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The Alternate Lavender Island: Matthew Kresal

Marooned guest: Matthew Kresal.


Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


This time, we have marooned on Lavender Island or very own expert on all things Dr Who-related and UFO-related. He has written or contributed to any number of AH books, including Our Man on the Hill published by SLP, and contributed to Building a Better Future , published by SFP, which was the first book published by that company where the proceeds go towards the reconstruction of Ukraine – necessary after Russia’s illegal and obscene invasion.

 

He’s also involved in podcasts and is a critic.

 

Welcome to the isolation of Lavender Island, Matthew. What’s the first AH book you’ve chosen?

My first choice is one that if it wasn’t my introduction to literary alternate history, then it solidified my interest in it. Though part of why it might have stuck with me is that I still remember coming across it on prominent display in the hole-in-the-wall public library that served the small town I went to high school at. Given the cover, with Hitler and the Confederate flag and Lincoln with the hammer and sickle; it was the last things you’d expect to see there!

 

Whichever librarian put it there, though, The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century stuck with me. Enough that I checked it out a few times before I left the town behind and ended up buying a copy of it in hardcover when I stumbled across it at Barnes & Noble one day. Edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H Greenberg, it was an eye-opening volume to what alternate history could be. From Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Lucky Strike to Suppose They Gave a Peace by Susan Shwartz (which I late came back across in its original home in Greenberg’s anthology Alternate Presidents), the range of it was breath-taking and the stories were largely good ones. Because of my own interests, The Winterberry by Nicholas A DiChario was particularly haunting (and, again, came from an earlier Greenberg anthology).

 

If there’s a “greatest hits album” for alternate history, it would be this anthology. Given the sheer number of short stories I’ve written, I also can’t help thinking this cemented both an association and love for the format.


Picture courtesy Amazon.


And the second AH book you’ve selected?

I’m a lifelong space nerd, something I’m sure will come as no surprise to those who’ve read some of my articles for the blog or know that I (somehow) won the Sidewise Award for my story Moonshot. It’s likewise not a surprise that I’ve read a number of alternate history works that tie into space exploration. Indeed, putting a short list of titles together for this, I could easily have made most of this list from such books. Particularly given how much I enjoyed things like Stephen Baxter’s Voyage and Warren Ellis’ comic Ministry of Space.

 

For the sake of variety on my Lavender Island, I’m limiting myself to one. It was a tough choice, but I’m going with The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. In part because it’s a good read, to the point that I literally read it cover to cover in a single sitting a few years ago (a rarity for me these days but circumstance gave me the chance to do so). It’s also, in contrast to those aforementioned works, the choice of telling it in the first person gives it that grounded feel with Kowal’s Elma York being a fascinating but flawed protagonist. The historical influences on Kowal’s world felt very evident, from the early space race to the FLATs (erroneously called the Mercury 13 these days), but her spin on it works well here. The two sequels we’ve had to date (and a third that’s been delayed) were fantastic as well, but being on the island would give me a chance to re-read it. Hopefully I’ll savour it instead of guzzling it this time around.


Picture courtesy Amazon.


Moving on to your third book. What have you chosen?

Going for variety and being a bit sentimental, I’ve got to take Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula with me.

 

It was another sort of introduction as I hadn’t seen horror and pop culture mashed up with alternate history before. Newman’s book was the literary equivalent of a Venn diagram for my interests, from Jack the Ripper to references not only to various vampires but also the likes of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond if you know where to look. Plus having a number of real world figures thrown in was a treat, with half the fun of reading the novel being to spot things. I imagine that after another decade and a half there’s more to spot and it would give me something to do on the island.


Picture courtesy Amazon.


Can you talk about your fourth book?

Perhaps because of my interest in space, I’ve also been fascinated with JFK and his assassination. If we’re talking post-World War II “what if?” moments, then asking what if events in Dealey Plaza had gone differently has to be a defining one. I know it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot over the years and would like to write about one day, if I can find something worthwhile to add to what Mark Lawson once termed: “The Kennedy Book Depository.”

 

Like with space exploration, it would have been easy to let this list be dominated by JFK related books. Limiting myself to just one was surprisingly easy because there’s one title about all I’d want. Because of all the JFK alternate histories I’ve come across, Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies remains the best of the lot. Written as a faux non-fiction book, Zabel avoids a lot of traps and allows for a certain ambiguity you find in real history books where we simply don’t know things.

 

Zabel also doesn’t avoid either those six seconds in Dallas or what the likely aftermath would have been. Though admittedly, the author and I share similar views about what happened that day. Or, indeed, what would likely have happened to JFK and his administration if certain facts had been made public when he was still in the Oval Office. Sugar-coated Surrounded by Enemies is not!


Picture courtesy Amazon.


What’s the fifth and final AH book you’ve chosen?

Everyone thought I was going to get through this without mentioning Doctor Who, didn’t they? Being trapped on an island without Doctor Who would be maddening, but thankfully there’s been a novel published amongst the explosion of literary spin-offs between its TV incarnations that fits the bill. Thus enters The Infinity Doctors by Lance Parkin.

 

It’s an anniversary story, published for the show’s 35th in 1998. Parkin didn’t write your usual anniversary story, but instead wrote something that was deliberately set outside the usual canon of the series. It mashes up elements of Gallifrey (home planet of the Doctor – sort of – and the Time Lords) from its different screen and page iterations and other things from the series. It’s an epic read as a result with wonderful visual ideas and a sense of the character and the show’s history, something that’s always made me think it would be a great starting point for anyone wanting to do a feature film based off of the series one day. Having all that to conjure up in my mind’s eye all over again would be welcome on the island.

 

I’ve also chosen it because it represents a “what if?” moment in my life. I got into Doctor Who rather coincidentally right before a dark period in my life in 2007. My being a fan gave me a point of stillness in that storm, none more so than that book. It was a literal life saver because, by virtue of having bought it and what I spent on it, it became the thing that convinced me not to jump off a bridge one summer night. I have wondered from time to time how that night might have gone if I hadn’t bought the novel when I did, so if you’re reading this interview now or anything that I’ve written, you’ve got this novel to thank. To paraphrase a line from the series itself, being on an island without the Doctor simply isn’t worth thinking about as a result.


Picture courtesy Amazon.


You’re also allowed one history book of OTL history. What will you be taking?

This is a tough one, given the bibliophile that I am! Or, indeed, my many and varied interests. As such, my answer would probably change depending on my mood. Right now, I’d go with A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. Perhaps the classic book on the sinking of the Titanic and one that still holds up after nearly seventy years. It’s not a thick book but it packs a lot in and Lord knew how to write with a novelist’s flair.


Picture courtesy Amazon.


I think we can add Why the Titanic Sank, by Brad Rousse (published SFP) to this, out of generosity. Moving on, those are your books. Music. What AH music would you like to have with you?

I’ve got what I suspect is a very niche answer for this. Because I’ve been a film score nerd since I was in my teens. While my middle school and high school classmates were fans of whoever the big country and pop music stars of the late 1990s and early 2000s were, I was geeking out over decades old film scores. Especially when I got into the James Bond films and John Barry’s scores became the soundtrack of my teens.

 

As such, I was intrigued to later learn that Barry almost scored one of my favourite films. In the early 1980s, Barry was approached to score Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe’s book about test pilots like Chuck Yeager and the early space race. Barry and Kaufman didn’t get along, with the music Barry wrote not meeting with the writer/director’s approval. As much as I love Bill Conti’s eventual score for the film, I’d love to know what a score from Barry would have sounded like. Especially since this was the period when Barry was writing some of my favourite non-Bond music, including the scores for Raise the Titanic and Out of Africa. I hope to have the soundtrack album on a CD player or iPod to hear while sitting there on my island.

 

The final item you are allowed is a luxury item taken from Alternate History. What have you chosen?

I can’t imagine not wanting to write, even if no-one will be around to read it. So, I’m going to be rather basic here, requesting a lot of paper and a lot of Pilot G2 07 ink pens so that I can put down some words.

 

If you’re going to insist on something Alternate History, I’d like to view the 1960s adaptation of the James Bond novel Moonraker with Sean Connery that the artist Sean Longmore did a poster of back in 2022. An adaptation of my favourite Bond book done in the sixties at the first peak of the films would be well worth a watch. Especially if John Barry scored it as he was wont to do at the time.


Those are all your items. How well do you think you will cope on Lavender Isle?

Terribly! Me and the outdoors only do well in short bursts and my camping experiences from childhood and early teens didn’t leave me with much in terms of survival skills. I’m rather afraid the: “You’d be dead in a week” cliché would be true for me.

 

 

Discuss this interview Here.

 

 

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