Tim Stretton is the author of the fantasy novel "The Dog of the North" (reviewed here) released on July 2008 by Macmillan New Writing and of two other self-published novels, "The Zael Inheritance" and "Dragonchaser".
Dark Wolf: Tim, thank you for taking the time for this interview.
Your writing career is inclined so far toward the speculative fiction. What weighted the balance in favor of these genres when you had started to write?
Tim Stretton: When I was growing up, speculative fiction was what I enjoyed reading most. When I was about 13 I discovered the work of Jack Vance, the first writer who made me feel “I want to write like that.” That feeling hasn’t changed to this day. I love the ability of this kind of writing to take me away from everyday life; sometimes called “escapism”, as if this is a bad thing. Although I read in a lot of other genres these days—particularly historical fiction—it never seriously occurred to me to write outside of speculative fiction. There is a freedom in writing in such an unconstrained environment; although like all freedoms, it has to be used wisely.
Dark Wolf: Although “The Dog of the North” is your first work released by a publishing house the novel is not the first you wrote. You wrote other two novels, “The Zael Inheritance” (1997) and “Dragonchaser” (2005), and self-published all your three novels. Can you describe shortly your first two novels, please? Would you like to see them in print under a publishing house as well?
Tim Stretton: The Zael Inheritance was inspired by Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series – set in a far future universe where the dominant institutions were private corporations rather than local governments. It’s half mystery story, half satire and half love story—hang on, that’s too many halves, but you get the idea… The anti-hero of that book, Laura Glyde, remains my favourite of all the characters I’ve written, with the possible exception of Eilla in The Dog of the North.
Dragonchaser is the first fantasy story I wrote. It follows the fortunes of a ship’s captain who takes over a racing galley owned by a corrupt politician—although he’s a great seaman he’s figuratively all at sea with the political dimension. Like every novel I’ve ever written, the underlying structure is a love story, but this one has some great galley races too. I actually think it’s a pretty good novel and I haven’t given up hopes of finding a commercial publisher for it some day.
Dark Wolf: What road has taken “The Dog of the North” from a self-published novel to the commercial publishing? What changes did it suffer between its first publishing and its release under the MacMillan New Writing?
Tim Stretton: I had the feeling that my work wasn’t very commercial, so I was working on building up a fan base by word of mouth—not very successfully, I might add. After I’d self-published The Dog of the North, I submitted it to Macmillan New Writing (who aren’t a speculative fiction press) because they wanted work from new writers and you didn’t need an agent: they were recommended to me by Kate Mosse, who wrote the international bestseller Labyrinth. When someone that successful gives you advice, you listen. I was amazed when Macmillan New Writing wanted to buy it because they had never published a straight fantasy novel before.
My editor Will Atkins didn’t recommend that many changes; maybe twenty or so structural and continuity changes and a few dozen line edits. I had been worried about giving up control of my work in that way, but in fact working with a professional editor was one of the best parts of the experience. Will’s changes definitely made the book stronger.
TS: The relationship with readers is very different with self-publication. As a self-published writer I had low sales but much more interaction with my readers: I knew many of them personally and knew the kind of work they liked. Many of them I met through Jack Vance fandom, so we had that shared sense of what good speculative fiction looked like. With Macmillan, I have many more readers, but the relationship with them is more impersonal (through my blog, for example).
As a debut author, in most cases you don’t attract very much attention even with a commercial publishing house. The Dog of the North has not had many reviews, even in the specialist media—and few of those have been favourable. In commercial publication you are looking for an audience which understands your ‘voice’; with self-publishing your readership may very well start on the same page as you.
DW: “The Zael Inheritance” has two characters based on unsympathetic former bosses. Are other characters of your works inspired by real persons? Did you imagined yourself as a character?
TS: I tend to do it less now than when I started. I will take bits and pieces from people I know, but I tend to digest it a bit more now before I put it down on the page. The Zael Inheritance was probably close to libelous in places, but I am a bit cleverer these days. And making up your own characters is more fun.
Writers of adventure stories like mine must have a bit of wish-fulfillment in them, and maybe my heroes are like I’d want to be: decisive, dynamic but with a hidden sensitivity—and all the time attractive to the women! But I have to admit it’s easier on the page than in real life… I think to create any believable character you have to put some of yourself in them—in The Dog of the North, if I’m honest I have more in common with the devious and manipulative Davanzato than any of the more sympathetic characters.
DW: Two of your novels, “The Dog of the North” and “Dragonchaser” take place on the continent of Mondia. How did Mondia come to existence? Would you try to develop your world further on?
TS: I had an idea that I wanted to write fantasy more than science-fiction and so I needed a place to set the stories. Mondia gradually evolved to fit that need—a range of different cultures to allow the political intrigues and ambitions I find so fascinating to play out. I started with a map and went from there. I certainly hope to use Mondia more in future. There are plenty more stories I want to tell and I hope Macmillan give me the chance to do so.
DW: I’ve seen on your site a few maps of Mondia. How important do you think that such maps are in a fantasy novel? Did the initial copy of “The Dog of the North” have a map of Mondia?
TS: I don’t think they’re that important to the reader—Joe Abercrombie, whom I particularly admire, never uses them—but as a writer I find them fascinating. You set a map down on the page and immediately it throws up stories: that natural harbour to the east, who owns that? What sort of culture would grow up there? What about those mountains? Then you start putting in cities and looking at the natural boundaries, or the areas which might lead to conflict. In the same way that human history is driven by geography, so are the fantasy worlds I dream up.
When I self-published The Dog of the North, I did include a map, but I don’t think the reader really needs it: it’s obvious from the text where the key locations are in relation to each other. It was more a vanity on my part!
DW: What is the first spark that ignited the idea behind “The Dog of the North”? Did you know the precise journey and the end of that first spark or the story changed while you were writing it?
TS: It’s hard now to remember exactly where it started: I had a spell of lengthy walks to work and the broad shape fell into place as I walked. I knew from the outset how the story would end, but I changed the structure quite a bit from that first idea. I had originally intended to tell the story from a single viewpoint in chronological order; the notion of interweaving two different strands only came just before I started writing. Some of the secondary characters—particularly Davanzato and Lady Cosetta—weren’t in my thinking to start with but came to be important as I wrote it up. The story was always in my head as a love story following the structure of Wuthering Heights and that aspect of it never changed.
DW: I’ve noticed in “The Dog of the North” many influences from the Italian culture, Mettingloom resembles with Venice, many characters have Italian names and a few things are present in the Italian expression. Are you interested in the Italian culture? What other cultures have influences on your works?
TS: You’re right to say that Mettingloom has a close similarity with Venice. The political intrigues of Renaissance Italy have always been very appealing to me as a story-teller so when I came to write The Dog of the North I set out to reinforce that element of the story by a deliberate use of Italianate names. Some of the names, like Davanzato, are taken directly from medieval Italian. The other strand of the book, set in Croad, has a French feel, which we see in names like Oricien, Jehan and Enguerran. I enjoy medieval history and try to reflect that in some of my naming conventions. In Dragonchaser, many of the names had Lithuanian roots because I liked the sound and consistency of those kind of names. In my current book I have based my naming structures around the Slavic model: again this gives me a pleasing consistency and I think the names look good on the page.
Maybe one day I will use Romanian as a model, uniting as it does Latinate roots with Eastern European influences!
DW: I really liked one of the ideas present in “The Dog of the North”, a kingdom ruled by two kings, one for half a year and another for the other half. What inspiration lies at the base of this idea? Can this idea be extended in future works?
TS: One of the things I like to do in my stories is to explore political conflicts and rivalries. Having the two monarchies creates a built-in tension as well as giving the reader a sense that you aren’t in the world you know. I’d love to revisit that one day—in The Dog of the North, Prince Laertio makes his ambition to unite the two crowns very clear, and there’s obviously a temptation for an unscrupulous person to make a bid for absolute power. As a writer you sometimes have a sense that you haven’t finished with a character completely, and there is plenty more I have to say about Prince Laertio’s ambitions.
DW: At what are you working now and when might we see your next work published?
TS: I’ve just submitted my latest work, The Last Free City, to Macmillan. It takes one of the characters (probably not who you’d expect) from The Dog of the North, and places him in a different city. It’s inspired by the medieval Republic of Ragusa (present day Dubrovnik): I’m interested in how these trading republics survived surrounded by the superpowers of the day like Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire. On another level it’s a love story which is played out against the backdrop of turbulent political intrigues. The protagonist is a poet and maybe I’ve invented a new genre: ‘swords and sonnets’.
If Macmillan wants to publish it, it’ll probably be out mid-2010; if I need to self-publish it, probably rather sooner.
DW: Is there a special reason for the existence of a love story in each of your novels? Would you like to write a love novel someday?
TS: Love stories are a gift to the writer. That sense of being overpoweringly attracted to someone is the most powerful of emotions, and it can make your characters act in a way they normally wouldn’t. That creates immense potential for characters’ internal and external conflicts. It’s a great way of upsetting an established equilibrium, which then propels your story.
I enjoy writing stories in which individual human dramas are presented alongside grand political intrigues, because those human dramas give the reader a way into the political stories. I don’t think I would want to write a story which was solely a romance—without some other context it would be like a stool with one leg.
Thank you very much for your amiability and answers.
You’re welcome. Thanks for your interest.