Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Lena Worwood, a regular SLP author.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us. First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
I started reading alternate history online when my parents got a modem and there's always been something that I love about the uncanny valley it lets us live in. I'm a sucker for subtle or shocking changes - myspace among the social media logos on some advertising in 2022; a Roman Empire based in China; Zulus fighting Aztecs on the moon; the Ecology Party standing in a by election in the 1990s. There's something so nice about something wrong and having a chance to be in a world that's different.
I feel like AH works because it's grounded in a world we know but different. Fantasy and space opera has to make a whole new world and get us to care about it but when a story is grounded in a world we know but different there's so much you can do from there.
You're the writer of 'Who will Speak for England' for SLP, which is a slice of life story of three flatmates and their friends and love interests in a world where the political structure of the UK has changed. Why did you want to tell that story from the perspective of relatively young and powerless people rather than through the lens of the people actually making the decisions?
'Who Will Speak For England' was written during the turbulence of Brexit and it's a story about a period in alternate English history where concepts of national identity and political alienation mean people have choices to make about how they see themselves and their place in the world.
There's an overarching story to tell there about the political machinations of different groups trying to gain power or push their ideals. But I don't think that the leaders of the parties are the ones making the interesting decisions. The leaders of the parties have already decided who they want in charge and what Englishness should mean. The people making interesting decisions are the ones who have to decide how they view their national identity, what compromises they're willing to make, and how they're going to navigate difficult inter-personal relationships in a time of intense culture war.
I went with characters with strong views who are on the periphery of the big decisions. As an activist myself, I'm fascinated by people at this midlevel - they don't necessarily have control of the movements to work for and they may not get respect or recognition or pay, but they keep plugging away to try and make the real world a bit more like the one they'd like to live in. Existing on this level of politics takes monomania, passion, compromise, and resilience. People who do it well will always be my heroes.
One of the things I've liked about your writing is your empathy and understanding for people who very much don't think like you, and I think it's fair to say that none of the main characters in 'Who will Speak for England' would agree you with on much of anything. Do you find writing characters who would be in favour of making you life more difficult in a sympathetic way difficult?
The way I see it, the characters is 'Who Will Speak For England' do think like me. Not to give much away, but writing a closeted lesbian who wanted to come out and was in love with a straight person they lived with was fairly easy to write for me, at a stage in my life when I was a closeted trans woman who was worried how my wife would react.
My favourite characters to write are people who want to be loved and make the world a better place to live in, but have absolutely broken ideas about how to do this. When you have this in place its quite fascinating to see how those ideals can be perverted.
I like the main characters in 'Who Will Speak For England', but I don't think I'd like to meet them. I try to hold that same principle in activism too - look for ways to empathise with and see good in people on the other side, even if we're not destined to ever be friends.
It's not, yet anyway, published but one of the other stories that you're probably best known for is 'Our Climate Change Century' which is a future history story you wrote on the SLP forums. What were you trying to achieve with that?
In 2018 I transitioned and it really knocked out my writing for a year. 'Our Climate Crisis Century' is a weird epic novel written over four years, in which time I started HRT and really expanded my ideas of what trans people could be. The story follows a queer family through three generations from the melting of the ice caps in 2026, into the 22nd century. The story is in many ways me processing my own transition by imagining a world where the big issues of transphobia have been resolved. But that's only part of it of course.
At the time I started writing it there was a lot of discussion about climate change and I saw some themes keep on coming up:
1. "I believe science will solve this problem, and no, I don't see scientists telling us what policies to enact to solve the problem as them solving it. I'm waiting for the solving climate change machine"
2. "The problem is population and economic growth in countries where people aren't as pale as they are in Britain"
3. "If things are as bad as you're saying then we'll all die anyway so what's the point?"
'Our Climate Crisis Century' is a story where science does provide some fantastic answers to climate change, but they're not cost neutral - if you want companies to seed algal blooms in the ocean for carbon capture, the fertiliser will be pollutant. If you want to build fission plants in the 2030s then when fusion comes in you'll have a lot of fission plants to replace/keep in use. If you want to direct hurricanes away from urban areas you'd better be on very good terms with the people who you're sending them to instead. I referred to scientific papers where possible to model potential costs and worked on the basis that global climate change is a messy problem and any big action will come with consequences.
The story goes into a lot of detail about how climate change has impacted third world countries, where its essentially a slow moving genocide. However, even though technology isn't magic and people suffer, there are periods of prosperity, and good solutions, and improvements in the quality of life.
I set out for it to be not a dystopia and I modelled that on the twentieth century. It would be hard to tell a lesbian feminist in 1999 that her life would be better if we erased a century of social progress but it would also be hard to tell someone living through the worst aspects of World War II that the 20th century is a good time to live.
It's challenging, and uncomfortable, to write wish fulfilment science fiction one day and dystopian horror the next. But that's very much the challenge of modern life, isn't it? There's things we want to maintain about society and things we desperately need to change. So hopefully it's a useful tension.
Lexie, the villainous point of view character of much of 'Our Climate Change Century', is another character who is both appalling and yet the reader understands. How did you find writing her and what was the reception to her like?
Lexie was me exploring the mindset of what people in the trans community call "bootlickers" - trans people who actively advocate for movements that are opposed to trans rights. I wanted to explore the motivations and personality of people like that. I feel it often comes down to the kind of compromises we make during transition. Like, say you grow up hearing about how bad trans people are - most trans people do. When you transition you might think "I'll transition, but I won't be like those trans women who do things I've always believed are bad". So you reject your status as a female, or the concept of transmisogyny, or decide that only very binary gender expressions are valid.
Then you're outside the mainstream trans community and you'll never be good enough for the people you've sacrificed for. And at some stage, you can't afford to be wrong. If you are, that means all the trans people who've been mean to you are right. Or worse, you accept your transphobic allies are right and you have to detransition. And however much you may hate yourself and your community - its not always possible to deny who you are.
At what stage along that journey do you stop being someone who has been hurt, and become someone who hurts others? How does a person go through life continually justifying behaviour that hurts themselves and others? The nice thing about writing a character like Lexie is you can view her from the perspective of an omnipotent outside observer who cannot be harmed by her. There's a bit of an exercise in compassion in following a character for their entire life.
I think people responded so well to Lexie because there's something delicious about lying to yourself. A lie settling into your brain is like a centipede crawling in your brain - it almost tickles, and there's this sense of danger and loss of control. You might forget it's a lie and nothing is scarier than losing your connection to reality a little bit more with every justification. I'm fascinated by the process of self-deception and that's why I write about it a lot. It's weirdly enticing from a safe distance. Usually after writing a Lexie scene I had to take a bath. But it also stayed with me and sometimes that's a sick kind of fun in writing.
Both the stories we've talked about so far, plus the two short stories you've had published in SLP anthologies, are relatively standard narratives. But a lot of the amateur AH forums which both you and me spend a lot of time in, have various non narrative formats to express ideas designed for that medium, like lists and wikiboxes and timelines. I know you regularly do post things like lists of leaders on the forums. What do you think the value of those formats is, do you end up using it as a way to put out ideas and then see if there's anything worth exploring in more detail later or more as just an aim in itself?
I discovered alternate history in the mid nineties in the era of timelines that were a few thousand words long and followed a date/text format. I loved these stories as a kid and I think the microfics we make now could be a similar jumping on point for new enthusiasts.
There's something wonderfully democratic about micro fics - you don't need to read a pile of books and all the academic journals you can find, you don't need to write for hours. You can read a thing, have an idea, and share the idea with others and they can enjoy your idea. I love that. If we can, as a community, expand the ways people can communicate ideas and the kind of ideas its okay to talk about in alternate history, I think it could be a key part in diversifying this genre.
I'd also challenge your idea that a list of prime ministers or presidents is non-narrative. The good writers can capture an idea with an economy of words and tell a story with a theme that lets you dip your feet in another world. There's certain writers like Charles EP Murphy, 'Time Enough', Bob Mumby, and David Hoggard who are real masters of this. If I see they've written something short I'll jump on it right away because they can do elegant things in a limited medium and I love that.
I feel like microfic is a big part of our identity as alternate historians. We've never been a fandom for a particular author, in fact big name authors have earned bans from community pages when they've stepped out of line. It's about exploring ideas together and entertaining each other. So microfics have to be an end in themselves.
You've been regularly posting on AH forums for many years now. How have those communities changed over that time and to what extent do you think they're helpful in terms of providing feedback and encouragement for amateur writing vs the issue of a bubble encouraging increasingly niche stories that probably won't appeal to a wider audience?
I guess I refuse to accept that niche stories are bad. One of my favourite microfics is Mark Tentarelli's list of alternative world chess champions. My ideal community is one where people can share their very specific passions with people who enjoy hearing about it. The world is big and there's got to be room for writing that won't have a wide appeal.
In terms of the community - I first got into the online AH community in... about 1998? When I was too young for the news groups and only really talked to people on teenage yahoo groups that rarely come up in histories of the genre. I feel like I've seen the AH community be very accepting of 00s style American exceptionalism and male chauvanism, the awkward slightly perverse years of the 10s and a slow evolution into being a more accepting space.
I feel like if we go back only a little way, sexism was much worse, you might hear really transphobic things just as standard and we were more like that stereotype of alternate history as white men talking about Nazi tanks and the Confederacy. We are slightly better than that now but I don't think we can kid ourselves. There are corners of this community where alternate history is all Nazis tanks and Confederates fighting for their Lost Cause. There are people who genuinely think we don't need LGBT characters in this genre because there aren't really many LGBT people who read alternate history.
There's a reason 'Red White and Royal Blue' by Casey McQuiston hasn't generated much attention in the community despite being a best seller - and I think part of it is that we aren't primed to see an LGBT Romance novel written by a woman as legitimate AH. We need to do better, and expand what this genre can be. SLP is great at this - The Darling Buds Express is a wonderful example of a character story with a romance plot that's absolutely not what we think of as AH.
I guess I'm not interested in whether people get feedback or produce accessible work. I think the real question is - are people connecting with one another and producing work that I want to read? The AH community has put me in touch with some of the world's most adorable people and there are stories I've read here that have just burned themselves into my brain. I'd like more of that, and I'd like more people to be able to have that.
The two vignettes you've had published through SLP, 'The Collector's High', about a hobbyist tracking down evil things, and 'Specialist Care', in which the protagonist is pregnant with a god, are both dark stories about the grimmer side of human nature. Why do you think that tone appeals to you as a writer?
'The Collector's High' is about a colleague I worked with at the time - professional, kind, competent, and funny and obsessed with evil. Her main historical interests were the holocaust, serial killers, and (arguably incongruently) Blairism. She told me she was interested in how people came to do bad things. To be honest, I found it quite creepy when she got onto a roll about murder or Nazis while in the office. 'The Collector's High' is about that feeling that someone is somehow morally tainted by an interest in evil. It explores that feeling of creepiness I had. 'Specialist Care' is a more body horror, and I do a lot of that - I've particularly been doing that since coming out and confronting dysphoria.
I get a lot of intrusive thoughts and my brain often focuses on dark things. Gaslighting, violence, bodies that break in ways that shouldn't be possible or survivable. Especially when I'm depressed I think about these things a lot. When I write about it I can show some of the things that my brain will force upon me on bad days. And this means I can name the monster - give it some shape. Have some control over it.
Outside of AH these days I generally read slow burning romances with lots of longing glances and tips of fingers meeting for an instant, and short form horror. To be cynical, they both make me feel things but horror makes me feel them faster.
I don't know there's anything really sophisticated there. I remember during the 2019 general election I had to do leaflet deliveries and come back from meetings alone on my own at night a lot. I'd listen to a lot of horror stories and they'd never scare me because deep down I'm not scared of a giant spider eating my face. I'm scared that someone will beat me up, or worse, or that I'll fill in a form slightly wrong and lose my medical care, or that if we lose this or that campaign young trans people will suffer. At least a hideous floating eye that lays eggs in your brain is interested in you as a person. Its a strange kind of comfort to have baroquely horrifying things to think about, rather than the banal things that normally kill us.
Looking at your work it's normally more alternate present than alternate history. You primarily deal with roughly present day/near future societies and use that to explore modern issues, such as devolution in the UK or ecological collapse, rather than talk about invading Egyptians and other issues that the Hittites faced but we don't so much. Do you think fiction focused on societies too far on the past or too alien can't say as much about modern topics and so can't connect emotionally as easily or are there other reasons for that choice?
I think it's really more to do with my interest in the uncanny valley. It always fascinates me when things are slightly not what you'd expect - in 'Who Will Speak For England' people were talking about an Ally McBeal remake, in something I wrote recently MSN survived the 2010s and had a revival in the Pandemic. I adore little, subtle differences.
Also, I am a simple creature - I'm most interested in what is happening now, things I know about and maybe most importantly, things I can describe easily. I've recently become fascinated by the Byzantine Empire but if I were to, for instance, write something where Andronikos Komnenos came to power sooner and Anna Komnene's coup really happened creating a civil war, I'd need to explain to the audience why they should root for Anna, how the Komenos family works and why they should want the Byzantines to stay around anyway. Worse, when there are subtle differences I wouldn't be able to rely on the audience to just see them.
Writers can get past this - take Red Joseon by Kevin Valbonesi. I don't know much about early 20th century Korean history but the story is still engaging and immersive and weird. That's a talent.
What, if anything, can we expect to see from you in the future?
I've been very provisionally reviewing and editing a horror story set in the still open Millennium Dome just before the COVID epidemic. It looks at the social movements of 2020 and pandemic and the way trans people are set against each other.
I'm also hoping to work on another Ukraine Aid anthology with David Flin - I have an idea for a story about Eurovision coming to Mariupol in the 2030s. I hope we can do another fundraising writing event too. I loved working on that project because I think that's what our community should be, and is when we're at our best - people working together, putting a bit of good into the world, and encouraging one another to be creative and dream interesting dreams.