Spartans at the Gate: Eight Questions for History Novelist Noble Smith Interview by Hunter Liguore

Sons of Zeus coverNoble Smith is an award-winning playwright who has worked as a video game writer, a documentary film producer and the media director of an international human rights foundation. His non-fiction book, The Wisdom of the Shire,” was called, “A definitive guide to Tolkien’s worldview,” by Wired Magazine, and has been translated into eight languages. His epic action-adventure novel, Sons of Zeus, was published by Thomas Dunne Books June 2013, and is the first in The Warrior Trilogy. The second book in the trilogy, Spartans at the Gate, was released in June 2014.

  1. Noble, how did you get started with writing? What was your early inspiration, a moment that you can point to as the starting point?

The first book that I started working on was an epic science fiction/fantasy novel that was a cross between Frank Herbert’s Dune and The Lord of the Rings. I was fourteen at the time, and it was quite an ambitious project for someone that age, but it was spectacularly derivative of those two books. But you know what? It got me into the habit of making a daily effort to write. At first I wrote in cursive, then printing, then I got an electric typewriter, and by the time I was in high school I had one of the first home computers. To me writing is physical labor just as much as a mental endeavor. The Medieval manuscript illuminators, hunched over their desks all day, used to call their efforts “plowing the page.” I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. You’re like a farmer standing behind an ox, holding tight to a plow, breaking furrows in the soil of your imagination. It’s a lot of effort, but cool things grow out of that labor.

  1. How did your upbringing/schooling/travel/mentors affect your writing path?

Travel had a huge impact on my path to becoming a writer. We went to the United Kingdom right before I started high school and I got to see all of the great museums in London and visit places like Oxford (where my favorite writer J.R.R. Tolkien lived for so many years). And every summer we would go to a town called Ashland, Oregon where the biggest Shakespeare Festival in the world is located. In one week we would see about a dozen plays, and by the time I went to college I had seen half of Shakespeare’s canon. I ended up graduating from theatre school in that town alongside actor Ty Burrell (the star of Modern Family).

  1. The first book in the Warrior Triology is Sons of Zeus, which tackles the ancient world of Greece, and follows a young Greek warrior, Nikias, who “dreams of glory in the Olympic games as he trains for the pankration—the no-holds-barred ultimate fighting of the era.” His training is cut short when the city is attacked, in a type of “Pearl Harbor” way, which sends Nikias and his neighbors to war. The book is quite an accomplishment in how it recreates the past in such a lively and innovative way, one that allows that contemporary readers can easily connect, with. How long did it take to write the book? What type of research did you do for the novel?

Sons of Zeus took me ten years to write. A lot of people wonder how a Tolkien-freak like me could have written this book. What’s interesting is that Tolkien inspired me to start reading the ancient Greeks. I read in one of his letters that his introduction to the classics was Homer. So I went from reading The Lord of the Rings to The Iliad and The Odyssey. In college we had these core classes. Mine was Great Books. In that class we read every extant play from Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. I fell in love with the Greeks after that. So about ten years ago I was working as a documentary film producer, and we started a project about 5th B.C. Athens—the “Golden” age of Greece. During my research I came across the story of the sneak-attack on the democratic independent city-state of Plataea: a tale that I had glossed over the first time that I read Thucydides. I couldn’t believe that this epic story of courage and survival had never been the subject of a novel. The character of a young Olympic fighter-in-training who must save his city, family and beloved from genocidal invaders just came to me in a vision.

  1. Who were the real characters from the historical sequences in the book and who came from your imagination?

There are two historical personages in my story. The first was a magistrate of the city-state of Plataea named Nauklydes who betrayed his own people and opened the doors of the citadel to an attack force of Thebans. (The Thebans were the arch-enemies of the Plataeans, and their city-state was less than eight miles away.) The second personage is the Theban who led the attack against Plataea—a man named Eurymakus. My main characters—the ones that sprang from my imagination—are an old warrior and former Olympic fighting champion named Menesarkus, and his grandson and heir Nikias. At the start of Sons of Zeus they are farmers living on the outskirts of Plataea. They are featured throughout the trilogy.

  1. Spartans at the GateYou’ve recently published the second book in the trilogy, Spartans at the Gates, coming out in 2014, and had the chance to visit Greece. How much hands-on research or travel was involved in crafting the story? Did you visit the historical sites where the story takes place?

When you write about a real place for a long time, and then you go to that actual spot, the experience is mind-altering. It’s like stepping into a dream. Imagine if Tolkien could have taken a stroll into Middle-earth? That was what it was like for me the first time I went to the actual site of the ruins of Plataea. You see things that you don’t read about in books: the flora and fauna, the smells, the color of the dirt. These are all really important for creating verisimilitude. That said, one of my favorite writers is Patrick O’Brian (author of the epic Aubrey/Maturin series); and I know that he didn’t sail around the world on a Napoleonic War-era fighting ship. But his series is one of the most realistic ever written. But that was because he was a first-rate researcher who spent countless hours poring over letters and documents in the Public Records Office.

  1. What is one of the trickiest part of writing a trilogy?

The hardest part is trying to make the deadlines set by my publisher. I have about a year in between books. That’s a lot of writing to get done while also doing other work. You can’t really make a living as an author unless you’ve got a smash hit. Plus I like to spend a lot of time with my kids. So it’s carving out that time to write. I don’t give myself the luxury of having writer’s block. Ever. I treat writing like driving a truck. Truck drivers never get to say, “I’ve got driving block today. I can’t make that delivery.”

  1. Do your ideas just “come” to you, or is it a matter of finding a nugget of research that launches further discovery? Example?

So many ideas just come to me as if the characters are speaking to me in voices. I know that sounds esoteric, but it’s true. I also have ideas in dreams or waking visions. But sometimes I’ll see something at a museum or at an archaeological site that will give me a great idea that I can play on. Some of the crazier things that people think I made up in Sons of Zeus actually came from research, especially about the Spartans and their strange lifestyle. My favorite saying is “God is in the details.” I don’t even know who said that, but it’s so true when you’re writing historical fiction. And it’s what makes people fall in love with Tolkien and Middle-earth.

You asked me earlier about travel and what kind of influence that had on me as an author. When I was a kid we went to Virginia (I grew up on the West Coast) to visit the family farm—a place that was a stone’s throw from the Manassas Battlefield. I was amazed that this war had come so close to the home of my ancestors. One of my farmer/soldier forefathers had fought in a skirmish right before the battle of Bull Run (as Manassas was called in the South) in familiar woods nearby, and then he’d stood in his regiment waiting to be called into the great battle. I suppose that image stuck in my head and later became the farmer/warriors who inhabit the world of Sons of Zeus and who must go to war—first against the Persian invaders, and then against their own kind—in battles that were waged virtually right outside their front door. So that’s a case where family history has filtered into my brain and manifested as characters in a historical fiction epic.

  1. Word to live by?

Play nice. And don’t squander your precious time.

Interview with Priya Sharma, author of After Mary

priya sharmaLast (but definitely not least) in our series of interviews with authors from Issue 5 is Priya Sharma. Priya is a fairly regular contributor to Alt Hist, see “Orchid Hunters” and “The Bitterness of Apples”. I would heartily recommend that you also take a look at her latest story for Alt Hist, “After Mary”.

How did you get the idea for “After Mary”?

I’m going to try and answer this without spoilers- I wanted to write my own “mad scientist” story, although I hope that Daniel’s quest is unexpected. The original story was written in a modern day setting but it didn’t work- it needed a historical setting.

I was lucky enough to see Danny Boyle’s production of “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre in London. It made me think a lot about science in that period, as well as the responsibilities of scientists towards their creation.

Your stories for Alt Hist tend to cross boundaries between horror, speculative fiction and historical fiction. How you happy fitting into a genre category and if so, where would you place yourself?

To be honest, I’m greedy. I want to try everything. I don’t place myself anywhere. The core of the story I want to tell dictates which genre it’s going to lean towards.

I like reading stories that are neither literary or genre, or one genre masquerading as another- writers like Kuzuo Ishiguro, Iain Banks, David Mitchell, Sarah Hall, Margaret Atwood, Vonnegut and Jim Crace.

At the time of our last interview you were working on two novels. How are these getting along?

Terribly. I’m trying to work through it to iron out the problems with the first one. The second was as awful to write as it is to read. When I can cope to look at it again, I’ll dismember it and use what I can in other stories. If I’m being completely honest, the whole process has left me with a morbid fear of novel writing. As much as I want to try again, my bowels turn to water and I break out in a sweat at the thought of embarking on a novel.

Can you tell us a bit more about the other short fiction that you have published recently?

I’ve been lucky this year- “Rag and Bone” appeared on the Macmillian speculative website, It’s about a pseudo-Victorian Liverpool, where the poor are fodder for the factories of wealthy merchants, who also find other uses for them.

“Thesea and Astaurius” is my version of the Minotaur myth and is published in Interzone.  “The Anatomist’s Mnemonic” is a horror story about hands that’s appeared in Black Static. it was a love story when I started to write it but strayed. “The Beatification of Thomas Small” is an alternative history/horror (subtitled “How to Make a Saint”) and is included in Arcane II, an anthology available from Cold Fusion Media.

What other stories are you working on?

I’ve got a couple of things on the go that I’m hoping to find a home for. “The Rising Tide” is a horror story about guilt. “The Firebrand” is about a sideshow act that goes wrong.  The one that I’m wrestling with is “Panopticon”, which is dystopian (hopefully).

Working as a doctor must mean you don’t have a lot of time to write. What’s your strategy for making time for your writing?

Note to self – get a strategy!

There are a lot of writers out there juggling jobs, families and other commitments. I don’t imagine there are many people who have great swathes of time to write. I try and use what I have. If it’s not long enough to get stuck into writing something new, I try and use it for planning and editing. It’s not just about trying to protect time, it’s about using it to write efficiently.

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Interview with Jonathan Doering, author of Battalion 202


Jonathan Doering has now contributed three stories from his series about a German invasion of Britain in WW2, so it’s about time we heard a bit more about him. His story Battalion 202: Rotten Parchment Bonds appeared in Alt Hist Issue 5, and the previous stories appeared in Alt Hist Issue 4. Here’s some more from Jonathan.

This is a photo of Monika, Noah and Jonathan on holiday in Germany last summer. Jonathan is the one on the right!
This is a photo of Monika, Noah and Jonathan on holiday in Germany last summer. Jonathan is the one on the right!

Three stories from your series Battalion 202 have now appeared in Alt Hist. Can you tell us what’s next in store for the people of Pontefract?

Unfortunately, things are going to get far worse before they start getting better. The Nazis have been gradually consolidating their power, as they would have done in reality had they successfully landed in Britain. The next story, “The Sheep and the Goats”, again focuses on the local police officer Harold Storey and his growing awareness of the sinister aspects of the Nazi project, and how he reacts to this. The next story that I’m working on now deals again with the local Auxiliary Unit which has a traitor in its midst.

What’s the historical background for your story? Was there really an organisation called Battalion 202?

Yes, there really was an organisation called Battalion 202. In 1941 there was a growing realisation in Britain that Hitler intended to invade Britain. Churchill ordered for a nascent resistance movement to be organised against that possibility, with the umbrella title of ‘The British Resistance Organisation’. The spine of this organisation was to be dozens of Auxiliary Units, teams of between four and eight men who had been trained in clandestine warfare and who were to go to ground as the Nazis swept over Britain. They were actually supposed to focus on sabotage and interference rather than fighting and assassination, but there is little doubt that there would have been a lot of violence, both on their parts and that of the German occupiers. Administratively, they were organised into three battalions: 201 covered Scotland, 202 the North of England, 203 the South of England. AUs were established in Wales, but were not organised under an overarching title as in other parts of Britain. Their uniforms were ordinary Home Guard uniforms, apart from the shoulder patches which identified their Battalions – although the numbers would have been meaningless to anyone not in the know. George Orwell, with his experience of front line warfare in Spain, was involved in training AU volunteers in London. Many of these men served from D-Day onwards in the regular army.

There were also “observers”, civilians who had been trained to gather intelligence which they would then pass on via intermediaries to radio operators. These operators would transmit the intelligence to AUs in the locale, which would then plan attacks. Finally, there were deep-level agents, members of local and national government and the civil service, primed to apparently collaborate with the Nazis, who would also be sending intelligence out to the Resistance and doing what they could to frustrate the Occupation. These people were known as “the other side” and would have walked a daily knife edge as well. Although some members of the AUs have been identified, as far as I know no one in the “the other side” has ever been made known to the public. They would have all been taking appalling risks for their communities and their country, and in researching and writing these stories, I’ve heaved several sighs of relief that history spared us the horror of occupation. So, yes, there was such an organisation, and they really were told that in the event of the Nazis arriving that they could expect to live for fourteen days.

For our readers not familiar with Pontefract, can you tell us a bit more about your home town?

Truth to tell, I’m a bit of an interloper, not being a native of Pontefract. I was born in Stockport and as a child lived just South of Manchester. My father was an engineer, so we moved with his job. When I was eight we went to North Berwick, near Edinburgh, and when I was thirteen we moved to Southport, near Liverpool. Since leaving home and taking my degrees, I’ve lived and worked in Japan, France, Norwich, Oxford, London,… and now Ponte! Pontefract is ace! It’s a market town of about 30,000 inhabitants. Previously it relied heavily on mining, and retains quite a bit of farming. There is still a sweet factory (one of its products is the world-famous liquorice Pontefract Cake). Pontefract is a fairly tightly-knit community which has weathered a lot over the years. Its castle was where Richard II was imprisoned and died, and where Richard III was declared king. It was also besieged during the Civil War by Cromwell’s Roundhead forces (if you look at the town crest that I use on the Resistance newspaper, it includes the town’s motto: Post mortem patris pro filio – Latin for “After the death of the father [Charles I] we are for the son [Charles II]”). It occupies a central position, being fairly central in the island of Britain if you look at the map, as well as central to the North and to Yorkshire, which means that although it was and is relatively small; its strategic significance has led to its involvement in several historical developments. It also meant that I could imagine the Nazis being keen to establish themselves here.

I met my wife whilst I was teaching in North London, which is another lovely place, but my wife prefers to visit London rather than live there, so being a Northerner I started to look for teaching jobs in quieter, leafier climes North of Watford Gap. The job I have now came up, so we moved here. Pontefract is a hard-working, good-humoured place to have fetched up in and I think we’ll be here for quite some time to come.

How did you get into writing?

I think many writers are similar in that they have always felt an urge to write. When I was young (five or so), one of my aunts visited us from Canada. I was already making up little stories in my head and playing around with words, and one day she had me tell her a story, which she wrote down and then read back to me. That sense of pleasure from making up stories stuck with me and I carried on doodling away. In school I wrote Science Fiction stories for fanzines that some friends were printing, and at university got involved in the campus newspapers and magazines, and so on.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Be with my family, day dream, teach English at a sixth form college, read as much as possible, listen to music (Folk, Jazz and Classical mainly), watch films (just watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid again for the first time in twenty years, and it’s still brilliant!), attend my local Quaker Meeting, dig over our allotment,  go walking….

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

Beyond Battalion 202, I’m mulling over a story set during the witchcraft trials in Seventeenth Century Scotland, which I first heard about when I was growing up there, so that would be interesting to return to. I’m also thinking over a short comic play about allotment holders, just for a bit of a change! I used to write comic sketches for my friends to act in at school, so it would be good to have another go at that kind of writing. On top of that I’m hoping to write about Quaker communities in Prague and Budapest for the national Quaker magazine, The Friend.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

To keep writing and getting my work read! I enjoy writing short stories and articles, so that’s where a lot of my energy goes. I have an ambition to communicate with other people about the things that I find exciting, interesting and important. If someone enjoys reading something I’ve written, and also gets something useful from it, that’s fantastic. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed developing a series of interlinked short stories in Battalion 202 – it’s been very challenging and rewarding. I hope that people who have read the stories have enjoyed them and are looking forward to more – please do keep reading!

If anyone would like to read another of Jonathan’s stories (which is set in the present day and doesn’t deal with WW2 at all, please follow the links below to read ‘Magic Christmas Snowballs’ online, or to purchase a print version of Gold Dust Magazine.

Interview with Micah Hyatt, author of The Bridge

Third up out of our interviews with contributors to the fifth issue of Alt Hist is Micah Hyatt, author of “The Bridge”.

When you wrote “The Bridge” did you have an actual bridge in mind?

In my day job as a train conductor I cross hundreds of bridges. Last year a bridge collapsed beneath the train ahead of me and dropped a couple thousand tons of coal into a ravine. So bridges are often on my mind.

The bridge that inspired the one in the story is an old railroad bridge that spans the Missouri river. My train got stuck on it for several hours one night, and I had nothing to do but stare down into the dark water or explore what I could see of the beams and structure with my lantern. Everything was rusted beyond belief, but I found a marking that said 1924, which I assume is when the bridge was built.

Later that month, I decided to write a horror story. I had been listening to some old Johnny Cash recordings, and there was a line that got stuck in my head:
“…A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado, I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below…”

Do you think that large infrastructure projects create their own mythology?

Projects of sufficient scale become far larger than their physical counterparts – they embed themselves in the culture and are a monument to the time in which they are created. You cannot think of the pyramids without thinking of the ancient Egyptians. You cannot think of the Hoover Dam without thinking of the Great Depression, speakeasies and G-men.

On the subject of mythology, there’s quite a strong element of mythology in your story. Can you explain some more about the symbolism behind it?

Large projects tend to bring people together and create communities. This seems like a noble, beautiful and wonderful thing. But consider the Manhattan project – the American people united to do something incredible. The accomplishment would not have been possible without an entire people united in mind, will, and spirit. But the end result was an atrocity of an unimaginable scale.

I wanted “The Bridge” to seduce people with the idea of unity, but with the end result being something very evil. That’s why when Ryan is going to pitch the bridge, he keeps practicing the line, “The bridge will connect the districts”, playing on this sense of community to get the bridge completed.

Behind the scenes, there’s an ancient battle going on between uniting people for good and uniting people for evil. The tower of Babel was used because its a classic example of uniting people, and because I wanted to show the timescale.

There’s a boy at the end of the story and it’s implied he will become a great leader of people and a uniting force for good. I was specifically thinking of Martin Luther King Jr., but in the story I intentionally left out his name.

How did you get into writing?

I loved reading as a kid. One of my aunts sent me 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, King Solomon’s Mines, and Treasure Island. I read them all and in my childhood naivete I thought I could do better.

So at seven years old, I wrote the first few chapters of a story called “Sword Island”. It had lots of swords in it and was set on an island, because in my mind these were the key elements to good fiction. Of course, it was terrible.

Twenty-Two years later I am just beginning to write fiction that isn’t terrible. But swords and islands are just as awesome as they ever were.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read about four hours a day. I love Patrick O’Brian, Cormac McCarthy, Brandon Sanderson, and Ian M. Banks.

I used to be able to play video games, but now that I have four kids…

Occasionally my wife and I find time to get in a couple hours of Borderlands 2 on PC.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

I’m writing a book called Light Swallower-Book I of The Long Council. It’s set in a world where these enormous whale-like creatures provide the main fuel source for society.

Joshua Camblin, an expeditionary army captain, is sent to eradicate the indigenous tribes that hunt the whales. Instead of wiping the tribes out, he tries to save them.

It’s 600,000 words, but I’m currently trying to split it into two books, with more (much, much more) to come later.

Titan’s Lullaby is a high-fantasy novella that follows two traveling performers.

Mira is a mythdancer, and when she dances she can pull in light and sound and transform it into hypnotic scenes from ancient tales. Her partner Bashan is a Jindosi, a race of horned-people born without vocal chords who can only communicate through musical instruments.

When the Titan entombed beneath the luxuriant mountain city of Merio begins to wake, Mira and Bashan seek to cash in by plying their trade on the wealthy, fleeing refugees.

Eating the Exhibits is a novelette set in a zoo during a fungal-zombie epidemic. When the city is evacuated, a group of workers and zoologists stay behind to care for the animals.

I’m planning on putting it up on Amazon once my wife finishes with the illustrations.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

On days where my confidence is high, I want to be the next George RR Martin and Ernest Hemingway combined.

Other days I just want to write something that won’t make me cringe, that uses active rather than passive voice when appropriate, and avoids egregious use of adverbs.

I’d like to be able to write full time, but I am content right now to be able to provide for my family and produce work that I am proud of.

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Interview with Douglas W. Texter, author of AD 1929

This is the second of our interviews of author’s from our fifth issue. Douglas W. Texter contributed the alternate history story AD 1929 for Alt Hist Issue 5. Read on to find out more about the story and about Doug’s career in writing.

Al Capone has a charismatic allure that attracts fiction writers. What is it about his character that attracted you to write about him?

To me Al Capone is fascinating. He was certainly brutal. He really did beat people to death. Then again, look at the leaders of some of the countries that the US supports and calls friend and you’ll see that this brutality is there as well. We turn a blind eye to foreign thugs as long as they help us. Criminals have no monopoly on physical violence. Capone also had a few other qualities that make him interesting to me. First, he was generous. He did in fact spend a summer in Lansing, Michigan, and pay for a young bride’s wedding. He helped out people during the Depression as well.  In addition, he was charismatic. Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon were mesmerized by him. Finally, he was organized. What’s always struck me is the level of organization in the 1920s and 1930s, especially after the Crash. Files and taxonomy were the order of the day. In some weird way that I don’t fully understand yet, the physical organization—files, libraries, museums, etc—paved the way for the organization provided by the computer a few generations later. Government was incredibly organized. On both sides of the Atlantic, governments were consolidating power to deal with the Depression and, of course, to mobilize armies for what would become the Second World War. Criminality seemed to mimic the general modernist drive toward centralization. Capone’s organization was centralized and efficient. Today, we live in a postmodern age, when crime (think of the theatre shooting last year in Colorado) has become random and senseless, like much of the postmodern world. While Capone was a violent criminal, he made sense.

Do you think it’s possible that a person like Al Capone could have ever become President of the United States?

Most US Presidents have done brutal things during their administrations: drone strikes, fire bombings, assassinations, declarations of war, to name a few. So, from that perspective, would violence have precluded Capone? I don’t think so. Now, Capone was a criminal. Would that fact have precluded him from the Presidency? I don’t think so, ultimately. A conviction would change that, and, of course, Capone was convicted of tax evasion. But an un-convicted and charismatic criminal? I could see that kind of person becoming President very easily. Remember, I live in a country that has seen Ronald Regan, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken, Sonny Bono, and the Terminator hold high office. So much of politics in the US is about show. Capone had the resources to produce a very good show.

Can you tell us a bit about Marinetti’s attempts to work with Mussolini?

Marinetti never came to America, and as far as I know, never communicated with Capone, but I’ve been fascinated by Marinetti ever since I was introduced to Futurism when I did my MA in English at Villanova University. We were studying Great War literature and culture. Marinetti did in fact serve as the Minster of Culture under the Mussolini regime in the 1930s and 1940s. When I was thinking about creating “AD 1929,” I thought to myself that Mussolini was a lot like Al Capone. And Marinetti was always interested in the super-modern. He really did write that people would eventually grow propellers. So, it made sense to me that Marinetti might want to come to the US, which was more “up-to-date” than Europe. And then I wondered what would have happened if Marinetti had left Italy and worked for Capone.  And the result is the story.

How did you get into writing?

I’ve been involved with writing and writers in one way or another since I was twenty-two. During college, I wrote some essays that were published, and I was a student worker at the University of Pennsylvania Press. After college, I was a production editor at a medical publishing house. That was very weird. I edited stuff that I couldn’t understand. Then I did my MA and wrote a lot during that time. After that, I went to the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Harvard and worked as a textbook editor. Then, I went back to school for my Ph.D. in English and wrote constantly: hundreds of pages a semester. As for fiction, when I was about thirty, I woke up one morning and said, “I should write fiction.” Then, I said, “I want to write science fiction, and I have no idea how to do it.” So, after writing a few stories, I applied to go to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. I started publishing short fiction right after Clarion. I was still doing my Ph.D. as well. So, I was writing fiction, scholarly essays for publication, reviews, and articles for the Chronicle of Higher Education almost simultaneously. I like both fiction and the essay form. I also got fairly lucky in 2006 and won the Writers of the Future Competition.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I teach in a BFA in Creative Writing for the Entertainment Industry program at Full Sail University in Orlando. Essentially, I teach literature to budding screenwriters. One of the ironies is that one of my colleagues, who is Italian, loves the Futurists. I’m in the classroom a lot. I’m also an alumni admissions interviewer for my undergraduate institution, the University of Pennsylvania. I read at the Catholic Church I attend. I enjoy investing and finance and spend a fair amount of time working on my investments and reading about investing. Right now, I’m also brushing up on my editorial skills by taking some online courses through the University of California at Berkeley. Last—but certainly not least—I spend time with my family, Lynn, my fiancé, and her two boys, Michael and Joel.  Lynn and I are getting married in December, and our honeymoon will be in Scotland—where I studied for a year when I was an undergraduate. We will be going to Orkney and then Edinburgh, for Hogmanay.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

I just finished a story, “Das Zombie Boot,” that I submitted to Raus! Untoten! an anthology calling for tales about zombies and Nazis. My story—a cross between Das Boot and Twenty-eight Days Later—tells the tale of what would have happened if a U-boat had been in New York Harbor in 1942 when a biological experiment went awry and created a super-virus.  I’m currently working on an essay that I’m going to submit to the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts about John Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy, which imagines what would have happened if a US-led multinational naval task force had been sucked back in time to the Battle of Midway Island. After I finish this project, I’ll be writing an alternate history story about the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who died in Bangkok in 1968. In my story Merton lives and fulfills his changed destiny. After that, I have to finish up another non-fiction project about the history of medical publishing. Then, when the dust settles, I’m returning to work on the second draft of my first novel, Berlin Airlift: An Alternate History. This novel tells the tale of what would have happened if Joseph Stalin had decided to drive the Americans out of Berlin in 1948, during the airlift.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

My goal is to publish long-form alternate history. I love doing thought experiments, and I love alternate history and have since I was about eight when I saw the Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever and read Marvel’s “What if” comics. In the last few years, I’ve been—in several ways—surrounded by alternate-history writers. I reviewed Robert Conroy’s 1942 for Strange Horizons and got into a rather intense discussion with SM Stirling. Then in 2009, I studied at the British SF Foundation’s Master Class at the University of Liverpool and met Adam Roberts, a very formidable writer of alternate history and a genuinely wonderful person. Then I wrote about Harry Turtledove for the New York Review of Science Fiction.

I’m getting ready to make my move!

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Interview with Meredith Miller, author of The Stiff Heart

Meredith climbing through Men-an-Tol
Meredith climbing through Men-an-To

Meredith Miller contributed the short story “The Stiff Heart” to Alt Hist Issue 5. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about the story and about her writing – and sent us a rather fund photo too!

Can you tell our readers what the background is to the title of your story, “The Stiff Heart”?

This is an embarrassing story! The title is taken from a line in Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes–‘. For some reason, I spent a good deal of my life believing Emily Dickinson had shot herself! In my defense, neither poetry nor nineteenth-century American Literature are my academic area! I must have gotten this idea somewhere in the poems themselves when I was young. In any case, I have been preoccupied with the idea of the female recluse. Another of my stories, ‘The Window’s Wife’ (in Prole 6) centers on a different reclusive female figure. I knew about Emily Dickinson’s self-seclusion and also that she was in love with the young woman who became her sister-in-law. I decided to take all that for the subject of my story.

One problem with historical fiction can be when facts get in the way of good story-telling. For this reason, I always develop a bit of character before I embark on research. So I drafted the story, then read some biography on Dickinson, only to discover that she had, in fact, lived a fairly long time and died of an illness!

Just to clarify, the story is not intended to be about Emily Dickinson at all, it simply explores those ideas and that middle-class, late-nineteenth century New England setting.

What drives your central character to do what she does?

What drives the narrator here, really, is a sense of anomie, a feeling that there is no place in her social world where she can be fulfiled and make sense. I realise now that most people will assume she wanted to marry Gordon. In fact, my idea was that she was in love with Patience! That doesn’t matter, though, as much as the fact that there was no room in her world for her to simply be a person on her own.

What attracted you to the setting and period of “The Stiff Heart” (American Civil War)?

As an academic, my research is on the novel between 1865 and 1965. At the time when I first drafted this story, I’d been reading a lot of late nineteenth-century periodicals, both the serialised fiction and all of the other wonderful things they contain – political and philsophical essays, scientific musings, cultural criticism, gossip, etc. I am American, but live in Britain, so I was interested in the way British periodicals viewed what they referred to as ‘the American war’. In fact, there was more support in Britain for the South than contemporary Britons like to admit! Also, though, left-wing British writers were very much in support of abolition and union democracy.

How did you get into writing?

I’ve been writing since before I could write. When I was four, I used to dictate poetry to my older sister, and she would write it down. I’ve never really seen myself as anything else.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Garden my allotment and work on my house. I bought a derelict house a few years ago. It’s a lot of work! Also, I am an academic so I publish literary criticism and teach both undergraduate and postgraduate students. That last is a real privilege and a joy. Also, I like people and love to talk! I have a wonderful, clever daughter and I like spending time with her and with the rest of my mad and talented family.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

I am currently doing final revisions on a novel, Fish-shaped Island. It’s set in Long Island in the spring of 1979. For those of you not old enough to remember, those were crazy and wonderful years in which to be alive. The novel is about a small town in that period and its underlying creativity and violence. I won’t say anything about where it’s going, but watch this space. My next published story, ‘Ice’ will appear in the Autumn 2013 issue of Stand. Anyone who wants to keep in touch can follow me on Twitter @meredithseven. My Twitter account will also lead you to my website, The Window’s Wife.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

I have two novels completed and would love to see them both in print. A third, Whiteness, is calling loudly for me to write it. I have partially completed a novel about Enlightenment philosophy and pirates, set in the early eighteenth century and called The Ship of the New Philosophy. I would love to find someone who isn’t frightened by my unholy mix of literary and genre writing to publish it. Philosophical pirates are so much fun!

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Interview with Brooks Rexroat, author of ‘To the Stars’

With Brooks Rexroat we wrap up the interviews of authors from Alt Hist Issue 3. Brooks’ ‘To the Stars’ is set during the Cold War space race and is a very human story of the effect on one family in particular.

Would it have been possible to write ‘To the Stars’ before 1989?

A cheeky answer first: I doubt it. I was doing most of my composition in crayon at that time.

In all seriousness, though, I think someone could have written this story at that point. There are no great tactical secrets here, very little that would’ve been unknown to Westerners and most Russians – and even James Bond – prior to 1989. While the setting is a bit exotic to most of us, the main themes could be placed in lots of locales of time frames and still function nicely – the question of whether the grass really is greener elsewhere, the convoluted battle of individualism versus selflessness, the dream of giving children a gift of opportunity, and so forth.

Cosmonaut or astronaut?

For me? Neither. I’m terrified of heights. How about launch room controller?

‘To the Stars’ is written in the present tense. What were the challenges and benefits of writing in this tense?

I’ll start with the benefits. This story was my first stab at historical fiction, and so one of my chief concerns was to bring something very distant chronologically into a closer proximity for the reader, and even for myself as a writer. There is an immediacy to the present tense, which I hope helps to connect readers to some very contemporary themes, even when the vehicle is a slice of our past. The first draft was, in fact, written in past tense, and it felt very cold and inaccessible. There were some nice things about that aesthetic, but it didn’t strike me as a story many folks would connect with. As I changed it to present tense, it felt much closer, far more energetic, and, more importantly, more real. My biggest challenge in switching it over to present tense was simply to maintain consistency.

How did you get into writing?

I’ve always been a writer of some sort – I remember making up stories and speaking them into a tape recorder before I had mastered the physical act of writing, and I very much wish I still had those cassettes. I had my angsty-teen-hidden-notebook-of-bad-poems phase. I suppose that, in terms of professional writing, a pair of professors opened that door by simple telling me that writing was viable as a career. High school counselors like to send students into sensible paths. Professors seem to like opening the doors a bit, and I’m glad I encountered two such individuals. I spent some rewarding time as a journalist, and now creative work serves as a good companion to life as a teacher.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I’m generally lecturing, deigning courses, or grading student essays–that takes up most of my existence. I’m a musician as well, so I play an occasional gig and like to catch live performances whenever I can. I run on occasion, and play a dangerously absurd amount of digital Scrabble.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

I’ve got a file of 37 stories in some stage of completion, half a dozen of which are solid in structure and close to being finished. They’re eclectic in topic, but many of my current pieces involve the “Rust Belt” section of the American Midwest – stories of the folks who have long been dealing with the economic struggles that have now reached coastal population centers. This landlocked region is my home, and there are plenty of stories to tell – hence the extensive ‘in progress’ story file on my laptop.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

At this stage of life, I think of myself as a teacher who writes. I’m fortunate to teach writing and talk about the craft with bright university students every day, and so I go home from the office eager to fill some pages, to tell some stories. My ambition is this: to keep writing as long as something’s rattling around in my head – to keep revising and shaping those thoughts until they represent a truth that might be meaningful to others. Alt Hist, incidentally, represents the beginning of my published ambitions – it was the first magazine to accept my work. I’ve had eight additional stories published since receiving that tremendous news that ‘To the Stars’ would be printed. Links to those pieces can be found at

Don’t forget to check out Brooks’ story ‘To the Stars’ in issue 3 of Alt Hist.

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Interview with Matthew Warner, author of ‘Bummers’

Matthew Warner is the author of ‘Bummers’ the second story in Alt Hist Issue 3 set during the American Civil War. We caught up with Matthew to ask him more about this story and his other writing.

Matthew Warner picture

How did you find out about female soldiers in the American Civil War? And can you tell us a bit more about the historical reality?

It started from a desire to write a story featuring a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered person. I have a lot of LGBT friends, and I feel strongly about supporting them whenever possible. So, in the course of researching possible characters, I stumbled across the topic of women who cross-dressed as men in order to fight in the Civil War. I’d never heard of this and was fascinated – doubly so because the Civil War is one of my favorite historical periods. (My collection, Death Sentences, includes a reprint of a short story I wrote about a plantation mistress.) What if the cross-dressing soldier were also a lesbian? I wondered. The story took off from there.

Here and here are links to photos of a real-life Frances who dressed as a man to fight in the war. According to the National Archives, at least 250 women dressed as men to fight for the Confederacy, and perhaps just as many fought for the Union, although the exact numbers are unknown. Like the Frances in my story, their motivations included money and the comparatively greater freedom that men enjoyed.

The American Civil War is a popular topic for US-based historical fiction writers. What do you think the main attraction of the period is?

Because it marked the end of slavery, the Civil War is still tied up in our minds with the issues of civil rights and racism, which remain enduring social issues. People still get upset when high schools use Civil War imagery for mascots or when state governments occasionally display the Confederate flag. Although it happened almost 150 years ago, the “War Between the States” (or the “War of Northern Aggression,” depending on your point of view) is still very much alive.

Also, the Civil War still holds the record for our bloodiest conflict. Even worse, it was “brother against brother,” as Hollywood says. Its artifacts permeate the old battle ground states. Here in Virginia, I can reach a Civil War monument in about five minutes. At my local cemetery, in fact, a couple thousand Confederate soldiers lie in a mass grave. Places like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run a thriving tourist trade of Civil War attractions. The ghosts still walk.

How did you get into writing?

I was fortunate to attend a public school system that encouraged creative writing from an early age. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to write fiction professionally, but I took a sideways step into journalism for a while. Eventually, I wound up working in law, and now I’m a website designer. (How’s that for a crazy career path?) But I’ve never stopped writing. My first novel, The Organ Donor, came out in 2002, and my fifth book just came out this year.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Mainly take care of my sons, Owen (age 2) and Thomas (4 months). My wife Deena and I run Deena Warner Design, which services writers and publishers. I’m also a pianist and hope to get back into martial arts one day.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

The ink is drying the contract for a novel that’s coming out in 2013 from a Canadian publisher (official announcement coming soon!). In February 2012, a local community theater is premiering a two-act comedy stage play I wrote called Pirate Appreciation Day. And yes, I’m always grinding away at the rough draft of something or other.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

My biggest ambition right now is to seek an ever wider readership. That’s actually more important to me than making a bunch of money as a writer. If money were my goal, I would’ve committed suicide by now.

Union or Confederacy?

Union in political views, Confederacy in family heritage and location. With all due respect to the great grandfather who was wounded at Gettysburg, I’m glad I’m not living in the Confederate States of America today.

You can find out more about Matthew Warner at his website:

Don’t forget to check out Matthew’s story ‘Bummers’ in issue 3 of Alt Hist.

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Interview with Arlan Andrews, author of ‘Riders on the Storm’

Arlan AndrewsArlan Andrews is another writer who has written previously for Alt Hist, his ‘Lament for Lost Atlanta’ appeared in Issue 1, and his new story ‘Riders on the Storm’ has recently appeared in Issue 3.

In ‘Riders on the Storm’ several of the characters use slang from a future language. How did you go about creating the language they use?

I let my mind go “out of gear” and try to feel what might pass for slang/language in about 50 years. Look at today’s converstions versus those of 50 year ago — half of what we say would make no sense: “tweet”, “OMG”, online, email, stimulus, neo-con, jihadi, 9/11, UAV, stealth, Mbit, VR, Facebook, apple, iPad/Pod, and many more. I just try to slide into a natural progression of things. (Actually, I have no idea where any of it comes from — it’s just there when I need it.)

What’s your favourite time-travel story and why?

Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove; because he is the master of the genre, and easily makes one believe in the story as it unfolds. As a Southerner, one always has a slight tinge of wishful thinking that perhaps Things May Have Been Otherwise.

Tell us a bit more about SIGMA.

When I worked in the White House Science Office 1992-1993, I was appalled at the lack of imagination when government bureaucrats tried their hand at forecasting. I wrote a manifesto — “The Future is too important to be left to Futurists!” — and asked some fellow science fiction authors, mostly Ph.D.s (to avoid the Washington, D. C., “giggle factor” to join me in providing the government and others with our own brand of science-fiction-based futurism. Our website,, has the background details, list of membrers, their bios, and some news clips. In January 2012 some of us will be appearing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as guest panelists at the Global Competitiveness Forum 2012.

How did you get into writing?

My father read to me before I could read, and family members made up stories. I also wrote. I began submitting science fiction stories after I met some writers and began to read stories I thought I could have written better. My first publication was a poem, “Rime of the Ancient Engineer,” in Asimov’s Magazine, in 1980, followed by stories in Analog. I’ve done about 500 pieces, fact and fiction, in 100 venues, most lately with fiction in, Analog and Kindle e-books. My factual pieces appear in Atlantis Rising Magazine, and a regular column in UFO Magazine.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I have a real job as an environmental engineering supervisor, coordinate SIGMA activities, travel to ancient sites, and otherwise enjoy a real life with wife, children and grandchildren.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

My e-novel, Valley of the Shaman, will be available on in January 2012. I usually do short stories or articles at the drop of a hat, typically on a weekend, and they are most often not planned ahead of time.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

To join the Kindle Million Sellers Club.

Union or Confederacy?

Heart – Confederacy; intellect/patriotism – Union; with a time machine I would probably go back and assassinate both John Brown and John Wilkes Booth ca 1850.

Don’t  forget to take a look at Arlan’s website at, and also his story ‘Riders on the Storm’.

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Interview with Seamus Sweeney, author of ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’

Séamus Sweeney is a writer new to Alt Hist, but with a number of writing credits in publications such as The Times Literary SupplementThe GuardianThe SpectatorNew StatesmanThe Lancet andThe Scotsman. We asked him a few questions about his story for Alt Hist Issue 3, ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’, his other writing, and what he thinks about breakfast.

Are the Organisation and characters you write about based on historical reality? How did you come up with the idea for them?

Andrija Artuković was a politician of the Croatian fascist Ustaše state, and was nicknamed “the Himmler of the Balkans” for his part in genocidal war crimes during World War II. He fled to America via Switzerland and Ireland, where he spent 1948 and where one of this children was born. A good online source for reading about him is Hubert Butler’s essay “The Artukovitch File”, available at Obviously in reality he went to America, rather than meeting the fate described in the story. The Organisation was made up by myself out of whole cloth; probably the proximate inspiration for the story was Daniel Leach’s Fugitive Ireland, a book about the various minority nationalist groups (Basques, Bretons, Scots and others who looked to independent Ireland as an exemplar) and collaborationists who fled to Ireland post World War II. Leach’s book shows just how marginal such groups were, and how the still-new Irish state trod the difficult path between asserting its sovereignity and avoiding Allied opprobium. While it is a scrupously unsensationalist and sober look at this issue, it contains enough imagination-provoking titbits to launch a host of counterfactual stories.

What was the status of Ireland during World War Two?

Neutral, but on the Allied side. Not entirely a sophism; one of the strengths of Leach’s book (and many others) is that it shows how Ireland’s neutrality, in the early years of the War, was beneficial to the Allies. Entering the war on the Allied side not only would not have been very popular (less than twenty years previously the Irish Free State had violently acheived independence) but would have required the Allies to protect Ireland militarily against the inevitable Axis attacks. Not to mention the pretext provided for a German invasion which would have tied up Allied forces quite severely. In any case, as the war proceeded Ireland’s neutrality was more openly derided among the Allies.

How did you get into writing?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. When I was a child, I was into books about dinosaurs and Usborne’s fact books. I began to write my own versions in copybooks. In school I was always writing ideas for stories and poems, although I rarely finished them. What boosted my confidence in terms of trying to get published was being involved in the university paper, The University Observer, where I was writing a few thousand words for publication every couple of weeks. While this was non fiction rather than fiction, it gave me confidence in approaching editors and I later began to review books for the TLS and The Lancet and other outlets.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I work as a doctor which is rather busy, and spend time with my family. Which is also rather busy.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

I am trying to finish a longish short story about time travel. A couple of years ago I got thinking about the emotional cost of time travel, especially if you couldn’t go back to your own time. I guess it reflects universal concerns about the passing of time. My time traveller is a father whose child has a seemingly incurable disease, at least in our time. The songwriter Jule Styne had a saying: “its easy to be clever, the really clever thing is to be simple.” It’s quite easy in a way to be drawn into long pseudophilosophical bits, and harder to focus on the emotion.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

To have a fidelity to the characters, the ideas and the emotions I want to explore, and to follow where they lead. At any one time I have a few particular threads I want to follow. Sometimes I think “this would make a novel” and when I plan and write, the idea naturally coheres into a short story. The other day I was reading JG Ballard’s introduction to his collected short stories, and he remarked how many writers – himself included- saw the novel as the great virility test of a young writer. And yet while there are no perfect novels, there are perfect short stories. On one level I would love to write a novel, on another it would have to be for the artistically right reasons and not “because it’s a novel.” So I’ve answered your question with an answer about how I don’t want to write a novel, which is not something I have done in any case.

Where and what is the best Irish breakfast, what’s the difference to English and American?

The contrast is probably more with continental breakfasts! The classic Irish breakfast is sausage, egg (fried or scrambled), white pudding, black pudding, rashers and toast. Laterally you get a hash brown or two, and in a lot of cases a tomato or mushrooms. There are many places that do wonderful Irish breakfasts, and many places that do terrible ones. The last one I had, which was pretty good, is a place called Howard’s Way in Churchtown in Dublin,

Séamus Sweeney’s stories and other pieces can be found at

Don’t forget to take a look at ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’ too.

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