In the past decade, Stephen
Stirling has distinguished himself as one of the best and most innovative authors of alternate history. His work tends to be politically mature and historically well founded, with just enough wry humor and homage to Golden Age science-fiction authors to engage the reader in a way that is rare in today's genre fiction, making his books even more valuable.
Several years ago, Mr. Stirling was kind enough to give me an interview for my blog, which was later published (in translated form) in the Emitor fanzine. I've asked Mr. Stirling for another interview, which you'll be able to read in Serbian in a few weeks on this blog and come September in Emitor.
NF: Before we start, I'd like to thank you for this interview. I know you're busy and that you have a lot on your plate.
-- oh, any displacement activity is welcome sometimes.
When we did our first interview, I asked you about which writers influenced you as an author and what is your favorite book. Almost four years have passed since then and we’ve witnessed a huge increase in alternate history novels, with strong accent on steampunk. Do you follow the development of the genre? Do you think that the alternate history has evolved since 2010 and in what way if so? Are there any new authors that you like and recommend to your readers?
-- I’m always discovering new authors. Django Wexler, for example, and C.J. Carella, and Alyx Dellamonica, just recently. But I can’t keep up with the whole field the way I used to. There’s just too much, and also of course writing books leaves you less time for reading. In particular, for reading nonfiction.
NF: To follow up on that question, steampunk is becoming a big deal. Some of your work has certain similarities in tone and setting to steampunk norms. Do you have any plans to explore that subgenre? While we’re at it, do you consider steampunk to be a subgenre of alternate history (a subgenre of a subgenre) or its own thing entirely?
-- We all know what we mean when we point to it; it can be alternate history, but it isn’t necessarily. It’s a subcategory of the argument about what constitutes SF, which was going strong when I was a neofan. I can say with pride (pointing to THE PESHAWAR LANCERS) that I was doing steampunk before ‘steampunk was cool’. I’d be glad to do more in that vein, but it’s futile to chase the “hot” genre; something else is hot by the time you’ve got something, given the lead times in publishing.
NF: Can you tell me, and my readers, how does your creative process work? What sets you off, what is your inspiration? What prompted you to write Dies the Fire or Draka novels?
-- something will spark an idea; usually bits and pieces (a face, a scene) will come to me, and then I start making up stuff around it. I was walking on the beach on Nantucket watching a ship’s light go by when I came up with the idea for ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME; and even then I had a vague idea of the flip-side DIES THE FIRE series in the back of my head. And a scene with Juniper Mackenzie came to me when I thought about that.
But inspiration is easy and talent is cheap; that’s why there are millions of people with half-finished novels in a drawer. I think it was Baudelaire who said that “Every little bourgeois feels inspired when he sees a sunset. It’s application that makes an artist.”
NF: When you write, do you work in a linear manner, or do you jump back and forth between chapters?
-- generally linear, but not invariably. Sometimes I’ll write a scene as it comes to me, or do a sub-thread of the plot that’s going to be woven in eventually. However, linear saves time and effort in the long run for the most part.
What about the sequence of novels in a series? Some authors, such as George Martin or Patrick Rothfuss tend to write whole chapters of book 3 in a series, for instance, while still writing book 2. What is your approach?
-- Nope, I generally finish a book before starting the next one. The main exception is when a plot arc turns out to take more space than one book can handle; then I split, which involves some reworking because you don’t want to leave things hanging in air more than you have to.
NF: Do you always work on only one project at a time, or do you have two or more projects that you work on simultaneously?
-- sometimes on more than one. I’ve found that working on two solo novels at the same time is slower than writing one at a time, but collaborations or editing an anthology or short fiction are another matter.
NF: How do you manage to stay focused while writing a huge series of novels, such as The Change?
-- I write the books I’d like to read; always have, apart from a few novelizations of movies (the Terminator books) and so forth.
What I do is make sure that a series has a canvas in which I can write lots of stories that interest me. I sometimes call the Change/Emberverse books “my Hyborian Age”. Howard just crammed every potentially interesting historical period into his antediluvian setting, so he could have Cossacks fighting ancient Egyptians or an ancient Celt on the Spanish Main.
I’ve got a postapocalyptic Earth without high-energy technology, with regressed cultures – though often they’re not as close to recreating the past as they think they are. As a character (Japanese, as it happens) says in THE GOLDEN PRINCESS (coming out Sept. 2014), “History cannot be completely undone, even by the Change. Nor can you truly bring back the past, even if you wear its clothes.”
If a fictional world is substantial enough, it should have the same capacity for ‘story carrying’ that the real one does, and nobody’s run out of things to write mimetic fiction about. It helps that the Change universe is ours, with some modifications (glyph of understatement). That makes it easier to avoid the lurking “sameness” of feel that a purely secondary world can have if you’re not careful.
Do you approach this task as something you do for fun, or is it a job for you?
-- I can’t not write. I wrote my first book while at law school – now there was a waste of time (the law school, not the book). I also got fired or quit every other job I ever had. This is my hobby that I make a living at. If it weren’t fun, I’d have stayed in law instead of taking crazy risks with my life.
Can you tell us about your day – when do you start writing, how long do you write? Does this job leave any time for you to explore other things than writing?
-- writers usually lead rather uneventful lives(*), and I’m no exception. When I’m not travelling I have a pretty stable routine. I get up around 10:00 am, do the usual morning things, check my email, go to a local diner and have lunch and start working. At 2:00 my wife and I go to the gym, where we work out until around 5:30, counting changing time and so forth. Then we usually go to a coffee house where I work until around 8 or 9 (with a light dinner along the way), then back home and work until around 2:00. There are some variations in the times, and sometimes we’ll decide to go for Chinese or some social engagement will intervene – on Saturday I went to the premier and launch party HBO and George put on for the next season of Game of Thrones, for example. Monday is our holiday; we don’t go to the gym on that day and often take in a movie.
(*) Hemingway said of his days on the Left Bank in Paris that you could tell the phonies from the actual writers by the time they started drinking and talking. The real writers actually wrote first.
NF: You’ve grown in popularity over the last few years. You are very much active on Facebook and you talk with your fans about different aspects of your work. Also, from my personal experience I know that you reply to fan’s emails. How do you manage to find the time for all of that?
-- well, I am a fan; that and the writing/publishing world are the social milieu in which I’ve moved since the 1980’s, and my friends tend to be fans or other writers. In a sense it’s like being a copyh; you have to have people who understand where you’re coming from. A certain degree of it is relaxing, and my fans have been invaluable with things like research. My contacts within the pagan community have been extremely important in shaping the Change series, for instance.
NF: For a long time, you have been considered a Crown Prince of alternate history, with Harry Turtledove as the reigning King. Have you ever been in contact with Mr. Turtledove, or any other alternate history author? Do you talk about your ideas with your colleagues?
-- Oh, Harry and I are old friends, and have been for… must be twenty years now and have Tuckerized each other. He and I have collaborated on some projects, and he has a story in THE CHANGE, an anthology set in the Change universe I’m working on. We (and our other friends in the field) certainly discuss ideas, but you have to watch that. Talking about a plot can de-energize you if you’re not careful.
NF: Last year was pretty important for your work. You’ve finished a second series of Emberverse novels and Shadowspawn trilogy – is it a trilogy? Do you plan more work in that universe? Also, you returned to your Lords of Creation universe with a story published in the Old Mars anthology. Is it hard for an author to work on three so very different projects in a relatively short time?
-- The Shadowspawn books are a trilogy, and are wrapped up. The Old Mars anthology was done for, basically, fun. In fact the Lords of Creation books (THE SKY PEOPLE and IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS) were a bit of a labor of love; I took a hit and switched publishers for those, simply because I wanted badly to write them as my homage to the pulps. Conceivably I may return to the setting sometime, either for short fiction or otherwise. These days the possibilities are greater – I’m looking into e-publishing short fiction, novella-length things. Until recently, there was just no way to sell that length, which I consider a natural one for many types of SF.
NF: I enjoyed the Sword of Zar-Tu-Kan very much. What are the chances for the next novel in Lords of Creation series? You’ve stated that you originally planed to do a trilogy set in that universe, with third book being an homage to Pelucidar. Is that still true? What about more Mars stories?
-- right now publishing considerations make a third LoC novel unlikely. Short fiction is more probable.
NF: Last September the final novel in the second Emberverse series was published, The Given Sacrifice. I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it, although I’ve struggled a bit with a fact that I – and everyone else – knew how it ends even before I started reading it. There were some mixed reviews on the Goodreads and there are readers who think that the ending of the novel was anticlimactic. I’ve compared it to the ending of the Lord of the Rings, when Hobbits return to the Shire. Anyway, we all knew what will happen and that predetermined course of events was for me something that encouraged me to read the series, all the while expecting that bittersweet moment when it all ends. Now, I presume that this was not an easy book for you to write. Can you tell us what were your thoughts before you started writing The Given Sacrifice? Did you have to struggle with certain parts, did you plan everything in advance or did the book grow organically?
-- well, obviously I knew Rudi was going to die young. That was part of his story arc from the beginning. He was a bit of an experiment; I wanted to do a Real Hero™. Not an ironic deconstruction of the mythic hero – that’s become a bloody cliché and done to death. What I wanted was a true Fated Hero King, the king who dies for the people, someone like Sigurd or Beowulf whose life plays out in mythic time, but done with Modernist technique. It was interesting.
The hard part of LORD OF MOUNTAINS and THE GIVEN SACRIFICE was structural. The arc of the Prophet’s War turned out to be too long for one book; and the early years of his daughter Órlaith’s life was too short, so I split one and led into another, uniting them with the fated hero’s death.
Incidentally, one of the things I don’t like is fantasy/SF where the decisive battle ends the struggle. That’s not the way big conflicts actually happen. If you look at WWII, for instance, the issue of who was going to win was settled in 1941-42. But the bulk of the fighting, killing and dying happened after that. Human beings don’t just give up because their position is hopeless… though the Martians in IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS very well might. So I didn’t want to end the Prophet’s War business with the Battle of the Horse Heaven Hills, though that was the natural denouement for the book. It made a logical place to split them. When you’re dealing with a series, where one “book” ends and another beings is always to a certain degree arbitrary, a product of the business model of publishing and the demands of paper-and-ink distribution. Notoriously so for Tolkien, who wrote all three books of the LOTR as one.
NF: There are lots of deaths in this series – some of them pretty grim. How do you decide which character to kill? Do you think about which death will have the greatest impact on the readers, or do you come by the decision in the moment, impulsively?
-- Well, none of the human characters are physically immortal! Usually it’s a matter of what feels “right”. It’s hard to describe that sort of thing; you try various scenarios in your head and they seem more or less harmonious with the structure you’ve established. And of course, if you’ve got lots of people in dangerous situations and trades, some of them are going to die. Gustavus Adolphus died of a stray shot riding into a fog, for example.
NF: I’ve seen some comments that your work tends to be influenced by current politics. Some consider you to be a right-wing author, while others think of you as a liberal one. From a European standpoint, you come across as a Centrist, with perhaps slight tendencies to the right side of political spectrum. Perhaps none of this is true, but do you feel that your writing is influenced by your personal political or philosophical principles?
-- One of the early Hollywood moguls, I think Samuel Goldwyn, said “If you’ve got a message, use Western Union.” Or these days, a blog post or a tweet. My politics don’t really fit on the American spectrum, since I was raised outside the US – I’m a monarchist by inclination, for example, and my favorite 19th-century politician is Lord Salisbury. In any case, they’re not really relevant to what I write, since most of the settings I use are ones where the issues of a modern Western society simply don’t arise.
I consider it sloppy worldbuilding for people to be culturally/psychologically modern Westerners in a setting where the economic, cultural, social and historical settings make that unlikely. Granted, showing people who are really different makes the author’s task more difficult since it’s harder to get reader identification, but one should try. Otherwise you might as well have them tweeting as they storm the castle or invoke the Great God Ghu. It’s more interesting to deal with people for whom issues like, say, dynastic legitimacy or good lordship are desperately important, or ones who live in a mental universe full of numinous supernatural presences.
That being said, your general worldview – how you think human beings and reality in general operates – cannot but inform your writing.
NF: Can you tell us something more about the Golden Princess? How many novels are planed in this series, or is that yet to be determined?
-- THE GOLDEN PRINCESS is the first in a new arc. Obviously, it takes up immediately after the ending of THE GIVEN SACRIFICE; on the next day, in fact. But the canvas is different; instead of being largely limited to North America, the whole Pacific Basin will be involved, the whole sweep from Australia to Korea. Hence the Japanese characters introduced at the end of SACRIFICE, some of whom will be central to the plot.
As of now there are four books planned; THE GOLDEN PRINCESS, THE DESERT AND THE BLADE, PRINCE JOHN, and THE SEA PEOPLES.
NF: You started accepting stories for the Emberverse anthology. Can you tell us a bit more about the concept of that book? Do you plan to include some established authors?
-- I gave the authors pretty well free reign, except that there are no big violations of the canon I’ve established. Contributors include Harry Turtledove, Alyx Delmonica, John Barnes, Diana Paxson, John Birmingham, Kier Salmon, John J. Miller, Emily Mah, Matt (M.T.) Reiten, Jane Lindskold, Lauren C. Teffeau, Walter John Williams, Victor Milan, Terry D. England and Jody Lynn Nye. I’ll be doing a story for it too. There may be another volume, though that depends. I think it’s a nice balance of established, new and completely new authors. Entirely by coincidence, it also has an almost exact balance of the genders, which I didn’t notice until last week.
NF: You talked about writing a Gavrilo Princip story. What are your thoughts about him as a historical figure? Do you consider him a terrorist or freedom fighter? Have you ever visited former Yugoslavia?
-- I’ve never been to that part of Europe, though I’d like to someday. I think Princip was a sincere, idealistic dupe, which is the type who cause much of the world’s problems; his main personal fault was a raging sense of personal inadequacy. The guy behind him, Dragutin Dimitrijević (aka Apis, head of the Black Hand), was much smarter, definitely a terrorist, a moral imbecile, and an example of self-pitying narcissistic nationalist sacroegoismo run amok. I’ve got nothing against nationalism as such, being a nationalist myself, and conflict is part of life, but you have to retain a sense of proportion or catastrophe can all too easily result. WWI was, of course, an unqualified disaster whose consequences we’re still suffering. The fall of the Dual Monarchy was one of them, though not the worst by any means. The whole concept of the nation-state was only workable in that part of the world after a lot of human engineering – aka “mass killing”. It used to be said that a chameleon put down on a color-coded ethnographic map of the Balkans would explode, but that’s no longer true… if you don’t count the dead.
NF: To conclude – what do you think you’ll be writing in five years? Where do you think that publishing is going? Is traditional model still viable? Do you think that the e-book boom is over, or do you foresee an increase in e-book sales?
-- Well, I’m already contracted for books that will run to 2018, so I more or less know what I’ll be writing. Ebook sales will undoubtedly continue to increase, though not forever at the current rate; nothing ever maintains that steep an upward curve over the long run(*). It’s impossible to predict how publishing will go, though I feel fairly sure readers will continue to pay for fiction. Self-publishing has become more viable, of course, though people tend to forget what publishers actually do. Production and distribution of dead-tree books is the least of it; only about 15% of total costs go to that. The editorial function, and promotion, are the rest. Anyone who’s read the tidal wave of utter tripe that pours into publishing houses, tens of thousands to each every year, knows that wading through it yourself would be agonizing. When you pay for a book you’re paying for that filtering service, and believe me it’s cheap at the price.
The most notable single result of the rise of the ebook is that nothing goes out of print any more. It used to be that most popular fiction was only on the stands for weeks or at most months, after which it became hard to find. That no longer happens. The most immediate result from an author’s point of view is that royalties have returned as a major source of income. Ten years ago royalties were a very minor part of my (much smaller) income; I’d take my wife out to dinner when we got a check, or buy an expensive hardcover. Now they’re about a quarter of what I earn, or even more. Ebooks also make impulse buying much easier. People read one book, like it, and then go and buy the entire series, or even everything the author has written. Needless to say, I approve!
(*) including specific technologies, which tend to follow an S-curve. Science Fiction almost always gets this wrong by assuming that the upward curve will continue indefinitely. For example, if the curve of maximum speeds between 1903 and 1963 had continued, we’d have interstellar travel by now and possibly FTL. Instead the first jet aircraft I flew on, as a child of 11 in the 1960’s, travelled at almost exactly the same speed as the one I flew across the Atlantic on to go to World Fantasy in Brighton last year. Given the ubiquity of the pattern, I have absolutely no doubt that current rapidly-advancing technologies will follow the same S-curve.
Thank you for your time.