I was thrilled when GILDED CAGE was selected as the Radio 2 Book Club choice for March 21st! The club is hosted by legendary British DJ Simon Mayo, who’s been ruling the airwaves for decades with his charming chat and great music selection on the daily 5-7pm Drivetime.
What you maybe don’t know about Simon is that he’s also a published YA author — his book BLAME is also set in a sinister alternate modern Britain. And as I discovered when I went in to chat with him this evening, he’s also a Civil War enthusiast, having specialised in the period when he studied History and Politics.
The whole experience was huge fun — a chat about the book between me, Simon and his co-host Matt in the R2 studios on the sixth floor of Wogan House, just alongside the main BBC HQ. (The studios were a touch funky, because DJ Sarah Cox had just completed a 24-hour danceathon for charity!) There was a break in the middle for some music — Robert Plant, I greatly approved! — and then I got to sit and listen as three reviewers gave their thoughts on the book. These absolutely blew me away, because they’d given GILDED CAGE to three teen reviewers: 16-year-old Lucy, 14-year-old Ben, and 17-year-old Hannah. All three were articulate, and a bit of Hannah’s I might just record and keep to play back any time writing feels like a struggle.
It was such a great experience! You can listen to the whole chat here (start from 1:08:51), or I’ve transcribed it all below. Hugest of thanks to Simon, Matt, and the whole R2 production team for having me on!
SIMON: [1:08:51] So, Book Club on a Tuesday. Our latest choice — you can read a chapter online — is GILDED CAGE by Vic James. Vic is here — how are you?
VIC: Hi! I’m very well, thank you for having me.
SIMON: Just arrived from San Francisco, that’s how fresh she is. Matt’s gonna describe the cover. What does this look like?
MATT: Yes, it’s a white cover, with the title and your name, Vic, in black, very nice typography on the front, with a picture of a black bird in silhouette in a silver cage. And then you know it’s quality because it’s got the Radio 2 Book Club sticker in the middle of it.
SIMON: And the slogan ‘Not all are free’ just under the words ‘gilded cage’. So, take us into the world of GILDED CAGE, Vic James — what do we need to know?
VIC: Okay, well, the world of GILDED CAGE is Britain right now. It’s our world, all very recognisable. It kicks off with a teenage brother and sister: she’s about to go off to university, he’s lost in his console games. And then their parents drop bit of a bombshell. Because there’s something different about this world. It’s not ruled by parliament, it’s ruled by aristocrats with magical Skill. And if you don’t have magic, then bad luck, because you’re going to be spending ten years of your life doing your slavedays.
SIMON: Okay. So there’s a lot going on in there. We should say that this is your debut novel, and you’re a TV documentary maker — that’s what you do most of the time.
VIC: That’s right, yeah. I started in TV news, on a daily basis, and for the last five years I’ve been making long-form docs: social affairs, current affairs, politics.
SIMON: So, this is the UK now, but we’re governed by the Equals. So, I, like a lot of people at school, did the English Civil War. And we know what happened in 1642. The start of the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell, and we know how that ends up for the king, and the restoration, and so on. However in your book, in 1642, what happens?
VIC: What happens is power is seized instead from a non-magically gifted king, he is usurped by his magically skilled aristocrats who decide that frankly, being the best of the bunch, why aren’t they running the country? So they have a dark vision for how they want British history to unroll.
SIMON: And they are called…
VIC: They call themselves the ‘Equals’. It becomes bit of a dark joke in the modern era. The idea is that Cadmus Parva-Jardine, the person who comes up with the concept of the new ruling dynamic in Britain, he sees it as actually an equal arrangement: the guys with magic have to bear the burden of rule, and everybody else has to bear the burden of hard work. But needless to say the title of ‘Equal’ doesn’t go down very well.
SIMON: So, it’s not the Equals as in the 60s pop band with Eddie Grant on lead vocals. It’s not them. It’s the aristocratic magical class that runs Britain. Tell us about the family that we’re rooting for. Tell us about the Hadleys.
VIC: So, we’re with the Hadleys. They are your every-family. They’re from Manchester. Three kids, Mum, Dad. Very much based on my own sort of background, working class kid with parents from London. I wanted it to be a kind of normalisation of this shocking thing that they and everybody else has to go through. This should be the kind of family that everyone can see their own in, young people have the same kind of dreams that they do now: a good education, a good job. But sadly for everybody in this world you have to have ten years — you can choose when, you can do them straight out of the gate the minute you leave school, or put them off till you’re 55. But you can’t get out of doing them. You owe ten years of service. It could be doing back office work, it could be in factories. Imagine the really crummy job you’d never, ever want to do — you’re doing that for ten years.
SIMON: This kind of slavery — you have no rights and no money.
VIC: That’s correct. You’re effectively taken out of society. The fact that the system originates in the Civil War is kind of relevant because that’s a time when the concept of indentured service was quite prevalent. A lot of people who went to America and the new world at that time went as indentured labourers. You would spend — you would effectively give up your freedom and owe service, and that the end of that time, you would have earned certain rights and privileges.
SIMON: Are there any good people with magic, or are all the magical people bad?
VIC: [laughs] Look, who doesn’t love wicked magical aristocrats? Okay. I am guilty of that. But what I wanted very much was for there to be a broad spectrum on both sides. What we have here is a system that is evil and oppressive and wrong, and we have many people within that system who do not see the wrongness of it. And we have people on both sides of that aristocratic and commoner divide who are fighting to change it.
SIMON: Okay, so, Matt, what did you make of GILDED CAGE by Vic James?
MATT: Yes, great, I loved this premise, this idea that everyone, regardless, has to do ten years of slavery unless they’re as you say, one of these magical aristocrats. I love how the story switches between different characters. As you’ve just said there are, you have some of the aristocrats telling the story at one point and certainly one of them can’t see anything wrong with this deal, absolutely nothing. It’s absolutely fine. And you also find yourself questioning that idea of, if this were happening, would I do my ten years when I was young so it was out of the way, or would I put it off until I was in my sixties.
SIMON: What did you decide?
MATT: Well I decided I would do it very early on, because you’d want to get it out of the way. So at least you don’t have it hanging over you.
SIMON: And you might meet a beautiful slave to fall in love with.
MATT: Yes, yes, that as well. But my question is really, because I was thinking, how on earth are these slaves going to overcome these aristocrats who, in one great sequence, you have one of the aristocrats is able to literally level a massive protest, reducing people to a gibbering wreck, just by waving his hand. So you think to yourself how on earth do you get through that? And the answer comes later in the book through this idea that the human spirit is stronger than magic. And I wondered whether that was inspirational as a starting point for you.
VIC: Yeah, I think the whole thing about power, as we’ve kind of seen in the US with people marching in the street, popular protest, people are thinking a lot at the moment about how on earth, if you don’t like the political system you find yourself in — how on earth do you change that? And sometimes that can seem almost impossible, particularly when it’s embedded, not just in who your government is, but in this world you’ve got no mechanism to replace the government, because you don’t have a vote. You’ve literally got no voice. So it comes back to peoples resources. I’m really glad you love that line, because it goes straight to heart of the book. One character tells another: ‘There’s no magic more powerful than the human spirit.’ GILDED CAGE is the first of a trilogy. Book 2 is coming out in September, TARNISHED CITY, then book 3, BRIGHT RUIN, is out next summer. So you’ll see how change is achieved — or not. But the one thing I can say is that it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be straightforward.
SIMON: More with Vic in just a moment. GILDED CAGE is the Radio 2 Book Club choice. There is a chapter online. We’ll talk more in just a moment. [MUSIC: ‘Big Log’ – Robert Plant TRAILER: other R2 programming]
SIMON: [1:21:48] This is the bit the authors really, really love [laughs], when they get to hear the comments of people who’ve reviewed the books. GILDED CAGE by Vic James is the debut for Vic. It’s considered young adult because it has teenagers at the front, but actually it’s just a good read, like most of the best YA stuff, it’s just a great read. That’s what we’re thinking. So, are you ready for the thoughts of Lucy, Ben and Hannah? That’s for you, Vic.
VIC: Bring ‘em on.
SIMON: So, first up, Lucy age 16.
LUCY: I wouldn’t have chosen this book for myself, however I did enjoy it once I started to read it. I liked how there were multiple points of view as we could see different sides of the stories, see how the system affected lots of different people. I especially liked Luke and all the characters in Millmoor. The plot was really interesting, because it was a mixture of politics and action and drama. And despite the magical elements I liked how the story was about people rather than the powers. So, it has a good plot twist I hadn’t predicted and the writing was easy to read. I could pick it up and read a chapter or two without having to dedicate an afternoon to it. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel when it comes out.
SIMON: Interesting point from Lucy is that it’s about magic, but it’s not about magic.
VIC: Yeah, and you know every book has to begin and end in the people and the characters, you’ve got to care about them. I mean, the choice I made when I wrote this book was to tell it from lots of different perspectives. So at first it can feel like you’re plunged into this world with lots of different views. But the goal was always to, through the eyes of those different people, to let you see into every little corner of the world, and to bring it all together in one explosive ending.
SIMON: Okay, that was Lucy age 16. Now Ben, who’s 14.
BEN: Well I liked the book and the way the characters were in it and I liked the way they matured and grew throughout the book, and I liked the way they progressed in relationships with the other characters, and I liked the way the book had a very diverse plot, with different stories and subplots often joining other plots. And I also liked the ending. That made me want to buy the next book and the next book, because I want to see what happens — but, there were quite a lot of characters in it, and if I put down the book, and picked it up again, it was quite hard to carry on because I couldn’t remember what had happened because there was just so much stuff happening at once. It’s a bit more advanced than what I’d normally read, but I really liked the book and I can’t wait to read the next one.
SIMON: Did you editor at any stage, Vic, ever say ‘too many characters’?
VIC: [laughs] No. I think the thing about characters is you have to make sure that each one sounds different. And the thing about this book is that you’re not only meeting a whole bunch of characters, you’re also being plunged into a world that is familiar yet different, so yes, of course there is a lot going on, and I think you just have to relax into the characters’ voices and let them each show you their bit of the story, and hopefully trust me that it’s all going to go in one direction.
SIMON: And finally, here’s Hannah, she’s 17.
HANNAH: I thought the book was really well put together. Her writing is brilliant. I loved the detail she puts in because you can imagine it. I loved reading when the author can go in so much detail that it literally creates the image in your mind. I love that about reading and she did that so well. The scenery and all the character descriptions and the sets. It was brilliant. I can’t wait for the next one. I’ve already got the dates written down for when the next books are released. I really enjoyed it. It was so well put together. I loved it. I think it would appeal to the older generation as well. It’s a fantastic read and I thoroughly recommend it.
SIMON: Okay, there’s Hannah, who will have put a big smile on your publisher’s face. Just one other point, briefly. It’s just worth saying how this story ended up being published, because you put this online. This was on Wattpad, one of those online sites. So just say briefly how that happened, because I think it’s an encouragement to anyone who’s writing.
VIC: Yeah, I found Wattpad because I have a busy day-job, like 99 percent of people who want to write a novel. And the really hard thing is just finding time to commit to get the words down on the page. And it can also be hard if it’s just you trying to believe in your story by yourself day to day, trying to tell yourself it’s worth it to keep on going and that this is a story you’ve got to tell. So what I did with Wattpad is I wrote a chapter a week and put it up, and because it’s online people read it and they give you feedback and encouragement. And for me that was what it was all about, knowing there were people out there waiting for the next bit of the story, that helped me carve that time out in my really busy week to keep writing.
SIMON: Vic, we appreciate you coming in. Thank you very much and congratulations on this, the first part of the trilogy, the next part coming out in September. GILDED CAGE is new from Vic James, a chapter available online. Vic, thank you very much for coming in.
VIC: Thank you.