Fans of horror and dark fantasy will recognize the name of the man I was privileged to interview recently. Tim Lebbon has entertained readers with his unique blend of fantasy and horror for close to two decades now. He’s taken us below the streets of London; led us on high-sea adventures; thrust us into a fantasy world of magic and violence; and shown us our darkest fears.
Tim took time away from his writing and family to talk with me about writing and the amazing, twisted stories he creates.
RLM: You were quite young when you began writing. At what age did you decide this was the path you wanted to take in life, rather than make it a hobby? Was your family supportive of your writing?
TL: I’ve written virtually all my life, but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started to view it as a possible career. By then I was stuck behind a desk at the local council, but that turned into something of a blessing as they were very amenable to me having a couple of months off here and there, unpaid, to complete novels. My family has always been supportive, although when I took the plunge to go full-time I think my wife was secretly worried. It’s worked out OK so far.
RLM: Your first book, Mesmer, was published in 1997. Since then you have gone on to write and publish more than 30 books. How do you think your writing has evolved since Mesmer?
TL: I’m always learning. I think I produce a cleaner first draft now… I used to spend as much time rewriting and editing as I did writing a first draft, but I think now my first drafts are a lot more effective. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. It’s also natural that your writing changes as you get older. I used to write a lot about loss and grief, but didn’t really know what I was on about until my mother died 8 years ago.
RLM: Would you describe yourself as a “pantser” writer or a “planner?”
TL: I’ve never heard the term ‘pantser’ … I assume that means writing by the seat of your pants? I’m about halfway between the two. I usually write a proposal for a novel, mainly to show publishers, then just plunge in and see what happens. I then plan as I’m going on, making notes all the time as I’m working my way through a novel. I’m not sure planning in great detail before starting chapter one would suit me, because I’d feel that the story was told and it would inevitably change anyway. But sometimes I do lose myself a little, and sit back and think about how much easier it would be if I had more of an idea of what was happening. But life’s like that, too.
RLM: Genres are often a slippery topic. The meanings change according to the author/agent/publisher. On your website you identify yourself as a writer of horror and dark fantasy. What, to your mind, differentiates “dark fantasy” from other types of fantasy?
TL: Honestly, I’m not sure and I don’t spend too much time thinking about it. I write what I want to write and it usually fits one of the pigeonholes desired by the publisher. I am aware of things when I’m pitching. So if I’m approaching a publisher who’s previously published a couple of horror novels of mine, I wouldn’t likely pitch them a historical fantasy without first talking it through with them.
RLM: You’re a very prolific author. How has having children affected your ability to produce your stories?
TL: It dictates how my days are structured, but I still write very quickly. I was thinking about this only today, actually. I spend some days agonising that I haven’t done enough work, but when I hit the gas I write very quickly, in short splurges. So today I’ve done almost 2,000 words on a new novel, whilst worrying I wasn’t working hard enough. I tend to write when I’m home alone, so between the hours of 9 and 3 in the afternoon. After that things get hectic, and that’s when I do stuff like… this! Interviews, emails, a bit of researching or reading perhaps. I also run and cycle and swim a lot, and I’ll be out later for a run. Blows away the cobwebs.
RLM: How long on average does it take you to write a book, from first conception to polished manuscript?
TL: The actual process is usually 4 – 6 months, sometimes a bit longer, but in that time I’ll also be writing short stories and perhaps screenplays. It’ll sometimes be years between having an idea and actually writing it. There have been occasions when a novel’s taken me a lot less time… I once wrote two novels in two months. They both did very well.
RLM: Your Noreela books were your first full-on entry into the epic fantasy arena. How did writing them differ from books like Mind the Gap or Desolation or The Everlasting?
TL: I loved writing those books. I enjoyed the freedom, the world building, the use of magic, the way I could write a book with sentient tumbleweed! Great fun. They were grim as hell, of course, and I guess they were horror books in an alternate world. Dusk is still earning royalties 8 years after publication, so something went right with that one.
RLM: Tell me about Dreaming in Fire Press.
TL: I thought it was about time I started getting some of my backlist out there as ebooks. So there are 6 novellas available on Kindle at present, with more planned in the future. It’s a bit of an experiment to be honest, and I’m slowly learning about the whole process. It’s easy to publish them and just throw them out there, but there are lots of ways to promote the ebooks and keep sales ticking over. I’m trying to balance the time spent doing that against writing new books!
RLM: If you had to pinpoint one element that differentiates good fantasy writing from bad fantasy writing, what would that element be? The same with horror writing.
TL: I think with any book the characters have to be good, and the writing pleasing. I usually say that a book has to have soul… that’s difficult to pin down, but I know it when I see it. I’d rather read a bad story well written, than a good story badly written. Write a good story well and you’re onto a winner.
RLM: What do you want to have accomplished in your career when it’s all said and done?
TL: I honestly don’t think about that. Maybe I should. I’m not working towards any end product, I don’t think. I just love writing and telling stories, and I want to do it forever, so of course I have to balance commercial aspects against the creative side of things. I have to make money to continue doing this thing that I love as much as I want to. I like it when a book reaches a wide audience and the reaction is good. Equally, I love writing novellas for the indie press, enabling me to produce something a little more off-the-wall. Less ‘commercial’, whatever that is.
RLM: Current/upcoming project?
TL: Coldbrook is out now in the USA from Titan. I have another novel, The Silence, due from Titan early next. I’ve also written a thriller called Endure which I hope to see out there soon, and I’m working on a new novel called Relics right now, as well as a handful of short stories for various markets. And I’m writing a pitch for something which I think––hope––will be something very different for me. More soon!
To find out more about Tim Lebbon and his work, visit http://www.timlebbon.net/