Dr. Victoria James: “The fundamental job of both reporters and fiction writers is to create understanding”

7 min read

by Olivia Hofer

Vic James is a current affairs TV director and the author of Gilded Cage, Tarnished City, and Bright Ruin (Pan Macmillan), an adult fantasy trilogy set in an alternate contemporary Britain ruled by magical aristocrats.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background, your documentaries, and your transition to fiction writing?

I never really had a life plan – I just wanted to be able to do things I find interesting and consider worthwhile and useful. After university (where I read History & English and did a PhD in English Catholic writing in the reign of Charles I) I moved to Japan to learn Japanese, then stayed and got a job as a newspaper journalist. When I returned to the UK, I got lucky with a placement at Channel 4 News – which I’ve always admired for its international reporting – that turned into a permanent job producing investigations. After several years of the news cycle, I moved into long-form, wanting to tell stories in more depth, first as a producer then as director. And it was while working on one of those shows – a BBC2 current affairs series about the impact of the ‘super-rich’ 0.001% – that the idea came to me for what would be my first books, the Dark Gifts trilogy, where a contemporary Britain is ruled by a super-wealthy elite that also possesses magic. Magic and money function interchangeably in the books as an extreme form of privilege.

For readers who are new to your work, can you tell us a bit about the Dark Gifts trilogy and Sanctuary?

book cover of Gilded Cage

The Dark Gifts trilogy had a joke elevator pitch of ‘Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones in a world where Voldemort won’ – that’s actually not too inaccurate! It’s partly my attempt to examine how hard it is to effect meaningful change in a society where the odds are stacked against you. But it’s also a whirl of wicked aristocrats, enchanted dragons, corrupt politicians, gay girls and boys fighting to transform the world, plus a magical king.

Sanctuary is another alternate contemporary tale – set in a modern-day America where witchcraft is real and tolerated – and also came out of my TV work, and a political moment in time. I was making a programme on the first 100 days of the Trump presidency when the women’s marches were happening and Lana del Rey appeared to call on America’s witches to hex the new president, and I just thought … imagine if they really could. And later, while I was writing, the Me Too movement gathered momentum. It all came together in my story of a dead boy, an angry girl, shattered friendships, and a small town that spirals into a literal witch hunt. It’s been called ‘Big Little Lies with witches’, and while the Dark Gifts books were classic Fantasy, I’d call Sanctuary a thriller.

Both Dark Gifts, as well as Sanctuary, have strong political themes running through them. Is there a particular time period, or political event that you draw your inspiration from?

I’ve explained above a little about Sanctuary’s origins. What blew my mind was the way news kept breaking as I was writing that felt like it had come straight out of the world of my book – like the powerful testimony by Christine Blasey Ford at the confirmation hearing of Justice Kavanaugh. There were days of turmoil, and it seemed obvious that neither the media nor the political system, knew how to process what was going on. In the same way, the Dark Gifts books drew on the Occupy movement – how visible and vocal it was, and then how it all seemed to fade away, leaving the world no different to how it was before. I’m fascinated by the difficulty of achieving lasting change, and the individual decisions we all make about how far we’re prepared to go. Abi’s story in the Dark Gifts was partly inspired by the suffragettes fighting for the vote for women in Britain a century ago. These days, they’re heroines, but they also used tactics that at the time were condemned as terrorist – arson, for example.

Dehumanisation is a dangerous thing. In your opinion what kind of responsibility do fiction writers have? And is it different from the responsibility reporters have?

This is a really interesting question. It seems to me that the fundamental job of both reporters and fiction writers is to create understanding, but the means and ends of each are very different. Simplifying, I’d say that the reporter primarily presents real-world facts and information, through which secondarily empathy may arise. The fiction writer primarily creates empathy, which secondarily may send the reader off searching for ways to express or act on that in the real world.

The left are calling the right “Nazis” and the right are calling the left “Libtards” among other insults. How can we stop the discourse from dissolving into throwing insults at each other? How can writers and their fiction help humanise groups of people that have been dehumanised by society, the press or political opponents?

A few years ago, my thoughts on the notion of ‘humanising’ people got a shake-up. I interviewed an amazing British spoken-word poet, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, whose best-known piece is called This is Not a Humanising Poem. It’s a powerful denunciation of the idea that Muslims need to be ‘made relatable’ in order to win acceptance in Western societies. “This will not be a ‘Muslims are like us’ poem,” she warns. “Instead, love us when we are lazy. Love us when we are poor. Love us high as kites, unemployed, joy riding, time-wasting, failing at school.” One line, in particular, stayed with me: “if you need me to prove my humanity, I’m not the one who’s not human”. (Watch her here: https://thebrownhijabi.com/poems/)

book cover of Tarnished City

How do you portray a believable villain or hero when today’s world leaders are caricatures of villains to some, and heroes to others?

Fictional villains are only believable when we understand where their ideas and beliefs have come from. In the Dark Gifts series, one character slowly comes to understand that the beliefs he holds are wrong and that he needs to fight against those he once stood with, and I love him for it. But the drive of the story is not his journey – it is the struggle of the disempowered. As an author and reader, I am not here for the ‘redeemed villain’-centred narrative when that villainy takes the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination or hate of any kind. I – and my books – centre and cheer on those tearing down institutionalised hate.

Many on the left refuse to engage with the far right, saying there’s no need to have any kind of discussion “with people like that.” To what extent do you agree or disagree?

I choose to hope that no-one of any extremist view is unreachable. I recently watched Louis Theroux’s latest programme about the Westboro Baptist Church, in which he met members who had rejected its hateful beliefs and walked away. All people can change. But that doesn’t mean that you, or I, are necessarily the ones capable of changing them. Personally, I tend not to engage on differences of opinion, but to flag false or hate statements: ‘That is incorrect/unacceptable because…’. And I believe that if you witness harassment or abuse, no matter how non-confrontational you are, it’s essential you intervene if you can without worsening risk to the targeted person. 

At the same time, many on the left also say the ones at the centre of the political spectrum are dooming us with their inaction. Is today’s political climate no longer a place for moderate political views?

Being a political moderate should never be confused with being inactive. You don’t have to want to kill the rich and destroy capitalism in order to fight grotesque global economic inequality and to take actions that matter. That said, outside the purely political sphere, uncompromising voices like Greta Thunberg’s are often just what we need to hear – their clarity shakes us out of our complacency. 

Do you ever feel paralysed because of the constant barrage of news?

I get my information from news sources such as the BBC, Channel 4 News, Washington Post, and New York Times that I trust (and know) to be committed to fact and evidence. I actively avoid politics and ‘news’ on social media, which are usually awash in opinion. On Twitter, I mute certain words – ‘Brexit’ being a current example. That all helps.

On a lighter note, what kind of books do you personally love to read? Any guilty pleasures? And is there perhaps a book you keep re-reading?

There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure in reading! I read anything that takes my fancy. History and science non-fiction are particular favourites. I often fixate on a subject and read it exhaustively – one year I read only Japanese 20th-century fiction (in translation). For the past six months, it’s been early 20th-century esotericism. This is why I adore bookshops; you never know what you want to read until you see it. I tend not to re-read, because it often leads to disappointment. I’m never disappointed, though, when I pick up the poems of Emily Dickinson or W.H. Auden. To me, poetry is very close to magic…

Finally, what are you currently working on?

Several things – nothing I’m quite ready to talk about yet, though!

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