SFFWRTCHT: An Interview With Harry Turtledove

Born in Los Angeles, Harry Turtledove received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history from UCLA in 1977. In 1979, Turtledove published his first two novels, Wereblood and Werenight, under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson. He continued to use the Iverson name until 1985 when he published his “Herbig-Haro” and “And So to Bed” stories under his real name. From 1986-1987, he served as the Treasurer for the Science Fiction Writers of America. Turtledove won the HOMer Award for Short Story in 1990 for “Designated Hitter”, John Esthen Cook Award for Southern Fiction in 1993 for Guns of the South, the Hugo Award for Novella in 1994 for “Down in the Bottomlands”. “Must and Shall” was nominated for the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, the 1996 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and received an honorable mention for the 1995 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. The Two Georges also received an honorable mention for the 1995 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. The Worldwar series received a Sidewise Award for Alternate History Honorable Mention in 1996. On August 1, 1998, Turtledove was named honorary Kentucky Colonel while Guest of Honor at Rivercon XXIII in Louisville, KY.He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, mystery writer Laura Frankos. He can be found online at http://www.sfsite.com/~silverag/turtledove.html.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt, the one behind Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat and twitter feed (@sffwrtcht), had the opportunity to interview Harry for SF Signal…

SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: Where did your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?

Harry Turtledove: I found it through things like the Oz books, the Mushroom Planet stories, and the Miss Pickerel yarns (when you’re in the third grade, you don’t realize how bad they are). When I was 11 or 12, I found Norton and Heinlein, and that was it. I was hooked for life.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some writers who inspired you as you discovered the genre?

HT: My biggest inspiration was L. Sprague de Camp. Poul Anderson runs a close second. Theodore Sturgeon, Peter Beagle, Zelazny, Delaney…I could go on, but you get the idea.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?

HT: I first tried a novel when I was 14. First finished one when I was 16. First started working on stuff that had a chance of being salable in my early 20s, then didn’t write much fiction at all because I was in grad school. First sale at 28.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?

HT: No, I studied first the sciences and then history. I learned by reading an awful lot and by writing a half a million words of stuff nobody would do anything with except wrap old fish.

SFFWRTCHT: So where did the idea for Supervolcano: Eruption come from?

HT: I read an article in the National Geographic about what bubbles under Yellowstone, and what I think of as my story-detector light went on.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did it take to write?

HT: About 9 months.

SFFWRTCHT: How many drafts do you typically do?

HT: Two and a half, the half being final cleanup.

SFFWRTCHT: The book is set in scattered places all over the U.S. Do you visit the places you write about? Or how do you research them?

HT: I’ve visited most of them: Berkeley and L.A. (well, I live here) and Missoula and Yellowstone and Guilford, Maine. You can write better about a place you’ve seen for yourself. You don’t have to have been there–I’ve sure written about places I’ve never seen–but it does help.

SFFWRTCHT: Is there an actual supervolcano under Yellowstone? How much research into geography/geology did you do in writing this? You mentioned having a b.g. in science.

HT: Yes, there’s a supervolcano under Yellowstone. It’s been going off every so often, across Oregon and Idaho and Wyoming, for 18,000,000 years or so. Everything about it in the book (except for the fictitious Coffee Pot Springs magma dome) is real. The research was in geology, not geography. The geography gets revised pretty drastically if and when the eruption comes

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve written a lot of alternate history. In what genre would you categorize the Supervolcano series? What challenges were there to writing it?

HT: For lack of a better phrase, I’d characterize the Supervolcano books as disaster novels. Challenges? Writing about the world here-and-now was interesting, because I don’t seem to do it very often.

SFFWRTCHT: This is the first of a planned trilogy. Will the books pick up where each left off? Will there be time gaps?

HT: The second one will pick up directly after the first. There may be a gap between 2 and 3–I’m still working that out in my head.

SFFWRTCHT: How much effort do you put into worldbuilding before you sit down to write? Or do you just throw it together as its needed?

HT: Well, this world is pretty much our own, barring the supervolcano eruption (details, details). For an alternate world, you’d better think about it beforehand or it won’t hang together. And if it doesn’t, you will hang separately (thank you, Ben Franklin). You’ll get little shnibbies of ideas to throw in as you write, but you’d better have a skeleton on which to mount them or you’re in trouble.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you get interested in writing alternate history?

HT: I’m someone who’s always wanted to write sf, and I have a doctorate in Byzantine history. What am I gonna do?

SFFWRTCHT: What are the key elements in writing alternate history?

HT: Key elements include being plausible and trying not to forget all the consequences your changes are liable to have.

SFFWRTCHT: You wrote your Elabon series under the name Eric Iverson? Why a nom de plume?

HT: Because the publisher who first bought them said no one would believe Turtledove (which is my real name). Then when Lester del Rey bought the Videssos cycle, he said people would remember Turtledove and I couldn’t use Iverson any more, even though I’d started selling pretty regularly under that name. He also said if I wouldn’t go along he wouldn’t buy the books. So I may be the only writer in captivity who’s had his pen-name and his own name forcibly imposed on him.

SFFWRTCHT: How inspired were you by Asimov for those stories (They are frequently compared to “Nightfall” and the Foundation books)?

HT: I’m not sure I’d even read “Nightfall” when I started the first Gerin the Fox book. And, with the academic training I have, thinking about the fall of empires comes naturally.

SFFWRTCHT: It took you 17 years to get back to the series after the first two books. And you wrote three sequels? Why did you decide to revisit that?

HT: I had more things to say, and saying them in that universe seemed a good way to go about it. I might have done it sooner if I could have regained rights to the first one before the mid-’90s.

SFFWRTCHT: You also did something interesting with alternate history in your Worldwar/Colonization series and Southern Victory series. Imagining an alien invasion mid-WWII or what might have followed if the Confederacy won the Civil War. Is there a fascination on your part with what might have been? Does it stem from dissatisfactions with history or are you someone who’s always asking “what if”?

HT: Everyone says “what-if” all the time. My life would be entirely different if someone else had plucked de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall off the used-bookstore shelf the day before I found it. I would have studied something besides Byzantine history, I wouldn’t be married to the woman I’m married to (I met her while I was teaching at UCLA), I wouldn’t have written most of what I’ve written (I would have written something, because I already had the bug), I wouldn’t be living in this house. . . . And we all have stories like that. They’re alternate history on the microhistorical scale. It’s easy to imagine them affecting nations as well as individuals. Alternate history is the one kind of sf (if it is sf) that doesn’t require technology to work. Even Livy, the Roman historian, did an a-h about what might have happened had Alexander the Great not died young but turned west against Rome.

SFFWRTCHT: When you are writing something diverging from historical events, what limitations do you deal with to make it believable? I’m assuming you can’t just take it and run with it but have to consider themes, cultural elements, etc. carefully? Am I wrong?

HT: No, you’re right. You try to imagine how your change will affect the whole milieu that’s changing. You can’t always, but you need to try. And all you’re aiming for is plausibility, a point critics sometimes forget. This isn’t an experimental science. You’re trying to entertain and, with luck, to provoke thought while you entertain.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can?

HT: It varies. I do first draft in longhand, which saves a lot of rewriting. I try to get a certain amount done each day. Don’t always, but I try. Then I clean up in the rewrites.

SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play for you in the process now that you have a publisher?

HT: My wife, who’s also a writer, is my main reader. And of course I have to keep my editors happy or I don’t eat.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use outlines or character sketches? Special software? Music?

HT: Fountain pen.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you deal with writer’s block?

HT: You fight through it. The words are there. You have to make them come out.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

HT: I once told Ted Sturgeon I was having trouble doing something or other, that I kept trying and I couldn’t get it the way I wanted it. And he looked at me and said, “I give you permission to do it wrong.” Amazing how liberating that was.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the worst?

HT: You don’t have the room. Most advice is worth its weight in gold, which is to say, nothing.

SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?

HT: That’d be telling.

Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

One thought on “SFFWRTCHT: An Interview With Harry Turtledove”

  1. Thanks, Bryan.


    I was particularly curious why Dr. Turtledove would write a disaster novel, and you got him to answer that pretty well.


    I’m not surprised he knew about Livy’s own “alternate history” ideas. As I recall, in Roman pride, he thought the Romans could

    have beaten Alexander. I am not entirely convinced.

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