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Interviewing the AH Community: Daniel Bensen

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.

This week it's Daniel Bensen, a speculative fiction writer who can be found at his website, Deviant Art and on twitter.

Hello Dan, first of all thanks very much for talking to us. For those of our readers who don't recognise the name, you're a prolific writer of speculative fiction and a 2016 Sidewise Award winner in Alternate History. What to you is the appeal of Alternate History and how did you get into it?

My father-in-law has a giant world map on the wall of his entrance way. I spend a lot time standing in front of it while I'm waiting for my kids to put their shoes on, and every time I look, I see something new. Right at my eye level is the place where China, North Korea and Russia come together, and I can see how the towns of Kraskino, Quanhedao, and Hanyopyong-ri are all within 20 miles of each other. That's a lot of history, there. Maps were also my entry into Alternate History. I read Harry Turtledove in high school and liked him well enough, but it was map-makers like Bruce Munro on Deviantart and history-builders like Jared from Sea Lion Press who really lit a fire in my belly. They gave me places that are real, alive, and different.

Discovery and exploration are basically rewarding. There are practical benefits to curiosity of course, but mostly it's just fun to learn that the Yazidis practice another branch of the Abrahamic family of religions, Miyakoan is a cousin-language of Japanese, or that in the Amazon there are two more species of Theobroma in addition to the Theobroma cacao that produces chocolate. What do they taste like?

Alternate History, like all speculative fiction, feeds this joy of discovery. You look at a map and you think, I've never noticed that country before.

Your published AH work has been largely short stories, your Sidewise award was in the short form category, with your larger work tending to be in other genres. Do you think AH as a genre lends itself to shorter works because it means you can just write a snapshot of the scenario without having to focus on character development as much or is it mostly a coincidence?

Luck definitely played a part. Most of my AH short stories so far have been published by Inklings Press in their "Tales from Alternate Earths" anthologies, but the first story of mine they picked up was science fiction. After that, I just wanted to write for them, and then my first "Tales from Alternate Earths" story ('Treasure Fleet') won the Sidewise. You repeat what gets rewarded.

But about choosing a venue for your AH scenario. There are different ways to do it. I very much enjoy the web-forum format, where the author explains what happened in That Time Line, discusses ideas with readers, and illustrates everything with short narrative sketches. Then there's the AH map, with its delightfully enormous map key. Or, you could make the argument that in order to properly convey the sweep of historical events, you need an epic family saga like Turtledove's Worldwar series. A short story can present a world very different from ours, with the origin of that difference turning into a mystery for the reader to solve.

My own short stories so far have mostly been of the narrative sketch variety, using flashbacks, time-jumps, and references to alt-historical documents to build up a picture of world. Now that I wrote that, I'm thinking I ought to experiment with different styles more.

One of the notable, and refreshing, things about your AH shorts, is their focus on areas of history which are somewhat less known in the west, such as Bulgaria, where you live, or Al-Andalus. Do you worry about the audience reaction for something like that, both in terms of people who might check out a WWII story but wouldn't go into areas they don't know, or those who maybe would pick up an AN anthology but need more exposition to set up the situation in Ottoman Bulgaria then they would about the USA?

Yes. I do worry :)

When I read, I want to discover something new to me. When I read AH, I'm more excited in stories that take place outside of the Anglosphere because they have a greater chance of teaching me. And I write what I read.

But then the problem is making sure your readers can understand you. I remember when I was 10 or 11 and my dad read The Golden Compass to me. I could tell by his tone of voice when he said "the Pope in Geneva" that something important was going on, but I didn't know what it was, because I didn't know that the real Pope lived in Rome. If I write about the "Yugoslav Triple-Monarchy" or "Transatlantic Pomorania," and my readers think that those are real places, the story isn't going to work. New things can only be delivered by familiar things.

The best solution I've found to that problem is beta-readers. Give yourself time to send out your work to many people, of many different backgrounds, and find out what baggage people are bringing (or not bringing) to your world.

You link a lot of historical sources on your website. How important do you think it is to be historically accurate in fiction, in terms of rigorous research?

When I wrote "Levski's Boots," for Tales From Alternate Earths Volume III, I found out how little I knew about the Bulgarian independence movement. Each day, my research would revealed that real events were much stranger and more interesting than any of the plans in my outline.

The revolutionary Vasil Levski survived gastric surgery performed on a dining table sprinkled with insecticide powder. The general in charge of defending the Ottoman army's retreat during the Russo-Turkish War was a disgraced Englishman called "Baker Pasha." Before he was Ataturk, Mustafa Kemal was stationed in Sofia as the Ottoman military attache. There, he met and fell in love with the daughter of a Bulgarian general. Ataturk asked for her hand in marriage several times, including during World War I, but her father refused. And don't get me started on what the Balkan royals were up to.

Real life gives us more than just inspiration. I'm sure you can think of misconceptions that started because people read something and assumed it was true. Fiction teaches, and teachers have a duty to be honest.

All that being said, the world is a huge and messy place. There's just too much to know, and no matter how much time and energy you spend on research, you will make errors. Eventually you have to say "I've done the best I can" and publish.

One of your other short stories, 'Lords of the World', is a take on the' War of the Worlds' book, which seems to be one of the most riffed off stories by other writers. What do you think the appeal of that world as a setting for new stories is?

It's awesome, that's why! Horse-drawn cannon against octopus-piloted space-mechs! Also, as H.G. Wells explicitly says in his preamble to the book, War of the Worlds is about colonial oppression. That's an important subject to know about.

Your current AH novel in progress is 'The World's Other Side' in which the world's continent's form differently and Gondwanans end up the leading colonial power with white christians as a minority in the USA. Do you think part of the power of AH is the same power 'War of the Worlds' had in bringing the horrors of colonialism home, 'what if it happened here' and so a story about colonialism in America will be able to say things that you couldn't say by setting it in OTL Congo?

Yes. "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you" is a powerful moral rule of thumb, and "if it happened here" is a good way of illustrating it.

Another reason I invented the Gondwanans is that, although we do have to tell and listen to the stories about real oppression, it's easy to exoticize. The World's Other Side is about what it's like to be radicalized. If I had written about a teenager who went to join ISIS, non-Muslim readers might think that radicalization is some special, foreign thing that could has nothing to do with people like them. So I brought the problem home.

'World's Other Side' is being serialised over on your patreon. What's your thoughts on that crowd funding model as a way of funding work. Do you think you need to be already quite well known and have a large online footprint for it to be successful?

I can tell you that so far, my Patreon has made me about $75. Its biggest benefit is that it's encouraged me to draw again, which is something I hadn't been able to do for many years. Knowing that at least six people will look at what you produce, and you aren't just wasting your time...that has value.

Outside of AH, you write a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. In terms of world building, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of having some kind of framework to work off in 'The World's Other Side' versus being able to create an alien planet completely from scratch?

Limitations can be helpful. Knowing that the Gondwanans are human beings, I don't need to spend time figuring out their behavioral biology or metabolisms. I can dig deeper into their language and cuisine, using real Pama–Nyungan languages and bush tucker as starting points. And making the Gondwanans human, but not of any real historical group worked better to illustrate the point I was making.

You also wrote a comic series 'First Knife' for Image Comics. Obviously that's a much more collaborative and slower process than writing without self published novels or short stories for anthologies. How was working with artists and editors and a co-writer for you?

The process was slow when we couldn't sync up our calendars, but when the stars aligned and we were all working on First Knife at the same time, we make progress with scary speed. It was amazing how an idea would get bigger and heavier as we tossed it back and forth. When I work alone, I sometimes get stuck for days working to answer a question. With Simon and Artyom, questions would just turn into answers, as if by themselves. I love collaboration.

One of the things you've openly talked about a lot on your website is how much a brush with cancer changed your perception on writing. You talk about 'writing wrongly' and being unproductive because you were pressuring yourself to write as a chore and as a result the writing was forced rather than joyful. What is your current way of writing and do you worry that things like patreon makes getting into that 'this is fun' space harder when there's money on the table?

That's true. Making things for a paying audience means my work is valued, but it also means my work is being judged. In order to create, I have to let go of that knowledge. I have to balance my need to create with my readers' need for my creations. I've had one reviewer say he needed to read First Knife. That's enough to be getting on with.

My current process is based on the premise that writing is a part of my good life. I wake up, get my kids ready for school, exercise, meditate, and then spend two hours working as hard as I can to capture a moment. If I succeed, that fulfils me. The rest of the day is gravy.

What can we expect to see from you next, both in AH and in other genres?

AH-wise, there are two novels coming. The Centuries Unlimited (a cross-time rail system dumps 2150s technology onto 1920s Chicago) is currently being shopped to publishers by my agent. Wealthgiver (Hades-worshiping crypto-Thracians take advantage of the Russo-Turkish War) is open for beta readers. I'm currently working on the second draft of Fellow Tetrapod, which is about the United Nations embassy to the Convention of Sophonts, an organization made up of the species that evolved intelligence on alternate Earths. And Simon, Artyom, Jason, and I are working slowly on the sequel to First Knife.

Thank you for this good and difficult interview. I hope your readers enjoy it, and I invite them to contact me in any way they'd like. I love a good conversation.



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