Set in 13th century Scotland, Celtic Blood is the epic story of the son of the murdered Earl of Ross, who becomes a fugitive when his family – rival claimants for the country’s crown – are declared traitors. Recently we spoke with author James John Loftus about the book.
What are your own roots?
My roots interest me greatly, I think it is a Celtic thing. I noticed that when I was in Ireland many of the Irish are fascinated with their distant past. On shops, for instance, references to such things as, Duggan, of the race of the Formorians. The Formorians are semi-mythic Irish ancestors from BC. Or, someone else, I can’t remember the name, from the Tuatha De Dannan, another mythic race. My Dad, was born in Attymass, County Mayo, Ireland, in the north-west. A DNA test (paternal side) revealed I am descended from Niall of the Nine hostages. Yes, we are talking royalty! A famous Irish king, Niall of the Nine hostages according to legend brought Saint Patrick to Ireland. Over three million men world-wide can claim to be his descendants. O’Neills lived to next to my Dad’s farm in Ireland. The locals mentioned their descent from the mighty Niall. I wished I knew back then I was too we could of taken turns bowing to each other. My mother’s father was from Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland. I grew up with a great love for Scottish history, I thought it was based on my grandmother’s Scottish roots. There is a secret on my mother’s side. Don’t tell anyone, this is just between us. We might not be Scottish at all. My great-grandmother’s maiden name was Reilly, they were Irish Catholics who came to Scotland during the great famine in Ireland. This great-grandmother, apparently, fell pregnant to a Norwegian sailor, and was brought out to Australia by her aunts, once, in Australia, she was told never to contact the family again. She was on her own at seventeen. Great-grandmother met a Scotsman who married her and brought my grandmother up as his own. I did not learn this until my mother told me in my mid-twenties, by then I had heavily invested in my Scottish background and had read extensively on Scottish history. My novel, Celtic Blood I owe to my belief in grandmother’s Scottish past. She must of loved her Dad because she loved all things Scottish. Nationality is a state of mind. My uncle on my mother’s side belonged to the Scottish club. Such are the ironies of life.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I was dyslexic. I did not learn to read until I was in grade five. Instead of writing a story I would get up in front of the class and make one up on the spot. My teachers would comment on how well I did this and the teacher who recognized my need for remedial teaching Mr. Barker, thanks Mr. Barker, said I was suited to be a writer. I never thought it was even remotely possible until he said it after all I couldn’t read. Just a minor obstacle for a writer! I thought, “Can someone like me really be a writer I can’t read?” Before I could read I was be fascinated by book covers. I remember one cover of the battle of Agincourt I would gaze at it for hours and in my mind see the story through my own invention. It helped I am sure develop a sense for creating story. Anyway I learned to read and the seed planted by Mr. Barker germinated. Good teachers do change lives for the better. By the way I co-wrote a screenplay ten years ago, ‘Underdog’s Tale’, which entitles me to be called a credited film writer and author. Not bragging just saying. Seems a long way from a kid bottom of the class, can’t read. If you call a kid dumb, he stays dumb (mostly) tell him he’ll be an author …
Are they the same reason you do it today?
I wrote as a child to fill in time and to make up a story, nothing much has changed. When I write it is like I am in the story but in a far more visual and exciting way than it is when I read a book, so it is very entertaining, and not like anything else. I love editing and I love writing, and reading too, all these things should help me be a good writer. That may or may not be the case. Reading is a great way to learn to be a writer, being a writer I get away with reading lots. “I’m not lazing around thank you I am working, can’t you see me?” Me, that is stretched out book in hand, or, staring off into space, being a writer that can also constitute, on the job. Writing is never boring always something to learn.
What are the challenges of the profession?
Being a writer means you have to write. Sometimes you don’t feel like it but books don’t write themselves. The highs, the creating, can be fantastic however at times getting the story right, the wording right, can be very hard. Sometimes it just doesn’t jell. I have a two hundred page story that just doesn’t work. I have gone back to it time and again, and rather than fix it I’ve created a whole new batch of problems. One day I might get it right, who knows? I think it’s like a plant, you can give it all the loving care, water it, do everything to make it thrive but still sometimes it doesn’t. However with the challenge comes enjoyment. At times, sometimes you just go … expletive. You get the picture! Deep inside there’s a gnawing to have another go at it. And you do so I suppose that is what makes you a writer. Work consistently; write every day (almost) staying fit. Don’t write for too long in one session, that can play havoc with the back, neck, legs. These are the essential challenges. Accepting criticism with good grace. If it is from people I trust I need their input, it is a crucial tool. However in my early days I asked too many people for advise and got conflicting responses, which I found very confusing. In the end with experience you know when someone’s call is valid or not. Lastly, with submitting work for publican, get used to rejection. It comes with the job.
What are the rewards?
In the end having a book, a movie, a play, that is yours – that you created. It is rewarding to have entertained and touched people, to have told them a story.
How have you grown as a writer over time?
This is the thing do you get a lot better? Sometimes I think I’ve gotten worse, at the grammar editorial side of it, better, creatively, some of my best ideas which I still need to write popped into my mind years ago. However the root of the thing, the inspiration, the story, which falls into your head, which you transfer to the page you don’t get better at it, it just happens and you don’t get better at it. Creating is a strange process and the analytical mind is elsewhere when in full creating mode so it is kind of hard to understand it.
Is your creative process more ‘inspirational’ or ‘perspirational’?
Inspirational, getting the idea, is crucial. Without the idea you have nothing. However that said taking it from the idea to the tangible takes a lot of effort, concentration, focus, time, and self-belief,“I can do this!”
What makes a good book?
You enjoy it. When it comes down to it it is that simple.
What motivated you to write Celtic Blood?
In early high school years I got onto a writer called Nigel Tranter, as far as I am concerned he is Scotland’s best historical writer. His, Robert the Bruce trilogy is a masterpiece. In I think it was the second book in the Bruce series, The Path of the Hero King, whilst Bruce is on the run in the far north of Scotland he has occasion to meet and wins to his side the chief of clan MacKay. The MacKay clan once powerful now shifted to the margins of society. In a paragraph Tranter made reference to the origin and survival of the clan when only a young boy was the last survivor and hunted by Scotland’s king who saw him as a rival, the Mackays are distantly related to the ruling house but many in the highlands thought they had a superior claim to the crown coming from the senior line, an elder son. The story stayed in my mind and I wanted to find out more. There was nothing, no novel, so I thought I would write one. The MacKays supported king Robert and by doing so ensured their survival and prominence. In my novel the family name is MacAedh, which is the original name of the family.
What did you learn during the process?
I learned that writing a novel is far more difficult exercise than writing a film script. With a script the descriptions are brief and simple, the dialogue is the focus. In a novel, all of it, dialogue, description, it all has to be there and well told using language that is not overly repetitive and overly stylish but with enough texture to fill it out and make it engaging. Over time simplicity will equal boredom. In musical terms you can’t have a one note song. Of course with a novel you can fix mistakes up as you go along and experiment with refining sentences. The level of technical difficulty in the writing of a novel is far higher than scripts. Simple sentences all the way with scripts. It will get you through. With a novel you have to be a real writer and have some grasp on the higher functions of writing, immerse yourself in the masters, Tolstoy, Flaubert, see how they did it so you can do it too. You must be an artisan. That said, some novelists, keep it very simple and still make it work.
How did you feel when the book was completed?
Nervous, what do I do now? Having written a book then you have to learn how to publish it and promote it. It never ends, like being on a track to infinity, turn another corner and there’s another straight followed by another corner. And you never get it quite perfect so you want another shot at perfection with the next writing endeavour. Part of you though feels a great level of satisfaction when completing a novel. Holding it in your hands and just knowing that book is yours, it is you, you birthed it from your imagination. Pretty cool that! The best feeling is when you meet someone you have no connection with and they have read or know someone who has read your novel and thought it was great.
What has the response been like so far from those that have read it?
I had one bloke tell me he wanted his money back, that is, for a one dollar ebook, and then told me he illegally downloaded it. He insisted the dollar would repay him for the time he wasted reading it. I was charmed and chatted with this fan in a companionable way for hours. I gave him a dollar and we parted friends. Not!!! Apart from him the response has been overwhelmingly positive, I can see admiration and respect in people’s eyes. I know it is a good book because the vast majority of people think so. As for man who wanted his money back but really didn’t pay for it, there is always the next public reading when he can harass me for a dollar.
What are your thoughts on the state of Celtic literature today?
I have been reading things like, the Game of Thrones series, which I thought was great. I haven’t read much Celtic literature for some time, what little I have read left me luke-warm. I wish there was a Nigel Tranter today to bring to life heroes from the heroic age of the Celts. I have noticed what seems to be the most prevalent style of Celtic writing is the romantic fiction with a highlander, shirt off, rippling muscles on the cover. I have found a readership amidst the romantic historical fiction genre and find myself on their reading lists, or messaged by Outlander fans and other romantic fiction fans. It would serve me poorly to disparage that style of writing when I seem to find myself a part of it. These highland romantic fiction fans are supportive and tremendous fun.
What’s next on your creative agenda?
I am writing a sequel to Celtic Blood. I am also trying to develop a Bollywood style script. The Bollywood thing is at the suggestion of a contact of mine who has met with great success in Bollywood, an Australian in Bollywood, doing Bollywood projects. Art for arts sake money for Gods sake! To be honest the script is well under way and it presents unique challenges that I am really deriving a lot of pleasure trying to meet.