Born in Malta but his first memories are of the Middle East. James Vella-Bardon has these mystical memories of an immense, never-ending desert which he doesn’t think will ever leave him. It might explain his imagination and wanderlust. His dad worked in Reuwais, a small town in the UAE, and his sister was born there three years later. After spending a few months with his mother’s two younger brothers in Sydney, Australia, they returned to Malta when James was four.
His mum was relieved when James learned to read, because he was always insisting on her reading stories to him. “I never particularly enjoyed school. But English – particularly creative writing in English – seemed to be my forte,” he says. “When I was ten I won a national essay competition organised by the British High Commission to Malta, and subsequently won another couple of creative writing awards also organised by the High Commission. I often won first prize in English at school with the bare minimum of effort. When I turned sixteen I wrote my first book called ‘The Battle Of Bannockburn’ as part of a Systems Of Knowledge project.”
This is how it started for him. After finishing legal studies at the University of Malta, he emigrated to Sydney and ended up publishing a five-novel series called ‘The Sassana Stone Pentalogy’.
Eve: Back in 2007, you emigrated to Sydney. Are you missing your childhood days in Malta?
James Vella Bardon: I visited Sydney twice when I was a child, and always had wonderful memories of it. These same memories were rekindled after I visited the city in 1999 and 2002. I absolutely fell in love with it and the quality of life which was enjoyed by its inhabitants. In 2007 the economic situation for young people wasn’t very good in Malta, while it was going gangbusters in Sydney. So I decided to take the plunge and try my luck down under.
I discovered a country which had enjoyed a roaring economic boom for over a decade, where the financial services industry needed anyone with a pulse. Of course this was all set to change following the global financial crisis in 2008. But I was still in time to wangle my way into the finance industry by briefly taking up work as an EU legal researcher shortly followed by a career in risk management which has lasted for over a decade. A series of corporate day jobs in risk allowed me to work on my creative writing at night. In Sydney I also found myself forming part of a multicultural cosmopolitan society. Many Australians were highly encouraging of my creative writing and I attended many courses where I met published authors in the English language, which was unimaginable during my days back in Malta. I also benefitted from the Aussie mindset which is very front-foot and positive.
As for my childhood days in Malta, well, there’s many things I miss about them. We grew up in a laid back, traditional environment, which was not yet driven mad by modern day demands. We climbed trees, dug tunnels in abandoned fields and rode our bikes through the streets…we basically did all the things that kids these days can rarely do.
Eve: Lately you’ve made international headlines after the trailer of your debut novel ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’ was nominated in the category of ‘Best Trailer for Book or Novel’ at the prestigious Golden Trailer Awards. What was the final result, and how do you feel about it?
JVB: I flew to LA to attend the ceremony and was surprised to discover that my parents and sister had also flown in from Malta to join me there! So the experience was first and foremost a wonderful and long overdue family reunion, since I had not seen my sister in over two years.
During the ceremony I told my parents and my sister who were getting their hopes up not to even contemplate me winning the award. The fact I was a nominee was a huge triumph in itself, and many of the American directors and editors I met at the event could not believe that I had managed to secure a nomination with an independent trailer. As a tragicomic side note, I should add that I met a group of Yanks at the ceremony who were nominated in six categories, and who didn’t win a single one!
So how do I feel about ‘The Butchering Art’ winning my category? I think it was inevitable and well-deserved, because a lot of money, time and effort was put into the winning trailer. If you told me that this would have happened a year ago I’d have thought you were smoking something.
Eve: What’s the hardest part about being a writer and what’s the best?
JVB: I think if you look back in history you’ll find certain cultures, like the Gaelic one in Ireland, where bards – who were essentially writers and orators – were greatly revered and rewarded by their societies. This is not really the case in modern industrialised societies, where writers must generally eke out a miserable existence unless they have a patron or two, a partner who can support them financially or are trust fund babies. I’ve been luckier than most in that I have managed to support my leaning by holding down a number of decently-paid jobs in finance, but some writers do it really tough. So I suppose I’m trying to say that being a writer is a very hard and lonely road, with a lot of hairy challenges waiting round the corner once your first novel is published.
The best thing about it is seeing your book in print, on the shelf and in people’s hands. I can’t describe the feeling, but it comes very close to the days when I got married or when my kids were born. J.K. Rowling it was who once said that the best thing about being an author is the conversations you can have with readers about your work, and I think that this is definitely also true. Since publishing my first novel I’ve also found myself an unlikely point of reference to aspiring authors in Malta. Plus the way people perceive me in Sydney post-publication has changed overnight. Many Sydneysiders now realise that I’m not just another immigrant who came here to take, take, take but have instead killed myself for years at night to produce something that entertains and educates everyone in equal measure. It’s a great feeling really.
Eve: When you’re not writing, what do you do that gives you equal pleasure?
JVB: When I was a boy I was largely raised by my Maltese grandfather the late Antoine Tagliaferro, who taught me that it’s the simple things in life that give you the most enjoyment. When I’m not writing I love spending time reading to my kids or kicking back on the sofa and reading a great novel or watching a great TV series or a movie. I also still enjoy watching the (European) football, which my long-suffering wife says is the only time I really relax. I’ve become quite a solitary person since I moved down under, and no doubt my years of writing have contributed to this. But sometimes I still make it out on the town or over to the movies with a few mates, which reminds me that I should probably soon organise another night out with the lads!