The following is a transcript of the speeches delivered during an unforgettable book signing event. It was held at Agenda Bookshop on the Valletta Waterfront on 29 September 2018 to promote my debut novel The Sheriff’s Catch.
Thanks again to everyone who attended a true watershed occasion in the history of Maltese fiction in English, in a year when Valletta was named European Capital of Culture by the European Union.
Special thanks also go to Agenda Bookshop for hosting the event and to Dr Frank Vella Bardon, Dr Nicky Valenzia and Josanne Vella Bardon for forming such an outstanding organising committee.
I’d like to thank everyone for making it here tonight at the end of a busy week and also thank Agenda Bookshop for hosting this book signing event for The Sheriff’s Catch here in their historic store along the waterfront of Valletta, the European Capital of Culture 2018.
The words ‘Valletta’ and ‘culture’ are certainly synonymous in my mind, since I clearly remember the days when I was a young boy travelling on a rickety little bus to one of only two English bookstores on the island at the time, which was owned by the family of my dear friend the late Frank Sapienza, who was also a patron of The Sheriff’s Catch.
I would spend hours going through the fiction section in there, checking out the latest titles by the likes of Eddings and Cornwell. I also remember my mum taking me to the public library where after half an hour she would tell me ‘we have to leave now’. This was of course my cue to disappear, and she would inevitably spend the next hour or so looking for me amongst the many volumes and shelves.
The way tonight is going to work is as follows: we have two great speakers talking about the book, and then I’ll say a few words before taking questions. We’ll then proceed to signing everyone’s copies. So first up, I’d like to present one of Malta’s leading Goodreads book critics and arguably the island’s leading organist. Also a partner with the law firm Mamo TCV Advocates which has been a great help to me over recent months. Everyone please welcome Dr Joseph Camilleri.
Dr Joseph Camilleri
Thank you. James has called me a literary critic and leading national organist. I am none of these things, I am simply here tonight as a reader who has greatly enjoyed this book ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’.
In fact, it is first of all a very entertaining book: jam-packed with events, incidents, excitement, which make for a great read. But what I look for in a book…well, a book really speaks to me when the narrative voice is a convincing one.
And here, I think, we have a novel where the characters seem and sound authentic: the language that they use, their behaviour. They’re not just words on a page but characters which actually spring out of the book and you feel that you care for them and you want to accompany them through the pages of this book – and the books yet to come.
That a book is entertaining is important, that a book sounds and feels authentic is also important. But I hope that this book and this series goes beyond that and I think there are two points which make this book very relevant to us contemporary readers. Historical fiction is not a new genre at all, and in fact one of the pleasures of reading this book is to feel the influence of classic books, classic 19th C adventure stories. But in what ways is this book particularly relevant?
First of all it gives us a perspective which might be different to what we are used to, especially if our background is English novels. This is a book which gives us a different perspective, a more Mediterranean perspective. It spoke to me because of that fact.
Secondly, this book also shows us a character who feels very contemporary, very modern, but without falling into the trap of just projecting onto characters of the 16th century, 20th century worldviews. No, the characters are 16th century characters. They speak in a way which is at the same time vibrant and contemporary as well.
And this mix of the old and the new, this mix of tradition and innovation…I think it promises a lot for the volumes which will follow this first book. So thank you James for giving us all this.
Thank you, Joe, for a great speech. I really liked what you had to say about the contemporary feel to a historical novel.
I am always reluctant to describe The Sheriff’s Catch as historical fiction for fear that people will instantly assume that it is long-winded and boring. The idea behind this book was to have a fast-paced thriller that will also appeal to people who would not usually read historical fiction. So it’s in fact a thriller – except that it’s set 500 years ago.
Next up we’re very honoured to have a distinguished second speaker with us tonight: Professor Ivan Callus from the Faculty of English literature at the University of Malta, who’s also joined us to say a few words about the book.
Professor Ivan Callus
It’s a pleasure to be here for the launch of James’ The Sheriff’s Catch. It’s an occasion that’s worth noting for a number of reasons.
One of them is that it brings to the fore just how vibrant and how rich Maltese creative writing and Maltese literature in English, we could say, is becoming. It’s a tradition that’s been with us for some time, but it keeps a rather low profile sometimes but it’s interesting to note that it’s now roaming, it’s entering spaces which it had not entered before. Not only because of what we could call the Maltese diaspora of Maltese literature in English, which James is contributing to, even because of his move to Australia. But also because a book like this is published by a platform like Unbound.
And Unbound is one of the most exciting and innovative publishing spaces in contemporary writing today. It’s great to see a Maltese author penetrating those spaces and making such good use of the contemporary variation of what is really an old subscription model. The 18th C novel and the 19th C novel was often published on a subscription model and some of those novels published on that kind of platform were actually the historical narratives to which James’ novel has an affiliation.
There is, I think, one other reason why The Sheriff’s Catch is significant and that is because of what I think is a quite unique take by any standard on genre fiction. And if I may refer to what is at stake here, I’ll just take a few minutes of your time to read a short passage from the novel that I think is indicative and is emblematic of how James is handling the genres he is working in and to a significant extent: reworking.
So one of the wonderful things about the protagonist of this novel is that he has more than nine lives (laughter from the audience) he goes from one adventure to another, from one escapade to another, he takes many beatings but he always comes back for more (louder laughter from the audience), and in fact he’s going to be with us for four other novels which is good. So this is one of the passages that struck me as I read it, and it’s an account of a fight:
Already the hospital ship was rolling towards starboard, with the cable binding the gun to the foremast creaking with strain. I stretched over and slashed it in half with what was left of my blade.
As the cannon lurched forward Gabri quickly sidestepped it, jabbing my waist with his sword point while the end of his cloak became wrapped around a wheel in the gun carriage. For a moment de Andrés clutched the clasp at his neck, then flew after the cannon which rumbled on towards the ship’s rail. The galley’s gunwale was well riddled with shot, and a crash of wood was heard as the cannon broke through it, hauling my trampled foe over the edge with it.
The piercing cry was followed by a loud splash. I turned onto my back in disbelief, gasping heavily as I surveyed the smoking ruin of the main deck which was piled high with bodies.
‘Abel!’ cried a familiar voice, and I raised my arm to my brother-in law who ran over towards me, dripping wet from the ocean.
‘Are you hurt?’ he asked, as he fell to one knee, staring at the scarlet blotch on my side.
‘No lad, pricked is all.’
Now it’s a fight and there’s plenty of that in the novel. As I said, Santiago keeps coming back for more. And it needs a very deft narrative handling of pace and tempo to pull this off, because the novel is a self-repeating pattern of this kind of encounter but with significant variations. And it’s not easy to pull that off, to have that kind of handling of tempo and narrative pace is, I can assure you, very difficult.
There will be some questions and some objections: is it plausible? And we can probably agree: no it’s not plausible. Do we care? No, we don’t. A lot of authors to which the book alludes: Dumas, Louis Stevenson, Scott, Tolkien – if you notice, many of them did not worry about plausibility. Their main intent was to give us a really good tale, a really good narrative and lose us in it. It’s the most difficult thing in the world to tell a story grippingly and James has put down his wager that he will continue to sustain it for four more novels.
I think he can do it. Not only at the level of narrative handling and narrative pace which I was very much impressed by, but also because of what I was most impressed by: his ability to merge historical fiction, the thriller genre – as he indicated – and also what I would suggest his ability to work all of this with epic fantasy.
Those of you who have already read the novel and got to the Irish section towards the end will know what I mean. So all I can say is that I look forward to the second novel in the sequence and thanks very much James.
Thanks Ivan, that’s a fantastic compliment and endorsement, I really appreciate it. I’m going to quickly say something about the novel myself. So what I’d first like to talk about is this idea of ‘infotainment’ we’ll call it. Right, so it’s a combination of information that you read, you’re having fun, you’re watching a historical series, having fun – and you’re learning at the same time. So back in the day when I started on this book – must be eleven years ago now – I had a…not crisis…but a decision to make.
As I mentioned earlier there were a lot of fantasy novels I really liked, by Eddings and Tolkien etc. – and I was always sure that at some point in my life I was going to write a fantasy novel. But then I thought: why am I going to be rehashing this Dark Lord vs rest of the world story and racking my brains over how to come up with names like ‘Joffrey’ or ‘Jaremy’ like George RR Martin does – which is fair enough and I love his work by the way – but I thought: why don’t I find another setting? Because all that fantasy stuff has been done to death, you know?
And I received this book when I was living in Belgium in 2005, called ‘Romegas’ the – arguably maverick – Knight of Malta. It was a book in English written by the Maltese historian Dr Carmel Testa, which was sent to me as a gift by my uncle Klaus who as we all know is a huge bookworm. And I’m reading this book about Romegas and the Knights of Malta who were – in a way – a Mini-European Union of sorts with all the different countries they came from and all the shenanigans going on between the French Knights and the Spanish Knights when they’re meant to be one Order. And I was just curious being from Malta about the siege: what was happening in Spain back then? What’s happening in Turkey? What’s this, Spain is a superpower? Turkey is a superpower? How does that work when you think about these two countries today?
So I just thought: this is almost…this is almost…fantasy. You see, I love these stories like ‘The Last Valley’ by JB Pick which are historical but at one point become almost fantastical because they’re so different to what we’re used to today. So I thought: look, it just has to be the 1500s, it’s just a fantastic period. I read everything that I could get my hands on in fiction and non-fiction about the period although the point I’m trying to get at is: why the 1500s?
All of you have no doubt heard about Salman Rushdie. And he set his first historical novel in the 1500s. And he was asked: why the 1500s? And he said: look it was just such an exciting period, it was probably the century in history in which man experienced the greatest amount of change. I mean in everything. The 20th century saw heaps of change: it was technological, mainly social changes. But in the 1500s absolutely everything was changing.
I mean the 1500s had hardly even started when there was already a massive, radical shift in thinking because Columbus discovered America, because before he did people thought that if you sailed a bit too far from the coast into the open sea, you’d meet these sea monsters who would eat your ship and eat you. And if you got past these sea monsters – which you couldn’t because they’d eat your ship and eat you – you’d fall off the edge of the world. And that was the perceived knowledge at the time which everyone accepted willy-nilly.
Plus we also had the invention of the printing press, which was a big change, of course, because it was no longer the case of one little monk writing somewhere in an abbey and then a few people reading what he wrote later. There were now ideas being spread left, right and centre. So the 1500s hadn’t even started yet and we already have these two radical developments.
Then the 1500s starts: where do we begin? Reformation: Martin Luther nails his theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, which completely cracks the framework of Catholic Europe. And you also have the bestselling book at the time – probably of all time – the Bible, being translated into different vernacular languages. Then we have the Renaissance where we have the classics being rediscovered and more focus in artistic circles on man.
The 16th C is called ‘le Grand Siècle’ by the French but it’s also called ‘The Iron Century’ because there was a lot of weapons development, proliferation of firearms which started to be used on a wide scale. And where before you were a shivering commoner waiting for a mounted knight to lop your head off, you now had a gun to shoot him off his horse: fantastic. So all these things were great levellers in society. There were a lot of changes going on and I haven’t even started talking about navigation and exploration: the Portuguese would just keep going further and further and further east until they ran out of food and water and then ate sawdust and weevils – they just kept going. We’re still finding their artefacts in the northern coast of Australia! This is a century that impacted everyone in different ways. We can go on and on about it but I shan’t bore you.
I needed a period from this century, some event that – what I obviously wanted was a personal story about Santiago, a man who is going to be increasingly in conflict with his own heart because he’s hiding something. But I also wanted a story about different cultures clashing. We all love these sort of stories like The Sword & The Scimitar – it’s still a bestseller after many years here in Malta – we also love futuristic variations of that like James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ – incidentally my sister’s favourite movie – where native aliens are being exploited by this capitalist, inhuman machine, or ’Dances With Wolves’ – coincidentally I’m currently reading its sequel at the moment.
So I needed something which had these cultures clashing and I found something that had not just two cultures clashing, but three! I thought: that’s phenomenal. So Spanish Armada landings in Ireland, as we all know that’s the event that I chose to write about. You’ve got three cultures: counter-reformist Spain, we have reformist England and late medieval Ireland. It just blew my mind, and I’ll speak to that shortly and that should be it, promise. (Laughter from the audience while I cross two fingers behind my back).
Firstly, with counter-reformist Spain: imagine for a moment Spain being the Western superpower at that time. I grew up in Malta reading very Anglocentric narratives and being constantly told that Northern Europe is the bar by which we in the south of Europe need to measure ourselves, because in Southern Europe we’re not that good and are still trying to get there. And I told myself: what if we turn that on its head by going back to a time where the southern Europeans were ruling the world and telling the northern Europeans what to do? What if a Southron like the Spaniard and the Maltese is telling the German and the Dutchman what to do? Try doing that today: good luck with that.
So I thought that that was pretty interesting. You see, in English literature we’re always reading about the Roman legionnaires or the British Imperial troops, and the Spanish Empire always seems to get passed over. And yet, the Spanish tercios are said to have been the best soldiers that ever lived. And it’s important to know that as a Maltese person because we were held by the Knights of Malta but they were actually a satellite of Spain, and I wanted to learn more about that.
And what better period from Spanish history to choose to present to an English-speaking audience and the Anglosphere than the Armada? The defeat of the Spanish Armada is sort of seen as the event when England started to wrest power from the Continent before it went on to become a world-dominating power itself. And ‘Armada’ is probably the Spanish word that’s most used in English. Last year Donald Trump – I’m having a chuckle to myself – he actually used it when he wasn’t mates with the guy in North Korea at the time and he said ‘I’m going to send an Armada over to Korea’. You can see that ‘Armada’ still implies strength, an indomitable, slick, massive fighting force. But the truth is very different, you can find all that in my book.
The Irish culture: called ‘late medieval’ Ireland at the time, I think a bit unfairly since it lends itself to the impression at the time that the Irish culture was backward. Well, I thought it was very interesting. Just so you understand how much it differed from English culture at the time: in the 1500s, when England was trying to conquer Ireland, if you were Irish your hairstyle was banned, the way you dressed was banned, the language you spoke was banned, your religion was banned, the way you built your house was banned, made illegal. So everything was banned, including the bards you listened to. If you were born Irish you were basically a rebel.
So that just shows you the difference between the two cultures although I think that the Irish civilisation back then was in fact very civilised. They had the tradition of the Filidecht which melded history, poetry and law, in a very interesting combination. They really respected their bards i.e. their writers who were highly respected: in the Irish chieftain’s hall only two people automatically had the right to free speech: the chieftain himself and his bard. And the English who were trying to dominate and suppress the Irish and conquer them were after two people in particular: the priests and the bards. You destroy a society’s religion, then you kill their writers, you fragment the people, separate them and then you’ve got them. I think that’s very interesting and it has resonance with me in a more modern Maltese and global context.
A couple of other things I’d like to say about the Irish: their Brehon laws were highly sophisticated, they’d quantify the slightest ounce of honey, everyone in the tribe had their honour-price. They didn’t have any incarceration so that people would pay a fine if they were accused and found guilty of a crime. The only time the death penalty was applied was if you killed a member of a family and you could not pay the fine and the deceased’s family could decide not to wait for the fine to be paid and have you killed instead. That was the only time the death penalty was applied. There was no legal concept of illegitimacy to stain children from birth, so that the tribe was responsible for all of its children. Which is not to mention the complex institutes of fostering and gossipred. So that, I think, is also very interesting.
The next culture in the mix is reformist England. Obviously from an Irish (and Maltese) nationalist perspective, the English were terrible colonisers etc. However I tried to approach this book as objectively as I could, and the truth is that there were certain things about English culture which were appealing to certain Irish chieftains. First of all, the English system had primogeniture, so if you were a chieftain who bowed to English law, this meant that your son would inherit you. Whereas in the Irish system, the second-in-line was always elected in what you might call a relatively ‘democratic’ process in which the Assembly of Freemen would vote for a second-in-command: ‘the Tánaiste’.
The other thing the English introduced which was appealing to the Irish chieftains that took their side was the concept of private property. So before the English took over Ireland the Irish aristocrats would draw lots each year and decide who was overseeing which part of the tribe’s territory that was held in common. But under the English system you held your private property under English law in perpetuity.
There’s probably a few more things I wanted to say which I’ve now forgotten since I’ve been going on for quite a bit, but I’ll just talk to a couple of reasons why this book, in my mind, has also been relevant to Malta and the Maltese: obviously I’m still a very patriotic Maltese national at heart. The fact that a novel by a Maltese writer is finally on the Agenda Bookshop and WHSmith international bestseller list, and in third place, or thereabouts – I think it’s at number five now – is that if we Maltese write and write well, I think that there’s a market here and I think that there’s also a lot of interest from overseas: as you know the book was launched on The Pigeonhole and we got great feedback from all over the world from Finland to central America to South Africa and beyond.
Creative writing is not normally seen as a career path here, but all that is changing fast especially with the advent of self-publishing and all the other alternatives out there. The other relevant thing is that I tried to create an action-adventure hero who was Maltese in English literature, maybe that’s the first time that’s happened and I’m glad that a lot of people have enjoyed the book and that Santiago is resonating with them, and we’ll do our best to get the rest of the series out of there.
Finally I’d just like to thank a few people: I’d really like to thank Agenda Bookshop for all the support and for hosting this event tonight, thanks to Malcolm Miller, Michael Vella de Fremeaux, all the people in the Maltese media who’ve backed the book and supported it. I’d like to thank my family, my dad who’s been a great support. Four years ago he wasn’t sure how he found himself on an Irish beach where the Spanish castaways were slaughtered and he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing there, but this year he found himself at a red carpet event in Los Angeles so this book has taken us to some wonderful places and the cherry on the cake is of course Valletta tonight which is just majestic.
Also thanks to my mum and sister – my family have been without me for a long time because I travelled to Australia years ago with the full intention to get published somehow: the aeroplane’s wheels had hardly hit the tarmac that I was dead set on doing that. I would also like to thank my wife Donna who’s been a massive help throughout the last ten years as well as all other family, friends and supporters, everyone here tonight, thank you so much, I’m going to stop talking now. It’s been a passionate and emotional time tonight so I’m getting carried away. So please, does anyone have any questions about the book?
– when’s the next book coming out?
The next book is in the works, I was telling Nicky Bianchi and a few other friends earlier that I wrote the whole thing and then stopped to count the words, which is not a very good way of doing it. And I thought ‘shit, it’s 465k+ words! You know your average novel on the shelf is probably 60,000 or 80,000 words, so I thought I’m going to have to go back to the drawing board and work this out. Luckily I’d written it in five parts, which made it easier so I could sort of split them more easily. But in essence the other four books are ready, I just need to make them more standalone, more pointy, if that makes sense. So yeah, I’m hoping by June next year we’ll go to crowdfund, if not a bit earlier. Anyone else want to ask anything…or?
– Hi James, first of all I’d like to congratulate you on this achievement. How many hours did you put into it? And when you write do you write in bursts when you get the feel, inspiration?
Thank you. That’s a fantastic question, I think. George RR Martin who wrote ‘Game Of Thrones’ was talking about this and he divided writers in two camps which he called ‘gardeners’ and ‘architects’. The architects plan the whole thing from beginning to end, chapter by chapter, nut by bolt then write always keeping to that plan and never veer away from it. The way other people write is they write as scenes come into their head, and unfortunately this can happen at the most inconvenient of times, when I’m in bed, or when someone’s talking to me and I’m nodding my head going ‘yeah, yeah’ and in my mind I’m actually somewhere far away on some battlefield (laughter and more laughter) like Jon Snow with horses charging past me and arrows whistling overhead. So what George RR Martin said is you either plan every nut and bolt out and then stick to this plan neurotically as you write, like I used to do. Or else you write scenes as they come to you and then you put them in order and add the in-between scenes later and it sort of comes together. This is what I’ve started to do more recently. I hope that answers your question.
– How many hours a day do you write?
How many hours a day? Well I do the 9-5 and then go home…before I had the kids I would start writing at 7pm and then end at midnight. One period of time I had in my life when I was writing full-time was in 2010. Thought I was crazy but anyway I did it for eight months, working Monday to Friday starting 8am in the morning when my wife would leave for work until 5.30pm non-stop, maybe stop for half an hour to eat something. And yes, that’s how I did it. It’s since been in my free time – I used to do it during the day on weekends but with the kids forget that. I mostly work in the evenings…luckily we now have smartphones. I hate smartphones but I have one and if I didn’t have one I wouldn’t have completed this book. I write every spare second I’ve got on the train. Everyone probably thinks I’m texting friends and planning dates to go out and social media and when are we going to have a drink and what clothes are we going to buy? When in fact I’m trying to write this damn book! So I’m not sure how many hours a day that adds up to, mostly one or two, at times maybe three or four hours. Anyone else?
(round of applause)
Ok thanks everyone, we can proceed to signing your books.