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Tim Nickels: An Interview with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Author

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Tim Nickels has been writing for over 20 years. His short stories have been appearing in British fantasy magazines and anthologies that include The Third Alternative, Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing (Vol. 1), Scheherazade, Midnight Street and many others. His first collection of short stories, The English Soil Society, was published by Elastic Press in 2005.

Tim Nickels spoke about his writing and his concerns as a writer.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? And, who would you say has influenced you the most?

I expect a number of your interviewees might re-phrase the question to: "When did writing decide it wanted you?" My first story was a 10-page novel called "Timehunt" and concerned the exploits of Cap'n Badun, a golden hearted space pirate. My wonderful primary headmaster not only typed it out and made the whole thing into a book — but also left spaces so I could draw the pictures.

My primary influences have not always been literary. I love Powell and Pressburger, for instance — those magic, almost stolen, moments that they manage to slip into their work. I love the way Kubrick and Lynch light their films. I like the artist Thomas Hart Benton even though people tell me he's a bit unfashionable. I enjoy Edward Keinholz, the installationist – he had quite an effect during my art school years. And sometimes I might be sitting in a dentist's waiting room and just hear a snatch of conversation and I'm away and running, pen in hand.

Literary influences (but I look upon them more as inspirers): Ballard, Aldiss, David I. Masson, Keith Roberts, Margery Allingham — essentially geniuses of the Old School. I'm pretty bad at keeping up with the trends.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

To keep the reader reading. Or to make the reader go out and write a story of their own. But ultimately it's a desperately selfish activity. A good writer friend of mine tells me he writes to impress his 14-year-old self.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

I've always divided the critics: some consider me irretrievably obscure – while kinder souls think I might be On To Something. After attending art school, my life has mostly been spent as a hotelier – but for the last five years I've turned the throttle down and now work as a paper conservator and part-time undertaker.

I ran a hotel with my parents for many years and the practical influence of that on my writing was that all my stories were about 600 words long. My free time came in little chunks. But the mind works wonderfully well if it's being pushed hard: I wrote a conceptually complex piece about a far future humanity entirely in my head while mixing martinis for hotel guests at three in the morning.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

Knowing what you want to say but not being able to say it. That's an admission, isn't it! It's retaining that purity of the initial vision. I've been lucky to have been published for 20 years — but it's still a bit of a struggle.

On more practical matters, my biggest challenge is probably the real world fighting for my time. It's so easy to discover tasks that you should be doing.

How do you deal with these challenges?

There's no easy answer for the first part of the last question – although I'll never walk away from a blank page before I've achieved a breakthrough, even if it's in an unexpected direction. And when the real world battles for my attention, I just think of the places I take myself when I'm typing away: those mad 48-hour writing marathons fuelled only by toast and Rose's lime marmalade. Bob Shaw once said, perfectly: It's hard to write – but it's good to have written.

What is your latest book about?

Actually, it's a novelette of around 15,000 words called "fight Music". I suppose one might describe it as a school story of sorts, set as it is in a girls' musical conservatoire — except the pupils collect shrapnel from the latest air raid during breaktime. And some of the older girls are undergoing a curious metamorphosis in the school swimming pool to help the war effort .

How long did it take you to write the novelette?

I wrote the final two hundred words last December. And the remaining 14,800 this last April. It appeared in a great Gary Couzens-edited anthology from Elastic Press called Extended Play in November 2006. I'm in the company of some super authors who have written longer-than-usual stories taking their cue from all facets of music.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the story did you find most difficult?

I broke quite a few rules with it (the story effectively begins with a massive info dump) but primarily the old one about writing what you know. The story's a first person narrative told from the point of view of a 15-year-old schoolgirl musical genius. I, on the other hand, am a 46-year old bloke who failed spectacularly in his musical education. Also the story might be described (pretension alert!) as rather high concept: music takes you into the Great Somewhere Else — and I wanted my story to have the same effect. It was an exhausting high wire act. Thank goodness for toast and lime
marmalade.

Which did you enjoy most?

Stories were submitted anonymously and this brought a great sense of freedom. I fondly fancy that Gary really thought the story had been written by a 15-year-old shrapnel-gathering schoolgirl.

What sets the novelette apart from the other things you have written?

I usually take five years to write a story, ever the fine-tuner that I am. "fight Music" was written very quickly – perhaps because I'd just finished writing the pantomime for our local group. Panto writing is very much a headlong sleeves-rolled-up experience.

In what way is it similar?

I think I've retained my widescreen visual sense in this story. Also an almost throwaway weirdness, burying a tiny oddity within a paragraph dealing with the apparently everyday.

What will your next book be about?

I've been working on a long story that may very well become a book one day. It deals with the infiltration of mermaids into the British film industry during the 1930s. Of course, no one notices — until it's too late…

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I was pondering this question and how to answer it when my brother texted this evening to say how much he enjoyed a story in my "Soil Society" collection. We don't communicate a great deal so, odd and small as it may sound, this would figure quite highly among my writerly achievements.

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