Turning fantasy into reality

Getting published is tough - particularly when the book industry struggles to share your vision or is determined to confine you to the 'sci-fantasy' shelf.

Steven Russell

Getting published is tough - particularly when the book industry struggles to share your vision or is determined to confine you to the 'sci-fantasy' shelf. So James Bowman's done it himself - thanks to a �10,000 show of faith by his wife and father. Steven Russell reports

IF inwardly he feels like sighing, James R. Bowman manages not to let it show too much. Besides, he's used to having his ideas pigeon-holed. I've asked if his book is of the “fantasy” genre, should we need to tag it for easy reference. “If it has to have a label . . .” he replies. “It's the stigma of the underdog! I'll take that label - because I'll happily stand up and go 'No! Stop! It's not this at all!' Sci-fantasy has this bit of a stigma - for geeks, anoraks - but if anybody read it they'd understand there's intelligence there that far surpasses the crime dramas, the thrillers, Mills & Boon, the chick lits: all the stuff that seems to be acceptable, because it's comfortable. Anything outside their comfort zone tends to freak people out.” In any case, fantasy and horror are rooted in myth and legend - part of our heritage we tend to forget, he argues. One could even draw a parallel between some fantasy material and the apocryphal stories of the Bible: significant moral content, many reflections on society, and views often presented as metaphor. “Our reality's built on what we've learned from our own myths, legends and stories - full of dragons and unicorns and monsters and things that go boo in the dark that we don't like to face up to. And the moral stories are there. They should all be considered under the same heading; sci-fi and sci-fantasy shouldn't just be categorised into a little box. 'Dragons and Orcs are horrible things . . .' But these are taken from your own history! It's just couched in a different way.”

James recalls an editor describing his book as a “cross-over” story - not ideal when the publishing industry prefers nice neat boxes.

“I don't mind being in a box - but I will stick my head over the side and say 'Well, I could be in that one . . . I could be in that one . . . or this one. Have a little read and decide.' Boundaries aren't clearly defined: they are grey. I'd like to think there's an element of realism in what I've written.”

His opus is The Adversary - Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Saga: Book One. It's a weighty tome (1,540g according to one website that's obviously got out the scales) of more than 1,000 pages.

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The Adversary is Lucifer's right-hand man. He's decided to wipe out the guardians who protect the Earth. Mankind is thus moments away from extinction. Luckily, two heroes emerge: former special operative and ex-major Tomas Walker, who finds himself trapped in Hell, and a woman called Gwen from New Mexico who goes on a vital quest for the First Tree - the one that seeded all others.

While we might lazily attach that pesky “fantasy” label to the book, it's not one of those stories set exclusively in made-up places with odd-sounding names. Much of the (quite violent) opening action, for instance, takes place in the author's native Ipswich.

James admits his life has involved trying to find answers to many of the mysteries that have puzzled him since childhood, and the tale in many ways is part of that process.

He says writing has been like a bottle gradually being filled up - the sum of the many parts of his and wife Sue's experiences over the years, “studying this, that and the other - the paranormal, religion, anthropology, history . . .”

Curious about the world and the way people, nature - everything - is connected, they've read a lot, travelled a lot and talked to and listened to many different people, including Native Americans - which James says has had a “profound effect” on his thinking. One of the issues of concern, for instance, is what Man is doing to the environment.

The moment of putting pen to paper came nearly five years ago. “I guess the fill level was just reached! I'd accumulated enough information to create from the jigsaw pieces some semblance of a picture.”

Writing has been fitted in around other commitments. His pattern of work at the Port of Felixstowe, where he's a crane co-ordinator, actually helped, with its system of two days and two nights on, followed by four days off. He even got his pad out during breaks, to continue with the story.

Plenty was written, too, in a quiet corner of the Costa Coffee section of WH Smith's in Ipswich. It proved a fruitful environment. “There's a certain peaceful anonymity. I'd be easily distracted at home, so it helped me focus. They didn't seem to mind!” More words were set down on holiday in the U.S.

James has actually written his story three times: initially by hand on a big stock of pads, then on computer using novel-writing software that, with hindsight, he'd recommend people avoid like the plague! Among the pointers from a proof-reader was the simple question “Why didn't you just do it in Word?” - the word-processing program. So he did - incorporating her other suggestions to cut through the manuscript as if with a scythe. “I could see it for the flawed piece it was. So I started again from scratch, in Word, double-spaced . . .”

It's one thing to cross the final T, dot the last i and write “So Ends”, and quite another finding a publisher willing to take it on. James touted it around potential suitors, but experienced the frustrations felt by virtually all hopefuls. It didn't help that the sci-fi/sci-fantasy genre is one of the toughest to break into, viewed by many in the book industry as a limited and niche market.

Some asked if the number of pages could be reduced - the story perhaps even sliced up into two or three books - while others said it wasn't the kind of thing for them.

Then, happily, some brighter news. James's dad, Richard, retired after 33 years at the Port of Felixstowe, had a little financial policy mature, and asked if he could help get the ball rolling with a cash injection. Could he heck! Self-publishing meant an end to the costly and time-consuming exercise of posting out reams of material that could quite easily thump into a bin without even being properly looked at.

I've been in sales and can handle rejection, James explains - “I know that 'Every No is one out of the way heading for the Yes'”- but it's still a lot of effort, on the off-chance you can catch someone's eye.

Meanwhile, Sue finished at Calor Gas in Felixstowe in the summer, as the company closed its liquid petroleum gas import centre, and offered to bolster the fighting fund from her redundancy pay.

More than �10,000 was thus spent to produce 1,000 hardbacks with a professional sheen. The book's got an eyecatching dust jacket and graphics from international fantasy artist Peter Pracownik.

James and Sue wanted to get the story out, circulate it, and with luck see it create its own momentum. Also, producing a tangible book was also the best way of demonstrating to potential publishers just what it was about, as well as showing the depth of their commitment to the project.

“My fear now is if it's good enough to get their investment back!” smiles James, who can at least rest assured that his book has been taken by shops such as Waterstone's in Ipswich and Magpie's in Felixstowe.

Four chapters of the second volume of the saga - The Emergence - are already written and he expects the pace to quicken now that the debut novel has been launched. “Hopefully it won't take four and a half years, because I won't have to write it three times!”

What does he hope his first tale achieves?

“That it's read by someone out there who's considerably brighter than me and says 'I haven't thought of that; I'll look into that,' and could be the next person to move society forward: technologically, spiritually - any which way they can.

“There are bright people out there and they drive society. They'll question something a little differently; they'll look at the connections a little differently. People need to open their eyes to the big wide world. We are not at the top of the food chain; we just think we are. We have an arrogance that is becoming dangerous as a species. I like to think maybe this yarn will get out to some of those people and act as a mirror.”

The Adversary is issued through Melrose Books at �18.99. ISBN: 978 190704008 5

WHATEVER label we might attach, it's little surprise James Bowman has produced a story such as The Adversary. An only child, he had a vivid imagination and was drawn to superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman - a relative keeping him supplied with DC and Marvel comics. It was intriguing when these fictional guardians of goodness had to confront the darker sides of their natures.

“The mundane bores me,” he says. “I like cars, but I'm not obsessed by them. Trains, planes, tanks, guns . . . they're just things - things we've done. It's the things we can't explain that are much more fascinating.

“How the body works is fascinating, for example, yet we move on from those basic questions and take them for granted. Why do we use only 5% of our brain's capacity? What's the other 95% doing?”

He asked a lot of questions as a child - things like the above - but says many adults found them either too difficult and involved to contemplate or they were simply unwilling to engage with a curious boy. Too often the answer was “That's just the way it is.” James reckons adults are too quick to patronise kids who are naturally inquisitive about the world they're born to.

He grew up in the Chantry area of Ipswich and says school didn't hold his attention. A spell at Suffolk College earned a qualification in motor vehicle repair - “seemed a good idea at the time, but I had no interest in it” - and he had two weeks sweeping the floor as an apprentice at an automotive engineering business before deciding his future lay elsewhere.

Dad got him a job with a scaffolding firm and he spent six or seven years in the trade before deciding on a complete change and becoming The Man from the Pru - knocking on doors for the financial services group the Prudential.

James was really seeking the verbal cut and thrust of sales, though, and moved on to a series of jobs in the life assurance business and related financial services.

There was a year in Torquay when he transferred with his employer, before returning to Suffolk. As a hobby/sideline, the couple ran a shop in Torquay selling Native American objects such as jewellery. They also had a similar shop in Ipswich's Upper Orwell Street for about three years, and still sell at events like the annual craft fair at Clare Priory.

The financial services industry troubled his conscience, however. There was pressure to sell people products that weren't really right for them; and then, when the products were appropriate, too many members of the public weren't interested in a useful safeguard such as life insurance “and would rather spend money on a packet of fags”.

At that point, after about five years in financial services, James again changed tack and opted to sell houses - something he did for four or five years. It was OK for a while but, once he got under the skin of the industry, he didn't much admire the way parts of it worked in those days.

So another switch, about a decade ago, to the Port of Felixstowe. “Longest job I've ever had!” Roles have included being a stevedore and a heavy forklift driver.