Tuesday, 3 September 2019
Interview Questions: Tim Major
What do you use for note-taking in preparation for new writing – paper, apps, or is it all in your head till you begin? If you use notebooks, do you have a favourite brand?
I’m not at all particular. My current notebook is a cheap lime green one that came in a multipack, but is usually used for notes at lectures or conferences rather than writing ideas. I tend to jot things in the Notes app of my phone, which is frustrating and impractical, but I’m more likely to actually note down the idea if the means to do so are always on my person. I rarely need much of a description to be able to retain an idea until the next time I’m at my desk.
In terms of more detailed preparation, I work entirely onscreen. I write copious notes in Word documents, as well as transcriptions of imagined conversations with myself whenever plot obstacles arise, if my wife is too busy to engage in that sort of conversation.
Where do you do your writing?
On my computer, at my desk in the attic of my house. It’s where I conduct my day job (I’m a freelance editor) so I can switch freely between work and writing. There’s a very thick soundproofed door at the bottom of the attic stairs so it’s nice and calm up here. I work on a laptop hooked up to a monitor with an extended desktop, and my laptop screen is a more or less permanently a display for Spotify.
What type of desk do you use when writing, and what type of chair?
Cheap Ikea desk, but it’s stable; swivel chair I got for free from my brother-in-law, but it’s comfy.
What do you write on, or with? What software or apps do you use?
I use Scrivener for anything longer than a short story. I’m evangelical about the software, despite the fact that I use barely any of its functionality. The ability to see a folder-structure overview of scenes of a my novel on the left-hand side of the screen is enormously important to me, so that I’m always clear of the context of the scene I’m working on, at any time. I’ve become more and more of a planner when I’m preparing novels, creating long synopses, so I rarely need to reorder scenes and I usually know where I’m going. But knowing where I am is just as important.
What time of day do you usually write, and how often do you write, and for how long? Do you write year-round, or does it tend to be in spells?
As I say, the hours allocated to my writing and my day job tend to be fluid. Also, my wife and I share the childcare of our two young children, so my desk time is rarely more than half of each week day. But when I’m in the midst of a novel I like to prioritise writing, usually managing an hour and a half just after doing the nursery drop-off. I usually write between 1000 and 1500 words an hour, so drafts tend to accumulate fairly quickly and satisfyingly. I write all year around, though this year is my first parental experience of school summer holidays, and I can tell you that my productivity has taken a big hit.
Who are your inspirations? Whose writing career would you like to have?
There are a lot of writers I love, of course. I came to SF as an eleven-year-old via John Wyndham and H.G. Wells, and their novels echo throughout all my work, I suspect. I love the playfulness of Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino and the precision of John Updike. I think Patricia Highsmith’s character work is outstanding and I adore Shirley Jackson’s unsettling tone. This is a terrible admission, but until seven or eight years ago, I rarely read modern novels. I do now, of course, and if I had ambitions of simulating a writer’s career it would be somebody working currently, as it’d be fruitless to yearn for an entirely different industry and readership, and different expectations of sustainability. The people I most envy are those who have many strings to their bow, producing novels, short stories, non-fiction books and also editing anthologies and performing other roles on that side of the editorial divide. I love being a freelance editor, but the closer I can bring my hobby and my more “legitimate” work, the happier I’ll be.
Imagine that a hundred years from now, a researcher into the work of Tim Major discovers this interview. Can you tell us something that she would be delighted to learn?
Oh, good grief. I don’t want to be too self-effacing, but that doesn’t strike me as a plausible scenario at all. I’m not a surprising person. I’m honest, I think, and I’m tenacious in a professional sense. Although this isn’t scandalous or surprising, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it in a writing interview before: I’m a decent bassist. The band I was in, The Hired Sportsmen, was named after a children’s book by Russell Hoban, who also wrote the SF classic Riddley Walker. When we played on the radio show hosted by Paul Heaton (the lead singer of the Beautiful South, who was very friendly), the studio wasn’t really set up for live performances of bands, so me and the drummer were relegated to performing in the bathroom, not even able to see the other band members.
You've co-edited three issues so far of BFS Horizons with Shona Kinsella for the British Fantasy Society. How has that been, and what have been your favourite stories so far?
It’s been lovely. Shona’s terrific to work alongside, and we had no trouble finding a groove in terms of responsibilities from the start – and more importantly, we tend to agree on story selections. I wouldn’t want to pick favourites, though I will say that I was very pleased that we decided to print Val Nolan’s story “Green Skies” in the most recent issue (#9) – it was a much longer story than our submission guidelines encourage, but we were both determined to include as soon as we read it. It’s a terrific story.
Is there a kind of story that you don't see enough of in the BFS Horizons submissions?
Fantasy stories, oddly enough! This isn’t a complaint, exactly, and of course fantasy is a very broad genre that can be defined in all sorts of ways. But it always strikes me as strange that we get so much weird fiction, SF and horror, but far fewer examples of traditional epic fantasy, say. Also, humour. We always look for lighter stories to balance out the grimmer stuff, but there never seem to be many to choose from.
Is there anything you can tell us about upcoming issues?
Not much, no! As soon as one is delivered we turn our attention to the next, but right now we’re at the very start of the process for #10. I do know that the cover is going to be great, though.
I loved the story you let us publish in TQF61, “To Ashes, Dust”: what of your other work would you recommend to people who enjoyed that one? Is any of your other work in the same continuity?
Yes, that story is one of several all set on the same nostalgic, idiosyncratic version of Mars, many with loosely interrelated elements. I’ll have to check my own website to figure out how many there are – bear with me… Ah, there are eight short stories so far, maybe nine at a push. Four of them have been published in Shoreline of Infinity, the excellent Edinburgh-based SF magazine that won Best Magazine at the British Fantasy Awards in 2018 and is nominated again this year. Two of the Mars stories (“The Walls of Tithonium Chasma” and “Throw Caution”) have been selected for successive editions of Best of British Science Fiction, published by NewCon Press. I’ve recently completed a novella in the same series – a Martian murder mystery – but that doesn’t have a home yet.
Do you know what? That hadn’t occurred to me, about standalone SF titles being rare. I would say that Titan Books, who published Snakeskins, may be bucking the trend on that score. I’m a huge fan of their recent output – novels by writers such as Nina Allan, Matt Hill, Helen Marshall, James Brogden and many more, all of which are standalone.
Anyway. Snakeskins is an SF thriller about a group of British people who have inherited the ability to rejuvenate every seven years, and in the process produce a short-lived “Snakeskin” clone of themselves, which possesses all of their memories and characteristics and may live for minutes, hours or days. So it’s about identity – the shock of coming face-to-face with yourself, and wondering whether you’re the most effective version of yourself. But it’s also a political novel. Over generations, this strange power has had the effect of Britain shutting itself off from the world to protect its secrets, and the corrupt British Prosperity Party now rules uncontested. So, without fear of giving away too great a spoiler, it’s about Brexit too.
Congratulations on your PS Publishing book about the film Les Vampires being up for a British Fantasy Award! How does that feel? (Nine years since our last nomination so we've forgotten!)
Thank you! It feels very nice. I don’t think of myself as a non-fiction writer, and it felt like a huge indulgence being allowed to spend so long thinking about a film I love, but I’m proud of the book. My approach wasn’t wholly academic – while I did a lot of research, I spent an equal amount of time trying to unpick and explain my fascination with the film, which is a 10-part silent crime serial from 1915–16. There are also ten pieces of weird fiction included in the book, one following each episode of the serial, and I’m very fond of those. They’re very weird. But hey! You should find a copy of the film and watch it, which would be the most satisfying outcome of the book getting attention. Les Vampires has everything: proto-horror, car chases, sequences that rival David Lynch for weirdness, plus Musidora, the greatest female action star of all time…
Finally, the most important bit, your newest book: And the House Lights Dim. What can you tell us about it? And is that a cover by the esteemed Daniele Serra?
And the House Lights Dim is a short story collection, featuring stories written over a four-year period (plus another three written solely for the collection), spanning the years in which my two sons were born. That timing explains the thematic through-line, I suppose – the stories are all concerned with houses, homes and families. One story is actually narrated by a sentient house, and there’s also a lonely space station guarded only by a married couple, a post-apocalyptic holiday village, a supernatural Greenland shark that threatens a mother and her son, a camping trip that turns a family feral… it’s all very jolly. The Greenland shark story, “Eqalussuaq”, was selected by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year, so that’s a solid recommendation, and the novelette “Carus & Mitch”, which was one of my first publications, was shortlisted for a This is Horror Award back in 2015. Also included in the book are commentaries on the origin of each story, and also links to a couple of soundtracks to accompany the two longest stories – I produce book soundtracks for any of my longer work, an obsession that sometimes takes almost as long as editing the manuscript!
For more information:
BFS Horizons submission guidelines: https://www.britishfantasysociety.org/bfs-journal-submission-guidelines