Barren Island Books – Tim Lees
Welcome to Barren Island Books, the author interview series that’s in no way related to a popular music-based radio programme. You know the rules by now: my guests are exiled to a remote island with only five books for company, selected from the categories I give them. It’s up to them to make sure they choose wisely, because they’re going to be stuck with those books for a long, long time …
My interviewee this week is Tim Lees, author of The God Hunter (Harper Voyager) and Frankenstein’s Prescription (Tartarus Press). When he’s not being banished to a desert island, Tim can be found at timlees.wordpress.com.
Tim, thanks for joining us. First of all, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself – just so we know who it is we’re sending into exile. Illogical fears, unusual birthmarks, whether you’d rather wrestle a bear or punch a shark, that kind of thing.
None of my fears is illogical. People really are out to get me, and if you try to tell me otherwise it only proves you’re part of the conspiracy.
I’m a Brit, from Manchester, but now live in Chicago, which is something of a change in climate, if nothing else. Now I’m broiled in summer and frozen in winter, instead of being merely soaked all the time. It’s a strange thing, though, living in a place I used to go on holiday, or vacation, as I must get used to calling it.
I have a birthmark in the shape of Neville Chamberlain. I’m not telling where.
The mind boggles. And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
One of the things I like about fantastic lit is that you get a chance to have fun with really big ideas. So there’s usually lots of stuff about life and death and what-is-the-nature-of-humanity, and God (or god) crops up a bit, as well. It’s all very playful, but I hope it has a serious underpinning. There was a piece in the Frankenstein book where I tried to imagine what it would be like to be born as a reasoning adult yet know nothing of the world – and of course, assume that your creator was God. That was a lot of fun to dream up. Or completely nightmarish. One or the other, either works.
I think much of what we write comes from childhood. If you’ve had an unusual childhood – as, say, Ballard had – it may be more extreme, but all childhoods are unusual, because the essence of childhood is that everything is new. Teenage years and early twenties are important because that’s when you’re trying to grapple with the adult world. This is where the meat of the work comes from, I think. That and about three million books, comics and movies I’ve digested over the years.
I hope I tell a good story. I’m often as interested in the way the characters interact as I am in the actual plot, and it’s important to get a balance between these elements. I’m as fond of a ridiculous, brain-staggering idea or a horrible monster as anyone else, but I like characters I find interesting and believable – neither heroes nor villains, but usually a mixture of both. And often a bit foolish, too. Just like the rest of us.
I would have to agree with you there :-) Now let’s move on to the books you’re going to take to the island with you. First up, it’s your favourite childhood book – perhaps the one that got you interested in reading in the first place, or the one you read over and over when you were young. Which will you choose, and why?
The Lost World. The Conan Doyle book, not the Michael Crichton one. It obsessed me for many years. Of course, what I liked then were the dinosaurs, strangely Edwardian monsters that they were (and far better-realised than Mr Crichton’s more scientifically accurate creatures). There’s a genuine sense of wonder there, and of details carefully built up: the long trek into the wilderness, very leisurely compared to modern novels … I often think of it as just a big, dumb adventure story, devoid of sub-text, but in fact, this isn’t so. Similar to Wells’s best work, it has a human heart – and a sad one. The narrator, Ed Malone, is a humble journalist chided by the woman he loves about his lack of heroism. He joins the expedition to impress her, and even names the plateau’s central lake in her honour, “Lake Gladys”. He returns home, a true hero … and she marries someone else. I think we’ve all been in the position of trying to impress someone, only to find they aren’t remotely interested in what we’ve done.
Sadly, yes! Next is the book that made the greatest impact on your life. This could be one that inspired you to become a writer, or one that made you look at the world in a whole new way – maybe even one that resulted in real-life romance or adventure.
There’s a lot to choose from. I think I’m going to go with the cliché, though, and pick Kerouac’s On the Road. I read it at a fatal moment in life – I was at university, disheartened with the education system, which was very insular, tired of suburbia and dreading the rather limited prospects that I believed lay in front of me. I was longing for a Dean Moriarty to arrive and tell me, “We know time!” None did, of course, and I proved quite capable of getting myself into silly situations on my own, thanks very much.
I haven’t re-read On the Road in many years, and I don’t know how I’d react to it today; it’s a late flowering of Romantic literature and as such may be best read when young. On the other hand, Kerouac was much smarter than he’s given credit for, and a much better technician, so I suspect it may still work, though in a different way. I’ve dipped in occasionally and enjoyed the writing, head and shoulders above any of its imitators. Kerouac had learned his craft through hard slog and produced a lot of more conventional prose before branching out on his own.
The film was disappointing, though I did love the cinematography – extraordinary images of the US landscape. Now that I live here, I’d still rather do a road trip than anything else. “But that’ll take days!” says my wife, and she’s right. (She usually is.)
One last thing: I read Kerouac the same month I read Ballard’s Crash, so it could all have turned out much worse. And I still can’t drive.
For your third book – and you’re probably going to need this one, all alone on a remote island – I’d like you to choose your greatest comfort read. You know, the one you turn to when you’re sad or ill or just need a little pick-me-up.
I’m a comics fan. Good comics can do what I hope to do, to some extent, in my books (and what Hollywood usually fails to do) – provide intelligent entertainment that is fun and also thought provoking. When it works, it’s great. Last night I read my first two issues of Brian Wood’s Northlanders and was immediately hooked. It’s about Vikings, and he manages the almost impossible task of making it modern and relevant while not actually stepping outside the bounds of his chosen characters and time period. Needless to say, I was hugely jealous.
I got into comics at a good time – Gaiman’s Sandman, Morrison’s The Invisibles, Ennis and Dillon’s Preacher, and so on. But I think I’d choose Alan Moore’s Top Ten series and its spin-offs – those written by Moore, that is. This is Moore in light-hearted mood, with what appears to be a “fun” superhero comic, but is actually complex in structure and touches a lot of serious themes. It’s also, at points, surprisingly moving.
Fourthly, it’s your unexpected treasure: a book you didn’t expect to like but did, maybe one outside your usual genre or that you picked up with low expectations but were pleasantly surprised …
This is one I read and didn’t like, then read again … and did. Heinrich Böll’s story collection Children are Civilians Too struck me at first as dull, worthy, and forgettable. For some reason I picked it up again a couple of years later. I don’t know what had happened in the meantime, but suddenly I loved it – beautiful stories of Germany in the War and immediate post-War years, often taking a very unusual slant on already loaded themes.
And finally, I’d like you to choose your instant classic – the book you think most deserves to be read and reread by future generations. It’s up to you whether this book is already considered a classic or is something more obscure.
Moorcock’s work can be extraordinary, but he’s so ambitious and so daring as a writer that even his best books can teeter on the brink of dissolution. If I can’t pick his entire opus, I’d go for either The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, relatively modest in its scope, or King of the City. Come on, you’re not going to make me choose, are you?
And there I thought you were going to be one of those very rare guests who didn’t try to cheat! Luckily for you, it’s the last interview of the summer and we’re feeling generous. We’ll get those six books packaged up ready for your journey. Since we’re not completely heartless here at Barren Island Books, we’ll also let you take one song/piece of music, one film and one other item of your choice into exile with you …
Only one piece of music? That’s tough. Music means a lot to me, and I have wide tastes – jazz, modern classical, rock, punk, electronic dance music, drum n bass, funk, even a bit of prog. I think I’d have to select some jazz, which always strikes me as the most rewarding – there’s almost an interactive element involved – “Where’s he going with this?” Miles Davis did a heartbreaking version of “My Man’s Gone Now”. That would be good for my maudlin moments. Of which there are many.
A film? Maybe Fellini’s Amarcord, a wonderful evocation of childhood and adolescence. I love the way Fellini’s stuff just skirts the edge of fantasy. There’s a rich European tradition of this sort of thing, with writers like Hrabal, Bruno Schultz, and so on. It’s not genre yet it’s genuinely weird.
My other item? How about an inexhaustible bottle of scotch for those long solitary evenings watching the sun set slowly in the west?
Sounds perfect. Now, before we whisk you away, you have one last decision to make: where you want your remote island to be located. You can choose anywhere you like for your exile, in this world or another.
The only islands I’m really familiar with are those around Greece, so somewhere in either the Ionian or Aegean would be fine. On the other hand, if there’s nobody else around, culture doesn’t really matter much. Just make it warm and fruitful and free from unpleasant beasties. Or maybe … one of those deserted landscapes from Ballard’s Vermillion Sands, filled with ancient, decadent technology, ready to be woken at any moment. That would certainly keep me busy.
That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
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