Questions by Gary Oswald
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us. First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals to you about writing in that genre?
Thanks for having me. It’s great to be back on the blog! I’ve always been interested in history and have liked asking “What if” questions for almost as long. Alternate History offers so many possibilities to someone who loves history, allowing you to explore our own world and how different it could have been. It can be as fantastical or as grounded as people like and, whilst I prefer the latter, there isn’t any point in that spectrum which doesn’t produce enjoyable works of fiction. More than that, it can be interrogative of history as a social science, what could have happened and if not, why?
I remember borrowing The Foresight War by Tony Williams from my local library growing up, which was probably the first time I became aware of Alternate History as something more than thought experiments. Around the same time, I was working on a project for High School about what an independent Scotland might look like, and in researching the question, I remember stumbling upon a timeline about the subject on alternatehistory.com, written by the user Fletch who, I’m happy to say, subsequently became a good friend. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Your two main AH series, like a lot of AH, are set in World War II but neither are Axis victories. We often talk about the genre being overly focused on the Second World War, but to what extent do you think there are still interesting AH WWII stories that haven’t been told yet simply because they’re less dramatic than a full Axis victory?
I can certainly understand why Axis victories are considered more dramatic. A swastika over the White House is likely to be more eye-grabbing than a western flag over the Reichstag, but after that they can also feel more limited. An Axis victory in the Second World War is a difficult setting to make realistic. There were so many strategic factors set against the Axis that for them to triumph over the loose Allied coalition requires the writer to show a lot of working that can often make little sense, or it can be as vague as possible and thus raise more questions than answers. It often seems that this type of AH leans more on its most prominent works (Fatherland, Man in the High Castle, SS-GB, etc) for inspiration rather than actual history.
This isn’t to say that Axis victory AH can’t still be original. Nick Peel’s The Boy In The Storm is one of the most powerful pieces of AH I’ve ever read and it was only released in 2019. However, I would argue that alternate Allied victories offer much more potential for original stories. Partially this is just because it hasn’t been explored as thoroughly as Axis victories, but also it allows for much more possibilities to examine the aftermath due to being more intertwined with our own history than a handful of clichés.
Your academic background is in history. How important do you think it is to get the historical details right when writing historical fiction and how much research do you do before starting a new project?
I would say it’s crucial to getting a story right, particularly with larger projects. Plausibility isn’t essential, but it does help keep things coherent and make things flow easier, even if in just a thematic sense. For example, Iain Bowen’s Fawsley Trilogy starts with an entirely fantastical premise, the UK being teleported back in time, however the understanding of Thatcherite society and the time it has arrived in is what makes it for me. The historical knowledge creates a world rich in characters and societies from both worlds clashing with one another in a way that’s much more interesting than just having Harrier jets fighting Spanish galleons.
I’ve learned to do a lot of research when it comes to projects, although I’m also a bit impatient so the writing might start before it’s completed! I’ve found my academic experience has really helped me in researching projects; journals are a great way of building up a lot of information quickly and I’m pretty good at hounding out obscure sources when needed. However, having friends and colleagues who are already knowledgeable in regards to the relevant topics can be just as important.
Like most SLP writers, you cut your teeth on amateur writing AH forums where you get immediate feedback for your projects while it’s still a work in progress. How useful have you found that reader interaction, and have you changed your plans because of feedback, or do you normally know going in where the story is headed?
I’ve found it invaluable. Reader feedback is important for any writer, whether it’s constructive criticism on improving the writing, grammar, etc or just to let the person know they’re creating something which people are enjoying. The online AH community is especially helpful when it comes to this as you’re interacting with people from all over the world who often have a great historical knowledge themselves which open up new avenues for projects I would never have considered. For example, Decisive Darkness might have been a great deal different if it wasn’t for dedicated Asian readers giving feedback and perspectives from their own countries.
The Decisive Darkness duology, about an American invasion of Japan, is written primarily through the format of a big picture faux history book, but The Red Fuhrer series, about a Communist Germany, is told more through the perspectives of various street-level Germans as the larger changes affect their own lives. Was the change primarily because of you changing as a writer or because you felt the story of The Red Fuhrer demanded a more intimate approach?
I suppose it was a bit of both. I was feeling a lot more comfortable with writing prose by the time it came to writing Red Fuhrer and as such I was keen to try out a new sort of ‘scrap-book’ style of mixing faux-historical academic writings with character stories. At the same time, the Marxist academic approach to history has in the last few decades been as the forefront of Social History, incorporating the voices and experiences of ordinary people who are often missed out by the traditional and obsolete ‘Great Man’ narratives of events being determined by a few key individuals. These have hung around in popular and unfortunately alternate history despite their increasing irrelevance in acadmeic study. In a work which is often written from a Marxist perspective, it felt important to take this into account and the best way to do this is to feature the lives of people who aren’t just Kings or Generals.
And as someone who has more of a background in the historian part of the ‘historical writer’ than the writer part, do you find it more challenging to try and do more narrative fiction versus the dryer style of Decisive Darkness?
I would definitely say this was the case at first. I have enjoyed writing from an early age, but always felt a bit awkward with narrative fiction. The dryer style felt more comfortable but it also increased my confidence to try other forms of writing as well. Being amongst so many talented writers in the alternate history community who could provide help and inspiration whenever needed alongside the introduction of new formats within the community such as vignettes and Timeline In A Day were an immeasurable help.
The plot hook of The Red Fuhrer is Hitler but as a Communist. Obviously, the nature of that story is directly confronting two of the most controversial ideologies of all time and horseshoe theory. Were you trying to say something in the way Red Hitler both resembles and is different from OTL Hitler due to different ideologies.
It certainly has something to say about the nature of both Communism and Fascism, perhaps Liberalism and Social Democracy as well. At the very least, it explores what sort of people are drawn to these ideological beliefs. Few characters start the story with much in the way of firm belief, with the exception of one who believes theirs are ordained by God, but that doesn’t make them blank canvases either.
People’s natures aren’t entirely determined by the external environment, but in my view it is central to how they express them. The story starts with Hitler ready to go down a similar Fascistic and genocidal path that we saw in our time. He meets Marxists and rejects their arguments initially, but enough in his experience is changed to make him embrace and eventually lead the Communist movement in Germany.
I don’t take Horseshoe Theory particularly seriously, indeed some of the parodies of it such as ‘Fishhook Theory’ arguably carry more intellectual weight, but it is an idea that’s there in the mainstream and if the books help mock it, I would be happy. I did have one review where a person said it had reinforced their belief in the theory. Then again, I had one person say Decisive Darkness made them more supportive of nuclear weapons. I suppose people will always draw their own conclusions.
You’ve also written various counter factual essays about the Eastern Front of World War II for this blog. One of the debates about counterfactuals in historical academia is the extent to which you can learn anything through the parlour game of ‘what if’. Do you think by looking at the ways in which the German invasion of the Soviet Union didn’t happen, you gained an insight into the actual war?
I think almost any historical event can be better understood through the lens of a well-considered “What If”. However, the German invasion of the Soviet Union is one which is perhaps particularly well suited. The largest invasion in history was characterised at the time by its perpetrators as a religious crusade, named after a crusader King, with the goal of entirely reshaping a continent and ultimately the world by wiping out the peoples and cultures of Eastern Europe and replacing them with a prophesied “New Order” based on the legends and myths of ancient religions and societies.
It was very much the crucible of one of the great contradictions of the Third Reich; the Nazi ideal of a predestined Greater Germany and the material reality of the Germany they controlled. The Nazi beliefs of superior Aryan willpower overcoming supposedly subhuman enemies met the reality of a German army exhausting itself trying to knock out the allegedly fragile Soviet Union whose infrastructure and people turned out to be immensely resilient, and eventually victorious. The well-trodden what ifs of this event often don’t stand up to much scrutiny, but they do help offer insights into these contradictions, whether it’s the unwillingness of the Japanese to subscribe to the Nazi worldview, the sinister relationship between Nazi ideology and German logistics, or the true nature of Soviet society in Summer 1941.
And as someone who knows a great deal about World War II, what are the main misconceptions about it that people like me who are less informed maybe have?
I would say that, like it or not, the Second World War isn’t going away. More than any event, it still shapes our world and our collective memory of it, and in doing so, contemporary events shape our historical understanding of the war as well. As understanding of history always changes with the times, societies will characterise themselves and be characterised by others regarding their role in the war.
In this regard I would argue that many of the misconceptions in popular history of the war are deliberate fabrications. Particularly in Western historigraphy where the immediate aftermath was unduly influenced by Cold War rhetoric and German military leaders keen to tell their own stories of the war and absolve themselves of any wrongdoing; whether that be the Wehramcht’s endless litany of war crimes or (perhaps more important for those figures to excuse) their numerous military failures. Most of the common themes of the war you might hear, such as Hitler’s meddling in military affairs leading to Germany’s defeat, or German officers being disgusted by the genocidal policies of the Third Reich, stem from these accounts.
And what are your plans for the future in terms of writing?
I’ve taken a bit of a break from writing in the past year or so, but feel keen now to get back into it. I’ve been enjoying getting involved in SLP’s vignette challenge more frequently as a basis for this, and I’m keen to finish the Red Fuhrer series in a final ideological clash. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back writing for the blog as well. As much as I love alternate history, writing about our own time can often be even more fascinating.
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