Article published on March 5, 2018.
Tim Baker has just published his much anticipated second novel City Without Stars. Our own Paul Burke was impressed by the tale of murder and deadly drug wars in the borderlands (you can read his review here), and he caught up with Tim for a little interrogation.
Paul Burke: You’ve lived in various parts of the world and done a few other things before you became a novelist. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what got you into writing? I hear Anthony Burgess gets an honourable mention.
Tim Baker: I’d be glad to, Paul. I came from a showbiz family – my mother was a singer, my father was a stand-up comic and later a theatre and TV producer, so I was exposed to drama very early in my life.
And as I spent a lot of time in hospital as a child, there wasn’t much to do but make up stories in my head. I had a fondness for Greek and Roman mythology so it was only normal that I headed to the Mediterranean as soon as I left school, and wound up in Rome and later Madrid where I started to write short stories.
I then travelled to Paris for what I thought was a short stay and stumbled across some work for a bunch of new magazines and literary journals and ended up staying.
It was a great time to be in Paris, and I was able to meet a lot of other aspiring writers, as well as established authors who lived there (Mavis Gallant, William Wharton, Mary McCarthy and Maxine Swann) as well as regular visitors like Anthony Burgess, who was based in Monaco.
I first met him at a reading in the Pompidou Centre, and he was very generous with his time, including agreeing to what ended up being a 15,000 word interview! A lot of that material showed up in his first autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God, which made me very happy.
He also gave me some advice I took to heart: if you are going to be a writer, you should earn your living from writing – right! Easier said than done!
PB: You’ve been a journalist and you’ve written screenplays, what’s the attraction of fiction? Is that where you plan to focus your writing now?
TB: Following Burgess’s advice, I set out earning my living by writing hundreds of pieces of journalism as well as album liner notes, text books, commercials and industrials and even worked as a pen for hire writing university papers! Then I started writing plays and screenplays, which thankfully brought in a little more money.
However, I eventually realised that with all the writing I was doing just to survive, I didn’t have enough time – or energy! – for what I really wanted to write: novels. So eight years ago, I chucked it all in, and decided to focus exclusively on fiction.
But I don’t think of all that time writing for a living was in any way a waste. On the contrary, everything you write has a lesson inside if you look hard enough, and screenwriting is particularly good for plotting and learning how to write visually.
PB: My first thought on both your novels, Fever City set in the US and City Without Stars set in Mexico, was that they are very different. On reflection they are both set, at least partially, around the borderland, is that significant? Is the North/South divide relevant?
TB: The North/South divide is extremely important in post-WWII history, as former colonies fought and gained independence while often getting caught in the East/West divide via Cold War politics and the struggle to control resources.
It was the period that gave birth to the inequalities we see today, with the rise of Globalisation, the massive concentration of wealth in a few hands, the monopolisation of resources and the refugee crisis. As a history buff, I was aware of that theme and the dramatic potential.
PB: City Without Stars really points to the difference between rich and poor. People with power as opposed to those deprived of it. Lack of education, support from the state and institutions (in the face of crime and poverty), fairness under the law etc. Is this a theme for you in the novel?
TB: Absolutely. We live in a time of massive divisions between rich and poor. The rich want to avoid paying taxes, thereby depriving the state of the possibility of investing in basic social needs such as education, health and housing.
That creates austerity and budget cutbacks, further exacerbating social tensions until problems seem beyond repair, creating a perfect environment for crime and extremism, because both flourish amidst chaos and despair. It provides incredible material for crime novelists.
PB: People have been saying good things about City Without Stars, but I was a surprised that very few seem to be referencing Ciudad Juárez. The city in Mexico where maybe 1500 women were murdered over a twenty year period. I can’t help but read the real events of the city into your story. It must have inspired your novel?
TB: It definitely did. The murders of the women of Ciudad Juárez were at the centre of the novel from the beginning. Initially City Without Stars was much longer, and spread out over several months and several locations, including Ciudad Juárez. But as I worked on the novel, I began to compress the action into four violent days.
That presented a logistical problem because I wanted to keep tones, colours and atmosphere from my various settings but simply couldn’t cut backwards and forwards between Mexico City, Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez. So after discussing it with my editor, I decided to create a fictional town that embraced all of the settings I wanted to use while still keeping the femicides at the heart of the story.
PB: The way the working women of Ciudad Real are treated is appalling; it’s like an extra layer of poverty, with criminals, religious and state authorities and husbands all colluding in fostering a macho environment. For want of a better word, is it a conspiracy?
TB: The novel’s story revolves around a specific conspiracy concerning the murdered women, but I think a lot of people would agree that in today’s climate of #MeToo and Time’s Up, that the way women are forced to work in harsh conditions without adequate security, protection or consultation constitutes a massive conspiracy to both exploit them and to deprive them of their basic rights.
PB: City Without Stars is set in the middle of a drugs war in 2000. Do you think the border situation, violent crime, drugs trafficking and people smuggling ,is any better today than it was then? Will we ever get to the truth of what happened?
TB: Unfortunately what happens is that crimes shift from one region to another, often under the influence of rival cartels rather than specific police action. Also these shifts don’t tell the story we think they do.
For example, while femicides dropped for a period in Ciudad Juárez, it was acclaimed as a victory, when in fact the murder of women rose enormously during the same period in Edomex, the state that contains Mexico City.
The truth is that women will not be safe until their voice is heard and they are treated as equals, including authentic political, judicial and economic representation.
PB: What was it like researching for your novel? You must have met some very brave people in the process of creating Cuidad Real (in truth it sounds a lot like a hell on earth for the ordinary people of your novel)?
TB: The great thing about Mexico is its people. Contrary to the racist stereotype so prevalent in the United States, Mexicans are tremendously hard-working people. They are kind and generous with strangers, have very strong bonds with family and community and only want what we all want – which is to live in peace and happiness and in a society that will protect their children and offer opportunities of advancement to them.
The courage of Mexicans standing up to both cartels and corrupt government officials, including members of cabinet, is both humbling and inspiring, as exhibited by the families and friends of the victims of the Iguala mass kidnapping, when 43 teaching college students disappeared off the face of the earth. City Without Stars references that tragic event.
PB: The tone and shape of your two novels are very different. City Without Stars is a more straightforward linear tale. Fever City is layered and set over three time zones (massive over simplification, sorry). Does the material, the plot and characters determine the way the story is told?
TB: I never plot my work. I start with a sense of place and a voice and then I follow that voice and see what happens. It’s perhaps not the most efficient way to write! But it works for me, as it gives me a sense of adventure and surprise as I discover characters and events along the way.
PB: Do you like getting into the political/social structure that defines the context of your novels? In City Without Stars what happens concerns where power lies and how the world really works.
TB: I like getting into the drama and the emotion behind it. Follow the power structure – particularly when it’s corrupt – and you’re already half way there!
PB: Both your novels have had strong female characters, in the light of what is happening in City Without Stars (the mass murder of women), was it more important for that to be the case? Does it represent an additional challenge for a male writer?
TB: Thanks Paul, it’s incredibly important for me to try to create powerful women for so many reasons. One is that I have been fortunate to form many friendships with powerful and remarkable women who have suffered for their beliefs and their art and never given up, yet I don’t see their stories in fiction. In my opinion, too many crime novels rely upon lazy clichés and worn tropes – I want to shake things up and do something original – otherwise what’s the point?
Besides women are statistically far more likely to be victims of crime than men – so logically they have to be present.
In terms of writing female characters, for me it’s like writing any character – none of them are me, so everything is an invention – a leap of faith that maybe I have gotten one voice right. I try for authenticity, but that doesn’t mean I will get it. You just have to keep taking risks.
PB: The word conspiracy conveys a sort of mystical meaning, the kind of over-arching conspiracy you get in religious thrillers, but that’s not what you write. Is it true to say your novels are about power and the corruption occasioned by power?
TB: It’s interesting that you talk about mystical meanings and religious thrillers because I have always equated power with religious institutions as much as secular ones. Perhaps it’s because I always think about the various types of power: economic and political and military of course, but also spiritual and moral power – that almost indomitable hold that can sway people to both obey unjust laws and carry out atrocities in its name. Hopefully you get a taste of the whole gamut in City Without Stars.
PB: Your novels are very dark; is that the way you see the world? Or is it just my reading of them?
TB: A lot of people tell me that, and I accept that they portray moments of extreme darkness. But ultimately I see them as vehicles of light, for they portray the struggle of people to overcome injustice and corruption, and assert the positive aspects of our natures. I also hope that the humour in the novels also alleviates the darker episodes.
PB: Any significance to the use of the word “city” in the title of both your novels?
TB: That’s a great question and no one’s asked me that before. The answer is I don’t know but I’ve thought about it myself. It only occurred to me long after City Without Stars was finished, but I suspect that unconsciously there is a connection. I try to create a very powerful sense of place and in our modern world, a city is where people from all walks of life and background collide. I guess they can be the equivalent of an urbanised battlefield.
PB: Who are you reading at the moment? Do you have a recommendation for our readers, maybe of a thriller writer you currently admire?
TB: I read several books at once. At the moment I am reading Collusion by Luke Harding about Russia’s success in the 2016 elections, which is scary as hell, and Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, which is just plain depressing. On a similar subject, I’ve just finished a great thriller from 1980 called The Twentieth Day of January by Ted Allbeury which is about a Russian puppet being elected president of the USA! I suspect the Russians may have read it! I also just finished Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson which is a brilliantly original thriller that takes you to places you’ve never been to before, and A Game For the Living, by Patricia Highsmith, which is set in Mexico and which I loved.
PB: What can we expect from you next? Are you working on a new novel? Any clues as to what it might be about? Are we looking at another standalone story?
TB: Like my reading, I always work on several books at once. One is a classic Cold War espionage novel with a twist; another is a dystopian sci-fi thriller; and a third is a first contact story set in Western Australia. Then there’s a novel about Picasso and a sequel to Fever City. I’m not sure which one will come out first, but hopefully they’ll all see the light of day sooner rather than later!
Tim Baker’s debut thriller, Fever City, was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award. City Without Stars is published in January by Faber & Faber (£12.99).