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Tim Lebbon -- horror writer, family man and part time horseman of the apocalypse

an interview by Sandy Auden

"Even at seven years old I was aware of the colour of brain matter and gun recoil. The Nature of Balance by Tim LebbonThe first story I remember writing was about a group of people hijacking a train for ransom. I can't recall much about it other than one of the hijackers dropping his Magnum, which naturally I (the narrator) picked up and used to spread his head across the dining carriage. I guess somebody should have seen the signs.

"Before I was in double-figures age-wise I was writing all manner of stuff: war stories, crime, horror. And I was quite into disaster stories too. I remember one I started with a friend about an entire city's underground gas network suddenly exploding at random places. Staggeringly unlikely, but the front cover was fun to do. Come to think of it, that's about as far as we got.

"Later, in my teens, some of this outpouring directed itself into a more concerted effort. I wrote a couple of war novels, one of them World War Two, one a present-day nuclear nightmare set in the North Sea. I have no idea where these went, but I'm sure they were painfully dire. For some reason I found this hobby to be highly embarrassing, so I kept one of the war novels beneath my bed in a cardboard box. It was probably better hidden than the porno mags! My family threw a party one day, and when one of the guests was chatting about his literary aspirations, my mum told everyone that I was writing a novel too. I was gutted. I still don't know why. She was proud, but I was quiet and withdrawn for the rest of the night. She's still proud now, and thankfully I'm no longer embarrassed. I've even got past the 'what will Mum think when she reads this?' problem if I ever use the word 'cunt' in my fiction.

"Yet I don't even know why all this started. Why do people become firemen, murderers, deep sea divers, chiropodists, particle physicists, or strawberry farmers? I had the urge to write from a young age, I guess. My parents passed down their love of books to me, and somewhere, somehow, I must have jumped from wanting to read them to wanting to write them. Gradually over the years I've become more serious about it until now it's an obsession: it's no longer that I want to write, I have to. I love telling stories, I love the creative process whereby an idea mutates from a scribbled line on a beer mat into a full-blown novel, I love thinking, I like surprising readers and disturbing them and touching them, I love seeing my work in print. I'd be writing if I wasn't getting published, I'm sure of that -- I've done it before, so I know it's true -- but the fact that it may slowly be turning into a career, not just a hobby, is hugely gratifying.

"Mind you, it's taken a while for the career to evolve.

"My first acceptance was by Peeping Tom magazine. That came by phone from editor Stuart Hughes -- with an idea or two for rewrites -- and the next day I had two stories accepted by Psychotrope. 'This is it!' I thought. I'd been writing for about two years with no acceptances, and now I was going to be a writer, stories accepted left, right and centre but it didn't work out that way. I continued writing, continued clocking up an astounding number of rejections. It was a few months until the next acceptance, and then over the next couple of years I sold (well, not often for money, so maybe 'placed' is a better word) around forty stories with British small press magazines. I cringe when I read some of these stories now, but it was a vital learning process, and the editorial input from some of these indie editors was priceless.

"Then I sold my first novel Mesmer to Tanjen publishers. This was something of a changing point, because although I continued writing the short stories (and I still do now, and I can never imagine a time when I'm not writing a short story for some market), my emphasis shifted onto longer work. I wrote the two novellas that formed Faith in the Flesh, my collection White by Tim Lebbonfrom Razorblade Press, and then moved onto a new novel called Lost Times (which still resides on my computer, awaiting a revisit and a reworking at some point. It has some great ideas, but it needs a little something). The Nature of Balance and White were written next and there was another crucial turning point. Tanjen were originally going to take Nature, but after their unfortunate demise Leisure Books bought it for the US mass market. White won an award and got some very nice press, and at last I was feeling like I was getting somewhere.

"One of the main changing points in my writing life was the publication of As The Sun Goes Down by Night Shade Books in the States. They took a huge gamble publishing a hardback collection by a relative unknown, but the book reached all the right people, got some very nice reactions and really got me a little bit noticed by the US horror folks.

"Face came next from Night Shade, Prime did the hardback for The Nature of Balance, Cemetery Dance did a great job with my short novel Until She Sleeps, and I'm now contracted to write more books for Night Shade and Cemetery Dance, as well as having just signed a new two-book deal with Leisure. The past two years have been amazing. Amazing.

"Looking at all these, I guess I've been quite a prolific writer. But it has taken dedication, obsession, and a certain degree of masochism. I love writing, from the initial blank page-stage to the typing of THE END and the rewriting, revising, submission -- it's a real buzz for me. And also, I need to write. The same way some people feel the need to leap out of aeroplanes or collect butterflies or spot trains. I get twitchy if I go a day without writing something. Don't ask me why. I reckon if any writer could explain their obsession then the magic would go and it would be just another job.

"I write for specific markets mostly nowadays, but now and then I'll just write something on spec, thus totally ignoring deadlines and making them things of Evil, Pain and Damnation. I enjoy working both ways -- thinking around a story for a themed anthology is fun, but so is having free reign. I'm writing a novella right now for a prestigious market in the USA, and it's basically 30,000 words about anything I want. It's turning out pretty strange, very dark, and I've found myself experimenting with my prose, as well as plot and story. It's fun! That's probably why I'm prolific -- it's fun.

"There are two sides to it though. Writing so much can take some juggling with my everyday life, and I don't know how I manage it sometimes.

"Maybe this is another area where learning the answer will strip it of its magic. I write in the mornings before I go to work, lunchtimes in work, evenings, days off from work -- not all of those, all the time, of course. If it gets really desperate I lock my wife and daughter in the garage and pour some food and water under the door now and then. But that'll usually only last for a week or two.

"Perhaps I ought to join them in the garage occasionally too, cause I've certainly had ideas in some strange places.

"I've thought up whole stories whilst dropping off to sleep, found a new theme to explore whilst sitting in a pew at a funeral and had first lines come to me on the loo.

"And that vital first line is the part I always write first too. It's usually something that I've thought about for a long time, but once I've got it down I tend not to spend too long trying to fiddle with it, that way I can move quickly onto the meat of the story.

"Lots of readers will say that the first line or paragraph of a story either captures them or turns them away, and as a writer I say that as well. If I write a first line that inspires me and feels right, it gives the whole as-yet-untold story a certain gravitas, a rounded shape that I then try to find. If I write the first few sentences and they are uninspiring to me, then the rest of the story never comes so easily, if at all. Out of all of my first lines, the one that still makes me shiver when I read it, is: 'The dead girl holds her mother's hand.' It's the first line from The Nature of Balance.

"It's not a very long first line but you don't need masses of words to create atmosphere. Less is more, you see, and, to be honest, the reader's imagination is far more capable of frightening them than any series of words I can put down on paper. Implying something is often far more interesting -- for me as a writer, and hopefully for the reader as well -- than describing it in detail. Fiction should challenge, and good fiction should demand an input from the reader.

"Then again, I am prone to straying into flowery language on occasion. I love experimenting with language, and I'm a bit over-heavy on adjectives sometimes, I guess, but language is there to be wallowed in on occasion. I often find that when I'm at an awkward part of a story or novel, I'll get a bit over-descriptive. Just five minutes ago, I was working on my current novella, Love Under Will and I've reached a place I'm not sure how to progress on from, so my main character has been stuck somewhere for 1000 words just thinking about things. It's just part of the writing process, I suppose. It'll be cut down again when I re-write.

"Generally I write simply what I want to write, but I do try to inject some feeling, some depth, and if not actually a message, then at least some sort of meaning. A story that's all body without soul doesn't work for me. A monster does not a horror story make -- you need reaction, of those who face the monster or perhaps of the monster itself. I've read far too many stories where nasty things happen with no real purpose, consequence or reaction, and this isn't horror fiction, it's shock fiction.

"I like writing the sort of fiction I like reading, tending to shy away from the schlocky gory stuff that's out there purely to shock and offend -- although I'm not averse to an occasional beheading if it's necessary to the story! I enjoy fiction with a bit of depth, a bit of soul.

"Over the last two years, I feel that I've come closer to finding my own voice. When I started writing I fell into the trap that many do: rehashing old themes, writing stories around one punch line or twist, thinking that a vampire story must have blood-drinking aristocratic assholes to work. If what I'm writing nowadays is a little different, I guess that's because it's more from the heart.

"One thing that hasn't changed though, is my exploration of post-apocalyptic scenarios. You see, I really enjoy killing people. Lots of them. I think I've wiped out about 30 billions in my writing so far, and it's really very cathartic. Generally I picture them as school bullies, bigots, people who don't say thank you when I hold a door open for them, drivers who don't acknowledge when I let them out of a junction before me, and contestants on reality TV shows. Honestly, it works wonders, it should be available on the National Health.

"I'm also fascinated in humankind's interaction with Nature, and fearful of the damage we do. I can't believe how flippant some people and, indeed, governments are about what we're doing on this planet. I'm awed by the power of nature, the wonders it contains, and in turn I'm sickened that we're doing our very best to destroy it for our own short-terms needs. Many of my apocalyptic tales revolve around a Nature 'gone wrong' or fighting back. The Nature of Balance is my big-scale take on this very topic -- Nature has had enough, and it turns against us in the most dramatic, unexpected way. Probably because, in truth, we've all become reality TV contestants. The viewers this time are aliens, circling the Earth, taking in the clouds of smog, areas of desert, flooded lowlands and the decimation of natural habitat. Good enough for us.

"So there's a flippant and a serious aspect really, and my inspiration probably falls somewhere in between. Most of all, I enjoy writing apocalyptic fiction. I think you can't help but be intrigued about how the world would be without humankind swarming all over it."

The Nature of Balance by Tim Lebbon
The Nature of Balance is published by Prime (August 2002).
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White by Tim Lebbon
White and other tales of ruin is published by Night Shade (January 2003).
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