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Interview: Tim Jones

August 2012

This month, we spoke withTim Jones, who is a poet, editor, flasher and more. Tim’s stories have appeared frequently at Flash Frontier. His short fiction has been included in several collections edited by Graeme Lay, and his poetry has been featured in a number of poetry journals and anthologies. We first became acquainted with Tim when we came across a story of his in TurbineBooks in the Trees, which is also the name of his website where he hosts interviews, poetry and stories. We’re pleased to learn more about Tim’s world this month. We hope you will be, too.

FF: You’re a poet and fiction writer, but also a scientist. Tell us how science influences your writing, and how the relationship between science and imagination is important.

TJ: I’ll own up to being a poet and fiction writer, but I am not, in fact, a scientist – unless you count an ancient BSc in Computer Science. I am very interested in science, though, especially physics and cosmology, and now my son is doing science subjects at high school, the discussions we have – during which he asks me science questions that I can only answer with a helpless shrug and a surreptitious recourse to Wikipedia – have renewed my interest in such things.

My early short stories — which were collected in Extreme Weather Events (HeadworX, 2001) — were almost all science fiction. My second collection, Transported (Vintage, 2008), is about half SF. I’ve diversified to the point where I don’t write all that much core science fiction any more, although a lot of my fiction still has some kind of speculative element.

But I think the main influence of science on my writing – and on my imagination – is that a lot of my stories come from an initial “what if?” In science, you propose a hypothesis and then test it by experiment – in fiction, you propose a hypothesis and then test it in narrative.

FF: How do you think writing poetry influences the way you write flash fiction, and the other way around?

TJ: I think the common denominator is economy. Poetry, or at least the short and shortish poems I write, require economy with words; so does flash fiction, especially as the word limits of the form seem to be contracting – in my day (“in my day, lad, we ‘ad proper flash fiction, non of yer modern roobish”) stories under 1000 words were regarded as flash fiction, whereas now even a 300-word limit seems dangerously lax.

So I am used to working in a form that requires compression, and that definitely helps with writing flash fiction.

I’m not sure how or whether writing flash fiction affects my poetry, but I do know that I now write the occasional prose poem, which I never did before I started to write flash fiction. And, funnily enough, I always know whether I consider a short prose piece to be a prose poem or a flash fiction, even if no-one else can see a difference.

FF: Has writing flash fiction affected your other writing, and how?

TJ: I think it has helped me to focus on what’s essential, and cut out what’s inessential, when writing fiction at greater-than-flash lengths.

FF: Flash fiction lends itself quite often to a serious voice but you frequently find a way to introduce humour and even the absurd into your stories. Do you know the mood of the story ahead of time?

TJ: By the time I’ve had a story idea and jotted it down on my ideas list, I usually know what tone it will have – serious or silly, light or dark. Sometimes, though, when I get round to turning an idea into a serious story, I realise that it is straying too close too unintentional comedy, at which point I either abandon the story or turn it into intentional comedy.

For me, the shorter a story is, the easier it is to maintain the humour – so, of my humorous and/or absurdist stories, most are 200 words or under, and a lot are flash.

FF: Your poetry book Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand was well received and has recently been picked up to go to Frankfurt for the 2012 Book Fair. Do you think it has enjoyed such wide appeal because of the unexpected blending of these two things, sci-fi and poetry? And will it be translated into Vulcan?

TJ: The first thing I should say is that I co-edited the Voyagers anthology with Mark Pirie – and that the anthology was his idea, so he deserves the bulk of the credit.

As I discuss in the recent Frankfurt Bookfair 2012: An Aotearoa Affair feature on Voyagers, New Zealand publishers didn’t see the commercial potential of Voyagers – and, to be honest, I didn’t think it would do as well as it’s done, both domestically and internationally. I think that’s partly down to good promotional work by publishers IP, and partly down to the fact that you don’t have to like SF to enjoy the poetry – or, perhaps, like poetry to enjoy the SF.

I don’t know about translation into Vulcan, but with a quick word to the Klingon Language Institute, I think a translation into Shakespeare’s native language might well be arranged. As they say in Hollywood, your people should talk to my ghotpu’.

FF: What other writers have influenced you, and how?

TJ: A tremendous number. The list of my favourite authors from my LibraryThing account is provided for completeness – and I do mean completeness! – below, but if I had to name just one influence in terms of my flash fiction it is Jorge Luis Borges. For me, he’s the greatest fiction writer of the 20th century, and he never wrote a story longer than 20 pages. If I could come anywhere near the quality of his greatest stories I would be truly happy.

This is a wonderful online resource on Borges: The Garden Of Forking Paths.

Tim’s favourite authors from LibraryThing:

Anna Akhmatova, Dante Alighieri, J. G. Ballard, Alison Bechdel, Jorge Luis Borges, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Angela Carter, Paul Celan, Suzy McKee Charnas, C. J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Jennifer Compton, John Crowley, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Carol Emshwiller, Sergei Yesenin, Ramachandra Guha, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Hope Hodgson, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Bill Manhire, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Mark Pirie, Tim Powers, Helen Rickerby, Harry Ricketts, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, James Tiptree, Jr., J. R. R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Gene Wolfe.

FF: In this month’s issue, your mirrors story manages to balance science and sentimentality. Or is it science and magic?

Gareth Jones, Lighting

TJ:  I think “science and sentimentality” is a fair call, with some fantasy at the end: I don’t think young Kevin is really running at more than 10% of the speed of light, the point at which the dynamic Casimir Effect starts to kick in, although I’m sure he thinks he is.

The challenge in this story was to find a way of explaining the Casimir Effect within the confines of a 250-word story: I chose to make Kevin’s dad the sort of dad whose bedtime stories to his son consist of progress reports on his work, which in this case is in high-end physics research.

FF: What do you do when you’re not reading and writing?

TJ: Listen to music. Go for walks. Watch cricket. Do my (part-time) day job. Play catch with my son while attempting to answer difficult questions about space and time. I’m also active in a number of environmental campaigns, especially the campaign against new and expanded coal mining in Aotearoa – because, if the world mines and burns much more coal, our climate and our goose will be irretrievably cooked.

FF: Tell us about your writing environment. Do you have posters of Isaac Asimov and Dr. Who on your walls? Or is it ee cummings and James K. Baxter?

TJ: I used to write in a little study room at the back of our house, which has pictures of friends and family on the walls. Now I work wherever it’s most convenient to put my computer: wherever I lay my laptop, that’s my home.

But if I did populate my writing space with posters, I reckon I’d put up posters of Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Sheldon aka James Tiptree, Jnr, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Plus a Black Caps promotional poster, to remind me of the folly of human ambition.

FF: What are you reading at present?

TJ: Right now I am reading Hide Me Among the Graves, the new novel by Tim Powers. I always have at least one poetry collection on hand to dip into, and currently that is Graft by Helen Heath. And the top book on my to-read pile is Mansfield with Monsters, by Matt and Debbie Cowens.

FF: What are you writing at present?

TJ: In 2010, the New Zealand Society of Authors was kind enough to award me its Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature. This was to help me write my third short story collection, and, after publishing my third poetry collection Men Briefly Explained last year, I am now writing stories for that new collection – and very much enjoying doing so.

Thank you, Tim Jones, for the interview this month. 

For the AUGUST issue (mirrors), please go here

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