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Tim Downs Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"I've never taken a writing class, and my last English class was in high school."
-- Tim Downs


Tim Downs is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Indiana University. After graduation in 1976 he created a comic strip, Downstown, which was syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate until 1986. His cartooning has appeared in more than a hundred major newspapers worldwide. His first book, a work of non-fiction, was awarded the Gold Medallion Award in 2000. Tim lives in Cary, North Carolina, with his wife and three children.

C.J.: One of your first forays in writing was the syndicated comic strip Downstown. What first inspired you to write comics?

Tim: I grew up reading comic books and comic strips, and like a lot of boys I learned to draw by tracing and then copying my favorite characters. The idea of actually drawing my own comic strip seemed unattainable to me—but then Doonesbury came out, which began as a college feature in the Yale Daily News. That inspired me to give it a try in my own college paper, the Indiana Daily Student. It worked, and a few years later my comic strip was nationally syndicated—by the same syndicate that owned Doonesbury.

What did the process of producing a daily strip look like for you? Was it your full time job, or did you have another job to support yourself?

It was my full source of income, but producing a comic strip just doesn’t require 40 hours per week. I estimate that it took me about three hours per day, seven days per week. Dailies took less time to produce, but Sundays took longer.

When did you first realize you wanted to write fiction?

I’ve worked as both a comic strip artist and as a professional speaker—two seemingly different jobs. One day it occurred to me that there was a common denominator between the two: storytelling. It suddenly dawned on me that that’s what I really was—not just an artist and not just a speaker, but a storyteller. That’s when I began to consider other forms of storytelling—like fiction.

What’s one thing you learned in your cartooning that you were able to apply to your novel writing?

The elements of both are the same—things like character, plot, and dialogue. I think writing three thousand comic strips gave me a big head start on writing my first novel. It’s a good thing it did—I’ve never taken a writing class, and my last English class was in high school.

Your first novel, Shoofly Pie, featured forensic entomologist Nick Polchak as the main character. Why entomology?

The question is really, “Why Nick?” I have no background in entomology and no special love for bugs. I just read an article in a science magazine several years ago about the brand-new science of forensic entomology and I saw the potential for a fresh and original character—a brilliant, sarcastic outsider who would manage to rub everybody the wrong way. The entomology element was coincidental.

Shoofly Pie by Tim DownsYou conducted extensive research for those books. Share with us your most unusual or embarrassing moment during that time.

To do my original research on forensic entomology I signed up for a workshop in central Indiana created for deputy coroners and crime scene investigators—a workshop to teach them how to collect insect evidence at crime scenes. In the mornings we met at an American Legion post and watched very graphic slides of murder victims and maggots. In the afternoons we went out to a farm where each of us was assigned a “victim”—a dead pig in some stage of decomposition. Our assignment was to correctly collect and label insect evidence from the victim—then we all came back and had a pig roast!

After writing two Bugman novels, Plaguemaker dealt with biological warfare, and now your latest, Head Game, deals with psychological warfare. Tell us a little about the plot of Head Game and what was the impetus that compelled you to tackle this topic.

During Operation Desert Storm, I read about the remarkable impact of our PsyOps activities—about a quarter of their army surrendered. It got me thinking about the power of thoughts and ideas, and it made me wonder what it would take to make me surrender. That was the impetus for the story: the idea that each of us is subject to psychological attack, and that we each play a big role in helping one another to resist.

What was the hardest part about writing Head Game?

Head Game was a different kind of story for me. It’s inherently a dark story, because it involves a man being pushed Head Game by Tim Downsto the limits of his psychological and spiritual endurance. The pace is fast and the story is intense, and that made it difficult to incorporate any of the humor I usually include in my stories—like with Nick Polchak. But each story has its own unique requirements, and that’s the way Head Game had to be told.

What was it like returning to the comic art form (to draw the graphic novel-esque prologue in Head Game) after being gone so long? Did you find all your skills come back or did you have to practice a lot to get it right?

It was hard! It had been twenty years since I retired from drawing my comic strip each day, and it came back slowly. Drawing is a hand-eye coordination, just like playing a musical instrument—and you get awfully rusty when you fail to practice for twenty years.

Do you decide ahead of time the “message” you want readers to get from your stories, or does the takeaway value come about during the storytelling process?

I begin with a major theme in mind. In PlagueMaker, the theme was forgiveness. In Head Game, it was about encouragement and faith. I don’t, however, plan a specific message or the way the message will come out—I just tell the story and let the story itself express the theme.

What do you do when the words just don’t seem to come during a writing session?

I write anyway—nobody said it would be easy. People sometimes think that writing comes easy for writers just because they’re writers. That’s not true; sometimes it’s a slow and agonizing process. But my favorite quotation on writing is, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” I think that expresses it well: If you wait to write until the words come easily, you probably won’t write very much.

First the Dead by Tim DownsI’m thrilled to know your next book will be a 3rd Bugman novel. I hear it’s titled First the Dead and takes place in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. We’d love to hear a sneak pique of the plot.

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Nick Polchak is in New Orleans volunteering with an organization known as DMORT—the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, the people who help collect and identify human remains after a major disaster. Nick is helping to collect bodies from the flooded city when he notices something: The insects on some of the bodies indicate that they were killed before the storm. Someone is using the flood as a way to cover up some unpleasant business—but who? That’s the basic story behind First the Dead. It’s a great story—you’ll like this one.

Are you and your wife Joy still involved with the “Weekend to Remember” conferences? If so, tell us a little about the conferences and what you speak about.

It’s been our privilege to speak at Weekend to Remember marriage conferences for more than twenty years now. We tell people that marriage is not only a relationship, it’s a skill—and many people today grew up in homes where they were not taught the skills that will make a marriage work. That’s where we come in. We also tell people that marriage is more than a contract, it’s a covenant—an idea that’s often overlooked in today’s world.

What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?

A pure comedy—and I hope to get to do one fairly soon. I suppose it’s a leftover from my comic strip days: I just love humor, and I’d love to write a book where the humor is more up front. I’ve asked my publisher if I can work out a Jekyll/Hyde arrangement with them: a dark book every fall and a light book every spring. They’re thinking about it.

What authors or books have had the most influence on you as a writer?Chop Shop by Tim Downs

I’m a big fan of C.S. Lewis. He’s influenced me more than anyone else—his ability to express profound ideas in simple terms and his childlike imagination. In terms of contemporary fiction, there’s no single writer I admire most. I tend to read portions of books just to see how they’re written. It’s kind of sad, really, but I rarely read just for enjoyment; I’m reading to learn how to write.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?

That writing is a skill, and any skill can be learned and improved. To the first-time writer, writing an entire book looks like an impossible task—like building a pyramid. I wish someone had said to me, “You can do this. Give it a try.”

What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get out of it?

The lowest point in any writer’s career is waiting—for a publisher to call, for a finished book to be released, for a check to be mailed. Waiting is always discouraging because it feels like nothing is happening—or ever will. Unfortunately, it’s all part of the business.

What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?

I have never purchased a musical album, cassette, or CD. I rarely listen to the radio. I have an iPod which I listen to whenever I drive or exercise, but I only listen to audio books. How weird is that?

You’re at the Barnes & Noble checkout counter and are purchasing one item each from the books, music & movie sections. What are you buying?

Plaguemaker by Tim DownsI’m buying the hardcover version of PlagueMaker (which is no longer in print), the movie version of PlagueMaker on DVD (which has never been made), and the PlagueMaker soundtrack. Then I wake up.

When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?

Spending time with my beautiful wife. Going out to eat; working out; building; designing; inventing. I hate to sit still—I love anything creative.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

That’s another weird thing about me: I’ll eat the same thing for breakfast every day for a year, then suddenly switch—I have no idea why. I just came off a tour of oatmeal duty; now I’m into eggs.

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Air, a twenty-five watt light bulb, and my left hand.

You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?

A “small” cup of “coffee.” I always get a strange look.

What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?

1. Grow old gracefully, and 2. Die in my sleep

What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?

Nelson DeMille’s Wildfire and David Baldacci’s Camel Club.

When was the last time you cried?

Right after that question about my unmet life goals.

Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?

For those who have missed Nick Polchak, I’d like them to know that not only will my next book (First the Dead) be a Bug Man novel, so will the one after that. And just as I gave Nick a cameo appearance in PlagueMaker, I plan to give FBI Special Agent Nathan Donovan a cameo in Nick’s book. Stay tuned—and thanks for reading.

C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.