[Interview] Tim Lees

Tim Lees has been a warehouse worker, film extra, musician, schoolteacher, lithographer and conference organiser. He has also worked on the secure ward of a psychiatric hospital.

His first collection of short stories, The Life to Come was published by Elastic Press in 2005.

In a recent interview, Tim Lees spoke about his writing.

What is your latest book about?

You probably mean my story collection, The Life to Come (Elastic Press, 2005), but to my mind, my latest book is the one I’m writing now. It’s a weird noir detective piece set in L.A.

How long did it take you to write it?

Give it another few months to completion. In fact I wrote the opening chapters about four years ago and they’ve been moldering in a drawer every since. Stories often seem to come this way -- a bit at a time.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

The final polishing, which I’m now in the process of. Always tricky, ironing out inconsistencies, wondering if you’ve got enough jokes, if the story slows down at any point, if the dialogue reads easily… Often you simply have to put it away for a while, work on something else, and come back to it with a fresh eye.

Which did you enjoy most?

Going to L.A. to do research. Actually, it was a complete waste of time -- in the end I stuck with the “fantasy” L.A. I’d concocted from reading before I went. Still, it was a great trip.

In what way is the book similar to the other things you have written?

It’s taking a familiar genre and twisting it around to suit my own warped ends.

What sets it apart from the others?

It’s a novel, for a start. Sadly, there’s not much place for short story writers these days. I know some brilliant short story writers who will probably never receive the exposure they deserve, simply because of the form they work in. How this came about I don’t know, though it may have roots in the numerous competing forms of entertainment available nowadays -- TV, DVDs, computer games, etc -- or through a failure in the education system, or simply through economic factors. It may be uncool to say so, but economics has a huge impact on the kind of art being produced. Dickens was famously paid a penny a word, and produced enormous, rambling tomes with enormous, rambling descriptions of just about everything under the sun. All good stuff, of course, and guess what! He got very, very rich. Nothing wrong with that. But I do regret that, nowadays, a lot of more idiosyncratic work seems relegated to the small press.

Perhaps the short story will go the way of poetry: once popular, now something of a specialist market. Interesting to note, however, that there is still a market. These things don’t die out. They just cease to be a viable means of earning a living.

What unifies the stories that make up The Life To Come?

There are sixteen stories in The Life to Come, the first of which, “The God House”, was originally published in 1997. About half of them have been published previously. They are (mostly) SF-oriented, but I saw them as linked thematically by a sense of exile or displacement. This may arise from some obvious fantastic element (the arrival of aliens, a visit to a strange city) or something more mundane (traveling in Morocco, a relative’s mental illness). What interests me, though, are the people, and how they accommodate the situation -- or fail to do so. You could say this is SF with a warm edge to it.

I don’t know which of the stories was hardest to write. Certainly, some of them took years -- accumulating bit by bit. Also, as I remarked earlier, writers seldom judge their own work well. I remember when I finished the story “Relics” feeling it was very much a sub-standard piece. Its critical reception persuaded me otherwise. I think I’d just been slogging away at it for so long I’d lost sight of its merits. But judge for yourself…

I’m not sure I’d ever describe writing as “enjoyable”. Compulsive, perhaps. However, the one piece that was fun to do was the Hemingway pastiche, “A Specialist in Souls”, largely because it came to me almost fully-formed during the course of an afternoon’s walk back from town. Jokes and all. Most writing is like forced labour, which is why so many talented, imaginative people never get around to doing it. But every now and then, you get a gift. I’m still waiting for the next one to turn up…

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Very early. I wanted to duplicate the stories I read, first in comics, later in books, but somehow to make them mine. I’d usually start by stealing the beginning of a piece (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Conan Doyle) then, when the real fun started, make up my own adventures for the characters. Beginnings were boring back in those days. Now they’re often the best bits.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

It depends what I’m writing. If it’s SF, Ballard and Aldiss have certainly had an impact, but so have countless other writers, many of them not related to that genre at all. A lot of stuff I read in childhood keeps re-surfacing, now viewed through rather jaded adult eyes (the shade of Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example, in my piece for The Elastic Book of Numbers). I think childhood experience is immensely important. For my present book, I’m drawing very consciously on some hard-boiled crime writers -- the wonderful Raymond Chandler, of course, but also Kinky Friedman and the neglected British writer, Derek Raymond. Plus comics writers such as Brian Azzarello. Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem to be coming out quite like any of them, which I suppose is a good thing. You take techniques from every writer you read, and your own style probably ends up as a mish-mash of all of them. There are no rules for learning to write, but I’d suggest to anyone with ambitions that they read as widely as possible -- popular fiction, literary fiction, experimental fiction -- anything that does its job well.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

It may be possible to write good fiction that doesn’t draw on personal experience, but I don’t know how. It’s not a case of writing romans à clef (loosely disguised autobiographies, such as works by, say, Kerouac, Isherwood or Proust), but simply this: you put a character in a situation, you ask yourself, how would I react? What would I feel? How would I react if I were this person, with his/her history?

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Trying to get published. Actually, that’s not quite fair; I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with some of the very best of the U.K. independent press -- Elastic, TTA, PS, etc. -- and have been treated well by them. My concern now is to get some mainstream recognition.

If you’re asking what the themes of my writing are… That’s something I prefer not to think about. I’m aware of certain recurrent subjects and motifs, but critics tend to pick up different, often surprising elements. I don’t think it’s good to over-analyse your own work. When you cease to be surprised by it, that’s when it becomes dull, both for yourself and for the reader. In addition, writers are usually very poor judges of their own stories. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it as good as your last one? It’s not for you to say.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

Trying to balance the demands of writing, earning a living, general responsibilities (e.g. family, etc.) and still finding time to chill out. While I could witter on for hours about structure, dialogue, characterization and so forth, I find I’m daily more concerned with the practicalities of writing -- making sure I’ve got the time and energy to do it, as well as the right state of mind. I think Trollope wrote a piece about the difficulties of writing a love scene after a hard day at the post office, or wherever he was working then. I sympathise. Writers’ career’s are odd, misshapen things. Reading Anthony Burgess’s autobiography, the question that kept haunting me is, how, in the space of a few pages, does he go from being a near-penniless novelist to a famous literary personality, invited to prestigious conferences in New York?

How do you deal with these challenges?


What will your next book be about?

It depends which MS comes out of the drawer next.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I haven’t done it yet.

How did you get there?

I can pretty much guarantee that hard work will be a major factor. Unfortunately. But at least it’s an element I have control over. The other vital element is luck.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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