Interview with Tim Lebbon

SFFWORLD: Hello Tim: welcome back!

TIM LEBBON: It’s good to be back!  I love what you’ve done with the place.

SFFWORLD: It’s been 28 months since we last spoke properly about the release of DUSK, back in 2006. [LINK HERE.] What have you been doing in the mean time?

TIM: It’s been a very exciting time!  I quit my day job at the end of 2006, so I’ve been writing full-time for about sixteen months now.  My first project as a full-timer was the novelisation of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, which ended up doing very well … spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and it’s up for a Scribe Award this year, which is nice.  I’ve also written two new Noreela novels (more of which later), and Christopher Golden and I are collaborating on a series of contemporary fantasy novels for Bantam Spectra, the Novels of the Hidden Cities.  These are stand-alone stories, connected thematically in that they’re all set in one of the world’s great cities.  Chris and I are also writing Young Adult (YA) novels for Atheneum, a series called THE SECRET JOURNEYS OF JACK LONDON.  And I’ve written a YA novel myself, the first in the TOXIC CITY trilogy.

SFFWORLD: Are you finding the transition/responsibility of being a fulltime writer liberating or scary? I have heard other writers say they’ve found it quite difficult…

TIM: There are sometimes financial worries, and managing and predicting cashflow is still something I’m getting used to – for the last twenty years, I’ve had a salary at the end of every month, and suddenly that’s stopped!  But I can honestly say, going full time is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  It’s utterly liberating making my own living doing what I love to do, and even the low points are just part of the process.  I feel happier now than ever before, my old day job feels like someone else’s memory, and commuting into my den every morning still gives me a smile.  I’m very lucky.

SFFWORLD: The response to DUSK was pretty good, and of course you deservedly won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel with DUSK, last year. I think you’ve been nominated five times before! Having been nominated so many times before, was that a surprise? Dare you think about, or are you brave enough, to try and say why do you think it won?

TIM: There’s footage on the web somewhere of my acceptance ‘speech’.  More an acceptance splutter.  I was stunned.  There was a staggering list of nominees, and wining was something I truly wasn’t expecting, especially as DUSK wasn’t even published in the UK.  It was a real thrill, and one of the best moments of my career.  Not my first award, but my first award for a novel.  I was – and still am – delighted.
Why did it win?  Well, I think DUSK polarised opinion quite a bit.  Some people adored it, and some weren’t at all impressed.  And I think perhaps novels that provoke extremes of reaction are more likely to do well in such circumstances.

SFFWORLD: I’d agree with that. I think many were surprised at the books, combining your love of horror with a fresh and different for you, new world. Sometimes I think it is that difference that can get things noticed.

TIM: I was happy to defy expectations, if that’s the case.  But as I’ve always said, they’re books I wanted to write.  It wasn’t an intentional, conscious shift into fantasy, but rather a widening of the stuff I wanted to write about.  I’m sure that’ll happen again, and again.

SFFWORLD: And, of course, since we last spoke, the HELLBOY work seems to have been well received. Have you had anything to do with the new movie? It looks pretty good in the trailer…

TIM: No, I wrote an original Hellboy novel.  Nothing to do with the first movie, and nothing to do with this one.  The novels are actually based on the graphic novels, not the movies, as there are some differences.

SFFWORLD: Any more wishes to continue there?

TIM: Well you heard it here first, but as it happens, I’ll be writing a brand new Hellboy novel for Dark Horse this year!  It’s called HELLBOY: THE FIRE WOLVES.

SFFWORLD: And so to your latest, FALLEN. Though it is set in Noreela, this looks to me to be something different to DUSK and DAWN. Would I be right in thinking it’s an exploration novel? How about an archaeology tale? I’m also thinking an Indiana Jones type tale…. But with that traditional, darker Lebbon twist?

TIM: Definitely with a darker twist, oh yes.  FALLEN is a novel I’m just so, so pleased with.  I think the central idea is strong – two explorers seeking the greatest secret in Noreela fall out on their journey, and it turns into a deadly race.  And though it’s set in Noreela, it does have a different feel to DUSK and DAWN.  Those two books were my first fantasy novels, and they were very large scale, world-in-peril books.  FALLEN does have a large scope, both in idea and the distance travelled by characters in the novel, but it’s written from just two points of view, and because of that the story feels much smaller and more personal.  I love these two characters, Ramus and Nomi.  Their relationship is very difficult, and individually they are complex, challenged people. I definitely feel that the book is a huge step on from DUSK and DAWN, and it’s already attracted a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which is nice.  I feel as though I’m really starting to get to know Noreela, and I think that shines through in the novel … though ironically, much of it is about discovery and exploration.

SFFWORLD: How does this new book expand on the earlier Noreela books?

TIM: It’s set 4,000 years before DUSK, before magic introduced itself into the land for the first time.  There are people who practise false magic, and those who know the secret uses of herbs and minerals.  And there are also other things that happened due to curses, and old, old religions and belief.  But noreal magic.  Not yet.  But there are rumblings …

SFFWORLD: So, a pre-history/prequel, then?

TIM: I wouldn’t even call it a prequel, to be honest.  It’s a stand-alone story set in the same world, though much, much earlier.  There’s some stuff that DUSK and DAWN readers will recognise, and plenty they won’t, but the story itself is not directly connected, other than being set in the same world.

I found it interesting setting a book this long before the first two, because though I had a world to work with which was partly recognisable, there were also large differences to explore and write about.  Physically Noreela is different in many small, and one large respect, and its population is also much smaller than in DUSK, and restricted mainly to the north.  The farther south my characters go, the wilder and more deadly the land becomes.  It’s a real journey into the unknown.

SFFWORLD: This book seems to delve back into Noreela’s sinister history, too. Is that something that has grown out of the earlier Noreela writing or something you’ve always thought about doing?

TIM: One thing I loved about writing the first two books was that a mere throwaway remark by one of the characters could inspire ideas for whole new novels set in the past.  As I wrote them, a whole historical tapestry was forming in my mind.  It was quite a different and exciting experience for me, because before that virtually all of my writing was set in our world.

FALLEN explores the strange history of the Sleeping Gods some more, and also reveals more about how some of the geography of the land was created.

SFFWORLD: How are you finding writing Fantasy, as opposed to your more traditional Horror? Sometimes it can be hard to get over those genre divides! Has it been different? Refreshing? Frustrating? Do you think you have grown as a writer, writing these books, do you think?

TIM: Different, yes, but in a wholly positive way.  I think I’ve grown as a writer, in that these Noreela books really encourage me to flex my imagination.  I still work hard on characterisation, but I’m enjoying the whole process of … well, it’s creating a whole new world in my mind.  It’s quite staggering, really. Noreela is starting to feel very real to me, and though I’ve already written a fourth novel set there (THE ISLAND, due 2009), I’m growing more excited about it as time goes by.

SFFWORLD: There is a trend at the moment for darker, grittier Fantasy: Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan. This is clearly also something that is a theme in your Noreela books. Why do you think this is a recurring theme at present? Is it Fantasy evolving, or just genres melding?

TIM: With me, it’s just because that’s the way I am.  Much of what I write is horror, and when I wrote DUSK and DAWN, it was because the story itself interested, not the actual idea of writing a fantasy.

As for the more gritty fantasy, I don’t know why that is.  Maybe because of the way things are in the world at the moment?  We need to read fiction where things are worse?  I’m not sure … but I think it’s a good thing.  Traditional heroic fantasy will always be with us, but these darker fantasies tend to blur boundaries more, which in my eyes has always been a positive thing.

SFFWORLD: Do such wider trends really matter to you as a writer?

TIM: Not especially … I write exactly what I want to write, and what excites me, and I’m very lucky to be able to do that.  I don’t set out to try and follow popular trends – otherwise I’d have turned to crime long ago (writing it, not perpetrating).  I have done a little tie-in work, but even that is only stuff that I feel particularly in love with, like the Hellboy novels.  I’d never write a novelisation of High School Musical, unless it ended with all the kids being eating by flesh-eating platypii.  Hey … (scribbling notes).

SFFWORLD: That sounds more to my taste too. (grins) You’ve been published for a while now (11 years by my reckoning.) How do you see the market at the moment, and how different is it to when you first started?

TIM: In the UK, it’s better than it has been for a while.  The indie press has also come a long way since I began.  It’s all looking good, I reckon, although publishing in general has fallen in love with celebrity a bit too much for my liking.  Imagine, if I had an affair with Joss Stone, and a Hello! Photo-shoot, my sales would rocket.  Hey … (emailing Joss Stone).

SFFWORLD: In a way it would be nice if we could we get to the point where genre writers might be as well respected as ‘the celebrities’? There’s JK Rowling of course, and I guess Philip Pullman, not to mention Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett…but writing tends to be a solitary business for the most part. Have your own writing routines changed now that you’re full-time?

TIM: Most weekdays I try to work all day.  I’ll check my emails early on, get the kids ready for school (and take them a couple of times each week), then I usually settle down with a cuppa about 9:30 and start writing.  I’ll take a couple of breaks through the day – lunch, a run (training for a half marathon!) – and I usually finish about 5:30-ish.  Later in the evening, after the kids are in bed, I might do a bit more, though this is usually not actual writing.  Answering emails, interviews, proposals for new books, chatting with my agent, or Chris Golden about our various projects …  It’s a 24 hour job.  And I bloody love it.

I still mainly take weekends off, depending on how pressing things are.  But even then I’m often tapping away on emails, brainstorming new ideas, or editing.  My brain’s always working.  Honestly.  It just sometimes looks like it isn’t.

As for the celebrity thing … the four you mention are all great ambassadors for the genre of the fantastic, and we’re lucky to have them.  Really, I’m not bitter about people like Kate Price/Jordan being able to sell books simply because she’s got huge assets (though have you had the misfortune to see even a snippet of the TV programme about her and Peter Andre?  Two of the least interesting people I have ever set eyes upon!).  And in fact, I’m not sure theydo sell books because readers respect them.  Some do, I’m sure, but isn’t it really a kind of voyeurism?

SFFWORLD: I’m getting the impression myself that (in the UK at least) things are looking up?

TIM: I think you’re right!  For the first time, I have a mainstream publisher in the UK.  Allison & Busby will be releasing FALLEN in hardback in August, as well as my horror novel THE EVERLASTING (which actually has more than a dash of dark fantasy … immortals, mythic books etc).  So yes, it’s definitely looking up.  Some of the grittier fantasy novels you mentioned above are selling exceedingly well, and I’m hoping these books of mine with A&B are just the start of something big.  It’s very exciting! And Virgin have also started a horror line, which is fantastic.

SFFWORLD: Will that mean the appearance (or reappearance!) of older Lebbon stuff in the UK?

TIM: Nothing firm yet, but there’s always the possibility, I guess.  I’d love to see FALLEN do well, and then perhaps see DUSK and DAWN make an appearance at some point.  But it’s early days yet.

SFFWORLD: And the US?

TIM: The same.  More horror is being published, and the fantasy market is very healthy over there.  I’m writing my fantasy novels for Bantam, and also the contemporary fantasy series with Chris Golden.  Indie presses like Night Shade Books are starting mass market lines, too.  There are the doomsayers, as usual, but I think things are looking good.

SFFWORLD: Haven’t really mentioned collaboration yet, but your collaborative work with Christopher Golden seems to be working really well. How are you finding the collaborative experience? And how does it work with you two?

TIM: Actually, the novels I’m writing with Chris are very rewarding, and we’re both having a lot of fun with them.  They’re subtitled Novels of the Hidden Cities, and though they’re stand-alone stories, they’re linked thematically in that each novel is set in one of the world’s great cities.  They explore the underside, the forgotten histories, the hidden myths of those cities.  The first, MIND THE GAP, is due out at the end of May.  It’s set, as you might suspect, in London, and concerns a teenage girl’s discovery of her role in London’s strange, haunted history.

The second, THE MAP OF MOMENTS, is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and was a real challenge to write.  A gruelling, grim book, and the research for that really opened my eyes about the shameful mess of Hurricane Katrina.  How something like that could have happened in the USA … beyond belief.

Chris and I clicked right away when we first met a few years ago, and we’ve been good friends ever since.  Working on something together was a natural progression – we both love collaborating – and the process is a real pleasure.  We come up with quite a detailed proposal, then each set about writing a chapter or two at a time.  We have a detailed conversation between each chapter about where we’re going from there, and we also edit each other’s work as things tick along.  We have ideas for the next two books, and we hope to continue the series for as long as possible.  We’ll certainly never run out of cities!

Actually, Chris is a Guest of Honour at this year’s British Fantasy Convention, and I get to interview him on stage!  That is something I’m really looking forward to (bwah-ha-ha!).

SFFWORLD: Future projects? Are you planning more Noreela? Back to Horror? More collaborations?

TIM: All of the above!  I’m hoping to write more Noreela novels, and I also have an idea for a stand alone fantasy book set in another, much stranger world. Night Shade Books are publishing my new horror novel BAR NONE this year.  And as mentioned, Chris Golden and I are writing the continuing Hidden Cities series for Bantam, as well as the Jack London books for Atheneum.  I’ve also written my own YA novel, the first of a trilogy called TOXIC CITY.

SFFWORLD: How are you finding writing YA? It’s a growth area at the moment, I think, but one that’s often not as easy to write as some would assume. (The old story that goes along the line of ‘If JK can do it, then I can’ are seemingly everywhere.)  Is it a different process?

TIM: I really enjoy it.  There were two routes I could have taken when I decided to try a YA novel: read as many as I could, and take advice from loads of writers about how to approach them; or just try it for myself.  I plumped for the latter.  When I wrote the first TOXIC CITY book, I did so from the point of view of a teenage character, and that really didn’t change the way I approached the writing of it at all.  I tried hard to project myself back twenty years, but I’ve written quite a bit of stuff from the viewpoints of children (NAMING OF PARTS, THE REACH OF CHILDREN, UNTIL SHE SLEEPS), and I really enjoy that creative process.  I found that whilst writing, I remembered a lot more about being a teenager than I thought possible, and I did my best to have my characters act, think, and react as teenagers would.  I think it worked out really well.

SFFWORLD: We should, of course, mention that there’s always updates and news on your three websites (yes, three of them!):

www.timlebbon.net

www.noreela.com

www.thehiddencities.com

SFFWORLD: Thanks, Tim: all the best.

TIM: Thanks Mark!  Always a pleasure.

And an extract from Tim’s latest novel, FALLEN, mentioned above, is HERE.

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