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Hayley

Tim Clare Author Interview! [Now Up!]

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I'm thrilled to announce an upcoming interview with Tim Clare, author of the recently published 'The Ice House', which you may all recognise by its beautiful cover:

 The-Ice-House-cover-187x300.jpg

You may also know Tim from 'The Ice House' prequel, 'The Honours', his memoir 'We Can't All be Astronauts', or even from one of his award winning stand-up poetry shows. Tim also presents a creative writing podcast and offers a free 8 week writing 'boot camp' in podcast form.

 

If you have any questions you would particularly like to ask Tim, either post them here or send them to me via personal message by Wednesday :).

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To begin at the very beginning, when did you know that you wanted to be an author and at what point did you begin to feel that it was possible?

 

I knew I wanted to make stories since I understood that stories existed. Like, in reception class I already knew I wanted to write. I was a pretty confident reader and I just saw this vast magical ocean of making up cool stuff stretching before me. Writers are supposed to have great imaginations but I decided, at 4, ‘I want to write’ and I never had the wit to think up an alternative.

 

I hope I can sound a note of caution here without coming off like a handwringing pedant: I do think it’s wise to be careful about the distinction between writing the act, and ‘writer’ the identity. ‘Being an author’ makes it such a global thing. It’s – in my humble opinion – very dangerous to make writing too much about your actual identity. Because if you struggle with it at some point, or get blocked, or people don’t like your work – well, it can feel like you’re coming apart. Thinking of yourself as a writer is to constrain your humanity.

 

Let’s not be authors. Being a human is so much more interesting.

 

Stand up poetry seems a particularly scary way to share your work, one where the audience's feedback is instant and inescapable. Obviously, having several award winning shows, your performances were very successful but how did you deal with the fear of sharing your work in that way for the first time and do you think that experience shaped your later writing?

 

The first time I read out into a microphone, I was almost catatonic with fear. I felt dizzy, and afterwards I couldn’t remember what had happened. But I felt pleased with myself for doing something that didn’t come easily to me.

 

One of the first times I performed a drunk chap got on stage and held a Stanley knife to my throat. After that mere disapproval doesn’t seem so bad. But honestly, the fear was continual, and punishing, and sort of exhilarating too. Adrenaline is quite the drug – it numbs pain, your reactions speed up, you feel very alive. But the day after I’d feel exhausted. So now that I’m a dad I’ve really cut back. It was quite tough on my nerves, too.

 

Running work past audiences does make you very conscious of not waffling. Of making stuff work on the line. I mean, I don’t want to suggest audiences are some perfect literary crucible – they’re not. You can get away with lazy stuff – and know you’re getting away with it – by appealing to their prejudices, or going low-status and making them root for you, but repeating the same lines over and over, say 100 times or more, you definitely get to a stage where you don’t want to say that bum line ever again, so you tweak it.

 

It’s weird though – a lot of reviewers read in my bio that I’m a poet, and comment on how my fiction is written with a poet’s eye. My sentences get dissected through this lens ‘oh, Tim’s a poet’. But all my poems were comedy doggerel about bottoms and farting. You couldn’t get much farther from interbellum nature writing and gothic Fantasy if you tried.

 

Amongst the many outstanding reviews you received for The Honours, The Guardian compared your writing to that of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Others have compared you to Philip Pullman and Ian MacEwan. Do you feel like any particular authors did inspire your own writing? And, what type of books do you enjoy reading, in your spare time?

 

I love – though don’t write like – Ursula Le Guin. I just think she’s so rad. After I wrote The Honours, a friend recommended I read True Grit by Charles Portis, and I did, and, well. What an amazing novel, with an amazing voice. I loved it with all my heart. Oh – I also thought Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke was an absolute treat. I can’t believe such a daring, interesting book got published and did so well. It makes me feel very happy so many people recognised how utterly superb it is.

 

I don’t think it’s accurate to say my writing’s like any of the authors you mentioned, though I don’t contest reviewers’ right to make such comparisons, and obviously it’s not uncomplimentary to be compared with very popular writers. But, for example, Neil Gaiman is much better at getting to the point than me. He has a leaner prose style and his stories move faster. Terry Pratchett is much funnier and more playful. Phillip Pullman is defter with his themes and more epic. And Ian McEwan is worse.

 

I love reading adventure, I read a little bit of manga and comics, and I read a lot of fascinating non-fiction on various periods or subjects I need to know for my latest fiction project. Recording the podcast means a varied diet of whoever’s on the show next, so a nontrivial portion of my reading is out of my control. I just like good adventures where the writing isn’t rubbish. That’s all I ask.

 [Tim's podcast 'Death of 1000 Cuts' can be found here http://www.timclarepoet.co.uk/couchto80kwritingbootcamp/ and there's a great range of authors on there, from V.E Schwab to Nick Harkaway, Jess Kidd and Garth Nix!]

A lot of people really love the main character of The Honours, Delphine, who we get to meet again in your new book, The Ice House. What do you think it is about Delphine that makes her such a likeable character? Did you expect her to be so loved?

 

She’s a paranoid, violent, bull-headed proto-fascist who has an obsession with firearms and keeping England safe from foreigners. Frankly I’m astonished at the number of people who’ve told me ‘I wish I’d been like Delphine when I was growing up’.

 

But. She’s also proactive. And clever. And fiercely loyal. She cares about people. And she has suffered in her own life. She’s rather lonely. And however wrong she is, she believes in a sort of justice. I think in many ways she’s a personification of the many flaws and virtues of England itself. Olaf Stapledon once said – and I paraphrase – it is possible to be proud of being English, as long as one is also ashamed.

 

I didn’t write Delphine to launder the crimes of racism, inequality, colonial violence and snobbery, or to put an acceptable face on them. But it’s harder to hate a human being when we spend time experiencing the world through their eyes. And when we first meet her she is only a child. She believes what the newspapers and state institutions have told her. I feel like, when we meet someone, their qualities attract us to them, but it’s their flaws that make us love them. Delphine has both in abundance.

 

What inspired the fantastical concepts of The Honours and The Ice House?

 

I mean, the dumb, true answer is: it’s just stuff that’s been rattling around my brain for years that I thought would be cool. Fat Maw has existed as a place in my head for about 20 years. Ditto the vesperi, though they never truly crystallised until I was swarmed by about 100 flying foxes in the botanical gardens in Sydney.

 

I’m actually very literal when it comes to Fantasy. I knew I was going to write a novel set in the jungle while I was walking through the jungle in Borneo. I looked around and thought ‘oh, well this will be the book then’. All the areas, all the set pieces, the boat ride, quite a lot of Fat Maw itself – all just my literally writing down what I saw. The ice house I came up with after literally going to Holkham Hall and seeing the ice house there. It’s really ploddingly linear when I set it out like that, but honestly, there’s not a huge amount of imagination involved. Not as much as you’d think, anyway! You know, we had an infestation of rosemary beetles in the garden, and they’re beautiful, miraculous things. And I was like, oh cool, these can go in. Once I’m in novel-mode I just hoover up the world around me for content, and I’m not terribly discriminating.

 

You've talked about the difficulty of fitting your novels into a particular genre, especially The Ice House. Could you explain a little bit about why this causes difficulties? On the same topic, why do you think it's important for authors to write the stories they want to tell, rather than the stories that might be easier to sell?

 

It’s hard talking about it without coming off like I’m self-mythologising or valorising my choices as if I’m some impossibly noble pioneer rather than a fellow who happens to be writing what’s in his brain. I’m sure that folk who write juicy, commercially-viable bang-in-the-centre of their genre fiction are writing just as much from their hearts as I am, with just as much sincerity and enthusiasm.

 

The Honours doesn’t read quite like any genre you’ve read before. You probably go into with historical/gothic spectacles on, and they work very well, until all at once they don’t. And I really enjoyed playing with the effect of twisty genre expectations. Because genre is less something the text does, and more a kind of heuristic the reader brings to it to fill in the gaps and make sense of it. Genre’s a kind of mental rule of thumb, right? If we start with a dead body and a detective, the detective’s probably not an alien. We can probably rule out time travel in the absence of big SF semiotic markers like some kind of silvery disc device or a spaceship.

 

It’s fascinating to me, for example, how a lot of readers have a heteronormative filter running in their heads, so like, every male character is straight unless we actively see them like tonguing a dude. There’s a burden placed on the author to prove that characters are gay or non-white or whatever, where straightness or whiteness are like genre expectations. ‘I’m reading a white book, this character’s probably white’ is a subconscious lens through which so many readers read so many books.

 

The effect of all this is: a lot of readers don’t notice a monster even when you stick it right there in front of them, call it a monster and show its body in detail. Or else they rationalise it away so quickly their brains erase it. Same with Delphine’s being gay. It’s not implied. In The Honours it’s bluntly, unambiguously stated. But even that isn’t enough for some people! The no-homo heuristic seamlessly explains away information that doesn’t fit the model, to the extent that some readers genuinely don’t take it in to begin with. It’s wild.

 

Do I think it’s important to write stories you want to write over ones that are easier to sell? I’m not sure I do. It’s completely up to you. I wouldn’t ever ask someone to forgo the ability to keep a roof over their heads.

 

I just don’t know the answer to that. I try to write the best I can. I work very hard. I wouldn’t hold myself up as an example. I just don’t know if I could write to a market, if I’d have the skill, and I don’t see myself enjoying it. I only have one life and I’m here writing the stories that could only have come from me. But there are other ways of being.

 

On the subject of selling books, you've been very open about your own book sales and the money you make from those and also how, as an author, there's a subtle pressure to present an image of success. [See http://www.timclarepoet.co.uk/3-weeks-in-the-life-of-a-new-book/ ] Do you think it would be better, for aspiring authors and for readers, if there was more open honesty about the money authors make compared to the time and effort they put into writing and marketing? 

 

Well, yes. But I do think quite a few authors are reasonably open – it’s just that the very nature of not finding a big audience is, well. You’re not speaking to a big audience. So the successes get amplified and the books that fall by the wayside don’t register. It’s partly a cognitive bias that humans have with all sorts of things, where we overestimate the likelihood of events because they stick out more and are easier to recall. I can call to mind people like JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Stephen King and George RR Martin far easier than I can even one name of someone who worked really hard at books for years and failed to find an audience. So it feels in my mind that the former is more common, even though I know rationally it isn’t.

 

Whenever I’ve read something about how hard publishing is: look, do you want to know the truth? Honestly – and I feel a bit embarrassed admitting this – whenever I read something about how dire earnings or sales are for most authors, I think: well, for you maybe. But I’m different. I’m going to smash it.

 

It’s not exactly arrogance. But it’s self-belief that doesn’t accord with statistical reality, at least. But look, I’ve had friends who’ve had huge successes. Every month I chat on the podcast with authors who’ve found big loyal audiences. I know it’s possible. It’s just that I only see the successes, not the failures.

 

I just don’t know what else to do with myself. I guess I often fall foul of forgetting that writing can be good therapy, but writing the career isn’t. You can’t use a career for therapy.

 

Speaking of the effort you have to put into your work as an author, can you tell us a little bit about how you deal with the huge project of writing a novel? How do you manage your time, for example, and motivate yourself through difficult periods? [For those who are interested, Tim has a free writing podcast which you can find here: http://www.timclarepoet.co.uk/couchto80kwritingbootcamp/ ]

 

I mean, at the moment I mess it up quite a lot. I’m a parent, a stay-at-home dad, I look after my daughter for half-days and get a total of four days a week to work, give or take. But things go wrong, I’m often tired, my mental health can be a bit up and down. It’s tricky.

 

If I’ve fallen into a rut I try to be kind to myself, and do at least 10 minutes longhand in a journal. Otherwise, I set my timer for 30 mins and write until it stops, without checking social media. That helps. I’ve had to accept that I can only do my best. I try not to compare myself to others. Mental illness is this invisible thing that sucks away productivity, and I can either shame myself about it, or treat myself with compassion. It would be nice to write faster and better, but I won’t be mean to myself for not meeting some arbitrary standard.

 

You've suggested on social media that The Ice House hasn't been reviewed by many readers. How important is it to authors that readers write and share reviews?

 

Pretty much essential. The sky has always been falling in bookland – everyone has been saying how it’s been getting harder ever since I can remember, so I don’t want to overstate the case, but look. Word-of-mouth is the secret sauce, the fairy dust, the formula X. Share on forums, write reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, write book blogs, chat about it on social media, do gorgeous book pics on Instagram. These things are life for a book. Even prizes don’t shift many copies these days, except for the really big ones.

 

Are we allowed to know what you're working on now!? 

 

The working title is All Goblins Must Die and it’s about an enclave of war refugee goblins who live in a commune on a tower at the top of a floating city. Four of them do a heist on a food wagon that goes wrong, and they end up being the only people who can save the city.

 

I know I speak for all of us in thanking Tim for his time and the brilliant answers above! :thankyousigna2: 

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Great interview. Thanks Tim and Hayley! (Sorry it's taken me a while to read it - I haven't been on the forum much lately!)

 

I found it really interesting, especially hearing about your struggles with mental health. And I also enjoyed your blog post http://www.timclarepoet.co.uk/3-weeks-in-the-life-of-a-new-book where you talk about the industry and the nitty gritty of making it (or trying to) as a writer.

 

I shall definitely get hold of a copy of The Honours and give it a try. I love a good adventure yarn!

Edited by ~Andrea~

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