Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Katherine Foy, a regular SLP author.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.
Hi, no problem. Thank you for asking!
First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about the genre?
My Alternate History initiation came at several points and in several influences. I read the “What If?” collection of essays (ed. Robert Cowley) in the early 2000s and a few years later I was able to get hold of the follow up books in the series. Those books were all written from a semi-serious academic angle as traditional counterfactual essays. This was frustrating to me in some ways because most of those essays talk at length about what actually happened, with maybe a few lines of speculation about their counterfactual world.
I also read a lot of Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter around that time – and also from watching anything and everything I could find that used time travel and changing timelines as a plot element, whether that was the Back to the Future films or Sliding Doors. I was fascinated by the idea of small changes cascading through divergence to unpredictable outcomes – what we would call the ‘butterfly effect’ in the original sense. The change, the divergence, and the elaboration of what and how – was the point of asking “what if?” in my mind. Hence my hunger for speculation and world building which led me towards AH fiction.
Over the next few years I picked up some AH fiction from libraries, but also found online AH spaces like This Day in Alternate History and Matt Mitrovich’s Alternate History Weekly Update – back when this was a blog rather than a Youtube channel. I used to view the forums for the Paradox Grand Strategy games, reading the “After Action Reports” (AAR) where players would combine the screenshots of their ahistorical in-game campaigns with prose narrative. One of these AAR was an Alternate History ‘Weimar survives’ scenario called Holding Out for a Hero: Gustav Streseman survives, played out using modded versions of Paradox’s Hearts of Iron WWII strategy games. Up until this point most online AH I had read was simple timeline-date or counterfactual scenario based, with very little narrative fiction, so Holding Out for a Hero was my introduction to the idea that you could blend the history book and narrative styles to tell a character-driven story.
I also read Ed Thomas’ Greater Britain and Fight and Be Right around this time, which first introduced me to the scrapbook-style of timeline writing, where the text as a whole is made up of excerpts from in-universe sources. EdT also set what to me was a gold standard for plotting out an AH scenario from a very minor POD through incrementally more divergent outcomes, while at the same time knowing when to wrap up a story at just the right narrative distance from events. Before that a lot of online timelines I had encountered carried the expectation that the author would just continue updating them forever, or until the OTL present day, whichever came first. As a reader that made any work feel like a daunting commitment to get into, and as an aspiring writer it felt like an unrealistic ambition to reach.
Looping back to Paradox forums and their cross posting with AlternateHistory.com, it was also through this medium that I encountered the original version of The People’s Flag by Tom Black. Reading Tom’s work is the reason why I ultimately ended up on Sea Lion Press, and why my small number of most recent projects have been hosted here. It’s also part of the reason for my loose association with the group of UK members of SLP who write or who have written about British political AH.
At University I read, then re-read, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould. I graduated with a geology degree, and though I never ended up directly working in that field, Gould’s book has probably been the one most influential in how I think about science, history, and much else besides. The book’s title references the film It’s a Wonderful Life, and highlights the importance of contingency on evolutionary history. It asks “if the clock of history was rewound back to the beginning, how likely is it that the single evolutionary lineage of first vertebrates, then mammals, then humans would have survived from the huge variety and experimentation in biological forms which existed 500 million years ago?” This question I consider an explicitly AH one, with the Cambrian explosion and subsequent mass extinction events as PODs, and the familiar evolutionary history as OTL.
Gould wrote about contingency – how evolutionary history is the result of incremental events that might or might not have happened as they did. The present is the ‘effect’ contingent on an entire history’s worth of causes. To mean that makes it a book about divergence, and the infinite potential divergences that have existed throughout the course of biological and geological history. I know some people draw a line at “history” beginning with the written word, or at the beginning of an oral tradition, but for me its all part of the same continuum. “What if the continental crust of East Africa never begins to rift, and the habitat niches of early hominids are not created?” and “What if Change UK: The Independent Group won the 2019 UK General Election?” are to me questions differing in scale rather than conceptual nature, even if one might appear a more utopian prospect than the other.
Today my work involves plotting out scenarios and contingencies; working out how a process works or how it fails if X happens, and if so what is the plan B. I’m incredibly lucky that after years of being a nuisance for asking those kinds of awkward questions, I’m now paid to do it. Longer term I’d love to get more into working on disaster recovery planning, and mapping out those contingencies and processes for your 1-in-100, 1-in-1000 scenarios. The kind of planning that is never seen as urgent until it needed to be available yesterday.
This is a very long answer and I’ve barely touched the second part of the question, but I think the reason for that is that on a meta-level there have been several converging factors, any of which is isolation would probably have been enough to get me interested in AH, even if not in quite the same way, time, or community. I think I’ve always been prone to over-analysing, and drawing out causal links – why does “A” lead to “B”?, and I think that appeals to me on its own level.
On a personal level, I think everyone must from time to time feel compelled to ask “what if?” questions of their own life and circumstances, or facets of who they are or who they think they are. Or perhaps not.
You wrote a series of articles for this blog about Geographical Determinism in Alternate History, essentially how much one society could possibly change given the natural geography of an area dictates the kind of human society that lives there. What are your general thoughts about how much freedom AH writers have to plausibly change cultures given that determinism?
I feel a bit disappointed by that series in hindsight, as if I was arguing to a circular conclusion that already accepted a premise that this determinism existed. I suppose I wanted to explore the limits of the geographic page, for the benefit of a writer to then inform their world building with reference to the things that might remain unchanged. For example, Britain’s coasts and deep rivers have fed an often well-founded fear of invasion since at least 410 AD. The same historic drive to “rule the waves”, first in self-defence and then as a self-fulfilling tool of expansion will I feel arise as a state policy in any world where similar other external factors also exist.
But of course the map is not the territory, so to speak. A Britain, or an England that remains part of some surviving sub-Roman state, or Norse Empire, or some later polity still in communion with whatever cultural or political superpowers dominate the rest of the European subcontinent, might after several centuries cease to think of itself as an island- or seafaring-nation outside of its actual coastal communities. Even now in OTL the label feels slightly ill-fitting from where I’m sat on the borders of rural Warwickshire, and I assume (hope) the tributaries of the Trent-Tame aren't longboat navigable this far upstream.
Writers absolutely can – and should – write the cultures they want to write into their worlds. Whether that works in terms of plausibility or far more importantly in service of telling a good story is - to borrow a phrase - an exercise best left to the reader.
What I was hoping for with the article series was to raise the profile of natural geography as one factor among other mutually reinforcing or conflicting factors in shaping the course of human history; and the framing of geographical determinism is a useful if blunt way to present that case. What I hoped to avoid was reinforcing a hard “geography equals destiny” understanding of those factors, as I think that approach is flawed and can lead to pure myth-making about national characters and the natures of different culture or “races”. At the heart of it I believe in free will and human agency over determinism. More critically still I believe in human stubbornness, and there is no metal or mineral more resilient to erosion than that.
You were the one who started the monthly vignette contests on the SLP forums that have resulted over 500 short stories being written so far. Do you think AH is especially suited to the short fiction format and do you prefer writing in that format yourself?
I didn’t know it was over 500 now. I feel weirdly proud about that, though others have long since taken up the reigns and heavy lifting of carrying the contest forwards. Tom Black as site admin gave his blessing to the contest series, Charles Murphy runs the monthly contests now, and David Flin I think deserves a special credit for being a long time supporter of the idea.
I think short fiction is a really handy form for trying out an idea to see if it fits, for instance throwing one or two elements together such as a particular setting and a particular character. Writing short fiction should be utterly low stakes. For me the biggest barrier in starting to write was for so many years that of perfection. The quality and amount of work I saw online authors put into long form stories and timelines was both inspiring and intimidating. I wanted to write my own AH stories and timelines but it felt like I had to do so much research to get from where I was to a point where I could even consider starting to write something at that scale.
What finally got me actually writing ideas down into self-contained finished works was the trend started on AlternateHistory.com of writing TLIADs (Timeline-in-a-day), where the understanding was that these were fun slightly tongue-in-cheek works that didn’t have to be too polished as and when they were posted. There was no expectation that these were works intended for publication or to become part of any grand magnum opus – it was all just a bit of fun. And writing should be fun sometimes if you’re a writer, I think. Doing vignettes and short stories was just the next logical step in this evolution.
As an aside I wish I’d not called it the “Vignette Challenge”, and gone for “Short Story Challenge” or something similarly more down to earth, to drive home the idea that this if for both short fiction and doesn’t have to be too serious. “Vignette” isn’t a word I use day-to-day or when talking about writing, so perhaps I ought to have had more confidence in that, but it was a term in circulation a lot when the SLP forums were fairly new so its what I settled on.
I enjoy writing short format, mainly because its nice to sit down and have a completed draft by the time you finish a single writing session. Not a completed piece maybe, but you learn and practice and that’s the whole point. Sometimes you only have some of the elements that would make up a proper traditional story (namely character, plot, and setting), or the ones that you do have don’t quite seem to go. The short format is great for mashing together concepts to see what works and what doesn’t. A story I wrote earlier this year about a surviving Isle of Wight dwarf mammoth species and some poachers – an excuse to use two terrible puns in one title – doesn’t really have more to it in terms of wider plot, at least not yet, but it was fun to play around with and to get some practice back after not writing for several months. Another story I wrote way back at the start of the Vignette Challenges, on the theme of Evolution, was about a sentient Avian-descended species inhabiting the islands of the southern Atlantic Ocean, and a naive if idealistic group of student political activists. It was meant to be fun and light-hearted, but in hindsight I think it came across as cruel rather than empathetic to the human characters. Characters I think are the hardest part of a story for me to conceptualise, so against the short format is a useful test bed for writing them and for learning what doesn’t work.
The short format is great for writing something and then filing it away for a few years, to look at again with fresh eyes. Best case scenario you have something you can use or rework fairly quickly, and worst case you can harvest the story for body parts and experience. Procrastination and putting things in drawers and forgetting about them comes naturally to me, other people may need to practice.
As a writer I like the satisfaction of a completed full length novel, but I also like the idea of slowly building up a collection of esoteric short stories. I don’t really have a preference either way, save that its much much easier to start a short story.
You edited two SLP anthologies using the stories from those contests, how high was the standard of the results in your opinion and are there any stories from those contests that haven't been published yet that stood out and you would recommend?
Being an editor is a different skill set to being an author, and while I am prone to bouts of imposter syndrome in both roles, it is much harder to shake these as an editor. I found it difficult to see myself standing objectively above the pool of submissions from better writers than myself, having the right to say which stories were good enough for inclusion and which ones weren’t.
There are a lot of different factors to consider when putting together an anthology, and rather unfairly some of these are outside the control of an individual contributing author. A story might be excellent on its own terms, but just not fit within the planned anthology. Perhaps the author already has a story included, or another author is treading the same ground or themes. In an AH anthology you may also want to cover a broad range of (alt)historical eras or AH subgenres. For Fight Them On The Beaches, I really liked a story I read during the Vignette Challenges, however another story I included already touched upon similar themes in a way which I felt fit in better with the rest of the anthology. For Travellers in an Antique Land I wanted to cover as many different historical eras and sub-genres of horror as possible. AH being AH meant that there was probably a 50:50 ratio of pre- and post-1900 settings in circulation, if not every more heavily weighted towards the present day. Horror is a deeply subjective subset of fiction. The things which make me feel nauseous and stop me sleeping won’t have that impact on every reader, and I could never have put together the anthology on that basis.
I suppose in summary while quality was always a requirement for inclusion, it could never be a guarantee. In so far as I am qualified to judge, the standard of submissions was always high. There was a time when I had an indexed list of links to all the vignette contest entries for such recommendations or potential future anthologies, however I no longer keep that list. I understand a lot of writers use the contests for similar purposes to myself, and in some cases delete their work after gathering sufficient feedback with a view to only publish later what is intended to be published. I would recommend keeping an eye on the contests however – the one-shot and short form nature to the fiction produced means that a lot of it does tend to pass under the radar.
One of those anthologies was about Horror themed AH, which has been noted isn't particularly common. What appeals you about that combination of genres?
There were a pool of reader-writers on the Sea Lion Press forum who were AH and horror fans, so it seemed like a good idea. Personally I think both AH and horror lend themselves easily to genre-crossover, with AH providing a setting and the horror elements being given the space to fill the forefront. The beauty of this is that nobody who reads Travellers… should be minded to grumble too much about plausibility in a story about werewolves or vampires. The suspension of disbelief is already priced in, so to speak. What matters is the story and the story alone. In a way perhaps this combination was a break out from AH in a way that I’ve explored with some other cross-genre writing.
Again a personal view, but I think genre fiction and the borders between specific genres are more arbitrary on paper than they tend to be in practice. Maybe they’re better seen as groups of overlapping traits and tropes that sometimes coexist? Or possibly this goes back to AH being treated as a genre when, as others have observed, it more generally applies only to the setting elements of a story, leaving the others elements free to be occupied by romance, comedy, political thriller, or some other more rigidly genre. On another level, I think it is still widely the case that AH is seen as a branch of speculative fiction, coming more from the “soft” science fiction area of that umbrella term. I consider nearly all the fiction I write to fall under the speculative fiction label, allowing for some that isn’t really AH at all beyond the window dressing. Horror and science fiction have their own common lineage, as per Shelley, Wells and others, though 20th century media has made the distinction seem more discrete.
I’m not sure, is the short answer. I like playing around with ideas and concepts on their own terms, and I don’t get too hung up on models which demand rigid taxonomy or fixed binaries. But I’ve already discussed evolutionary biology.
In terms of longer fiction, you wrote 'Freedom's Rampart' in which, as a result of a series of misunderstandings in the late 19th century, a rogue Russian warship accidentally invades New Zealand. AH often lives and dies on the originality of its concepts, how did you come up with that one?
This was based on an idea that had lived in my head for nearly a decade before I came to sit down and write it. I lived and studied in Aotearoa/New Zealand from 2009-2010, mostly based in Auckland but having time over the summer to travel to the mainland and in particular to the city of Dunedin on the Pacific coast. As European settlement, Dunedin was first a project of idealistic and austere Scottish Presbyterianism, before a brief gold rush twenty years later swelled its population and created a short-lived burst of prosperity. After that came a long nationwide recession which only really began to lift in our history with the start of the frozen meat trade between New Zealand and the United Kingdom, though Dunedin itself had already become outgrown by other cities further north and never regained its national pre-eminence as a city.
Dunedin sits at the head of a huge natural harbour, bounded to the south by a long peninsular. At Taiaroa Head at the very end of the peninsular is a lighthouse and albatross sanctuary, build upon the shell of what was in the 19th century a state-of-the-art battery and coastal fortification. Visiting the coastal fortification at Taiaroa Head got me wondering what on earth would have justified the expense of building it. For context New Zealand is down in the sub tropical Pacific, far to the south of the equator. Its nearest local neighbour Australia is 2250 km to the west. In 2010 a plane flight from Auckland to Hong Kong took 12 hours, and from Dunedin to Auckland a full hour before of that. I emphasise these distances because I think a modern European perspective see Oceania and South East Asia as being part of some broadly local area, or a journey from New Zealand to Australia as being equivalent to someone from the UK popping across to Ireland or France, when the distances involved are closer in magnitude to crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
My point is, in the political and technological context of the late 19th Century (Pax Britannia and the pre-dreadnought steamship) I could fathom no rational reason for the Taiaroa coastal battery to exist. Well I did some digging and it turned out that there wasn’t one – but there was an irrational one. In 1873 the New Zealand Daily Southern Cross ran a hoax article claiming a fictional Russian naval cruiser called Kaskowiski had attacked Auckland, stolen gold reserves, and kidnapped the mayor. For whatever reason readers didn’t notice one of three things – firstly that the cruiser’s name was apparently “Cask o’Whisky”, secondly the disclaimer footnote at the bottom of the article, or thirdly given that the Daily Southern Cross was a local Auckland paper the readers themselves might have cross-referenced the article with their own lived experiences. The Kaskowiski panic caused the New Zealand Government to seriously consider the nation’s defences on the understanding that London would protect the high seas but that home defence was now a responsibility devolved to them alone. After another two war scares in the 1870s and 1880s, New Zealand ended up with coastal forts and torpedo boats at every major harbour on both islands, none of which ever fired their guns in anger.
But before I’d even begun to dig into the OTL history of these war scares and the actual invasion odds, the concept was intriguing to me. To reiterate, New Zealand is remote. Even in the modern era an opposed invasion would be logistically extremely challenging to any invader without an assured supply line and access to some kind of local staging ground. In the historic era its hard to see any of New Zealand’s historic or AH antagonists meeting these requirements – whether these antagonists are Russian, Japanese, German, Chinese, American, or from a minor local power like Australia.
Remoteness aside, there is another reason these ahistoric invasions never happened, and that is down to equilibrium. The period in the later nineteenth century when New Zealand was as undefended as to make invasion possible by another European or local power ends more or less at precisely the time when another European power – namely Russia – starts to seriously build up a naval presence in the Pacific Ocean. That tends to be how arms races go, with action and counter-action. A Russian invasion of New Zealand in 1891 is as I have written it is fairly implausible, but it was the least implausible scenario that could have fit the story I wanted to tell, and at the end of the day we’re all here because we like asking “what if?”
Actually there is one loose end that I’ve never been able to clear up. I’m personally convinced that the original inspiring memory occurred before I got to Dunedin and Taiaroa Head, and that seeing the latter site only cemented my earlier inspiration. A few days beforehand I’d been in Queenstown, far inland and high in the Southern Alps and something of a haven for winter sports. I’d opted for the cheaper activity of taking a walk along the north shoreline of Lake Wakatipu. Its here I’m sure I saw the weathered remains and plaque to some kind of gun emplacement, pill box or bunker, in a location that makes even less strategic sense than the coastal forts of the war scare years. But unlike those well documented coastal sites, I’ve never since been able to verify that such a fortification existed – else I may instead have ended up writing The Man in the High Pā instead.
When SLP announced that book on twitter, we got a bunch of excited comments saying that it was a nice antidote to the same old concepts of what if Germany invaded the UK etc. Was it a deliberate effort on your behalf to write a story about a region that gets a lot less attention in fiction?
I hadn’t seen these, that’s really lovely. In my own words Freedom’s Rampart was a love letter to New Zealand in general and to Dunedin in particular. In that sense it was a joy to write, and a book I’m generally proud of as my first proper narrative fiction novel. I was absolutely looking to give God’s Own Country some attention, and the choice of a title which plays up to the more idealistic sentiments of the New Zealand national anthem was a deliberate one.
Possibly this feeds into one of my few regrets about the book – when I say idealism I believe that politics in 1890s New Zealand did have a strong and sincere idealistic current, one that fiercely believed in keeping out the evils of the “Old World”. Chief among these perceived evils were the landlordism and large estates whose clearances had within living memory left people without land and subsistence of their own. So there was a desire to provide land for settlers and to support an independent and self-reliant nation of smallholders. At the same time urban New Zealand was still growing after the gold rushes had ended, and would grow further with the frozen meat boom. In many cases smallholder farming didn’t work out for the individual families given difficult back country plots, and so they returned to the cities and towns. New Zealand started to get the same issues of urban deprivation as in the cities back in Europe, albeit smaller in scale. In Dunedin it was the existence of textile sweatshops which drove the most moral outrage – again to respectable middle class liberals it seemed as if another Old World social ill had been imported from Europe.
So the Liberal Government that came in in 1891 had a genuine reforming zeal to fix these social ills. However because the main reform that every faction of their new coalition agreed upon was opening up even more land to European settlement, these years were the absolute low point for the indigenous Māori population. While I included some Māori viewpoint characters in Freedom’s Rampart, looking back I think I should have done more to centre Māori narratives and experiences of the 1890s, especially those who unlike Tame Parata and James Carroll were not considered in their own time and terms to be half-integrated ‘European Maori’. If I continue planning and writing my follow up (Give Us Plenty, Give Us Peace) set forty years later, this in particular is something I hope to address better.
Likewise I fear sometimes that Freedom’s Rampart, which undoubtedly does romanticise plucky little New Zealand, might be interpreted to further condone imperialism or militarism. This is not my intention, and I hope the farcical nature of how the premise unfolds within the story conveys the opposite message – crudely that the imperialism in question was ultimately futile brinkmanship played out in someone else’s back garden, and paid for in someone else’s blood.
Speaking of unloved regions, another aspect of the story I’ve reconsidered recently has been the opening scene set in Afghanistan. It’s seen through the eyes of a European character, and I think it leans too heavily on a very old cliché about Afghanistan itself. Again, not how I’d hope to write the scene today.
I’ve focused on some negatives here, which is probably a silly thing to do when promoting my own work, but I think they ought to be addressed. Your own articles on colonialism, alongside a lot of other reading in the two and a half years since I finished writing Freedom’s Rampart, have started a much needed personal education on that front. I’m still proud of the book as a story I wrote about a time and a place I wanted to write about.
You’ve spoken about different styles of AH story writing, from timelines to the bricolage technique of switching together numerous faux reference books, to straightforward prose narrative. Do you think the creation of SLP and the awareness that now these niche amateur fiction can now be published has influenced that switch towards a more mainstream structure or would you have always got there?
I think my shift came slightly earlier than that. From around 2014 I was writing TLIAD style timelines, usually adopting the faux reference book and ‘list of Prime Ministers’ style. If there’s a single work which eased me to further bridging the gap to narrative prose it was Agent Lavender by Tom Black and Jack Tindale, which I think had just the right mixture of nerdy political and historical detail, well-paced plot, and a very tongue in cheek tone. When a lot of other works were intimidating in their detail and complexity, in Agent Lavender an entertaining and page turning story came first, and again I think that pulled down another mental barrier for me.
So I think because of this, I was moving towards the more mainstream structure before the creation of SLP, and had written quite a few shorter narrative pieces before then. I’ve always wanted write a novel-length straightforward prose narrative, but it was building the confidence to take the steps towards that. SLP, and the ecosystem of different writers it has brought together I think has helped, as have David Flin’s articles about writing published on this blog.
And what are your plans for the future in terms of writing?
I haven’t written much for the best part of two years now, but this interview and a few other prompts have made me consider getting back into it. I recently went through a lot of the old drafts I have lying around, little vignettes and chapter ideas I’ve never shared and probably never will in their current form. One of the most important parts of the writing process I think is letting drafts rest a while, then returning to them with fresh eyes as if reading them for the first time. Its essential for editing, and I think its a useful way to find out what you’re really invested in; what projects you want to carry forward. It also reminded me of something about myself.
Writing brings me joy, as a process and when done for its own sake. Some of the other activities I’ve devoted my spare time to in recent years haven’t had that effect, quite the opposite in fact. Politics in particular I have found makes me feel miserable, and paying any kind of attention to current affairs has become increasingly toxic for my mental health. For me I think the future will personally be about building resilience and sanctuary where I can, and trying to do things that make me happy in whatever time we all have left. Writing will hopefully play a resumed part in that.
I’d like to pick up the 1930s sequel to Freedom’s Rampart. Additionally I’ve been slowly working on plans for a story set in 1945 in a UK where the Second World War didn’t happen. I’m hoping to write something about Eleanor Rykener in fourteenth century London for an upcoming short story collection, though I also want to explore her more through the lens of longer form traditional historical fiction. I’ve very loose ideas still forming for a more ‘Hard’ science fiction story set in the year 50,347,928 (or thereabouts). Finally I’d really love to work on a collaboration some day.
Outside of existing commitments, I’m trying to write for me on my terms, without any clear goals in mind. Whether that means I write 1000 or 100,000 half-decent words in the year ahead, I’m remarkably relaxed about it all.