Tim Relf is a Leicestershire-based novelist. His most recent book, What She Left, was published by Penguin under the pen-name TR Richmond and his two previous novels, Stag and Home, were published by Piatkus. His day-job is as a journalist, specialising in writing about farming and the countryside. He's also contributed to national, regional and local papers and magazines, along with BookBrunch and The Bookseller. He's a tutor for the Professional Writing Academy, and has given guest lectures on fiction and the media at Nottingham Trent University and Harper Adams University.
What She Left is a psychological thriller about the life and death of a young woman told through the digital and paper trail she leaves. As well as telling the story from multiple perspectives and in a non-linear time frame, What She Left draws on multiple mediums, including newspaper and magazine articles, diary entries, emails, blog posts, Facebook and Twitter messages, letters, police transcripts and forum posts. Pitched at the literary end of the commercial market, it’s a contemporary epistolary novel – a modern story told in a very modern way. It was published in 21 countries and turned into an audio book starring Emilia Clarke and Charles Dance (who both starred in Game of Thrones). The Daily Telegraph included it in its must-read books of the year, and it was featured as a book club choice by the Daily Mail’s You magazine.
Q: Where did the original idea come from?
TR: It was actually on Twitter. I saw a tweet by someone about what piece of music they’d like played at their funeral and it struck me how bizarre and intimate that was to read. That got me thinking, what else could I learn about this person on Twitter, and that eventually took me to the idea of reassembling, jigsaw puzzle-like, a suspense story from a young woman’s digital and paper trail.
Q: Why did you write it in this format?
TR: I wanted to write a novel that not only passed comment on the way we receive / consume news and information these days, but was actually structured in that way. Hopefully it has something interesting to say about communication, the media and our digital identities, as well as such timeless issues as love, loss, revenge and redemption. Ultimately, I’m very conscious that the internet and social media have revolutionised how people relate to each other and communicate – and it was my fascination with this that drove the idea. Fact is, more than at any point in history, each of us leaves a digital footprint nowadays and it’s from this, jigsaw puzzle-like, that I wanted to reassemble my protagonist’s story.
Q: How do you do research?
TR: The internet is essential. Plus, I always badger people I know who are the same age as a particular character to find out what their cultural reference points are. Most of the research never gets used, but it helps shape my sense of a character. Who would they vote for? What do they like eating? What do they watch on TV? It’s details such as these that help you fashion a sense of someone which, in turn, helps you understand what decisions they’d make.
Q: What or who inspired you to become an author?
TR: I’ve always been preoccupied by capturing detail – whether that was keeping a diary as a kid or taking photographs. Maybe it’s because memory is fickle, but I’ve always worried about 'losing' the past. My desire to write was born out of the same sentiment – it’s partly about helping me remember. It’s also about wanting to start a dialogue with readers. When you publish a book, you’re saying to people: ‘This is how I see the world, what do you think?’
Q: Name a book that has impacted your life significantly.
TR: Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I was a student doing a summer job in London when I read it. I’d got off a bus, was late for work and about 30 pages from the end, but just stood by the side of the road outside the office and carried on reading. I simply had to finish it. My boss even walked past me at one point and asked me if I was alright! If ever I need reminding of the power of books, I think of that moment.
Q: Give would-be writers one piece of advice.
TR: Have an amazing elevator pitch for your novel. If you can sum it up in a sentence, it'll massively improve its chances of getting picked up by a publisher.