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Interview: Lillith Roberts

David Flin interviews Lillith Roberts.

The Interview desk.

Hello, and thanks for talking to us. First of all, how did you get into Alternate History, and what about the genre appeals to you? Where do you think the genre is going?

Of course. Thanks for taking the time to listen!

My entrance to the genre is quite embarrassing. I was an unsupervised kid on the Internet who was unbelievably nerdy and I thought I knew better than everyone else, so naturally I eventually found myself on NationStates. Now, the actual “game” of that site only scratches the itch for so long.

Eventually I graduated to the forums, where I did a lot of alternate history roleplaying. That was my first “proper” introduction to the concept – it was these kinds of map games where the idea was something along the lines of: “Okay, I’m ‘playing’ the Dutch Empire in a world where they retained colonies in America and South Africa”, while someone else ‘played’ a Germany that for some reason exists in 1776 (this was a bit of a common theme with NationStates). I’m still very close friends with a lot of the people I met through that – and we still work together on a collaborative worldbuilding project set in a sort of ‘StrangeReal’ world called Kylaris – but looking back at the forum roleplaying days, it’s also very clear to me that those first attempts were a little naïve to say the least! But that got the ball rolling for me, and it was through NationStates that I learnt of the wider genre – and I subsequently bought a lot of alternate history books as a teen (I think one of which was “Land of Hope and Glory”).

As for the appeal, I think I got into as I was a real know-it-all teen and I found ‘what if’ to be an interesting question. Then there’s the cliché that I’ve always maintained – that as a trans person who spent a lot of my early life closeted, I always had a penchant for asking ‘what if’ about all kinds of topics. If you combine that with a passion for history, it’s just a matter of time I think! After all, asking: “What if some historical figure was never born?” is not too different from asking: “What if I was born a girl?” – which was the (very eggy*) question which basically consumed my childhood. I think this cliché is something that has stuck with me; I do feel that alternate history is a good exercise in understanding how little in life is set in stone. I think that has some good lessons for life.

At the same time, I know all too well how easy it is to descend into melancholy and use “what if” as an excuse for not getting on with your life. It’s certainly what I experienced when I first started the process of coming out – using “what if” I’d transitioned earlier as an excuse to avoid asking what if I transitioned now. It’s a hard balance to strike. Sorry for the downer!

In terms of where the genre is going.... I definitely think that, in some respects, it is going a little bit more mainstream. You have lots of the “obvious” alternate histories out there, of course (like Man in the High Castle), but you also have a lot more niche content getting out there, like For All Mankind, and we’re also getting more ambiguous content, like Bridgerton and Queen Charlotte. I think a lot of writers are getting more confident pitching things in an alternate history setting – which is broadly good, I think. And this is without getting into the concept of the multiverse, which has spread like wildfire thanks to the MCU and which I think has a lot of crossover with alternate history – as a framing device or explanation for exploring different timelines, for example.

For All Mankind, Season Two.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

How long have you been involved in online AH communities? How have they changed during your time in them? How healthy do you think the community currently is?

As I sort of alluded to above, if you count NationStates, since my late childhood or teenage years. I think that would make it about 10 years. In terms of more directly AH communities, I think that would start when Kim (@kimkatya) and Tibby (@TurquoiseBlue) introduced me to Sealion Press, which I want to say was about 3 years ago. We had worked together on two alternate history mods for Hearts of Iron IV (I know, I know, my backstory does get worse the more it goes on!), one about a British civil war in the 1980s, and one about a British civil war spiralling from the 2019 prorogation crisis, which I’ve alluded to before on the SLP forum. I did also have an account on from before this, but my account was banned for necroing (posting on a ‘dead’ thread) as, again, I was a kid who didn’t think to read the site rules.

Now, I’d say NationStates has changed quite a bit since I first joined – I think this is a continuous thing though, the “old guard” of excellent roleplayers tend to cycle out of the site itself into projects that hardly interact with other site members at all (like Kylaris) or into other worldbuilding and alternate history communities.

I’m not sure if SLP has changed that much since I joined (unless I can make a bit of a lamp-shading joke about the proliferation of what I like to call SLP’s trans caucus) – I’d say there the bigger change is in me, which has definitely impacted my relationship with the site.

As for the health of the community, it’s hard for me to say – I’m not sure that I have yet, like others, seen the community at its lowest ebb. It’s been mostly a pleasant experience for me to be a part of the community, and from what I’ve heard, it is much better than in the past.

However, I am all too aware that some sections of the community remain problem areas – I think Monroe Templeton (@monroe) put it best in her article about how alternate history can often glorify Fascism, sometimes unintentionally, but always with negative impact. This – and the sanitisation of a lot of the darker sides of history – is something I have absolutely seen in the community, and it is something that it frankly needs to do better.

I think, similarly, the community has often struggled to take criticism well; I think the response to Mia Mulder, for example, showed a sort of refusal to get better. I think both of these things need addressing by the wider community, especially if, as I mentioned earlier, it is a genre that is making its way further and further into the mainstream, with the additional spotlight which that brings.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative works. What inspires you to write and what are you most pleased with?

Well, I am an avid daydreamer. I regularly pace across my flat with stories whirling around my head. So, for me, the inspiration for writing comes from in there – and a need to put pen to paper and get the ideas out of my head! Sometimes the inspiration comes out of nowhere, sometimes I see or hear something in the real world that gets my imagination going, and sometimes it’s because someone has offhandedly mentioned a premise or subject that I find incredibly interesting.

I think I’m quite pleased with most of my published works, but what I’m most pleased with would be the upcoming LGBT+ Anthology. I really like my contribution to that, which I don’t want to spoil but it is a mystery surrounding a certain LGBT+ figure with a disputed history. It’s hard to condense a mystery format down to the vignette or short story length required for an anthology, but – without tooting my own horn too much – I think I managed that, and got a very compelling tale out of it.

On top of that, of course, I edited the LGBT+ Anthology as a whole, and I am unbelievably proud of every story within and of the finished product.

Speaking of inspirations, what do you regard as the best examples of AH? Why these?

Now this is a difficult question, just because I’m spoiled for choice. I’ll just have to go through a few that I like for different reasons.

The first that I think I would have to pick out would be Iain Bowen’s Arose From the Azure Main. I had never really been interested in the island in a sea of time (ISOT) concept before reading it, but it does such a good job of showing the realistic consequences of such an unrealistic point of divergence. I’ve still not actually reached the end of the online writings... but I’ve read the three published books (and the story Iain kindly submitted for the anthology). He avoids a lot of the pitfalls of traditional ISOTs, and it absolutely shows how much research he has done for the project.

Lena Worwood’s Our Climate Crisis Century is another one that I really admire. It’s more future history than alternate history, but again it does its premise so well. The framing device of following the history of a family through three generations makes it a real page-turner, and the characterisation in particular is just out of this world. Lena really makes you feel things about these characters – even when they’re patently awful people, like Lexie, one of the main characters. I think it does a good job of showing the greyness of life – the story focuses on climate collapse, again a patently awful thing, but the focus on characters who are trans or gender nonconforming shows a real slice of hope for how things can get better. One of the subplots, about a trans woman getting pregnant, particularly resonated with me. Without giving Lena too much of an ego boost, I think reading this story and that subplot in particular was actually a major part of coming to terms with my gender identity.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Tom Black and Jack Tindale’s Agent Lavender as well. It was one of the first SLP books I bought, and it’s a great read. Again, like Arose, it takes an unrealistic premise and gives it very realistic consequences. The characterisations again I think are brilliant – the sort of pre-media training Margaret Thatcher, the very nuanced portrayal of such an odious man as Enoch Powell, and of course the portrayal of our turncoat, Harold Wilson himself. I think it’s also one of those works that can absolutely be a great entry for people into alternate history as a genre; it’s a great book regardless, and the premise is something you can easily explain to someone with no knowledge of the genre.

We've lost the Prime Minister.

I think those examples show that characterisation is something I really value in alternate history. I think this might be a legacy of my introduction to the genre as a roleplayer, rather than as a historian or author. It can be easy to write a story about something in history going differently, but to really immerse someone in your world, I think compelling and interesting characters (and portrayals of real historical figures) is crucial.

What is your perception of how well (or otherwise) minorities are accepted within the AH community?

Well, I can only speak with certainty as someone who is bisexual and trans, since as a White person, I do still experience a degree of privilege here.

What I can say is that, as with a lot of things I’ve experienced, I have found a bit of a marked difference in how I’ve been treated by people in the community before and after my transition – which I think is probably one of those things that shows how more subtle and unconscious forms of misogyny in particular can still find root in online communities.

Now, overall, my main experience of the AH community has been through Sealion Press and, by and large, it’s been a positive experience, and most of the people on the SLP forums are supportive. But there is still that unconscious bias that I mentioned.

All in all, I think it’s a very case-by-case thing – I’m not sure if I could confidently comment on other forums. It definitely, to me, feels like things are better and people in the community more supportive of minority issues than five years ago, though.

You edited the upcoming SLP LGBT+ anthology. What was the experience of preparing this like? How has this experience informed you about creating anthologies?

Stressful! I definitely found it stressful, and have a much higher view of editors in general now – and feel bad for all the times that I as a writer didn’t stick to deadlines!

But, and I’m sure this is a cliché, it was also very rewarding. I think I had a great privilege in being able to read all these great stories by LGBT+ authors and it was really great to see all that talent on display. I think a lot of these authors as well are either currently unpublished or have yet to write for SLP and I think in a lot of cases had yet to really write stories focused on LGBT+ people.

As I sort of allude to in the introduction to the Anthology, I think this is a really important thing – along with LGBT+ History more broadly, being able to tell stories about LGBT+ people and how things for us could have gone differently over time is an important exercise in acknowledging how much of prejudice is a choice on behalf of the bigoted, and how much things can change when they make different choices. It’s also, of course, important to counter arguments that LGBT+ people are a “recent” occurrence. History tells us that, in actual fact, we’ve been around longer than capitalism and the Church!

I definitely feel a lot more experienced with editing in general now. I’m hoping to put that experience to good use in future.

And what are your plans for the future in terms of writing?

As always, I have a hundred items on the docket and a scattershot approach to getting them done.

I have a few plans in the works – one of them is a story I’ve been working on, on and off, for close to four years. It’s a very niche, YA, cliché project – a trans girl who discovers she’s a witch and investigates the paranormal while navigating her personal problems with a diverse set of friends. It’s the kind of thing I wish we had more of – a representation of Britain as it is today, with all the good and bad that entails. I’d like to get it finished in the next year... but we’ll see if my procrastination allows for that!

I’d like to also close up a couple of my writing and alternate history projects on the SLP forums. I’m close to finishing the timeline of In Varietate Concordia, best expressed as a look at the European Union without the UK. I’ve got an idea for a short story set in that timeline as well.

There’s also A Summer of Roses, which is a look at an improbable Corbyn ministry; the currently unnamed Sylviaverse looking at Britain as a council republic in a cold war with a right-wing Russia, and two other projects (Looking for Atlantis and Heirs of Alexander) that I’m hoping to break ground on, depending on the schedules of collaborators.

The biggest thing coming up is that I’m editing another anthology for SLP – this time focusing on alternate elections. I imagine that this will take up a big chunk of my time.

*Editor’s note. Eggy is, I have learned, a trans term for someone who doesn’t know they’re trans yet. You learn something every day.

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