Interviews

“Nothing has changed; but everything has changed!” – an interview with Tim Leach

Six years on from our last 'creatives in profile' interview, NITRB caught up with Tim Leach following the launch of his latest novel, 'A Winter War'

The last time Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with Tim Leach, the world was a very different place. Granted, the differences weren’t on the scale you discover in his books (for starters, there are fewer swords in our case – and we’re perhaps worse for it); but there was no global pandemic; had been no President Trump; no Brexit; and lockdown was something writers tended to do voluntarily if they needed to escape the mania of the world to finish their manuscript.

Yet for all the changes – some things remain as they were. Leach himself remains as witty, thoughtful and articulate as ever. He’s still rock climbing and – perhaps most importantly – he’s still writing, too.

A writer of historical fiction, Leach’s books specialise in the ancient world, unreliable source texts, and the crossover points between myth and history. His first novel, The Last King of Lydia, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2013. A sequel, The King and the Slave, followed in 2014, followed by Smile of the Wolf in summer 2018 and A Winter War in 2021.

He is a graduate of the Warwick Writing Programme, where he now teaches fiction as an Associate Professor. Originally from Essex, he now lives in Sheffield.

We spoke with Tim shortly after the publication of his latest book, A Winter War – the first in a trilogy (and incidentally available via Amazon and Waterstones, to name but two stores). It’s an honour to bring you this following interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tim, it’s been a little while since our last interview (6 years!) – how much has changed since we last spoke?

LEACH

It’s interesting to see our last interview was in 2015, because 2016 was something of a breakthrough year for me. I went from a temporary contract at university to a permanent one, I finished a draft of Smile of the Wolf (which was something of a personal creative breakthrough in writing), I bought a house, and generally became a much happier person (lots of personal breakthroughs in that year too). On the other hand, I’m still teaching, still writing, still living in Sheffield, still climbing. So nothing has changed, but everything has changed!

INTERVIEWER

In 2015, you said you were optimistic about the potential for the internet to connect readers to new books and ideas; but felt more pessimistic about the future of bookshops. Is this still the case?

LEACH

Less pessimistic than I was then! Waterstones seems to be holding strong from what I can tell, and the renewed desire for physical books definitely bodes well for bookshops. Their position is still precarious, especially the small indie bookshops, but I’m really glad to see them surviving better than I thought they might.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve published two more historical fiction novels in this time; Smile of the Wolf (which we loved) and your latest book, A Winter War. What draws you the past, and what is it about history that makes for such rich pickings for fiction writers?

LEACH

I think it’s the ‘same same, but different’ quality that the far past has. On the one hand, these are worlds that are motivated by strange and unfamiliar social and religious values or lost ways of life – the feuding honour bound world of Smile of the Wolf or the wandering warrior nomads of A Winter War. On the other hand, their desires and struggles and loves and fears are deeply familiar to the present day reader and allow us to connect with them. So there’s this really fun push and pull between the familiar and the unfamiliar that provides a fertile ground for the fiction writer and (hopefully!) an interesting experience for the reader.

INTERVIEWER

A charge often levied against works of historical fiction is that, as Hilary Mantel once explained, “authors of historical fiction are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks”. And, while it’s probably fair to say there’s far more cloak and dagger to your books than any frocks, do you think there’s any truth to this charge – and how do you avoid it in your own work?

LEACH

There are some particular issues that are specific to the present day moment, but I think the really big challenges of being human are timeless – the questions of what it means to be a good person, why people do evil things to one another, the question of when we keep our promises and when we break them, what we choose to stand and fight for. And I think looking at these challenges in an unusual historical context allows for us to consider them anew and understand them better.

In any case, I think fiction is a poor choice for directly tackling tough issues – because the writer invents everything that exists within their fictional world, it tends to be tediously didactic when the author is trying to ‘make a point’. Instead, in fiction we’re often coming in at an oblique angle, not trying to teach or declaim or prove something, but to explore, understand, and empathise instead. The historical is one particular angle to view ideas from, much like any other genre (including literary fiction) – they all have value in different ways.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the practicalities involved with setting out to write a work of historical fiction? How much of your work is research – and what do you do when limited historical records remain?

LEACH

I’ve always been drawn to unreliable source texts, though this went one stage further in A Winter War, where there were no source texts as such. The Sarmatians were a nomadic people who didn’t write anything down or leave much of an archeological record behind – all we have of them are a few grave sites, some mythology that’s been passed down through word of mouth, and stories told about them (mostly by their enemies, people like the Romans). 

I do as much research as I can with the material that I’ve got, but I’m quite content with making grand extrapolations out of very scanty evidence. I’m looking to tell a good story with the material that I have, not attempt a rigorous historical recreation.

INTERVIEWER

Tales of the Roman Empire abound; yet of the Sarmatians – and their conflict with Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius – it seems much less is known. What drew you to the Sarmatian people – and to this particular moment in history?

LEACH

Part of this is connected to the previous answer, in that the historical record (and therefore the work of historical fiction writers) tends to be prejudiced towards the cultures that a) wrote a lot down, b) built lots of cities, and c) were the victors in their battles with other nations. So we have a lot of evidence of Greeks and Romans, for example, but very little for people like the Sarmatians – it seemed a good opportunity to give a voice to what is essentially a vanished people.

I also was drawn to them as a nomadic people with an honour culture and strong heroic mythology – perhaps most intriguingly of all, they have a tenuous  but very fun connection to Arthurian mythology that I really enjoyed playing with.  

INTERVIEWER

What responsibility do you feel, as a writer, to historical people and figures both real – as with your portrayal of the “philosopher” Emperor, Marcus Aurelius – and imagined – as with Kai and his companions?

LEACH

I took a deliberately uncharitable interpretation of Marcus Aurelius – he’s something of a coldly murderous tyrant in my book. In part, that was inspired by Hilary Mantel and the fun she had with turning the traditionally saintly Thomas More into a horrible zealot, it seemed a good opportunity to go against the grain and play with a reader’s expectations.

But it was also interesting going back to The Meditations (which I love, along with Stoic philosophy in general) and finding some nihilistic stuff in there: “You should always look on human life as short and cheap” and “Just as you see your bath – all soap, sweat, grime, greasy water, the whole thing disgusting – so is every part of life and every object in it”, for example. For all his beautiful philosophy, he’s also the man who (according to Cassius Dio) would have wiped the Sarmatians out if he could have done.

For the Sarmatians, I definitely wanted to steer away from any ‘noble savage’ stereotypes. I hope to provide a more balanced creation – I admire their communality, their interest in honour, and their roaming way of life, but that also comes with some rigid social structures and expectations that sometimes crush the difficult individual. There’s some surviving mythology of the various steppe peoples (The Tales of the Narts) that had a beautiful line in the introduction that I took as my touchstone for their culture: “as children of the wolf they love hunting and fighting, cattle raids and campaigns, and as children of the sun they love the frolicking radiance, gaiety and happiness of feasts, games and dances”. It was this dual nature that I hoped to bring to life.

INTERVIEWER

How do you bring the dead to life?

LEACH

The Dungeons and Dragons player in me wants to make the flippant answer “With a level 5 spell”!

 But in writing terms, I try to form emotional connections with the characters that I’m creating (“How am I similar to this person?” “Where do we differ?”), and try to think about the world that they live in – in particular, what makes life there difficult, what aspects of the world put the characters under challenging pressure. It’s impossible to accurately recreate the thoughts and actions of lost cultures from a different time and place, but we can seek to forge a connection whilst acknowledging cultural difference.

INTERVIEWER

A recurring theme that emerges from both your previous novel Smile of the Wolf, and A Winter War is that of family – and in particular, familial feuds. What do you see as the role of war or conflict play in your writing? Does all writing – and do all stories – require some form of conflict in order to function?

LEACH

I don’t think conflict is necessary for stories – Ursula Le Guin has a wonderful essay (The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction), where she casts a pleasingly skeptical eye on the conflict driven story by imagining an ancient hunter gatherer society, comparing the spear wielding blowhards and their stories of the hunt with the gathers and collectors and foragers and the quieter, subtler stories they can tell.

I prefer to think that contrast tends to be the driving force of stories rather than conflict – this can be a philosophical contrast between different ideologies or ideas, the contrast between different characters (or the different aspects of a single character), the contrast between different ways of living. Conflict is a really powerful force for showing these kinds of contrasts (and one that I’m unabashedly drawn to) but conflict isn’t necessary or even what most books are about – it’s a narrative tool rather than an end goal in its own right.

INTERVIEWER

Reading A Winter War, it is striking that we begin amongst a people who are facing the end of their civilisation – the end of their history. In this sense, it bears a striking resemblance to the place we find ourselves: facing as we of course do, the catastrophic breakdown of our planet’s climate, alongside a veritable plethora of other existential issues – from renewed global, nuclear-powered conflicts through to Artificial Intelligence and global pandemics. Is this at all a conscious decision of yours, and how much do you subscribe to the belief that the past constantly offers up a mirror to our own present and futures?

LEACH

Definitely a conscious decision, as that was one of the intriguing parallels between past and present I really wanted to play with. It also puts characters to difficult choices with a lot of narrative potential. The old way of life is going to be lost – will they find a new one or not, and will they do what they must to survive?

It’s also another common element across all the books that I’ve written so far, depicting characters who stand upon the threshold of some momentous change in their society – the fall of the Lydian empire and the rise of Persia in the first two books, the Christianisation of Iceland in Smile of the Wolf

INTERVIEWER

A Winter War is the first of a trilogy. Without giving away any spoilers, can you give us any tantalising insight into how things will develop with our cast of characters – Kai, Tamura, Tomyris, Lucius et al.? Where will the story take us?

LEACH

We’re heading to the other end of the Empire for the next two books, all the way up to Hadrian’s Wall. So for the first time in my professional writing career, I’m actually writing something set in my own country (albeit about 2000 years ago)!

In terms of story, Lucius makes a very serious promise at the end of the first book – sworn upon a sword, in the sacred way of the Sarmatians. It’s a promise he’s really going to struggle to keep in the next part of the story, and that’s going to have big and dramatic consequences for all of the characters.

INTERVIEWER

How does it feel to be setting out writing your first trilogy of novels – what are some of the different writing skills you need as opposed to writing a self-contained story?

LEACH

Part of it is the patience to allow for things to develop in the longer term, to not hurry to resolve everything in the first novel and leave space for the characters to grow and change over time. There’s also the vision needed to try and keep track of all the different moving parts of character and plot and theme so that they do continue to develop and not be forgotten. Combined with all that is the need to make each individual book feel both distinct from the others and satisfying in its own right whilst still remaining part of a larger story.

Lastly, there’s the challenge (in the sequels) of writing for multiple different readers – you’ve got to write for people who have just finished the previous book, people who read the previous book but it was a while ago and they’ve forgotten quite a lot, and the people who have jumped straight into the second or third book because it had a cover that they like!

INTERVIEWER

How has lockdown been for you? What sort of impact have the past two years had on your writing?

LEACH

I actually had a good lockdown on the whole. It turns out writing is quite decent training for spending lots of time in a room on your own, and I’ve always had the suspicion that I’d be quite well cut out for monastic life (I don’t believe in reincarnation, but if I did, I would have definitely been a Benedictine monk in some previous life).

That’s also a function of privilege, though – I live in a nice house on my own with plenty of space and a little garden and no small children or clinically vulnerable people, which was definitely playing the lockdown game on easy mode. 

 One of the lucky things about writing historical fiction is that I don’t primarily draw inspiration from my day to day life or the workings of the present day world, so I was able to keep writing very steadily.

INTERVIEWER

 And what is next for you and your writing? Anything exciting in the pipeline that we can plug/shout about?

LEACH

Just the sequels to A Winter War! Second book should be out August 2022, and the last book the year after that. I’ve already got a very tentative idea for what comes next – after writing about warriors for this trilogy, I’ve found a healer from the ancient world with a very intriguing story to tell…

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