When I ask alternate historians of my generation what got them interested in the genre, they almost always answer with the name “Harry Turtledove”. The most prolific author of alternate history is also the most respected. Fans are still discussing his works long after they have been published. Just look at these AlternateHistory.com threads dedicated to discussing his Timeline-191/Southern Victory series or the hundreds of articles on the Harry Turtledove wiki dedicated to those same books.
So when Amazing Stories‘ Steve Davidson asked if I wanted to interview Harry Turtledove, I was shocked, but immediately said yes. Although I went into the interview nervous as hell, I found Harry to be both humble and hilarious. Check out my interview with him below:
Matt Mitrovich for Amazing Stories: You have been called the “master of alternate history”, but how would you describe yourself to a stranger?
Harry Turtledove: That “master of alternate history” label was pinned on me by a publicist. Lord knows I don’t take it seriously. How would I describe myself? I’m somebody who wanted to write science fiction and fantasy from the age of 12 on, and who happened to wind up with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. It’s hardly surprising a good part of my output is a-h, though I do like to remind people that not all of it is.
H.T.: No, I didn’t know that. It’s flattering, but they should have named it after Leinster or de Camp or one of the other pioneers who basically turned what had been an intellectuals’ tiny playground into a subgenre of sf–liberated a-h, if you like.
A.S.: What got you interested in alternate history? I remember reading somewhere that you credited L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall with sparking that interest.
H.T.: Lest Darkness Fall was indeed some of the first a-h I read, along with things like MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the Civil War, Phil Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Keith Laumer’s Worlds of the Imperium. What the de Camp book did was interest me in the history of the Byzantine Empire, about which I knew nothing before I found it in a secondhand store. Had I not found it, I wouldn’t have the degree I have, I wouldn’t have written most of what I’ve written (though I would have written something, because I already wanted to), I wouldn’t be married to my wife (I met her while I was teaching at UCLA when the guy I studied under had a guest gig in Greece), and I wouldn’t have had the three kids I had. Other than that, it didn’t affect my life one bit. Alternate history on the microhistorical level, if you like.
A.S.: You famously said “Fiction has to be plausible. All history has to do is happen.” Are there any historical events you find to be implausible?
H.T.: Swarms of them. Hitler’s rise to power, for one, starting with his surviving World War I–the life expectancy of a runner was commonly days or weeks, but he did it through most of the war. He got gassed once, not too badly, but he didn’t get shot. The whole story of Lee’s loss of Special Order 191 and how it ended up in McClellan’s hands is one that any Hollywood director would reject as utterly ridiculous. And the USA’s botch of everything it touched after smashing Saddam’s army in 2003 had to be seen to be disbelieved. I could go on and on and. . .
H.T.: Joe Steele‘s breakpoint is that Mr. and Mrs. Dzugashvili emigrate from the Old World Georgia to the New World California while she’s pregnant with Iosef Vissarionevch. After changing his name to something more pronounceable (guess what?), he becomes President of the United States in 1932 instead of FDR.
In Bombs Away, the breakpoint is late 1950, in the Korean War. In real history, the Red Chinese (as we called them then) badly mauled UN (mostly American) forces at the Chosin reservoir, but most of them managed to pull back to the port of Hungnam and evacuate by sea. Here, the Chinese almost completely destroy those several divisions. MacArthur and Truman decided to use A-bombs on several Manchurian cities to keep them from flooding more men and materiel into Korea and overrunning it altogether. With Mao screaming in his ear, Stalin retaliates by similarly striking several European cities–you hit our ally, we’ll hit your pals. What would be called escalation in Vietnam ensues.
A.S.: A friend of mine pointed out I can listen to the original “Joe Steele” short story over at Escape Pod. Is there anywhere else where people can find audio versions of your short fiction?
Some of the ones I did for Tor.com are available there. Not a lot of my shorter stuff is on audio, though a good many novels are.
A.S.: I also saw you have a short story coming out in SM Stirling’s The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth anthology titled “Topanga and the Chatsworth Lancers”. Can you tell us more about that and is it going to be a homage to Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers?
H.T.: I think The Peshawar Lancers is a terrific book, but this has nothing to do with that. Chatsworth, a district of Los Angeles in the northwest part of the San Fernando Valley, is pretty wide open country. Lots of people own and raise horses. After the Change, when electricity and gunpowder are kaput, it seemed natural that some of them would turn into knights. Topanga Canyon, a bit farther south, has been countercultural for, basically, forever. There are cultural and logistical/political reasons the two regions would clash.
A.S.: Any other upcoming projects you would like to talk about?
H.T.: I have a really evil idea for an a-h, but I don’t have a contract for it yet. I’m waiting to hear. Stay tuned. Watch this space. 😉
A.S.: Have you had a chance to read any web original alternate histories posted and, if so, can you recommend any that were good?
One that immediately jumps to mind is “The Iron Shirts” by Michael F. Flynn, on Tor.com.
A.S.: Did you watch The Man in the High Castle pilot on Amazon and do you foresee a surge of popularity for alternate history with more shows and films like that being produced?
H.T.: Didn’t see it. I’m not holding my breath for a surge in a-h TV and movies. Too many people don’t know the real history, which makes appreciating the a-h harder. I wish it would be otherwise, but that’s one of your highly implausible alternate histories.
A.S.: What would you recommend someone do if they were trying to get a friend or family member to have a better appreciation of history?
H.T.: If your own interest in history doesn’t spark a matching interest in the other person, leave it alone. One of the worst things you can do is try to ram your own enthusiasms down the throat of someone who doesn’t share them. It is, depressingly, possible to be a pretty fair human being without having the faintest idea whether World War I came before or after World War II.
A.S.: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
H.T.: Read. Write. Read. Write. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Stubbornness counts for more than anything else in this business, almost certainly including talent.