We Can’t All Be Astronauts: An Interview with Tim Clare

19 Feb

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Lots of us, I’m sure, can say that. But I have always been utterly convinced that one day I will be a writer. And not just any writer – oh, no – but a very successful novelist. I’ll be able to make a living from my books, which is to say I’ll do an Iain Banks on it and write for 3 months of the year and spend the rest of it sunbathing or shopping or sleeping or whatever. Do I have any evidence at all that this is going to happen to me? No, not a shred. Do I have a gigantic pile of evidence so big and tall I can hardly contain it that suggests in all likelihood this is not going to happen for me? Indeed I do. Does that matter to me? Not even a little bit.

Last summer I was doing my weekly walk through Waterstones looking for the 3 in my 3 for 2 when I spotted a book entitled We Can’t All Be Astronauts. Being space-mad, I picked it up, only to discover that it was about a subject even closer to my heart: harboring an unwavering yet possibly deluded dream of being a published writer.

“It wasn’t a bedroom. It was a dream factory. Hunched in front of a desk, I was alone with my future. The only sound in the room was the whirr of a computer fan, the only smell the aroma of instant coffee and, occasionally, my own eggy flatulence. It was late. I was working on my book. The Book… Over the years I had chosen to stake everything – my self-esteem, my career prospects, my independence, everything – on becoming suddenly and meteorically successful as an author… [In reality] I was a twenty-six year old guy who still lived with his parents. I slept in late and spent most of my time playing video games. I was single. I was jobless. I had no social life. Sometimes just leaving the house made me nervous and dizzy. It hadn’t always been this way…”

Apart from the gender, the video games, the flatulence and the instant coffee (we all know I don’t do instant), it could have been about me. I was twenty-six, I was living with my parents, I was writing in the postage stamp-sized room I’d grown up in, I’d just handed in my notice so I could quit my job and do it full time, I liked sleeping and I had pressed the Pause button on my life so I could, officially, give this Writing a Book thing a chance and, unofficially, prepare for my new life as professional novelist-columnist-talk show subject-sunbather-shopper-sleeper.

Since childhood, Tim Clare had it all figured out – step 1: Grow up. Step 2: Write a novel that is hailed a critical and commercial success mere hours after its publication. Step 3: Enjoy life as a Famous Young Writer. Step 4: Never have to do anything else. When We Can’t All Be Astronauts begins, Clare is 26 but the other three have failed to materialize. He’s living with his parents, plucking away at a suspect piece of fantasy fiction and drowning in the depths of his own mediocrity.

Even more unfortunately, his plan has worked fantastically well for what seems like all of his friends, AKA the Most Talented Literary Peer Group Since 2004 – one of them has publishers fighting to pay a fat advance for his debut novel while another snags a book deal based on a single sheet of A4. In his desperation to make the same thing happen for himself, Clare agrees to embarrass himself in front of Jeffery Archer, stalk agents at the Hay Festival (on camera) and even talks his way into a meeting with Amanda Ross, ‘The Most Powerful Woman in Publishing’.

While his dream is lived out by everyone around him, Tim Clare, Friend to Bright Young Literary Things, becomes more and more despondent and starts, for the first time, to question his unwavering belief in his future as Tim Clare, Best Selling Author.

I absolutely loved this book. It was funny, poignant and gut-wrenchingly honest and any of you who harbor dreams, quietly or otherwise, about that glitzy book launch, signings that require crowd control or Dave Eggers knowing our name, will love it too. I once read somewhere that the best books tell us things about ourselves that we already knew but couldn’t verbalize and that’s how I felt about We Can’t All Be Astronauts.

(I didn’t want to know most of them but, hey, the dream lives on. I can’t be swayed.)

Tim kindly agreed to a mild interrogation for the purposes of pleasing you, loyal blog readers. As well as writing We Can’t All Be Astronauts – which won Best Biography/Memoir at the East Anglian Book Awards 2009 –  Tim is also a stand-up poet, musician and blogger. You can follow Tim on Twitter here.

What prompted you to write We Can’t All Be Astronauts?

Stark desperation, really. I’d been working on the same Fantasy novel for over 4 years, and the strain had driven me round the twist. ‘Round the twist’ is a glib, folksy way of saying ‘to a nervous breakdown’. I guess I wanted to write down some of my frustrations mostly for catharsis at first – but then it took on a momentum of its own, and became an epic displacement activity that helped distract me from the rather unglamorous reality of my life as lived.

Pre-publication Tim seems to think – just like the rest of us – that a book deal will solve some if not all of his problems. How has getting published changed your life?

I’d love to be all smug and say ‘well, y’know, actually it wasn’t very significant, and in the end all you need is good friends’, but if I’m honest, getting published was immensely important to me. It’s something I’d wanted ever since I was in a little kid – you know, to be a proper writer, to have a book. Finally achieving that difficult goal really boosted my flimsy self-esteem. Perhaps that’s rather shallow of me, but whenever I see my book and remember that, with the help of my very supportive family and friends, I did that, a little part of me goes: YEAH!

In Astronauts you talk a lot about the achievements of your friends and the concerns of your family. Were you worried at all about how they would respond to being immortalized in print? How did they react?

That was the most nerve-wracking part of the whole experience. I didn’t write about anyone I don’t like and respect, so I hoped everyone would be happy with how I’d portrayed them, but at the same time, I felt it was rather presumptuous of me to have declared myself spokesperson for a whole plethora of shared experiences. Also I was pretty honest about my feelings – owning up to both jealousy and big admiration made me feel a bit vulnerable. And then, of course, there’s my dad, and that scene… I dropped lots of hints before he read it, so I think he largely knew what to expect. Also, one of the main thrusts of the book is how awesome my parents are, so I felt confident that once he’d read the whole thing he’d see that, and understand why I had to balance out the praise with a bit of affectionate mickey-taking. All of which is a long-winded way of saying, yes, I was nervous, I ran all the bits past the relevant parties before it went to print, and nobody asked me to change anything, which I took to mean they were okay with it. They’re still all returning my calls!

I know that after I read Astronauts I thought, ‘He’s just like me!’ and convinced you’d want to know this, e-mailed you immediately. I couldn’t have been the only one. (I hope I wasn’t…!) What has the response been like?

The common factor linking all the men who’ve written to me was that they tell me the ending made them cry. Maybe the women who read it cried too, but just didn’t find it noteworthy enough to mention. I didn’t expect the response to be split down gender lines in that way, and I can’t really speculate on why that should be. I guess the other slightly peculiar thing is that all these people now have a fairly thorough knowledge of my life thus far – it’s as if I’ve drunkenly cornered them at a party then spent four hours spilling my deepest secrets. So, often when people write to me or meet me at a performance they’ll volunteer lots of personal information and stuff about their life, and the first couple of times I thought: ‘Why are strangers suddenly opening up to me about their lives?’ Then I figured out that from their perspective they were just continuing a conversation that I’d started – from then on, it felt pretty nice.

Tell us a little bit about how you write, i.e. do you have a routine, etc.?

No. I just stumble through work like someone sleepwalking through a minefield. Depending on what phase certain projects are in, I might be pulling an all-nighter to finish the first draft of a bit for performance, or editing a pitch, or just getting all my ideas out of my head and down onto paper before I forget them. At the moment there’s a lot of finicky topiary going on, as stuff gets finalized, and that makes me itch to be producing big, ugly slabs of first draft stuff again. I spend an awful lot of time playing video games as a way of letting ideas sort of purl and drop into place. I guess it looks suspiciously like procrastinating, but without something like that to distract my conscious mind, I go a bit loopy. I’ve got quite a few irons in the fire at the moment, and I feel excited about them all in a way that can only presage crushing disappointment and several sessions of bitter self-recrimination. Until then, hooray!

What advice would you give to writers aspiring to/dreaming of/obsessed with publication?

I wouldn’t presume to give anyone advice, because I don’t think I have a history of exercising very good judgment in this (or any) area. Also, whenever I read anyone else doling out wisdom about writing or getting publishing, I almost invariably feel like slapping them round their stupid, opinionated chops. I’m pretty sure that’s how most writers, aspiring or otherwise, feel when I start offering my twopenneth worth. I’m not very good at advice – I just gripe publicly in an uncharitable way.

Can you tell us about what you’re working on now? Is a sequel to Astronauts anywhere on the horizon?

Well, an awful lot of what I do involves live performance – I trot out a mix of stand-up, verse and ukulele songs. I’ll be debuting my first full-length solo show this year. It’s called Death Drive, and, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, it draws on Astronauts for some of its material! It’s about my journey from cynical loser to happy failure, via all six Rocky movies, Freud, nightmare neighbours, a corpse and a psychic horse. It’s all true, too. I’m taking it up to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, which is exciting. Aside from that, um, well, shhh… don’t tell anyone, but I’m having a go at another novel. You know, actual fiction. Given the mess the last one got me into, I’m a little cautious, but I can feel myself getting sucked in…

When it comes to getting published, how important would you say it is for aspiring writers to subscribe to Catherine, Caffeinated? (a) Important, (b) Very important or (c)  It’s pretty much a requisite even though Catherine is unpublished, delusional and offers mainly caffeine-induced unfocused ramblings about LOST, pancakes and procrastination?

I would say none of these answers do justice to the true value of subscribing to this pageant of luminous wonder. Aspiring writers who do so will find every aspect of their lives transformed beyond recognition.

Thanks so much to Tim Clare for subjecting himself to my questions.

Purchase We Can’t All be Astronauts: Your Friends are Successes. You’re a Failure. One Last Chance to Reach for the Stars…: Your Friends Are Successes. … One Last Chance to Follow Your Dreams… on Amazon co.uk.

5 Responses to “We Can’t All Be Astronauts: An Interview with Tim Clare”

  1. Andrea February 19, 2010 at 14:58 #

    For the record, my response would’ve been “C” :-)

    Great interview. I especially enjoyed Tim’s insight on folks just “continuing a conversation” that he started. He is, very obviously, a writer.

  2. catherineryanhoward February 19, 2010 at 15:21 #

    Thanks Andrea! My goal in life is to convince the world of the importance of LOST, pancakes and coffee when it comes to achieving your dreams… ;)

    Tim is a great writer and I really hope we get to see a novel of his in print some day soon.

  3. movienewsfirst February 19, 2010 at 15:38 #

    Great interview Catherine; maybe you should turn your hand to journalism too:)

  4. catherineryanhoward February 19, 2010 at 15:43 #

    Ha! One thing at a time, me thinks… ;)

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by cathryanhoward: New post: An Interview with Tim Clare, author of We Can’t All Be Astronauts and harbourer of writerly dreams. http://wp.me/pK3Dz-hQ

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