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Interview: Alex Richards

Questions from Gary Oswald

This Interview is with Alex Richards, a graphic creator who has made maps for several SLP books and wrote Tippecanoe and Wallace Too.

Hello and thanks so much for talking to us. First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about the genre?

For me, the route to alternate history was very much through my interest in history itself- and that's honestly something that I've had for as long as I can remember. I'd say there's been the odd half-formed musing about how things might have gone differently as a result of that, but the exact moment where I realised that the genre was a thing was back in 2008. I happened to be looking at some bound Readers Digest editions on my parent's bookshelf and it turned out one of them was a compilation including Robert Harris's Fatherland (IIRC the actual title which grabbed my attention was Ramati's And the Violins Stopped Playing which I rather naively thought might be some sort of orchestral murder mystery rather than a semi-biographical account of the Roma genocide in WWII). In any case I enjoyed that, saw a reference in the description to Alternate History, googled that and, obviously, was one of the top results. I think I'd signed up for an account within a week and the rest, as they say, is history.

For me the interest in the genre has come part and parcel with the community- there's friendships I've made, things I've done, projects I've got involved with that honestly I think have ended up making me a much more rounded person. It's probably the influence of being on the forum and actually finding people I got along with that led to me joining the Creative Writing Society at Uni and actually developing a proper social life for example. Plus I get to spend time discussing extremely niche elements of the historical record with people who are actually interested in it which is a real rarity.

Mostly when I talk to people about their creative AH projects, it's prose but you mostly make graphics and maps. What advantages are there of that format in terms of expressing ideas and what draws you to them?

It's honestly just a way of expressing myself that comes easier to me. I doodle when bored, I tend to think in a very descriptive manner rather than actually picturing things. You hear a lot of authors talking about the difference between being 'a Writer' vs. just being 'somebody who writes' as being whether you're the sort of person who's always jotting notes and ideas down for stories- as in it's something you feel the need to do every day. I'd say in the same way I'm very much a Cartographer who occasionally dabbles in writing.

But to move from the specific to the general, maps and graphics are situational in a way narratives aren't. You can't really create a narrative just through a map- the closest are where it's presented with a large body of accompanying text like an encyclopaedic atlas or with many footnotes as Bruce Munro is known for (and having tried it myself, there's a real art to being able to sum up a nation or point of interest through at most a couple of lines of slightly snarky text, it's a bit like newspaper headline writing really.) But on the other hand you can create something that just immediately tells you things are different- nothing quite like sticking a big label declaring something as 'the Empire of North America' or having a country called 'Poland', or that stretches to the Urals- or indeed something as simple as just having a hammer and sickle on top of Buckingham Palace- to just immediately tell you that something big has changed.

I think the platonic ideal of this might be comics actually- you can keep the plot and text really focused on the narrative while just slipping in some background details that contribute to the worldbuilding without having to be explicitly spelt out- film posters, advertisements, the headline on a newspaper, the book titles on a shelf that sort of thing. The fact that the French have a much more expansive attitude towards what audiences comics/graphic novels are actually for is probably the reason they've had the AH focused Jour J since 2010 whereas in the anglosphere the closest I'm aware that you can come to is the Marvel What If? comics.

You wrote a series of articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7) on this blog about how to make a good map, what would you say is the most crucial thing in terms of making graphics like that?

Its audience- by which I'm including where things are intending to be published. I've seen some beautiful and fantastically detailed works which have been created for alternate history online which just do not work when they've been shrunk down and rendered in black and white for print. It's why everything I've created explicitly for SLP books is produced in greyscale whereas those I've done which are just going to be viewed online are a lot more colourful. You can take that more broadly of course- it spans from 'what sort of image should you be putting on the cover to attract your target audience', to the fact that fantasy novels are virtually expected to have a map because the impact of Tolkein et. al. has led to this being a convention of that genre. And even for things which are just passion projects you should be thinking about what the thing is you're actually trying to portray is- I wouldn't recommend using something QGIS or embedded satellite imagery for a medieval setting unless the point is to induce that visual dissonance.

One of the things Sea Lion Press was formed to do was an attempt to get the amateur writing you see on forums published and seen by a wider audience. As a member of those forums whose work is primarily graphical and in formats designed for the medium of forums, like lists and maps rather than stories, is there a route into publication for you?

To be completely realistic, there are only two ways to make money from graphics. You can either sell prints directly to people, or you can take commissions. If you want to somehow make a living off it, you've got to either sell a lot of prints or take a lot of commissions- or charge a lot per commission of course. There are some people who've managed to do that through the internet of course, but outside the Ordnance Survey or the military I've only ever met one person who I could consider to have been able to make it a career, and they were selling prints of a few maps from classic fictional settings- Hogwarts, Middle Earth, the Galactic Republic and so forth. Don't get me wrong he's good- I have one framed on the wall- and we had a fun chat about different techniques for drawing fantasy-map styled mountains, but that's very much a situation where you produce a small number of products and then sell them as many times as possible.

I've never actually tried going down the selling Prints route myself (not least because I've probably got single-digits of works which I'd actually feel comfortable charging people for in that way) but DeviantArt has a built in system for that which would be my first port of call. As it stands, however, I've made a small but not insignificant amount of money taking paid commissions from some people- mostly SLP work. That puts me in the 0.1% of AH Cartographers easily. Maybe even the 0.01%. And that's pretty special really.

You have written things as a writer, though. Two of your short stories have been shared on this blog, one was included in the 'Remain means Remain' anthology and one was published in our 'Fight them on the Beaches' collection. And you have your own book published by SLP, 'Tippecanoe and Wallace Too', about a world with many more post War US Presidents. That was first published in amateur forums, where it got feedback as a unfinished piece and was inspired by Tom Anderson's UK version 'Curse of Maggie', which was also first published in those. How useful do you think it is to be able to get feedback and riff off other writers in a way you can't do so easily outside of a community like this?

For me, it's utterly invaluable, but that's as much due to it being the motivation to actually finish a writing project- tying back into that Writer v. Person who Writes Occasionally thing I mentioned earlier. I'm not sure I'd have finished Tippecanoe if it was just being pushed from my own back for example. Although the other issue I've had with a lot of my past writing is a number of things have floundered on just not really knowing what the end point is which tends to result in things running out of steam (I still haven't worked out a satisfactory answer to who stole the Mask of Agamemnon for example).

It actually does play out on the graphics side of things as well- with a large and detailed map posting progress updates or extracts is a useful preventative against just jumping between projects.

You also wrote a magnificently detailed series of essays about the Thirty Years war for this blog. What interests you about that conflict and what AH story set within it would you be most interested in?

I'd say the Thirty Years War probably fits the category of 'the biggest thing shaping the modern world most people haven't really heard of'. I mean this was such an impactful idea on the modern world that the entire idea of 'a country is an entity with a defined border in which they have full control of all decisions without external influence' is generally termed as 'Westphalian Sovereignty' after the Treaty of Westphalia that ended it. I mean it's not actually a very accurate description of what the Treaty of Westphalia did- essentially extrapolating the very firm 'the monarch decides' decision on the religious settlement to other aspects, but it's still a massively important turning point in European history. And as I hope I demonstrated it's utterly replete with potential PODs that would have massive effects either locally or continent-wide, to the extent that what I thought was just going to be maybe a dozen articles just kept on expanding as more interesting aspects came up- the comparison to the generals in the conflict itself who were sure that the end of the war was just around the corner is quite apt.

I've got a few ideas myself for some big maps of some of the scenarios I outlined in the essays, but I'd love to see some proper narrative takes on the period. Gustavus Adolphus surviving Lützen is probably the only one that's ever really been done in depth, but I'd really like to see what people could do with the 'Ferdinand III dies in 1619, Austria proper ends up joining the Bohemian Confederation' concept. You've got the situation of a surviving Hussite Bohemia with a Calvinist monarch absolutely convinced of his divinely ordained status as a champion for the 'correct' interpretation of the Bible, the future potential for clashes with the remnant Habsburgs (who were perilously close to just dying out entirely at that point), Bavaria as the only real significant Catholic power left in the Holy Roman Empire, a serious question over who's going to be the next Emperor, the highly tolerant and religiously pluralistic Principality of Transylvania probably taking over all of Habsburg Hungary, not to mention the wider situation across Europe...

I mean it's just replete with options- you've got narratives for the immediate situation as people work out what to do next, narratives for maybe 30 years later as the initial settlement starts to falter in the face of the fact that the overall religious questions of the Empire haven't been settled without the longer conflict. Possibly the most interesting narrative might be 150-200 years later where you might well see a conflict between a 'Bohemian' Confederation that's majority German in population, with three different protestant groups making up the population, run by a group of mixed Calvinist and Hussite German-speaking nobles but where the countryside in Bohemia and Moravia would likely still be majority Czech-speaking- though potentially even then only a minority of the actual population as a whole.

You've been a member of online AH communities for over a decade, how have those communities changed during your time in them and how healthy do you think the community currently is?

I'm not sure how much I can speak for the wider AH community online- I found a little corner of it I was comfortable in many years ago and I've stuck with it. There's a lot of the big sites I've never had any real engagement with at all in fact. Then there's the fact that, well, I was 16 when I first got involved in things and I'd honestly say it's only... 4 or 5 years later that I'd really say I would trust my judgement on stuff. I caught the tail end of the 'early internet' era of things- some of the really immature trends were still around in that first couple of years but were already being frowned on for example.

And the other big element I've had which makes things idiosyncratic from my perspective is that some of the 'Big ideas' in AH have always had less interest to me. I tried to give the battles their due in the Thirty Years War series, but that sort of intense tactical detail is just not the side of things that interested me when it comes to history so a lot of WWII- and especially American Civil War- AH has passed me by. And that means that a lot of the time I've found myself in niche areas of what is already a niche subject online.

What I can discuss is the graphics side of things. The graphics community on SLP is, understandably really, very small and a bit idiosyncratic in nature (we probably produce election maps on a par with Politics-based fora for example), but and DeviantArt both have large AH groups. There's a distinct split between those as well- I'd say DA tends much more professional in terms of artistry while AH.Com still has a lot of people producing less skilled work- some of whom end up improving, some who don't. On the other hand DA feels like a throw-back culturally- there's a lot more of a Confederate/Nazi Victory scenario focus there still.

What's absolutely phenomenal is just how much the average quality of graphics- especially maps- has improved since 2008. I've had a small part in that through improving the editable basemaps available (basically a blank map with all the coastlines etc. already plotted out for people to then add borders to), but you just have to look at Bruce Munro's latest efforts at archiving early AH maps to see the difference. 2008 was still the days when 'has subdivisions on the map' and 'borders are accurate to where rivers and mountains are' was still a sign of a high quality work. Now I think if a week goes by without seeing something that looks like it could be in a professional textbook or commercially available atlas I'm somewhat disappointed. And the diversity of ideas has definitely expanded as well.

Oh and the entire concept of 'AH as expressed through an alternate Wikipedia infobox' is something that's just grown into an actual thing over that period. Not necessarily my cup of tea but it works for what it is, and the best proponents usually use it as an accompaniment to a larger 'article'.

Funnily enough the one area that hasn't developed that much is photo manipulations- I think the learning curve before you can make something that actually looks good are just too high.

The really interesting thing will be whether the couple of people I've seen trying to create entire 'in universe' atlases can try and get any sort of commercial output from it. I suspect it's going to run into the 'high effort, low financial reward' category, but there's some serious ambition there.

You often draw maps for other people's work. For you personally if you're reading a story without a map do you find it harder to follow without being able to reference the changes against a visual hint?

It honestly depends on the work for me. Some narratives are so tightly character focussed that it honestly doesn't matter, and some settings are both specific enough and detailed enough that I don't feel the need- SLP user Ciclavex's Fashions Made Sacred for example is one where I absolutely know he's got the locations of various key locations sorted out in his head, and I absolutely love the fact that a casual discussion about what Paris looks like in that world has actual concrete mentions about how different areas have been affected or where a new development is, but while reading the story I never really felt like I needed to know the exact location of a certain character's house or workplace.

Some other works have a really definite sense of place- I have never (as of the time of this interview at least) been to Venice but Donna Leon's novels set there are so clear on where things are happening that I have, on occasion, felt the desire to look up locations or character routes on Google maps just to get a comparison. There's a basic outline map there but honestly that desire to go so detailed is very much on me, I've never really felt like it needed anything more detailed.

Then there's completely different worlds. I've recently been reading the Earthsea novels and the number of times I've ended up flicking back to the accompanying maps to get a sense of how far thngs are from eachother is quite considerable. The same happened with Dune and Lord of the Rings. I guess it's just this sense of liking to have a feeling of knowing where I actually am in relation to other things. On the other hand I read through the entire webcomic Crimson Flag earlier today and while it turns out there is a world map of that produced I never actually missed it while reading it so it was just a nice surprise to find in the bonus panels at the end.

But I think a big aspect that makes it hard to judge with strict AH is that I'm basically permanently walking round with an atlas in my head- more detailed in some places, less in others. An AH set predominately in Nigeria or Mexico is probably one where I'd be looking up locations a lot of the times, but things can get quite detailed in terms of locations in most of Europe before I have to check where places actually are. So to some extent the lack of a map isn't bothering me because I'm mentally plotting it out anyway.

I can't really say whether that means those works need a map or not- on the one hand it's unreasonable to expect that most people will have a mental map of Europe that includes the historic borders of Saxe-Weimar-Altenstadt or the Toggenburg Valley. On the other I can easily imagine that it's not actually an issue for a lot of other people to know exactly where those places are.

I still appreciate when there's a map anyway, but then I'm biased like that.

And what are your plans for the future in terms of writing and art?

I have to say the pandemic sucked a lot of mental energy for creativity that I'm only really just emerging from. Writing wise is pretty quiet at the moment- there's some long-term ideas I'd like to get around to at some point like some articles on how to create fantasy maps. Art wise the big project for a few years has been compiling parish boundary changes in Britain over the last 50 years or so- very niche I do appreciate but often fascinating. In the AH sphere I've finally started an idea for a Tonga-centric map that I've had for a while but has taken a fair bit of research on to sort out some of the cartographic eccentricities I wanted to incorporate.

Then there's the old idea of the 'Worldraj' - basically an intellectual experiment of trying to create an entire world map where all the borders are as complex as those of the British Raj in India- which I originally found myself leaving partially finished when I realised I wanted to do a more detailed version on a larger scale. I'm still slowly working on that, but much to my surprise there's a whole bunch of folks who have decided to finish the original smaller scale version themselves over on AH.Com, which falls into the category of 'amazing and not a little bit scary'. Not least because it just confirms I've apparently become a senior figure in the community which... yeah that's an odd thing to contemplate.

I'll probably have another idea or two for a map next week which may or may not ever see the light of day. That's just how it goes really.


Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP


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