The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
My guest today is Tim Leach, who writes novels about times and places seldom visited by other historical novelists. My review of his latest book, The Smile of the Wolf, will appear in the August issue of Historical Novels Review and I have named it an Editor’s Choice for its wonderful sense of time and place, in this case medieval Iceland.
EJ The inevitable question – what made you want to be a writer?
TL I’ve been interested in imagined worlds ever since I was a kid, though I didn’t have any real focus on writing until I was 19. I wanted to be an actor at first, but over time realised that, for me, it was the character building that was the most interesting part of acting rather than the performance, really getting under the skin of a different person. And with writing, you get to play all the characters as well as building the world as well, so it seemed like a richer creative experience!
EJ What drew you to historical fiction?
TL It was very much a happy accident, I tried just about every other genre of writing before I went into historical fiction. But I was reading The Histories by Herodotus (part of a classics reading spree I was on at the time), and just fell in love with the story of Croesus. I realised that I wanted to write that story (which became my first two novels), and so I was going to have to teach myself to be a historical fiction writer.
EJ Your first two novels were set in a sunlit Mediterranean city state in classical antiquity, so different to your latest novel set in cold, cruel Medieval Iceland. What drew you to such different and unusual settings?
TL The first common thread between the two projects is an unreliable source text – Herodotus for the first two books, and the Icelandic Sagas for Smile of the Wolf. I love the texts that blend myth and history, they offer tremendous opportunities for the novelist and lots of fascinatingly flavourful material. The second commonality is that they were both worlds that seemed highly pressurised (in very different ways). That is what tends to draw me to a time and place, when I can really see how it is putting pressure on the characters, how it is difficult to live in that world. Such a world lends itself to complex character choices and dynamic narrative developments.
EJ How do you do your research?
TL I like to find a particular source text to focus on at first (as mentioned previously) – something with lots of material and personality, but that seems to offer some half finished stories that I can imagine my way into. Initially I’m most interested in flavour rather than fine detail, so my initial reading beyond the source text is often novels that are set in the time period I’m writing about, or actual writing from the period itself. That provides enough fuel for the first draft. Later, when I’m redrafting and editing, I switch my reading to focus on more specific and technical details, particularly on areas I struggled with in the first draft.
EJ Do you visit the places you write about?
TL I didn’t for the first two books, partly for reasons of budget (I was very much the starving-artist-in-a-garret back then) but it also didn’t seem to be as needful for the writing of that particular story. I went out to visit Iceland for Smile of the Wolf – place and landscape are such a large part of the Icelandic sagas, and so it felt very necessary to actually get on the ground to get a feel for it.
EJ You are a graduate of the Warwick Writing Programme on which you now teach. I presume from this that you are confident that Creative Writing can be taught. Is raw talent not enough?
TL Every writer, no matter how naturally talented, has a lot of learning to do. Reading voraciously and writing consistently for years and years is the largest part of that, but you’ve also got to learn to read critically, develop your creative process, observe and learn from the techniques of other writers, learning to give and receive critique and be part of a community of writers.
I think of the role of creative writing courses less as direct teaching and more as creating a good environment for learning and development. Really good courses can provide an incredible environment for writers to learn and grow better – though lots of hard work, a dose of good luck, and a splash of natural talent is still essential to make the most of that environment.
EJ What are you working on at the moment?
TL I’m always very cagey about talking about my work in progress! So I won’t say anything specific, but I think I’m going to have a crack at a series this time…
EJ Could you tell us where we can find out more about your work?
TL My website is (at the time of writing) rather neglected and out of date, though it’s very much on my to do list to spruce it up: http://www.tim-leach.co.uk/. Best to follow me on Twitter for current news: https://twitter.com/TimLeachWriter