Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Jared Kavanagh, a regular SLP writer who can be found on facebook.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.
Thanks for inviting me to take part.
First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
My first experience reading AH was the “Fireball Trilogy” by John Christopher, who was probably better known as the author of the Tripods books. It’s a series where two teenagers are teleported into an alternate world where the Roman Empire (both halves) never fell, and the world developed along different lines. It’s a fairly obscure series these days – not available in either print or ebook, as far as I can tell – and would bring the plausibility police out in force if examining the timeline. But it interested enough to start thinking about more about alternate history and how it could be used as a setting.
My second experience reading AH was the West of Eden trilogy by Harry Harrison, who also was better known for other work, in this case the Stainless Steel Rat series, Make Room! Make Room! (adapted in film as Soylent Green) and – for AH fans – the Stars and Stripes series. West of Eden was set in a world where dinosaurs never went extinct and continued to live and evolve, eventually with one lineage of them developing into a sentient species. Humans (or something very much like them) still evolved in North America, and the trilogy tells the story of the conflict between humans and dinosaurs. Again something where its plausibility could be derided at length, but as a sprawling series of entertainment (save for one extremely squicky scene), it was a lot of fun.
Between those two series and later ones such as Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar, I developed an interest in how alternate history can help in creating big, sweeping worlds which can be explored in detail. Of course, that kind of worldbuilding is not unique to alternate history – fantasy and science fiction can both do it, among other genres. What I like about alternate history is it permits a way to get detailed worlds which are similar to ours but crucially different in some aspect.
The other element is that I’ve always been fascinated by what I call nuggets of history – particular factoids or small stories which are true but which are so different to what’s known in popular history that they sound like they were made up. Put those two things together and you get most of the alternate history I’ve written.
One more recent aspect in my writing of alternate history has been creating shorter fiction. For most of my writing career I’d always said that for me a short story was fifty thousand words. Experimenting with shorter fiction came relatively recently. The appeal is still similar, it’s just that the worldbuilding is usually implicit in the short fiction, rather than being spelt out in detail as it tends to be in my longer tales.
You're the author of the much acclaimed Sidewise nominated 'Lands of Red and Gold' series about a more successful Australian aboriginal agricultural package. What was the inspiration behind doing that idea and did you worry that you wouldn't find an audience because it's relatively obscure history you're dealing with?
The original inspiration behind Lands of Red and Gold was based around “what if there was one founder crop suitable for European-style farming in Australia.” Originally I was thinking of have societies something like the Māori in New Zealand, where they had one major crop (sweet potato) and a lot of land management to produce other food. Along the way I discovered how many other domesticable plants there were in Australia, and the whole project got a lot bigger.
Being relatively obscure history had more appeal to me, not less. It meant I was exploring topics which weren’t so well-trodden in terms of previously published alternate history. I didn’t particularly worry about finding an audience, since I figured that if there wasn’t that much reader interest, I would stop the tale after the first generation or so of contact with Europeans. There’s a natural stopping point there (which also happens to be the climax of Walking Through Dreams).
Fortunately, there’ve been a few people who liked it, so I’ve kept going.
You also wrote the 'Decades of Darkness' timeline, one of the most influential pieces of amateur AH writing, about a United States that remains an expansive power based around slavery. What were you trying to say with that story and do you have any plans to publish it?
Decades of Darkness got started in response to an AH challenge from soc.history.what-if contributor Noel Maurer. Noel posited that to create a plausible equivalent to SM Stirling’s Draka series, it would be best to start with the United States and have it go even more expansionistic across the Americas. I accepted that challenge, and DoD was the result.
The main theme I was exploring in Decades of Darkness was what would happen if the worst aspects of the American Revolutionary War were magnified in what followed. The ARW had some positive themes: independence, self-determination, democracy, liberty, and proclaimed equality. On the other hand, those features were only for white men – emphasis on men. At the time of the Revolution slavery was legal in every colony, and what became the United States had been built on the back of genocide of Native Americans – and one of the revolutionaries’ major grievances was that they wanted to keep on doing that and that Britain was trying to limit their ability to do so. (Along with complaining that Britain was freeing and arming their slaves.)
So Decades of Darkness was essentially, what if the worst elements of the American Revolution just keep getting worse than in real history?
In terms of trying to get it published, the answer is a definite maybe. I’ve got a more narrative sequel to DoD which was in rewrite hell for most of a decade before I concluded that it just wasn’t possible to publish it as a standalone novel. The background of the world was too different, but trying to fit that background in would have combined the worst aspects of “As you know, Bob” style exposition with slowing down the pace of the story to the point where glaciers would move faster.
So if I want to get the novel out, I need to get the timeline published first. I’ve been slowly working at that over the last couple of years, but it’s a lower priority compared to other projects. Rewriting something extensively is in some ways harder than writing from scratch. I may get it published eventually, but don’t expect to see it any time soon.
In the meantime, I’ve started writing some shorter fiction which is set in the Decades of Darkness universe. Sort of. As part of preparing for possible publication, I’ve been rewriting certain aspects of the timeline. The shorter fiction is set in that rewritten version of the timeline. One of those shorter stories, Goats and Circles, may appear in a forthcoming SLP anthology about alternate sports, if the editor likes that story and the whole anthology gets accepted for publication via SLP. Or if not I may publish it myself, in due time.
'Decades of Darkness' and 'Lands of Red and Gold' were both written primarily as Amateur fiction. Did you write the latter with more of an awareness of possibly publishing it, and if so, did you change any of your style to try and make it more accessible as a result?
Neither work was written with potential publication in mind. Decades of Darkness started in 2003, while work on what became Lands of Red and Gold started in 2008. At that time, e-books were still in their infancy, and the publishing world was still dominated by large publishing houses who thought in terms of print first, e-books as an afterthought. Sea Lion Press didn’t even get started for another seven years. My motivation for both projects was out of interest, not for future publication.
My writing style has certainly evolved between the two, but that’s largely a shift based on getting more practice as a writer. Some things I wrote in DoD I later decided didn’t work very well, and I experimented with some different techniques in LoRaG.
Part of that was removing the jargon. The AH online community has a lot of acronyms and concepts which are unfamiliar outside, and I had to change all of those to more understandable terms. Other changes were more to do with structure, moving sections around, writing transitions, deleting sections which were rehashed as reader reminders in a timeline (which is often read over years), and so on. Plus some updates based on things I’d learned since writing the earlier chapters.
I also added some more narrative segments to the novels. On reflection, I probably should have had more of those. A common thread in reviews for Walking Through Dreams has been that in effect, the appendices are at the front, and that there should have been more narrative segments up front, like the second half of the book. Things you learn along the way, I suppose.
You've been a member of AH online communities for years, do you think there has been a move largely away from ambitious massive works like 'Decades of Darkness' which aren't primarily narratives, towards more accessible shorter fiction or will there always be a place for epic work like DOD?
My involvement in online AH communities started before the turn of the millennium, with what was then the Usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if. I joined the online forum alternatehistory.com a few years later, and I’m also a member and occasional contributor to other online forums such as those at Sufficient Velocity and SLP’s own forum.
The shift to longer form alternate history works – timelines, that is – started within soc.history.what-if, much of it before I joined. Soc.history.what-if started with what were predominantly discussion threads, but gradually changed to having more longer-form works. I was part of the trend in expanding to longer timelines – Decades of Darkness was one of the longest single-author timelines written up until that point, though there were collaborative works that were much larger.
The trend for longer-form AH works continued as the online community transitioned to forums such as alternatehistory.com, the Alternate History wikia, and others like them. It’s still there to this day, as a glance at those forums will demonstrate. The format is still going strong, and I expect it will continue like that for some time.
Sea Lion Press is something of an outlier in the online AH community, since longer form timelines are relatively rare in its forum. Shorter works predominate, often in narrative format. That’s the influence of being attached to a publishing house, I expect. I enjoy both timelines and shorter, more narrative-focused works. There’s room for both in the AH community, and I hope that both of them continue.
In terms of shorter fiction, you're a prolific writer of vignettes, many of which have been published in SLP's collections. What would be your advice in terms of what makes a good short story and what gets it accepted by editors?
My first and most important advice is that there’s no such thing as the perfect short story. Rather, what there can be is a very good short story for the particular anthology or magazine. Different editors have different tastes, and they also have different themes or preferences depending on what anthology or magazine they’re seeking stories for at the time. They also tend to go for a mix of stories, so if your very good story happens to be on a similar theme to another also good story submitted to the same anthology, well, the odds are that one author is going to be rejected.
A perfect example is Matthew Kresal’s short story Hitchcock’s Titanic (in Tales from Alternate Earths III from Inklings Press) which was nominated for a Sidewise Award. Yet as Matthew pointed out, it received numerous rejections from other publications before finding a home. The story was good enough to win a Sidewise nomination, yet it still got rejected a lot along the way. So never take rejection too much to heart.
In the same vein, I’ve had to reject quite a few stories for SLP anthologies (and other non-AH anthologies) which weren’t necessarily bad stories, but which didn’t fit within the parameters of the anthology in question. Anthologies need to have a good mix of stories, themes, styles and so on. Sometimes a story is good in itself, but so different in concept or tone from the rest of the anthology that it would be too jarring to include it.
That said, sometimes stories are bad, too. Writing is a skill. A few people are fortunate enough to be naturals at it and churn out saleable stories from the first moment they pick up a pen (or reach for a keyboard, depending on when they started writing). For the rest of us, myself included, writing is a skill which needs to be learned. There’s two ways to learn it: read a lot of stories by a lot of good authors, and practice writing yourself. Seek feedback if you can get it, rewrite it, and keep improving your craft. I’d written over a million words of longer fiction (most of which was unpublishable) before I sold my first short story.
The other important thing is to pay very careful attention to what is being sought. Read the submission guidelines thoroughly. If it’s possible, ask questions of the editors about your story idea. Sometimes that’s not always possible, particularly for the larger circulation magazines, but one of the nice things about SLP anthologies is that the editors are usually contactable.
One practical tip I see a lot of is that many writers, particularly new writers, feel the need to spell out every detail so that it happens on the page. Taken to the extreme, this leads to it being explicit every time a character takes a sip of coffee, each time they pick the cup up, each time they put it down, and so on. Sometimes it feels more like reading stage directions than a novel. You don’t need to put everything in. Many things are implicit, and particularly in short fiction, every word counts. If something is clear without needing to be spelt out, or just isn’t important – leave it out.
In the same vein, another thing to watch out for is “filter words.” That is, words which place a filter between the reader and the character. It shows up in things like “Bob saw the car pull out of the driveway,” or “Jane realised that the sound had stopped.” You’re already writing from the character’s perspective. Most of the time, we don’t need to be told that the character heard, saw, or realised something. Just write about what it was that they experienced, not that they were experiencing it. Your writing will be the stronger for it. There are exceptions where filter words are necessary, but those are rare, and each use should be considered carefully.
And finally, it helps if a story has something different which hasn’t been seen before. To take some examples from Alternate Australias, I’d never before heard of the concept of Napoleon in Australia, but hey, that worked. So did a Chinese colony in Australia. And an alternate career for Don Bradman which wasn’t tennis. If possible, try to think of something novel, or at least a fresh take on a concept.
As you've just said, you edited two anthologies for SLP 'Alternate Australias' and 'Apocalypse How'. What can you tell us about the genesis of these projects? And how have you found the process of editing an anthology compared to being on the other side and submitting to it?
The inspiration for Alternate Australias came from two older AH anthologies, Altered America and Altered Europa, both edited by Martin T. Ingham, and which also happened to feature stories from another SLP contributing author, Bruno Lombardi. I wondered about doing a similar type of anthology in a part of the world which hasn’t been as well-served in terms of AH. I pitched the idea to Tom Black, he gave it a provisional go-ahead, and the rest is (alternate) history.
Apocalypse How had a different genesis. The SLP forum runs monthly vignette challenges on a variety of themes. One of those was on the theme of Apocalypse. That produced a wide variety of interesting vignettes and stories, enough so that there were some calls to turn that into an anthology. So again I offered to edit those stories into an anthology. That process turned out to be much longer than for Alternate Australias, mostly because writing is not my only job, but I got there in the end. My thanks to the contributing authors who were patient enough to wait for me to find time to review and edit the stories which make up Apocalypse How.
In terms of how it works being on the other side of the desk, so to speak, editing stories gave me a lot more insight into my own writing. That’s what happens when you see so many different writing styles and concepts. It also taught me, in a way I hadn’t fully appreciated before, how much of editing an anthology is not choosing the best stories, it means choosing the stories which work best together to provide the best reading experience. While I’m not at all musical (having about as much musical talent as a blocked nostril), I liken it to choosing the best notes to make up a rhythm. No individual note makes a good tune; it’s how they work together.
It also taught me more about how rejecting a story doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. That doesn’t make rejection any less painful when I’m on the receiving end of it – and like many writers, I have an impressive collection of rejection letters – but it does help to understand it, all the same.
Alternate Australias had two Sidewise nominated stories within it and one Sidewise winner. Were you surprised by the positive reception the anthology received or did you always knew that you received some special stories for it?
I was pleasantly surprised by the Sidewise nominations, and particularly when one of the stories won. Full credit to the two authors, Matthew Kresal for winning with Moonshot and Andrew J Harvey for the nomination of 1827: Napoléon in Australia.
I always thought that those stories were very good ones, or I wouldn’t have put them in the anthology. Of course, I liked all the other stories which went into the anthology too – well, I’m always critical of my own work, but I put in one story of my own anyway – and one of the stories was written by a Sidewise Award judge (The Prediscovered Country by Steven H Silver) so I knew that the judges were aware of the anthology, at least. So it wasn’t a complete surprise to hear of the nominations, but still thrilling when it happened.
Do you think it is currently possible to make a living out of the kind of AH fiction writing you write or is the market too small?
It’s possible to make a living from some kinds of AH fiction, or at least AH-adjacent fiction such as time travel. Quite a few authors do and have done, after all. The late, much-lamented Eric Flint springs to mind, as does Harry Turtledove, both of whom got started in the traditional publishing world. Judging by the number of online reviews they’ve received (the only metric which I have access to), there’s a few self-published authors who have done the same.
For the sort of AH fiction I’ve written and am likely to produce in future, I’m not sure. I can safely say that sales would need to be a lot higher than they are now to make a living off it.
But then, I haven’t done a huge amount of marketing for them, either. Marketing has always been the key to selling books, but it’s more important now than ever. The self-publishing revolution and e-books between them mean that we have millions of books available online, if not tens of millions. In some ways the writing is the easy part. The harder part is how to ensure that the kind of readers who might like your books can find them among the millions of other titles out there.
Some people thrive on marketing. I’m not one of them. But I suspect that for those with the drive and skill to do marketing effectively, that they could make a living from AH or AH-related fiction.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
My current projects are finishing Book 3 of Lands of Red and Gold (working title The Four Horsemen), and finishing a collection of short stories, of which about half are AH and the rest are various other kinds of speculative fiction. I’m also co-editing a (non-SLP) science fiction anthology called Scott’s Planet.
In the longer-term, there will most likely end up being five or six books in the main sequence of Lands of Red and Gold. I have some notes about possible spin-off books set in that universe, including some which may get written before the main sequence is finished.
I’m also working on a space opera series which is both a homage to and deconstruction of some of the classics of the genre, though that one is at least two years away from publication.
And, as mentioned above, Decades of Darkness may eventually see publication.