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20 Questions with... Tim Stretton

Tim Stretton has published seven novels, with three more scheduled for publication. He writes crime as T. M. Stretton , and fantasy and science fiction as Tim Stretton. He has been published by Macmillan New Writing, Tor, and SpellBound Books, as well as publishing independently through his own BattleCat Press. Tim has a degree in English and American Literature from the University of Kent. He was also a senior editor at the international Vance Integral Edition project. Before concentrating on writing full-time, he was the deputy finance director of a local authority and also worked as a trainer and consultant. His non-fiction has appeared in publications as diverse as the Local Government Chronicle and Introvert, Dear. You can find him online on what used to be Twitter (@timstretton) and Instagram (@tim_stretton).

1. Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?

I was born on the Isle of Wight, a great place to grow up, but not to live as an adult unless you pine for the 1950s. Since leaving university I’ve lived and worked in Chichester, West Sussex. A classic introverted only child, I spent most of my childhood reading, and never thought that being able to make up imaginary friends would come in so useful later.

2. Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?

I was always going to be a writer from the moment I realised they existed. It’s probably for the best that my teenage space operas and Lord of the Rings knock-offs haven’t survived, but they were an essential part of my development. I didn’t start writing for publication until I was nearly thirty, and didn’t sell anything until my third novel ten years later.

My first job was a deckchair attendant, and it’s been largely downhill from that point. I worked as a local government finance manager for thirty years, with writing as a sideline. In 2019 I left local government (a decision that has only got better with hindsight) to write full-time. I’m also a volunteer member of the advisory board for The Literary Consultancy, the best provider of ethical editing services in the country (I may be biased).

3. Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.

Catfish Alley is a heist thriller set in Barcelona, about a washed-up Scottish writer whose budding crime career goes perfectly until he falls in love with the wrong person.

4. What are you working on right now?

I’m putting the final touches to Dark Canvas, the third in my steampunk series of warfare and political intrigues set in a reimagined 19th century Europe. This will be published through my own imprint early next year, and I’ve just finished the brief for the cover design.

5. Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?

For the past year I’ve been part of an online writing group. We write from 5:55 to 6:55 each morning on Zoom, and then check out to talk about how the morning’s gone. I really value the sense of community which is not always easy for writers to find. If I’m at work on a novel I’ll carry on until I hit my word count target for the day (usually 2,000). I’m very much a morning person and I try not to do too much of the creative work after lunch, so afternoons are my research and reading time.

6. Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?

95% of the time I write in my home office, usually with my cat Magnus trying to distract me until I feed him. My crime novels are set in Barcelona and I have a map of the city on the wall, and reference books on my desk. I’d find this setup difficult to replicate outside of the house, although sometimes I’ll edit in a café for a change of scene.

7. What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?

“Don’t expect to get rich” is a good starting point! Hardly anyone makes a living from this, so the only motivation that will last is doing it because you love the work. I’ve been lucky enough to be published professionally (and luck has an awful lot to do with it), but nothing beats the feeling you get when you’ve had a great writing day and nailed a scene you wanted to nail.

The best advice I’ve heard, and I can’t remember where it came from, is to be selective about the advice you take (including this, I suppose!). There’s no one right way to do this, and what works for me—routine, writing every day, a word count target—might not work for you. Experiment until you find your own zone.

I always loved the Somerset Maugham quote “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are,” although it’s of limited practical use!

8. Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?

As a career introvert, you’d expect me to hate them, and I certainly worry about them for weeks in advance (and practise obsessively). But when the time comes, I actually really enjoy them. My last book launch was live-streamed on Facebook, and I draw the line at watching that back!

9. Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?

I often think writers are the worst people to analyse their own work. I’m drawn to moral ambiguity (all three of my crime novels are from the point of view of a reluctant criminal protagonist who is drawn to the criminal lifestyle while simultaneously wanting to escape it). I’m also interested in trade-offs – so when a character overcomes temptation and does ‘the right thing’, there should always be a negative consequence to that. I think that comes from frustration as a reader with pat resolutions to complex problems, and I always try to avoid that as a writer.

10. Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?

I’m unapologetically a genre writer, and I’m in the business of escapism. We all have enough problems in our own lives that sometimes it’s nice to get lost in someone else’s. I hope there’s a moral dimension to my fiction – it’s hard to imagine a book resonating with readers without that – but I’m not writing for that reason. I try to avoid being didactic, because for me that’s bad writing and boring for the reader.

I spend too much time on ‘X’, which was never a healthy place and has only got worse recently. One of the things I notice there is an almost complete absence of empathy, an unwillingness to appreciate that other people have different inner worlds. I do think writers have a role in promoting empathy because if we do our jobs right we can bring those other inner worlds to life for readers.

11. Do you write between genres or not?

I started out writing fantasy exclusively, but in the first lockdown I ‘turned to crime’, mainly as an experiment. I alternate between the two genres now, although I find crime easier to sell so I will probably pivot towards that in the longer term.

I had one effort at writing a historical novel set in the Fourth Crusade, but the less said about that, the better.

12. Which living writers do you most admire?

In fantasy, Joe Abercrombie, for his mixture of darkness, wit and control of voice. In crime, this might be recency bias because I’ve just finished one of his books, but I love Chris Offut’s rural American noir. The way he fuses place, moral depth, and humour behind a pared-back voice is a thing of beauty.

13. Which dead writers do you most admire?

Jack Vance is the only writer I discovered in my youth who I can still read for pleasure today. I spent seven years on a volunteer project to republish his entire 4.4 million word output and that still didn’t put me off (compare and contrast Thomas Hardy, who I never picked up again after a university module on his work).

Raymond Chandler was for me the best of the pulp-era crime writers, and his prose still sizzles today. There’s a whole school of crime fiction that exists solely because of him.

I discovered Jane Austen at an impressionable age, and re-reading her work now it’s hard to believe it’s two hundred years old. Her voice has a lightness and freshness that I’d love to have a millionth part of!

14. What’s the book you wish you’d written?

I try not to think like that! There are so many writers who have gifts I could never approach, so I read their work for enjoyment, and concentrate on being the best version of me.

15. What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?

My crime novels are undoubtedly driven by filmic influences, especially classic film noir. I owe so much of a debt to Hitchcock that I’ve named the bar in my next crime novel after him as a nod.

In my fantasy novels, I’m inspired by a longstanding interest in European history. I never imagined that I’d still be using my A-level 19th century social and political history all these years later – albeit probably not in the way my teachers envisaged…

16. Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?

Having more than one genre to work in helps, I find. My crime and fantasy voices are very different, and generally if I’m not in the headspace for one, I am for the other.

Giving yourself permission to write badly is important too. Nothing is so bad you can’t fix it in the next draft, but you have to get it down on the page first. Perfection is the proofreader’s friend but the writer’s enemy.

17. What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?

Honestly, whenever anyone buys one of my books! Or more accurately, when someone buys a second one, because they must have liked the first.

Sometimes too you get an Amazon review where it’s clear a reader has completely got what you were trying to do. It’s such a lovely feeling when something that lived in your head for months makes that connection with another person.

18. How do your family and friends feel about your writing?

The responses to my fantasy and crime writing have been rather different! Friends were always impressed that I wrote fantasy but very rarely actually read it. Crime has been much more popular – friends were excited about it from the start and I’ve been surprised by how many have read and enjoyed Catfish Alley. Although I write chiefly to amuse myself, I can’t pretend that the real-world feedback isn’t gratifying!

19. Do you have a favourite bookshop?

Growing up on the Isle of Wight in the 1980s, there was nowhere to buy books except Woolworths, whose selection was eccentric, to say the least. I remember the delight of catching the hovercraft over to Southsea to visit the treasure-trove that was Fludd’s Bookshop. It had an astonishing collection of science fiction and fantasy that simply wasn’t accessible to me in pre-Internet days.

Like so many independent bookshops, it’s long gone.

20. How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?

“There’s never been a worse time to be a writer.” I imagine we’ve been saying that since William Caxton’s days. Was there ever a golden age for writers? Modern technology makes it easier than it’s ever been to write a book, but there are so many invisible barriers to getting that text in front of readers, whether that’s through a professional publisher or your own imprint. A creative industry where the creators themselves make almost no money is fundamentally broken. It’s hard to see how that changes, but our job as writers remains the same: write the best book you can.

Amazon’s dominance in the marketplace is clearly undesirable, although the larger they become, the more they’re vulnerable to nimbler challengers. But I have to acknowledge that I owe my career to them: their model makes self-publishing viable, and my crime publisher’s business model of ebooks supplemented by print-on-demand paperbacks wouldn’t work without them. So it’s possible to recognise that Amazon have highly questionable ethics and a disproportionate effect on the book trade alongside a grudging acceptance that to be a grown-up in today’s industry means working inside their framework.

You can buy Catfish Alley here:

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