My day-job, before writing the DARK GIFTS trilogy, was in television. But I was always behind the camera. I was the person writing the questions for my presenter to ask our interviewee. Only now I’m an author, it seems people want to interview … me!
I was ridiculously excited to be invited on to Front Row, the UK’s flagship radio arts programme on BBC Radio4. But I was also so nervous! The programme moves fast, and you have to deliver soundbites – not the easiest thing to do when talking about books, let alone your book. Oh, and they wanted me to do a reading. Oh. Em. Gee.
But I needn’t have worried. The producer rang me earlier in the day for a background chat, so she could brief her presenter. And though we spoke for half an hour when I would have only 7 minutes during the programme, it gave me an idea of the topics in which they were interested.
I also hoped I wouldn’t sound too strange! Like many people, I’m self-conscious about my voice. Because I’m deaf, I had speech therapy in my childhood, with the result that I now sound rather posh. I hated the idea that I might sound elitist and stuck up – especially when GILDED CAGE is about the injustice of elitism!
But I had a fabulous time, thanks to the welcoming Front Row team and especially its smart, warm presenter, Samira Ahmed. The minutes flew by – and when I listened back later that evening, I was happy I hadn’t made an idiot of myself. Booktubers and podcasters? I salute you for doing this sort of thing regularly!
You can listen to my episode here, but if it’s not available in your region, here’s a transcript.
SA: We’re used to American dystopian fantasies such as The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, which pit young people against authoritarian regimes. Now Vic James’s debut fantasy novel GILDED CAGE is set in a very contemporary corrupted Britain. It’s a Britain ruled by an aristocratic class with magic strength, who compel commoners to serve them for ten years as unpaid slaves. Vic wrote the story on Wattpad, the online story site where writers post their work, and it was read there over a third of a million times. She went on to win Wattpad’s Talk of the Town award in 2015, and she joins me now. Welcome to Front Row, Vic. You worked as a political journalist, including at Channel 4 News for many years. Has this book been brewing in you for a while?
VJ: Well, it kind of came together in an instant, but it couldn’t have been written without the previous ten years of work as a journalist. It was one of those classic ‘lightbulb moments’. I was producing a TV series called The Superrich and Us, and in the course of that I was, as you do, talking to billionaires. Hearing their view of their place in the world, the power and ability they have, the lightbulb went off. I just thought the money these people have gives them a kind of potency that’s almost like magic.
SA: It’s a contrast with the world we’ve seen develop in the last ten years, the world of foodbanks, isn’t it?
VJ: Yeah, I made the foodbank report at Channel 4 News, I’ve reported on sexual harassment at the Houses of Parliament. Last year I was working with Jeremy Paxman on the US elections, and on Brexit, and all of that has come together in this world. The idea for me was that GILDED CAGE should be instantly recognisable as our world today. The dilemmas the characters face are the dilemmas that many of us face: how do we make our own way in a world in which the odds sometimes seem stacked against us?
SA: Well, let’s have a reading. These aristocrats with magical powers, you’ve incorporated their powers into recognisable rituals, like the opening of parliament. Will you read us a bit from an opening of parliament?
VJ: So what’s happening here is that once a year the Chancellor of Britain gets to introduce a proposal, their own desired bit of legislation. And this year, the Chancellor is sitting on something really rather earth-shattering, so he’s announced that at the end of the discussion, the Silence and the Quiet will be laid. These are magical acts. We are seeing this through the eyes of Bouda, who is an ambitious, thrusting young female politician, who does dream of being Britain’s first female Chancellor.
“Bouda sat forward in her seat, tense and excited. She had never seen the two ancient acts of Silence and Quiet bestowed publicly.
Of course, to call it ‘Silence’ was misleading. The act didn’t really silence a person; it hid their own memories from them. It was forbidden to lay the Silence on one’s Equals – though practice obviously couldn’t count, Bouda had long ago decided, or how would anyone ever master it? All Chancellors had to be able to perform it, so from childhood Bouda had practised on her sister. Darling DiDi hadn’t minded.
The only permitted use of the Silence was within the House of Light, when it was laid upon commoners – the Observers. They were sometimes privy to Proposals or other business deemed too sensitive, too incendiary, to become common knowledge. Once the Chancellor had bestowed the Silence, the commoners would remember nothing until he lifted it again.”
SA: It’s wonderful – as you say, you turn it into a fancier, dystopian kind of world, but it is recognisable. There is this ordinary family that is serving their slavedays in the novel. One of their sons, Luke, is sent off to this awful factory town. And it seems that you’ve drawn on this British history of the industrial revolution, to comment on today.
VJ: Yeah, the world of the book, um, we experience it in two locations that probably have a historical feel: there’s a Downton Abbey-style aristocratic estate, and then there is the slavetown. The idea is that each city in Britain has its shadow town where you’re sent to serve your slavedays. Manchester’s slavetown of Millmoor is very much inspired by the early industrial period.
SA: He joins a kind of resistance there, because he’s sent off on his own separate from his family. Which I thought was really important. It’s these small gestures of resistance, like painting slogans or just defying brutal authorities. Would you say you’re on a political mission, because it does pit young people against this apparently intractable system that has been there for hundreds of years.
VJ: I think the key dilemma for many of the common-born characters in the book is how to protest. And I think we’re seeing that now, with the marches at the weekend. I mean, if you are protesting against patriarchy, or global capitalism, you are effectively protesting against how the world is now, and this is really the dilemma Luke has in Millmoor, where he sees first time injustice, insensitivity – not a kind of willed cruelty, but an unfair, unjust system.
SA: A system. It really resonates as a kind of commentary upon the present. You published this first online on Wattpad, where anyone can read your work. How did you use it? How did it work for you? Presumably you got discovered by an agent that way.
VJ: No, no not at all, actually. Wattpad for me, it’s interesting, was a tool to keep me motivated. It’s a bit like if you’re trying to lose weight, going to a meeting once a week and being weighed in. It’s a way of keeping yourself accountable.
SA: But you didn’t take their advice, did you? Because people leave comments saying you should do this, that and the other.
VJ: [laughs] There are a few people who say things like that. I remember there was someone who was quite incensed by my use of long dashes. That really got them under the collar. But no, it’s people saying ‘I love this story, please continue’. I think many people in all walks of life, this desire to write a novel is an almost universal desire. Many of us have jobs we have to work 9 to 5 – much longer than that. Where do you create the time to stay true to that dream of writing a novel? For me, writing this one chapter a week, uploading it every Friday, knowing that people would be waiting for it, kept me doing it.
SA: Very briefly, the book’s a trilogy. How far ahead have you planned, and have you always planned it that way?
VJ: From the beginning, I saw the end.
SA: The final scene?
VJ: Yeah. It’s slightly hard to explain, but it opens with a boy in a slavetown, and it ends … hmm – cut me off!
SA: Well, I’m looking forward to reading the next one. GILDED CAGE is already available in ebook and it’s available in paperback from tomorrow. And the second book is out in September, so not long to wait for that.