Interview with Ian Sales author of ‘A Light in the Darkness’

Ian Sales has written two stories for Alt Hist so far: ‘Travelling by Air’, which appeared in Alt Hist Issue 1, and now a new story ‘A Light in the Darkness’, which appears in Alt Hist Issue 3. We thought it was about time that we found out a bit more about him!

How did you get the idea of combining Wilfred Owen and Nikola Tesla in the same story?

Back in the early 1990s, I read a book titled Team Yankee by Harold Coyle. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill WWIII technothriller, but focusing on titular crew of a main battle tank. At the front of the book was printed Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. I remembered the poem from school, but something about the version in Team Yankee struck me as wrong. So I went and looked it up in the library – which was what you had to do in those days – and, sure enough, the version in Coyle’s book had a couple of lines wrong. I’ve no idea why. But after reading Owen’s poem I decided to read more of his poetry. I became a fan, and started reading about him. Later, I wrote a story in which Wilfred Owen featured. It has yet to be published.

Some years afterwards, I read a biography of Nikola Tesla, and he struck me as a fascinating person. I thought he would be a good subject for a story. And since I already knew quite a bit about the life of Wilfred Owen from having read several books about him… and both Tesla and Owen were alive during the First World War …

Both of your stories for Alt Hist have used what could be called a Triptych structure. Could you tell us more about that and what attracted you to that structure?

One of the problems with writing alternate history is that the reader may not always know or understand the piece of history that’s been changed. Many years ago, I read a story about Fidel Castro as a professional baseball player. Apparently, he nearly was one. But for the story to really work, the author had to explain that in an introductory note. To me, that meant the story had failed. And the same was true of my Tesla/Owen story as originally written. Unless the reader knew that Owen was diagnosed with neurasthenia, sent to
Craiglockhart where he met Sassoon, and subsequently began writing the war poetry for which he is famous, ‘A Light in the Darkness’ didn’t seem to say much. I needed some way to tell the reader what happened to Owen in the real world. But a lack of inspiration meant the story was consigned to the bottom drawer for a number of years.

Then one day, I pulled it out, reread it and thought it was definitely worth having another bash. Gitmo was in the news at the time, so I decided I’d have an unnamed prisoner at a similar facility as my commentator on the history I had changed. I don’t think I’m naturally
drawn to the triptych structure, but in this case it seemed the best way to tell the story.

Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon?

Owen, definitely. Not only a better poet, but a much more interesting man. His attitudes to the war were conflicted – he felt he could only criticise it if he actually fought in it, though he disagreed with it intensely. Even when offered a home posting after leaving Craiglockhart, he refused it and returned to the front. He died shortly afterwards, a week before Armistice. He was almost certainly queer (just read his poem ‘Who is the God of Canongate?’), though almost none of his biographies say as much. I suppose his life wasn’t especially unusual for the time, or for the set he briefly belonged to in London, but he strikes me as a man who tried very hard to reconcile the many opposing beliefs he held, though not always successfully. That, I think, makes him a man worth admiring.

How did you get into writing?

I’ve always been a voaracious reader, so it just seemed a natural step to want to tell stories of my own. I used to play role-playing games back in the 1980s, so I started out writing up the sessions as stories. Then I discovered sf fandom, and the small press, and started writing original fiction. But I then spent ten years working in the Middle East, and while I was there I started working on a novel, the first in a big fat commercial space opera trilogy. When I returned to the UK I submitted it to John Jarrold and he took me on as a client, but no publisher bought the trilogy. It’s only in the past three or four years that I’ve started writing short fiction again.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Read. Or watch films. And I usually write about them on my blog: I also read lots of books on space exploration, and review them intermittently on my other blog: I also review books for Interzone and the SFF Chronicles website, and review DVDs for The Zone website. And I run the SF Mistressworks website too.

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 big project at the moment is Rocket Science, an anthology I’m editing for Mutation Press. The table of contents was announced on 18 November – It will be launched at the Eastercon in London in April 2012. My agent, John Jarrold, currently has a novel treatment being looked at by various editors. It’s a hard sf/space opera trilogy, very realistic but with lots of sense of wonder.

Then there’s a novella I hope to have out next year, which is set at a Moon base in an alternate present in which the Cold War continued and the Apollo programme became militarised. I have four stories due to be published in the next few months: a flash fiction piece in The Future Fire next month, a fantasy story about an ATA pilot during WWII in the Exagerrated Press’s anthology The Monster Book for Girls, a Nazi occult science story in Anarchy Press’s anthology Vivisepulture, a story set in the deepest part of the ocean in Eibonvale Press’s anthology Where Are We Going?, and an alternate space story due some time next year in PS Publishing’s biannual Postscripts anthology. I also have several stories out on editors’ desks at the moment, though I’ve yet to hear back on them.

Works currently in progress include a Marxist hard sf story, a hard-edged fantasy featuring angels, and an alternate space story about a mission to Mars. I also had a bash at nanowrimo, with a novel about an underwater simulation for a mission to the nearest star, but that stalled at 15,000 words (November was not a good month to do it). These days, it’s not coming up with ideas for stories that’s the problem, it’s finding the time to write them…

What are your ambitions as a writer?

Fame, fortune, and critical acclaim, of course. But seriously, these days I find I’m more interested in writing about things, rather than just writing stories. For example, I saw a TV programme about the female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary during WWII, and decided I wanted to write about them. It would, of course, be a genre story. And I sold that story to The Monster Book for Girls. Last year, I discovered that 2010 was the 50th anniversary of the first, and only, descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean. I found that fascinating and wanted to write about it. That story I sold to Where Are We Going?. One of my interests is space exploration, and I’ve read a number of books on the topic. And written a number of stories based around it. In part, that’s what inspired me to put together Rocket Science. As long as I can air my “enthusiasms” in fictive form in public, then I’m happy.

Ian’s stories in Alt Hist:

‘Travelling by Air’ from Alt Hist Issue 1

‘A Light in the Darkness’ from Alt Hist Issue 3

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