Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Ryan Fleming, a regular SLP author.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us. First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
I got into alternate history in my teens: I was already into literary science fiction and that was sort of my gateway drug. Reading The Man in the High Castle via that route led me to finding more recent works like those from Harry Turtledove or Kim Newman. The appeal of writing alternate history comes from seeing places and people that are sort of familiar but in unfamiliar situations. I'm always reminded of those science fiction or fantasy TV programmes of the 90s and 00s where the most memorable episodes were the ones set in different timelines from the rest of the episodes, it's the same idea. Being into those programmes was maybe another gateway into alternate history. Another part of the appeal is how an alternate history setting allows us to put a different spin on familiar story archetypes. The same way a tale of Samurai in feudal Japan can be translated to gunslingers in the Old West, and a tale of a US Marshal in the Old West translated to a marshal in outer space, so too can the archetypes we're used to in historical fiction be viewed through a different lens in alternate historical fiction. Give a little freshness to story types that might seem a little pat, tired or even trite. In that respect I subscribe to the opinion that alternate history is maybe better viewed as a setting for genres as much as a genre itself. You're the author of 'Reid in Braid' which is a collection of short stories about an independent communist Scotland emerging after WWI. Why did you decide to tell that story from the point of view of various people on the ground rather than through the more traditional AH route of looking at the people in power?
They say it's easier to write what you know. More importantly however is that alternate history is meant to be, in part, a view of a society not exactly our own; you're always going to get a better look at what a society is like from the ground than from the halls of power. It also really helped to give each story its own distinct flavour as opposed to seven tales of men arguing in smoke filled rooms quaffing beer and sandwiches. Going back to alternate history as setting vs. genre: telling the story top down sort of limits you to just telling telling the story as alternate history. Telling stories from the bottom up lets you mix in different genres. You can do one as satire; one as a spy story; a mystery story; maybe even a sports drama. Feedback to one of the stories from someone who knew my own proclivities was that they were sure a young couple on a road trip coming across an old, seemingly abandoned building in the middle of nowhere was that it was surely going to go down a horror route. In terms of political commentary and an analysis of the Scottish national identity, what were you aiming for with that book?
It started out as purely satire. I first saw the film Good Bye, Lenin! in 2014 as the independence referendum campaigns were ramping up. There was a lot about national identity that rung true for East Germany, particularly as a national identity that seemed conflated with another national identity to many outside of it, in that film that struck a chord with me. The scene where the main characters have trouble getting their East German bank notes accepted was almost a bit too coincidental! That's also where the idea of Scotland and England (and Wales) standing in as East/West Germany or North/South Korea. It's always really remained satire. There's nothing really profound to be discovered. Starting in the modern-ish (at the time of writing) with the first story and then all the subsequent stories be set in the (alternate) past also meant the focus was on the stories themselves rather than making a point, before bringing it back to the modern day with the last where people almost find themselves in the opposite situation to what was being experienced in our own timeline. Maybe all that was being said about the Scottish national identity was that even under a wholly different form of government throughout the 20th century (an independent, isolationist, Communist single-party state) not much has actually changed about the Scottish national character. You wrote two articles on this blog about the 1979 Scottish devolution Act and the various effects of that going differently. Are there any other points in Scottish History that seem ripe for AH to explore, in your opinion?
We're now so far removed from 2014 that it can be considered history despite the issues of that year still being open and debated amongst the myriad of other issues that have occurred since that year. I don't know however if we're too far removed yet for that story to be told, or received for that matter, objectively. Avoiding the Darien scheme, where a company backed by Scottish investors (accounting for maybe a fifth of all the money circulating in Scotland) tried to colonise a region of modern-day Panama in 1698 despite being woefully unprepared in every respect, would be an interesting one. The resulting economic disaster was a major factor in the eventual Act of Union 1707. Disagreement over would succeed the heirless Queen Anne never came to a head, the Act of Union also serving to settle that issue, but might do so if Scotland was not skint after their Central American adventure. Then there's the potential of Jacobite chicanery from this. One that is not exclusively Scottish history but would have direct implications for Scotland is if Home Rule were to be established in Ireland within the United Kingdom. At the same time the Third Home Rule Bill was working its way through Parliament with regard to Ireland, a Scottish Home Rule Bill passed its second reading in May 1913. The outbreak of the First World War stopped the bill from progressing any further, but its an interesting prospect if that conflict is avoided or over far sooner. This is without even going into the brewing civil unrest and armed conflict that was brewing in Ireland and the UK in general at the time. You're a regular contributor to the SLP forum vignette contests with several of your vignettes being republished on this blog or in collections. What appeals you about the short story format and what do you think makes a good one?
I feel the short story is the most effective format to tell tales of fantasy, horror, science fiction, thriller and alternate history. It offers enough freedom to give proper colour to any combination of character, plot, setting or anything else you might need. At the same time it also offers the brevity needed to tell a complete story without adding additional material that does not add anything to the overall work and actually detracts from it. It lets you tell a complete story without resorting to the reams and reams of notes needed to avoid cracks forming in whatever setting or tale you are endeavouring to tell. A good short story is one that lives up to the promise offered by the name of the format. It should be a complete story, not a sample chapter. I should be able to read it in one sitting, though admittedly I'm more flexible on that if it winds up approaching the longer end of a novella length - so long as it is appropriately broken up. The main thing is telling a full story. That doesn't mean you can't have an ending open to interpretation or even a cliff hanger. Doesn't mean you can't do a follow up or even a bunch and then fix them up into a novel... I think too many of us try to write works in the fashion of J. R. R. Tolkien, too few in the fashion of Robert E. Howard.
You write regular essays on this blog about popular culture AH, which is often under examined compared to political and military AH. Is there any concepts from there that you would particularly love to see fleshed out as a story?
It's a difficult one to think of because, going back to bottom up vs. top down storytelling in alternate history, political and military changes would seem to have a far greater impact to people on the ground than changes in popular culture. It does make good material if you want to do something in-universe like an article or review. I think the best story I've ready in alternate history is "Impossible Dreams" by Tim Pratt which sees its protagonist find a video store from another timeline has appeared in his neighbourhood. There's a lot of easter eggs for film fans to be found, but at its core remains a story of two lonely people finding each other over a shared love of the medium even when they're from literally different universes. There's perhaps something to be said that keeping it grounded in characters is difficult without having reference to the works we're familiar with from our own popular culture. Perhaps that's why the concept works so well in "Impossible Dreams" because we get to see the alternate culture through the eyes of someone familiar with our own. It's not much of a story from Star Wars never being made if it's someone from that timeline's 2022 quietly ruminating on something being missing from popular culture if they don't know what it is. If anyone wants to take this as a challenge to show you can tell a good story with just popular culture alternate history I'd be all in favour. You're a big horror enthusiast and there was some talk in a recent panel that we don't see as much horror AH as you might expect, given both genres like to present supposedly familiar things as in fact being alien and different. What is your feeling about Horror AH as a genre?
Perhaps the short answer is that our own history has enough horrors to choose from you don't need to outsource to ghosts and goblins. They do work together, witness Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series or SLPs own collection Travellers in an Antique Land. I think the perfect medium for horror is the short story, and that when it lends itself towards longer forms it's all too easy veer into fantasy even unintentionally. Anno Dracula, for instance, can be considered as much fantasy as it is alternate history and horror. This might go back to whether you consider alternate history a genre or a setting for genres. If horror is an integral part of your alternate history setting such as vampires becoming an integrated part of Victorian society in Anno Dracula or the Lovecraftian deities taking over the earth from humanity as in Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald", then the work is as much fantasy as horror as alternate history. If, on the other hand, you tell what we might call a "straight" horror plot in an alternate history setting. An example of that might be the short "Citizen Ed" from Back in the USSA by Kim Newman & Eugene Byrne. The alternate history is that the United States has a Communist Revolution in 1917 instead of the Russian Empire, history from then is pretty parallel with the USSA standing in for the Soviet Union and either the British or Russian Empires filling in for the USA. As a collection of short stories, "Citizen Ed" is the only one of them that is horror. Taking the historical American serial killer Ed Gein and conflating him with the similarly historical Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, we get plenty mixed in from the fictional horror characters that were inspired by Gein like Norman Bates from Psycho, Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. The result is essentially a horror story told in an alternate history setting. This is where horror and alternate history can really mix together. Alternate histories as a setting for horror stories, which comes back around to these settings offering a new spin for other genres. You've been a long term participant in Alternate history forums. What state do you think the online community is currently in and how has it changed over the years that you've been a part of it?
I think the biggest change I've seen is how alternate history is presented in the online community. It seems 15 or so years ago most works were in the "Year: Brief description of the events of that year." format with only a few going for a prose format, usually in the form of an essay, and very, very few going for a story. It seemed there was a real distinction in format between literary alternate history and that produced in the online community. Sea Lion Press has blurred the line in that distinction, in the same way smaller publishing houses have for horror, science fiction and other genres. Certainly there is room to grow the community and diverse voices should always be welcomed. At the same time, alternate history is almost the nichest of the niche when it comes to interests or literary genres. It's difficult to grow a community in the modern day with the atomisation of culture, but I feel each of us may have arrived at alternate history in a different way and that may actually be an advantage. I came into it through more of an interest in science fiction than history, plenty of others probably went the opposite route. I would not be shocked if many SLP writers arrived at it via an interest in current politics than either history or literature. This might actually be an advantage in growing a community, where there are plenty of avenues people have arrived from there are more to go back down and entice others.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I really want to mix more genres with alternate history. The one I'm farthest ahead with are a series of alternate history westerns, though progress has been stymied in the past couple years due to personal and wider circumstances. I also want to go down a similar route with interwar pulp fiction, the sort of stuff one might have read in Weird Tales but in an alternate history setting. On the SLP Magazine, I'll soon be starting a series of articles on alternate histories of the horror genre. If alternate history is the nichest of the niche and both pop culture and horror within that are niches themselves I may have chosen the nichest of the nichest of the nichest of the niche for my next project!
Ryan is looking for submissions to a proposed Anthology of AH stories set in Scotland. Check this post on our forums for details.