A MALTESE EXPAT: JAMES VELLA-BARDON
Every month we catch up with a Maltese national who lives and works abroad. This month, we chatted to debut novelist James Vella-Bardon.
2018 was a breakthrough year for Maltese novelist James Vella-Bardon when his debut novel ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’ was released by UK publisher Unbound on 15 March 2018. Its been a rollercoaster ride since. After seeing his YouTube book trailer being nominated at a red-carpet Hollywood event in LA, he was also invited to meet the President of Malta when he became the first Maltese national to break Malta’s bestseller list in English fiction, climbing to third place just behind the likes of Ken Follett and Dan Brown.
Q – Hi James, so tell us a bit about yourself and your life and work.
I’m a writer who supports himself by working as a risk manager in funds management in Sydney, Australia. I moved down under for work in 2007 after a brief stint spent working with the EU in Brussels. For most of the last decade I’ve burned the midnight oil practically every day, working on a five-novel series called ‘The Sassana Stone Pentalogy’. My debut novel ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’ is the first instalment and was published in the UK on 15 March 2018.
Q – A congratulations are in order about the novel. Can you tell us a little about it?
Thank you. My debut novel ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’ is a rollicking, red-blooded historical thriller. Readers have called it a fusion of George RR Martin and Bernard Cornwell in style, with a dash of Perez-Reverte’s black humour. I hope it’s what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have called ‘a rattling good yarn’. The protagonist is of Maltese origin, a plucky, never-say-die sniper named Abel de Santiago. ‘Santi’ suffers a grave injustice when he is illegally sold as a galley slave to one of the captains of the Spanish Armada. Following his galley’s shipwreck Santi finds himself a castaway in Tudor Ireland, fleeing the mounted troopers of a brutal sheriff who wants him tortured and killed.
Q – How has the novel been perceived abroad and in Malta?
To date thousands of copies have been sold worldwide and the feedback has been excellent both from Malta and overseas. The Sheriff’s Catch still scores 4.7 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. I think my London-based publisher still likes it, since they’ve submitted it for four literary awards in the US and the UK. Last month it picked up a cover design award in the US and its YouTube trailer was nominated for the 19th Golden Trailer Awards in Los Angeles, being screened along with trailers for Black Panther and Wonder Woman. In September 2018 I became the first Maltese author to break Agenda Bookshop’s bestseller list in English fiction. It’s an amazing feeling, unreal.
Q – Are there any differences between readers in Malta and abroad?
Nothing too discernible, although there was a strong Maltese hook in my case because of my background and because the novel has broken new ground for Maltese fiction in English. It’s the first work of fiction by a Maltese novelist to be accepted by curators of literary platforms like The Pigeonhole, Bookbub and Netgalley, where it met with a great reception. I’ve also received a flood of compliments from Malta and many aspiring Maltese authors have since got in touch with me to ask for tips which is wonderful.
Q – How long have you been away from Malta and how does it feel when you come back?
I’ve been away for 12 years now but it’s always a great feeling to be back and see all the changes. I just love the fact that it keeps kicking on in so many ways and so quickly too! It’s so different from the place I left behind in ’07 and I suspect it will be virtually unrecognisable in another decade.
Q – Are there any aspects of Maltese life or culture that foreigners just don’t ‘get’?
The fact that they think we are arguing when we are actually just having a normal conversation! Not to mention how we’re embracing each other one minute and fiercely squabbling the next, be it over the rightful village saint, politics or football. Anything that can divide opinion generally does in Malta!
Q – What is the main difference between living in Sydney and Malta?
Well I haven’t lived in Malta for over a decade so my comparison might be dated. But what I found when I moved to Sydney in ’07 was that I had transitioned from a densely populated place where community is everything and extremely tight-knit to a far less populated place where it’s all about the self and is highly transient. Like the rest of Europe, the Maltese are generally obsessed with politics and culture whereas in Sydney the main obsession is financial and personal wellbeing. It did my head in to start off with and was hard to get used to but then it became the propellant which got me to where I am now, wherever that is.
Q – What Maltese thing do you miss the most when away?
The humour is wicked. Just side-splitting and I get as much of it as I can through social media or by watching Maltese programs on YouTube or from friends’ text messages on WhatsApp. Don’t get me wrong: Australian humour is also brilliant, but Maltese humour is on another level in terms of how it mixes the profane with the sacred, it literally makes me weep sometimes while my Irish-born wife looks on at me in bafflement. Oh and let’s not forget pastizzi, goats cheeselets with water crackers, Cisk Lager, a fresh Cerna / Red Snapper or Lampuka and European club football in the evenings. Not necessarily in that order.
Q – First thing you do when you get back?
It’s generally straight to my sister’s house for all the little cousins to get together with the grandparents. High tea and pastizzi inevitably follow, as we are joined by a stream of other family members and friends passing through the house which soon starts to resound with laughter and impassioned discussion about politics, religion, football and everything else. There usually follows a day at the beach: Armier, Little Armier, Imgiebah and Paradise Bay are my favourites.
Q – Any tips you can share when flying
Try get the aisle seat next to the emergency exit for added leg room. A great read also helps: books like The Kite Runner, 1984 and To Kill A Mockingbird have made fourteen hour flights seem too short for me!
Q – Favourite places in Malta?
I particularly love all the fascinating historical sites, ranging from the bastions in the three cities and Valletta to the beautiful silent city of Imdina and the catacombs. The Neolithic temples are from another planet, particularly Ggantija in Gozo and the Hypogeum in Hal-Saflieni. Not to mention that some of the weapons in the Palace Armoury in Valletta are incredible. I’ve got a soft spot for Gozo: I love a walk in Qbajjar followed by a drink or a bite by the sea in Marasalforn.
Q – What do you think is the perception of Malta on the International Stage
If the general perception of the Maltese in Australia is anything to go by, then it’s top drawer. As a people we’re regarded as a wholesome, switched on, law-abiding, hard-working, peaceful bunch with big hearts who assimilate seamlessly into society, while doing our best to get ahead. We Maltese have been given a good hand by our forebears, mainly thanks to their hard work and strong values.