Alan Smale writes science fiction and fantasy, currently focusing on alternate history and historical fantasy. His novella of a Roman invasion of ancient America, “A Clash of Eagles”, won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and the first book in a trilogy set in the same universe, Clash of Eagles, was published by Del Rey (in the US) and Titan Books (in the UK and Europe) in March 2015. The sequel, Eagle in Exile, went on sale in March of 2016, and the series will conclude with Eagle And Empire in March 2017.
Alan’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Abyss & Apex, Paradox, Writers of the Future 13, Podcastle and Pseudopod and numerous other magazines and original anthologies, and his non-fiction science pieces about terraforming and killer asteroids have appeared in Lightspeed.
Alan was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about his novels, the joy of maps in books, a capella, and more. Also, bonus space travel question and answer!
ANDREA JOHNSON: Your fantasy and science fiction stories have been appearing in prestigious magazines and anthologies since the 1990s. Yet you are currently knee-deep in writing alternate history. Why the switch from writing fantasy to writing alternate history? Are the two genres really all that different?
ALAN SMALE: It was a gradual evolution rather than a conscious decision. I work as a scientist, but I’ve always been a history buff as well. About ten years ago the balance of my writing tipped in favor of historically-based speculative fiction; the most compelling ideas in my brain were always those based on actual history, historical fantasy, secret history, twisted history.
I like riffing on real-world history, and thinking about how our own history could have been different. Or how maybe our history really was different to how we fondly imagine it to be. After all, a lot of our assumptions, myths, and stereotypes about the past have been swept away over the past couple of decades. History is not dry and dusty. We don’t know everything. Our conception of the past is constantly changing.
I’m obviously not the only one ravenous for historical stories. We’re enjoying something of a renaissance of historical writing in the non-fiction world. History books aimed at a popular audience are better written, more atmospheric, and more appealing than they used to be. On TV I see more historical dramas, and more contemporary dramas with historical roots. And then, of course, there’s the rise of steampunk. Whenever I go to cons, the panels based around historical topics are at least as well attended as those on hard SF, space opera, or future dystopias. History is cool!
Are they different genres? Actually, I think they are. I don’t argue that they should be shelved differently in bookstores; after all, the distinctions between SF and fantasy, or dark fantasy and horror, can be debated endlessly. But it does feel to me that historically-based fantasy is as different from secondary-world fantasy in its techniques, approaches, and storylines as straight SF is different from straight high or low fantasy.
I think historical fantasy utilizes somewhat different techniques. Beginning with a base of real history adds a depth, richness, and resonance that is harder to come by in entirely made-up settings.
ANDREA: The novella “A Clash of Eagles” won the Sidewise Award in 2011, and then it quickly grew into a novel, which grew into a trilogy. How is writing a series of novels different from writing short fiction? Is it easier? Harder?
ALAN: Writing novels has become easier for me than writing short fiction, but it wasn’t always that way. All through the 90s I thought in terms of short fiction, and then my short stories developed more complexity and turned into novelettes. And then novellas. And then I found myself writing really long novellas like my Bronte sisters time-out-of-joint story, “Delusion’s Song” (which appeared in the Panverse One anthology edited by Dario Ciriello), but all the while thinking of them as short novels with fewer subplots and diversions.
In “A Clash of Eagles” I was playing with the idea of moving a Roman legion across North America on a quest for gold. I knew it was an idea too big for a novella, and that it was probably the start of a much meatier project. I was just figuring out if I was capable of handling a narrative that large.
In fact, “Clash” jumped straight from being a novella to a book series. I knew upfront that it wouldn’t fit into a single book. When I was sketching out the arcs in my head it just fell naturally into that form: “Here are the Book One ideas, here are the Book Two ideas, here are the Book Three ideas.” Although I wrote the Clash of Eagles intending it to be entirely self-contained, I had the outlines for the second and third books in my head the whole time. And when I pitched it to my agent, and she pitched it to publishers, it was as a three-book series.
My two recent stories in Asimov’s were both novellas. It’ll probably take some work for me to figure out how to write short stories again!
ANDREA: What kinds of research did you do for the Clash of Eagles novels?
ALAN: A lot. I can totally see how authors fall into the rabbit hole of research, because it’s a pretty appealing hole. Over the course of writing the Clash of Eagles series I’ve read over 150 books on various aspects of ancient North American cultures, the Roman Empire, geology and geography, ships, even metallurgy. The goal, of course, is for all this research to provide a convincing background for the action. I’m pretty sure the pages of Clash of Eagles and Eagle in Exile don’t bleed scholarship. But when my Mississippian Culture characters are eating, their meal is based on the best archeological evidence we have, usually from analysis of middens. If they catch fish, it’s with appropriate technology. The travel times and pitfalls are accurate for the technologies of the era. Roman siege engines fire their bolts and rocks the distances they really did in our world. I hope those kind of details help the story to feel authentic.
ANDREA: I love maps in books. There’s this great map in the beginning of Clash of Eagles – it’s a map of the Eastern United States, but the spellings are different and it says SPQR at the bottom. You had a great blog post on your website about how in this case, the map is the territory. How did you get into maps? How is having a map in a book helpful to the reader?
ALAN: I’m glad to hear you say that! We had quite the discussion about it in the production stages of Clash of Eagles. I wanted a map from the start. There was resistance in some quarters; after all, it’s an extra expense and an extra logistical hassle. Someone – I’ve strategically forgotten who – said “Nobody ever buys a book because there’s a map in it.” Obviously they never met me as a teenager! I did a quick poll of my friends and every single one of them were more likely to buy a book in a bookstore if it contained a cool, imagination-expanding map. Long story short: the books have their map, and it’s just what I wanted. Simon M. Sullivan is the cartographer, and I enjoyed the back-and-forth with him while he was creating it.
I think the map can’t fail to be helpful to the reader. In the book we see Marcellinus’s journey through his eyes, but he doesn’t always know where he is. His perception of the true scale of the continent is not clear until quite late in the first book. But the reader already knows all about North America. He or she may well be asking: “Well, where the heck is Gaius now, and how does this relate to what I know about the US?”
It’s also a wonderful visual cue that you’re entering a world where some things will feel familiar, and others very, very different.
ANDREA: Without giving us any spoilers, what’s your favorite scene in Eagle in Exile? Which scene that was most challenging to write?
ALAN: Generally, the battle scenes are the most challenging, because there’s a lot of information to get across quickly. I want my fights to be fast and tight and exciting, but I also want to supply enough detail for them to be atmospheric, and for the reader to clearly visualize them. But as a reader myself I find that action scenes can get boring unless they’re tightly tied to character. If it’s all just troop movements and explosions, why would anyone stay interested. So I try to keep my characters front and center.
So the section in Exile that was the most gratifying for me to finish was a big battle at a key moment, involving several of our favorite characters, but it’s hard to describe without spoilers. So maybe we’ll just say that in this fight Gaius Marcellinus is not in command. He’s forced to react to a more-or-less impossible situation, to do his best to save lives on his own side rather than maximize the deaths to the enemy. It was pretty traumatic for me to write, actually.
For a gentler scene: readers of the first book will know that Marcellinus has a rather charged and turbulent relationship with Sintikala, chief of Cahokia’s Hawk clan, and her daughter Kimimela. My favorite non-battle scene is a particularly tense conversation between the three of them, that takes place in the middle of a crisis. Part of Marcellinus’s arc in these books is his discovery of family and community, and this scene is an important part of that arc.
ANDREA: The final book in the trilogy, Eagle and Empire, is expected to hit bookstore shelves in 2017. What will be next for you?
I wish I knew! I have a number of ideas simmering on my back burner. One is historical fantasy set in another alternate past. The other is set in the future, but it’s the future of my Clash universe. It may or may not even be recognizable to the reader as the future of that universe, and it would be a very different kind of story. Chalk and cheese, really, and an entirely separate story. But I have quite a bit of thinking to do before I start my next book. Knowing me, I’ll probably start with…A novella.
ANDREA: Like many authors, you attend quite a few regional conventions and book festivals. With so much social media at our fingertips, is attending events like these still important?
ALAN: I see a lot of online discussion about this. Frankly, I don’t know how many books I sell as a result of going to SF conventions. A hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis might show that the money I spend going is not matched by the increased book sales. But that’s not why I go. I go to meet friends, talk to people who read my books, talk to people who read other people’s books . . . I go to take the temperature of the field. I often feel that the whole cost of attending is justified by one or two conversations in a bar or in the back of a room, and they were generally not conversations I was expecting when I flew into town.
I do have to be selective. The cons I attend most reliably as a writer are Worldcon, World Fantasy, and Capclave. That last is a small local con in Washington DC, based mostly around short fiction, but the people who go there are fabulous.
ANDREA: In your copious spare time, you are part of the musical group The Chromatics. I got a kick out of reading about AstroCappella. Is writing music and performing with The Chromatics as fun as it looks? What’s the upcoming Chromatic’s event schedule?
ALAN: The Chromatics are a six-person vocal band, and the core members have been singing together for over twenty years now (gosh). We have an educational project called AstroCappella, which is a collection of astronomically correct a cappella songs. Our CD is in use in schools in all 50 states, and overseas as well. We also perform at various local science fiction conventions, like Philcon, Balticon, Shore Leave, Farpoint, and would like to do even more, because SF fans really get our songs and what we’re trying to do with them.
It’s certainly a lot of fun. It helps me stay sane. Singing with the Chromatics is very different than either my day job or my writing, and involves much more jumping around. In the near future we have a gig at the National Air and Space Museum in DC for their Family Day, and a performance at a school for a sustainability conference. We recently performed at Farpoint, and will probably have more performances at festivals, museums and such through the rest of the year. You can check us out at www.thechromatics.com.
ANDREA: My husband found out I was interviewing you, and he’s an astrophysics geek. (You two would get along famously!) He would like to know what types of engine technology you think will be used on our first manned mission to Mars?
ALAN: I work at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where I do research into black holes and neutron stars, as well as serving as the director of an astrophysics data archive. I can’t claim any expertise in engineering, and I’m speaking now as a private citizen rather than a Government employee, but I’d have to go with a relatively straightforward answer: we’ll probably go with solar electric propulsion for the heavy cargo ships, with more standard liquid-fuel cryogenic rocket engine supplemented by solid rocket boosters to get the humans off the ground in the first place, and perhaps an NTR – nuclear thermal rocket – for the long transition from Earth orbit to Mars. But NASA and other agencies are making leaps and bounds in propulsion technologies, so I could easily envision other alternatives.
ANDREA: Thanks, Alan!