Interview with Tim Lebbon

Biography: Tim Lebbon is one of the leading lights in British Horror writing. He has over a dozen books published. His recent novella Dead Man’s Hand was nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement and has also been nominated for a British Fantasy Award. To date he has won two British Fantasy Awards, a Bram Stoker Award and a Tombstone Award, and has had recommendations from F. Paul Wilson, Steven Erikson, Simon Clark and many others. He has also served as vice president of the Horror Writers Association and, despite what you might expect from his writing, a thoroughly nice bloke. Sffworld caught up with him as he prepared for the release of his latest book, DUSK (sffworld review)

 

Hello, Tim – thank you for joining us and welcome to sffworld!

Thanks for having me!

Let’s jump straight in – dare I say it, quiz show style! For those who are not yet acquainted with your work, can you describe in, let’s say, about ten words or so, ‘the Tim Lebbon experience’?

Dark fiction to make you think, not vomit.

Yes, that’ll do nicely!

I have mentioned above that you are a ‘British’ horror writer. One of the things I would say that I’ve noticed myself is that in some of your work your voice to me sounds iconically ‘British’. What I mean by that was, for example, when I read the extract on your website (www.timlebbon.net) from the story Desolation, you’d manage to set up in five paragraphs what I identified as is common in many British urban environments, and a voice very different from a lot of, let’s say, American writers. Would you agree with that? Would it be right for me to categorise in that way?

Setting-wise – yes, I think that’s right. Virtually everything I write is set in locations I know about – urban or rural Britain. I have set fiction abroad but even then it’s usually places I’ve visited. Saying that, I’ve written about Venice a couple of times now … though I’ve yet to visit. IN that respect I guess it’s only natural that my voice sounds very ‘British’!

So are you saying then that to a degree you write using what you know, but then through speculative fiction gives you as a writer the opportunity to take it further?

Writing DUSK (my forthcoming fantasy novel) was very liberating in this respect. I made up the landscapes, the creatures, people, society, religion, history … everything. It was pretty mind-blowing actually, and I’m now completely hooked!

One of the things that I liked most about DUSK was the time that you’d spent in developing a new vocabulary (fledge!) and a new world to play in. For example, the library world of Alishia in Noreela’s capital city was fabulous, I thought.

I had a great time coming up with all these new place names, creatures, characters, tribes, drugs, animals etc.  The world keeps growing as I keep thinking about it.  And as for Alishia’s library … that takes on a whole new meaning in DAWN.

What is it about writing Horror and dark fantasy that you find exciting?

I like to read – and write – beyond the norm. I want to go beyond my own experience, and the experience of everyone reading my work. I like exploring what might be out there, rather than writing about what is out there.

 

I also have to say that pretty much everything I write just ends up this way … I rarely go out with the intention of writing a horror story. I just write a story.

Would you say that you are writing to shock, or to highlight key features of the human condition? Would you say that you are writing with a message, or for entertainment?

I don’t write specifically to shock, although deliberately going for shock value can sometimes be useful to the story. I write to entertain myself mainly, but I like entertainment with a bit of thought and depth to it, and I hope my readers do too. I want to take the readers on a ride, an adventure, rather than just telling them about it. For me the best books are those that talk to the reader rather than at them.

What do you think (or what would you like) readers to get from your work?

See above. I like to believe that readers go away from my work and still think about it a couple of days, or weeks later.

I would agree with that - DUSK is definitely like that! The thing that I have noticed generally about your work is that it is impressively varied, both in style (from all out shock horror to dark fantasy to psychological chiller) and length – short stories, novellas and novels seem to hold no fear for you! Do you consciously attempt to vary your work, or is it just the way it happens?

It’s the way it comes out …. I’d get bored writing the same novel or story again and again. 2006 sees publication of my next horror novel BERSERK from Leisure, DUSK from Bantam, and an original HELLBOY novel from Pocket Books. I like to step across boundaries now and then.

Yes. Let’s talk about the HELLBOY novelisation - HELLBOY: Unnatural Selection, which, as you’ve said, is going to be available early 2006. What attracted you to that as your first writing for ‘someone else’, as it were? It is a novelisation of what was originally a comic book environment. Did you find it different to work in?

It’s a completely original story of my own devising, featuring all the well-known Hellboy characters and some more of my own. I was invited to write the novel by Chris Golden who’s acting as editor on the series (the first is ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HELL, by Brian Hodge). It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, especially as I was given almost total free rein by Mike Mignola. Obviously there were certain things I could not do, but the story itself is very large scale and very much concerned with themes and ideas that permeate my own work. It was an absolute pleasure to write, and I’d love to do more work like this in the future.

…very much concerned with themes and ideas that permeate my own work. That’s an interesting one. I think I can see what you mean there; – my immediate thoughts were that of ‘the antihero’ and possibly even that of ‘redemption’, which is clearly a theme through DUSK, but would you like to explain that more?

 

‘The antihero’ and ‘redemption’ - yes, there’s a lot of both of those in DUSK.  No character is painted in black or white – there’s no true good or complete evil (although some of my characters are VERY BAD INDEED).  And all of my characters are looking for some kind of redemption … whether they know it or not.

It’s also good to see you write with such enthusiasm about another writer’s characters. So you were a fan before the writing?

To be honest, I’d not read any HELLBOY stuff until Chris Golden asked me to write a short story for ODDER JOBS.  Then I read all the graphic novels in a couple of days … then went back and read them again. Loved it.  Mignola is a genius.

And thinking further, any thoughts about tie-in novelisations? You obviously wouldn’t do it if you thought it was a bad thing, but I have noticed a number of writers who work in tie-in novelisations and on their own work who have felt that, despite working very hard, are clearly undervalued. Would you agree? Would you say that in your experience there was a dichotomy between the ‘novelisation author’ and the author writing their own material?

I think there is this perception that tie-in stuff isn’t as valued as wholly original work, but there’s also a huge market for it. Novelisations of movies generally follow pretty closely to the shooting scripts, so the author is somewhat tied down from the beginning. They can bring their own voice and style to the book, but the storyline is often all but set in stone, even if they are allowed a bit of latitude with sub plots and detail. But where’s the problem in that? It’s not writing by numbers, as I have heard it called. It’s just working to someone else’s plot.

I haven’t yet been offered any tie-in work other than HELLBOY, but if I did, I’d only do it if it were something that piqued my interest. I wouldn’t do, say, a Star Trek novel, because I’ve never been a huge Trekkie. There is one other project I’m hoping to work on – featuring a ‘character’ from one of my very favourite movies – but I can’t say much more until things are firmed up.

That sounds very intriguing!

Let’s move on to background. You seem to have always been a writer, in these variety of styles. Influences? And you’ve been published now for, what, over a decade. How did you crack that first sale?

My influences are wide and varied, from Machen to Mieville, King to Kafka, Powers to Priest, and about a million more. I discover new authors every year – old and new – and I’m also influenced by music, and film, and being a father … and just about everything I do, see, read, buy or eat.

 

The first sale was a short story to Peeping Tom magazine in the UK. I was paid £2.50, and I still have the cheque somewhere. Never cashed it in. From there to being published by Bantam and Leisure has been a long route, but utterly rewarding.

That’s an interesting one. How does being a parent influence your work? As one myself, I can see that from experiences with my own children, it may perhaps influence a writer’s work as it makes you more aware of the world around you and perhaps more afraid of what horrible things may happen. Is that what you mean?

Well, I agree, it makes you more aware of things that can go wrong.  When you’re young, everything is bright and rosy and the future is endless, and as you grow older things happen to change this outlook.  Having kids can make you realise that the world is a big nasty place, and writing about that definitely helps.  I write a lot now about families in peril and children in danger.  Sometimes it breaks my heart.

At sffworld we get a lot of members asking about ‘how to write’. As a full time writer, are you a disciplined one? Are you the sort of writer that must write? Do you have to install the discipline of writing?

Writing makes me happy. Not writing makes me irritable and twitchy. Partly because I have lots of deadlines to meet, but mostly because writing is what I do. I have a friend who can’t function if he doesn’t run 5 miles per day. Writing is my running.

Saying that, no, I’m not very disciplined, and I find it hard work. But hard work is often the most rewarding.

Some writers find the transition between different styles – novel to short story, for example – difficult. You clearly don’t. Any advice?

Write what you need to write. Some ideas are plainly short story ideas, some are novels. I’ve always been quite good at being able to differentiate between the two: if I’m writing a commissioned novella, the idea I work on always seems to come out at just the right length. They’re different disciplines, but a story will find its own length. Don’t force it. And don’t hack it down.

And now you have gone from strength to strength. I also notice that you’ve recently gone from ‘writing as a hobby’ as I think you put it, to writing full time, as a career. How’s it been? Radically different? Must be quite scary to do…. Or is it a motivator?

Well, I’m writing for half the week (as well as evenings, some weekend, and those dark shady hours that writers seem to find that don’t actually exist on any normal clock). It’s different in that I can get more done, but so far it’s been very successful and I’m loving every minute of it.

To the future, then. One of the most satisfying things must be that you are now entitled to pass judgement on other’s work. I read of your role as a World Fantasy judge for the 2005 Awards with interest. How did you find it? Would you do it again?

I had a lot of fun being a judge. It opened my eyes to a load of writers I’d never tried before, and of course the books were very nice. Would I do it again? I don’t think so. My wife would divorce me, and my postman would have me hunted down and killed.

And you have also been vice-president of the Horror Writers Association. In that wider perspective, how do you see the current state of the horror genre? In Britain in particular, I feel that, until recently, the market has been in decline but may be, just may be, being revitalised, mainly through the small publisher – PS Publishing in the UK for example, and in the US companies like Night Shade Books, Leisure Books and Cemetery Dance. Would you say that perception was accurate, or have I misjudged it? As a writer, would you agree or disagree with that?

I was VP until a few months ago.

As I writer I think I came onto the scene at an incredibly important time for the genre. The genre itself was in the doldrums, and technology – internet, email, computers – was making things a lot easier, both for writers and publishers. Yes, horror’s been down, but in the ‘States especially it’s on the rise again, and the expansion of the independent press is one of the most exciting aspects of this. I feel very lucky to be writing what I want to write and seeing it published.

Anyone you’d recommend, (once they’ve finished reading your work, of course!)?

Here’s a name to watch, and I’ll eat my computer if this guy doesn’t make it big: Paul Meloy. He writes stunning short fiction … I only wish he wrote moreof it.

And what about the Internet? I think it’s interesting that you say that it has provided new opportunities for writers and publishers. The impression I get these days is that a lot of books are brought to people’s attention through word of mouth and discussion in Forums (such as sffworld!). Would you agree?

Absolutely. The internet has changed everyone’s life in an incredibly short period of time.

I think that your idea of blogging at Storytellers Unplugged, (http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/) is a great one. Is this a way forward for the future? Was that because of your response to a potential market? It came about, how?

Joe Nassise had the idea of a joint blog containing lots of horror and fantasy writers, and he was kind enough to ask me along. It has thousands of readers already, and it’s expanding all the time. Everyone’s writing a blog these days, I thought it was a fine idea to do this one so we each write one essay per month.

And what do we have in store from yourself in the future? We have mentioned the Hellboy tie-in novelisation, and then there’s DUSK from Bantam, and BERSERK from Leisure Books, both due in 2006. We have mentioned DUSK above a little, DUSK is more Fantasy, whereasBERSERK is more horror. Have I got that right? Please tell more!

Yep, DUSK and BERSERK are both out next January, and then HELLBOY: UNNATURAL SELECTION is due April 2006. DUSK is dark fantasy, andBERSERK is a horror novel, no doubt about that.

There’s a dedicated website for DUSK, its sequel DAWN and future books I’ll be writing set in the same universe, you can see that at www.noreela.com. Loads of artwork, reviews, a message board, and a great Prize Draw for anyone who pre-orders.

And as DUSK and BERSERK are already written – what next?

I’m working on DAWN, the sequel to DUSK, which should be published in January 2007. After that will be a short novel called BAR NONE for Night Shade Books, then a new novel called THE END for Leisure (and there’ll be a hardback edition as well). I’m doing some screenplay work, planning more books set in the DUSK/DAWN universe, collaborating on a novel next year with a major US writer, working on another collaboration with Pete Crowther and a collaborative novella with a major artist. I’m hoping to write two more novellas for PS Publishing, and another novella in the Assassin Series for Necessary Evil Press, and sometime next year – around August, I’m hoping – I’ll grab a night’s sleep.

You do look rather busy there! I look forward to seeing that work in the future.

Tim, thank you so much for taking time out to talk to sffworld. It really has been fun.

Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

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