Can you give a little bit of background regarding how and when you decided to become a writer?
I’ve always loved reading, and as a child I used to try desperately to write books like the ones I read. (Not that I ever wrote much more than a page or two before giving up!) I enjoyed writing stories whenever there was call to do it at school, and started writing bad poetry when I was doing my GCSEs – like most people, I think.
I always knew, deep down, that I’d love to be an author, but I don’t think I really thought about trying to do it seriously until it was time to leave school and consider what I’d do next. I didn’t enjoy studying for my A-levels, so didn’t really want to go to University to do something overly academic, and when I saw that Creative Writing was an option, I suddenly realised that it was something I could try to do. So I got onto that degree course, and while I was there I started work on the short stories that would become the novel that was THE LEAPING.
What first got you into horror? Did you always know that writing it was your forte, or did it take a while for you find your niche?
I never intentionally wrote horror fiction – it wasn’t a decision I made. I didn’t think much at all about what genre I was working in, I just wrote kind of realist fiction in which horrific, supernatural elements kept intruding. And then Quercus, the publisher who picked up my first novel, told me they saw it as a horror novel – which I was pleased with, because there’s a lot of great horror fiction out there.
Having said that, I don’t put too much stock in genre boundaries to be honest. Genres are useful for readers, and they engender fantastic communities, but I’m not convinced that books published in different genres are vastly different in terms of content.
Some of the first stories that you wrote were in Parenthesis and Before the Rain. Tell me a little about the process of submitting for those anthologies and the feeling of seeing your work in print for the first time. Do you have a particularly favourite story from those early publications?
In the months following graduation, I was was writing and rewriting THE LEAPING and never getting much further than halfway through. I was also working on some separate short stories, but the only one I was confident in was a science-fiction story called ‘The Big Drift’. I sent it to one publisher and it was rejected; I tried again with Comma, and they accepted it for PARENTHESIS. That was incredibly exciting - I was delighted. For a lot of writers, me included, writing is hard because you’re so doubtful about whether your output is worthwhile; is it really worth spending any more time on it? Is it good enough to justify sending it to somebody else for them to read, or are you just wasting their time too? Isn’t it just the shittiest thing anybody has ever heaved up onto a blank page, like, ever? Is it time to finally stop deluding yourself, maybe, and give up? So when somebody else out there – especially an editor – tells you that yes, this is good enough for publication, the relief is boundless. Publication carries with it a sense of validation; it’s a sign that yes, you can do it, and there are people out there who appreciate it. At that point, seeing my work in print (and all that it meant) it was exactly what I needed.
The process with BEFORE THE RAIN was different; Sarah Hymas, the editor of that book, contacted me after reading ‘The Big Drift’ in PARENTHESIS, and asked me to submit a few stories to her. Again, this was deeply reassuring. It was exciting for me also because it was the first time my work was being actively edited; I really enjoyed receiving advice on my work, and feeling as if it was being made better.
My favourite story from those early publications might well be ‘A Steak For Don’, from BEFORE THE RAIN. I’m not sure why; I wrote it very quickly and roughly, and not a lot happens in it. Though maybe those are two reasons why, right there. I like stories that come out of nowhere and write themselves; they always seem to be the most effective, somehow.
‘The Skin that She Bit’ is where we (loosely) meet the characters that you expanded on for The Leaping. Were the characters always meant to be part of a larger story or did writing the short story inspire you to continue with it?
THE LEAPING started as two or three short stories that felt as if they were part of something larger, yes. As it turned out, the stories aren’t necessarily compatible with each other – what happens in ‘The Skin that She Bit’ is very different to what happens in THE LEAPING – but they’re definitely related.
Julia Bell said ‘My characters aren’t me, but they are a little to the left or right of me’ – would you say this is true of your characters in the leaping? Do you have a little of Francis’ obsessions niggling at your edges somewhere? I can imagine you having an interest in folklore like Jack!
Yes, I think that’s true. There are elements of Francis and Jack that are in me, without question. The thing about writers and characters is that writers have to understand all of their characters – so even if they create somebody that is very different to themselves to begin with, over the course of a novel they will have put themselves in that character’s shoes and forced themselves to think like that character, and so by the end of the writing process they will have assimilated that extra personality, to an extent. I think.
In addition, there’s the fact that – in most cases – every line of dialogue in a book has come from the writer’s brain, so that writer must have thought of it in the first place. Which means that that writer has the capacity to think of it. I suppose everybody thinks things that they don’t say, and it might be that writers keep hold of those unspoken words in order for their less pleasant characters to use at a later date. I don’t know… it’s a complex question!
Every writer approaches their work differently (e.g. writing at a certain time of day or in a certain place, with music or no noise etc). What conditions are most productive to your writing?
It’s always best if I have a whole day set aside, and I can start early in the morning and build up momentum. I usually write straight into a word processor, and I like to sit at a desk or table, and have a notebook to hand – often, the more prose I write, the more ideas I have for later in the book (or for other projects even) and so I end up taking breaks from the typing to jot things down. I like to listen to music because it helps me switch off from the rest of the world – it’s another way of ‘closing the door’, as it were – but I can’t listen to music with lyrics. Beyond that, I don’t have particular conditions. And it’s worth adding that I do always keep a notebook on me, and writing longhand in my notebook – on train journeys, or in the pub, or wherever – can be very productive too.
How did you go about planning and writing The Leaping? Did it evolve as you were writing it or did you plan it all? Please describe the process of writing this first novel and also the main challenges.
I didn’t plan it at all. I just wrote it, and various ideas for what was going to happen kind of rose and fell as I carried on. The benefit of not planning was that I could incorporate ideas as and when they occurred to me, resulting (I hope) in an immediacy and freshness and excitement and spontaneity in the prose itself. The downside was that I’d end up with lots of prose I was really happy with, but intractable plot problems, which meant I’d have to scrap lots of the stuff I’d written and head off down a different route.
Jen Ashworth said her first novel was written as she went along, but the second one was thoroughly planned. Did you approach ‘The Thing on the Shore’ in the same way as The Leaping, or was the process different?
I tried to plan THE THING ON THE SHORE because of the plot tangles I got in with THE LEAPING, but I found that – in my case – too much forward planning was the kiss of death to the prose. So I started out with a different, more structured process, but in the end reverted to just going with the flow.
Many authors enjoy the editing process. What is your experience of it?
I enjoy it too. I’ve always found editors to be understanding, respectful, and full of good advice, and I look forward to discussing the book with them when it gets to that stage in the process. It can be hard getting a big list of notes and queries through, and realising how much work you still have to do, but it’s also a relief being told what’s working and what’s not. It’s nice knowing that once you’ve taken the suggestions on board, and had all of the related discussions with your editor, you’ll have a much stronger book in your hands.
Can you please share your experience of searching for and finding an agent - and subsequently a publisher – for The Leaping?
Flax, the publisher of BEFORE THE RAIN, set each of the contributors up with a mentor of our choosing. The idea was that for six months, this mentor would advise us on a project we were working on; in my case, the mentor I asked to be paired with was Nicholas Royle, and the project was to finally finish a decent draft of THE LEAPING. Receiving regular feedback from a professional writer gave me the motivation – and, vitally, the confidence – I needed to get it done. At the end of the six months, Nick offered to represent me as an agent because he liked the book so much; obviously, I jumped at the chance. I redrafted it one more time, and he started sending it out to publishers. After a few rejections, Quercus made us an offer for THE LEAPING and THE THING ON THE SHORE, which I’d started once THE LEAPING was done.
I haven’t got around to reading The Thing on the Shore yet. What can I expect from this book? In what ways is it different from The Leaping?
There’s a similar tension between the mundane and the fantastic, but the style is different – it’s in the third person, and there are more people involved in the story. I think it has a wider scope, whereas THE LEAPING is focused very much on the thoughts and actions of just a couple of characters. The horror, when it comes, is perhaps a bit more cosmic in its nature, too. But I don’t want to say too much!
In today’s climate, to become a successful novelist before the age of 30 is quite some feat. How has your life changed?
Thank you. Well – life is more fun in a lot of ways. It’s not like there’s much money at all in writing, but what with all of the convention and readings and things, there’s a great social scene. A very supportive community. Having deadlines can be stressful sometimes, but it’s good to know that there are people waiting to read your output. The self-doubt never really goes away, but I don’t think I’d want it to – it’s important to always want improve on your own work.
Having said all that - it’s hard to say how much my life has changed as a result of getting published, because we had a baby last year, so everything is completely upside-down anyway! In a good way, obviously. It’s an exciting time.
What can we expect from Tom Fletcher in the future?
My plan is to keep on writing these standalone contemporary horror novels which, taken together, paint a picture of a world kind of teetering on the edge of the abyss, really. They all deal with a tipping point of some kind; every book depicts different characters dealing with (or not dealing with) the beginning of the end of the world, I suppose.
I also want to write a proper big other-world fantasy series as well; I’m working on something along those lines at the moment, but I haven’t shown it to anybody yet, and am keeping the details under wraps in case it all comes to nothing.
And the other thing I’m doing, which I’ve always done and hope to carry on doing forever, is writing short stories. I’d love to get a collection out there at some point over the next few years.
What words of advice would you give to people (like me) who are still struggling to find their ‘voice’ and get their first novel off the ground?
I’m very wary of generic writing advice, and I’m reticent to give it. I don’t believe there’s a right way to write at all. The one thing I’ll say, if you’re forcing me, is that the more you write the better your writing will get. Don’t worry if what you do on any one given day is rubbish; just keep going, and eventually you’ll write something you’re happy with. The more you write, the more good writing you will write. If that makes sense.
Thanks for doing this interview Tom and Good Luck for the future!!
Interview by Dawn Purcell (see her work in the Get Published section; Ice Cream)