Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
Hello Alex, first of all thanks very much for agreeing to talk to us. For those of our readers who don't recognise the name, you're a prolific speculative fiction writer and reviewer. So how did you get into writing speculative fiction?
Basically, I've always written speculative fiction--it never really occurred to me to write anything else. I grew up in an extremely nerdy household where my mother read Tolkien out loud to my brother and I, and we watched Doctor Who and Star Trek all together as a big family thing. My parents also had a huge collection of books with a lot of science fiction and fantasy in it and I read a lot as a kid.
This website is mostly focused on alternate history and you've been recommended to us before as a great introduction to the Steampunk genre thanks to your novels about pirates in the Duchy of Denver. What's the world like in that setting and how did you come up with it?
Captain Ramos's world is an alternate United States where, at some point, there was a zombie plague. The US as we know it fell entirely apart into smaller territories where the non-Native Americans huddled together for safety. (The Native Americans were doing their own thing, as seen in the novella Blood in Elk Creek.) And then people rebuilt from there. I came up with that because I wanted to write a world that had already had its apocalypse, figured it out, and moved on in a way that would make their society somewhat unfamiliar.
What's the appeal of writing in that altered historical setting for you?
In this case, it was mostly an opportunity to write something centered in the Western US that could still have a very different flavor from a more traditional Western, which is a genre I also love to pieces. (And has some equally problematic tropes that deserve to be examined and reimagined.) Colorado and the other mountain states are a great setting that I want to see more of in the genre.
One of the advantages of alternate history as a setting over actual history is you get to pick what's different, I've seen Steampunk described as a way of taking the aesthetics of the time period without having to deal with all the baggage. Your main character is a bisexual female pirate captain, obviously women like that existed in real life but do you think the alt historical setting allows you more freedom in terms of the stories you can give characters who aren't white cis males or could you find an equally light hearted triumphant narrative about Marta Ramos in a straight historical?
In all honesty, I think I could have put Captain Ramos into something that was more of a straight historical and she wouldn't have changed that much as a person. There have always been women, and queer women, and queer women who aren't white who were out there inventing things and making waves. One of my favorite historical figures who is squarely in the Victorian historical era is Mother Jones, and she was an absolute, unstoppable juggernaut as soon as she started campaigning for worker's rights. I don't even think the world Captain Ramos inhabits is necessarily more queer-friendly or less misogynistic than the real world was at that time... it's just that she's carved out a space for herself by being an outlaw where she makes the rules.
As well as novels, you also write a lot of short stories, including, Asleep in Zandalar, an excellent short about WW2 being fought with futuristic technology. Obviously you write a lot of straight sci-fi set in the future, what do you think the advantage of projecting that technology into the past instead like in that story and steampunk generally is? Just the familiarity of being able to use a war where the audience already knows the stakes? Did you ever plan for that story to not be set during WW2?
That story in particular is a bit of a funny one because I did always plan for it to be a WWII story; I wanted to put something together that had a The Great Escape vibe. But originally when I was plotting it, it was for a Machine of Death anthology, and it turned out to be too long. So then I chatted with the editors of the anthology and made sure they felt okay with me retooling the concept and trying to find a different home for the story. But I think generally, it's a lot of fun to take some kind of weird technology and put it into a desperate situation as a way to guess what people would do with it.
You've described the current era as a golden age for short stories, you've even edited your own anthology of them. Why do you think the format is going through such a renaissance at the moment and do you have a preference for short stories or novels as either a writer or a reader?
We're definitely in a golden age of short fiction because it's so widely available. Particularly because short-short (and flash) fiction is just the right sort of length to read on the bus during a commute or something. It's an entirely different landscape from the one I grew up with, where you either subscribed to a paper magazine (if you even knew one existed) or picked up anthologies from the wire spinner racks at the grocery store. I think it's also become much easier for people to put together collections and anthologies, though discoverability is still a whole other issue. But with so many more venues and the submissions process being so much more accessible than it was, it's really broadened who we're hearing from. And I hope this is just the start, though there's obviously a lot on the publishing side we're still all figuring out. That said, hilariously, I actually much prefer longer works. I've always been a dedicated novel reader, and I also love novellas. I started out in short fiction because the common wisdom at the time was that was where you ought to start.
In terms of historical fiction, you also write some fitness game apps for Six to Start, including an app where you get guided along the Lewis and Clark travel path while running. How was the process of writing that and what's the important points to hit in that sort of writing?
I did a lot of research and read a lot of books to attempt to get it right. I'm lucky that I've been to a lot of the areas they passed through over the years so I could know what the weather might feel like, for example. The most difficult part of writing a nonfiction thing like that is figuring out what highlights you want to hit, because you're condensing something massive down like 25 script pages (which is not a lot of writing) and also finding a way to make it entertaining rather than didactic.
Your professional background is as a geologist, you wrote some very entertaining posts for tor.com criticising Tolkien's river and mountain placement. In terms of Alternate History how much do you think the natural geography of an area dictates the kind of human society that lives there?
I think landforms have a profound effect on the way people live and the kind of society that develops. Whether we like it or not, we live in constant symbiosis with the land around us, and those landforms dictate so many basic factors of life, down to the weather (ask anyone who's lived in the rain shadow of a mountain) to what kind of dwellings you could comfortably survive in. I don't think it's out of line to argue that a lot of the ecological trouble we've gotten the world into is related to us trying to live in different environments in a way that really doesn't suit them. (e.g. Building golf courses in the middle of a desert.) I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this kind of thing... though to be clear I also don't know nearly enough about the human side of the equation, so take what I say with a sufficiently large grain of salt.
As well as writing, you also review a lot of media, you write for Bookriot and Strange Horizons. As readers of a certain genre we can sometimes get into a bubble in terms of the media we consume, is there anything you've read or watched recently that you'd want to recommend to our readers that maybe we wouldn't have heard of?
Outside of the genre, I mostly read romance novels and nonfiction. Out of the nonfiction I've recently read, I'd really recommend How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz, which is a re-examination of gentrification as a phenomenon, concluding it's more of a matter of government policy than personal choice like it's usually positioned. Underland by Robert MacFarlane is also an absolutely incredible book that's a combination of history, memoir, and layman's geological text that's just incredibly moving in how it looks at the interaction of humans with the ancient Earth and the landscapes around us. And then if you want a romance, I'm catching up on what Courtney Milan has published recently, and I absolutely loved When the Devil Comes Courting. It's technically the third book of its series, but I think anyone could read it just fine.
I'm also a huge fan of Courtney Milan's Romance books! Do you take much inspiration from that kind of historical romance or are your books more firmly in the adventure genre?
For the time being, I'm definitely more in the adventure genre because that's what I'm more comfortable writing. One of my near-term goals is to write a romance, though I think it'll end up being a sci-fi romance. Which I've read a bit of and never been quite satisfied with on the romance-to-scifi ratio, so I want to make my own attempt and see how it goes. But romance is so good for really deep character work, and that's another thing I want to get into more with my writing, whether it's romantic or not.
You wrote an essay for Stone Soup that stuck with me about being someone very pro trade unions, lgbt, assigned female at birth and realising that a lot of the books you read growing up hated people like you and how that had a negative effect on you. As a writer do you feel an obligation to try and write books that someone like you will never feel hated by? Do you feel a lot of the appeal of a lot of steampunk is its 19th century adventure fiction but written by people who don't hate you?
I'm constantly writing the books I wish I'd had to read twenty years ago, honest truth. I think you can really tell when you're reading something and it's about or contains a society that hates you (which is a thing worth exploring) as opposed to written by someone who thinks your kind of people are absolutely worthless. As a goal I want to write books that my readers can pick up and feel welcomed into, and at times that can actually be kind of hard. There's something raw about writing a book, and you end up seeing pieces of yourself on the page that you're not aware of because you haven't consciously examined them, and we all swim in poisoned social waters. For example, on several occasions I've encountered my internalized fatphobia on the page and it's deeply unsettling. I do think steampunk has that power to give us gonzo 19th century adventure that's not just written by white cis men and for white cis men, so it's like a chance to catch up on something we got left out of, at the least.
You have a Patreon, where you share media reviews and fiction with your backers. How are you finding that in terms of how viable it is an income source and balancing the time between writing for your patrons and writing more visible material?
Right now I honestly feel like I'm putting more writing time into the patreon than I'm getting back in income value, but this has been something of an experiment to see what people are interested in and if I can get more people on the train. I'm giving it a year and then I'll have to reassess. Ultimately I'd like to grow it into a decent income stream because the overall goal is to be able to write full time. Right now, it is freeing me from having to hunt for quite as much freelance work, which is nice. Even if it's slightly more challenging, I'd rather be doing my own work than someone else's. Though the "more visible material" part is the more difficult area, since it's difficult to get a media writing gig in my current situation, and since I'm mostly writing novels now, it's a long, long road to getting anything published.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I've got a couple of novels sitting with my agent that we'll hopefully be able to sell, one of which is a fairly "literary" modern-day fantasy novel that's pretty different from anything else I've written. I'm also still plugging away at my "Great British Bake Off in space" novel I've been working on for years, because I finally want to get that written. And! I'm working on more steampunk. I've got one novella written, and I'm working on the bones for two more. So we'll see!