Ep 239 Meet James Bradley, author of ‘The Buried Ark’

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In Episode 239 of So you want to be a writer: You’ll discover why scheduling and routine are keys to success as a writer. Hear tips from a debut author and learn about fellowships for writers. And you’ll meet James Bradley, author of The Buried Ark.

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

Show Notes


katminsky from USA:

Relaxed candid chats between Val and Al about the process of writing, and all its conundrums, challenges, meanderings, frustrations and joys. They also run competitions, chat to other writers about their processes and share all kinds of industry tips and insights. Hosted by two down to earth, very experienced writers.

Links Mentioned

6 Tricks to Help You Finish Your Work In Progress (WIP)

The First Book: 6 Lessons From a Debut Author

Varuna Residential Fellowships for Writers 2019

Furious Fiction

Writer in Residence

James Bradley

James Bradley is an award winning novelist and critic. He is the author of four novels for adults, a book of poetry, two anthologies, and a trilogy of YA science fiction novels, the second of which The Buried Ark is out now. His first novel Wrack won the Federation of Australian Writers Literary Award and the Kathleen Mitchell Literary Award, as well as being shortlisted for several other awards including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book.

He lives in Sydney with his partner, the novelist Mardi McConnochie, and their daughters, Annabelle and Lila.

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Interview Transcript


James Bradley is an award winning novelist and critic. He is the author of four novels for adults, a book of poetry, two anthologies, and a trilogy of YA science fiction novels, the second of which The Buried Ark is out now. His first novel Wrack won the Federation of Australian Writers Literary Award and the Kathleen Mitchell Literary Award, as well as being shortlisted for several other awards including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book. So welcome to the program, James.


Thanks for having me.


All right, we're going to go back into the mists of time, to 1997, when your first novel Wrack was first published in Australia. How did it come to be published?


I think it came about in a reasonably unusual kind of way. I had written another novel which got shortlisted for the Vogel and then didn't get published. And I had gone away and I'd done a year at film school.

And I came out of film school and I remember thinking to myself, what am I going to do now? And it's one of those odd things where I had a quite distinct… You know when you actually think about what you're going to do. And I thought, well, look I can write a film and in ten years' time I'll probably still be sitting around in a cafe taking meetings with people talking about the script. Or I could write a novel.

And I kind of thought to myself… First of all, I like writing fiction more than I like writing screen stuff. And secondly, I was kind of more confident that if it was good, or reasonably good, it would probably get published in a way that I wasn't confident about film scripts.

The thing with film scripts is they… You can write a good film script and it might never get made. If you write a good book, it will usually find a home. Not necessarily, but your chances of finding somewhere to publish it are much better, I think.


So you chose to write the novel?


Yeah. And I chose to write novels. And I'd kind of had the idea for a while. And I sat down and started writing it.

I'm making it sound like it was a very organised process and it wasn't particularly. But there was an element of actually thinking – what can I do at this point? I want to be a writer. And I was in quite an odd situation, because I'd been a lawyer and I had given up being a lawyer. And I was working in an all-night video shop in Kings Cross and writing.


Right. Okay!


That was an interesting phone call with my parents. I've given up being a lawyer. I'm now going to work in a video shop and write poems. But it was also that I…

One of the things I'd been very aware of when I was a lawyer was I was surrounded by people who wished they'd done something different with their lives. And, I don't know, one day after I'd been working for about 18 months, I thought to myself this is… I want to write. I should go away and try and write. And so I guess I… I decided to do that. I took that leap.

So there was an element of thinking about it and deciding to do it, definitely, there. Because I'd kind of put myself on the line in that way. But it was also, like any book, a kind of fairly chaotic process of getting there.


So once you'd made the decision to sit down and write it, was the actual process to publication relatively straight forward? In the sense of was it the traditional – I wrote the manuscript, I sent it to an agent, the agent picked it up, and off it went?


Not quite. I had already done a collection of stories through Random House. I had put an anthology together for them of young writers. And I'd published a book of poetry. And I had already been shortlisted for the Vogel. So I sort of had a series of people who knew what I did and were interested in what I was doing. So it kind of went to them and they picked it up.

I mean, it sounds like… People who think that that kind of straightforward process… I'm not sure if it is actually that straightforward a lot of the times. I think most people's path to publication tends to be a bit messy and a bit, you know, there are things that work and things that don't work. And you get connected with somebody and then they pick it up.

I have a good friend who's just sold a book overseas, which she had done well here in Australia and she's had trouble finding anyone overseas. And in the end a group of us got together and put her in touch with a series of publishers that we knew overseas. And a couple of them offered on the book. It was because she didn't have an agent, but it was a bit of an odd way for it to happen. Do you know what I mean?


Yeah. That's like a co-op approach.


Yes. It's like a co-op approach.


I like it.


Well, you know, the book sold itself. We didn't sell the book. But if you can open that door, that's great.


Were you surprised? Because your novel Wrack was incredibly well-received. I just mentioned the various awards it won, and the shortlisting for the Miles Franklin, and all of that sort of stuff. Did that surprise you? Or was there anything about that process that made you think, heavens?


Yeah, the whole thing. It really was. I mean, it was a very strange process. And I think I was…

It's interesting. I look at a lot of the younger writers today and I feel like they're much more prepared for what they're doing. I don't think I was too prepared for it. And I don't think I really thought my way through it. And once it started to happen it was kind of wonderful.

But I don't know that I'd ever expected any of it or thought it was going to happen. It was quite… It was kind of wonderful. But also very surprising. It made me feel… That kind of stuff always makes you feel kind of anxious.


Well, that was going to be my next question.


Yeah. It makes you anxious in that it makes you feel under pressure for the next thing that you do. But it also, all of that stuff about feeling like you're not necessarily… All of that kind of imposter syndrome stuff comes into play as well.


Yeah. I am not worthy.


It's like, why is this happening to me? I am not worthy.


Yeah. So you don't finish a manuscript and think, oh, well, for sure, this is going to win prizes? You don't know automatically that you've done something that is going to be important, with a capital I?


Well, I don't know that I have done anything that's important with a capital I! Look, certainly there are things you're writing… I mean, anything you write you need to at least have moments when you really, really believe in it. So there's always a kind of vacillation back and forth between ‘I think this is really good' and ‘I think this is dreadful'. The answer is usually somewhere in the middle. I don't know that you…

Certainly, I've written things that I think are good. The thing I've realised over the years is there doesn't seem to be any particular correlation between the things I think are really good and the things the world thinks are really good.


I like it!


And that's really acute when you're writing kind of… I do a lot of reviewing and nonfiction. And it's sometimes very acute with reviewing and nonfiction. There are things you put a huge amount of effort into and you think are really terrific, and they vanish without a trace. And then there's some, I wouldn't say a piece of crap, but there's something that you dash off really quickly that people really respond to. So there's not actually…

The same thing is kind of true with fiction. I don't feel there's a great correlation between your own sense of what it's like and necessarily what the world thinks it's like.


So had you written your second book by the time all the hoo-ha happened for Wrack? Or were you attempting to write whilst it was all going on? And if that's the case, does it affect your writing process when you are dealing with all that?


I think with the second one it didn't. I mean, I wrote The Deep Field quite quickly. And I wrote it quite fast after Wrack. It was kind of written around all of that going on. And of my books, it's probably the one that I wrote with the greatest degree of confidence.

I mean, I think your first books, certainly your first novel, you don't know how much you don't know. So a book like Wrack, I kind of wrote, I think like most people, with the belief that I was doing something special and new and this really mattered. And then it goes out into the world and you realise you're just another first time author.

But the second one, I was really, I think I felt very confident about what I was doing. I really believed in what I was doing.

I have to say the third one wasn't like that. It went really off the rails. And I think it was partly about feeling that kind of pressure. Because the second one did well as well. And I don't know. I remember thinking, now this next one's got to be even better than the last one. And it just kind of went really badly off the rails. I got really stuck. I got really, you know, I felt under terrible pressure I guess to make it great. And that is a terrible, terrible place to be writing from.


It is. How did you work through that? How did you get to the end? Because that's the kind of thing that can just stop you in your tracks entirely.


Well, it kind of did. I mean, it took me about seven years to finish. And it was not a happy process.

Look, it was really, really difficult. And kind of really damaging, I think, in lots of ways too. Because I think there's a kind of confidence you need to write a book. I've been a bit glib about this before, but I think you need to at some level believe you can do it. And I think I lost that belief.

And certainly after I finished that third one, which oddly enough is my most successful book, because it ended up… Well, certainly in sales terms. Because it ended up on a thing called Richard and Judy in the UK and sold quarter of a million copies in the UK. It was this huge thing over there. Which was odd, because it was the book I had such an ambivalent relationship with.

I then tried to write another book which didn't work. I then tried to write another book after that that didn't work. And books kept falling over. And I guess I just lost that, you know, there's just that kind of confidence, that belief you can do it. And certainly, it was really difficult.


So I guess, as you say, you wrote another book and you wrote another book and you wrote another book. So is writing your way through it the only way to do it? To come out the other end of feeling like that?


Well, yes. The short answer is yes. I think all books have stages in the middle where you think, oh, I can't do this. Or this is dreadful and I'm never going to get there. And I think that is just part of the process. And I actually think that process of doubt is part of what makes you write well. There's a Thomas Mann line about a writer is someone who finds writing difficult. It's kind of true. You need to go through that process of doubt and questioning, I think, to get to the book.

There are particular points in books that are always like that. You know, with me, there's always a break point with a novel around 10,000 words, I find. Which is that point where you kind of have to… You stop being able to just keep rolling forward and you've got to kind of make some hard decisions about what you're doing. And I think also commit to whether you want to write that book.

Because that's the point when it stops being an entertaining thing that you're doing, and if you have to start thinking, ‘this is the next two years of my life. Is this actually what I want to do?' I'm sure there is some similar point in relationships with people.

And I think there's another break point around the middle, when you're kind of halfway through and you're a really long way from the beginning, and a really long way from the end.

I once heard Alan Hollinghurst say that writing a book it's like you spend the first few months dancing through clover and having a wonderful time and then you're trapped in the desert for five years wandering with no food and water and then you slide down a hill at the end and end up on the ground.


That's really good. That's a very good analogy, actually. I really like that.


I thought that was quite a good description of the process. It's good, isn't it?

But yes, I think you need to write through it. But I actually think also… I mean, one of the things… You know, after I had all those books fall over after The Resurrectionist, I guess I started to think a lot about what I was doing and why I was doing it. And to think about ways of kind of fooling myself into feeling confident about books again. Which I eventually did. And a lot of that was just about writing through it, about trying to get past that fear that it wasn't going to work.


So are you a planner? You talk about writing those first 10,000 words. Do you sit down, start writing, and then think, oops, I better work out what I'm doing? Because that's how I work.


Yep. I'm not a planner.

And it's actually really interesting. I'm working on a long nonfiction piece at the moment. It involves a lot of research for a magazine. And I actually find that kind of piece quite difficult to write. Because I do all of my thinking by writing.

So when it comes to writing this kind of piece, I can go and do research. But I find that process not terribly useful, because I don't know what I need to know until I'm writing the thing. Whereas some people go and do all of the research and then just synthesise it down. I find I only work out what I need to know by writing. And if it's a very research-heavy piece, that can be a bit complicated. Because you're kind of piddling along and then it's like, oh, I need to know this, and I need to know that, and I need to know this.


Insert historic detail here.


I've been doing a bit of that.

But yeah, I'm very much someone who kind of makes it up as they go along. I tend to start a book… With a book I tend to have maybe a character, I'll have some images. Sometimes I know what the ending is. Or where I'd like to get to. And then I just sort of fill it in.

I oftentimes I have sense of the shape. I quite often have a sense of the shape of the book. So I'll think that it's in six or eight parts, and there will be a journey in the second half. Do you know what I mean? Something like that. So I'll have a very broad sense of it.

But no, I don't tend to do all that much planning. And the problem for me is that if I do the planning then I can't write the book, because I already know what happens.


Yeah. I think we're talking from the same… We're singing from the same songbook here. But we do talk about the importance of how a little outline can go a long way when you're trying to write. Particularly series, which we'll talk about in a little minute.

But first of all, I'd like to ask, do you write every day? Are you a daily writing routine person? Or do you just write when you have something to write?


Um… I work kind of constantly. And I get very anxious if I don't. When I finished my last book I managed to get the period between finishing the manuscript and moving into the ‘oh my god, I'll never have another idea, I'll never write another book' terror down to merely 12 hours. Which I was pretty impressed with myself about.


That's impressive.


It's pretty good. No. I work most days. We have kids and I'm kind of in charge of them. And I do a lot of freelance work. So a lot of my time is domestic stuff. And I guess doing work for money.

But I try and write as much as I can. I try as much as I can to break up periods of time where I can work in a fairly concentrated way. Because I'm quite slow, as well. You know, I mean I'm not one of these people that can write 3000 words a day. I write 1000, maybe. That's a good day. So I'm quite slow, as well.


So how do you balance the work that you do as a critic with writing your own novels? Because I'd imagine there'd be a kind of paralysis in a way, when you know how critics work. And that notion of putting your own work out there in front of critics as well. Is that a thing?


It is certainly a thing.

David Malouf once told me a story, which I'm not sure if it's actually true, it might just be a David story. But it was a great story. And he said, ‘the thing to do to stop yourself worrying when your book comes out is you go away and you write the worst possible review that anyone could write of your book. And then you know that nothing you could get could be worse than that, because you know what's wrong with it better than anybody else'.

But I think there is a real… That kind of sense of… That sense that you are acutely aware of all the ways something can go wrong is certainly something that's there.

I think one of the other problems with doing critical work is because you read a great deal, and because you're looking at a lot of what's coming out at this very moment, you become a bit aware of why your book is like every other book. It's harder… It's not even that…

I find that the issue for me is less about feeling that there's this kind of critic on your shoulder, or that you're acutely aware of the rubbishness of your work, because you're pretty aware of that at any time. It's more that what I feel is the lack of relevance or newness or something of what I'm doing. Because you look at all the other books and you think, god, they're so much more exciting than what I'm doing at the moment. So that's certainly there.


That notion of, oh, just another book. Here's another book of the 40 that are out this month.


Just another book. Who needs another book?


Nobody needs another book.


Particularly when those other ones are so good. I mean, that also happens. I just read the new Richard Powers book, The Overstory, which is just extraordinary. It's an amazing book. And I finished it and I thought, this is everything that I've wanted to do for the last ten years, and he's done it in a book.

And at one level that's really inspiring. And at another level you find yourself going, why do I need to do it now?


Why am I bothering? Yep. So how do you approach a book review? Because I feel like in this day and age of the Goodreads review the notion of the art of book reviewing, as its own discipline, has been lost a bit. But it is definitely a true art to write a great book review, isn't it?


Yeah. Look, I'm pleased you call it an art rather than a craft. I do think that the cultural status of the book review has definitely diminished. The cultural significance of them, of that kind of notion of the review page, has been diminished by that kind of democratisation of opinion around books. And in lots of ways that's a really, really good thing.

I do think, though, that there's something that good professional book reviewers bring to it which is useful. They often bring a depth of knowledge which is great. But I think what they tend to bring is a sense that they're speaking to an audience. That they are trying to connect this book to an audience. And then you do that in a whole series of ways, some of which are about just placing it in context, thinking about it in terms of what's all out there in terms of traditions and things.

I think the other thing you always focus on as a book reviewer is you're trying to write something which is entertaining, something which is interesting, something which meets a number of things all at once. So it is quite a… It is an interesting process. And one that is, I think, harder than it looks.


Definitely. All right, let's move on to your new novel, The Buried Ark, which is the second book in The Change trilogy for young adults. So, first of all, where did you find the inspiration for the trilogy? And how did you know it was YA and not for adults? Because this is a bit of a departure for you. Why is it YA? What made it YA? Why did you not write this story for adults?


I wrote the book… I kind of came up with the idea I guess after I'd finished Clade. And it was off, it kind of went off into the world of agents and publishers and things, and that can all be a bit slow. And I had this kind of unassigned summer. And I had this quite clear image of these kids wandering through this kind of alien forest. And I guess that's kind of where the book began. I had this very vivid image in my head.

But I think also I was really keen… Clade is a novel in parts, that's what people tend to call them, so it's set over three generations. It's in, I think it's ten sections. I forget how many sections it has.


So many sections.


And it doesn't have a central narrative. I don't know. I was attracted to the idea of writing something which had a very strong narrative, which was not something I'd done for a while. And something that was a kind of adventure story, which was not something I'd done before.

And I do think that that process of wanting to do different things is really important. I hate feeling like I'm repeating myself when I write books. In fact, I find that completely paralysing. As soon as I start thinking, I've done this before, or I know how to do this, I don't want to do it anymore. So I think it came out of that.

I think there was a series of questions I wanted to think about, about the transformation of the landscape by climate change, and the way it's affecting us psychologically and things like that that I wanted to think about. So that was all going on.

And I think the YA thing, I think I knew from the beginning that the central characters were, well, not children. One's a teenager. But that they were young people. And I suppose… I suppose that meant I understood it was YA kind of from the beginning.

I don't know that I thought of it that way, though. Because I'd been reading a lot of older science fiction when I wrote it. Because I guess in my late 40s I started going back, as some people do, and kind of reading a whole lot of books that I'd read as a teenager. I guess it's because I had kids and I started thinking about them. And I'd been reading a lot of the books that I loved when I was a kid, which a lot of them were those British science fiction novels from the 70s that were for kids. John Christopher, and Alan Garner, and people like that. And I was really excited reading them again. Because I love the spareness of them, and the directness of them. And the weirdness and eeriness of them. And I remember thinking that was something I really wanted to capture in a book.


Wow. So you set out to do it?


Um… I don't know if I set out to do it. But it was certainly in my mind.

I love that kind of sparseness and kind of tautness that those books have got. Which is very unlike a lot of the fiction that I've been writing in the past. So it was really about trying to… I guess it was partly about having the story that I wanted to tell, and it was partly about being excited about trying to write in a different kind of way.

Like I say, I kind of love that process of trying out different things, trying to work out how to write in different ways. Because that's how you keep it interesting for yourself.


So has moving in to the YA sphere demanded a different approach to promoting your books as well? Are you online more? Are you out there doing school talks? Has there been any sort of direction from your publisher or anybody about taking those books out to the readership?


I've done a bit of… No, perhaps they don't think I should be out there with the readership.




No. I mean it has been different. I mean, you promote adult books in a very particular kind of way. YA books and kids books are not promoted in that way. I've certainly done some school stuff which has been really fun.

I suspect I should be online more than I am. But I was kind of… I wrote a blog and stuff for years and I always feel like people's social media and online lives have a kind of arc. And I'm definitely in the downwards senescent stage.


The waning.


The waning. I think I'm through the waning into the kind of I go on it when I feel like it kind of stage.

So no. I probably should be, I probably should work harder at all of the social media stuff. But to be honest, I find it increasingly difficult to deal with psychologically. I find that whole world of social media extremely… You know… I think like a lot of people I find it psychologically quite difficult to be around. It makes me feel bad when I'm… You know, it's not to say that I don't like it some of the time. But I do find that increasingly its negatives outweigh its positives, if that makes sense.


It does, absolutely.


And it eats up your time. I made a decision recently not to be on social media during the day and not to look at it on my phone. And I suddenly realised that I almost never got my phone out of my pocket. And I was reading another book a week. And it's just really striking. And I remember thinking, and what am I spending all that time doing?


Yes, what? That's the question you have to ask yourself, isn't it? What am I doing? Do you think that, you know, you've been an author now for 20 odd years, do you think that it's changed? Is it more difficult? Or less difficult? Are there differences to what you've noticed when you first started out to where you're up to now?


I think it has changed a lot in a whole lot of ways. I think that the economics of the industry have changed enormously.

As with almost every industry, there's been a real kind of polarising of the industry. It used to be that there was a big tranche of what they'd call mid-list writers, who were people who did all right, weren't brilliant, weren't bad. And then a few ones that were really successful. Now there are still some people who are very successful. But that middle group has kind of dropped out. So things are… It's much, much tougher, I think, for a lot of people financially.

And I see that working in the media. My rates of pay have not actually increased in 20 something years. So that's… The economic stuff makes it all much harder.

I think it's much more competitive. But I also just think that the conception of the role of the writer has changed quite a lot. That kind of sense that writers need to be public figures, engaging with their audiences, and multi-skilling themselves as commentators, entertainers, and all of that kind of thing is much more pervasive. Which is fine for some people. Some people are very good at all of that.

But I think lots of people become authors because they don't want to do any of that stuff. They want to write books. And I'm okay doing all of that stuff; it doesn't worry me. But I do think that it places a whole series of demands on you as a writer that were not necessarily there before.


It's a different career to what it used to be.


It's a quite different career.

And I mean I also think some of that stuff is really good. I think some of that stuff about a more direct relationship with your readership is fantastic. That's all… Well, sometimes it's fantastic. It can also not be very nice. But in general, it's fantastic. I do think that you hear from readers, you get to know readers.

And I've been a bit negative about social media before, but I think that was one of the great joys of social media and blogging, was to actually have that direct relationship with readers. And talk to them. Because it's always so fascinating to hear what people think.

I think all of that's changed as well. But you know, I think it's an extremely different process to what it was.


All right. We are going to finish up today with our final question which is always your top three tips for aspiring authors. So, you know, hit us with those James. What have you got?


Mine will be really easy.

I think you should write the thing you want to read. Because I think that people… I think all of that stuff about trying to guess what the market wants, trying to guess what publishers want, trying to guess what agents want, is not the way to write a book. First of all, it's not the way to write a good book. But it's also not the way to write a book you want to write. The rewards of writing a book are not great in financial terms. So you should write the book you actually want to write. And then work out what to do with it, if that makes sense.


Yes. Absolutely.


I always think you're much better off creating the thing you want to create and then working out what to do with it. And sometimes the answer to what to do with it is, well, it will go in my bottom drawer. But you've written the thing you wanted to write and you will feel good about it, if that's what you've done. Whereas if you write something that's not what you want to write, the odds are, even if it goes out into the world and does all right, you probably won't feel all that great about it.

I reckon the other one that really matters is that you need to finish things.


So true.


Which sounds kind of trite, but it's actually true. That thing about pushing through to the end of a draft and forcing yourself to finish something, it's so important. Because it's so easy to give up. And I mean, I've been inclined to give up myself. But you get to the end of something and almost always what you wrote is better than what you thought you had. So I think that's incredibly important.

And I actually think the other thing that really matters is just trusting the work. I mean, I think it's incredibly easy to get discouraged and to feel frightened. Because it's a hard process. It's a long process. And sometimes things don't seem to be working at all. But I always think at the end of the day, the thing you're working on will reveal itself to you eventually.

That kind of trusting that the answers will be there, and that if you keep just plugging away they'll reveal themselves to you, is absolutely vital.


Fantastic. Excellent tips. Thank you so much for that. And thank you very much for your time today. I very much appreciate it.

Of course, James's latest novel The Buried Ark is available now. It's the second instalment in his YA trilogy, so you should definitely be checking that out. And we wish you all the best with it.


Oh, thank you very much. It was great. Thanks for having me.

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