Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Jack Tindale, a regular SLP author and cover artist, who can be found on twitter.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.
It's an absolute pleasure, Gary. Thank-you for asking me!
First of all, how did you get into Alternate History?
Well, I've always had a big interest in what I suppose you would call 'speculative fiction', it's a term that I dislike but is probably the most appropriate for discussions around alternate history and the like. The idea of parallel worlds was something that I enjoyed as a child, be it something like His Dark Materials, or Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci series. I think it is only natural that children's literature like that can easily get one interested in world-building or sketching out historical parallels. I remembered one summer when I was about thirteen, having just finished The Amber Spyglass, sketching out a plausible alternate history for Lyra's world (I was quite pleased to settle on the idea of the Council for the Preservation of the Supreme Oecumene, which seemed to be a good way of rationalising why Muscovy was such a dominant force in world affairs).
Shortly afterwards, I ended up reading Fatherland on holiday, which I think is probably the best example of a 'mainstream' alternate history that the community is supportive of (certainly one of the few to handle the idea of a victorious Third Reich in a plausible way) with, and matters spun from that. I have actually read very little published alternate history outside that (perhaps because, as colleagues have noted, it is a genre dominated by a prevalence of World War II/American Civil War fiction, and military history is a genre that I have limited interest in).
Coming across the old AH.com forum during my sixth form years was a useful development, in part because it opened my eyes to a community beyond the mainstream - something that I think is always a very cool one when you are (as I was) a lonely and rather pretentious teenager. All of a sudden you are part of a cool, online club and can discuss your interests and share your writing in a safe(ish) space.
And what appeals you about writing in that genre?
I enjoy the genre because I think, if you do it properly, it demands you to take an interest in our own history as it happened. One thing that I think distinguishes 'good' and 'bad' counterfactual history is the amount of research the author has made. Ultimately, if one is focused on the 'what if', it demands at least a degree of understanding of our own times, just as what distinguishes good satire from bad satire is the level of understanding of what the satirist is meant to be writing.
Ultimately, I would consider alternative/counterfactual history to be part of a broad continuum of speculative fiction (there's that term again), and I like to have an excuse to draw upon something with a bit of grounding in reality and letting things snowball from there. The genre is one that I think encapsulates everything from academic studies (I am minded of Robert Fogel's Nobel Prize-winning study where he posits a North America that didn't build the railways) at one end, to the magic realism of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities on the other.
At heart, despite my attempts to prove otherwise, I am a bit of a romantic, a dreamer - and what dream is more acute than pondering how life would be different based on a road not taken, or a decision made by a coin-flip going the other way?
You do the covers for the majority of SLP books. How important do you think a good cover is to a book selling and what do you think makes a cover stand out?
When Tom Black first approached me about helping out with the first tranche of covers, one of the things we both agreed upon was that we wanted SLP to stand out from what we considered to be a very clichéd field. I am sure if you asked people to imagine the cover of an alternate history book, they'd come up with the sort of pulp imagery that's dominated it since as far back as I can remember - swastikas on the Statue of Liberty, steampunk horses at Gettysburg, that sort of thing. We decided we wanted to push back against that - realistically, that is due to my own rather limited talents as a designer. I am a vector "artist" (if I can be so bold to use that term), not an illustrator.
However, we also felt that having a common style would be vital to building the brand that we have today. That's why (with the exception of some of the anthologies), we have exactly the same typefaces and layout of the title and author, and I was quite pleased to hit on the idea of having the corner emblem with Sammy the Sea Lion as our, slightly tongue-in-cheek, mascot.
It's been said before that, if nothing else, the two things that are guaranteed to make the cover of an alternate history novel stand out are a flag, or a map. I think that's human nature, to be honest. Even if people aren't experts in vexillology or cartography, they are such ubiquitous images that most people would double-take if they saw the Stars-and-Stripes with a Union Jack in the upper canton; or a map of Europe where Spain and Portugal are suddenly the same colour and there's a large purple blob in between France and Germany. If you need a hook, that's what sells.
At times, that does make me a bit annoyed, I think it's a bit of a cop-out how many times I do just think "ah, put a Volkshalle in the background" or "slap a Red Flag on it" and it means that we have some really original, innovative works being sold with covers that are as generic as the ones that I was originally reacting against. However, at the end of the day, this is a business, and we want people to be happy that their works are selling in the numbers they deserve to.
And what exactly is your process for making one when handed a summary of a new book?
I am fortunate that the team are usually very proactive at reaching out to the author before coming to me with a commission. Usually, the author in question has a fairly clear idea of what they would like, and (within reason) I am very happy to accommodate those wishes to the best of my ability. I do (just as much for my own ability as our style guide) tend to go for the simple over the complex wherever possible. If I know them personally, or if I have read the work myself (surprisingly, I do usually try and at least skim read the drafts we have so I can at least get a feel for the work in question) then I will try and have a bit more leeway with my own internal rules.
The process, however, is quite simple. I usually put the designs in one of two categories; scene or symbolic. The former are usually the most complex and will be an interpretation of an event within the work in question. The symbolic angle is the one that I enjoy doing the most, in part because it is about conveying the theme or feeling of the work in an abstract way, which also allows for me to have fun with minimalism or negative spaces.
One of the ones I most enjoyed doing was for Tom Black's The People's Flag, where I simply adapted a well known Soviet propaganda poster, but substituting the Red Flag for that of the Union of Britain. I think that, going back to what I said earlier, is a classic example of how you can have a very simple cover where even someone unfamiliar with either the genre or the pastiche would be able to think "ah, that doesn't look right to me".
Finally, in the case of us doing anthologies - that usually means that I again try and have a bit of fun with setting the tone for the work in question, and also have an excuse to play around with typefaces and formatting in a way that I usually stick rigidly towards. I especially liked the one we did on Revolutions, with the Elizabeth Tower behind a descending guillotine blade. The incongruous juxtaposition of that most British of buildings with that most French of execution methods really stood out, I feel.
As well as art, you're also the author or co-author of seven SLP books. Four of those, 'Agent Lavender', 'Shuffling the Deck', 'You've Always had it so Good' and 'President Ashdown is Retiring' you wrote alongside Tom Black. What do you think makes a good writing team and what are the advantages of writing with someone else?
That's a really good question. I know that lots of working partnerships and double acts said that being friends off-stage isn't necessary (I'm thinking of Penn and Teller as an example of that), but I firmly believe that a sense of comradeship is vital - or at the very least, being able to laugh at one another's jokes. I will say, based on my work with Tom, that sharing different political views is an advantage - as are having a different set of historical interests. I think that really assisted in most of the works we have collaborated on. I have, as I have already noted, a poor to non-existent knowledge of military matters (I don't know one end of a tank from another), and my awareness of a lot of cultural history (especially theatre) is poor as well. That said, I do have a good awareness of economics and a few other areas, and I think that has really benefited in how we approach world-building and scene-setting.
I recall an excellent scene Tom had led on in Lavender where President Ford is chatting to his predecessor, and I pointed out that he'd written a joke about Nixon looking very out of place sitting in the Oval Office wearing a sweater. I point out (having recently concluded reading Perlstein's Nixonland), that Tricky Dick was a very fastidious, formal, sort of chap, and the idea that he'd have shown up at the White House in anything other than a suit and tie was out of character. The novel might be concerned with Harold Wilson being a Marxist-Leninist sleeper agent, but some things are too implausible for their own good. I think a good writing process is about that sort of thing; recognising one another's strengths and failures, making corrections or suggestions with respect and humour, and knowing when to compromise.
Most of your books have been focused on modern British Politics, the exception being 'Limpid Stream' about Russia. What draws you to British Politics as a topic for AH?
This is something that I've always been a bit annoyed with myself about. My academic background (such as it is) is as an economic historian - with my primary areas of interest are Russia and the Far East. I would rather like to set my mind to doing a properly researched timeline about a surviving Anglo-Japanese Alliance post-World War I, or a different route for the Industrial Revolution under the Tsars (perhaps the Decembrists are a little more successful?). I think, however, that British politics has ended up being a draw for me because of proximity. I have worked in and around Westminster since I was a student, either as a parliamentary researcher, at a think tank, and now as a civil servant. Of course, experience breeds knowledge, so I think that's inevitable that I'd be drawn (even somewhat against my will) to writing about the corridors of power. I was, of course, the sort of nerdy teenager who devoured Yes Minister, The Thick of It, and watched various clips of the old Spitting Image on YouTube, which came alongside my first foray into counterfactual history as well.
The thing about British Politics, of course, is that it is so ripe for points of divergence and the road not taken, which is something that people like Ed Thomas have been so successful at using (a letter implementing the Prince of Wales in a divorce case leading, fifty years later, to a Syndicalist Revolution after a failed Anglo-Russian invasion of the German Empire is an utter classic of this). I think this is complemented by the fact that we have such a volume of primary and secondary evidence to draw upon. If nothing else, Britain is a nation of diarists (myself included) and records like that have been an invaluable source of inspiration for me; the raw ideological feelings of a Tony Benn, the mercurial irreverence of an Alan Clark, the dispassionate gossip of a Channon or a Crossman - there's no shortage of evidence like this to draw upon, and I think it's one of the reasons why the likes of 'Agent Lavender' were so much fun to write - the little scenes between two political figures. I personally found writing a chapter where a contentious piece of legislation is being voted on in the House of Commons to be just as exhilarating as a pivotal fight scene, for example - there is a reason why the Commons has been described as the cockpit of the nation.
In some respects, I feel we were a bit ahead of the curve on this, as one can see from the tremendous success of 'This House' by James Graham, or 'A Very British Scandal'. A time of so much turbulence within the body politic, it's noteworthy to see how many viewers are going back to look at the turmoil of the 1970s with a sense of nostalgia that I don't think we would have done a decade ago.
Obviously good political fiction attempts to explain why everyone thinks the way they think even when you the author fundamentally disagree with their values. Did you find it particularly challenging to write someone like Enoch Powell in 'Agent Lavender' who obviously you wouldn't agree with or was it tougher to write people you do agree with and not overly idealise them?
Again, this is a great question and it is not one that I feel I can give an easy answer to. Monroe Templeton has written a few great articles on this that really resonated with me, not least about hard it is to avoid glorifying the greatest monsters in history in any sort of 'Nazi Victory' timeline. I think that, even if one deliberately sets out to portray someone like Powell in a critical fashion, it is hard to avoid coming across as being sympathetic towards them - especially given that Powell is directly involved with preventing a right-wing palace coup at one point.
I suppose that I should come out and say that I think people like Enoch Powell and Oswald Mosley are massively overused in alternate history and, in retrospect, I'd push-back against using them at all in any future works that I did. Powell in particular is probably one of the most overrated figures in post-war British history, his greatest legacy being a speech that simply reflected the policy of the Conservative Party at the time, if it in somewhat more passionate rhetoric. Powell was ultimately fired for overstepping his portfolio more than anything.
Of course, this makes me a hypocrite - after I've had my fill of using people like Powell, I can hardly tell others off for doing so. I think this is another element of how counterfactual history works, in some respects; the cult of the charismatic loser. Powell never held office higher than that of Minister for Health, Mosley briefly served as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster - so any actions after this can be hypothesised away. I suppose that this is because my approach to economic history and political science has always been very institutionalist. I feel that even the most charismatic and forceful of individuals is ultimately subordinate to the bodies and rules that shape society. One way that I try to reconcile using controversial historical figures is to take into account (and I think this is a useful critique of the aforementioned article) is how they would be shaped by a different set of institutional norms and traditions. Tom Black, for example, very cleverly used Powell as a reformist, Dubček-style figure in his 'Meet The New Boss' because the sort of person Powell was would have adapted to Communism in a very different way from how it is in a certain well-known Hearts of Iron mod, for example.
This is not to say that people like Powell are not responsible for their actions, or that they are puppets controlled by a groaning mass of bureaucracy and vested interests, but rather that I consider how they would interact with different institutions to be the real story. Most alternate history, at least of the sort that I read and write, is about immersing yourself in a world that is alien yet familiar, so a point-of-view character like Enoch Powell is a very useful hook for the reader. It is someone famous, yet malleable, and it's useful to see how they would react to living in a Soviet or Nazi satellite.
Ultimately, I think it is far harder to avoid glorifying the setting than the individual. With the latter, you can simply pepper the narrative with the occasional reminder that the character is a racist, or a sexist. It's much harder (as Monroe noted) to do that when the entire setting - however critical - is still saying something along the lines of "look, the Nazis might be bad but they've still dammed the Mediterranean”.
On the other hand, I have never found lionising people I do like and admire to be that much of a challenge - whilst it would be very easy for me to joke about turning someone like Roy Jenkins into a Mary Sue for my own ends, one of the good things about writing about politicians is that, even if you’re someone like myself who is a lot more predisposed to liking them than most people, there’s enough inherent cynicism in the system to prevent that from taking place.
All of your books were originally written on AH Forums for a relatively niche audience before being published through SLP. Have you had much feedback from people from outside that audience who discovered you in other ways, through your twitter for instance, and do you know what they've thought of your writing?
Amongst my various friends and acquaintances (both in real life, and on social media), I think that I have always given off the impression of being a bit more eccentric than I am in reality. Me writing counterfactual history is probably no more outside my niche than me liking anime or occasionally wearing a hat. Despite that, I have been quite impressed and humbled by people who either work in politics or - in some cases - with some of the individuals starring in my writing, and said that it has resonated with them.
A colleague’s father had read Lavender having previously had a job working with Margaret Thatcher during the 1970s, and said that it was one of the most realistic depictions of her at the time he had ever seen. I think this is because so many leading individuals in politics have ended up becoming caricatures of themselves in the eyes of the public, so encountering Mrs Thatcher as the slightly skittish, awkward person she was as Education Secretary, rather than the Iron Lady - Queen of All She Surveys which is so often seen in fiction, was seen as being rather refreshing.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with and around various senior people in politics, so having recognition from people like that from time to time is really very kind. Many of the people I follow and interact with on Twitter are of a similar bent to this, working across politics and academia, so being able to interact with them in that way is very kind. I spoke to the economic historian Adam Tooze, someone who I hold in very great esteem, after he noted a map I’d tweeted showing the breakaway states during the Russian Civil War, which I also consider to be a great example of how niche content can become more mainstream.
If I have to thank Sea Lion Press for anything, I suppose that I should add that my partner had read Agent Lavender when it had been originally published, and it kick-started a series of events that brought us together, so I’ll take that as perhaps the best feedback of all!
Most of your works are much more about exploring a high concept than trying to be a realistic look at how history could have done, so 'La Isla Blanca' is the UK as Spain and 'Agent Lavender' is what if an old discredited conspiracy theory was actually true. Do you think the plausibility of scenarios matters at all or can you rely on the audience suspending their disbelief on any concept, as long as the destination is fun enough?
Just as we talk about high and soft fantasy, I suppose we also do the same with counterfactual history. Frankly, I don’t usually see this as being a very helpful distinction - it is a genre of fiction, albeit with a historical basis, and the key objective of fiction is to entertain and to stimulate discussion.
Unless one is setting out to genuinely make an academic case study based on a ‘what if’ (such as the aforementioned work of Robert Fogell) I believe that exploring scenarios is only ever going to be speculative, regardless of the knowledge or awareness of the author or audience. I feel that even the most realistic alternate histories become entirely speculative within a few years of the point of divergence. To use a classic example, let’s say that Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver doesn’t take a wrong turning in Sarajevo. At that point, I firmly hold that a general war in Europe was inevitable one way or the other. It could have taken place in 1911 after Agadir, or it could have happened if, let’s say, there’s a revolt in Bessarabia in March 1916 and Russia issued an ultimatum to Austria-Hungary to stop funding Moldovian separatism. From this point alone, we are in the position where the first major conflict of the 20th Century could have gone in one of three very different ways based on the relative positions of the major powers. Russia, for example, was already industrialising at a tremendous pace, so those five years alone could have made all the difference between Petersburg capitulating after an even worse defeat than it had at Tannenberg in OTL, or effortlessly marching into Prussia after having another two years of being able to build up railway capacity.
As noted, I think the most important thing about counterfactual history at a personal level is doing your research. However, unless you are setting out an academic paper, I firmly believe that a scenario is a way of telling a story and delivering a message.
Of all the things you've created in terms of AH, whether art or writing, what are you most proud of?
Agent Lavender. I still think that it holds up as a solid, well-plotted Cold War thriller. Whilst I don’t consider it especially likely, I do think it has the capacity to be a solid radio play at one point - but I will leave that to my co-writer (and perhaps a career break of a year) before we take that idea forward.
And what are your plans for the future in terms of writing or illustrating?
I have felt rather bad for not contributing more to the fiction side of Sea Lion Press in recent years. In part, this has been personal, I have had a period of simply not being in the right mood to sit down and write a substantive piece of fiction. That has changed recently though - I enjoyed writing down and doing a little bait-and-switch analogous list of French Fifth Republic Presidents as their British Counterparts, which stirred my creative muscles for the first time in a very long time. I am also a little more settled in my work and personal life as well, which has also provided me with the capacity to think more about my plans for Sea Lion Press.
Playing Disco Elysium again also reminded me of how much fun it is to speculate about new worlds and gave me a real crash-course in character development and world-building. I still think it was the best novel of 2019, despite existing in an entirely different medium! I would like to have a proper think about finally putting some of my economic studies to the test in a way that I have never really done before. Iain Bowen’s Azure opus is the perfect example of how one can writing about economic history in an engaging fashion, and if I could do something similar for one area of speculation that I have been thinking about - a different post-war consensus built around commercial growth, rather than the welfare state - that is one area that I feel has legs.
Otherwise, I have expressed interest in compiling an anthology of works. I think that a compilation on Russia is long overdue and has a huge amount of potential.
Naturally, and to conclude, I will continue to do covers and illustrations for as long as authors and the wider SLP team are happy for me to do so!