editor's choice



Today, we’re delighted to welcome writer TOM COX to The Literary Lounge. The author of nine non-fiction books – and friend to many felines, including the beautiful The Bear – Tom makes his fictional debut this month with the short story collection Help the Witch, published by Unbound.

Tom, thanks so much for joining us.



LS: You’re a journalist and experienced, successful non-fiction writer, what made you venture into the world of fiction?

TC: I gave up journalism completely in 2015, to focus solely on my books and writing for my website. While I was most busy as a journalist, I would periodically attempt to write fiction, because fiction was what I’d always yearned to write, and my reading was at least 90% fiction-based. I got up to around 30,000 words of novels twice, then scrapped them. I abandoned these books because I would freak out and see them as self-indulgence, and feel the need to get back to earning a living, with bills and a mortgage to pay, but I think if I’m brutally honest I didn’t fully believe in what I was writing. In short, I wasn’t ready. I also definitely felt hampered by my journalism: when you’re having to turn around as much work as I was for newspapers every week, it’s very hard to flick a switch and turn a more immersive, perfectionist fiction writing brain on. I admire people who are able to do that.


LS: Do you prefer short stories to other forms of literature?

TC: I have loved short stories ever since I started to read a lot, in my early twenties. I was warned off writing them, as so many writers are, by people who think solely in pound signs, because short stories traditionally ‘don’t sell’.  But when I hit 30 and discovered the short stories of Alice Munro, William Trevor, John Cheever and Annie Proulx (which are even better than her novels), I knew that I wanted to write some of my own one day, whether they sold or not. I love the way that all those four writers can say so much in so few pages. There is often a whole doorstop novel’s worth of emotion in a twenty-page Alice Munro story.

We love all of them, too, although Raymond Carver’s a particular favourite and Daphne du Maurier, who’s very underrated.


LS: Where did the title for the collection come from? Did you set out to write a set of ghostly stories?

TC: I knew I wanted to write stories with a creepy edge to them, stories with a strong sense of place, but stories that played about with form a fair bit. I think of them less as ghost stories as stories that often happen to maybe have a ghost in them. My last book, 21st Century Yokel, broke my publisher Unbound’s record by getting funded in just seven hours, and I don’t think I realised quite how keen Unbound were to get this one up on their site for funding, and all of a sudden it was ready to do, and I didn’t have a title, so I just went ‘SHIT! HELP THE WITCH!’ It really appeared from some totally non-calculating part of my brain, utterly spontaneously. I suppose I am slightly obsessed with the seventeenth century, and witchcraft in general, and songs featuring witches, and I own a cape and a wide-brimmed hat, and once did refer to myself while wearing these garments as more Witchhelper General than Witchfinder General. So perhaps it came slightly from that. What was weird is that all this happened before I moved to a haunted house on top of a mountain in the Peak District, and got the inspiration for the first story in the collection, and Help the Witch turned out to be the ideal title for that too. It was like I’d reached into some fog for it, and once I’d grabbed it, it got the whole process moving properly.


LS: Your interests, I believe, now lie primarily in nature, the countryside and folklore. Is that right? Are you thinking of/are you writing a longer piece of fiction focusing on these themes?

TC: My dark secret – well, maybe it can’t really be called a secret, when you have published two books about it – is that I used to be nuts about golf. When I first played, I was very sporty, desperate to be brilliant at every sport I played, and my parents were very non-sporty but despite that they could see my overreaching ambition and the folly in my approach: that I wanted to hit huge, amazing shots on a full-length golf course, when really I was 13, yet to have my growth spurt, had only two months ago picked up a club for the first time and should really still be on the pitch-’n’-putt course. ‘Don’t try to run before you can walk,’ I remember them saying to me. I think me writing Help the Witch, and shelving the bigger, more ambitious project I’d initially thought about, was perhaps another way of heeding that advice. Opting to do short stories was a way of sticking to the pitch and putt. I might even stay for a while longer. There are actually some very good pitch-’n’-putt courses out there.


LS: Do you have the same approach to writing fiction as non-fiction?

TC: I don’t remember any significantly different approach. I remember thinking it was both easier and harder, and that it was a blessed relief to be not writing about myself after so many books of doing just that. I hope that by writing about my own life in my non-fiction I’m mostly doing it as a route to addressing bigger, more universal themes. But a break was nice. I felt like the person who told a lot of stories at a pub table then suddenly has a moment of epiphany and says to himself, ‘Shut the fuck up. Have a listen to somebody else for a change.’


LS: You were a music journalist, how important has music been to you? Are there any particular tracks/albums that resonate?

TC: I have enjoyed music so much more since quitting music journalism. I think in my late teens, when I was beginning in that profession, I assumed people in their 40s had some milder, diminished appreciation of music. That’s anything but the case with me. I get more excited by it than ever. 21st Century Yokel, my last book, wasn’t a music book, but music found its way in there, in so many ways, and I tended to think of it as an album in some ways: one of those that aren’t quite a concept album but where the track sequence is crucial and sustains a sort of mood and overall coherence. Help the Witch is also not unlike that. Perhaps a really eerie acid folk album from 1972. An acquired taste. Something content with just having a niche appeal, not trying to appease and aim for anything bigger.


LS: You’ve written a great deal about your cats, including the lovely The Bear and My Smug Cat. Similarly, your dad also appears a lot – including in one of our favourite pieces about the toad which lived in his shoe. Humour obviously plays a big part in your work – how would you classify your style of writing? Do you think it matters? Have we moved beyond needing to classify fiction/non-fiction?

TC: Genres are a pain in the arse, and I’m no doubt a major pain in the arse to the kind of people whose jobs involve neatening them up and setting their boundaries, and I imagine I will be an increasing pain in the arse to them until I am either too dead or too senile to write any more. A long time ago, after being very polite and listening, without really saying much in my defence, for many years while my then agent repeatedly hinted that I should write books more like two very neatly branded other clients of his who sold infinitely more books than me, I spoke up and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I think I’m going to be a very difficult writer for you to work with in the future.’ It was the first hint of me finally shaking off the frightened, centuries-ingrained, working-class voice in my head that saw people in the publishing industry and media as better than me just because they had the education I did not and came from wealthy families, and beginning to fully trust in my own instincts.  That took a while to come to fruition, though. The ‘cat books’ are a double-edged sword for me: I began to write more colourfully and freely and properly find my voice over the course of four of them – the second two are far better than the first two, and it all took seven years in total. That eventually gave me the confidence and loyal readership to be able to write and fund 21st Century Yokel and Help the Witch, but those cats books are still very misunderstood books. I still get so much great feedback about them from people who’ve read them, but I get just as much feedback about them from people who have never read them but assume that they’re like other cat books and want to tell me about it.


LS: You have a voluntary subscription website. What led to this? How has it impacted on your writing/the way you write, if at all?

TC: In 2015, when I quit writing for the mainstream media, my attitude was this: I never wanted to be a journalist and I’d done it for close to twenty years, so I figured I’d put in my time. I was also feeling very restricted by it. My plan was that I’d do the writing I’d always wanted to do, but that it probably wouldn’t work out financially, but I’d cross that bridge when I came to it, retrain in another field. But I put a little note on the site saying that, although all the writing on there was free to read, there was a PayPal button, if anyone wanted to chuck me a tiny bit of cash each month to help me keep going. It felt like a very unBritish thing to do, and I felt very unsure about it. I was amazed that quite a few people did offer to subscribe and help. And for me that moment – making that decision – is perhaps the most significant dividing line in my whole writing career. I started to enjoy writing more than ever, and be more me than ever. A particular little below the line Guardian reader voice in my head, whose pond-skimming, wilfully misunderstanding, mouthy comments I found myself mentally pre-writing as I wrote each of my Guardian columns, had been destroyed by fire.


LS: Do you miss mainstream journalism?

TC: Not even slightly, for a quarter of a millisecond. It’s been a real eye opener when it comes to learning more about the attendant bullshit of kudos, though. When you say what you do, without making any great effort to explain the intricacies of it or the long and difficult and deceptive road that led you to it, people think you’re just someone with a blog convincing himself he writes for a living. Not everyone thinks this, of course. But the people who do – and I speak from a lot of experience here –tend to be the same people who’d orgasm violently on the spot if they found out you’d written a piece for the Guardian containing one-sixteenth of the love or care or effort. But that’s not really something you can get pissed off about. It’s the way of the world.  To an extent we all judge based on labels, fragments of information, even when we’re not intending to. What kind of self-absorbed person would you have to be to expect people to have the time to actually investigate what you really do?


LS: Who are your main influences/favourite authors or books?

TC: I love so many different authors from so many different areas, geographically and spiritually, for reasons I don’t want to get too analytical about, so this is perhaps the hardest question of all.  Of the top of my head, some all-time favourites are Jonathan Raban, Pete Dexter, Rose Tremain, David Thomson, Joan Didion, Annie Proulx, Richard Russo, George Ewart Evans, Roger Deakin, George Saunders, Grace Paley, Alice Munro. Diverse writers, but often people with a strong sense of place, people more interested in character and atmosphere than plot, people who write exceptionally well about the small stuff.


LS: What are the benefits of publishing with Unbound? You published 21st Century Yokel with them before: are they different to other publishers?

TC: 21st Century Yokel was my ninth book, but it was my first book with Unbound, and the first I’d been totally happy with, from cover to cover. That tells you a big part of what’s great about them. Because it’s crowdfunding, the system involves no advance, and there’s had to be quite a lot of Internet legwork on my part, sometimes very draining, and it really helps if you have an online following already, but they’re willing to put their faith in the kind of books that might not make a very succinct or sexy marketing pitch, which have always been my favourite kind of books. Readers get more invested in the books, because they’re personalised and have their name in the back and look beautiful. I can’t speak for everyone but they’ve been the ideal publisher for me at this point in my career.


LS: What’s next for you? What are you working on?

TC: I am learning to grow veg, trying to find somebody to teach me the flute and attempting to make my front crawl a little more streamline and effortless. Oh, and writing three more books, hopefully in quick succession: one fiction, and two non-fiction. But that could all change. It so often does.


LS: That’s brilliant. Thanks so much for giving us such great answers.

TC: Thank you for having me!

LS: It’s been an absolute pleasure. … And, it must be said we miss The Bear and his sweet, soul of a poet face. May he #RiP, musing, side by side, with our own lovely The Literary Cat.


Help the Witch | Unbound | 18 October 2018 | hardback | £12.99 | other editions available

See review: to come

To follow Tom or any of his cats, living and not of this earth, please go his site.

To read, ‘My dad and the toad that lives in his shoe’, Guardian, 9 April 2013

To hear Tom with Clare Balding on ‘Ramblings’, Dartmoor, Devon, on Radio 4

Please support your local bookshops and libraries


Acknowledgements: This Q&A is published as part of the Help the Witch virtual book tour, along with a review of the book (forthcoming). Many thanks to the author for sparing us the time, lovely Anne Cater for organising the tour and the publisher for supplying a copy of the very beautiful book. All thoughts and opinions are our own. Image of Tom Cox and The Bear supplied by the publisher.


Select The Literary Lounge Q&As/interviews:  ‘Vanda Symon: The Literary Lounge Q&A; ‘Gunnar Staalesen: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; ‘Meet Gina Kirkham: The Literary Lounge Q&A;John Fairfax: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; ‘Ian Ridley: The Literary Shed Q&A’;  ‘David Stuart Davies: The Literary Lounge Q&A’.

Music:  ‘Gwyneth Herbert’s Letters I Haven’t Written‘;Amethysts and flowers on the table, the beauty of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell‘; ‘Dreams of love’, Bert Jansch’

Select reviews: ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘;‘Chris Whitaker’s mad, mad world – Tall Oaks’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir’; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’; ‘Mallory an old-style hero – It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell’.

Film: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – a Billy Wilder classic?; Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.




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