Close window
© 2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

Interview with Simon Tolkien
Alex Lewis

Simon Tolkien was born in Oxford, England in 1959 and grew up in a small village near Oxford. His grandfather was J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of The Rings. He studied Modern History at Trinity College, Oxford and then went on to become a successful barrister specializing in criminal justice where according to British custom he appeared on behalf of both the prosecution and the defense. He now lives with his wife and two children in Southern California.
Simon’s first novel, titled Final Witness in American publication, was published by Random House in 2002 and has been translated into eight languages. His second novel, The Inheritance was published by Minotaur Books on April 13th 2010. Although he has always admired his grandfather’s books, Simon’s own writing draws more heavily from his experiences as a trial lawyer and his abiding interest in modern European history, the legal and social politics of 20th century British society.

What are your earliest recollections of your grandfather?

Being met off the train at Bournemouth Station; skimming stones on the beach; playing word games on summer afternoons; affection; watching Z Cars on a flickering black and white television in the Miramar Hotel; wreaths of pipe smoke and a box of Swan Vesta matches; a deep voice and warm laughter, and sadness after he died.

Do your grandfathers’ writings influence the way you write, and if so, in what way?

I have always loved The Lord of the Rings. I think that the most important inspiration in it for me is my grandfather’s ability to convey the potency of the past and its effect on the present. This is a vital theme both in The Inheritance and in my next book, The King of Diamonds, where the characters’ lives are shaped by past events in World War Two. One of my favourite scenes in The Lord of the Rings is when Gandalf describes how he found Isildur’s manuscript in Denethor’s library in Minas Tirith and this was a direct inspiration in The Inheritance for Andrew Blayne’s discovery of an old vital letter in the Vatican relating to an ancient cross. I am also fascinated by my grandfather’s capacity to describe great evil and feel that I have a lot to learn from that.

What do you make of the fame that your grandfather had towards the end of his life and even more so since his death? We know your grandfather was not too comfortable with the fans and the fame himself. Would you wish for a similar level of fandom yourself?

I don’t think he liked being woken up at four in the morning by transatlantic calls from fans who hadn’t worked out the time difference, but then again who would? I think, however, that he was deeply pleased by the vast number of people who had been moved by his writing, and his willingness to spend so much time responding to his reader’s questions is a testament to how much he valued their input. Indeed some would say that he spent too much time answering fan letters after the publication of The Lord of the Rings when he should have been devoting himself to The Silmarillion. I am in a different position. As an author trying to get started in an unforgiving publishing world, I am grateful for all the good publicity I can get.

You were brought up in Oxford and went to the Dragon School as a young boy - how much does Oxford and its surroundings have an effect upon what and how you write?

Oxford is very important to me. For a long time I deliberately set my back on the place as I set out to start anew in London after university, but in recent years that has changed. I think it is an extraordinarily beautiful city and the old buildings and narrow winding streets are a mesh of memories for me. I was born in Hollywell one cold January night in 1959 and grew up in the shadow of New College where my father taught. As a boy I used to go to children’s parties in the Warden’s lodgings, run up and down the hill in the middle of the college garden, and try hard to conquer my fear of the tall wooden statues in the dark cloister. Merton College makes me remember my grandfather in his last year; Trinity my undergraduate days. I went to school in North Oxford until I was thirteen and learnt to swim in the Cherwell. I love the way that Oxford combines the rural and the urban within its boundaries. Every time I come back from America I make sure to walk across Port Meadow and along the river, stopping at The Perch and then The Trout, remembering Gerard Manley Hopkins’s lament for Binsey poplars and wandering in the ruins of Godstow Nunnery along the way. I enjoy the winding rivers and the trailing willow trees and once upon a time I was an expert at punting. I love Oxford and I know it very well, and it is a source of lasting pleasure to me that I can recreate it in my books so that I still live in it sometimes in my mind even though I spend my days on the other side of the world.

Was there any particular teacher who inspired you to write, or was it other authors or friends?

No, I began to write fiction at the age of forty because I wanted to prove to myself that I could. No one encouraged me to become a novelist except my wife, Tracy who has been a rock of support to me in all my endeavours.

Was the fame and example of your grandfather’s writing something that was daunting to you as a writer, or did it help in any way?

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I think that my grandfather’s fame was a huge obstacle for me to overcome in becoming a writer. His achievement towered over my family. I always knew how extraordinarily clever he was with such strong views on the world and who was I to have my own views or my own writing? This was in no sense my grandfather’s fault; it was the result of his success. Ultimately my need to escape from my grandfather’s shadow proved stronger than my sense of illegitimacy, and now for the first time I feel at ease with being the grandson of J.R.R.Tolkien. It is something to be proud of.

What spurred you to start to write, and what was the reason you chose the area of fiction that you did?

The appearance of the Jackson movies on the horizon at the end of the 1990s made me feel more than ever before that I needed something of my own to define myself by, and the millennium was certainly a good excuse for a life-changing resolution! I chose legal thrillers because I know the law so well from my time as a criminal law barrister and it helps with making a novel believable if the writer is at home with the background. It is the same reason why I have chosen Oxford as the setting for The Inheritance and The King of Diamonds.

What were your literary influences? Which writers particularly made you want to write, and who do you think has the most influence on you?

I gained a lot from the atmosphere of 19th century novels – I think of the Brontë sisters, Arthur Conan Doyle, R.L. Stevenson and Wilkie Collins especially. Collins’s The Woman in White was a particular inspiration for The Inheritance. Movies are also a valuable source for me, especially the work of Alfred Hitchcock, who was a genius at creating and maintaining suspense.

Final Witness (The Stepmother) was well received when it came out; was it the first novel that you attempted?

No, I started with a comic novel about an unsuccessful Midlands solicitor married to a religious maniac who insists on sending their only son to an appalling rural boarding school run by a frightful collection of monks. At the time I thought this was my masterpiece and felt bitterly disappointed when it was roundly rejected by all the literary agents I sent it to. Now, however, I realise they were right. This first novel was my way of learning how to write and I look back on it now with amusement and affection.

The Inheritance is your second book, and you are writing in a similar area of fiction to the first book. Can we expect more in this vein?

My next book, The King of Diamonds, is coming out in the US next April. In it Inspector Trave, the investigating policeman in The Inheritance, faces losing his wife and his career because of his obsessive belief that his wife’s lover has committed two murders. There is also a strong historical dimension to the plot as in The Inheritance.

Would you consider writing other forms of fiction in the future as well as what are termed by some critics as ‘courtroom dramas’?

My next book has less courtroom scenes and focuses more purely on a police investigation, although a transcript of a previous murder trial becomes a vital clue to solving the crime with which the story begins. I don’t see courtroom drama as integral to my fiction but I do want to maintain a historical dimension to my novels. I am committed to trying to write books which make my readers want to turn the page without feeling at the end that they have gorged on junk food. I prefer the wide definition of the American mystery genre to the narrower crime category for my type of fiction in the UK, and I feel fairly comfortable living under the mystery umbrella.

You currently live in California with your family - how does that compare with living, say, in the UK?

I love Santa Barbara in Southern California where I now live and wish that I had moved here before. The climate is a big plus and the people are genuinely friendly and seem to understand where I am coming from. I had grown tired of the hugeness of London after 25 years and I like the fact that Santa Barbara has real geographical boundaries – the Pacific below and the hills above, and the beautiful Spanish architecture is an added inducement.

What advice would you have for the aspiring novelist out there?

My advice is to keep going if you have talent. Getting published in a serious way requires a great deal of luck as well as an inordinate amount of persistence. Finding an agent is very hard and it is almost impossible to know whether your agent is any good until after you’ve signed on the dotted line. Some agents work hard on a book to give it its best shot while others act as no more than glorified post boxes. And then even if the agent sells the book, there’s the risk that the publisher won’t get behind it, leaving it to die a sad death at the back of the bookstore. It’s also very hard to get publicity for fiction and publicity is the life blood of a novel. So writing is a long hard road lined with disappointments, but it’s wonderful if you can make even a moderate success of it because there’s no substitute for seeing your book in the store, provided of course that it’s somewhere near the front!

Your grandfather had in effect a writers circle in the Inklings when he was writing the Lord of the Rings - have you ever considered or attended writers groups and if so were they useful for feedback? Who is your own private audience when you want feedback for your writings to find out whether you have succeeded in some aspect of a novels’ development?

No, I have never attended a writers group or a creative writing class. I am entirely self-taught. I wrote a detailed diary for ten years before I started writing fiction and I think that that helped to knock the self-consciousness out of my writing. I used to think that I couldn’t write because I could hear my own words, but now I find that the voice in my head helps rather than hinders me, allowing me to choose the right word or phrase. I think that a writer has to be his own critic and if he doesn’t have this capacity he’ll never write well. I listen carefully to the input of my editor, my agent, and my wife before and after I write a book, but not during the writing process itself because that would derail me from the course I’ve set myself.

Do you have a website where fans can go and find out the latest information about you?

I have a facebook fan page and a website – and I try to keep them both up to date.

Simon Tolkien
Santa Barbara, California
May 2010

Close window

Found this page without going through the magazine front page? Click here: Festival in the Shire Journal. For all things Tolkien inspired.