My Favorite Bit: Tim Lees talks about STEAL THE LIGHTNING
Tim Lees is joining us today with his novel Steal the Lightning. Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the newest Field Ops adventure, god hunter Chris Copeland must track down an enigmatic figure distributing shards of deities to unwitting citizens across the country
Chris Copeland has a bizarre job, seeking out gods to convert into energy, but when he’s tasked with retrieving a deity from an elderly woman in New York, he’s truly out of his element. Before he can learn who sold her the dangerous object, she swallows a piece of it and goes into painful convulsions in front of his eyes.
Calling himself Johnny Appleseed, an elusive man has stolen fragments of gods and is traversing the country, peddling the contraband as a miracle cure to anyone desperate enough to believe him. With the help of his colleague, Angel, and a documentary filmmaker intent on exposing the Registry’s secrets, Chris must chase down the culprit and recover the stolen gods before all hell breaks loose.
What’s Tim’s favorite bit?
I have a new book out from HarperVoyager. It’s called Steal the Lightning, and it’s set in a world a lot like this one, except that there, the ancient gods remain, buried at sacred sites around the globe. Given the right equipment, you can dig them up, break them down, and use their energy to power anything from heavy industry to a household toaster. Chances are, in that world, you’d be reading this on a god-powered screen – which means that maybe, just maybe, the gods would be reading you, in turn.
To most people, they’re a fuel resource, a substitute for coal, oil, and nuclear power. But gods are gods, and in their raw form, have a powerful pull upon the human mind. They’re dangerous. They change the way we see the world. Sometimes, they change the world itself. So when someone starts dispensing chunks of pure god-stuff in towns across the USA, professional god hunter Chris Copeland is called in to track down the perpetrator – and try, if he can, to minimize the damage.
Now, I’m a Brit, and the prospect of an American odyssey has always excited me. I never fully recovered from reading On the Road, and even a trip to the shops can assume an almost Kerouacian dimension when I’m in the mood. In this novel, I’m mostly taking back roads, from New York, through the Midwest, ending up in Vegas. Which is where my problems really began – as a writer, anyway.
The gods make places strange. Simply the presence of a god will generate all kinds of bizarre phenomena – and how do you make a place like Vegas any weirder?
Well, it took a while, but I did it. (Let’s just say, if you’re ever on the Strip and somebody suggests a spot named Second Eden, you should walk very, very quickly in the opposite direction, OK?)
So there, amid ghosts, gods, and a gambling hall that, win or lose, will literally suck you dry, I came to my favorite bit. The hero meets the bad guy. I love these scenes, and I don’t do them as confrontations. I think I’ve met a few genuinely bad people in my time, and there’s a common theme running through all of them: the bad guy doesn’t think that he’s the bad guy. Forget the trail of casualties lying in his wake. He’ll tell you, that’s not his fault. They deserved it. Or they knew the risks. Or even, he tried to warn them. He’ll tell you how he’s the victim here, not them. He’ll tell you how he’s suffered, but he had to take control, since no-one else would do it. He might be sad, self-pitying. He might be boastful, describe himself as “strong”, “entrepreneurial”, or whatever current buzz-word fits the bill, when actually he’s ruthless, self-centered, solipsistic and destructive. If he’s socially respectable, he’ll cast himself as a philanthropist, a wolf in saints’ clothing, furiously staking out the moral high ground while chasing his own gains. There’s a tremendous sense of privilege about it all, an exceptionalism that justifies whatever he does: “I’m allowed to act like this because…” Picture a small boy trying to talk his way out of trouble, then age him by twenty, thirty, forty years. That’s our guy.
In this instance, his name is Johnny Appleseed, and for a notion what he’s up to, imagine your local crack dealer telling you he’s really doing vital scientific work, for which he expects great acclaim and reward in the near future. And yes, true, there might have been a few deaths here and there – he doesn’t quite remember who, but he’s sure they knew what they were getting into, and it was nobody important, anyway. And the benefits are going to be amazing. And it’s his achievement! Far from being the villain, he’s actually a pretty great guy, isn’t he?
Well, my job as a writer is to get inside this man’s head, give him some really good arguments, make him sympathetic, plausible – even likeable, for a while. Then show that, despite all that, he’s still a scumbag, through and through.
So I wrote the scenes. I liked them. It’s probably some horrible, perverse streak in my character, but I enjoy trying to see the world through the bad guy’s eyes, a world in which he’s invariably the center, the only person anywhere who really counts.
Then I realized: I had a problem.
There needs to be a rhythm to a book like this. It’s a thriller, after all, and quiet scenes have to be broken up with action, and plenty of it. Here, though, I’d let myself get carried away: chapter after chapter of dialog, argument, and just a few small, creepy things going on around the edges.
That wasn’t going to work.
So I went back, to the point where the hero is sitting in a casino bar, waiting for the bad guy to appear.
I’ve had times like this before, when I know where a story has to go but not how to get it there; when the present scene feels flat and ordinary, and needs a good kick to get it moving. And I always ask myself, “What’s the last thing you’d expect to happen here?”
And that, I think, is my second favorite bit: throwing in a wild card, sending the whole book off in a completely unanticipated direction, so that even I don’t know where we’re going to end up.
In my view, that’s where the fun really starts.
Tim Lees is a British author living in Chicago. His short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Great Jones Street and elsewhere. He is the author of Frankenstein’s Prescription (Tartarus Press), and the Field Ops novels, The God Hunter and Devil in the Wires (HarperVoyager). All books can be read as stand-alones. When not writing, he has held a variety of jobs, including film extra, teacher, conference organizer, and worker in a psychiatric hospital. He has a website at www.timlees.wordpress.com (when he has time to update it), tweets as @TimLees2, and holds an Instagram account as tim.c.lees.