HOW I MAKE IT WORK...
THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST ONCE FELT “SUFFOCATED” BY BEING KNOWN AS “J.R.R. TOLKIEN’S GRANDSON”. NOW, AT 57, HE HAS OVERCOME THE PRESSURE OF HIS FAMILY LEGACY AND WRITTEN HIS OWN TALE OF WAR
Author Simon Tolkien on defying expectations.
When I started writing 16 years ago, I wasn’t trying to compete with the Tolkien phenomenon. The Lord Of The Rings movies were coming out and I just wanted to make something of my own. Having been a criminal barrister, I was sure I couldn’t write. Everything I wrote felt really artificial and self-conscious. It took a long time to find my voice.
My first book was a black comedy about a lawyer. I thought it was great, but when I took it to an agency to be published, I got a lot of rejections. I realised it was awful. But I carried on and have since published five novels.
My books are thrillers, not fantasy fiction like my grandfather’s. People wanted me to write about a hobbit, but I couldn’t write about something that wasn’t real to me. I have to write about flesh-and-blood characters.
Having a famous grandfather has been a real mixed bag for me. I did feel a bit overshadowed, but that was no fault of my grandfather. His genius inspired me to become a writer myself, for which I am grateful. When I started submitting manuscripts, I think my last name got my work read more than if I didn’t have it. But I don’t think things get published unless they actually have intrinsic quality. That’s a lesson I learnt when I was crying over my rejections.
While being J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandson has been an enormous help to me, it has been a winding road. It’s created challenges, which I’ve been able to rise to. Ultimately, I’ve been lucky. He’s a real inspiration, and I feel a strong wish to honour him and his achievements.
My latest novel, No Man’s Land, has a real nexus with my grandfather. He fought at the Somme in World War I. None of the letters he wrote during the war survived. He said almost nothing about it to anybody, which was not unusual. A lot of people who experienced the Great War didn’t talk about it. He was the kind of writer who never wrote of his own experience, so it made me feel close to him to write a book about something he’d experienced so hugely.
Researching what the war was like, how it felt to be in the trenches and to go over the top, gave me a real connection to him. I think I’ve done something he’d be pleased about. No Man’s Land (Harpercollins, $44.99)
Simon’s tips for finding your voice
Keep a daily diary. I did for 10 years and it helped me lose my self-consciousness. Write emails that describe your personal experience, rather than just communicate the facts. Keep struggling. It’s often hard to find words to convey how you feel. But if what you write is truly personal, it can’t be a cliché. 1. 2. 3.