An Interview with Tim Lebbon
by Peter Crowther
I first came across Tim Lebbon's work in a roundabout way. Darren Floyd, Razorblade Press head honcho who at the time was preparing to publish Lonesome Roads, my collection of novellas, sent me a manuscript copy of Tim's chapbook Faith in the Flesh -- maybe I'd like it enough to give it a blurb, Darren said. I told him I'd give it a look and we'd see what happened.
What happened was I fell in love with Tim's work with the first line of 'The First Law': "On their fifth day adrift at sea, they saw an island." The 'affair' continued throughout that magnificent story and on through the second story in the chapbook, 'From Bad Flesh', which was similarly engrossing.
I was so impressed that I called Tim and told him how much I'd enjoyed the book and that a blurb was definitely not going to be a problem. And I said the same to Darren. The following day, Darren called and asked if, in light of my enthusiasm, I'd like to turn the blurb into a full-blown Introduction to the book. I had no hesitation in agreeing.
Since then, I've read Tim's debut novel Mesmer -- with its own killer opening: "In service stations across the land, the dead walk." -- and the chilling White ("We found the first body two days before Christmas."), which has since been reprinted in both Ellen Datlow's and Stephen Jones's Year's Best collections. And rightly so.
And, of course, just this year I've published Naming of Parts, the first in Tim's cycle of post-apocalyptic tales... this one concerning zombies.
I got to meet Tim for the first time at a mini-convention in Wales held to launch Razorblade Press's publication of Tim's book and Gary Greenwood's fine chapbook... and also to announce the publication of Lonesome Roads. Tim got the unenviable task -- unenviable, though he actually volunteered -- of interviewing me on stage. We've been friends ever since... with the result that we're currently writing a story together (already 10,000 words and we've hardly broken wind so it's likely to be on the long side -- he's as fond of building moods as I am).
For those who haven't met Tim, he's garrulous (my entry for 2000's 'Understatement Of The Year' Award), extremely well-read across all genres and taking in many of the classics both in and out of the field (and all despite his relatively tender years), supremely confident in his abilities (as well he should be) and fond of a beer or two (or three or four). Conducting this interview -- albeit over the ether -- is a pure pleasure... mainly because it gives me an opportunity to get a few answers to some questions that have been bugging me for some time. Like...
Q: Tim, I've mentioned a few of your opening lines: of course, you produced another gem for Naming of Parts -- "That night, something tried to break into the house." Is this kind of 'grab them by the short hairs and keep hold until you're finished' style of storytelling intentional on your part or does it just happen?
A: For the reader it's obvious that a good first line will draw them in, pique their interest, make them sit up straight -- and for the first-page browsers in a bookshop, make it more likely that they'll buy the book. But I think the first line of a story, novella or novel is at least as important for the writer as it is for the reader. If I'm facing a blank page, waiting to start something new, and I come out with a first line that I think is a corker -- encapsulating the feel of how I want the beginning to go; setting the scene; doing more than just communicating those few words -- it gives me a real boost of confidence. If the paragraph that follows is equally inspiring, I usually find the rest of the story comes easier. If I have to hack and scrape at the words for them to make sense it's much harder, and a story that's hard to write (from a creative viewpoint, not structurally or thematically), is often difficult to read.
So yes, I do think about first lines, but generally the best ones come without thinking too hard. The first line of my novel The Nature of Balance is "The dead girl holds her mother's hand." That really did it for me, inspiring dread and sympathy in equal measures, and it says a lot about the little girl in just seven words (and no, it's not another zombie story). I think it's the best first line I've come up with to date. Many would disagree, no doubt.
As for the first line of Mesmer -- I cannot claim the praise for that. Anthony Barker at Tanjen came up with that one. And you know what? I must have had two-dozen people compliment me on it. Nice one Anthony!
Q: Your work has an unmistakably 'cosmic' quality to it, one reminiscent of the likes of Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, William Hope Hodgson and even Fritz Leiber circa 'A Bit Of The Dark World'. Does this reflect the kind of stuff that most motivates you or is it simply where your head is right now?
A: I've read Hodgson and Smith -- and Lovecraft, Shiel, Machen and Poe besides -- and out of all of them I think it's Machen who influences me the most. His stories sing with a constant sense that there's more going on behind the thin veil of reality we see around us every day -- and in his writing he attempted to shift that veil and take a look. That's an idea I love, and believe, and want to write about. It's very arrogant of us to think that we know everything.
The main motivator for me is humankind's interaction with its surroundings, the way we fit in (or, more often than not nowadays, don't fit in) with the world around us. Nature is a big influence on my work. That's where the cosmic element comes in, an awareness of the relevance of what we do as a species, why we do it, and its implications. You'll see this evidenced in Naming of Parts, Faith in the Flesh and my forthcoming novel from Leisure, The Nature of Balance. Saying that, I don't consciously set out to write this sort of fiction, it's just how much of it seems to turn out -- which is always the best way to write.
Q: To what do you, a relatively new practitioner in the field of fantastical fiction, ascribe Horror's current malaise?
A: Blimey. If I knew that maybe I'd start my own publishing company to help -- or perhaps begin writing historical-fantasy-naval-romances. I've heard other people ascribe it to publishers' disinterest, a market flooded with crap in the Eighties and so on, but I think it's a combination of many things. There's no denying that the way horror has been packaged in the past has done it no favours. Lurid black covers adorned with skulls, corpses crawling with insects and scantily clad maidens being chewed into by vampires -- all good clean fun, but it doesn't do much to give the genre an air of respectability or seriousness to the casual browser. And the casual browser's view of horror is gleaned mostly from these images.
Then there's the boom in TV horror. Many people think this should have a positive effect on the written form, but I'm pretty sure that of the people who buy Buffy books or X-Files novelisations -- and there are lots of them... both books and readers -- a very small percentage will then pick up a Douglas Clegg or a Simon Clark novel. This isn't necessarily a condemnation of their reading habits. They like what they like, and if they are Buffy fans there's more than enough new releases to keep them happy. It's just a sign of the times. Media saturation -- and with Sky and digital TV, this has expanded hugely, especially in this country where we're used to only 4 channels of mundane shit instead of 85 -- means that not so many people look at books written for the sake of being books anymore. If it hasn't got Sarah Michelle Gellar on the cover holding a big thick stake, it can't be much good.
There's also the attention span debate which people love to bring up, but I tend to believe that computers are drawing kids -- and adults -- away from reading purely because they provide an alternative, vast source of spare-time amusement and entertainment. I recently heard a frightening statistic: there are less than one million true readers in this country (those who read every day instead of one book per year on a beach). Terrifying.
Q: Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of horror fiction right now is that it just doesn't sell... or so all the pundits would have us believe. Doesn't the field's somewhat parlous state dissuade you from immersing yourself too deeply in the genre?
A: Well, I write what I write. A few years ago, when people asked what I wrote, I used to shy away from saying horror. Shameful, I know, but I had a couple of experiences where the reaction was less than positive (disdainful I think is the word), and that upset me a little. Now, though, I'm much more at ease with what I do, and when people ask what I write, I tell them.
I've tried my hand at science fiction, but it invariably contains a very dark edge -- like 'The Origin of Truth', the story I wrote for Ellen Datlow for SciFi.com. The science is an important part of that story, but at its heart it's about emotion, people's reaction to an extreme (world-ending) event, parents' love for their child, humanity's extraordinariness -- and I've been told that it's grim and dark and unrelenting, although I think it's positive in many ways.
I've also written 15,000 words of a fantasy novel (the first of a duology) called Dusk. But when I say fantasy... well, it's pretty damn dark fantasy, I admit. It's set in an alternate world, it has battles and magic and ghosts and immortals and extraordinary creatures and a quest, but it's distinctly adult nonetheless. Quite horrific. The novella 'The Unfortunate' in As the Sun Goes Down, my new collection from Night Shade Books, could also be seen as fantasy, as it concerns creatures from elsewhere and several trips into an alternate existence. But yes... it's nasty.
And that's just me. I like to think I'm positive and optimistic about things generally, but what I write does tend towards the darker end of the spectrum, and mostly it happens to fall into the horror genre. I could try to write a light, fluffy comedy-romance set in a Swedish nudist colony, but it would doubtless end with the proprietor collecting genitals in glass jars and cooking them for his unsuspecting dinner guests.
I like to write about emotions and experience, and for me the most interesting kinds are those that cause trouble. That's what horror is -- an exploration of emotions and experience. A monster lumbering around a cellar eating small children isn't horror but the reaction of a mother watching it happen is.
Q: That's as good a definition of what constitutes 'horror' as I've heard but the difficulties most people have in determining what goes in which category is worrying. What are your thoughts on categorisation? How helpful -- and to whom, and for what reason -- is it to separate the different so-called fiction genres?
A: Separating genres is a necessary evil, I suppose. By nature humans like to sort and categorise (there aren't just slugs, there are so many species of slug) and this need extends to publishing. As for who it helps: the publishers (so they have a clear idea of which genre they can market the book in before they make an offer); the shop owners (so they know where to shelve it); the book buyers (so they know where to look). And if all this aids sales then that's how it helps the writers, too. However, although I don't know whether there are statistics to prove this, I'd go out on a limb -- probably a very shaky one -- and guess that a new horror novel, attractively packaged and filed in the 'A-Z' section of a bookstore, will sell better than one shoved away in a dark corner behind Geology and Swahili textbooks.
Q: Okay, but if you go to a racking labelled either 'Horror' or 'Fantasy'... what do you understand from those headings?
A: Horror, as I've said, explores the darker side of human emotion and experience. Zombies and vampires do not a true horror story make, it's the reaction of their victims, or indeed themselves, that should give a story its 'horror' label. However, traditional pigeon-holing often requires that the story has a supernatural (or unnatural) element to it to class it as horror. This is obviously not the case. I'd class The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan as horror, just as I would American Psycho. But I wonder how many book sellers would agree? Hell, I wonder how many readers would agree.
Fantasy is even more difficult to pin down, because by definition all fiction is fantasy. But I suppose if a novel deals with other-worldy events (whether it be set in an alternate world, or features characters from elsewhere), then it's fantasy. The more generally perceived idea of a fantasy novel is one where there's a quest, dragons, sword & sorcery and a bloody great big battle at the end, but this does it a disservice. However, this narrow pigeon-holing does seem to make fantasy sell extraordinarily well, in the same way that it effectively cripples horror.
Q: And what about 'mainstream' then... or even 'gay and lesbian fiction'?
A: Mainstream... well, the only easy way to answer this is that mainstream is something that publishers/bookshops/readers aren't willing to classify as a specific genre. Flippant, but true. Is Graham Joyce's brilliant Indigo mainstream or is it fantasy, or science fiction, or horror, or magical realism or love story? And Iain Banks's novels (as opposed to Iain M. Banks's superb and overtly science fiction books), could fall into many different categories as well. Gay and lesbian' fiction. I'd take this as being fiction written by gay and lesbian writers, and covering all genres and themes. I've never read any specifically categorised gay fiction, nor written any, so my thoughts may well be uninformed and naive.
Q: How helpful or unhelpful have you found the 'catch-all' sub-divisions in the horror genre? (Shlock, traditional, ghost, gore/splatter, and so on.)
A: Again, I think people find them useful to help get an idea of what a new book is about -- reviewers like to use the terms, but as a writer I don't see that they're a great use. I rarely set out to write specifically a ghost story or a zombie story, they just turn out that way. Naming of Parts, for instance, was conceived initially as the tale of a family seeking an estranged daughter across a drastically changed and changing landscape. I wanted to explore how that family felt, how past troubles and disputes mean nothing when those you love are in mortal danger. But I needed a reason for their flight and the changing surroundings -- and that's where the zombie element came in. If I was asked to write a story for an anthology of gore/splatter stories, I'd find it difficult to narrow down an idea. That's the problem with some theme anthologies: the theme is far too restrictive in terms of creativity or freedom to explore, although in some cases -- those that are well thought-out -- I do like them. If conceived creatively, they can focus the mind.
Q: We've touched on the fact that 'horror' isn't doing well right now but of course that's not strictly true. The fiction put out by the likes of King, Koontz and Rice (to name but three) remain as popular as ever and yet they're still classed -- for the most part, rightly so -- as 'horror' fiction. Any thoughts on why that might be?
A: I think it's because they've moved away from being merely writers and shifted into the 'phenomenon' category.
Take King. He's no longer just a writer to many people, he's a legend, a brand name, a household name (and that can't be said of many writers at all, let alone horror writers). And after reading his memoir On Writing I realise that he has a deep, true, heartfelt love of the art.
He's also supremely talented, still one of the best authors working in the business even after so long. It's quite trendy nowadays to say 'I haven't read any King since Pet Semetary', but those who say that have missed some wonderful books. Lately especially King's work seems to have moved on apace, maturing into what critics are daring (yes! for a horror writer!) to call literary. His accident has brought him back into the public awareness more than ever before -- I'm just so glad he's still writing. I anticipate that the next few King offerings, written post-accident, will be very special indeed.
Q: How important or helpful do you feel it is to 'network', particularly at conventions?
A: I put having fun before networking, but the two invariably happen together. Yes, it's important to get to know the right people, have a few beers with them, but this is something I like doing anyway. I'd never have had As the Sun Goes Down published by Night Shade Books if I hadn't met the publisher, Jason Williams, at World Horror 2000, but the fact we met and got on well, had lots of beers and a good chat was fun as well as beneficial.
I firmly believe that quality will win through in the end, but it's important to help yourself along.
Q: What do you see as the main differences between the US and UK marketplaces?
A: The main difference is a biggie: in the US, horror is still being published.
To talk mass-market first of all -- British publishers still have a great aversion to horror, this not being helped by stores like WH Smith actively removing the horror sections from their shops (and I know I mentioned earlier that an A-Z filing may help many horror authors, but there's still that genre mindset... nowhere to stock it, no reason to buy it, no point publishing it). I've had a book of my own -- The Nature of Balance -- rejected by several major British publishers with comments like "We can't give horror away at the moment", and "well written, a great book, but we can't market it." Can't, or won't?
Q: But Balance has found a home, albeit in the United States.
A: Yes, it's set for a mass-market release next year in the US from Leisure Books.
Maybe a lot of UK publishers need to look to the US where Leisure, under the editorship of Don D'Auria, has kick-started the horror boom and made a huge success of it. They're now publishing 24 books per year, quality novels and collections from the likes of Laymon, Clark, Gorman, Piccirilli and Clegg, with 'Horror' displayed prominently and proudly on their spines. And they're selling, so well that other publishers are now actively seeking out horror books once more, and some, like Zebra, are re-launching their horror lines. I only hope we see this happening again soon in this country.
Independent press-wise, the difference is just as large. In the UK we have Razorblade Press, Sarob, Pendragon and even your own PS Publishing putting out horror -- and that's about it. Even small press-wise (meaning magazines etc), we've lost some of the best titles over the past couple of years. In the States there are literally dozens of magazines, and as for book publishers -- Cemetery Dance, Night Shade, Subterranean, Silver Salamander, Dark Tales, Necro, Bereshith... too many to name them all here -- there are more and more every time you look, and all of them bringing out chapbooks, novellas, novels, limited editions, trade paperbacks and hardbacks... basically keeping horror alive and allowing new writers to move out into the mass-market.
Needless to say, I sell most of my work in America.
Q: You've recently picked up the Award for Best Short Fiction from the British Fantasy Society. How important is that Award to you?
A: It's extremely important to me in many ways.
Firstly, I'd like to respond to a comment made to me by lots of people to the effect that Awards don't mean anything. Well, bollocks. They mean a hell of a lot. For me, this one meant that I'd written something worthwhile that people liked, that stuck in their mind, that touched a chord with them somehow.
White worked for a lot of people, and it gave me as much satisfaction winning the award for it as it did seeing it in print in the first place (and the second and third places, too, in the respective Year's Best anthologies).
It's also a physiological concern. This was the third year I'd been shortlisted, and I really don't think my gibbering body could take the stress of the award ceremony again in the future without having won something! So, yes, Awards are important and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Q: But what's the most important thing about your work? Is it simply for your writing to support you so you can give up the day job? Is it for your writing to become so popular that it brings in obscene amounts of money and fame? Or is it simply the fact that, long after you're gone, someone somewhere could be reading one of your stories?
A: Each is important in different ways, so in the manner of the best award ceremonies I'll rank them in reverse order:
Third place, Fame (and being known long after I'm gone): it would be nice, but I'll never know anything about it. It's an interesting thought, the idea that in a hundred years someone in a dusty old bookshop in Hay-on-Wye may pick up Mesmer, take it home and actually read the thing! But that's not really why I do it. Second place, money: again, the money's nice (and more would be nicer), but it's a product of the writing, not the main reason. So, no, this isn't wholly why I do it either.
So that leaves self-sufficiency in first place, but purely because this would allow me to write full time. The reason I want to do that is because I love it so much (so yes, I suppose money and self sufficiency actually tie for top, because without money I couldn't afford to do it).
Basically, it all comes down to this: I love to write.
Q: In your own words, describe what are for you the attractions of novel-length, novella-length and story-length works.
A: I'll state here and now that if I could make a living writing novellas, I'd be a happy man. They seem to be the perfect length for what I want to do. Saying that, I've written more novellas than I have novels, so I really don't know how well my novels are going to take off when they eventually hit the stands.
Novels are great fun to get my teeth into, opening up avenues of exploration which are closed in short-stories and difficult even in novellas. Establishing characters is easier in novels with so much more space to play with, but the story itself needs to be kept under control. It's easy to go off the rails in 100,000 words.
Novellas are my favourite form -- in fact, there are at least four more in the pipeline. They suit my inherent impatience, I suppose, because I can write a novella in a month, edit it, send it off and get ready to see a finished book at the end of it. I suppose this means that I can write a novel in four months, but it never seems to work out that way (probably because whilst doing so, I'm also writing novellas and short stories in the meantime!).
All that said, I do love writing short stories (and that's why I haven't stopped doing them in favour of novels), but they're more difficult in many ways. I spend a lot more time, comparatively, editing a 5,000 word short story than I do 5,000 words of a new novel. Maybe this is bad practice, and there may be writers reading this gnashing their teeth, but shorts need to be word-perfect to work well. That said, they're often a quick fix -- in the past, I've been commissioned, written a story and had it accepted in a week. They're also important for getting your name out there, and keeping it there.
My final word on this is to editors -- publish more novella anthologies!
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© Peter Crowther & Tim Lebbon 25 November 2000