Questions by Gary Oswald
Hello. First of all, thank you so much for talking to us.
Glad to be here!
How did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
Growing up in England, I always had a really strong sense of history, and the importance of continuity, the echoes of the past … all that. We lived near Leeds, in Yorkshire, and my parents would take me on holidays to Hadrian’s Wall, and to Bath and Stonehenge and a wide selection of the various historic abbeys and castles that dot the British landscape, many in states of picturesque ruin. And during my formative years my grandparents and great-uncles and aunts would talk about their experiences in the Second World War, which was obviously way before my time but had formed a lot of their most vivid and defining memories. I also went to Oxford, where I was surrounded by ancient buildings and some pretty old traditions. So I’ve always been very aware of history, and keenly interested in it.
I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember – I’ve been making up stories for almost as long as I’ve been able to read. In the 1990s I started writing seriously for publication, writing mostly fantasy and horror with a bit of hard SF, but after a while found myself strongly drawn to alternate history and historical fantasy. After a certain point in the early 2000s, everything I wrote was historically based. The stories I was selling to Realms of Fantasy magazine and other great markets at that time were the ones with that historical depth. Those were the stories I cared about, and the ones that were getting noticed. So I just went all-in and made the conscious decision: okay, that’s who I am. From now on, I’m an alternate history writer.
Along with many other alt-hist fans, I believe that a great number of historical events have hinged on small decisions, on little details that may not have seemed significant to the people at the time. History is contingent: given slightly different circumstances, different luck, even different weather on a critical day, the sweep of history we know may have played out in a radically divergent way. A lot of what we call “destiny” only looks inevitable in hindsight. And when you’re reading a good alternate history story you often have the real history in the back of your mind – and that adds a resonance to the experience. It can make you consider those events in quite a different light. It’s hard to think of another branch of literature that pokes at your brain quite like that. And a lot of people seem to agree – at most science fiction conventions I go to, the historical panels are just as well attended as the futuristic panels.
You've had over 50 short stories published in various magazines and anthologies. Do you have a particular fondness for that format and do you think speculative fiction in particular suits shorter pieces?
For me, and generalizing dramatically, short fiction is mostly about ideas or emotions, and novella and book-length fiction is about story depth. I’ve managed to get character-based story into short fiction, but I’ve always had to sacrifice something else to make it work. It’s tough to get the full array of background, setting, plot, characterization, and theme into a five-thousand-word story, and where short fiction is concerned the mid-range wordcounts work better for me – 8,000-15,000 words. But, yes, short fiction was my first love, and I’ll always return to it.
What tips would you give to less experienced writers, in terms of getting pieces published?
Seriously, for almost all of us it takes some time to develop the craft as well as the art of writing, to learn which styles and approaches work for you and which don’t. How much to tell and what to show (both are important!). Good pacing and good characterization are skills that improve with practice. And it’s critical to feel your way into your own voice.
And: you’ll get rejections. Maybe lots of them. I certainly did. Be ready for that. My first story sale came quite quickly once I got serious, but even after that I continued to get rejection after rejection, and I still do.
Related: try to keep an open mind, but develop a thick skin. Critique groups and beta readers can very useful for a writer in honing their craft, but some of that advice can sometimes be … rather pointed, and sometimes unproductive. You need to be able to candidly assess what advice is worth taking and what isn’t, and be honest with yourself about what’s working and what isn’t, and where you can do better. Taking criticism without getting your ego bruised or your confidence shredded can sometimes be quite the trick.
Your story 'Gunpowder Treason', which won a Sidewise Award, was published through Inklings Press, which are a relatively young and new company, compared to Asimov's Magazine, which you've also been published by. Is there a difference between how the process goes with newer companies versus more established ones?
Inklings Press are doing great things, and they’re nice people. I’ve been a fan for many years, and heartily enjoyed the first two books in the Tales from Alternate Earths anthology series. I was delighted to be included in Volume III, and during the production process the Inklings people exceeded my expectations at every level: thoughtfulness, artwork, professionalism, And I’m really happy that the story I wrote for them was well received, and reflects some glory back onto them.
Working with Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams is also a joy. She’s accepted four stories from me over the past few years, and has had some fixes and edits to suggest each time, and I’ve pondered them and taken them into account.
I don’t think the process is particularly different, between the two. I’ve certainly sold stories to magazines and anthologies where the people I’ve worked with have felt more “distant” and less engaged. But overall, I think there’s much more difference between the editorial processes for short fiction and book-length fiction. At least in my experience, there’s been a much greater focus on developmental editing and copyediting with my book publishers.
As an aside, since we were just talking about short fiction and rejections: the first story Sheila accepted from me for Asimov’s was Mongolian Book of the Dead, which was 20,000 words and so right at the upper limit of her wordcount guidelines. The conventional wisdom is that you’re more likely to sell a shorter story than a longer one, and that may well be right a lot of the time – but not always.
You also won a Sidewise Award for the 'Clash of Eagles' novella about a Roman colonization of the Americas, which you later expanded into a very well-received trilogy of books. What about that concept made you want to come back to it and are there any other of your short stories you want to expand like that?
Sometimes, concepts just grab me and suck me in. With the Clash of Eagles series, it was Cahokia. I read Charles L. Mann’s non-fiction book, 1491, about North America prior to the Spanish, English, and French invasions, and for me one of the most interesting chapters was about the Mississippian culture, and the mound-building city of Cahokia, on the Mississippi close to where St Louis is now. I knew I wanted to write something set in that culture, and for some reason it just seemed clear to me that the force coming in from outside that would give me that collision of cultures I was looking for, would be the Romans. Why? Well, if the Roman Empire had survived until the thirteenth century in its classical form, and crossed the Atlantic with the help of the Norse, its legions would have entered North America with completely different motives to the European cultures in our real timeline. I wanted to explore that.
I originally conceived A Clash of Eagles as a novelet, but it quickly grew and was eventually published in Panverse Two, an anthology of original novellas edited by Dario Ciriello. By the time it won the Sidewise I was already hard at work on the novel, and already knew that I’d need three books to do everything I wanted with the idea and the characters. It just exploded out of my imagination and took off almost by itself. Fortunately, Mike Braff at Random House/Del Rey was just as intrigued by the idea as me, and I was delighted with the three books and their reception: Clash of Eagles (2015), Eagle in Exile (2016), and Eagle and Empire (2017). (In a nice closing-of-the-circle, the trilogy as a whole was also nominated for a Sidewise.)
Other short stories? Yes, I do want to swing back around to Gunpowder Treason in the future. I loved that concept too, and can see how it would work nicely as a novel, with much more intrigue and plot content, more characters, a broader scope. I’d definitely like to take it further.
In terms of Rome you also co-wrote 'The Wandering Warriors' with Rick Wilber about a Baseball team being transported back to Ancient Rome. How was writing with Wilber and, as a Brit, how was it writing about Baseball which is quite an alien concept to us?
Writing with Rick was so much fun! The story is a romp, and writing it was a romp too.
Okay, so the genesis of the tale is that Rick and I both attended Walter Jon Williams’ pro writers workshop, Rio Hondo. Rick and I have a similar writing style, and instinctively understand each other’s work, and I think that was clear to the other authors there. And at some point in the week, someone said “You and Rick should write a story together! Combining your passions! Haha!”
Well. My passion at that point was … Romans. And Rick’s has always been baseball. So: Roman baseball? No, that could never work. Obviously. But we totally did it!
Yes, baseball has always been alien to me, too. I’ve never really taken to it. I actually prefer it as the basis for a story, rather than a sport to watch in real life(!).
People tend to assume, quite reasonably, that I wrote all the Roman parts and Rick wrote all the baseball parts, but that’s actually not how it worked. Rick would write a thousand words and send them to me, and I’d edit his words and write another thousand, and he’d edit mine and … we just kept going like that. I did, in fact, write the first draft of some of the baseball action scenes, or parts of them, and as soon as Rick had finished laughing hysterically at my ignorance of the correct jargon, he fixed them so they worked. And I fixed some of the Roman historical side and the details of the gladiatorial arena setting and all. It was an extremely fruitful collaboration, and a story that neither of us could have told alone. We have plans to do more together in future.
And what attracts you about the Roman Empire so much as a story element?
In addition to the family vacations I mentioned earlier, the Roman excavations at York were only twenty-some miles from my house. I’d read Rosemary Sutcliffe as a kid, watched “I, Claudius” on TV, and read the Robert Graves novels soon after. I took Latin at school in the mistaken belief that it would help me get into Oxford. (I was applying to do Physics. They couldn’t have cared less about my languages.) But anyway, like a lot of English kids, and like a lot of people of all ages in a variety of countries, there’s just something about ancient Rome that pulls at my imagination. Ancient Rome is complicated – there’s a lot to dislike about the culture, in addition to the inspiring parts, and I don’t shy away from that in the Clash series, but gladiators, sword and sandals, Emperors and legions – it’s a pretty heady mix, and very visual.
In terms of longer work, you've also written 'Hot Moon', which is about the Cold War getting hot and fighting happening between the American and Soviet Moon bases. In your day job, you're a NASA scientist, how important was it for you to get the details of space technology right in this book?
Oh, it was hugely important to me. Hot Moon is the alternate-Apollo novel I’ve always wanted to write, continuing the story about what might have happened if we hadn’t stopped going to the Moon in 1972. But in writing it I definitely wanted to stay true to the scientific understanding and technological capabilities of the 1970s, and those add a number of constraints to the story. Changing your orbit around the Earth or the Moon takes a lot of energy, a great deal of thrust, so fuel is a limiting resource. For the Gemini and Apollo astronauts, even just knowing accurately where they were and where they were going took a non-trivial amount of effort. Communications between spacecraft, and with the Earth: that’s a whole other topic. I’ve been fanatical about getting it all as accurate as I can.
My characters are definitely products of their time. Their problems are defined by the Cold War, and the state of their technology. My hero, Vivian Carter, has to negotiate a lot of barriers and face a lot of hardships to achieve her dreams – heck, just to survive. She’s a character I feel very close to. And my Soviet characters were immense fun to write, as well. But, yes: as a NASA scientist I certainly didn’t want to have my colleagues pointing at plot holes, wrong details, or missed opportunities. I spent a lot of time researching exactly how the Apollo Command Modules and Lunar Modules and the Soyuz craft worked, the layouts of the instrument panels, the details of the spacesuits, really everything I could, in order to make the book as immersive an Apollo-experience as possible, and really pay homage to the dedication of the astronauts and the huge efforts on the ground that enabled them to do what they did.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Right now, my focus is firmly on the Hot Moon sequel, Radiant Sky. That’s taking all my time, and more. But in the back of my mind I’m still mulling over some other ideas. While I was writing the original Hot Moon novel back in 2017-2019 I was also working on another alternate history novel, A Million Burning Scrolls, a fast-moving action-adventure story set in the Mediterranean in the 4th century AD. The novel has never sold, to my intense disappointment, but I’d really love to take it further, work on it some more, get the chance to explore that world and those characters in greater depth. I’d always intended it to be another big arc, a book series, but I guess I’ll need to somehow sell the first book before that can happen!
I’ve also been reading quite a bit about the Tudors and Stuarts. In fact, the Tudors have loomed almost as large in my life as the Romans – after all, I grew up on one of the epicenters of the Wars of the Roses. So once Radiant Sky is in the bag and I make it off the lunar surface, I’ll likely be trying some alt-hist in that milieu. It might be a Gunpowder Treason expansion, or it could be something completely different. I have several ideas rolling around in my brain. So, I’m betting that’s where my travels in speculative history will be taking me next.