DS: After giving his incredible debut The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas five stars, making it one of my reads of the year so far. I am delighted to welcome Daniel James to my blog for an in depth interview about his work. Welcome Dan thanks so much for doing this.
DJ: My pleasure Dan thank you for having me.
DS: Let’s get started
DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself and how you first got into writing?
DJ: I’m an author and journalist from Newcastle upon Tyne. I live by the sea with four cats and a collection of empty bourbon bottles. My first novel, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, was published at the end of 2018, but I have been writing seriously since I was a teenager. Becoming a published author has always been my dream. I ended up studying literature at university and went on to become a journalist on the basis that it would help refine my writing and bring me into contact with lots of different people and the stories of their lives. It did exactly that – and what began as a day job turned into a decade-long career. I was nominated for several awards, including UK Young News Writer of the Year and worked as a freelance journalist in London and overseas. I spent a few years as an investigative journalist and gained no shortage of enemies for asking difficult questions and trying to discover the truth. By the end, I was mainly working on arts and culture, having finally been allowed to gravitate towards my own interests, and got the chance to write more experimental, creative non-fiction-style interviews and features about musicians, writers and artists. Despite the relative success of my career in the media, I still consider myself to have been an ‘accidental journalist’, as my heart and mind were always set on one day becoming a published author and writing my own books.
DS: Where did the idea for Ezra Maas first develop? How did you know it was the correct idea to choose for your first novel?
DJ: It began with a phone call in the dead of night. That was my introduction to Ezra Maas. I can’t be sure of much that happened after that, but I know that’s where it started. Everything else – how I would tell Maas’s story and how I came to realise my own place in the narrative – came together very quickly after that. I knew straight away that I didn’t want to write a traditional biography – it had to be experimental, a combination of fact and fiction, drawing on different genres, different sources and different media. Walking the streets of Newcastle late at night, in the hours after the phone call, the novel presented itself in my mind, almost fully formed, as if it already existed somewhere out there in the dark, and my task was simply to bring it into this world. It was a strange experience in many ways, like a kind of possession. When Beckett was writing his trilogy of prose novels in the late 40s, he described the experience as ‘the siege in the room’ and that’s exactly how I felt. The novel was being transmitted to me – channelled through me perhaps – and I had to commit it to the page and in doing so, make it real. That’s how I knew it was the one – the idea that would become my first novel. Never before or since, had I been so excited to start writing and so driven and committed to write every day until the work was done. Even now that the book has been published, I still open it sometimes and that electricity is still there.
DS: What do you think makes a perfect novel and why?
DJ: I think everyone’s perfect novel is different. Books have this incredible ability to be both universal and deeply personal. When you read a novel and you disappear into that world, it’s ‘your’ experience, just you and the world of the book. It’s spiritual. And yet, the same book can be read by thousands, perhaps millions, of people, each connecting with the text in their own unique way. Stories provide an escape from reality, but the truths they contain also help us see the world with fresh eyes and new clarity. Books don’t take us away from the real world, they help us reconnect with it by blocking out the noise. Fiction is a doorway to the truth.
DS: You have poured a lot of yourself into the narrative, so my question is where does Dan James end and Ezra Maas begin?
DJ: You could say the book is as much my autobiography as it is Ezra’s biography. It’s definitely an authentic snap-shot of my life while I was writing the book from 2011 to 2018 – or at least, as I’ve been described, ‘permanently hungover, flirting with danger, disappearing and reappearing at will’. At the same time, I feel like the more I talk about myself, the more I write about myself, the less I reveal. This is something I learned from Ezra and reference in the novel:
“Maas didn’t have to hide his secrets, he casually scattered them on the ground for all to see and watched the trees grow up around him. For in a forest of signs nothing could be seen clearly at all.”
DS: What kind of writer would you say you are and why?
DJ: A good one, I hope.
DS: What topics would you like to write about in the future and why?
DJ: Everything. All of the ideas I have in my head and all of the ideas I’ve yet to have. I wish I had more time to write all of the stories I’ve dreamed up over the years, but I’m going to have to prioritise those particular narratives – like The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas – that demand to be told. By the end, I hope to have written novels in many different genres and styles and to have created a body of work that continues to be read and enjoyed long after I’m gone. Ultimately, I just want to continue writing books that I would love to read. I did exactly that with Ezra Maas and that will remain my guiding principle when choosing which novels I’m going to write over the next few years and beyond.
DS: You use several different methods to get your message across. From interviews to journal entries. What made you decide to use these techniques to such wonderful effect?
DJ: I remember a story about the Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s manuscript for The Third Policeman being lost to the wind after the boot of his car opened and it blew out, almost as if the story was too much for the page. I always thought of the truth about Ezra Maas in the same terms. Ezra Maas, as a subject, was too big to be contained by a single genre or format. When you’ve got a subject as complex and multi-faceted as Ezra Maas, a traditional biography was never going to cut it. Others tried going down that road and failed. I had to create something as experimental and unorthodox as Maas’s own body of work.
I also wanted readers to be able to investigate his life and death alongside me, to read through the letters, interviews, official records, newspaper clippings, emails, phone transcripts, and try to separate fact from fiction. By including authentic archival material in the book, the sections between chapters feel almost like a live ‘case file’ through which readers can play detective themselves before returning to the main narrative. You’ve then got the chapters from the Maas biography itself, covering 1950 to the present day, alternating with my hardboiled-style investigation in 2011-12, as I travelled around Europe and the US, searching for the truth about Maas’s disappearance. Finally, you have the work of my editor and the 500+ footnotes. Like the man himself, the book has many layers and many different faces.
DS: Which author would you compare your writing style to? Which authors have influenced your writing career?
DJ: I don’t really compare myself to anyone. You begin to establish your own voice and your own style, every time you write, even if you’re not aware that it’s happening. The journey to being published is about discovering that voice and acknowledging – sometimes only after your novel is out there in print – that you have a style that is yours and yours alone. You don’t necessarily get to choose your style, as much as you might aspire to write like your literary heroes – it develops naturally the more you write and the more you read. There are writers whose work I love and admire, who have definitely influenced my work, but they’re all very different, and my writing style is nothing like theirs, at least on the surface. Their influence goes much deeper, to the level of ideas. You’ve got to find your own voice and your own style just as they found theirs. I wouldn’t compare myself with my favourite writers or to anyone else. Comparisons are for readers and critics to make and I’m always interested to read different perspectives on my work. I’ve been very lucky to have had some excellent reviews from very knowledgeable readers and they’ve all had their own unique insight into the book and on my style as a writer.
In terms of my favourite writers, it’s a very long and eclectic list that I’m adding to all the time. Samuel Beckett. Raymond Chandler. Paul Auster. Thomas Pynchon. Jorge Luis Borges. James Joyce. Philip Pullman. Ross MacDonald. James Lee Burke. Cormac McCarthy. George Orwell. Philip K. Dick. Bob Dylan. Patricia Highsmith. Virginia Woolf. Kurt Vonnegut. Elena Ferrante. Joan Didion. Hunter S Thompson. Leonard Cohen. Wes Anderson. Bryan Talbot. William Burroughs. Alasdair Gray. William Hjortsberg. Marc Behm. Ted Chiang. Flann O’Brien. Stanislaw Lem. Michael Connelly. Franz Kafka. Clarice Lispector. Charles Bukowski. James M Cain. Joel and Ethan Coen. Alain Robbe-Grillet. Martin McDonagh. Edgar Allan Poe. William Goldman. Aimee Mann. David Lynch. And many, many others.
DS: How do you create your characters?
DJ: They come from real life, from history, from the world, from the people around me, from my own mind, everywhere. I draw a lot on personal experience, but I also try to be open and receptive to the stories taking place around me. There are potential characters everywhere.
DS: What’s next for Daniel James?
DJ: Tangier maybe, during the Interzone years. Or maybe a return to Los Angeles or Paris. I have unfinished business in both cities. Tokyo would be somewhere entirely new. I don’t know where I’ll go next. All I know is that one day soon, I’ll disappear. Sometime later, I’ll be found watching the world from a cafe or a bar, with a cold drink on the table and a notebook in my hands, looking out for the next story.
I’m working on a new novel now. I’ve actually got four separate books, all at different stages, underway simultaneously (which is madness obviously) and more planned after that. I’ve had an idea for a collection of short stories too. The ideas never stop. It’s just a case of deciding the order I’m going to write them all and that’s more of an intuitive process, like divining for water. You can’t force it, but when you know, you know. It’s like being struck by lightning. You can’t miss it.
This interview was carried out by email. Thanks so much to Dan for giving up his time and producing some spellbinding answers.