Tim Major’s recent books include Hope Island, Snakeskins and Sherlock Holmes: The Back to Front Murder, short story collection And the House Lights Dim, and a British Fantasy Award-shortlisted monograph about the 1915 silent crime film, Les Vampires. His short fiction has been selected for Best of British Science Fiction, Best of British Fantasy and The Best Horror of the Year. He blogs at www.cosycatastrophes.com and tweets @timjmajor.
IZ Digital: How did ‘The Marshalls of Mars’ come about? Was it a story you had been thinking about for a long time?
Tim Major: Back in 2013 I read several news articles about US millionaire Dennis Tito, who planned to fund a spacecraft that would perform a 500-day round trip to Mars during a launch opportunity in 2018. The scheme to avoid the loneliness and isolation that would be unavoidable on such a long trip in a relatively small capsule was for the two-person crew to comprise of a married couple. The proposed flight never occurred, of course, but the proposal rears up every so often. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a relationship under such enormous strain for such a long period of time. I’ve written several stories riffing on the concept in different ways. ‘The Marshalls of Mars’ is the one that’s morphed the most since I first began planning it in 2018, at which time my wife and I were stressed and sleepless due to being parents of two young children. It was only natural that the story would change to become a sort of parable relating to parenthood rather than simply marriage. When a couple become parents they’re isolated from the world, cloistered together and driven gradually, dully insane, unable to piece together the events of each day or to keep a firm hold of their own personalities. When they re-emerge from that bubble, the world may appear recognisable but the internal changes serve to make everything alien and uncanny. Nowadays, I suppose there’s also an analogy with re-emergence from pandemic lockdown.
IZD: After four novels and dozens of short stories, what recurring ideas or images do you notice in your work? What and how do you see ‘The Marshalls of Mars’ fitting into your oeuvre as a whole?
TM: As is clear from my previous answer, the predominant theme is parenthood. I began writing seriously in 2012 when my wife was pregnant with our eldest son. Fatherhood has been my defining characteristic and my predominant concern in the decade since then, and my associated fears about it come out in most of what I write.
On a more literal level, ‘The Marshalls of Mars’ links to a series of stories I’ve written that are all set on Mars. I’m a huge fan of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles sequence, his use of nostalgia and the rough-and-ready ‘fix-up’ nature of the collected works. That is, the stories are linked by theme and occasionally by recurring characters, but they’re not beholden to each other in terms of worldbuilding. I’ve deliberately kept my Mars stories at arm’s length from each other, often introducing inconsistencies and anachronisms to avoid the reassurance of science-fiction tropes, and their scale is always small, in contrast to the Martian landscape itself.
I’m delighted that ‘The Marshalls of Mars’ features in IZ Digital, as Meryl and Rich previously appeared in the very first story I sold to Interzone in 2014; the publication of ‘Finding Waltzer-Three’ in issue 255 was my first significant milestone as a writer. While the family-tree logic isn’t necessarily literal, Meryl and Rich are also the parents of the private-eye ‘Optic’ Abbey Oma, who appeared in Universal Language, a novella published by NewCon Press in 2021.
IZD: What is your earliest memory of either real or fictional crewed spaceflight?
TM: I’ve never been a particular fan of space opera, but I’ve been a huge Doctor Who fan since childhood, so my fundamental images of spaceflight are certainly drawn from the televised show – that is, metal gantries, endless corridors, representational control panels made from egg boxes and BBC Micros. It’s certainly nostalgia for that kind of aesthetic that informs my own stories.
IZD: Some writers have favourite pens or notebooks; others write on and with whatever is closest to hand. What tools, if any, are essential for you when you write? Do you have to be in a particular place, physically or mentally, before you are able to string words into sentences?
TM: I work onscreen, and I need a proper keyboard to reach a flow state: using a laptop, I’m constantly aware of the placement of my fingers. Though I usually write in my attic office, location is less important than soundscape. I usually write to a background of drone or minimalist music, the more familiar the better. For the last couple of years, my go-to album for writing first drafts has been HYbr:ID I by Alva Noto.
IZD: What would be your advice for other writers? What do you know that you wished you had known sooner?
TM: I should have started sooner. For years I considered myself a writer without really doing much writing at all. In 2012 I learnt about NaNoWriMo, in which a network of would-be novelists attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in November each year. I was so excited about the challenge that I couldn’t wait, and wrote a novel in February that year, then another in November. Both were pretty bad, but it’s impossible not to learn a lot during such an intensive process. I suppose my second realisation in retrospect is that it would have been far more sensible to attempt to write (that is, to start and finish) a short story, or several of them, than to attempt novels right off the bat.
IZD: Which novels or short stories have left a big impression on you recently? When it comes to short story writers, who do you admire most stylistically?
TM: I’ve just finished Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, and I’m desperately envious of her prose style, which appears effortless, her mixing of science-fiction tropes with intensely honest character work, her ability to weave stories from multiple strands without ever trying the reader’s patience. Some of my favourite contemporary writers of short stories are Helen Marshall, Aliya Whiteley, G. V. Anderson and Robert Shearman, who are all capable of mingling the mundane with the fantastical.
IZD: What projects are you currently most excited to see the light of day?
TM: I’m currently in the final stages of writing the largest novel I’ve attempted so far. It features three separate strands, each of them a murder mystery: one contemporary, one fantasy-historical, one (inevitably!) set on Mars. I began it during lockdown, and several times I’ve wondered whether it’s anything more than an expression of madness due to isolation. All the same, each time I return to it I realise how much I like it, and that it’s a book I’d be certain to pick up if somebody else had struggled to write it instead of me. I do hope it gets published one day.
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