Book review: ‘Smile of the Wolf’ by Tim Leach

smile of the wolf tim leach

Is it ironic that one of the hottest books during the warmest British summer for 40 years seems to have been written to chill you to the bone? Set in the frozen snowscapes of 10th century Iceland, Tim Leach’s Smile of the Wolf does just that – but it’s not just the harsh winters and blizzards the characters in this excellent novel must contend with that will send shivers up your spine.

This is Leach’s third novel – yet the confidence and assuredness with which he writes could deceive you into thinking this is the work of a writer much longer in the tooth. The prose is elegant and beautiful, breath-taking and evocative (matching the sweeping landscapes of the book’s setting).

Yet for all the clear literary skill on show here, what is perhaps most impressive about this book is how current it feels – despite its historical setting. Although there are centuries separating the events in the novel and today, the core themes and actions that take place in the book strike right at the heart of something timeless – calling to something within human nature that is as old as literature and shows little sign of changing. Perhaps distilled most simply into the feud that erupts following the inciting incident of the novel, the moving parts of character loyalties, betrayal, fear, and dividing battle lines drawn between opposing sides, this is a plot that could have taken place at any time or place in history – and certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in, say, the current Conservative cabinet of Brexit Britain (though such a theoretical book may feel a tad colder than frozen Iceland).

Indeed, 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.” Well, first of all, there are few frocks to be found in Smile of the Wolf (this is far more cloak and dagger) – and secondly, this is not a book that avoids tackling real issues – or paints characters in any false light. Impressively, there are no characters who are without flaws or without redeeming qualities. Those who have earned the name of ‘coward’ show immense generosity and care for others. Those we see as brave and steadfast are also stubborn and paranoid. Leaders fear to step in; making only limited suggestions or offers of help and advice; while even those who are manipulative and cruel show love and ingenuity. In this way, the book presents us with painfully honest and accurate descriptions of human beings in a way precious few novels ever hope to.

Iceland winter.png

Iceland’s sweeping snowscapes are brought to life in Leach’s Smile of the Wolf

To dwell on the richness of these characters for a moment, none perhaps embody the heart of both the novel and its setting more than the protagonist, Kjaran. An Icelandic skald – or poet – his profession exists to provide the novel with a literary lilt that allows Leach to lift the prose up; yet we must also consider what effect it has on the veracity of the narrative. This is a first person account, after all – and as we all know, writers and artists often have an extremely malleable relationship with, and interpretation of, ‘the truth’. In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Leach himself noted that “writers tell stories to survive” – and we see this in the way Kjaran ‘the landless’ must use his craft in order to ensure he has a warm place to stay during each harsh Icelandic winter. In this way, both Kjaran and Leach can be said to be using their survival instincts, as writers, to create and exist within realities that they create for themselves.

Now, we’ll avoid getting to ‘meta’, here – but suffice to say, this epic tome has more to offer than exciting action, the scents and sounds of battle and killing, the whisper of fear and murder and the howling of storms (though it has all those things, too). This is a book that invites us to see parallels with our own world and our own realities – and encourages to question our allegiances, our loyalties, and – perhaps most importantly – our assumptions.

Smile of the Wolf is published by Head of Zeus.

Purchase a copy of the book on Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Smile-Wolf-Tim-Leach/dp/1788544102

 

 

Advertisements

Creatives In Profile: Interview with Tim Leach

Tim Leach

In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce author and creative writing teacher, Tim Leach.

Tim is a historical fiction author and creative writing teacher. His first novel, ‘The Last King of Lydia’, was published by Atlantic Books in Spring 2013, and has been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A sequel, ‘The King and the Slave‘, was published in 2014. He teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick, and he lives in Sheffield.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle – is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

LEACH

After studying creative writing at Warwick and living in London for a time, I now live in in Sheffield, which must be one of the country’s best kept secrets – a lovely, friendly, creative city with the Peak District on its doorstep. Shh, don’t tell anyone, or they’ll all want to move here…

Other than writing, my main interest is rock climbing. It has much more in common with writing than you might think – they both share a kind of rarefied loneliness that appeals to me. There is no one lonelier than a climber on the wall or a writer in his/her study, but the act of climbing or writing changes the nature of that loneliness from being something awful into something beautiful.

INTERVIEWER

Did you want to become a writer when you were young?

LEACH

No, I wanted to be an actor! At university I began to get increasingly interested in writing, and after a brief tug of war between the competing passions, writing won out. They share a surprising amount of common ground in character creation, narrative rhythm, and the importance of understanding your audience. I like the greater creative control you get in writing, although I do sometimes miss the thrill of performance.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

LEACH

The writers who inspire me most are cracking storytellers first and foremost, but who also have a fine eye for prose, an empathic feel for character, and an ultimately optimistic view of human nature. John Steinbeck, Graham Greene, George Orwell and Tolstoy are the exemplars of this for me. I do also love brilliant stylists like Virginia Woolf and wild imagineers like Italo Calvino – I could never do the kind of work they do, but I like to admire them from afar…

INTERVIEWER

Your debut novel, ‘The Last King Of Lydia’, blends historical fact with fiction and philosophy. How did you balance the competing threads of ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ – what does the term ‘reality’ mean to you? Would you ever change a fact to heighten the narrative drama of a book? How flexible is the truth?

LEACH

I seem to always pick unreliable source texts to get around this problem, where there is no certain record of events. This gives the writer rather more room for manoeuvre. I try to stay away from ‘actually impossible’, but am content with ‘wildly improbable’ – my approach to historical fiction tends to be to pick the most interesting version of the story that could possibly be true, rather than the most probable version of events.

What is ‘reality’? I think that we are creatures of narrative, it’s how we understand and process the world. We tell stories to survive, and the stories that we tell become our reality.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little bit about your research and writing methods?

LEACH

I always have one source text that is my anchor – Herodotus’s Histories for The Last King of Lydia, for example. If I ever get lost or confused or overwhelmed, that will be the book that I return to.

For the first draft, I research more to get a feel for the period than to hunt for fine details. This usually means reading works of the period that I am studying, and to read other authors who have attempted to write about a similar time and place. Then, when I’m editing, I’ll read lots of non-fiction to dig out particular details that I need to flesh out the writing. I think research should always be fun, otherwise you’re not doing it right.

As for the writing itself, I set a word count target (usually 500 words or more) and write that for six or seven days a week. Slow and steady is my preference, keep moving forward until it’s done.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve mentioned before that you began writing the novel while working in a bookshop in Greece staffed by “wandering lost souls”. Can books – and writing – help such souls to become ‘found’?

LEACH

Yes and no. Ultimately, it’s the people in my life who make me feel ‘found’. I think we are ‘found’ when we feel connected to people, ‘lost’ when we are not. But writing keeps me alive when I’m ‘lost’ – for me, it’s a survival mechanism for facing down seemingly hopeless situations. And when we come back from being lost, we often come back with good stories to tell, stories that can connect us to people again, until we are lost once more.

I think this cyclical process of being lost and found is universal human experience rather than being restricted to creative types, but perhaps they feel it more acutely than most. This may be why artists have always been depicted as wandering between different worlds – dream world and waking world, spirit world and real world, the living and the dead.

INTERVIEWER

When writing, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when typing your initial drafts?

LEACH

Just. Keep. Going. It’s the easiest thing in the world to stop, to endlessly edit, then to give up in despair. You’ll hate the writing for long periods of time. This is normal. You’ll be convinced that it is terrible. It might well be. So what? Keep going anyway. There are worse things than writing a bad book. I’ve written bad books and thrown them away, and I don’t regret writing them in the slightest. You never learn anything if you don’t write, if you don’t finish.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or in mind when you write?

LEACH

Not a specific person, no. But I always try to imagine my reader as someone who has absolutely no interest in what I’m writing about. For my first two books, I assumed that my reader both knew nothing about the ancient world, and didn’t particularly care about it. My challenge is to win them over by telling them an absolutely irresistible story.

Preaching to the converted is easy, and makes for lazy writing. The compliments from readers that mean the most to me always start with “I don’t usually read historical fiction, but…” or “I really thought I wouldn’t like this book, but…”. Those are the people I write for.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

LEACH

Yes, but it changes from book to book. It isn’t an abstract writerly persona, it’s a specific character. The Last King of Lydia and The King and the Slave are written in the third person, so the persona is more concealed, but it is there. I am working on something at the moment written in the first person, so the character is rather more obvious!

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

LEACH

I’m optimistic about the potential of the internet to connect readers to books they would not otherwise have heard about. I’m pessimistic about the future of bookshops, and the impact that will have on connecting readers to books they would not otherwise have heard about.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

LEACH

First, you’ve got to have something interesting to say. Lots of people just want to write a good book, and many of them achieve this. But unfortunately, simply being “good” is not good enough – the recycling bins of agents and editors are filled with plenty of “good” books. You have to be exceptional in some way. What is unique about the story you want to tell? Why does it need to be told? Why are you the one to tell it? If you can’t answer these questions, then there is no reason for your work to stand out from thousands that are just like it.

After that, I think that books aren’t disseminated by writers, they are disseminated by readers. Nothing beats a personal recommendation when it comes to selling a book, and so it’s all about finding your champions – bloggers and online reviewers, friends and family, they are the ones who spread the word. So find your passionate readers, and cherish them.

INTERVIEWER

Following ‘The Last King of Lydia’, your second novel, ‘The King and the Slave’ has since been published. What was it like to revisit Croesus et al in writing it?

LEACH

Very enjoyable! I originally tried to write the story as one big book, as I always had a very specific ending that I was heading towards. But the story was simply too large and complex for one book. So it was very satisfying to finally get to the ending I’d been working towards for many years.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

LEACH

I’m a little shy about saying too much about the next project – suffice it to say that it’s another historical project, but set a little closer than Ancient Greece, and quite a lot colder…

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

LEACH

Oh, I wish that I could.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

LEACH

  1. Write every day. Inspiration be damned, get some words on the page no matter what.
  2. Be bold, brave and radical with your editing. The red pen can do remarkable things to your first draft, but only if you’re both wildly inventive and absolutely ruthless in your redrafting.
  3. Get good readers for your work, and learn to listen to them.
  4. Be patient. It’ll probably take you about ten years of daily practice to get any good. Plan accordingly.
  5. Lower your overheads. The less money you need to earn, the more time and energy you are going to have to write.