Interviewing the AH Community: Harry Turtledove

Questions from the Sealion Forum Community


Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy 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 we'll be interviewing various members of this community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.


Harry Turtledove, photographed here in 2005 by Szymon Sokol and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence

This week it's Harry Turtledove, the most successful AH writer in the world, who needs no introduction from me. He can be found on twitter.


The questions here were provided by members of our forum.


Hello, Mr Turtledove. First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. We probably wouldn't exist as a publishing company without you. This first question is an interesting one to ask you, as you are normally the answer that other authors give: how did you get into alternate history, and what about it interests you?


I read L. Sprague de Camp's 'Lest Darkness Fall' when I was 14 or 15. That turned me into a Byzantine historian (I got to tell Sprague so, too; don't know whether he was more pleased or appalled). I'd always been someone who wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. If you're someone with a PhD in history who's always wanted to write science fiction and fantasy, what kind of stuff are you likely to write?


The Alternate History genre has grown significantly since you started writing, with in particular the growth of internet communities and self publishing meaning there's a lot more counter factual writing and discussion online. Is that something you've ever observed or participated in yourself and has the way the genre is much bigger, and so your audience has probably read more of it, affected your own writing in any way?


In a minor way, it may have helped me make a better living; other than that, I haven't paid much attention to it. There's a whole lot of past, and plenty of room in it for everyone who wants to play.


What’s your favourite work of alternate history by another writer that you’ve read?


Well, let's see. If I hadn't found 'Lest Darkness Fall' when I was a kid (and I mean "found" literally, because I picked it up in a second-hand bookstore), I wouldn't have the degree I have, I wouldn't have written most of what I'd written (I would have written something--I already had the bug), I wouldn't be married to the lady I'm married to because I met her when I was teaching at UCLA while the man I'd studied under had a guest gig in Athens, I wouldn't have the children I have, I wouldn't be living where I'm living....Other than that, it didn't change my life a bit. Alternate history on the microhistorical level, if you like.


When coming up with a story, do you most often start with the historical era and divergences and then think up the characters and narratives or vice versa?


I more often start with the breakpoint and try to imagine what might have happened under the changed circumstances, how it might have happened, and who might have made it happen. That's more often, but not always.


Are there any topics or eras you have always wanted to explore but have not yet been able to, either because you think it's too obscure for a general audience or for other reasons?


Working too close to the present often means your a-h becomes a political tract. That's my biggest concern. As for obscure topics, well, that's why God made short fiction. You can get away with things in short stories and novelettes that no one would buy as a novel.


Your epic Southern Victory series (aka Timeline-191) is still much-discussed online. There is a pervading fan theory that the dynamic of the Southern Victory books could have been flipped (with the United States as a metaphor for WW1 and WW2 Germany, and perhaps even Gordon McSweeney, not Jake Featherston, becoming a dictator), with the Confederacy only clearly taking on the Germany role with its defeat at the end of the Great War series. Was this reversal ever seriously considered? If so, what choices ended up precluding that - if not, were there other ‘what ifs’ that might have changed the course of the series at some point?


I never thought about having the USA go fascist. The USA was always the more powerful of the two states by itself; the CSA depended much more on its alliance with France and England than the USA did on its with Germany. England and France were vital to the CSA's survival; Germany was only vital to the USA's success.


My wife did suggest, when I reached 1942 in Timeline 191, that I should have the Lizards attack the USA and CSA, just to watch my editor's head explode when he got the manuscript. It was tempting, but I didn't do it.


Many of your stories comment on real history by reflecting it in your settings. Was WorldWar - at its start - a commentary on contemporary asymmetric conflicts? For example, the Soviets in Afghanistan, or the First Gulf War. The Race underestimate their opponents, overestimate their own technological advantage, are reluctant to escalate the conflict, and favour bombing from a ‘safe distance’ to ground engagement. Was this a theme you had in mind? Are there any other parallels with real history that you suspect some readers may have missed in your work?


If the Worldwar books were a comment on any asymmetic warfare, they were a comment on Vietnam, the war of my youth. I knew a lot of people who came back from their service with serious drug problems; it seemed reasonable to me that soldiers of the Race would find something like that here on Earth.


Historical and present-day political discourse around Confederate figures like Robert E. Lee has changed in the decades since you wrote the popular Guns of the South. Were you writing the book today, would you change anything about your depiction of Lee or other Confederate characters? Would you revisit any charged topics you have presented in your work so far?


You do what you do when you do it. You are a part of history, too. Perspectives and opinions change, which doesn't necessarily mean that those held now will continue to be held 100 years from now. I have no idea what I'd do if I were writing from that idea today rather than 30 years ago. It was a different time, and I was a different person.


You’ve been outspoken about politics on Twitter, which for many was the first window into your political leanings. How would you describe your politics, and how has your worldview - political and otherwise - informed your work over the years?


First and most important, I am not a fascist and hate everything that has anything to do with fascism with a fierce and deadly loathing. I want room enough in a society where no one can tell me or anybody else what to do or what to believe, and compassion enough to take care of people who are having a harder time than others. As for how my politics inform my work, well, that's inevitable. I'm sure you know the story about how Theodore Sturgeon got so upset over Joe McCarthy that he couldn't write, and Horace Gold, the editor of Galaxy, told him to do a piece about something else altogether, and promised that his views about the unfortunate Senator would come through anyhow. "Mr. Costello, Hero," the piece Ted wrote, pretty clearly show what he thought.


TV and film has taken more of an interest in alternate history than ever before in recent years. Have you had any approaches from big players in the media? Are you in favour of, or opposed to, adaptations of your work?


I'm in favor. A fair number of things have been optioned, but none produced. If my work were seen on TV, it would make me a reasonable pile of money, and my bank account is all for that.


Finally, what are your current and future projects? What can we expect to see next from you?


There will be a big 'The Best of Harry Turtledove' collection coming out from Subterranean Press at the end of April. I have a long novella, "Or Even Eagle Flew," which puts Amelia Earhart in the RAF during the Battle of Britain, appearing as e-book and paperback later this year, but don't have a pub date for it yet. And, late this year or sometime in 2022, I have a novel set in the 1970s on the border between a-h and regular sf; it's called 'Three Miles Down'.

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