Questions by Gary Oswald
Hello. First of all, thank you so much for talking to us. How did you get into Alternate History and what appeals to you about that genre?
Born in Salt is a character-oriented alternate history novel, set fifty years after a coup replaced President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a fascist dictatorship. Ben Adamson, a 19-year-old farm boy in southern Illinois, wants only to spend his time fishing and hunting. But when his dead brother demands justice for his suspicious fate, Ben and Rachel, his brother’s fiancée, are drawn into an underground revolutionary movement.
I’ve always been fascinated by history and by the “what if” questions that underpin alternate history. In one sense, societal changes tend to happen slowly, driven by social, economic, and environmental factors. But often these pressures accumulate until a trigger sets change in motion, like earthquakes from the convergence of opposing continental plates. Protests against murders by police, for example, ignited long-simmering movements against injustice in Iran and the U.S.
The ”what-if” triggers in alternate history, like time-travelers supplying automatic weapons to the Confederates in Guns of the South, or a better-planned coup in Born in Salt, set the world on a different course. Will this new course be corrected in the story? If so, how and why? Is history deterministic, or is it chaotic and unpredictable, like “butterfly effects”? In any case, such stories make great thought experiments and fun reading.
Your books tend towards the dystopic, 'Born in Salt' is about life in an American fascist Dictatorship and 'The Survivors' is about life in a world post climate change driven ecological collapse. What appeals to you about that tone in terms of settings?
In both cases, the setting acts as an antagonistic force that the protagonist characters must overcome, and the dystopian settings result from poor choices by society. At a glance, the protagonists’ causes seem hopeless—they’re thrown into a hostile world with limited room to maneuver.
In Born in Salt, for example, Ben and Rachel are arrested by the Internal Security Service, who have perfected the science of breaking people. Ben is given a choice: betray the rebels, including his best friend from childhood, or Rachel will be lobotomized.
Although traumatized and addicted to a powerful drug, Ben refuses to doom anyone he cares about. Can he find a third option? Can he free Rachel and strike back at the dictatorship, while dodging the suspicions of both police and rebels?
Obviously given current world events, both seem like stark warnings. How much does the state of the world and your own views inform your writing?
The state of the world is always in my mind, especially when writing. But the story comes first; I let the characters, plot, and setting speak for themselves.
The concept for Born in Salt came in a flash while riding my bike to work—a mashup of the 1934 plot to overthrow President Roosevelt, the setting of Southern Illinois, where I briefly lived, and the music of alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo. Born in Salt explores life under authoritarian rule, the abuse of psychology, the power of the dead, the realities and difficulties of drug addiction, and how everyday people can challenge impossible odds. It also explores the concept of morality in war and revolution; e.g., what means can be justified to achieve your side’s goals?
In The Survivors, humans have failed to take the action needed to halt climate change before the planet reaches irreversible and catastrophic tipping points. This could indeed happen, although thankfully many (although not all) governments are finally listening to scientists and the public.
Climate change threatens the very survival of civilization. It’s happening now with extreme heat waves, massive fires, storms, mega-droughts, and zoonotic pandemics, and is projected to get much, much worse without immediate action. We need to stop burning coal and oil, and must protect and restore the world’s forests. We also need to stop poaching wildlife, because all things are interconnected.
Writing is an art form, and all art should produce introspection and contemplation. The fiction writer should engage the readers by creating powerful and memorable emotional experiences, but artistic fiction should also leave the reader with ideas to ponder. The writer should avoid the temptation to conform to prevailing norms. Rather, the writer should challenge, to present alternatives, to raise a mirror with many facets, so that the reader can question dogma and their place in the universe. The fiction writer should beware being overly preachy in their prose; rather, through the thoughts, speech, and actions of their characters, they should present alternatives and let the reader decide for themselves.
'Born in Salt' has, as its starting point, the business plot against Roosevelt succeeding and is something of a 'it could happen here' tale. How vulnerable do you think American democracy actually has been historically?
In real life, there was a political conspiracy in 1933 in the United States to overthrow the government of President Roosevelt and install a dictator. According to retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, wealthy businessmen were plotting to create a fascist veterans’ organization with Butler as its leader and use it in a coup d’état to overthrow Roosevelt. Fortunately for us, instead of going along, Butler turned them in. In 1934, Butler testified under oath before Congress on these revelations.
In my novel Born in Salt, the coup plotters chose a different leader, Walter Waters, and the coup was successful. Here’s an excerpt from the documentary within a novel, AN AMERICAN GIANT: The Charles Lindbergh Story, as viewed by the novel’s protagonist:
The movie showed footage of Lindbergh’s inauguration parade, thousands of Khaki Shirts saluting as his open-top limousine passed. They showed a close-up of Walter Waters, leader of the Bonus Army and then the Khaki Shirt Movement, saluting FDR’s replacement. Waters was just a sergeant at the time, but with the American Legion’s help, had led over a hundred thousand angry vets to seize the capital in return for overdue World War I bonuses and well-paid National Guard appointments.
Next to Waters, J. Edgar Hoover, who provided crucial inside information, and would be Director of Internal Security for four decades. Then William Dudley Pelley, generously funded by Nazi Germany, whose paramilitary Silver Legion assaulted communists, Jews, and union leaders, killing who knows how many.
Then Charles Coughlin, the radio priest with an audience in the millions. And Gerald Smith, leader of the Christian Nationalist Crusade. In return for policy influence, their speeches rallied national support.
Then Senator Huey Long, a key supporter before his assassination.
Finally, a group of bankers and industrialists, standing together in their black wool coats and top hats. It was their coup, and they still called the shots.
I wrote the first draft of Born in Salt back in 2015. But readers have told me it brought to mind the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and real-life government leaders with authoritarian tendencies and desires. The lesson of the 1930’s, 2020’s, and Born in Salt is that democracy is more fragile than it seems, and relies on the defense of courageous people like Gen. Butler, Ben Adamson, and the decisions of anyone who finds themselves at a pivotal point in history.
You’ve also written the more traditional Cyberpunk trilogy ‘BetterWorld’ in which an intrepid journalist is pitted against an evil corporation. What appeals to you about the cyberpunk genre and how much do you think it has broadly predicted real societal trends?
In the BetterWorld cyberpunk trilogy (available as single books or combined in The War for Reality), a giant media corporation (MediaCorp) has taken over the Internet, created an addictive virtual reality called BetterWorld, and controls nearly all information. Politicians do their bidding, and a brainwashed humanity serves a privileged few. It’s up to Waylee, an unemployed Baltimore journalist with ever-worsening bipolar disorder, her VR-addicted younger sister Kiyoko, and Charles, a teenage hacker from public housing, to stop MediaCorp from controlling the world.
I’ve always been a fan of cyberpunk. Classic cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction that features advanced technology in dystopian societies where mega-corporations run the world and nation-states are largely irrelevant. They tend to be set on Earth in the 21st-22nd centuries, and artificial intelligence, shared virtual reality, and cyborg implants are common. Characters tend to be marginalized, alienated loners who live on the edge of society. Hackers are prominent. Cyberpunk works typically have a noir atmosphere (e.g., Blade Runner), and often resemble hard-boiled detective stories.
Today, cyberpunk is most common in anime, manga, and video games. And Altered Carbon breathed new life into the genre in the UK and US. Elements of cyberpunk have been subsumed into pop culture and can be found everywhere.
I like the focus of cyberpunk on the outsider or antihero. And I like the noir, dystopian atmosphere. In the BetterWorld trilogy, I drew inspiration from real world trends like the impending loss of net neutrality and the massive increase of government and corporate surveillance. Other cyberpunk tropes, like corporations running the world, and a huge divide between rich and poor, also reflect real-world trends. The trilogy also explores what happens when media becomes so concentrated and news so biased, they threaten critical thought and democracy.
In the real world, the overturning of net neutrality in the U.S., headed by a former Verizon lawyer, opened the door to big Internet service providers intentionally favoring websites and content that they own, or pay them a premium, over others. This would essentially end free speech and competition on the Internet. Then there’s the consolidation of news, books, and other media under fewer and fewer mega-companies, which leads to the layoff of journalists and the closing of newspapers. Even music is falling under monopoly control. Live Nation, iHeartRadio, SIRIUSXM, Ticketmaster, and Pandora are all under the control of one man, a right-wing billionaire named John Malone.
Sleep State Interrupt, The Wrath of Leviathan, and Zero-Day Rising examine a plausible outcome of these trends—a single company controlling nearly all information, and using that to control society. In the books, people from the underclass take to the Net and take to the streets to fight them.
You also wrote ‘The Council’ which is a satire about local government, which those of us who have experience in will recognize a lot from. Is it somewhat autobiographical?
The Council pits an idealistic county councilman and a local environmentalist against greedy developers and a dysfunctional government. The protagonist, Luther Smith, a high school science teacher, is newly elected to the Sylvan County Council. Idealistic, inexperienced, and eager to make a difference for his students and constituents, Luther is confronted with corruption, incompetence, and lunacy from his fellow councilmembers. At meetings, his colleagues brush aside public comments, doze, drink, and discuss what makes the ideal cheeseburger.
Lisa Hogan, a down-on-her-luck single mom and avid naturalist, discovers that developers plan to raze the last tract of forest in the county to build a massive housing and shopping project. Angry about the developers’ sway over the county government, Luther joins Lisa’s battle against the project. Facing a dysfunctional bureaucracy, corrupt politicians, and lazy journalists, Luther and Lisa form a growing bond as they attempt to navigate the legislative labyrinth, mobilize the community, and try to save the forest.
The story was inspired by experiences I’ve had in the City of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, and readers have noted a number of similarities. For many years, I worked on environmental and other issues with local governments. I worked for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, chaired the Annapolis Environmental Commission, have worked on numerous political campaigns, and have testified at numerous legislative sessions. The biggest challenge was making it funnier than the real thing. :D
One of your strengths as a writer has been your vivid characters, in genres which can often lack them, something that you’ve done presentations about. In short, what do you think is the secret to writing engaging characters?
In general, stories are about people. They could also be about anthropomorphic animals or aliens, but they’re about sentient beings that the reader can relate to. Great characters are the key to great fiction. The reader must care about the protagonist; it’s through the protagonist(s) that the reader connects to the story.
Characters should seem real, especially the main characters, like someone you might know intimately. And the characters should be memorable. A memorable character could be unpredictable, be passionate about something, carry a “ghost” or “wound” from their past that affects them in the present, have inner conflict, be resourceful, courageous, or fighting for a just cause. The more of these, the better.
Most important, a protagonist (and other major characters as well) should care about something. They have a vision for the future and a high-stakes goal (in the mind of the character) within the story. Outside forces and internal flaws and conflict present obstacles to achieving this goal, which the character must overcome (unless it’s a tragedy and they fail). Thus, the character arc intertwines with the story plot: each influences the other.
Then there are the internal and external characteristics of the character. There isn’t space to go into all the details here, but you can find more at: http://www.annapolismwa.com/connecting-your-readers-to-your-protagonists/
For example, Born in Salt is seen through the eyes of a poor outcast (Ben Adamson). He is a victim of forces he can’t control—until he learns that no one is truly helpless. The title symbolizes Ben’s birth into poverty and hardship, under a corrupt totalitarian government. But existentialists like Camus and Sartre argue, as conscious individuals, we can transcend our situation, and in fact have the responsibility to recognize this and act accordingly. We’re limited by the environment, but still have the freedom to act within these constraints. Ben has to recognize this, and if he does, he can achieve great victories over his oppressors.
I’m fascinated by the question of what makes an ordinary person become a hero. While superheroes and elite soldiers are fun to read about, I think it’s much more interesting to read about average people thrust into a situation way above their head, and seeing how they cope. In the BetterWorld trilogy and my other books, the main characters change throughout the story, and have to overcome their flaws and increase their skills in order to defeat their enemies. If not, they break (as in The Survivors).
Most people are too afraid, self-absorbed, apathetic, or detached to step up and put their lives on the line, whether literally or figuratively, for a greater cause. Only a small fraction of people become activists. Their concern could be local, or all the way up to global. Heroes generally have a strong moral code, a feeling of obligation to something bigger than themselves, have passion and commitment, are willing to sacrifice, have knowledge of the issues they care about, and may feel anger, hope, or desperation. And they may not start out that way; in the most interesting books, the protagonist has to change internally to succeed in the finale.
You can find character development PowerPoint slides and a character development worksheet (free) at my website (https://www.tcweber.com/) under the “OTHER FREE STUFF” tab at top, along with a critique checklist and an editing checklist.
The modern book market is very different to that of thirty years ago, thanks to the rise of ebooks and the effects of that. Are you optimistic about the future of the industry and what would you recommend to new writers in terms of navigating it?
On one hand, the publishing industry is becoming more and more concentrated, with five (at present) corporations controlling nearly all of it, and getting all the media attention. On the other hand, there are still independent presses out there, plus the option of self-publishing. Without a big advertising budget, though, authors and small presses have an uphill battle reaching readers.
I recommend that writers write what they want—what moves them—rather than worry about what’s selling. Trends come and go, often quicker than it takes to complete a novel. Write what you’re passionate about, and this passion will come across to your readers.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I am nearly done with the first draft of a “seapunk” adventure set off the Florida Keys, where I used to dive and fish while growing up. After that, I have an alternate history spy novel planned.
T. C. Weber has pursued writing since childhood, and learned filmmaking and screenwriting in college, along with physics and ecology. His first published novel was a near-future cyberpunk thriller titled Sleep State Interrupt (See Sharp Press). The first book of a trilogy, it was a finalist for the 2017 Compton Crook award for best first speculative fiction novel. The sequels, The Wrath of Leviathan and Zero-Day Rising, are also out. These were followed by Born in Salt, a character-oriented alternate history novel that pits an Illinois farm boy against a ruthless fascist government. Published in 2022, The Survivors (Solstice Publishing), is a post-apocalyptic cli-fi horror novella in which a young mother is forced on the road and struggles to survive a living nightmare. His latest book (also 2022), The Council, is a satire of local government. More works are on the way.
Mr. Weber is a member of Poets & Writers, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association, the Horror Writers Association, and the Maryland Writers Association, and has run numerous writing workshops. By day, Mr. Weber works as an ecologist, and has had numerous scientific papers and book chapters published. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland with his wife Karen. He enjoys traveling and has visited all seven continents.
For book samples, short stories, and more, visit https://www.tcweber.com/