Questions by Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a relatively tight-knit 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 a lot of our members and writers are involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion either with a counter factual focus or not. 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 the rest of this community.
This week we're talking to Jeff Provine of This Day in Alternate History.
Hello Jeff! First of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. You've been running your AH blog 'This Day in Alternate History' about potential counterfactual historical scenarios for over ten years now. How did you get into Alternate History in the first place and what inspired the idea of the Blog?
I’ve been a big fan of Alternate History even before I knew there was a term for the subgenre. I remember reading Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which makes great comments on supposed advancements in nineteenth century culture, and instead thinking, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if that guy’s technology actually took off?!” From there it’s been a lot of reading with everything from Eric Flint’s 1632 universe to Winston Churchill’s “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg” essay.
When it comes to writing Alternate History, or anything really, I’m all about the “what if.” That little seed of “what if this thing” grows into all directions with causal chains that become just so fascinating. TDIAH itself came from that mental experiment. I was lying in bed with a fever with all kinds of things running through my heat-addled mind when I thought for whatever reason about Will Rogers dying in the plane crash in 1935. What if he had lived? What if he had become president, something that he repeatedly said he had no interest in doing? The story I told myself was so interesting that when I felt better I started thinking about other seemingly minor historical events that could change everything. That took me to “this day in history” lists, which was the perfect prompt to twist one for every day of the year. That project took about five years, and now I can just twist whatever I like!
What has been your favourite scenario you've covered on that blog?
The Will Rogers surviving scenario that started it all keeps my attention. It wasn’t the first; I had to work up to it, I felt. The human side of it is what draws me to think over it again and again: Rogers dropping the A-bomb just as Truman did, since it does make the most strategic sense, but him being such a nice guy that catastrophic civilian casualties and radiation poisoning wouldn’t sit well with him at all to the point of ending his political career while Truman just got back to work (reportedly he said he “slept like a baby” after giving the order).
But, like your kids, it’s hard to pick just one that is the favorite. I’m a big enthusiast for Ancient Rome, so those stories are always exciting to me. I also loved doing a string of different histories for Hawaii since its colonial history is so complicated with many attempted takeovers. That might not seem like much initially, but then being the lynchpin of America’s entry to WWII? What a butterfly!
One of the things most notable about the blog is the massive scope of it with scenarios from all over the world and pretty much every time period. How much research do you normally do in looking for interesting potential divergences?
With 366 entries needed for the goal of having a twist for every day of the year, TDIAH was an enormous undertaking. History is inexhaustible when it comes to events to change, but covering the same cultures over and over becomes boring. That wonderfully led me into the huge amount of history we don’t often talk about and totally should. I have learned so much that I might otherwise have missed about the Middle East, native America, and on and on... I am thankful for that. These days, I usually let the potential divergence strike me from my subconscious as I’m reading about other historical bits, which I do constantly because it’s cool.
A project for this year that has taken immense amounts of research has been matching up areas worldwide that, like Northern Europe, have both plentiful coal and iron and could very well have had their own industrial revolutions if something had gone differently. This has led to a lot of internet searching, perusing atlases, and reading industry and cultural sites. Wikipedia is such a huge help with its plethora of cited knowledge that only grows and grows.
What's the Audience Reaction been like, are there certain time periods that are more likely to get a good reaction on places like twitter than others?
People have been fascinated by the wide scope of TDIAH, which is the best part. My overall intention was to play with history, but a major part of that is learning the context to that history. It’s a chance to expose audiences to all kinds of historical facets they might not have seen, like how Lithuania was for so long a world power or the richest person in history was Mansa Musa of Mali. That being said, it does cause a learning curve. The old joke among alternate historians runs that a novel point of divergence in a corner of history not often discussed might get a few comments while yet another what-if on the South winning the American Civil War will garner hundreds since people already flock to it. Fortunately, things are branching out so much more as Alternate History grows as a genre, and people are hungry for unusual history.
You've also written a number of short stories that have been published, including one in a Sealion Press anthology. How much are your writing habits influenced by what you've been reading up about for the blog? Have you ever found out something about some historical era that you just wanted to make a story out of?
I'm constantly reading articles and books on anything and everything I can get my hands on. Arthur Conan Doyle once described Sherlock's brain like an organized attic with drawers of information that can easily be pulled. My attic is swimming in folders, over-stuffed drawers, and loose papers in piles. There is a system of organization to it, trust me, but it is so easy and fun to get lost while diving deep into one of those piles. That can lead to ideas for later posts, which can turn into stories. My story “The Modern Knight” for Sealion's Alternate Great War anthology was one that had been pinned to the wall of my mind for quite a while after writing a post about Ned Kelly surviving and being impressed into British service. There were some experiments with body armor in WWI, but that was too little far too late to be effective. Kelly's gang had already worked out most of the kinks in their armor decades before, so what if...? There are countless other settings I want to play around with from other posts, too.
Do you think that your writerly instincts are ever in direct opposition to your historical knowledge? Has there ever been instances where you either had to ignore historical reality for the sake of the story or change the story to make it a bit more accurate?
While I always try to be as serious as possible with points of departure and butterflies, there have been a few that are way off the rails. Usually these are intentional fantasy ones like the post about animals being sent into space returning with superpowers from being bathed in cosmic radiation. One favorite was the special Olympics held for spiritualists, which was inspired by a photograph of a jumper in midair bearing striking similarities to the photos of certain mediums levitating. There have been instances where I wanted a certain outcome, but for the serious posts, I just wouldn't bring myself to invite alien spacebats to get to a goal. Besides, history is so wild that the logical conclusion often ends up even stranger than what I had imagined from the beginning!
You primarily seem to write short stories for anthologies. Do you just write what you want and then find a publisher to pitch them to or are you mostly writing to order these days?
I love short stories! Not to say I despise longer forms, not at all, but with my passion for finding that "what if," a short story is a great way to maximize my writing time to explore the most possible worlds. It's always a blast to see a call for short stories, take in the submission guidelines, and then play with my imagination for a premise to iron out. That sort of gamifying is great motivation to write with a deadline. I also have notebooks of other ideas to write about when the time comes for those, so no shortage in either.
Do you think the growth of the online small presses has made getting genre writing published easier or have they just replaced the old speculative fiction magazines?
The publishing world is certainly something, eh? The expansion of technology has brought on a wonderful slew of indie presses, which is fantastic to see. Even in the days of pulps and magazines, which were glorious for original ideas, there was still a limitation on how much could be published since they were all physical copies and the same editor may have similar veins for stories being accepted. Now just about anyone can put a story together, even getting feedback before publication (or during serialized publication), like The Martian. The trick today is competing with all of the other media in the digital universe.
How do you feel the Alternate History online scene has changed over the last decade and do you see it becoming increasingly Mainstream in the future?
AH has certainly changed over the past decade, growing and expanding with more and more diverse people onboard. It wasn't too long ago some considered AH a subgenre of science fiction thanks to so many fascinating time-travel stories, even though historians have been doing mental exercises with what-ifs for millennia. Big success on the screen with Man in the High Castle and HBO's Watchmen have done a great deal in bringing AH into its own genre. From that, I believe we'll be seeing a lot more expansion of it into mainstream while our culture turns toward introspection.
And what are your own personal ambitions in the future, both as a writer and as a blogger?
My ambition as a writer is to fulfill this vision: Me, standing in a cosy, quiet cabin, wrapped up in comfy PJs and a robe, a steaming mug in my hand, looking out over the snowy woods, knowing all I have to do that day is write whatever I want. How do I get there? We'll see. I like to maintain a lot of irons in the fire, some with comics projects, some with prose, some with whatever else comes across my plate.
Also, while it's impossible to tell what will still be fashionable in the future, it would be very cool to replicate something that happened in class the other day as we discussed Washington Irving:
Professor in the 2200s: "You know, Jeff Provine."
Students: "Who's that?"
Profession: "He's the guy who wrote ____________."
Students: "Oh, I know that!"