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 I regularly interview 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 Ben, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us. What began your interest in writing Alternate History and what do you think appeals to you about the genre?
My first Alternate History work was really more of an "alternate present", that being the Last Policeman trilogy; those books were set during the last year of life on Earth, as the asteroid that'll kill everyone gets ever closer. I loved thinking through the different ways that one enormous fact would change everything about everybody's life. But for me, these kinds of books are best when they are more than just a thought experiment, where with the imagined world are trying to get us to think more carefully or deeply about some aspect of actual reality.
'Underground Airlines' received a huge amount of attention outside of usual Alternate History spaces. Why do you think it had such mass appeal?
Thanks for saying so, first of all. Thanks very much. I don't know if the book had mass appeal, exactly—I'm not sure what counts as mass appeal. But I am gratified to say that a lot of people read it. And I think the fact that the novel is engaged with one of the great questions of America's past and present—that being the legacy of slavery, and the way it manifests itself in contemporary racism—is part of what has drawn readers to the novel, readers who might otherwise not be interested, were it "just" a work of science fiction or alt-history. My hope is that people are as engaged with the underlying philosophical and moral questions of this novel as they are engaged with the thriller plotting.
'Underground Airlines' fits quite nicely with the various AH television shows we've seen recently such as 'The Plot against America'. Is there any news on it being adapted to television, there was word that you'd written a pilot for it some years ago?
I did indeed write a pilot; in fact, the series was developed for TNT, and I wrote the first couple episodes. But HBO announced a series with a similar premise, and got some considerable blowback on it, and that was that for our show. One never says never, but I have a feeling AIRLINES will not be making its way to the screen anytime soon.
'Underground Airlines' is more of an alternate present than alternate history. Did you do much historical research into pre Civil War America or was it more about writing modern day America but exaggerated?
Both. I did indeed do a lot of reading on the period leading up to the Civil War, especially on all of the series of dreadful compromises that allowed slavery to persist as long as it did—sadly, it wasn't so hard to imagine more and more such compromises that would extend slavery down through the generations.
Your novel 'Golden State' is a similar world building exercise about a California which is built around a preservation of objective truth and was inspired by the 'Alternate Facts' controversy. How much do you let your own political beliefs inform your speculative fiction?
Not consciously -- in no way do I sit down and go, "This novel is going to reflect or advance my political beliefs." That's probably a road to some dull and didactic fiction. Having said that, I am who I am, and I believe what I believe, and inevitably that's going to get into the work, you know? Hopefully the novels aren't, like, "about" some political issue or other, but rather reflect my ongoing attempt to understand how the world works, very much including the political world.
Your protagonists tend to be policemen of some kind or another. To what extent is that your own interests in law enforcement versus the fact that they're useful tools to explore new worlds because their nature is to ask questions?
That's an interesting question. I don't think I have any particular interest in law enforcement, beyond the obvious ways in which policemen and so on pursue cases, because cases means plots and stories. In Airlines, the protagonist is an enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act, both because that creates an unsustainable moral crisis in him, and because the terrible substance of that job creates the engine of the story: he is a man looking for another man. I'm a genre writer; that's what I do. The journeys in my books are both going to be personal/emotional and logistical/procedural. A person solving a case, or a lawyer winning a trial, gives a spine of a story.
You're a prolific writer of short stories as well as novels. Do you have an idea when you're coming up with an idea, whether it can support a full novel, or even a trilogy as in the case of your 'Last Policeman' stories before you start writing or do you find a short story turns into a novel and vice versa?
Oh, that's funny—I don't really think of myself a short story writer, because I actually very rarely sit down with an idea and go "this is a short story, I'm gonna write a short story." Generally the ones I've written, some of which I'm very proud of, come about because I'm approached to contribute to an anthology or a compilation someone is putting together. So I kind of get a prompt, and I run with it. And I've written a couple that were ideas for TV shows or films, and I'm sort of fleshing it out as a way of selling it to Hollywood. Very mercenary, I know, but ideas have gotta come from somewhere!
You also work in TV, Radio, Plays and Poetry. Is this because you find work in other formats rewarding or is it just that it's not financially viable in this day and age to just write novels?
Well, I'm not sure this day and age is different than others; it's always been very hard to make a consistent living just writing fiction, or just making art of any kind, sadly. Although, tangentially, I will add that I think our culture tends to over-value the idea of Making it Big; we think that the only kinds of artists are either Rich and Famous or Starving Artist, when in fact the vast majority of writers, singers, dancers, etc are just plugging away, riding the highs and lows, and slowly building a living. But in answer to your question....I write for other mediums (and it's mostly TV, and now some fun stuff for Audible) both because they pay and because I genuinely love it. I love the collaboration of TV writing, and it just kind of sparks a different part of me. If I had to pick one, it'd be books all the way; they probably offer the most consistent artistic satisfaction, and come the most directly from my own soul. But I feel very grateful that, for now at least, I get to work in a range of media. Most people are not so lucky, and who knows if I'll be so lucky forever.
You're relatively active on twitter. Do you think, in the current era, that it's important as an author to have an online presence in order to reach potential readers?
Eh. I'm actually trying to be LESS active on Twitter right now. Social media can be fun, of course, but all the things are true: it's such a trap, and can be not only a waste of time but an emotional minefield. I would never advise anyone to spend a minute more on that stuff than gives them joy.
What are you currently working on and what can we expect to see from you in the future?
Oh, thanks. My most recent novel is called THE QUIET BOY, that came out in May 2021, and will be in paperback next year. It's the best thing I've ever written, in my humble opinion. The next one I'm finishing now, or trying to finish; it's a sci-fi mystery about time and identity. It's called BIG TIME. Hopefully a year from now I'll be saying it, too, is the best thing I've ever written.