An Interview with RJ Barker

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There are multiple tweets pointing to your interest in taxonomy/phylogeny and biology/animals in general. Is this something you ever studied in school, a hobby, a career at any point? 

No, sadly. I didn’t exactly finish school cos I was sure I was going to be a Rockstar. It turned out my dad was right when eh said you should have a contingency plan and I probably should have paid more attention. But I’ve always just been fascinated by the natural world. Always been surrounded by books on the natural world, or watching TV programs about it. My wife is always saying that one of the first things I say about new people is what animal they remind me of. I am a dormouse, by the way. Happiest asleep.

What are your three favourite bizarre animals that sound like they should be fantasy creatures, but are real? Extinct species allowed. 

I’m not really sure I can choose a favourite. If it’s just downright weird then almost anything found in the midnight zone of the ocean fits the bill. I’m a big fan of squid and octopuses just because there’s a really different sort of intelligence there. And birds, I suppose a lot of people are interested in the corvids because they’re so clever and I am too. But it tends to be Rooks that I really like, they live in these big squabbling communities and I just find them fascinating and a lot of the genesis of the gullaime in The Bone Ships is in them. I can sit and watch them for ages. Then social insects, again, this feeling of another type of intelligence is what interests me.

What are your three favourite Genus’s? Why? 

Couldn’t choose. I like all the animals.

It looks like from your FB profile that you’ve got a cat named Bertie. What’s your favourite picture of Bertie? What are three things you’d want everyone to know about Bertie? 

Generally, my favourite picture of young Bertold is the last one that I took of him. I think I would want everyone to know that he is an awful cat, simply terrible. He is bitey, and rude, and he almost never wants to come and sit on your knee or be stroked. But he is also the best cat and if someone else tells me he is awful I will cut them.



You have an amazing home. This isn’t so much a question as it is a statement of envy. 

RJ Barker House 1


We’re really, really lucky. We live in a flat in a very old house so it looks much grander than it really is. Then the décor is just the things my wife and I like. It’s mostly old things that we’ve found in second hand shops and it’s all a bit wrong and other people would probably throw it out. But we love those lost things.

You bought some books to research while writing, your post implied this was tortorous. How many hours did you spend torturing yourself? Which topic has been the most torturous? 

Ah, well, that might be a bit of a lie. I think the books I was referring to were books about tall sailing ships by an artist called Geoff Hunt who did the covers for Patrick O Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books (Master and Commander) and I love those books and his art. So it was really reading things I would read anyway. I have a longstanding policy of not doing anything unless I enjoy it, (obviously, not always possible) but I follow that policy with research too. So it’s very rare that I end up doing anything really tortuous. I’m not a tortured type of person really. I try and find a way to enjoy everything I do.

Which google search got you on certain lists? 

I have done a lot of searches on poisons. And for an unrelated-to-fantasy-writing project I was researching ways to plant a bomb in a Las Vegas casino. So I probably won’t be visiting the US any time soon…

You have a lot of very interesting clothes. What’s the story with this coat? 


 And this hat.

Well, the coat we found on a remaindered rack in a really high end designer shop and it was just so utterly ridiculous I fell in love. I knew I would probably never wear it but it appealed to me as it was just so loopy. The hat was for my wedding, we had a sort of HG Wells, Victoriana themed look, it was before steampunk was really a thing, now you kind of see that look everywhere. But it was an amazing day ina  field in the middle of nowhere.

Where would you recommend people stop by if they were in Leeds? 

I’m not much of an urbanite, so I’d probably say head out of Leeds into the North Yorkshire moors, which are wild and arid and were the inspiration for the geography of the wounded kingdom books. There’s also a lot of big old estates that have reinvented themselves, Like Harewood House and Lotherton Hall, which have aviaries and small zoos, as well as all the history contained in the houses. The Royal Armouries is worth a visit too, a huge building full of all the awful ways we’ve found of killing each other.

Describe 2020 in 7 words. 

Well, I’m going to ignore the seven words thing. It’s a bonfire, right? But it’s also full of hope because we are seeing an upswell of, mostly younger, people who are quite rightly saying, ‘no, we want the world to be a fairer place for everyone.’ And the fact that anyone can be against that mystifies me.

Describe your life in 7 words. 

Relaxed, as much as is humanly possible.

What is your favourite word? 

Oh, that’s impossible. Words are wondrous and ever changing, their meaning is dependant on context so a word I might love in one position might be ugly in another. There are lots of words I like the sound of, or just like saying, pentangle, for instance but I don’t think I can choose one.

What is your least favourite word? 

Again, it’s really hard cos words have context and it depends on that. I know a lot of people say moist, but it’s a really good word, especially if you’re writing about ships like I have been. And if you’re describing cake it’s positively delicious. So I stand against disliking words. No to that kind of thing. 

If you could influence/control three species on earth to start a rebellion and overthrow governments on a global scale, which three would you choose? 

Rebellions are a bit of a dangerous thing, cos once you start violence it has a tendency to run wildly out of control and quite often you end up with the absolutely worst elements in control and things can be just as bad, or worse, than they were to start out with. So I’d rather get together with all the animals and have a peaceful reconciliation process.

Do you have any particular writing schedule, or does your writing speed come and go on whims? 

Well, I’m chronically ill, so I live within a pretty strict set of rules cos if I go outside them I tend to start getting ill and then it’s a bit of a cascading process. So I don’t generally do more than a couple of hours a day, monday to Friday. In that time I’ll generally do between one and two thousand words. Sometimes all at once, sometimes in dribs and drabs. But sometimes I’ll do nothing, and sometimes I might do a lot more. I think the most important thing for me is I never put any pressure on myself or have any great expectations when I’m doing the first version of something. That’s really freeing. Quite often I read about writers, especially people who are just starting out, who are getting bogged down in character arc, or worldbuilding or quality of prose, or any of the other millions of things that go into a book. My message to them, or anyone, is this stuff will probably work itself out if you write through it. Problems tend to solve themselves and writing a book is living in a time machine. You need a character to have a magic sword in Chapter X? You can go back later and put one in chapter Y.  Text isn’t inviolate once its down. You can spend a lot of time worrying about a thing and then when you’ve written on you may well find that it never really mattered and that was time you could have spent finishing. Just finishing is passing through a huge psychological barrier, everything after that is just finishing cos you have done the thing. So do the thing, don’t worry about the thing being good until it’s done. A finished manuscript can be improved, and unfinished one is just unfinished.

Do you find that quarantine helped or hindered your writing productivity?   

Well, our boy was home and my wife does quite important stuff so she had to work and the job of home schooling him fell to me, which gets in the way a bit. Though it’s great fun having him around. Mostly, the lockdown was the opposite for me compared to most people, I ended up with more people around me rather than less so I’ve had to get used to not being on my own. But I like my family, I chose to be with them after all, so that was all okay. 

Do you go to cons as either a fan or panel member? 

Panel Member. And to see my friends. I discovered a long time ago that anything about writing theory, or how to put together stuff just doesn’t help me. I start to think about it and wonder if I am doing something wrong and then I freeze up. So cons for me are more social events and I love that part of it. And I quite enjoy being in front of people and talking nonsense.

I saw on your reddit AMA this tidbit: “I’m stopping myself here because I love history and I will go off on one about how we perceive female power in history on a superficial viewing and how it was often wielded cos that stuff is FASCINATING.” Feel free to ramble on this topic, anything you feel you’d feel worth passing on to the readers of this interview. 

Oh gosh, I am so wary about doing something like this. I love history but I’m very much an amateur historian and I am totally aware that A) better people know more than me and B) history is very open to interpretation and most of my friends are historians so I don’t want to get told off by them. But on a simplistic level, history is often about men, Kings and warriors, and then we get the odd queen or female leader who is painted as something unusual, and being an unusually strong woman to hold those positions. Which is of course nonsense. Powerful personalities aren’t limited to men, it’s just society didn’t give them the same opportunities. But it doesn’t stop these women being there, and affecting history in their own ways and through the channels society allowed them at the time.

Name your “top five” without giving the category… eg:  

Salt N Vinegar, Pickled Onion, Cheese and Onion, Ready Salted, Beef. 

Would you rather be covered in fur or covered in scales? 


I’ve seen you say you like history – that’s a broad topic. Which periods in general capture your interest? 

Anything. I’ll read about anything. Obviously, The Bone Ships is heavily influenced by Age of Sail history but there’s also Norse in there and Neolithic and bits of Celtic as well.  With the Wounded Kingdome it’s broadly about 8thc Europe but there’s castles that are far more Norman in design and quite a bit of Japan from the Senguku period. I’ve often said that the ‘assassins’ part of the title is misleading, cos Girton and Merela are modelled on Ninja, but we have such a strong (and incorrect) image of the black clad Ninja that you can’t call a book Age of Ninja because that image interferes with how the reader sees the book.

Is there a topic that you could give a 30-minute impromptu lecture with no prep? 

Aside from writing, probably not. I have loads of information on all sorts of stuff in my head but it needs time to filter down from my subconscious so if you said, right, go up there and talk about X for thirty minutes I wouldn’t be able to. However, if you just said get on a stage and talk for thirty minutes. No problem.

Would you rather 5% of the population have telepathy, or 5% of the population have telekinesis? You are not part of the 5% that has telepathy or telekinesis.

Telekenesis. The idea of someone being able to raid other people’s minds is nightmarish. 

Would you rather be an unimportant character in the last movie you saw or an important character in the last book you read? 

Unimportant. I like to have an easy life and main characters in books NEVER have easy lives.