In a small village, miles from the great cities of the Twin Kingdoms, a young boy called Errol tries to find his way in the world. He's an outsider - he looks different from other children and has never known his father. No one, not even himself, has any knowledge of his true lineage. Deep in the forest, Benfro, the young male dragon begins his training in the subtle arts. Like his mother, Morgwm the Green, he is destined to be a great Mage. No one could imagine that the future of all life in the Twin Kingdoms rests in the hands of these two unlikely heroes. But it is a destiny that will change the lives of boy and dragon forever...
Dreamwalker is the first book in The Ballad of Sir Benfro series, and is one of my favourite books of 2014. J.D. Oswald also writes adult crime novels under the name James Oswald, and I hear they're rather popular!
Many thanks to James for answering my questions about Dreamwalker, and I hope you guys will check it out. It's so, so good!
Wondrous Reads: Hi James and thanks very much for taking the time to answer my questions! I recently read and loved Dreamwalker and was wondering if you could tell me more about its road to publication, from self-published eBook to traditional print?
James Oswald: Hi Jenny. It’s a pleasure!
Benfro and the world of Dreamwalker have been with me for a very long time - I first came up with the idea around about 2001/2002 and wrote a couple of short stories exploring the character before deciding to embark on an epic fantasy series. I was heavily influenced by Robin Hobb and Katherine Kerr at the time I started writing, but I wanted to do something different with dragons. The problem with that was publishers didn’t like my take on them - they didn’t like them talking, for one thing, and the idea of them as downtrodden creatures didn’t seem to ring true.
I wrote the first three books almost back to back. Perhaps surprisingly, The Rose Cord was the first one, not Dreamwalker. Having started the story with what is now the final chapter of the first book, I realised that there was far too much unexplained to drop into the rest of the story as I went along. I began writing a prologue to The Rose Cord and ended up, 125,000 words later, with Dreamwalker.
The idea to self-publish came a long time later, after the first two Inspector McLean books had been shortlisted for a major UK crime writing prize but still failed to find a publisher. I’d recently taken over running the family farm and after almost twenty years of trying to get published was just about to give it all up and do a proper job. I knew very little about ebooks, but a friend had recently self-published some novellas of his on the kindle and done very well with them. He persuaded me to have a go with my crime books. As I had two written, and a third almost finished, I decided to give the first away for free in the hope people would like it enough to pay for the second one. I thought I might sell a thousand books in the first year, but ended up shifting 350,000 in eight months!
On the back of that success, I put the three Benfro books out, promising the fourth soon. They didn’t do anything like as well as the crime books, but for self-published epic fantasy they were very well received. Penguin bought the crime series and the first one came out in May last year (2013) to great success. The last fifteen months have been a roller coaster ride, bringing out another three crime books in quick succession, with two of them making the Sunday Times top ten bestseller list. My editor for the crime books asked to see the Benfro series after I mentioned it to him in passing. He read all three in a weekend and came back almost immediately with a very good offer for publishing the whole series. It’s hard to believe but at the beginning of 2012 I had no publisher, no agent and little hope; now it’s not even two years later and I have one of the best agents in the UK, three separate contracts with one of the largest publishers in the world, books being translated into over a dozen foreign languages and seven titles in print!
WR: Have you always been interested in dragons and fantasy, or was this series a completely new venture for you?
JO: I’ve always loved dragons and fantasy. Dreamwalker and The Rose Cord were both written before I ever embarked on writing crime fiction. I came into writing through comics - my first ever paid for story was in 2000AD, and that medium has always influenced my novel writing. I’d say crime writing was the completely new venture, and the fantasy was what I always wanted to write.
WR: Where do the unusual dragon names, like Benfro and Morgwm, originate from?
JO: The idea for Benfro came from a conversation with my better half, Barbara. We were living in Wales at the time, both working in Agricultural research, and decided it would be a good idea to try and learn the language a bit. One evening class we were doing the county names in Welsh, and Pembrokeshire is Sir Benfro. Sir (which has an accent over the i that I can’t reproduce on my computer) means ‘shire’. Benfro is a contraction of ‘Pen’ and ‘Fro’ and means ‘the end of the land’ or ‘the head of the land’. Anyone who has ever seen Pembrokeshire on a map, or better yet been there, will know how apt a name it is. Barbara said to me that she thought Sir Benfro would make a perfect name for a dragon, and that sparked off the whole idea of the character in my head.
Having used Benfro, I then plundered much of the language for other names and words - a lot easier than making up something from scratch. In my initial short stories, the baddies were all sheep, and they were named after various sheep breeds. My good friend Stuart MacBride persuaded me that no one would take seriously a book with evil talking sheep in it, so I changed them to humans but kept many of the names. So Beulah of the Speckled Face, Clun, Lleyn, Llanwennog etc., are all names of sheep breeds.
WR: I really love all the historical extracts included at the beginning of each chapter of the books. Where did the basis for all this initially come from, and would you ever expand on it in a companion novel or extra content?
JO: I stole the idea from Robin Hobb. I love her Farseer books (and her dragon books too - her take on them is very different from the classical mythology as well), and each chapter of them begins with an extract from a journal or similar. Eventually we find out that these are written by Fitz himself. My take was slightly different, and was an attempt to build the world of Gwlad (another Welsh word, meaning the land, or the country!) more quickly than having it discovered through the narrative would allow. There are extracts from works of men, and others from dragon books, and the two quite often don’t agree.
WR: The Penguin paperback covers for all three books so far are brilliant. What are your thoughts on their design and how they represent your story?
JO: I was absolutely thrilled and delighted when I first saw proofs for the covers. Fantasy books covers, and particularly epic fantasy book covers, can be very hit and miss. These I think are definitely hit. An enormous amount of thought has gone into them, and the designer has either read the books very closely or been extremely well briefed, as they each encapsulate the story arc of their book perfectly. I’ve been very lucky indeed with my Penguin book covers for both series.
The marketing department at Penguin have also made a fabulous short animated video advertisement for the series, which you can see on my website. It’s very ‘Game of Thrones’!
WR: Do you have a complete outline written for the final two books in the series, and do you already know how it will all end?
JO: I’m not much of a plotter, but I do have an overall idea of where the story will go. I had a definite ending when I first began writing the series over ten years ago, but another fantasy series that came out just after I’d finished writing Dreamwalker did something very similar. I’ve not yet made up my mind whether to keep my original ending or change it. I guess time will tell.
WR: What challenges have you experienced when writing two very different series of books (crime and fantasy) at the same time?
JO: I tend to write one then the other, so it’s not as if I’m juggling Benfro and Tony McLean in my head at the same time. That said, it’s been a long time since I wrote The Golden Cage and I’ve written four McLean books since then, as well as a couple of other novels that may or may not ever see the light of day. Coming back to the story will be an interesting exercise after such a long break. On the other hand, I have been through major edits on all three books for the paperback release, so the story is fresh in my mind now.
I also made myself a database, back when Benfro started, and listed all the characters, places and historical occurrences as I made them up. I would like to go back in time to the early 00’s and buy myself a round of drinks for doing that. I’m not normally that well organised. It’s been invaluable.
WR: I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but when can fans of Sir Benfro expect the fourth and fifth books to hit our shelves?
JO: I’ve got about half of book four written, and the finished manuscript should be handed in by the end of this year (hopefully). Book two comes out in paperback in November 2014, book three in early 2015, which means book four should be out in the second half of next year. Book five will hopefully follow in early 2016. A long time for fans who picked up the self-published editions in 2012 to wait, I know, but circumstances beyond my control (the runaway success of the Tony McLean novels) somewhat mucked up my writing schedule. I’m sure the wait will be worth it!
- My review: Dreamwalker by J.D. Oswald
- Follow James on Twitter: @SirBenfro
- James's site: jamesoswald.co.uk