Questions from Gary Oswald
Hello Leo, first of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us.
Hi Gary – and thanks for having me!
What started your interest in Alternate History and what do you think appeals to you about the genre?
I think I have to blame Brent A Harris for my interest in alternate history. No, that’s not strictly true – but I’ll come back to him.
Probably my first real interest in the genre was reading the Wild Cards books by George R R Martin and others. For those who haven’t read them, it’s a superhero series based on the roleplaying campaign Martin and a bunch of friends were playing in a New York that changes course from our own version when an alien virus transforms a bunch of humans, creating super heroes and villains. What I really loved, though, was the way some of the stories interwove with our own history – especially the story set around the House Un-American Activities Committee, recast for a world with super beings rather than imaginary Communist conspiracies. That story’s written by Walter Jon Williams, and I completely fell for this twisted history that still connected with our own.
Fast forward to more recent times, and I was one of a bunch of writers who created Inklings Press, and Brent A Harris is another in that group. He’s a big fan of alternate history and badgered us to create an anthology of short stories in the genre – and coaxed me into joining in too. I think my works there are very much more minor than some of the great fellow writers I’m alongside, but I’ve loved helping to create those anthologies, and explore the worlds that might have been.
You've worked for many years as a journalist, both in the UK and in the Bahamas, how much of the lessons you've learned from writing articles apply to writing fiction instead?
I think probably the tools of research, really. This probably sounds odd considering we’re talking about alternate history where the world can be topsy turvy from our own, but one of the things that really puts the brakes on me as a reader is when I run into an anachronism in a book. I remember as a kid reading an Arthurian novel by a big-name writer and coming to a screeching halt just because the characters were eating potatoes, which didn’t show up in Europe for another ten centuries. I remember yelling at the book that if even I knew that and I was just a teenager at the time that the author should have had the facts right. This is in a fantasy novel, so perhaps I should have been more gracious! But it bugged me.
So I always try to do the research and make sure things are appropriate for the era – and that any twists to make the timeline different are deliberate and not an oversight. So, research, research, research.
It’s fun to do, though – and research can make the story better, because you uncover ideas that just fit in place with what you were aiming for.
You mainly write short stories. Even Quartet, your first solo e-book, is a collection of four short stories. What do you think is the appeal of that format vs novels and do you have any plans to produce longer from writing?
My longer works in progress wave from the folder where they wait for me to have time! I do have plans for longer-form writing, but the day job, the family, you know how it goes.
With short stories, though, I fell in love with them through magazines such as Interzone in the UK in the 80s and 90s, then ultimately through the amazing work of Ray Bradbury. Longer fiction gives you a great opportunity to thoroughly explore a setting, a story, the characters – but short stories, done right, can be lightning in a bottle. They can be a vignette, a moment, a first drop of summer rain on your skin. You can float a concept without getting bogged down in overwriting the story around it. It can be about a singlular something, whatever that thing is, that moment of potential when the Earth shifts under our feet and suddenly we are somewhere different, somewhere strange.
With short stories – and I think we’re in a golden age for short stories these days with some fantastic writers in the field – you can explore a dozen different worlds in an afternoon and still come home safe and sound in time for tea. Just, perhaps, a little changed by the journey.
Your story in the first Tales from Alternate Earths anthology is a take on 'War of the Worlds', which we've noted before is one of the most riffed on stories ever written. Why do you think that particular story is so remembered and so fun for other writers to play with?
I should note, for that anthology, we got a great review from Matt Mitrovich, which was such a blessing. We were still so new to everything and that review really propelled us forwards. He also absolutely correctly called my story out for not really being an alternate history, but being a secret history! You know that moment when you read a review and you shrug and say yeah, the reviewer’s right. I was very much busted on that one!
For me, the appeal was to bring two elements together – Wells’ story and a slice of real-world history, and connect the two. His story was a bit of a bluff on my part, making people look at the framework of his story while sneaking the real-world stuff along in the background. With a lot of alternate history, I think the basic question is “What if?” and for me I asked the question “What if the Martian invasion was real?” and took it from there.
Part of the appeal for me was taking me back to my youth and spending hours and hours with headphones on listening to the Jeff Wayne musical version of War of the Worlds, with the amazing voice of Richard Burton as the narrator carrying such an amazing weight and making the setting come alive.
It’s such an amazing era to explore, with a technological shift happening in terms of warfare and industrialisation, social shifts coming into play – albeit not fast enough and not for everyone – and all the visual flair that genres such as steampunk have riffed off as well.
Still, it always amazes me that there still hasn’t been a spot-on adaptation on TV or film of the book. Too many have yearned towards modernising the story, rather than give us the last battle of the Thunderchild we deserve.
Your stories in the second and third Tales from Alternate Earths anthologies concern different histories in exploration and technologies, rather than the traditional AH subjects of politics and war. What draws you to those topics?
I think whenever we have an anthology coming out, I’m very aware that there are certain types of stories that are probably going to come in – and so I try to write something different. I think a good anthology zigs and zags around – you don’t have two of the same kind of story back-to-back, be that setting, or mood, or whatever that intangible feel is that you have for a story as you read it.
So, I try to write stories that can be a breaker, can take us somewhere different, somewhere perhaps a little unexpected. So for the second anthology, I wrote a story exploring what if Jacques Cousteau had continued his relationship with his expedition’s backers and where that might have taken things, leading to my story in an undersea community.
For the third one, I thought to myself that a lot of alternate histories spring from negative outcomes – a war, an uprising. You know the common ones – what if the Nazis won, what if the Confederates one, etc. But not all twists in history need to be negative - so my turning point comes with the Challenger disaster. It was an awful moment – and one of those points where everyone remembers where they were when they saw it. The real world effect for us was a slowdown and a rethink in human exploration of space. But that didn’t have to be the only way – so I imagined a push for a different way to reach space, leading to the construction of a space elevator.
There are so many possibilities in where our stories can take us – and it’s always a joy when I see a story that does something very different from the tiniest of real world differences.
You're one of the co-founders of Inklings press, as a way for writers not having much luck in mainstream publishing to get their work out there, and you do some of the editing of the anthologies they produce. What do you think the current situation is for small press companies like both you and us in terms of both being able to find an audience and in terms of the quality of writers they can attract through an open call?
It's tricky. There are very different skill sets at play in different areas of publishing. There’s the writing itself which is often inward-looking as the writer draws on what’s inside to create the story. Then there’s the editing and publication process, which takes time and being as meticulous as can be. Then there’s the outward-looking process of marketing and telling the world about it. So to have all parts of that process in a small press can be a challenge – as they are often very small operations run in people’s spare time.
That said, I think there can be a tremendous amount of good will from people to help boost the signal and draw attention to what’s going on. Getting to that point, where you have built a community ready to help and support you, is the challenge for small press companies starting out. It’s tough. I think part of my journalist training helps a bit for us in that you have to sometimes put on a mask, metaphorically speaking, and go knock on that door or make that phone call even if you’re not naturally social. So I fake it and tweet, or post, or share.
As for quality, I think that comes from sticking at it. Our first anthology call, we were delighted with the response we got, but I’m sure some bigger name authors would have peered at it if it crossed their radar and said “Who?”. But after a few anthologies under our belt, and reviews in great places (including Sea Lion Press!), it gives people a level of trust in what you do.
It’s not easy, though. Respect to all those juggling day jobs and daily lives and still putting out the work.
In terms of that, you're very active on social media and you regularly talk to other members of the writing community on your blog, how much do you think using places like twitter to network and build awareness is part of the job of a writer now, especially one without a big publisher behind them?
I think it’s probably that way even with a big publisher, to be honest. It depends really on how much promotional work your publisher is willing to do for you. For an awful lot of mid-rank authors and below, there simply won’t be a huge marketing budget regardless so it’ll be on your shoulders to do what you can do.
That said, I think just using social media to do promo material is always a mistake. Use it to connect. Use it to support. And if support comes back to you, appreciate those who give it.
I think also that social media is a great leveller in terms of offering reach to those who might not otherwise be heard. For example, I’m in The Bahamas which, while wonderful, gives me no chance to go and hit the convention circuits to promote books, for example, and has limitations on what can be done through mailouts and so on. Social media lets me reach people that I can’t reach in a convention hall or a bookstore signing and so on. For people to take a chance on your work, they’ve gotta know about it.
In terms of your own interviews that you do on the Altered Instinct blog, what's been the most illuminating or surprising things that you've learned from chatting with other writers?
Honestly, what I most like in those chats is the support those writers show for their colleagues. There’s the love when they talk about the books that inspired them, there’s the enthusiasm for the books they’ve been reading recently. All of that shows the real community spirit among so many – and you can tell those who are really enthusiastic, it just shines through. But it’s also nice to see the other talents that writers have – whether it’s Diane Morrison talking about being a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, playing RPGs, cosplaying and writing music; or SE Sasaki, a medical doctor from Canada writing about medics in space; or Ian Bristow, who is an author, artist and musician and altogether far too talented for me not to envy! Seeing the breadth of talent in our community is always a delight.
And, to borrow your own question, what are you currently reading and what has been your favourite book you've discovered in the last year?
I’ve just finished reading The Crossover Paradox, by Rob Edwards, which is a story of wannabe superheroes at a sci-fi academy, with a lead character that’s very much in the mould of the Stainless Steel Rat. Highly recommended. Next up is The Ghost Sequence, by AC Wise, a collection of stories with… THE. BEST. COVER. I know they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but that one I bought on sight. Also finishing The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction 2021, edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki.
The best book I’ve discovered? I really enjoyed The Gulp, by Alan Baxter, a collection of horror short stories also set in the same remote Australian community, where bad things happen and there are no good people in sight.
And what can we expect to see from you next as a writer?
Honestly, I’ve been on a little bit of a hiatus recently because of an imminent house move – but that will hopefully be sorted out soon. Once it is, I have a short story collection to put out, combining stories that have appeared in a variety of places plus a few new ones. After that… well, kick me at the end of the year and ask me how the novel is going!
Thank you very much for having me for a chat, it’s very much appreciated!