We spoke with Tim Clare, author of The Honours and The Ice House.
Tim Clare is a poet, author and musician. He was born in 1981, and grew up in Portishead, in South-West England.
In 2005 he presented the Channel 4 series How To Get A Book Deal. His first book, We Can’t All Be Astronauts, a memoir about jealousy and having one last shot at achieving your dreams, won Best Biography/Memoir at the East Anglian Book Awards. He has performed his work on BBC 1, 2, Radio 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6, and has written for The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Big Issue and Writing magazine, amongst others. (from Tim's website)
What are your influences in fiction? Do you have a favourite genre or author? What would you say were significant influences on you (TV, film, music?)
I think reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies had a huge influence on me, in terms of seeing how something could be an adventure but also be about something. It was probably my first apprehension of ‘literariness’ as a thing. Though – and I hope I don’t come off as a smug arsehole here but who knows, I may be – reading him now I find his use of themes rather crude at times. He does tend to intrude with these portentous pronouncements like some grim, didactic anthropologist. But he’s an amazing writer on the line, when he can hold back from showing off.
Steve Aylett is another author who had a big impact on me, just in terms of packing a lot in on the line, taking risks, and being interesting and weird. A lot of ostensible experimental, transgressive writing actually involves rather safe, clinical pootering with syntax and logic, and protects the author from criticism by making their purpose so oblique as to render the work impervious to criticism. Steve Aylett pushes the envelope while actually possessing technical skill and intellectual reach. But because he’s also got lobsters and sentient guns the literary mainstream have sort of passed him by.
I read most things but Fantasy is my jam. I just want it to be well-written and cool. I love Ursula Le Guin, I love Susanna Clarke, I’m not sure if Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed is Fantasy but it’s certainly incredible, ditto Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard. It’s got to be weird and actually good. So few books are.
Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?
Gosh I don’t know. I think a lot of people said after The Honours that they’d never read anything like it before. Then a lot of people said The Ice House wasn’t what they were expecting after The Honours. So I’d say anyone who enjoys getting lost. Who likes it when the fog descends and your phone dies and strange noises come at you from places you didn’t expect.
What’s the most memorable book you read as a child? And as an adult?
Max und Moritz was one of my favourites as a child. Two boys play a series of pretty vicious pranks upon their neighbours, including strangling a widow’s chickens or burning the hair off the church organist, then they’re caught and tossed under the millwheel, ground up and eaten by ducks.
As an adult – gosh. Lots, but I do think Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a pretty mindblowing achievement. I’m so heartened that it found a huge audience, because it’s amazing, but it’s not easy. It doesn’t pander. It drips quality, wit and love. I can only imagine a dizzying amount of work went into it and I’m very grateful we have such an original, challenging, humane work of fiction to enjoy.
Do you have much time to read; do you read for pleasure or for work?
Both! I have to read new books for the podcast every week, so I can chat to guests who are authors. I also read for pleasure – a mix of fiction and non-fiction, also comics. I read every day.
How do you write? Do you have a special place, or system that you like to use? Do you have any rituals to help you write?
I sit at my desk in my office, and sometimes get a little anxious or despondent. But I spoke to a procrastination researcher called Dr Tim Pychyl, and he advised me (amongst many things) to just focus on ‘what’s the next action?’ whenever I’m overwhelmed. So that might be, ‘get to my office’, or ‘open my laptop’ or ‘open a file in Word’ or ‘write the word “The”’. If I’m feeling very intimidated I try to set a timer for ten minutes, write for that long, then stop. If I can’t go on after that, fair enough. I turned up and maybe that’s me for the day. I manage an anxiety disorder and mental health challenges, and one thing I know is, you can’t bully yourself out of procrastination. Being mean makes the problem demonstrably worse – actually I’ve seen the studies backing this up.
Do you have any sage advice for aspiring writers? Have you ever received any advice which was useful that you would pass on to others?
So much. My writing podcast has over 160 episodes and I haven’t run out of things to learn or say yet. But I’ll pick something at random.
Creative joy is like a guinea pig. It dies unless you feed it. Scribbling in journals, jotting down ideas, doing short freewrites, challenging yourself with writing exercises, meeting with others to play writing games or tell stories – all these things are an essential part of the process. They’re your oxygen. So many writers – especially when they’re trying to finish a novel, or they’re on deadline – cut themselves off from all the ‘frivolous’ silly creative games that got them started in the first place. They think they don’t have time.
You don’t have time to not play. If you stop goofing around you’re choking off your creative air. Inspiration means breathing in. Anxiety takes its root from a word meaning literally, to choke. Play reduces anxiety and increases inspiration. So play. It’s your job.
Are there plans for another novel in the pipeline? (I really hope so!)
Yes. I’m finishing off one about goblins now, then I’d like to write the final one in The Honours series. Actually I also feel like there might be a novella I want to write in The Honours universe too. Even if it’s just for myself or I give it away free, it’s in my brain and I think it’s going to cause trouble unless I let it come out.
Gideon/Arthur/Delphine/Hagar – where did they come from? Who’s your favourite character?
I mean, yikes. I can’t pick favourites!
Honestly, I discover characters – they build up over time. I might get an image, a snatch of a scene, then I discovery write to find out about them. I have an awful feeling Gideon might be a bit me, though. He certainly experiences some things close to my own experience, and some of those feelings he has – I realised later – were my own.
Delphine is so real to me I had a start the other day when I remembered she’s not. Fiction writing really can be a culturally-mandated form of mental illness. I don’t say that lightly or frivolously. Obviously I’m very fond of Delphine, and rooting for her.
Hagar was really about an act of empathy. I wondered what it would be like, being someone in Mr Cox’s position, and I felt he’d got a bit of a raw deal since we didn’t get to experience the world from his perspective. I feel very strongly about the novel as heteroglossia, and when we only present one side we’re really in the business of advertising. So I needed to explore her life, and figure out what motivates her, what’s her story.
You talk very openly on Twitter and your blog about the financial implications and the reality behind selling books – what kind of feedback are you seeing about that?
People are pretty positive about it. Especially other artists. Look, I’d rather be boasting about the huge numbers my books are doing, but in the absence of that I can at least be honest. Life’s short and uncertain and it’s sad if folks feel a pressure to go through it hiding aspects of themselves or being ashamed. I feel like a culture of openness is something I want to contribute to.
Faith (and religion) are implicit – the fallen angel(s), the redemption of the damned, eternal life, eternal punishment, great powers outside of the individual – was this deliberate, or do you think that they are eternal and universal themes?
They’re very important to Hagar, certainly. Delphine, less so, though like any human being she’s not immune to wondering what it all means.
It’s hard to draw a distinction between the subject matter of a book, and its themes. I wonder if themes are rather modes of interpretation than intrinsic properties of the novel.
Hagar seems to have adopted a rather syncretic and highly idiosyncratic theology over the years. It’s probably not surprising given that she’s been alive longer than most people. So that is the interpretative lens through which she slices up the world. For me – and I don’t want to make this an ex-cathedra pronouncement about how to interpret the novel – I personally look at the events through the lens of loss. There’s this pervasive grief we see once love’s floodwaters have receded. And maybe that grief is an inextricable part of love, perhaps what we’re seeing in that devastation is in fact a testament to love. I don’t know. But loss thunders through the valleys taking everything in its wake. And how terrible it is to behold.
Are you a science-fiction fan? It felt as though there are a few echoes of CS Lewis & Michael Moorcock in your stories, was this intentional?
I love The Screwtape Letters with all my heart, and I think the Narnia books are ace if perhaps a little preachy. So any comparison is welcome, albeit the influence was subconscious.
I find Moorcock a bit tedious, I’m afraid. I thought his History of the Runestaff books were dire, full of flat characters and generic set pieces. But then I heard he wrote each book in 3 days, which I can entirely believe, so I suppose that’s quite impressive. I’ve never really forgiven him for his Epic Pooh and Starship Stormtroopers essays, which are these breathtaking exercises in juvenile point-scoring against Tolkien and Lewis that he is simply not a skilled enough writer to get away with. Especially as he is guilty of everything he accuses them of, from tin-eared prose to racial essentialism to the valorisation of war.
There’s a very rich world-building feel to both books, and the two worlds are so different – was it hard to switch between them as you wrote?
Not really, though it took a lot of work to research our world and also create the other world. I wrote a great deal more than could fit in the book – not just notes but cut chapters, extra scenes. An awful lot. The first finished draft ran to a quarter of a million words, and I did over 20 drafts. Which is silly and unsustainable and I don’t recommend any writer try it.
Age and youth are juxtaposed very interestingly in the books – you write eloquently about the vulnerabilities and frailties of old age, and the powerlessness of childhood extremely movingly. Do you have strong memories of your own childhood? What’s your experience with older people to inform this writing?
Delphine’s very ageist in The Honours, which I got to write in the knowledge that I was going to put her in the place of the people she was judging pretty soon. I did a lot of research in preparation, read a lot of memoirs written by older people reflecting on their experiences of age, but then at some point you just engage with the actual character and write her honestly. Her experience of age is not the same as other old characters’ experience. But you know what? I do think it’s one thing that connects her and Hagar. They’re both old women who have seen friends die and governments change and wars reshape the land, and they both understand that if the past is another country, age is a kind of exile.
My memory of childhood is of being an odd kid. My parents were very loving and kind so I was incredibly lucky. I was also, I think, a bit peculiar, growing up reading in a small town where that kind of thing wasn’t valued. It wasn’t until I left home that I understood there was a wider world out there, and other freaks.
There is a sense of lost opportunity, of time spent but not enjoyed at the start of The Ice House. What kind of life do you think Delphine has led in the elapsed time between both books?
Well, we’re told a bit. And it’s coloured partially by the fact she’s in a bit of a funk because she’s just lost another companion. When I’m feeling low I tend to reflect on my life in unflattering terms.
My guess – though I don’t know – is that she forged a life where she was able to be relatively independent, and enjoy relative liberty. But that meant hiding a lot of who she was. So she’s led a sort of double life. It’s that exile again, only she’s been a kind of internal emigrant. But the people who were allowed into that final circle of intimacy, she’s been very close to.
I don’t get the sense her life has been especially unhappy, but it has been inflected by early trauma. And though I would not call her cowardly, I think she knows she has not lived with the kind of thundering courageousness she would have liked. There’s a kind of miserliness there that feels like a waste.
Visually and imaginatively these books are a treat – would you like to see them transfer to TV or the big screen?
Of course. I think they’d work incredibly well as a Netflix series. Also I would get a lot of money if someone bought the rights. So I could finally build my family a sauna.
Has becoming a father changed how you write? Parent/child relationships are very strongly written in the books – has your own experience of childhood and parenthood fed into that much?
Weirdly a lot of the parental stuff got cut from The Ice House after my daughter was born. So it’s less parenty than I expected. But the scene with Sarai’s birth definitely owed something to the birth of my daughter. I know everyone says birth is incredible but it was genuinely one of the most intense things I’ve ever experienced and my wife was like some kind of mythic warrior.
How much research did you do for the books? There is a huge amount of information in the footnotes, especially for The Honours, which I thought was great fun to read. Is it all true?
Most of it! The pile of books I read for The Honours alone was far taller than me. I also visited a lot of locations. I handled most of the guns featured, and had shooting lessons. I went to the jungle, rode down the river on a boat. Almost nothing isn’t based on some piece of research. I even checked the phases of the moon for that year, when certain shows were on the radio, how much train tickets cost – all sorts of daft stuff.
The covers of your books are spectacular. How much input did you have to their design?
None. Which is good because I am aesthetically unskilled in the extreme. They’re lush aren’t they. Canongate exceeded my wildest expectations. I couldn’t have asked for more and they’ve done such a good job of conveying the feel of the novels while tempting people in.
Finally - was there a real-life inspiration for the story locations (in this world!)
The main inspiration for Alderberen Hall is Holkham Hall – you can go visit the ice house there, near the lake. The village nearby draws partly on Stiffkey – though I should say Stiffkey is mentioned in the book, so we know by implication that it’s not, in fact, that. But the beach at Stiffkey is definitely the sort of terrain where all Delphine’s coastal wanderings happen. It’s an amazing, eerie part of the world.
Avalonia owes a bit to my visit to Brunei and the jungles of north Borneo. I definitely had the conscious thought when I was walking through the jungle, ‘ok, this is what the next book is going to have then’, and I just wrote down what I saw and smelt and heard. But then I folded in bits of Vietnam and obviously stuff I made up.
We’d like to thank Tim Clare very much for his time and input. We wish him all the success imaginable for his books, and we look forward to seeing what comes next.
The Honours and The Ice House are both available from A Great Read.