This is an interview I did with Tim in 2011, before we started editing together.
I sat down with Tim over dessert to talk about his writing, his life, and of course Red Phone Box. He’s dark-haired and bearded, with a ready smile lurking behind his green eyes. He dressed all in black and wore a mysterious looking amulet on a black silk cord around his neck.
Salome: Thank you so much for writing Still Life. (NB. Tim wrote a story for a story cycle I was putting together.Red Phone Box, Ghostwoods Books, due out July 2013)
Tim: My pleasure. Not technically a question.
Salome: This is going to be a challenge.
Tim: (laughs) I’ll play nice.
Salome: I really enjoyed your story, so first off I want to ask you how you got the idea for it.
Tim: In a short story, you don’t have much time, so I started by trying to find just one flavour for the story to be about and to kind of hinge the narrative twist on. Probably inspired by Max (the cat in RPB) I settled on curiosity. Once I knew the protagonist was going to be undone by curiosity, the rest fell into place pretty quickly. The character had to be someone dreamy and imaginative. There had to be something pulling her in. The clearest way to achieve that was through a dream.
The old guy is Legba, the voodoo patron of communications and crossroads, kind of like a Mercury figure. Or Nyarlathotep. His colours are red and white – Legba, not Nyarlathotep. (We both laugh.) Also, a telephone box is kind of a juncture in the info-sphere, a figurative crossroads if not a literal one, so he seemed the obvious guardian. Legba is the patron of writers too, so he’s always good to name-check.
Salome: And how do you know so much about him?
Tim: Oh, I’ve dabbled in voodoo. (He grins.) Seriously, I’m very interested in world religions and mythologies.
Salome: You do a lot of writing.
Salome: What kind of writing do you do, mostly?
Tim: At the moment it’s mostly been puzzles for the past year or two. But really, I’ll write whatever they’ll pay me for.
Salome: How did you get started as a writer?
Tim: A number of my professors made comments on how readable my essays were, if not how brilliant. And that somehow translated into the student newspaper sending me to interview Terry Pratchett.
Salome: What university was this?
Tim: UCL (University College London)
Salome: What you were studying?
Tim: Anthropology. Great for a writer, luckily; gives you an idea about how people and societies hang together.
Salome: So you went to interview Terry Pratchett.
Tim: Yeah. It was cool. He was nice. Obviously exhausted, poor sod.
Salome: When was this?
Tim: ’92 or ’93. When that appeared, it was enough to get me a recommendation from a mate to a family friend of his to write mail-order books. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Salome: So when you say ‘mail-order books’ you mean, the kind of thing you see listed in the classifieds in the backs of magazines. (He nods.) What sort of thing were they?
Tim: Well, highlights include Miracle Bible Foods, The Complete Guide to a Good Abdomen in Just Five Minutes a Day, and The Encyclopaedia of Sex.
Salome: You had to do a lot of research for these books. (laughs)
Tim: (raises an eyebrow) Absolutely. (He grins.) Ah, and Baking Soda Secrets was quite ‘special.’
Tim: So for example, for Miracle Bible Foods, I went through the Bible verse by verse and made a list of everything potentially edible.
Salome: The whole Bible?
Tim: The whole Bible. And then went through an herbal pharmacopeia and listed all of the supposed uses of that foodstuff.
Salome: Were there any that you couldn’t find?
Tim: Oh yes, things like rock rabbit and pangolin.
Salome: And this was in the early nineties, so you couldn’t look it up on the internet.
Tim: Yeah, there was no ‘net, not in the sense we know it now.
Tim: Scaly anteater.
Salome: So were there things you remembered all these years and one day, were like, I wonder what that was, and you found yourself Googling it?
Tim: No, I’ve tried to repress those books as much as possible!
Salome: And the Complete Guide to a Good Abdomen in Just Five Minutes a Day?
Tim: I made that up. Well, I cobbled it together from a bunch of other diet and fitness books, anyway.
Salome: So on the whole, you probably wouldn’t recommend direct mail books.
Tim: (laughs quite raucously) No.
Salome: Really? Because self-published books are a big thing now. You don’t think things have changed?
Tim: No. I’d say maintain a healthy skepticism!
Salome: So you’ve been working on a kind of cool puzzle book project having something to do with Google Earth. Is that right?
Tim: Uh huh.
Salome: Can you say anything about it? What’s it called?
Tim: It’s called The Great Global Treasure Hunt on Google Earth.
Salome: And what is it exactly?
Tim: It’s a set of visual and textual puzzles that cross-reference Google Earth and lead to one specific spot on the planet. The first person to find that spot will win €50,000.
Salome: Fifty thousand euros?
Tim: Or $75,000.
Salome: And when is it coming out?
Tim: It will be out on August 31st.
Salome: So it’s coming out internationally?
Salome: You’ve also started your own publishing company.
Tim: Yeah, it’s called Ghostwoods Books.
Salome: And this follows on the heels of your doing years of editing work.
Tim: I was an executive editor at Carlton Books, a commissioning editor at Wizards of the Coast, the managing editor of Nightfall Games, and I was even a technical editor for European Passenger Services, working on the manuals for train drivers heading under the channel. I’ve been editing for twenty years, and have edited more than three hundred books for professional publication.
Salome: And now you’re publishing other people’s books.
Tim: Yes, I have four books ready to go and at least one more in the wings.
Salome: You’re still accepting submissions?
Tim: Absolutely. Guidelines are on my website.
Salome: I’m curious about something you said earlier. How did you start writing puzzles?
Tim: I worked for Wizards of the Coast for a while and afterward wrote a book about one of their games, Magic: the Gathering. The publisher liked me enough to keep throwing work at me. When they discovered I was a member of Mensa – a lapsed member, at the time – they got me working on their Mensa books, which were mostly puzzles. It kind of went from there.
Salome: So if you could write anything you wanted, what would you write?
Tim: If I knew that, I’d be writing it.
Salome: But you are working on some writing projects of your own?
Tim: Yeah, I’ve always got a few projects on the burner. Paid work keeps getting in the way though.
Salome: You said your university professors commented that your essays were very readable. So already in your early twenties, your writing showed a lot of promise. Why do you think that was?
Tim: I’m not sure. I just tried to chat onto the page, I suppose.
Salome: You’re quite a world traveler.
Tim: Yes, I’ve lived on four continents in the past ten years. I’ve been very lucky. Freedom is probably the greatest reward of writing professionally.
Salome: Do those experiences inform your writing?
Salome: You grew up in a mixed nationality household.
Salome: Where you spoke what language?
Tim: English. Dad hated speaking Greek.
Salome: Your father was Greek?
Tim: Yes, but I think it was of more significance that I grew up splitting my time between Greece and England.
Salome: In what way?
Tim: You grow up on the outside, neither fish nor fowl. And it allows you to see things that you’d miss if you were more on the inside, all tucked in. You become more of a wanderer, more of a free thinker.
Salome: I can see that. I had a similar experience. So it turns out well, even though it doesn’t feel very good when it’s happening.
Tim: It turns out. It’s just a path. It depends on what kinds of things you hope for in your life. If you wanted a nice sedate 2.4 lifestyle, that kind of upbringing — the media are calling us Third Culture Kids now — is going to be a nightmare.
Salome: Two point four?
Tim: House, two point four kids, car, all regular and average.
Salome: What do you think the most important qualities are for a writer? What makes a writer?
Tim: Well, you really can’t be scared of poverty. But after that, you need a good sense of what makes a story, and at least some understanding of people. That’s just as true for non-fiction as well, incidentally.
Salome: I wasn’t going to ask you this, but… do you have a girlfriend?
Tim: I’m quite happily partnered, thank you.
Salome: (laughs) That’s not what I was trying to get at.
Tim: What were you trying to get at? Tell me.
Salome: It’s just that you seem happy. I’m trying to put my finger on why.
Tim: (in a very serious voice) I am happy.
Salome: So do you think I’ll be able to talk you into writing another story for Red Phone Box.
Tim: It’s entirely possible.
Salome: Excellent. It’s getting pretty late. Just one last question. If people want to know more about any of the things we’ve talked about, where can they go.
Tim: Ghostwoods.com has more about Ghostwoods Books. The Treasure Hunt book will have a page up there soon as well.