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Interview: Andy Cooke

Questions from Gary Oswald

This Interview is with Andy Cooke, the first editor of this blog and a prolific writer for both Sea Lion Press and Sgt Frosty Publications.

Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.

Thanks for asking me, Gary.

First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?

Good question. This all started out when I was a politics geek on a weblog and one of the regular commentators referred to an ongoing AH politics timeline. I went and had a look, and then saw the other stories. I think I joined up with specifically to comment on Protect and Survive.

The possibility of actually writing something appealed to me and I started to give it a go. It was superb at generating inspiration and ideas: who hasn't looked at an event or outcome and wondered - what if...?

I've seen it Alternate History referred to as a genre or a setting. I don't think either word really sums it up. It can cross-cut over all genres (historical, science fiction, thriller, mystery, fantasy, romance - you can have alternate history versions of any of them) and instead of being a setting, it allows any other setting. It's hard to find the right word for it. It's almost a meta-genre.

Two of the books you wrote for SLP are the 'The Fourth Lectern' and 'The Fifth Lectern' in which a UKIP surge happens in 2010 rather than 2015 and everyone else in British Politics must react to that. These books were originally written in 2011, when UKIP were still a minor party. What was your reaction when the UKIP surge did happen?

Somewhere between surprise and resignation.

It is, I suppose, a risk of writing anything in the current affairs/current politics zone that what you speculate about can actually come to pass.

I was quite proud that the areas and regions where UKIP surged were the ones I had modelled; it's always nice to see your calculations appear accurate. Of course, the exact events didn't unfold as laid out - they couldn't, as it occurred after the PoD in Fourth Lectern.

It did feel weird. As if I was somehow responsible.

That it was about an event only a year before it was written is one of the obvious things about the Lectern series, it's much less Alternate History than Alternate Present and so you are writing about living people still in the public eye who might well do something that completely changes public views on them next year. Did you feel more responsibility to try and be fair to the Characters you're describing, that they are still alive and not safely dead?

Yes. To an extent. Where figures were actively in the public eye by choice, I felt less constrained - but there's also the principle that if you're unfair to someone, it feels less realistic. Everyone is, in reality, complex, and the vast majority of the people in the book, although antagonists to each other, saw themselves as being the "good guys."

You can't be unfair in that case without degenerating into caricature.

There were a handful of real people involved in the story who were more "backroom" people and had never taken the overt choice to be in the public gaze. While I included them, I was more determined not to misportray them. In a couple of cases, I contacted the real people to run their scenes past them and ask if they'd prefer me to fictionalise their names. As it happens, those I contacted were content to let their names appear.

You're also involved in politics yourself, you're now a local councillor. When writing political fiction, is it hard to explain 'ok, this is why this guy made this decision' when your own principles would never let you do that? Would you find writing a project like the Lectern books easier now you've taken a more active step in politics because you have a better understanding of how it works or harder because you're more emotionally invested in it?

One of the things I found most satisfying was that the readers of the timelines as they went up were all unable to work out my own political stance from them. One commented that I went from explaining Cameron's philosophy better than he had himself to portraying Brown sympathetically in the very next scene.

That's at the core of your question: you have to assume that whilst the protagonist in the scene may have a very different philosophy, they do have a philosophy. Fleshing that out not only makes it more realistic, it makes it more understandable, and explains their decision-making for you. And if you've managed to make the characters believable enough (and avoided caricature or blatantly tilting the narrative in favour of your own political views, as per your previous question), the reader won't conflate any particular character's principles with your own.

I think the level of understanding of how it works is a diminishing feast - once you're past a certain level, you can make a good and plausible story. Going much deeper doesn't actually provide much more.

It's a really good question over whether it would be harder due to my emotional investment. I genuinely don't know. I'd like to think I would be sufficiently objective to hold the fiction at arm's length, but I could be fooling myself.

The Lectern books were originally written for the forums, were self published in 2014, and then became part of SLP once that was launched in 2015. How much rewriting did you have to do for publishing and how different do you think the books would have been if you'd written them for publication from the off, rather than aiming them at a niche amateur fiction audience, and getting feedback on the work in progress, first?

Fourth Lectern needed a lot of rewriting. I had been experimenting when writing it, so the first third was based around excerpts and media articles, the second third was in the first person from Andy Coulson's point of view, and the third section was in the third-person. I rewrote the first two sections to be compatible with that last section in style.

I doubt I'd have ever published them if I'd done it differently. Without the feedback and encouragement and the experience of writing them, I'd never have had the self-belief to put them up for publication. I'd also never have anticipated that there could actually be an audience for books this niche. But at one point, Fourth Lectern topped Amazon's category of Alternate History in sales. Only for a day or so, but that was both pleasantly shocking and extremely gratifying.

I also find that having a regular update schedule helps me stick to a writing schedule, and the feedback is, as I've said, so incredibly useful.

As well as the Lectern books, you also wrote a three book sci-fi series for SLP 'The End and afterwards' about an evacuation of Earth. What was your inspiration behind that idea?

Who doesn't like a post-apocalyptic story? I bet we've all got one inside of us.

There were a number of things that came together. One was a concept I'd had since childhood of a starship constructed in space when Earth itself unexpectedly suffers an apocalypse. A second was a scene that popped into my head when I was ill in bed with 'flu: I was standing on a grassy knoll, in sunlight, in a large group, whilst a few people were arguing about what to do next - and I knew, somehow, that we were actually in a huge spaceship. Those who've read the first book will recognise the scene.

Those ideas came together, and then I had a thought - there are loads of post-apocalyptic stories, where the apocalypse happens before the start of the story. Loads more where the plot is all about a disaster that is coming at the end (and, hopefully, gets averted). I couldn't think of many where an apocalypse happens half way through.

And then the story leapt out.

To be fair, a feverish day-dream isn't that "out there" as an inspiration for me. A key scene of another sci-fic book (Prometheus Unchained) came full-fledged when I was listening to music and a scene for which the music would be perfect accompaniment just crystallised in my mind and the rest of the book came about to make that scene make sense.

As it happens, the thing from the previous answer about a regular update schedule and feedback had a huge effect on the path of the End and Afterwards trilogy. I originally had only a very sketchy idea over what happened in Book Two and Book Three - that they were "the journey" and "the arrival."

An an impulse, I put in a single chapter based on events ongoing back on Earth - and the online readers loved it. Which caused me to develop that into a full-on storyline to add to the book, and the events in that story changed the entire background of Book 3.

Outside of SLP, you write the young adult fantasy series 'The Shadowland Chronicles', which is a portal fantasy, where in people from our world cross into another fantasy world. Famously Lord of the Rings, which I know you're a big fan of, was written as a retort to that subgenre with the heroes also being from that world. What to you is the advantage of that portal setting in terms of the story you wanted to tell?

I love "traditional" fantasy, where it is all set in another world. And I love "urban" fantasy, where the fantastical is here in our normal world. A portal fantasy allows you to have both - Books 1 and 3 have the fantastical here, and Books 2 and 4 have people from here in the fantastical realm.

The clash of cultures - because if you want to write believable fantasy, you've got to have a good idea of the cultures involved - gives a culture shock which allows the writer to showcase elements of our world that are actually strange, illogical, or fantastical.

And, of course, one of the deepest attractions of portal fantasy is the deep down aspect of: "it could be you." Stumbling across a door, or cave, or tunnel, or whatever-it-could-be that takes you to Faerie, or Fantasy, or Numenor, or Narnia.

Obviously a big part of being a writer is empathy, trying to understand and explain people who don't have the same worldview as you do. One of the characters in 'The Shadowland Chronicles' is autistic, as I know we both have family members who are. Was it a challenge to try and depict someone whose viewpoint is going to be affected by that sensory impairment?

It was something I deeply wanted to do. Autistic characters have been portrayed in fiction, but usually by someone "on the outside."

Sympathetically, encouragingly, even positively - but almost always focusing on the best-known aspects such as obsessiveness, or perceived obliviousness, or desperate need for sameness. From what I've learned - both with my son and others, as well as recognising aspects in myself - much of the challenge of many on the autistic spectrum stems from that sensory impairment. An impairment that seems to be glossed over in favour of the better known symptoms.

Of course, as ASD is a spectrum of impacts, some won't recognise the same priorities, but from my experience, many will. And with the character of David, I had an opportunity to showcase how much of those well-known symptoms could spring from the root of the sensory impairment. The real challenge was to avoid writing too much on that. I ended up cutting pages of stuff that ended up feeling too much like exposition, or dwelling on it too much and pushing him and his challenges to being the main focus. I wanted him to be a secondary character who happened to be autistic and part of the group - and have his challenges actually play out as crucially helpful due to his differences.

You mention in the afterword to 'The Fifth Lectern' that you're not sure how many of the audience for a contemporary political story also would read young adult fantasy. I know I've read the Lectern books and my nephew has read the Shadowland books but neither of us have read both. Do you find there's an 'Andy Cooke' audience or are you writing for very different audiences on every project? And how different is your writing style when aimed at young adults rather than a purely adult audience?

Hmm. That's a really good question. Two questions, really - audience and style.

It'd be nice to think there are people out there who would read everything I write, but in practice, I think that having a wide range of topics and genres best helps in "catching" audiences. If people don't enjoy political fiction, they might like portal fantasy, or apocalyptic science fiction, or "how it works" fact books.

I was possibly affected by reading Asimov a lot while growing up, and he ranged widely in topics and stories.

Style-wise, I think the main difference in my fiction is simply that I'm careful to avoid swearing and certain topics in books intended for younger audiences. In fact-based books, such as the How To Build a Moonbase and How It Works: Apocalypse that I've written for SFP, my style does change markedly. It's chattier and more as if I'm talking with the reader.

It'd be remiss of me not to mention that you were the original editor of this very blog, and established most of what the blog still is. What was your aim behind the blog and, in retrospect, how do you view that first year of it?

It'd be remiss of me not to thank you for stepping up and taking the reins when I had to step down. You've done a superb job and developed the blog brilliantly. Thank you.

My aim was to try to make a front door and window on the internet for SLP. Somewhere to draw people in and develop the community and from which they could step into the forum to learn more about the community and become part of it. And also a place that could incubate and enhance ideas and stories for the existing and future authors.

I like to think it did that, at least partly. It's hard to tell how successful it may or may not have been, but many of us have stories like mine of how we stumbled across the alternate history community, or Sea Lion Press itself. The intent was (and is) that the blog could provide more opportunities for people to stumble into us.

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

At the moment, I'm writing a book for SFP called "Skyborn." This one came about partly due to a chat with my wife after watching an apocalyptic story - I think it was 2012 where she said, "Why don't they ever try using airships in stories like these? They had years to come up with solutions. What about a huge fleet of airships?"

I pointed out that they'd only work for short-duration apocalypses. Unless you had them nuclear powered. And then an opening line popped in:

"I was born in the sky thirteen years ago today - six months after the world ended."

... and a story developed. Airships. Post-apocalypse. Coming of age. Mutant beasts. Hyperstorms and earthquakes. Treachery and danger. What's not to like?

Skyborn has nearly finished its first draft. After that, I've got three things on the horizon: a return to the universe of The End and Afterwards, a fifth Shadowlands book, and a How It works: Airships.

I'm going to need to clone myself to get all of this writing done.


Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP.


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