First published in MaltaToday on 25 February 2020 by Laura Calleja.
With his debut novel ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’, in 2018 Vella-Bardon made it to Malta’s bestseller list in English fiction – it is the first of his five-part historical fiction series called ‘The Sassana Stone Pentalogy’ which was the product of nine years of intense rewriting and research. In 2019 James was awarded Best Novel, Best Historical Fiction and Best Cover design in the eBook Category at the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards. He was notably also a Finalist at the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards, the Independent Author Network (IAN) Book Of The Year Awards and the Eric Hoffer Book Awards.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
I open my eyes and remember that I have to let my puppy out into the yard to answer nature’s call.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My new neighbour recently told me that when you are a pessimist and a bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.
What do you never leave the house without?
A book! Be it a physical copy or an ebook on my iPhone’s Kindle app.
Pick three words that describe yourself
Restless, brooding, passionate.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
In 2018 my debut novel The Sheriff’s Catch shot to number one in all categories on an online literary platform run by Unbound, this UK crowdfunding publisher owned by Penguin Random House. It remained there for three days and it was just the coolest thing ever!
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
These days it has to be reading a book on the Kindle app on my smartphone while pretending that I’m still hanging up the laundry!
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
What you put in is what you’ll get out.
Property and cars aside, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought?
This really old biography of Francesco Laparelli da Cortona, the Florentine architect (and former assistant of Michelangelo) who was hired by Grand Master La Vallette to build Valletta in 1566. Cost me an arm and a leg that one!
What is one thing you wish you knew when you were younger?
To trust my gut 100%.
Who’s your inspiration?
Some people will laugh dismissively when I say Sylvester Stallone. Just love his life story, his writing, his talent and his tonne of self-belief.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Being a father has hands down been my greatest challenge to date. And the most rewarding.
If you weren’t an author what would you be doing?
I’d have loved to be an academic in the arts, probably in history like Henry Kamen.
Do you believe in God?
If you could have dinner with any person, dead or alive, who would it be?
I would love to meet the late Fernand Braudel, the world’s greatest historian. But my French was never the best and I’d need to drag my wife along as a translator.
What’s your worst habit?
Missing the train stop while reading a book.
What are you like when you’re drunk?
I might end up on the dancefloor and try to dance. An unfortunate sight that could make your hair curl.
Who would you have play you in a film?
Well Raul Julia’s pushing daisies so what of Javier Bardem? Nah he’s too good looking. Maybe Oliver Platt?
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
I detest self-serving players who fancy themselves and aren’t genuine, with no sense of goodwill towards others.
What music would you have played at your funeral?
Not that I’ll care by then but maybe something upbeat to give everyone a bit of a lift. How about ‘The Joker’ by Steve Miller Band? Can you imagine that being played in a church?
What is your most treasured material possession?
A DVD box set of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the special edition. A generous gift my old man gave me many years ago.
What is your earliest memory?
At age three I can still remember singing ‘Humpty Dumpty’ while balancing myself upon the edge of my playpen, before falling backwards and breaking my arm. Now how on earth did I manage that?
When did you last cry, and why?
The last time I cried was last year, while reading ‘Before They Are Hanged’ by Joe Abercrombie. The way he describes a certain character’s reaction to a secret tryst between his two travelling companions was just hilarious.
Who would you most like to meet?
Apart from Braudel? It would be awesome to have dinner with producer and director Sir Ridley Scott. He seems to somehow be involved in everything that I love on screen.
What’s your favourite food?
It’s a tie between the missus’ mushroom risotto and her dahl curry.
Who’s your favourite person on social media right now?
Celeste Barber cracks me up! Amazing woman with so much get up and go who raised so much money for the Australian bushfire victims.
If you could travel in time, where would you go?
What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall during the siege of St Elmo in 1565. I’m sure it would make for blood-curdling, horrific viewing but I think I’d have to see it to believe what I’ve read.
What book are you reading right now?
‘Best Served Cold’ by Lord Grimdark himself: Joe Abercrombie. As with his First Law Trilogy, it’s violent, hilarious and at all times unputdownable.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Speed, like the Flash. Imagine being able to get ten things done in the time it takes you to do one! And I’d save so much money on petrol and bridge tolls.
What’s one thing you want to do before you die?
Hopefully write a few more novels that excite readers and introduce them to lesser-known
periods of history which have been swept under the carpet.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
I’m stuck in an 80s-90s rock rut. At the moment it’s ‘Ordinary World’ by Duran Duran. Tragic I know.
In the shower or when you’re working out, what do you sing/listen to?
Whenever I’m feeling really pumped I love to listen to Metallica’s ‘Ride The Lightning’ album on the exercise bike. Its Danish production quality is mesmerising.
By Laura Calleja