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Ep 95 Chuck Palahniuk’s writing tips, the number one problem with backstory, 42 old English insults, 10 questions to ask before launching your author website, 100 best websites for writers, and how to motivate yourself to edit and rewrite. And meet novelist Tim Baker on his blog tour of his book Fever City.

podcast-artwork In Episode 95 of So you want to be a writer: The number one problem with backstory and how to fix it, old English insults, and writing tips from the indomitable Chuck Palahniuk. Plus: 10 questions to ask yourself before launching your author website, the 100 best websites for writers, and how to win a copy of The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky. Also: meet novelist Tim Baker on his blog tour of his book Fever City, learn how to motivate yourself to edit and rewrite, and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes
The #1 Problem With Backstory (and Its Simple Fix)

42 Old English Insults

Stocking Stuffers: 13 Writing Tips From Chuck Palahniuk

10 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Launching Your Author Website

The 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2016

Writer in Residence

Tim Baker

Tim Baker authorTim Baker’s latest novel is Fever City, a high-octane, nightmare journey through a Mad Men-era America of dark powers, corruption and conspiracy.

Born into a showbiz family in Sydney, Tim Baker lived in Rome and Madrid before moving to Paris, where he wrote about jazz. He later ran consular operations in France and North Africa for the Australian embassy, liaising with international authorities on cases involving murder, kidnap, terrorism and disappearances. He has worked on film projects in India, Mexico, Brazil, Australia and China and currently lives in the South of France with his wife, their son, and two rescue animals, a dog and a cat.

Find Tim on Twitter

Working Writer’s Tip

How to motivate yourself to edit and rewrite?

Answered in the podcast!

Ask the writer: Your questions answered

Competition

The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Tim.

 

Tim

Thanks for having me, Valerie. It’s a pleasure to be on the show.

 

Valerie

We’re very excited about your debut novel, Fever City. For those readers who haven’t had a chance to grab it yet, because it’s only just out, can you tell us what it’s about?

 

Tim

Of course. There’s three central mysteries at the heart of this thriller. The first one is set in the 1960’s and involves the kidnapping of the only child of the richest and most hated man in the United States.

 

The second strand, the second mystery involves a plot to assassinate President Kennedy.

 

And the third mystery is in the present day, and I think it was very important to have a contemporary component for the book. And this is a mystery that’s sort of more along the lines of a classic domestic noir. It’s a son who’s investigating the actions of his father half a century ago and trying to figure out if he might have been involved in the assignation of JFK.

 

Valerie

Wow. There are many strands to this novel. How in the world did the idea, or rather the ideas for this book form? I mean was there a lightbulb moment? Was it something that was percolating for a period of time? Tell us.

 

Tim

There were both of those, Valerie. The story began twenty years ago. It was a classic kidnapping story, which was a component of a larger mystery concerning the activities of the federal government of the United States in the early 1950s. But, as I started writing this novel I realized that the kidnapping component was, for me, the main story.

 

I worked on it for a while, but I felt it was lacking something. I put it down, and then I won a prize that was given to me by the Producer’s Guild of America for a screenplay that I wrote in 2010. I was invited to Los Angeles to accept the award. When I was in LA I was really hit by the city. I never expected to like the city at all. But, in fact I found that I loved it. There were memories for me, of course I’m a Sydney-sider, so there’s a lot of similarities with Sydney.

 

I also spent a lot of time in Mexico City and the Spanish component of LA was present as well. But, there was something else as well, it was the proximity of nature, the mountains, the ocean, the way the light was in the afternoon, the shadows, and I felt this is the noir capital of the world.

 

I suddenly understood why my childhood had been spent reading classic noir novels by people like Raymond Chandler and James Elroy set in LA. That was my first lightbulb moment.

 

I changed the kidnapping to Los Angeles. Immediately when I did that I felt that this story had an extra layer of nuance that it didn’t have before.

 

But, there was still something that was missing. I didn’t know what it was, I worked on the book for about another year. I put it down and then one morning, it’s was January 2011. I woke up at four o’clock in the morning with a voice in my head. I sprang out of bed, went to my computer, opened it, started typing. It was exactly as though someone was dictating a story to me.

 

I didn’t even really know what I was typing, I just followed the voice. It took about four hours. Then I went out, walked the dog, cleared my head, came back and looked at what I had written, and I realized that I had solved the key element that was missing for the kidnapping story, which was the introduction of a secondary plot.

 

The plot happened to coincide with the assassination or the attempt to assassinate JFK. Once I had that component I was off and running. So, I started that day, 2011, I finished the novel in 2014. So, it was another three years of heavy writing and then it went out for submission. It got an agent. My agent worked with me, we reduced the text by about twenty percent, and then it went out to auction and it was preempted by Faber & Faber less than three days later.

 

Valerie

Wow, so that second strand, or that moment where you jumped out of bed at 4:00 AM, that had been percolating for years and years and years?

 

Tim

Yes, I knew that I always wanted to write about the JFK assassination, for two reasons. The first reason was a very personal one, it’s the earliest memory that I have in my life. I remember the event very clearly and it’s unlike, say, a birthday or Christmas, it’s an event where you can specifically say, “That was 1963.” So, in a way it was the beginning of the personal narrative of my life, of my memories. My memories went earlier than that, but I could never tell you exactly what was happening, what day it was, what the event was, they were just sort of impressions.

 

Valerie

Yep.

 

Tim

That day was the beginning of the history of my memories. And I remember very well how upset my parents and my grandparents were. I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew it was a momentous event.

 

Valerie

Yep.

 

Tim

Then just afterwards a couple of family traumas occurred. So, if you like it was the beginning of a lot of emotion in my life.

 

The second reason I wanted to write about it was around 20 years ago, again, I happened to stumble across a sound recording of the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. And it was such a vivid picture. It was amazing, especially you could hear the scuffles around… just after Ruby shot Oswald. You could hear the scuffles of the police. But, one thing that struck me was I could hear car horns. The first car horn sounded when Oswald came out, and the second car horn sounded just before he was shot.

 

I asked myself, “Could that have been the signal?” And that led me to explore the mad and crazy world of JFK conspiracy.

 

Ever since then I have been wanting to write about it, but I just didn’t have a story to put my ideas on until that dream.

 

Valerie

Wow. It’s your debut novel. Can you just give us a really brief plotted history of your life really, up until this point? What were you doing prior to writing this novel? You mentioned that you grew up in Sydney, what kind of happened in between then and now?

 

Tim

OK, right. Well, I was very sick as a child. I spent a lot of time in hospitals and emergency rooms. Back then there was nothing to do. TV was very basic, there was no computers, no Facebook, nothing like that.

 

I just thought a lot. When I was well enough I read.

 

Ever since my early childhood I’ve been fascinated by books and by stories.

 

I started writing seriously in my late teens. In my early 20s I started putting stories together with the eye of getting a collection out. When I was 29 I sent a collection of stories out to three publishers, and one of them, Williams Collins, was just launching an Australian imprint called Imprint.

 

And they picked up the book in 11 days. I got a phone call, I went into the publisher’s office. I read the reader’s report, I read the contract, I signed. I thought, “That was easy.”

 

Then I started writing a second collection of short stories, all of a sudden I realized that the stories I was writing were not classic short stories, there was much more to them, they were novels. That’s when I started turning towards the longer form of the novel.

 

I started writing one novel and then I would turn to the second story in my collection, my second collection and I started turning that into a novel. Before you know it I had nine different novels going at the same time.

 

Valerie

Oh my goodness.

 

Tim

So that continued for 15 years.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Tim

During that time my wife — she became a stagiaire, which is like a trainee or an intern at a famous cooking school in Paris. So we moved to Paris and then she fell pregnant and I started to panic because I was getting by as a writer, writing journalism and doing PR work and also writing screenplays. But, I felt with a child on the way in Paris, an expensive city, I really would like something more secure.

 

I applied for a job at the Australian Embassy, and I got the job. At first it was part-time, it was working at the consular section of this giant embassy. But, I must have been good at it because I kept on getting promoted. After a couple of years I was running the consular section as the consular manager. I was manager for five years.

 

That was an amazing experience, it was wonderful to leave your home in Paris, walk across a park and go to work in Australia every day.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Tim

But, also it was very important from the point of view of my work, because it exposed me to real scenarios and to police procedures. I got an idea of the way police and judicial authorities in France, but also in other countries because we had oversight in North Africa as well, how they work, how they conducted themselves when they were looking into, say, a murder or a suicide or a kidnapping or a child abduction. I became familiar with the kind of questions that were being asked and the kind of responses that the police would get.

 

That informed this book, Fever City, I think. That gives it an authenticity that it wouldn’t have had if I had never worked in the Australian Embassy in Paris.

 

Then six years ago I realized my son was getting older, I was getting older, my duties at the Australian Embassy were growing every day, and I realized it was now or never. I had to make a choice between continuing working at the embassy, doing work that I loved, or being a writer.

 

I discussed it with my wife and we decided to do an all-in bet. We sold up in Paris and we took all of the money that we had and we moved to a little village in the south of France that we had spent some time in the summer, which we loved. And I just decided that I would risk everything to live my dream of being a full time writer.

 

Valerie
Wow. That is a big risk.

 

Tim

Yeah.

 

Valerie
Were there any points during that time that you were thinking, “What have I done?”

 

Tim

It’s interesting, Valerie, because yes and no. Ever since we moved down here my wife, Julie and I have found it’s the happiest moment in our lives. It’s a very small town and it’s the first time in my life that I’ve lived in a tiny village. We thought it would be very difficult for us to live here. We thought we would be treated as outsiders, exactly the opposite happened. We were welcomed with open arms by the local community.

 

On a personal level, and on a level of friendship, it’s been wonderful. This place is really beautiful, we live right next to the sea. I go swimming six months of the year in the sea.

 

So, from that point of view, from the happiness point of view, from a personal point of view it’s been fantastic.

 

From a financial point of view, it’s had moments of great darkness and despair, you know? There’s times when we couldn’t answer the knock at the door or the telephone kind of thing. But, luckily we’ve been through that. As well as selling my novel to Faber & Faber I also sold a screenplay to some Chinese producers, and those two events were life-changers for us and gave us a kind of security that you really need. Especially with a son who’s still at school.

 

Valerie

Yes. What kept you going during the dark moments?

 

Tim

Well, I think it was the support of the people that we’ve met down here, and my love for the work. I think that’s the most important thing. You have to hold onto the things that really count in your life.

 

The other thing — it’s so hard to do, and people say, “You have to live life one day at a time,” that’s what kept us going. If you focus on the now and you don’t focus on the bills that have to be paid at the end of the month, you can get through these dark moments. But, it is difficult. It’s a lot harder than it seems to live every day, to live in the now. That’s what we attempted to do and that’s what got us through it.

 

Valerie
When you were writing the bulk of the novel, between 2011-2014, I think you mentioned…

 

Tim

Yes.

 

Valerie

… was that there? In the south of France in your village?

 

Tim

Yes, it was. It was.

 

Valerie

When you were doing that, were you writing full time on your novel? And, if so, did you have a target? Like either a word count target or a timeframe target or something like that?

 

Tim

Yes. I don’t work on a word count target. I know a lot of people do and I can see the advantages to it. But, for me, the most important thing to do is to get into a rhythm where you’re away, where you’re writing.

 

What would happen is I would arrive at a point where I started to write, and then I just wouldn’t stop. And it literally would be morning, noon and night. I would just keep on writing, keep on writing, all the way through to a draft. The next day I would pick up the writing from maybe a chapter before, or a few pages before, I would read through that chapter, do some editing, if I thought it needed it. And then I would get on and keep on writing.

 

Then after a draft was finished normally I would have a rest, a break of maybe say seven or ten days. During that time I would just think about what I had written and tried to identify the problems in the draft, the things that I could sharpen up, and the way to make it better, to improve the writing. Then I would go back in again.

 

But, I also would have a pause and go onto another novel as well.

 

With Fever City I would go through a complete draft, maybe twice, then I would put it aside. I would work on another piece, I would go through it complete draft of that, I’d put it aside and then I would go back to Fever City, or go back to another novel.

 

During this period I was writing three novels at the same time. And I also wrote about six screenplays during this time as well.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Tim

But, Fever City was a focus.

 

Valerie

Why did you want to write the two other novels? Why didn’t you want to concentrate just on, say, Fever City?

 

Tim

I think it’s because the way I write is I need a degree of away time, of downtime from a book. I think if I don’t have that I might get caught up in a false conception of what I’m writing. I need to have a distance from what I’ve written to really feel that I can examine it with a critical eye and not get swept away.

 

Oftentimes when you finish a draft the first thing you feel is elation, relief and enthusiasm.

 

Valerie

Yes.

 

Tim

Sometimes I think that enthusiasm can be false enthusiasm. Personally, I need distance to look at it with a critical eye and to say, “It’s not as good as I thought it was,” or, “Hey, that’s not bad. I’m nearly getting there.”

 

Valerie

Yes. With the plot of Fever City did you know, I guess after you woke up with a lightning bolt at 4:00 AM that time, did you know after that where your entire story was going, or where most of your story was going? Or did you let it unfold and discover what happened?

 

 

Tim

I let it unfold.

 

Valerie

Really?

 

Tim

The lightning bolt moments were moments that got me into the story, because what they did is they established a locale, which is very important for me to have a sense of location that is very vivid in my mind. Then secondly, it gave me a voice, a tone. And because there’s three narratives in 1960, 1963 and 2014, there are three different voices, and what happened in the book is the three strands began to coexist, began to intertwine until they dovetail at the end, until an explanation that solves the three mysteries and brings the three narratives together.

 

I had to work my way through that myself. It was difficult, but I’m very glad that I didn’t plot, because I think if I plotted I may have found an easy way out, or a short way out. This was a much more organic process. In a way I feel that I have undergone the same kind of quest that the reader will undergo in trying to solve these three mysteries.

 

Valerie
Yes.

 

You mentioned that during your time working in the consulate, as a consulate manger, you learned a lot of stuff like police procedures and stuff that helped you in your research, really, for this book.

 

Tim

Yes.

 

Valerie

A part from that, I imagine that you would have had to done a lot of other research. The nature of this book is such that I imagine you would have done a lot of other research. What kind of research did you have to do, and was it done as needed? Or did you do pre-research?

 

Tim

Well, I did a lot of research around the assassination of JFK. But, because I started 20 years ago I had already a very good grasp of the major theories and the major conspiracy theories and the history around it. I also knew the main characters, the historical players in the story.

 

But, it was a good balance I think, Valerie, because the kidnapping story was very loosely inspired by several real life histories of kidnapping, but it’s essentially fiction. And the JFK element, most of it is fiction, but it’s encapsulated by historical fact. I liked the balance between the two. My goal was to try to bestow as much of this historical feel in the kidnapping as already existed around the JFK killing.

 

Valerie

You mentioned that you have these two other novels, is that what’s next for you? Are you working on one of those? Or are you working on your fourth novel?

 

Tim

Well, I have several more. I’m working on a fourth and a fifth novel as well.

 

Valerie
Wow.

 

Tim

But, what I’m working on right now is a novel, that’s one of the other two, it’s nearly complete. It’s set in Mexico at the turn of the 20th and 21st century, 2000. It looks at two women, one of them is a labor organizer, trying to organize the sweatshops that have sprung up along the border with the United States. And the other woman is a photographer and a journalist.

 

It looks at their fight to try to expose political corruption, economic corruption and the growing influence of the narcos in the border towns along the US/Mexican border.

 

Valerie
Wow.

 

Tim

That evolved out of a trip I made to Mexico in 1998, which had a huge impact upon me.

 

Then the other book I’m working on right now is the sequel to Fever City. There will be a very strong Australian component, because one of the four main protagonists in Fever City is an Australian. We’ll see a lot of Australia in the 1960’s.

 

Valerie

Wow.

 

Tim

And a lot of the United States in the 1960’s, and Italy in the 1960’s as well.

 

Valerie
You’re actually doing something fairly innovative and different for authors. You’re actually embarking on a blog tour to promote this book.

 

Tim

Yes.

 

Valerie
Can you tell us why this approach?

 

Tim

Right. It was Faber & Faber that suggested it to me. And it’s because crime fiction has grown incredibly over the last ten years. And some of the best bloggers are people who are devoted solely to crime fiction. So Faber said, “Why not tap into the enthusiasm of all of these people?”

 

Given the fact that the book is unusual. It’s a crime thriller, but it’s not like your typical… these days a lot of crime books are domestic noir, with an unreliable narrator, for example, Gone Girl, or The Girl on a Train, books like that.

 

They spoke to a lot of the bloggers and there was a huge amount of interest in the book. Basically because it addresses one of the greatest unsolved crimes since Jack the Ripper, which is the assassination of JFK — I say ‘unsolved’ because about 70 percent of American citizens don’t believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the person who killed Kennedy. There’s a huge question mark. And also there’s a rising in conspiracy theories around the world right now, and I think it’s because of social media.

 

But, anyway, they put together a blog. Once the bloggers — they talk to each other a lot — once some of them heard that they were doing Fever City the other ones started contacting Faber & Faber and now we have a massive blog tour that’s a month long.

 

Valerie

That’s great.

 

Tim

It’s really great to tap into all of this enthusiasm. There’s a lot of Q&As involved. What has really stunned me is all of them are incredibly different. I really appreciate it because it makes me think about the book in ways that I wouldn’t have really thought about it.

 

Their addressing questions from their own interest and their own backgrounds. It’s been fantastic. I’m really enthusiastic about it and so happy that Faber thought of it.

 

Valerie

Back to Fever City, you’ve got your characters, your protagonist is Nick Alston.

 

Tim

Yeah.

 

 

 

Valerie

A Los Angeles private investigator. And you’ve also got a guy called Hastings, who’s a mob hit man.

 

Tim

Yes.

 

Valerie

And obviously numerous other characters as well, but with, say, your key characters they are living such an unreal life — an extraordinary life. How did you get to know your characters? How did you evolve them? How did you determine what kind of people they were going to be?

 

Tim
Right. I know a lot of writers create character sheets and they work out their childhood, what school they go to, what are their favorite foods, their partners in their life, things like that.

 

I didn’t do any of that. I just thought of a tone, a tone for each voice, because there are three narrative streams. Each narrative has a different voice. There’s first person and third person. There’s present tense and simple past. I just went for the voices. Once I found the voice of one of these characters I was away.

 

Again, it was kind of an intuitive decision that I made.

 

But, what I wanted to do is I grew up loving the golden age of noir, of the private investigator. I loved the convention. I embraced all of the conventions of noir and then one by one I smashed them.

 

It was a lot of fun to say, “What would happen here?” And to start going along that way and then smashing that convention, doing something completely unexpected.

 

You do have a private eye, who used to be an LAPD detective, who did something that was unforgiveable. He was kicked out of the force, he became a private detective.

 

You have a mob hit man. Now, how do you create empathy for a man who during the course of Fever City kills 34 people?

 

What I did was I wanted to look at the background, both the private detective and the hit man are veterans of World War II. They both fought in Iwo Jima, which is one of the most brutal battles in the Pacific. One of the themes is to look at how society transforms its young men by sending them to war and turning them into killers. Then they return back to peace time society — how do they integrate?

 

Well, Nick, the private eye, he integrates in an uncomfortable way, but he does socially integrate as a cop and as a private detective. He’s a functioning member of society. Whereas Hastings cannot integrate and he goes over to the dark side, to the mob. He retains his identity as a killer. He’s been transformed. His quest is to try to redeem himself. He does that by helping Nick find the kidnapped child.

 

Then the third narrator is the son of Nick and he’s an everyday kind of person. He’s basically a happy journalist. He’s writing a piece about the assassination of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and he’s interviewing all of these nutcases in Dallas, these conspiracy theorists, with a cynical eye. He just wants to write the story, sell it and move on. But, he doesn’t expect to find a suggestion that his father may have been involved in the assassination of JFK.

 

Suddenly, it’s become personal and he’s trying to interpret the actions of his father during a moment of acute crisis. He doesn’t want to judge him, but he’s going to have to judge him in the end. That’s the domestic noir element.

 

Then there’s a fourth protagonist, a woman, Betty Banister. I really wanted to have a woman in this story, a powerful woman, because it’s driven by three men. And all of these men are dealing with betrayals in the past, and so is Betty. But, the difference between Betty and the three men is she has the strength to forget the past and to move on and to try and create a future, whereas the three men throughout most of their lives have been trapped by the past, by the injuries of the past.

 

Valerie, I think this comes to one of the central points of Fever City, which is all of us have our own private Dallas moment. Dallas in 1963 was the destruction for all of the Americans, of all of their hopes, their optimism, their belief that change could happen. All of us have a moment in our lives where something happens to us, or someone does something to us that changes our live, that changes our expectations of where we’re going. And it’s how we react to that change. Do we become bitter? Do we get full of regret or nostalgia? Or do we try to adapt to that change, to move on, to rebuild our lives?

 

That, for me, is at the heart of Fever City. How do the characters and how do we as readers adapt to the Dallas moment when our lives change unexpectedly.

 

Valerie
Very, very exciting. Absolutely can’t wait to read the book.

 

Finally, if there are people listening to this and they are at that edge, as you were, and where you were actually wondering, “Should I give this a full time go?” or not, what’s your advice to them?

 

Tim

I think you have to follow your heart. To get by you need talent, of course. You have to be a good writer.

 

You need tenacity, because you’re going to find a lot of rejection, especially when you’re looking for a literary agent. It’s all about rejection and dealing with the process of rejection. So, you have to have the courage and the determination not to give up.

 

But, most of all you need luck. You just have to have that moment when the manuscript falls into the right hands, whether it’s an agent or an editor.

 

I think if you have belief in yourself, go for it. If you think you can go through a period dealing with rejection, dealing with setbacks, if you have that tenacity, and if it means something to you, then I think do it.

 

Valerie

Wonderful. On that note, thank you so much for your time today, Tim.

 

Tim
Thanks so much for having me, Valerie. It’s been a pleasure.

Feb 9, 2016 Podcasts Australian Writers' Centre Team

Written by Australian Writers' Centre Team

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