Interview: Author Beth Bernobich Talks About Time Travel and the Spark That Led To Writing

Beth Bernobich is a reader, writer, mother and geek. Author of several books (including the Passion Play epic fantasy series), her next book is The Time Roads, out from Tor in fall 2014. Beth was kind enough to answer a few questions about her and her work.


Paul Weimer: Tell me about Beth Bernobich.

Beth Bernobich: Good question! I have several different answers, all of them true.

I’m a reader. I love to read all kinds of books, whether they’re SF/F or mysteries, historical fiction, romance, nonfiction, or literary. Jane Austen and Patrick O’Brian are my heroes.

I’m a lover of history and languages, with a degree in German and an unofficial minor in history. My absolute favorite class in college was an alternate history class, where we each had roles in the US Revolution, British and colonialists, with the professor playing God and any necessary minor parts. We colonialists tried to avoid war, but we ended up having the revolution three years early. And I nearly got arrested for treason.

I’m also a computer geek. Right after college, I discovered that writing software was just like solving puzzles–and they’d pay me to do that! I wrote my first piece of code on an Altair 8080. Thirty plus years later, I’m still having fun, but the tools are better.

And as you know, I’m a writer–of fantasy, alternate history, and a smattering of SF.

PW: How does someone with a degree in German and a computer geek get into writing F/SF/AH fiction?

BB: By accident?

Okay, that’s true but not entirely accurate. The storytelling part is easy to explain. Everyone in my family loves to tell stories. Our father told us stories about growing up in the Depression, working in the Bethlehem steel mills during the labor strikes, the funny stories and the heart-stopping ones about serving during the second World War. My mother told us stories about growing up on a farm, walking two miles to a one room schoolhouse, and that time she got in trouble for jumping into the pile of freshly-picked cotton. We tell each other stories handed down from parent and grandparents, then we tell those plus our own to our kids.

The speculative fiction is harder to trace back. Or rather, it was always there. When my sister brought home The Hobbit from college and said I might like it. When my brother gave me a copy of The Once and Future King. When I took that history re-enactment class. But really, isn’t all fiction speculative in nature? Don’t all writers ask the question “What if”? For me, the answer to “What if” just includes more possibilities.

PW: Although your new book is tied to some of your earlier short fiction (and we’ll discuss in due time), your first major novel series was the River of Souls books (Starting with Passion Play). What was the genesis of that series?

BB: That was another accident.

I said I came from a family of storytellers, but I never thought about *writing* any stories until I was almost thirty. Then, I had the classic experience of reading a book so awful, I really did throw it to the ground and declare I could do better. So I started writing a novel with a few of the same plot points. And lord, it was awful–more awful than the book that had “inspired” me. But I liked the central idea, and I had caught the writing bug, so I joined a writing group and worked on my craft along with working on the book.

And things changed. I stopped trying to rewrite the book that so annoyed me. Instead, I started to write my own story.

It started with that first draft, actually. Right away, the story took a sharp left turn into fantasy with magic and multiple lives. One by one, the plot points from the original book disappeared. I added in more history, more politics. I wrote a sequel or three, to explore how events might spin out. Eventually, I had what I thought might make a nifty trilogy, plus a few extras, when I decided to write a short story prequel about two minor characters named Ilse and Raul.

The short story turned into a novel, Passion Play. The original first book turned into Queen’s Hunt. A few bones of that early trilogy remain. The three jewels were there from the start, though they exit the story earlier. Valara Baussay was always the heir and queen to Morennioù, but her backstory changed completely. All the rest–the overall story arc, the main characters, and especially the ending–all that had to be rethought and re-imagined.

PW: Moving on from your Epic Fantasy, The Time Roads, your forthcoming work, is your first novel in the Éireann universe but not your first story in it. What can you tell us about Éire?

The Éireann universe is alternate history, set in a world where Éire (Ireland) is the world power and England one of several dependencies. The point of departure took place over 600 years before, so the map of the world is quite different. Germany and Italy have not unified. The Ottoman Empire does not exist. And France is Frankonia, a kingdom that choose its rulers through electors. There are a few weak European colonies on the western continent, but the real powers are the Mexica kingdoms in the south and the Iriquois, Delaware, and Tinglit in the north.

It’s also a world where time travel is possible, with scientists taking advantage of what they call time fractures–weak points in fabric of time. The fractures can be unstable, however, and a time traveler risks being stranded in time paths if the fracture closes. And sometimes, changing the future can change the past.

PW: I understand the format of the Time Roads is not a straight-up novel. What can you tell us about the book’s format?

BB: The Time Roads consists of four stories which tie together into a larger story arc. Three have appeared previously: “Flight of Numbers” in Asimov’s, “The Golden Octopus” in Postscripts, and “Ars Memoriae” as a stand-alone novella from PS Publishing. I’ve edited and expanded all three to make the plot and worldbuilding more consistent. The fourth and final story, also called “The Time Roads,” is all new material.

PW: What is the story of The Time Roads? Who are its protagonists?

BB: The Time Roads is about….time. About the scientists and mathematicians who are obsessed with the nature of time and time travel. About a kingdom and a world on the cusp of the modern age. About the dangers when science intersects with politics. And about one queen who must guide her kingdom toward peace and the future.

The protagonists are Áine Lasairíona Devereaux (the Queen of Éire), Commander Aidrean Ó Deághaidh, (her spymaster), and Síomón and Gwen Madóc, two mathematicians, brother and sister, who have made both brilliant and deadly discoveries in their quest to travel the time roads.

PW: Time and Time travel and playing with time is a distinct subgenre of SF that also shades into contemporary fiction as well. What is interesting about time travel stories to you? Why Time Travel?

BB: There’s no one thing that makes time travel fascinating for me. A few of the key elements I can pin down are: Time travel by definition includes history, whether the travels are from the past or visiting it. Then there are the contradictions inherent in time travel, which lets me, the writer, play with all kinds of what ifs. How would you breach the walls of time in the first place? What if someone from the past were propelled into a very dangerous future, and how could they adapt? What if they wanted and needed to send a message back to the past? What are the politics of time travel?

PW: What authors and books do you look to for your own time travel fiction reading?

BB: My absolute favorite is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Butler sends Dana Franklin back in time abruptly, without any explanation, and plunges her immediately into the dangerous world of being a black woman in Maryland in the early 19th century. But Dana is smart and resourceful. The moment she is yanked back to the present, she prepares for the chance this will happen again. It does, of course. And her observations on the world she’s immersed in, and how she herself changes as she lives the life of a slave, are unflinching. The ending is brutal and honest.

My other favorite is Delia Sherman’s Freedom Maze, which handles the same kind of subject, but from the point of view of a young girl. Sophie Martineau is thirteen and bored. She wishes for an adventure and finds herself suddenly pulled a hundred years into the past, and becomes a slave to her own ancestors. Like Dana, she returns to the present, but changed inside and out by her experience.

PW: With The Time Roads on the near horizon, what’s next for you and your writing?

BB: I’m currently working on what I call my Not!Sherlock project. It’s set in Washington, D.C, in the near future. Dr. Janet Watson has recently returned from the wars in Oklahoma, having lost her arm when the enemy overran the border and the medical unit where she was stationed. But the prosthetic arm she has is unreliable, and she needs to convince the VA to provide her with a new one so she can resume her career as a surgeon. A friend introduces her to Sara Holmes, who claims she needs a partner to share the rent. Meanwhile, Watson has taken a temporary position with the Veteran’s Medical Center, where several veterans are dying under mysterious circumstances.

PW: Thank you for taking the time to do this. Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

BB: Thank you for interviewing me!

You can find out more about my books and stories at my website, http://www.beth-bernobich.com, or on my blog at http://beth-bernobich.livejournal.com.