Greece please, I studied it for years, art, architecture, language, mythology, politics etc, and I would love to spend a month there and experience that vibrant culture first hand. I would of course take either the Iliad or the Odyssey and try to track down Homer. These classics were not written down by him, they were a form of oral epic poetry, recited to crowds, over and over, and I’d love to hear from him how much of it is what he actually said, and how much changed or was added through the eons like a game of Chinese whispers.
Q – Up for another Tardis adventure? You can spend a day in the life of any famous figure from history, live their life and do as you please for one day, with no timey-wimey repercussions, where are we heading?
We’re going to David Bowie, and I don’t care which day, any would be amazing, and I wouldn’t change a thing he did, because everything he did was wonderful. I’d love to experience being Bowie onstage at the very Apex of Ziggy Stardust. I can’t even imagine. We’ll never see anyone like that man again, and I miss him!
Q – So, tonight you are hosting a fantasy dinner party, who’s on the guest list, and what’s on the menu?
I know I’m probably expected to choose famous people for this, like Winston Churchill, Cleopatra etc., but I don’t really believe in meeting people you admire too much. (I’d even be terrified to meet Bowie, to be honest). I always think there’s too much pressure for them to live up to your expectations, and you may find they have feet of clay. But as you’ve given me the option of anyone, from the whole of history, I would fill the table with people I’ve lost in my family, (I won’t name them each here) and just for one night I would cook each of them whatever the hell they wanted, and enjoy listening to all the voices I miss so much chatter and argue and banter back and forth while we fought over wine. That would be a meal worth a hundred Churchills or Bowies for me.
Q – James, you can have just one writer on speed dial, there to answer, to muse and inspire, who would it be?
Clive Barker, (it was a very close call answering this between Barker and Neil Gaiman) they are probably the two modern writers I admire most, for their scope of imagination and their unique interpretations, but Barker just slightly wins my heart more. I’d love to be able to bounce ideas off him, I love how his mind works. The man is a storytelling genius.
Q – If you were to wake up tomorrow morning with one of your senses heightened, which one would it be and what would you do with our new-found ability?
I’d like to say hearing, so that I could enjoy being pitch perfect and having a perfect ear for all music. I’d then master several of my favourite instruments and become the finest pianist and violinist in the world.
Q – Thinking along the lines of acute senses, if you could have a superpower, something otherworldly, what would it be?
The ability to know when to shut up! I’ve never known that magic point other people know instinctively, when you should stop a) arguing b) teasing c) complaining. I will go on and on and push and poke the last nerve of whoever I’m with. I wish I knew when the right quit point was, but I love to needle.
Q – I ask tentatively, knowing you keep your cards close but is there any book news you can share with us for the near future?
No there isn’t. not because there isn’t exciting news, there is. But I’m not sharing because by the very nature of the business I work in, nothing’s settled until its settled, and words are cheap. Plus I hear good words to live by are ‘never reveal your next move’. But when I have things to share, you’ll know about it!
Q – So, to finish here’s a quick-fire round.
Pasta or rice? – Rice: Japanese, not long grain.
Champagne or Prosecco? – Champagne please.
Cappuccino or Latte? – Latte. I can’t stand Cappuccino.
Beach holiday or City break? – Ooh, tough one…city break.
Dawn or dusk? – Definitely dusk. I’m all about the sunsets.
Hardback or paperback? – I don’t give a flying fig, only care about the words inside. You could write Shakespeare out on a toilet roll. It’s still Shakespeare, I like pretty books but I have no real preference for what medium I get my story fix.
Night in with Netflix or a night out at the cinema? – Netflix for me. Bottle of wine and a onesie, less humans.
James, thank you so much for sharing a little of yourself, allowing us to get to know more about the man behind the words. It’s been a delight and honour. I’ll let you enjoy the rest of your latte now.
You can find all James’ book on Amazon