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Interview: Nicholas Sumner

Questions from Gary Oswald


This Interview is with Nicholas Sumner, a regular SLP author. He can be found on his website and on twitter.


Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.


Hello Gary, thank you for inviting me to do this.


First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?


There’s something wonderous and exciting in conjuring up a different world, but I suppose the primary incentive for all alternate history writing is an awareness of the randomness of real historical events and I would say in many cases a dissatisfaction or discomfort with the course of those events. That was certainly part of my impetus.


You're the Author of the 'Drake's Drum' series of books in which British fortunes during the early 20th century are changed thanks to an earlier adoption of new shells by the British Navy and so a more conclusive Battle of Jutland. What was your aim with those books and how did you come up with the Point of Divergence you went with?


Though the books use the ‘nation as character’ convention and focus on the experience of the UK in the time period covered, I wanted to build a scenario with better outcomes for much of the world in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For most (but not all) of the individual people who would inhabit the Drake’s Drum timeline, wherever they are from, the world would be a better place. How this happens will become more apparent in book four, which I’m currently working on, but builds on many divergences already explored in the previous three books. The better outcomes of Drake’s Drum primarily benefit ordinary people. A lot of leaders and elites have a far worse time!


For the UK, in OTL, the technical/industrial lead the country established in the Nineteenth Century slipped away through a variety of causes, many of them political or business decisions made partly because of financial circumstances. As technical/industrial leadership declined, so did the countries power, prestige and ability to influence world events. This fascinates me, because Britain’s world leadership in industrial production caused the spread of a system of ideas that completely changed how nations and individuals could acquire wealth. In spite of this, the country’s leaders were only able to leverage that change for the UK’s benefit in a limited way. In the Drake’s Drum series, Britain’s relative decline in the Twentieth Century isn’t arrested or reversed, it is merely slowed and better managed compared to OTL.


The primary point of divergence in Drake’s Drum sprang from an article titled The Riddle of the Shells, by Iain McCallum, published in Warship 2002-3, 2004 and 2005 which gave me a technical/industrial POD that would have had a strong effect on a major event; in this case the Battle of Jutland in 1916. But in many ways the major divergence that causes even greater knock-on effects comes a decade later.


How much research did you do for the 'Drake's Drum' books and how important do you think it is to get details right in AH?


My impression of the AH community is that it is sceptical, forthright and well informed. Given that audience, plausibility in AH is vital and in my experience (formed by time spent on some invigoratingly cantankerous discussion boards in the late nineteen-nineties and early noughties) if you don’t get details right, you won’t convince the reader.


Consequently I do a lot of research. My wife despairs of my book collection and encourages my use of the inter-library loan system, but it was she who persuaded me to submit my work to publishers in the first place. So, it’s all her fault.


The 'Drake's Drum' books are currently the best selling books SLP has ever published, why do you think they struck such a chord with the audience and what would you recommend to other authors in terms of attracting an audience?


I think a great many people, me among them, see Britain’s history in the Twentieth Century as a timeline dogged by missteps and missed opportunities. Many of these were forced errors and this is particularly true of the economic history of Britain. I hardly need point out how comprehensively a country’s economic development effects every other aspect of national life. Most of the alternate histories of the UK that I’ve come across look to create a more successful UK by redistributing the same resources as OTL; Drake’s Drum asks: ‘What if there were more resources because Britain had made fewer economic mistakes?’


In terms of marketing; because many of the plot points in Drake’s Drum focus on technical/industrial themes I was able to use those in my efforts to promote the book. Political and financial ‘what ifs’ have a direct bearing on technological ‘what ifs.’ Generally speaking, many people who (like me) are fascinated by ships that were designed but never sailed, aircraft that were designed but never flew etcetera, are also fascinated by the historical events that gave rise to them and then saw them side-lined. I have some Photoshop skills, so I was able to make simulated images of vehicles, aeroplanes and ships that inhabit the world of Drake’s Drum but never saw the light of day in our time line. These acted as a hook on social media and helped drive traffic to the Drake’s Drum website and to retailers of the books. So, in a nutshell, I suppose I tried to pique the interest of a group that I thought would find the books interesting.


Those books are written in a bricolage style, wherein you switch format between quoting from faux history books to narrative sections and other literary forms in the service of a greater whole. As an author, what do you think you gain from that style?


I’m really glad you asked that, not least because I had never come across the word ‘bricolage’ before and its good to know what the technical term for that style of writing is. So thank you Gary!


I use both to drive the story forward. If I think something is better explained with reference book style analysis, I’ll use that; if I feel the experience of a person or a group of people within the circumstances of the story will help the readers understanding better, I’ll go with that.


There are currently three books in the Drake's Drum series. What's the tip for writing a book in a series that is both satisfying in itself and encourages the reader to come back for the next part?


Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but I think you need to leave the reader with some intriguing loose ends. This signals that there’s more of the story to be known. I should also perhaps say here that there are actually four books in the Drake’s Drum series, the final volume is underway but not yet complete. I thought I could bring the story to a conclusion in three books and I also told everyone that I could. I was wrong. My apologies to one and all!


Outside of AH, you write 'The Foskits' kids books for Sgt Frosty Publications. What is the difference between writing for a younger audience and an adult one. Do you find it harder or easier?


I find writing for children much easier because you don’t have to be quite so serious and disciplined. I also try to keep sentences and vocabulary simple, but not too simple. As we mentioned earlier, I do a lot of research for my Alternate History work. For children’s books I just think up a story and try to make it funny. It’s also an outlet for my chronic immaturity.


You've spent many years as a photographer for travel guide books and your first book was a travel narrative. Does that experience of seeing the world and other cultures drip through into your work when a section is set outside the UK?


I sincerely hope so. Gaining an understanding of another culture is inherently difficult but enormously rewarding. This is true even if that understanding is fragmentary, incomplete, or both.


What can we expect to see from you in the future?


I’m hoping to have Drake’s Drum 4: The Horizon of Our Hopes finished next year.


I have a complete but unpublished manuscript named Serengeti Rain. It is a memoir about the deaths of my parents. Obviously, it’s a comedy. I’m trying to interest publishers in it, but so far, no luck.


I have another comedy I’m working on; it’s inspired by my experiences working as a stage hand in London’s West End during the 1980s. Tentatively titled The Crew Room it’s currently only an outline but I already know that it will feature an extraordinary amount of bad language.


My next Alternate History will be titled Praise No Day and will begin in the mid Nineteenth Century at the time of the Indian Mutiny. The outline is already quite well developed and several chapters are complete, but no, I’m not going to say more than that.

 
 

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