I was lucky enough to be able to sit down and have a chat with Tim Lebbon at Fantasycon this year. During it we talk about his upcoming work, his views on ebooks and why it was more difficult for him to break through in his native country than in the US.
Starburst: I love the concept of Echo City, where it’s built on different levels of its own history. Where did you get the idea?
Tim Lebbon: I had the seed idea years ago. I just loved the idea of history still existing and you being able to literally touch history. I think the original idea was that the city was built through thousands and thousands of years on other cities, all the way down to the bottom where there was the start of humanity so you could actually travel through human history, physically, and I just really liked that idea. Sort of a sci-fi idea, in a way, applied to a fantasy world. The seeds of ideas are difficult to remember sometimes. They can be a combination of three or four ideas that never seem to be working on their own, but then they coalesce in the ether and turn into full stories. Nothing's ever wasted, because notes or ideas can always turn into something in the future.
Do you keep things that you never publish, in case you find that, despite a scene not working in one context, it might, with some tweaking, be a good fit with something else?
Yeah, that happens a lot. I’ve got quite a lot of unpublished stuff and that happens quite a bit. Like I say, I never throw anything away or delete a file. I’ve got stories that have never been published. Mainly stacks of writing as opposed to full novels, but it’s all used.
You are better known in the US than you are in the UK . Why do you think that happened?
I’m not sure really. I think it's because when I started I was publishing horror, and that wasn’t very big over here at the time. I was lucky to get picked up in the states by Leisure Publishing and Dorchester books. Now that I’m writing fantasy as well as horror; very dark fantasy admittedly, I’m getting a bit more success in this country and I’m getting some deals over here which is really gratifying, because, obviously I want to be published in my own country and have for a long time. Now with Orbit doing the fantasy and Hammer doing the horror novel it’s the best of both worlds really, it’s great.
Have you ever considered taking your back catalogue that never made it out over here, and either trying to get a new deal over here, or publish them yourself in ebook?
That’s something that I’ve been investigating because I’ve just got the rights back to my leisure novels and I’d really like to see them out as ebooks. I’ve researched doing it myself, which flummoxes me because I’m not very technically minded. I know I could do it but I’m afraid of the time it would take to learn the process, although I could get someone who understands it to do it for me. There’s a whole marketing thing as well. It’s not a case of producing an ebook and assuming that it’s going to sell, you also need to be quite canny with the marketing. So yes, I do want to do it at some point. Lots of people I know are getting on the ebook wagon and making a success of it.
So you have a new novel coming out next year through Hammer called Coldbrook. What’s that about?
It’s a big scale, apocalyptic zombie thriller. It’s the end of this world and other worlds as well. It’s a story where the zombies span the multiverse. The biggest scale zombie apocalypse ever. There are lots of aspects to it. I had a massive amount of fun writing it, and I’m really pleased that Hammer are publishing it. It’s going to be great having a novel with Hammer on the spine.
How does it feel to be working with a company like Hammer? Growing up in this country, the old Hammer movies were the first horror movies that a lot of us were exposed to.
I grew up watching the old Hammer films on Friday night on BBC2 and it's lovely to be working with them. They are actually an imprint of Arrow, my editor there is great and they have big plans for the book so it’s very exciting. I can’t wait.
When is that one out?
Probably going to be about this time next year, so quite a while to wait. They are going to do a big publishing splash for it and they have a lot of ideas for it, so this time next year I’ll be launching it.
Your work seems to flip between dark fantasy and horror. Do you have a favourite genre that you like to write?
No, just whatever the story requires. Everything I write has elements of the fantastic to it. I’m not sure I’ve ever written anything that’s quite normal. No favourite genres. If I come up with a story idea, I just write it and enjoy it the way that it’s meant to be. I wouldn’t choose horror over fantasy and vice versa. As I’m writing I don’t feel the difference. I don’t think that “this is a horror story”, I think “this is a story” although most of my stuff turns out pretty dark. It's then up to the publishers to tell me whether it’s a horror or a fantasy novel.
Are there any worlds that you’ve created that you’d like to revisit and maybe write more books based on the world and the characters?
I did four novels in a world called “Noreela” – Dusk, Dawn, Fallen and The Island. I’ve done some short stories based there, and some novellas. And I’m working with a publisher in the states to produce a zombie novella based in Noreela which I’m really excited about.
So you’d be taking an established fantasy world and unleashing a zombie apocalypse there?
Yeah, pretty much. I don’t know what the story will be yet, but I know that I’ll be writing it for them next year, some time. I’m looking forward to that.
Do you tend to read genre fiction yourself, or do you like other things?
I read all sorts. I read quite a bit of genre fiction, but I also love a lot of other things. I read quite a bit of non-fiction. I don’t pick and choose anything in particular. Just any book that takes my fancy, books recommended by friends. I read crime and the occasional bit of historical fiction. It's dangerous to stick to just the genre you write in because you can become a bit blinkered. It’s about personal enjoyment as much as anything though. I want to read as wide a variety of books as I can.
Do you have a favourite book? One that really blew you away, or influenced you?
I suppose The Stand by Stephen King. Partly because of the time I read it, when I was a teenager and it just was such an incredible book and still is now. I re-read it every few years. That was probably hugely influential for me, I think. It had such a massive scope and so many characters, especially the unabridged version. It’s four hundred pages long – another novel in length.
Out of your own books – novels, novellas and short stories, which one would you say is your favourite?
That’s really difficult. It’s like asking me which is my favourite kid. I’m really proud of a few novellas that I’ve written. The Reach of Children and The Thief Of Broken Toys. Really proud of both of those, probably because they are among the more recent things that I’ve written. Novel wise, Echo City and Coldbrook, again because they are more recent. There’s a saying that your favourite novel is the one you are working on now, and that’s always a good answer because you should be really invested in the story you are telling. Different books mean different things. There’s my collection “As the sun goes down” that I’m really proud of. That made a bit of an impression in America, and from doing that with Nightshade, I think I got my mass market deal in the states with Leisure.
When I was doing my research, before the interview, I noticed that I didn’t find anything that said what you did before you were a writer
No. There isn’t. Alright. I worked for the local authority as a quantity surveyor for a long time. I stayed with the local authority because they were amenable to me taking time off unpaid, which, as my writing took off more and more, I’d take more time off unpaid to work on novels. Also my boss was one of my best mates and he knew what I wanted to do, so once it got to the stage where I wanted to go part time, he was fine with me doing that. Eventually I walked into his office and said “Rob, we gotta have a chat” and he said “You’re quitting, aren’t you?” and I said “Yep!”. That was great. The last day there, was one of the best days of my life, I think. That was almost exactly five years ago, from when I went full time. I had a little count down chart on my wall from when I gave my notice. I had about six or seven weeks and I was counting down, day by day.
So, what’s your working day like these days, or your day at least, because you seem to spend half of your time up mountains?
I do quite a bit of stuff like that. My working day is built around my family, really. My wife works full time and I have two young children in school, so I start work at 9.30, maybe 10. I take my boy to school, then come back and chill for a bit. Have breakfast and a cup of tea, so I probably start work at 10, then write most days until 5 or 6, unless I have to pick up the kids from school, in which case it's about 3. So, it’s built around the family really. If I had a choice, I’d probably get up about six o clock and start work, then finish or 1 or 2, but I can’t write in the morning while the family is getting ready, so I’m still a 9-5 worker really. But I do evenings and the occasional weekend if I’m really busy, for a few hours in the morning. Then I have a family to do things with, and I go running or hiking. It’s lucky that I have a dog that needs walking every day, because it’s a ready made excuse.
After Coldbrook, what’s next for you? Do you have any idea what’s on the horizon?
Yeah, I’ve just sold a YA trilogy in America, to a publisher called Pyr. I’ve written the first novel and I have to deliver the next one early next year. I’m doing some novel revisions at the moment, and as soon as I finish those, it will be straight on to that one. I’m also writing a novel with Mark Morris that we are desperately trying to finish, and I’ve got various other little projects that I’m starting or are in varying stages of progress. Always got lots of ideas and stuff I want to do. I just need more time, unfortunately. It’s all good though.
Thanks a lot, Tim, and good luck with Echo City and Coldbrook.
You can read our review of 'Echo City' here.