Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Matthew Kresal, a regular SLP writer who can be found on twitter.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.
Thanks for having me. Having interviewed folks for fanzines and conventions, it's always odd to be in the other chair!
First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
I've gotten variations on this question a few times now. And every time I do, I realize afterward that I've forgotten something that came before the thing I mentioned! In a way, I've always been into alternate history in some shape or form. I was a geek from a young age, largely a side-effect of growing up in close proximity to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the US Space & Rocket Center museum. I've been fascinated by space flight for as long as I can remember and would watch documentaries even as a kid. Seeing and hearing grand plans for the future of space flight that hadn't come to pass by the time I was growing up must have laid some seeds in my mind.
In terms of encountering it as a thing proper, it was pop culture. My dad was a bit of a Star Trek original series fan, and we had the movies and a handful of episodes on VHS when I was growing up. One of which was Mirror, Mirror, which remains my favorite episode of Trek and is, for those unaware, a classic alternate universe story. We also watched the first couple of seasons of Sliders together, and my parents got me the Titanic: Adventure out of Time computer game for Christmas in 1998. I also came across things like Dark Skies, NBC's short-lived series from the mid-1990s. I didn't get into its literary side until I was in high school and came across The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century anthology in a local public library after school one day. I read some Turtledove from there, discovered Sidewise and its award for this entire thing, and, as a history and science fiction geek, it was like catnip.
As for what appeals, I think it was Ray Bradbury who said that all fiction centers around the question of "what if?" As someone fascinated by history, there's a sense of how someone being in the right place at the right time, saying the right words, or making the right call, can change things. Having developed a fascination with the Cold War out of my interest in space flight, looking at things like the Cuban Missile Crisis or atomic espionage really highlighted that. Or, going back to space, wondering what might have come if one of those myriad NASA plans for getting to the Moon differently than Apollo or a 1980s Mars mission might have come down. The bio I use a lot online says I have "many and varying interests." I suppose alternate history is a way for me to indulge them.
You're a prolific writer of short fiction, you've had short stories published in three different SLP anthologies, one Inklings Press anthology, one Sgt Frosty anthology and four other anthologies by different publishers. What do you think makes a good short story?
I have to start by saying that I write so much short fiction because, intellectually, at least, I don't sit still well. "So little time, so many ideas," you might say. Beyond that, some ideas don't work well in an extended format but are perfect in a shorter form. One of my non-alternate history stories, The Light of a Thousand Suns in the After the Kool-Aid is Gone anthology, was a 50,000+ word NaNoWriMo project that was extremely padded as a novel but edited and reworked into 5,000 words worked rather nicely, for example.
To answer the other part of the question about what makes good short fiction, I can point out a mistake I made for a while that I think writers often make. Namely, looking at them as being a novel but with less of a word count. Whatever else they might be, that's not it, something I only realized in 2020 when I saw a lecture Mary Robinette Kowal gave on YouTube. Short stories are often about the atmosphere, not to mention taking advantage of the limited space you're given to drill down into what's often a single incident. Indeed, I have to credit that lecture for helping me figure out my story Moonshot, as its first handwritten draft was much longer, starting the morning of the launch and making its way to the events in the published story. Kowal's advice helped me cut the story down, dump a lot of unnecessary worldbuilding, and tell a focused piece. The more I read short fiction, the more that advice holds for stories that work for me, as well.
Your SLP book, Our Man On The Hill, is your only full novel. Did you find that harder or easier than trying to tell a story with much less words and which format do you prefer?
"Only novel so far," to paraphrase Homer Simpson! I've certainly got plans to revisit the format.
I'm not sure "easier" or "harder" is the word to describe the difference between short fiction and a novel. It was a different experience partly because I'd tried doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) from 2014 onward. For those unaware of NaNoWriMo, the idea is to write 1,667 words a day during the month of November and hopefully have a 50,000 first draft by the time it's over with. By the time I started work for Our Man on the Hill in 2017, I hadn't produced anything I was happy with trying to get published. Those first three years were learning experiences in their ways, including an abandoned historical fiction novel about William Walker that taught me a lot about researching things and losing any sense of plot to it.
Ironically, Our Man on the Hill didn't start as a novel! I didn't think the concept had legs and was implausible for a start. Indeed, the finished work is co-dedicated to my best friend Emily Shaffer as the primary person who convinced me to pursue the idea. I thought it was a short story or novella, only realizing after I wrote what are now chapters two and three that I'd accidentally started writing a novel.
In some ways, I prefer short fiction as a format. A novel gives you more space, but occupies far more time. I handwrote the first third of it starting in late July 2017, thinking it would be complete in the autumn. When November rolled around, I thought I'd finish it during NaNoWriMo. Instead I wrote the middle third in a month. Finally, I then picked it back up and handwrote the final third or so in early 2018, finishing it in mid-February. That's not including the month or so typing up all the handwritten stuff later. At the time, there was at least a couple of short stories I might have written in terms of time spent, and I'd probably be more productive now. I'm proud of the novel, to be sure, but also aware of it being the sum of seven months of my creative output, not including editing time and so forth.
'Our Man on The Hill' is about Joe McCarthy being a secret communist agent. What inspired that concept?
I've had a longstanding interest in matters of espionage, likely stemming out of my interest in the Cold War. I've been a James Bond and John le Carre fan since my teens, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before I wrote something in the spy genre. Though, like alternate history, it's got rather the sliding scale in terms of plausibility and tastes.
The starting gun on Our Man on the Hill started when I discovered the Spybrary podcast, founded by Shane Whaley. He's the other person the novel is dedicated to because not only did the podcast help reignite my interest, but he was kind enough to let me be a part of the community. Indeed, I've been on the show a handful of times over the years and contribute to its associated blog. If you're into spy fact and fiction, it's a podcast worth checking out.
Anyway, the fact side of things was part of what got my interest. In the public library one day, I stumbled across the 1999 book The Haunted Wood, one of those works of early post-Cold War history when the Soviet archives briefly opened up. This one looked at Soviet espionage in America during the 1930s and 1940s, the lead-up to the Red Scare and McCarthy. There were some extraordinary stories, including a New York congressman who was a paid agent at one point. Seeing how much had been going on but exactly how late and ill-informed McCarthy had been was an eye-opener.
Following that, I came across Harry Truman's great quote somewhere that the Kremlin had no greater asset than McCarthy. "Asset" in intelligence terms means agent, and a light bulb went off. Having been convinced to pursue the idea and discovering that the idea hadn't quite been done the way I was thinking of (though there were variations, including Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, which I paid homage to at one point in the novel), I was on my way.
How much historical research do you normally do for your stories and how important do you think that is when writing historical fiction? Did you read a lot of speeches by McCarthy, for instance?
Oh, it's definitely important. The more reality I can cloak my fiction in, the more plausible it feels to me. As for research, it depends on the project. I tend to write what interests me, which is perhaps why I've done so much with space flight and the Cold War. There's a lot of random knowledge rolling around in my head, so it's nice to be able to put that to some good use.
That said, I adore research. Mary Robinette Kowal described historical fiction as getting to have all the fun of that without the academic citations. Hearing her say that really clicked for me why I enjoy doing these sorts of things as much as I do. Because doing a project becomes an excuse to watch stuff on YouTube, grab books off a shelf, or head out to a local library branch. Discovering things, little nuggets you can toss into a narrative or click together can be just as rewarding as the actual writing.
Our Man on the Hill had quite a few moments, from a Communist-leaning union endorsing McCarthy to learning of his 1952 encounter with Ike that made the former general and future US president do an about-face. The same was true of the CIA's James Angleton, who is a gift of a character for any novelist. There are far more public statements from McCarthy than Angleton, but I did delve into speeches and news clips to get a sense of them both. There have been some fine documentaries on McCarthy, but one called Point of Order, edited from the kinescope recordings of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, was a particular gift for capturing the senator at work.
You are, as this publishing house likes to make much of, a two time Sidewise award nominee for short form fiction and a one times Sidewise award winner, the first Sidewise award winner for a work published through SLP. As an amateur writer do awards like that help open doors for you with publishers or is it more just that the recognition helps provide motivation to keep going?
Given I've had three rejections in recent weeks, I'm not sure if it's opened up any doors! Rejections are a painful part of the creative process, one I used to think that being published would help to curtail. No such luck there, though they sting much less now than they once did.
Is it motivation? Sometimes. I recognize this is likely the very definition of a first-world problem but winning it was actually intimidating at first. I'm my own worst critic, which is partly why I waited two years to start shopping 'Our Man on the Hill' around, and suddenly being the 'award-winning author Matthew Kresal' had me judging my new writing rather harshly for a while. "Is this thing as good as what people thought was really good, of mine," if that makes sense?
I think I'm past that now, having had writing buddies remind me of the old maxim that 'first drafts are crap,' after all. I'm rather proud of having the plaque on my wall and being on a list with folks whose work I've enjoyed, including Kowal and Bryce Zabel. To be nominated a second time was a pleasant surprise, too, given that Hitchcock’s Titanic took a couple of years to find a home. As such, I take it as a vote of confidence in my writing, which is motivational, I suppose.
You have a large internet presence, you use twitter a lot and regularly appear on podcasts etc. Do you think that sort of networking is needed for amateur writers to get their work out there when there is so much competition now?
Much of that is an extension of those "many and varying interests" of mine. Podcasting, especially, came out of being a Doctor Who fan and, for the longest time, not knowing anyone else personally who was one. Finding folks online who wanted to chat about it and were interested in what I had to say was a pleasant surprise. My having a set-up and experience from that made it easier to pop up on other things to promote work or talk about another interest (see my mentioning Spybrary earlier).
I'd say that it's certainly helped me to network and get my name out there. I've joked that my writing and interests are one giant Venn diagram intersecting at odd points. I've been surprised to have people who've read my reviews about something picking up some of my fiction or vice versa. I probably have committed a marketing sin by not tying myself to any one thing by not finding a niche or sticking to any one thing, but I'm content with that to be the case and finding ways for people to discover my work.
In terms of that presence, you're also a prolific writer of reviews, both for this blog and for Warped Factor. Do you think you're a better writer for having read and analysed so much of other people's work and for that matter do you think you're a more insightful reviewer because you have been on the other side and written your own stuff?
Most definitely, on both counts. I've been writing reviews since 2005 when I started posting on IMDb and later Amazon, and I occasionally cringe at my teenage self. Like writing in general, it's something you get better at as time goes along, putting down more words and experiencing more.
I think it was Stephen King who said that if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write. Writing reviews taught me to do more than saying "I don't like X," or "Y worked well for me." It makes you delve into the reasoning more, which taught me a lot about what worked for me as a writer once I took fiction back up in 2014 after giving up on it after experiences in 2007 and 2011. On the flip side, it's given me more insights as a reviewer, particularly when it comes to criticisms of "bad writing" in things. Take the storyline in For All Mankind's second season between Karen Baldwin and Danny Stevens. I can tell you as a reviewer that it didn't work but, as a writer, I can also go "It might not have worked as intended but here's why it's here all the same." I think that's helped me as a reviewer.
I would be remiss to not ask you about the short-lived American TV show 'Dark Skies', which you wrote a book about. What appealed to you so much about that show, which is so much less well known that say 'Doctor Who', another show you often talk about?
Dark Skies was something that had been a lingering presence and another part of that Venn diagram motif in my life. I first encountered it when I was younger, seeing a NASA-centric episode on TV in 1996 and then a handful more on the Sci-Fi Channel a few years later. It wasn't until 2013, and coming across a book that series co-creator (and two-time Sidewise winner) Bryce Zabel had written called A.D. After Disclosure, that I discovered the series was on DVD and sought it out.
Watching the entire series in the late summer into the autumn of that year, I found many of my interests in one place. There was Roswell and UFOs, the JFK assassination, espionage, mid-century American history and politics, and even pieces of pop culture. All tied into this alternate history package that told you in the opening credits that "History as we know it is a lie." The mingling of fact and fiction, a murky concept in the worlds of conspiracy lore, was interesting to dissect and take apart. I'd just had my first published essays come out and thought, "if no one else is going to write the book about this, then I will." Little did I know it would take three years and pitches to as many publishers to find someone who'd let me do it! In a real Venn diagram moment, it was Doctor Who and my interest in Sherlock Holmes that put me on the publisher's radar.
It was a rewarding experience in many ways. I got to interview Bryce and the show's other co-creator Brent Friedman, which were treats for the insights they offered and some of the stories of strangeness that went on around the making of the series. Bryce even spent some time delving through his archives, with him sending over a Google Drive folder full of production documents and photographs. If I have any regrets about the book, it is that I didn't get to use more of that material.
The series also influenced Our Man on the Hill, though I didn't recognize it then. The novel is what I wrote during the research phase for the Dark Skies book, with material I read particularly about Cold War espionage and how the Red Scare inspired the Body Snatchers style of an alien invasion that the series builds around. More than anything, the notion that "history as we know it is a lie" and there being a meaning behind events almost certainly subconsciously informed the novel. Only when someone asked me about both books did I make that connection, oddly enough!
And what can we expect from you in the future?
As always, I've got multiple things on the go at once. My latest short story, The Rosewell Incident, is in the for-charity Forgotten Lives II anthology from Obverse Books. It's an unofficial Doctor Who anthology, focusing on the so-called Morbius Doctors introduced briefly in the 1970s who seem to have come before William Hartnell's "First" Doctor. It's set late during the Second World War, and readers can probably guess part of its subject matter from the title.
I've been working on and off on editing a cli-fi spy-fi novel that's more in the James Bond vein set a couple of decades in the future that I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2019. There are at least a pair of short stories of mine due out later this year and, hopefully, a couple more to follow in 2023 so far. I'm working on ideas for about three short stories, including some alternate history ones. Finally, I'm working on a short story for something I've wanted to write for quite a while now, thanks in part to one door slamming shut last year, leading to my opening another one which I can't say more about at the moment.
Or, to put it another way, quoting my favorite piece of Doctor Who dialogue ever: "Time will tell; it always does."