Inspiration, it’s a curious thing. I’m often asked what inspired me to lock myself away for nine years and complete a five-novel series set in Tudor (well, almost) Ireland, called The Sassana Stone Pentalogy. I can still remember the day I stepped into the now defunct Bridgepoint Books, a second-hand bookstore at the Bridgepoint Shopping Centre in the absolutely beautiful Sydney suburb of Mosman.
I was a recently landed immigrant back in ’08, having moved to Sydney from Malta, and becoming increasingly absorbed by the sixteenth century, which the French call ‘Le Grand Siècle’, the great century. These were the days when Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ had hit the literary world like a sledgehammer. I was trying to read everything about the period that I could lay my hands on, when in the corner of my eye I noticed a curious little book called ‘Ireland: The Graveyard Of The Spanish Armada’ by Irish journalist T.P. Kilfeather.
Ireland? Spanish Armada? This was news to me. What on earth did Ireland have to do with the Spanish Armada? I opened up the curious little book, and was taken aback to discover that in 1588, the ships of the Spanish Armada chose to round Scotland and Ireland to head back home, in order to avoid being cut to pieces by Dutch pirates who were allied to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Terrible storms plagued the Armada on what was in truth a familiar and well-worn homeward tack, so that many of its ships were wrecked upon the coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
The western Irish coast was increasingly falling under the sway of the English crown back then. Which is why the Spanish Commanders expressly prohibited Armada crew members from attempting landings upon the Irish coast, despite the fact that they were plagued by storms, heavily leaking ships, thirst, hunger and disease, amongst others. But you don’t have much of a choice when you’re shipwrecked upon the Irish coast by a squall, do you? Yet not in vain did the Spanish Commanders warn against any landings in Ireland, for no sooner did the first Armada castaways land upon the beaches, that a chilling order was instantly issued to all English garrisons by Queen Elizabeth I’s Viceroy in Dublin:
“Execute all Spaniards, of what quality soever. Torture may be used.”
Upon receiving the order, scores of troopers were immediately despatched towards the beaches, to slay or capture all of the shipwrecked Spaniards who came into their power. And yet, I found myself also reading the accounts of Spanish survivors in Kilfeather’s book. Survivors? How could anyone have survived such treacherous odds, when the very fact that you were an Armada castaway meant you were a dead man walking?
I was near breathless as I devoured the pages which I held in my hands, which were almost shaking as I read through the hair-raising and horrifying accounts of strangers in a strange land, hunted like chattel by a merciless enemy. This stuff was almost as good as Mel Gibson’s epic drama ‘Apocalypto’, not to mention Charriere’s ‘Papillon’! Hold on – this was even better! Why don’t more authors write thrillers like this? And how curious was it that the Spaniards, having long persecuted the length and breath of the known world, suddenly found themselves persecuted in turn? As I read on and on, I felt like I was on some crazy rollercoaster ride, except that the events recounted were based on real human history!
The questions instantly resounded through my head: how was it that this story had never been dramatized before? Why had I never heard of this incredible episode? And how amazing was it, that the Armada landings caused a dramatic and violent juncture between the Spanish counter-reformists, English reformists and the late medieval Irish? And that’s not even mentioning the many militias full of Scottish gallowglasses!
I knew then, that I had finally discovered my inspiration. What Hollywood actor Sylvester Stallone called ‘the spark’, in his case the fight between Chuck Wepner and Muhammed Ali, which led him to pen Rocky. After reading Kilfeather’s book from cover to cover, I then bought it for five bucks and headed straight to my apartment in Mosman. I only left it to buy groceries, and a week later I had punched out the first manuscript which I called The Sassana Stone.
At the prompting of an established UK literary agent, I decided to further research the period of my novel, to ensure that it was based on fulsome and exhaustive historical research. I had already read scores of books on the period, and practically lived at the Fisher Library of The University of Sydney for the whole of 2011, during which I was increasingly hooked to the sources I found. Nothing had prepared me for the sheer complexity of the Gaelic civilsiation in Ireland, which the Tudor Sassenachs or ‘New English’ were seeking to subdue. A civilisation in which women still had most rights of men, and in which divorce was also permitted, despite the encroaching influence of Roman Catholicism. Which is not to mention the incredibly sophisticated bodies of law and the ancient bardic tradition. And that’s not even getting into practices like fostering, amongst others, which GRR Martin famously uses in his world of Westeros. How had no one built an epic literary arc around these incredible happenings and fantastic civilisation?
While typing away late at night I would bang the table countless times, and reprimand myself: ‘that’s enough research James!’ Yet the sixteenth century Gaelic world was both enchanting and mesmerising, and I knew that I had to plough on, no matter how exhausted I felt at the end of a day’s commitments, to extract as much information as I could to bring this story to life. I also made it to the western coast of Ireland in October of 2012, an unforgettable fieldwork trip (they have great weather there in October) in which I visited all of the breathtaking and incredible sights which feature in my story.
All of which meant nine years of rewriting and research (I also had a dayjob, got married and had two babies during this time), which grew my manuscript from 80,000 words to over 450,000 words. I absolutely loved every single minute of it, and I ended up with a five-novel series, the first of which is called ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’ and was published last month by award-winning publisher Unbound. The novel was an instant hit on Unbound’s platform, with presales worth 4000 GBP secured in its opening week! It was subsequently serialised on international digital book club The Pigeonhole, used by Ken Follett to promote ‘A Column Of Fire’. The reviews which followed have been quite simply sensational, and can be read on both Goodreads and Amazon.
I am proud to have dedicated nearly a decade of my life to telling this amazing story, and I hope to transport readers into the breathtaking events preceding and following the Spanish Armada landings. One literary critic has praised ‘The Sheriff’s Catch’ as ‘a fine debut’ and ‘a blockbuster with depth’. Another enthusiastically wrote to me to say that he hadn’t picked up such an ‘unputdownable’ novel since he’d read ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Much as I am flattered by these descriptions I also believe that they’re apt, and that my debut is a curious and powerfully written yarn that will fling readers into an endless rollercoaster ride of incredible emotions, with unforgettable characters, cliff-hangers and narrow escapes aplenty. Strap on your seat belts before giving the first chapter a read, and get ready for a great deal of fun while you learn heaps without even realising it!
James was born and raised in Malta, an island nation steeped in the millennia of history. As a boy he often caught a rickety old bus to the capital of Valletta, where he would hover around the English bookshops to check out the latest titles in fiction.
Growing up he was an avid reader and a relentless day-dreamer, with his standout subject at school being English composition. He also won a couple of national essay competitions. Although he spent seven years studying and obtaining a doctor of laws degree, this did not cure him of his urge to write stories. So after emigrating to Sydney in 2007 he resolved to have a proper stab at writing his first novel.
The result of this decision is an epic, sprawling five-part historical fiction series called The Sassana Stone Pentalogy. It is the product of nine years of intense rewriting and research, and tells the story of a Spanish Armada survivor who is shipwrecked in Ireland.
The first instalment in the series is a rip-roaring, myth-busting page-turner called The Sheriff’s Catch. Its anti-hero protagonist Abel de Santiago is an Armada survivor who finds himself on the run across Connacht, whilst being pursued by English troopers who want him tortured and killed.