Today I am ever so pleased to welcome speculative fiction writer, Tim Major to the blog. Considering the fact that Tim hasn’t been writing for all that long, he has achieved a considerable amount of success in a variety of forms. Huge thanks to Tim for answering my nosy questions. And I quite agree – chocolate raisins are an ideal snack!
1. How, when and why did you first start writing?
In 2012 I was impressed with a friend who’d written a crime novel during NaNoWriMo (a community event encouraging people to write a 50k-word novel during November, with lots of online and local support). She didn’t intend to go any further than that hastily-written first draft, and I think she may have had the manuscript bound to mark the achievement. I’d always liked the idea of writing fiction, but that lowered scale of ambition really appealed to me – that is, I figured that I too could dedicate a month to producing 50,000 words of something, and then I would have got the ambition of being a writer out of my system. I couldn’t hang on until November, so I spent a dark February writing and doing little else. The novel was pretty awful and I never returned to the manuscript, but I’d caught the writing bug and I’d encountered a lot of interesting puzzles about the writing process that I hadn’t come across in writing manuals, related to viewpoint and structure. The next two novels were both under similar one-month-challenge conditions, and I was still chewing over techniques, but after that point I think the tenacity required to get something finished was more or less ingrained. Since then, the only times I’ve had more than a couple of weeks away from writing were directly after each of my children were born.
2. I first encountered your writing through your short story ‘The Walls of Tithonium Chasm’, first published in Shoreline of Infinity and then reprinted in Best of British Science Fiction 2017. It is a visually striking piece of short fiction. What is it about the short story form – as opposed to long form writing – that you particular like?
I’m really pleased that you like that story. I wrote a version of ‘The Walls of Tithonium Chasma’ long ago, in March 2013. While I did rewrite parts of it and add to it several times over the years as I found my style, it had racked up more than 30 rejections before Noel at Shoreline accepted it. The fact that it was then selected for Best of British SF is a good reminder that tenacity is just as important as talent.
Anyway, that wasn’t really your question. I’ll confess that, as a reader, I don’t love short stories nearly as much as I love novels. While there are lots of current writers whose short fiction I adore, I’m always hopeful they’ll end up producing a novel! So, I feel something of a fraud writing short stories – and selecting and editing them for BFS Horizons – when I don’t really have a clear idea about what makes for good ones. But perhaps that’s not necessarily how it works, and it’s possible to feel your way instead… So, my answer to your question is a practical one – short stories are quicker to write, they’re a great way to roadtest ideas (my first novels all began as short stories, then grew), and writing short stories is itself great preparation for writing novels, in that each scene in a novel ought to have its own beats and a kind of completeness.
3. Impressively, you also have two novellas, four novels and a large amount of non-fiction to your name. Short, medium and long form writing (as well as non-fiction) all involve rather different skills. How does each one of them inform the others?
As I mentioned in my last answer, I’ve found that short stories can grow to become novels, and one of my failed NaNoWriMo novels was hacked down to its early chapters and became my first novella (Carus & Mitch, published in 2013). I’m not certain that the writing approaches for each type are necessarily distinct, especially if you view long-form fiction as a series of shorter pieces that happen to build towards something larger. I suppose that one big difference is the level of planning required, and I’ve become more and more of a plotter for novels, writing scene-by-scene synopses that can run to 10k or 15k words. I know that many writers’ hearts would sink at the idea of so much preparation, but I feel that a detailed plot outline is far from having a clear idea of the entire novel – for me, the joy of a first draft is more about the character quirks and dialogue that crop up spontaneously. And anything I can do to avoid feeling adrift in terms of plot is a good thing.
As for non-fiction, the opportunity to write a monograph about the 1915 film Les Vampires fell into my lap after a conversation with Electric Dreamhouse editor Neil Snowdon at a convention. Writing that book felt like the most wonderful self-indulgence, involving watching my favourite film countless times without feeling guilty about it. I ended up approaching the film as a novelist, treating the film as a world to wander around in, and producing pieces of weird short fiction to complement the analysis. It was a very happy experience, and there’s more outright joy in that book than all the rest put together!
4. You’ve been published by many small, independent presses as well as the large indie publishing house, Titan Books. What’s it like to work with an independent press, big or small?
I suppose what I’m not able to do is to compare my experience to publishing with one of the ‘big five’, but I do feel that my route has been a sort of happy apprenticeship, with each successive novel being published by a slightly bigger publisher, so there’s been a sense of constant, gradual progress. I’ll be honest, though: my two-book deal with Titan felt like an ‘arrival’ and a significant milestone, and I can’t imagine being happier than where I find myself currently. The current Titan roster is superb, and just the sort of hard-to-classify SFF that I like to read. The biggest differences between Titan and the small presses have been the dedicated marketing department, a marketing budget, and the sheer reach of the company, which has UK and US branches and good relationships with mainstream booksellers. Coming across copies of Snakeskins in pretty much any bookshop I enter has been… well, that’s the dream, when you start writing, isn’t it?
5. Having just now finished reading your short story collection, And the House Lights Dim, published by Luna Press Publishing, I wanted to say that I thought it a very impressive book. The writing is highly crafted and there’s an image-rich eeriness to many of the stories. There’s also a particular restraint to much of the writing, which only lends to the sense of disquiet. Is this a British thing, do you think, or a Tim Major thing?
I’m so happy that you enjoyed it! As I say, short story collections are less my passion than novels, so I never know how other people might feel about mine. And the House Lights Dim feels like showing the world more of myself than any of my novels, not least because the stories cover a five-year span of my life in which I’ve become a father to two sons. The stories are themed around houses and families and most of them relate specifically to parental fears. I don’t feel the need to keep a diary because my stories are usually very personal.
As for restraint… I really don’t know – and I immediately worry that the word might be a synonym for ‘dull’! I like quiet, careful fiction. I like the first act of horror films but rarely the gung-ho endings. I think that ‘disquiet’ is how anxious people tend to experience the world, and I think that’s more unsettling than tangible fears. And I suppose, ultimately, that I feel that facing one’s fears is what a lot of fiction is for.
As for a ‘Tim Major thing’… it’s lovely to imagine that such a thing might exist. My stories are definitely British – whether or not that’s a failure of imagination to think more broadly is up for debate!
6. Your agent is Alexander Cochran at C&W agency. How did you go about finding your agent and what’s your working relationship like?
Oddly, the Titan book deal came first – my manuscript for Snakeskins made its way onto a series of editors’ desks within the department and happened to end up with an editor who had once offered (while at a different company) to publish a novella of mine, Blighters – though it had ended up elsewhere. I suppose that prior relationship might have meant that he was predisposed to be interested in my novel. So, the offer came first, and Alexander was one of a number of agents to whom I’d already sent the novel. On the back of the Titan offer, a number of them were interested, but Alexander’s feedback chimed perfectly, and on top of that he’s a thoroughly good guy who’s deservedly getting noticed for his achievements. My next novel was already part of the two-book Titan deal so hasn’t required much to and fro with Alexander, but we’re now busy cooking up what’s next.
7. Can you offer any tips for writers who are just setting out on their journey to find an agent and publisher?
It’s always about the manuscript itself, of course – but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing a writer can do to aid their cause. I think that the series of accidents that resulted in Snakeskins being picked up by Titan is a useful case study. That is, I suspect it was the relationship established through submitting short fiction, along with my ‘writing CV’ that was becoming slightly more impressive all the time, that pushed Snakeskins over the line. I feel very strongly that finishing projects and submitting them again and again (if you continue to believe in them) is the key – opening as many doors as possible in the chance that they might lead to further opportunities. I honestly believe that my doggedness has been a far more valuable trait than any writing skill I may have.
8. Do you have any words of wisdom for writers experiencing discouragement?
From my previous answers, you can probably imagine where I’m going to with this… Keep writing. Accept rejections as part of the job. Keep submitting as long as you still like the work yourself. Always be a human being, both in person and online. Once again: keep writing.
9. Can you share any writing plans with us?
Sure! My next novel to be published is Hope Island, from Titan Books in May 2020. It’s about a mother and her daughter on a remote US island, with creepy local children, a cave full of ethereal song and quite a lot of dead bodies. Someone who read it recently described it as The Wicker Man directed by David Lynch so, yes, it’s kind of weird.
As for other projects… there’s a Mars detective novella out with publishers for consideration at the moment – it’s set in the same version of Mars as ‘The Walls of Tithonium Chasma’ and a bunch of my other stories. I’m currently working on my first historical novel, set in 1898 (it’s still a weird fantasy too, though!) – I’m halfway through the first draft and enjoying it immensely. The amount of research required is forcing me to change my writing process, though perhaps it’s no bad thing to mix it up. I’ve also written a detailed outline of another novel, about a woman who suspects she’s an undercover extraterrestrial, which may be next up after that.
10. Lastly, can you recommend a couple of good books to us? And what’s your tipple/snack of choice when you’re treating yourself to a ‘read-in’?
I’ll go for recent ones. I’ve just finished reading Michael Walters’ novel The Complex (Salt Publishing), which is terrific – an unsettling puzzle box with no easy answers. Speaking of Titan Books’ excellent lineup, The Migration by Helen Marshall, Zero Bomb by M.T. Hill and The Plague Stones by James Brogden are all outstanding. Always North by Vicki Jarrett has just been released by Unsung Stories, and I’d heartily recommend that too.
As for ‘read-ins’… My two sons have ensured that I haven’t had a ‘read-in’ for more than six years. But if I did, I would eat chocolate raisins.
Many thanks again to Tim for taking the time to answer my questions.
Tim Major’s love of speculative fiction is the product of a childhood diet of classic Doctor Who episodes and an early encounter with Triffids. His most recent books include SF novel Snakeskins, short story collection And the House Lights Dim and a non-fiction book about the 1915 silent crime film, Les Vampires, which was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Not One of Us and numerous anthologies, including Best of British Science Fiction and Best Horror of the Year. Find out more at www.cosycatastrophes.com or on Twitter @onasteamer