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 Andrew, so first of all thank you very much for talking to us. As a passionate reader and writer of Alternate History, how did you get into the genre and what do you think appeals to you about it?
It was so long ago I honestly can’t remember why I got into the genre. I do remember reading H Beam Piper’s He Walked Around the Horses in an anthology when I was a teenager but it didn’t make that much impression on me at the time. It was probably Piper’s Gunpowder God with Rylla (its beautiful, pistol and sword wielding princess) that really sucked me into the genre. I must have read it at least twenty times.
Apart from having a ‘thing’ for beautiful and strong-minded heroines (S, M. Stirling’s Conquistador being a case in point), I think the thing that keeps me interested in the genre is that writing Alternate History is like completing a puzzle; i.e. if this happens what happens next. OK, so that’s happened what happens after that, and so on — except you get to meet the people making it happen.
Your first published story came out in 1992, what's your opinion on the way the book industry has changed over the last 29 years due to the advent of e-books and the internet?
The internet has definitely made it easier for an author in Australia to approach a publisher in America or the UK. When I started writing publishers were slightly more inclined to accept unsolicited manuscripts. However, this meant printing the manuscript and physically mailing it to the publisher. I would enclose two International Replied Paid Coupons (IRCs) to cover the cost of their reply. But the IRC’s would not cover the cost of posting the manuscript back to me so in the event of a rejection I would ask them to bin the manuscript (this was before recycling). This did mean that I received a physical copy of the publisher’s rejection letter; coloured letterhead, expensive bond-paper, hand-signed and all. Which did go a little way to softening the blow of the rejection. Its simply not the same receiving an email, although it’s definitely more environmentally friendly.
And e-books. Both my wife and I were early adopter of ebooks and Hague Publishing was originally intended as an exclusively ebook publisher, although we now release all our books as both ebook and POD paperback. The vast majority of sales still come from ebooks though.
You're the current Principal of Hague Publishing which publishes speculative work by authors from Australia and New Zealand, what books and authors should AH fans look out for from you?
Oh dear, I wish I could answer that, unfortunately we can only print what authors submit and the AH slush pile has remained defiantly empty. We do have some fantastic fantasy and science-fiction available from our website though.
You used to be a literary agent and editor of magazines before recently establishing Hague Publishing, what's been the most rewarding and challenging parts of the switch to book publishing?
I have to admit I was never a successful agent and, when my children and career intervened, I was happy to close off that particular aspect of my life. I started Hague Publishing eight years ago with the intention of eventually publishing some of my own work. As it happens I’ve been too busy publishing other people’s work to do anything about my own, and thanks to Zmok Books, and Peasantry Press haven’t had to.
Being a small Publisher is both rewarding, and challenging in equal parts. The rewarding bit is being able to work with some really talented cover artists and writers, Jade Zivanovic of Steam Power Studios being a case in point, her covers are just wonderful. And I love working with our authors to polish their work (and have learnt so much from them which has helped with my own writing).
Against that is the constant frustration of how difficult it is to get a book noticed. It had got so bad at one stage that I was considering pulling the pin on the whole thing when Leonie Rogers’ ‘Frontier Trilogy’ started to take off. It was only at that stage that I discovered that apparently only one in ten books actually covers its cost. Bottom line; you shouldn’t enter publishing to make money (unless you’re Jeff Bezos).
What would your recommendations be for a new author who wants to get published?
Write for yourself, never give up, and be prepared for knockbacks. Go in with low expectations and make sure you celebrate the small successes: e.g. completing a manuscript, a request from an agent or publisher to have a look at the complete manuscript, a personal rejection, your first contract, your first sale on Amazon.
And remember that publishing is just the first stage of the process so continue to celebrate those small successes.
You're currently working on the Clemhorn trilogy about war between Alternate timelines. Fantasy in the early 20th century was sometimes said to be split between portal fantasy as in Narnia, wherein worlds collide and so characters are introduced to new worlds with the reader and non portal fantasy, like Lord of the Rings, where the fictional world has no interaction with anything outside it. As someone whose written Alternate History with both concepts do you think that distinction is meaningful and what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of each type?
As a writer I think the difference may depend more on whether the story uses historical characters. Alternate History readers can be notoriously picky about the historical accuracy of such characters. This means, if you’re using a historical figure, you do have to spend more time on background research. This also restricts what you can do with your character. For example, for my recent short story 1827 – Napoleon in Australia in Sea Lion Press’ Alternate Australias our world’s Napoleon had rather a low view on women. One of the more infamous quotes he apparently made while at St Helena was to the effect of ‘Women are nothing but machines for producing children’. Unfortunately that meant I couldn’t have him advocating to have women trained to support the men in battle as I had wanted (thanks for pointing that out, Jared). You can always read the story if you want to find out how I got round that particular problem. On the other hand, portals generally give you a lot more flexibility, and slamming cultures together is fun!
The first book in that Trilogy, Nightfall, is undergoing the process of being made into an audiobook with local actors. What are the main challenges of that adaption?
Finding a narrator with the experience, and the knowledge to do the job. My advice is buy a dog. I met Alan when we were both out walking our respective dogs.
As Alan is doing the work for ‘mates rates’ in his own studio, when he found out I’d run an internet radio station for a couple of years he immediately roped me into doing the sound for him, printing the scripts, and doing some of the editing for the audio. All of which takes time, a lot of time!
Working in a small airless recording room with the fan off in 38C, because the fan makes too much noise.
Maintaining a sense of humour. We were about half way through recording the narration for Nightfall when a raven landed on the powerline, fried itself, and blew up the power supply to Alan's computer, as well as some of the audio equipment. Luckily we had been religiously backing up each day’s work onto multiple servers.
You've also written a number of short stories, including one for Sea Lion Press. Do you find yourself knowing the length a story is going to be when you plot it or do they sometimes grow, or shrink, in the writing so that a planned short story becomes a novel or vice versa?
Until 1827 - Napoleon in Australia I could never write a short story of less than 10,000 words, and as a result I’d never been interested in writing them because they take so much time to complete. When I can write one draft of a novel in a year, taking three months to draft then polish a short story has always seemed counterproductive to me. Napoleon was an exception to this. Once I’d set the length, selected the hero, and identified the Point-Of-Divergence, everything just seemed to flow — particularly after the character of Francois, my Napoleon’s godson, appeared on the scene.
Having said that, the novel I am presently working on is based on a short story which I’d initially intended to stand-alone, but which now forms the second chapter in the book.
Alternate History is often divided between Writers who research and Historians who write, how much would you look into a time period before you write anything about it?
I was going to say that I am well and truly in the ‘Writers who research’ camp before I remembered that I did a unit of history for my Bachelor of Arts, so I probably fit into both camps. I’ve always been interested in history though, which does make it easy for my wife at Christmas (I now have all of Antony Beevor’s books, a brilliant writer and historian).
But to answer your question, I generally only start investigating a specific time period when I need to know something as the story develops and the plot demands it. For the follow-up to the Clemhorn Trilogy, I needed to know how the Nayarit Line, and its advanced civilization, might have developed in America as one of my characters had ended up there. At the time I was reading about the extinction of the horse in America, and started to ask myself ‘what if’ it hadn’t died out. A bit more research and I had the Point of Divergence occurring in 8000 BCE when the indigenous inhabitants of the Northern American continent successfully domesticated the native horse — initially for food, but subsequently as a beast of burden. This was almost 4,000 years before domestication of the horse in Europe and gave North America a significant technological/cultural lead over the rest of the world on that line, precisely what I needed. Subsequently tracking the rise and fall of civilization on Nayarit gave me a lot of background that really helped drive the characters and plot forward though.
Apart from the remaining books of the Clemhorn trilogy is there anything else new from you that we should look out for?
Despite Covid, 2021 looks pretty busy for me with Zmok Books planning to release Nadir, the second book in the Clemhorn trilogy. Vortex on Vortu Prime, the third book in my middle-grade science fiction ‘Portal Adventures’ series, will also be released by Peasantry Press.
Beyond that I’m presently finalising a new trilogy set in the Clemhorn’s Cross-Temporal Empire a couple of years after the end of the Civil War. The trilogy focusses on Margaret Peric (a cousin of the Clemhorn’s) and Jade Cavelho, her bodyguard (both of whom are beautiful and strong-minded heroines). I’m really pleased with how this one is coming out as it gives me more of a chance to explore the politics of the C-TE, and the alternate histories of some of its more important lines (there are 54 to explore after all).
And, talking about that short story that decided to become a novel, I’m about half-way through the first draft of a police procedural set on Earth 65 million years in the future. White Hills is about Harriet Starr; an Investigating Magistrate who has one probationary constable and the suspect assistance of a Heptarchy Marshall to solve a crime where the murdered victim leaves as many questions as the murder itself.