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Andrew James was born in London and educated at state schools, before studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Trinity College, Oxford. After further time spent studying at the College of Law, he eventually decided to become a barrister. Called to the Bar in 1996, he practised as criminal defence counsel for twelve years. In 2008 Andrew left the Bar to go and live in Siwa Oasis, in Egypt, where he spent three years researching and writing his first book, Blood of Kings.
As well as a fascination with the ancient world in general, and military history in particular, Andrew is a keen wildlife photographer. As a youth, he won several national wildlife photographic competitions. Sadly, at present he rarely has time to pick up a camera.
Below is a Q & A with this author.
How did you start writing?
I was always a bookworm. At Oxford I lived in Blackwell's bookshop rather than Trinity library. The same at school. I couldn't see the point of algebra - I just wanted to read. I still have a complete set of Biggles books which I treasure! When I began at the Bar I went through a phase of reading ancient history, including Herodotus. Then I discovered Wilbur Smith, read all of his books, and began writing myself. It's hard to say why - I was phenomenally busy, but would go to bed at the end of a very long day, first in court, then back in chambers, only to wake up in the early hours with words buzzing in my head demanding to be written down. The need to write was compelling, like a drug. So I would put in an hour each morning before setting off for court.
Wasn't a career at the Bar satisfying?
Yes and no. There was a definite kick to be had addressing a jury in a big trial like a murder. But I think all those Biggles books planted a need for adventure which wasn't being met in Inner London Crown Court or the Old Bailey.
What made you eventually decide to give up the financial security of a busy legal practice for the insecurity of a career as an author?
It was a tough decision. I had known deep down for a couple of years that it was going to happen, but I was caught on a constant treadmill of finishing one case then starting the next. I tried to reduce my commitments to give myself more time to write, but it wasn't happening, so in the end I just closed my eyes and jumped; in 2008 I sent all my cases back, put my flat on the market and booked a flight. When I announced that I was giving up the Bar and going to live in Egypt to write a book everyone thought I was completely mad!
Did you really live in a mud hut in the desert for three years?
I did! And it had a palm thatched roof. There were spiders the size of my hand running along the walls, scorpions dropping through the ceiling, and more than once I found a viper curled up among my clothes. The scene in the book where the snake fights with a desert cat was from first hand experience! It happened in my bedroom after I got trapped by a very angry viper and was rescued by a wild cat I had been feeding. I stood watching in amazement as she moved in and killed it with perfect confidence and grace. One crazy cat; she hunted venomous snakes for the sheer fun of it, even when she didn't need the food. The scorpion sting scene was also first hand! And yes, it hurt. I remember thinking - is this the end? Obviously, it wasn't. But after that sting I moved about a kilometre to an even more isolated house, which at least had a proper roof. Snakes occasionally still got in, but no scorpions.
How did you cope with the change from London?
I loved it. The tranquillity, the sweet desert air, the closeness to nature. The fact that the nearest supermarket was 650 km away! About as different from London as you can imagine. Plus the sheer poetry of the desert. Light and shade, the changing moods. The way it's calm one moment and explosive the next. I've tried to describe it in the book, but no words can do it justice.
You make it sound idyllic?
For me as a visitor it was. But for the Berber tribes who live there, life in the Sahara is raw; stifling heat, death and drama all around. Which made it a great place to write. Huge packs of wild dogs hunted on the oasis fringe, and they were a problem. The Egyptian army would shoot dozens each year, but they just bred. Normally they backed down if you shouted or threw stones, but occasionally an alpha male would charge you...
If modern conveniences were so far away, what did you do for food?
I shopped in the local market, 5 km away, learned to grow vegetables and melons in the sand, and ate camel meat like everyone else. It's delicious. They don't do 'cuts' of meat there - just hang up a carcass and hack bits off. It seems normal after a while. The hardest thing to stomach was the oasis bread - always gritty with sand. I bought a freezer and filled it with supermarket bread every five months.
Why move all the way to Siwa, though? Why not write the book in London?
Because Siwa and the surrounding desert are where the central events in the book actually happened in real life, 2,500 years ago. I wanted the setting to be as authentic as possible. I also visited Iran twice, as well as Syria, Libya and Jordan to research locations. Historical fiction should take the reader somewhere fascinating - a different time and place. To get the details right you have to immerse yourself.
When you moved to Siwa did you know what you were letting yourself in for? Had you been there before?
When I started planning Blood of Kings some years earlier I got a permit to go into the Sahara with an Egyptian military guide and a 4x4 to follow the route the Persian army must have taken. I remember camping near Pillar Rock after crossing the Great Sand Sea, staring at the dusty horizon and thinking "This must be the end of the earth!" There was absolutely no life for hundreds of kilometers, just sand and rock. It was desolate, austere, but astonishingly beautiful. I realised then the Persians must have suffered terribly trying to cross that wilderness. Next day we reached the oasis and I was stunned. Not just the sudden green, but a place from another age; mud bricks, donkeys not cars, honey scented breezes from the palm groves....I fell in love with it at once.
What drove you to visit Siwa in the first place?
The history. When I saw the famous Oracle - 2,500 years old, and mentioned in Herodotus - I was on an emotional high. The weather was perfect for the occasion, clear blue sky with a blustery wind sweeping across the Temple Mount, falcons soaring above me. It was a defining moment in my life. Concentrating on law was almost impossible after that, and within a couple of years I was back, living in that ancient spot steeped in legend.
Sadly the oasis has changed since then. More commercial, more modern, more cars. But my memories of the place as it was are vivid.
Will you return there?
I would love to, but I doubt it. Bad things happened after the revolution, and without the assistance of the British Embassy it would have been nasty. It wouldn't be safe for me to return now.
What was your experience of the revolution?
Suddenly the internet went off. Without it I had no news or contact from the outside world, so I wasn't sure what was happening for 10 days. I knew there had been big demonstrations 850 km away in Cairo, but never imagined President Mubarak would be toppled. Once things settled down, the atmosphere was different - lawless. I was threatened and even attacked - once with broken glass. Rocks through my windows at night. Electricity cut off repeatedly, the water pump from my spring stolen. When I went 650km across the desert to Alexandria to get my visa renewed I saw burnt out buildings, military checkpoints on the roads, tanks and armoured cars everywhere. The atmosphere was tense, everyone suspicious. For the first time ever my visa extension was refused. 'You've been in Egypt long enough. What are you doing here, anyway? Are you a spy?"
What are your plans now?
The desert changed me. I found peace and contentment. Dull weather and rain depress me, but given harsh glaring light and wide open spaces I thrive. When I got back to Europe I felt out of place. I miss the freedom and tranquillity of the desert terribly. The sunlight, too. So I need time to consider.
And your next book?
I have some exciting ideas for a second book, which I've discussed with my agent and with Penguin. The intention is to start writing in 2013. Hopefully it won't take three and a half years this time, but let's wait and see...
Andrew James's first novel, Blood of Kings, was published by Penguin on 7 March 2013.
PLEASE NOTE: The other Andrew James books below are not by this author.
May 2013 eBook of the Month. Author Andrew James spent three years living in a snake and scorpion infested oasis, in the shadow of the Oracle of Ammon, the ram-headed Egyptian god, to research and write the historical fiction epic Blood of Kings. The result is a compelling, highly accessible book that is full of evocative scenes of the desert, vividly capturing both the savagery and the beauty of the Sahara. Perfect for fans of Christian Cameron, Christian Jacq or Conn Iggulden. Blood of Kings is his first novel. Click here to read an extract from this book. A 'Piece of Passion from the Author... 'I was standing on a wet, grey mountainside in Iran staring up at something almost out of my eye's reach. Suddenly it hit me just how astonishing this place was - a rock carving 2,500 years old that had survived invasions, vandalism and the weather, and still had the power to draw people like me thousands of kilometres from home to see it. The Bisitun Inscription tells the story of how Darius the Great became King of Kings of the ancient Persian Empire. Nearly 200 years before me, another eccentric Englishman, Sir Henry Rawlinson, had suspended himself precariously on a rope contraption high up on the same mountainside, to copy and later decipher the inscription. Amazingly, the story he discovered fitted in its important details with that told by Herodotus in his Histories - also written 2,500 years ago. It was these two great ancient artefacts - the Bisitun inscription and Herodotus' Histories - which inspired me to write Blood of Kings. The Histories is full of amazing historical tales, which explains why people still love to read it after thousands of years. I wondered why no one had ever turned some of these marvellous tales into a novel. And so I decided to try....'
While it has become commonplace to discount British novelist Kingsley Amis as a "e;naive realist,"e; a mere comedic novelist, even a misogynist and failed moralist, Andrew James argues that Amis was seriously concerned with the role of the artist in society and explored this subject in many of his novels. Throughout the first twenty years of his career, Amis used bad artists as whimsical characters, or antimodels, that helped identify his artistic preferences and fictional techniques. He became convinced that the relationship between an artist and his audience was reciprocal and that both the outer audience and the artist's inner circle must be held accountable for the production of bad literature. During the last twenty years of his career, Amis no longer concerned himself with satirizing bad artists, but instead explored ways of ameliorating them. James shows that the development of antimodels as fully drawn characters and Amis's insistence upon reciprocity in the writer-reader relationship demonstrate that he was more than just a comedic writer, and was aware of himself as an artist with social responsibilities. The first study of Amis to analyze manuscript revisions in all of his novel drafts, Kingsley Amis: Antimodels and the Audience shows the more serious side of a complex writer who has yet to receive the critical recognition he deserves.
In the not-to-distant future, an isolated planet is nearing social and environmental expiration. Disturbingly, the inhabitants are not behaving as expected, giving cause for advanced 'custodians' to take an unprecedented response and commission a galactic space cruiser to reconnoitre the unforeseen developments. However, they become entwined in a complex and exceptionally dangerous situation. Meanwhile, two special agents, who have been summoned to unearth the covert insurgency on the planet, initially portray a brusque relationship which becomes noticeably co-operative, and provides a convincing and intriguing scenario throughout. Consequently, mystery and suspense are well sustained to a thrilling and poignant conclusion.