Journey with Harry Turtledove

Posted on July 27, 2010 by

A couple weeks ago in my intro to “A Key to the Illuminated Heretic,” I mentioned reading Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. I cannot even begin to say how much I loved that book. It was a bleeping revelation. It had Abraham Lincoln alive and well and agitating for labour reform, and Samuel Clemens writing scorching editorials in San Francisco and . . . well, everything Harry Turtledove says about Lest Darkness Fall, below—for me, How Few Remain was that book.

photo by Brent Small

photo by Brent Small


I eased into this interview, as usual, by asking Harry for some general biographical information and about current writing projects before circling round to questions about his career, and how he got into the alternate history genre:

I’m 61 now, a scientist–most likely an astronomer–by original intention, but flunking out of Caltech at the end of my freshman year killed that dead. Ended up at UCLA, and got a doctorate, Lord help me, in Byzantine history. It’s Sprague de Camp’s fault. With an interest in science came an interest in SF, his not least among it. When I read Lest Darkness Fall, I started trying to find out how much he was making up and how much was real (not much and most, respectively), and I got hooked. Acquired ancient Greek and research skills, both of which have come in handy in various ways since.

When I got the degree, academic jobs were few and far between. I had a choice: do the university mercenary thing and move every year or two till I landed something tenure-track, if I ever did, or get a real job. So I parlayed (a fancy word for scammed) my degree and my few fiction sales into a tech-writing job at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. I was a hired keyboard: test-item writer, proposal writer, newsletter writer, copy editor, even emergency pasteup guy back at the tag end of the days when you really used rubber cement. Spent 11-1/2 years there, writing fiction on the side (and at my desk when things were slow–writing looks like writing, which is, mm, convenient).

Met Laura Frankos in 1978, married her in 1980. My second marriage, her first, and it seems to have stuck; we celebrated our 30th anniversary last month. We’ve got three girls, one in grad school, one married, one still an undergrad. No grandkids yet. Laura still writes as Frankos. She’s published a mystery novel, about a dozen sf and fantasy shorts, and has a Broadway musicals quiz book coming out from Applause this fall. We are each other’s first readers and editors, and if that doesn’t prove we get along well nothing ever will.

Coming out from Del Rey just about the time I write this is the second book of The War that Came Early series, which is called West and East (in fact, as I’m reviewing this copy UPS has brought a box of author copies to the door). This is a world where Munich failed and WW2 began over Czechoslovakia in 1938 rather than Poland in 1939, which makes for a very different-looking conflict for all kinds of reasons. I’ve also got a collection, Atlantis and Other Places, coming out from Roc at the end of the year; I’m currently procrastinating about the page proofs, but I’ll get ’em done. And I’m working on a series about what might happen if the supervolcano under Yellowstone goes off in the near future. Not surprisingly, the series is called Supervolcano; the working title for the first one is Eruption. And, since I was GoH at a con in Missoula Memorial Day weekend, I had the chance to rent a car, drive down to Yellowstone, and see what I’ll be destroying while it’s still here.

I started writing stuff when I was 8 or 9 years old, back in the 1950s. It was pretty good for 8 or 9, which of course means it was crap. First attempted an sf novel when I was maybe 13; two years later, I began the first one I finished. That was also crap, naturally, though on a higher level technically. Basically, I’d write a novel every summer till I got into grad school, where for about 5 years I wrote history instead (a different kind of fiction, some would say). Took up fiction again, more seriously, in my mid-20s, not least out of frustration with the way my thesis was going. Redid something I’d worked on before the hiatus, and that eventually became the first novel that sold (published in two parts, Wereblood and Werenight, by Belmont-Tower in 1979, as by Eric Iverson–they said no one would believe Turtledove, which is my real name). Started The Videssos Cycle in 1979, not knowing it would be four books–I would have been too intimidated to try it if I had, I think. Finished it in 1983, sold it to Del Rey in 1985. I’d sold some short fiction before then, and began selling it fairly regularly in about 1984.

I would have been maybe 26 when I picked up fiction again after putting it aside to dive into the late 6th century. I made my first sale at 28–short fiction (but the magazine died before the piece came out [sigh]). First novel saw print just before my 30th birthday. I started thinking of myself as a pro–someone who counted on writing income instead of treating it as found money–at 34 (Laura and I needed something, and we didn’t have the cash for it. I said, “Well, let’s wait till I sell another story, and we’ll get it then.” She gave me this look–you know the kind I mean. But a couple of weeks later Stan Schmidt bought a novelette, and we got whatever the heck it was.). I was 42–the answer to everything–when I left LACOE and went fulltime freelance, and I’ve been at it ever since.

Plainly, I have a jones. I’m not as obsessive-compulsive about it as I used to be, but I still write a lot. How can I do anything else?

Writers who sucked me in? Norton, Heinlein, de Camp, Poul Anderson, Mary Renault, Gore Vidal, Clarke, Asimov, Beam Piper, Sturgeon. A little later, Delany and Zelazny. I could name lots more, but those’ll do for starters.

I write in a number of genres. I’ve written several straight historical novels, both under my own name and as by H.N. Turteltaub, which was the family name before my grandfather anglicized it. I write mainstream fiction very occasionally, and even sell it every once in a while.

I stayed with the tech-writing job at LACOE till (a) I sold Guns of the South, and (b) they were going to reassign me to doing a bunch of stuff I couldn’t stand. After that, well, I had a couple of years’ income saved up, I had the Worldwar project in mind (I’d had it in mind for many years, but now was the time to write it)–if I wasn’t going to do it then, when was I? So in mid-1991 I quit, and (knocking wood) I’ve been telling lies for a living ever since. It’s been fiction all the way, pretty much; I have a couple of nonfiction projects on the back burner, but I don’t know if they’ll ever move up and get done. I’ve worked hard, and I know damn well I’ve been very lucky with the writing and in my life. You need both.

For some reason, I haven’t heard from the Nobel committee yet, nor am I holding my breath. Hey, Doris Lessing made it! I don’t like to talk about what I haven’t done yet, for fear of either weakening the inspiration or jinxing it.

The first breakthrough, obviously, is getting to the level where someone will pay you cash money for words you crank out. After that, you ask yourself and your characters harder questions. Pieces where I’ve really felt myself growing as a writer include The Videssos Cycle, Guns of the South, Ruled Brittania, and the recent short story “We Haven’t Got There Yet” on tor.com. Having that “Wow! I didn’t know I could do that!” feeling is mighty nice, as you’ll understand.

The worst surprise that came with publishing, I think, was some of the bad copyediting. I’ve had a c/e “correct” the King James Bible. I thought that was an all-time untouchable record, but I’ve seen it tied: another c/e “corrected” Shakespeare for me. I’ve had a c/e–wrongly–“correct” a language I invented. For that and other reasons, I asked not to have that c/e work with me any more, but s/he did, due to a publisher’s slipup, and–wrongly–“corrected” another language I invented. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Another imperfectly welcome surprise is how I read nowadays. I can’t enjoy most fiction the way I could before I turned into a writer; I read much more analytically and I’m much harder to satisfy. I read more nonfiction now, partly as research and partly because I don’t tear it to pieces in my head in quite the same way.

Without a doubt, the best of the business is the people. I’ve met and made friends with people I was reading for a million years before I got into the racket myself. Some of them have been to my house. If I had told my twenty-something self that that would happen, that self would have gone “Yeah, sure!” (they didn’t say “Yeah, right!” back then). But it’s true, and it’s great. And my best friends in the field are some of the ones who came up at the same time I did, more or less. Now, increasingly, the writers seem younger, but they’re still interesting people.

Writing is great. Beats the hell out of working for a living. I’ve done that. No fun at all.

Stanley Park, crops and closeups

Posted on July 26, 2010 by

Sunday morning after I hit the cafe for some writing time, Barb and I went for a walk through Coal Harbor to Lost Lagoon, and it was like the wildlife of Coastal B.C. was lining up for us. Here’s a small sample:

After three happy hours in the baking, blazing, sharp-shadow-casting sun, we returned to East Vancouver, where I hooked up with kelly-yoyoKelly for coffee and a panini. Afterward, we decided to hit a sale at Cotton Ginny that faith0322Faith had mentioned… and it was like the pretty, price-slashed clothes of Vancouver (okay, Burnaby) were lining up for me. I got a couple of allegedly, organic, sustainably farmed, farmer-friendly cotton tops and a pair of jeans, and then we went next door and stocked up on socks for winter. (The socks, I admit, may have been made from baby spandexes whose parents were taken away in the night by very unkind people.)

Then we puttered home, or meant to, and ended up in Tierra del Sol, where the other clothes were waiting. A dress and a cute, cute, CUTE! top later, we were ready to go. Then we heard a cheerful-sounding “I need a hug!” and Lotus was standing behind us. Eeeee!!! Lotus lives in Edmonton now, so her hugs are rare and precious things. She had somewhere to be so we walked her back to the Skytrain station, chattering all the way, and then turned back for what could be counted as my fourth attempt to return home in the six hours since I’d left. This time we made it as far as Falconetti‘s new deck. Kelly had a Caesar and I had an Innis and Gunn; we shared a plate of calimari and all was right with the world.

Then, finally, we went home, so I could wash off the sunscreen and chortle over my photographic treasure. That, and telling you all about it, is what I’m up to now.

Book Review: The Bridge

Posted on July 26, 2010 by

One of my buddies from Cafe Calabria is gentleman from Turkey who’s in, as I tend to be, at 6:30 a.m. on the weekends. He’s an early riser and his family are a batch of sleep-ins, so he takes a book, has a coffee and whiles away a couple hours. One day he was reading OSMAN’S DREAM and I told him I’d started poking at the history of Istanbul–in an aimless, I-have-no-immediate-use-for-this-research fashion–but quickly found I wasn’t up to that particular book.

A few weeks ago, months after the original conversation, he gave me THE BRIDGE: A JOURNEY BETWEEN ORIENT AND OCCIDENT, by Geert Mak.

THE BRIDGE is a slender little account of life on the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn in Istanbul. It’s well worth image-searching it: it’s got a car deck and a retail level, is festooned with fishers (whom Mak describes eloquently) and despite being a functional block o’ concrete, manages to convey a little old-World charm. Mak spent some months hanging out with the fishers, the pickpockets, the marginal-stuff vendors of various types and backgrounds, chit-chatting about their politics, their home villages, and their hardships. The book is a documentary about these characters, a little snapshot of the place where Western-leaning Istanbul is connected to the more Eastern-influenced part of the city. It’s a much simpler book than OSMAN’S DREAM, which is a pile of this Caliph, and that Sultan, and then they invaded Mars! OK, not really.

I wasn’t grounded enough in the history, is what I’m saying, and my buddy, with impressive perspicacity, handed me something that’s much simpler, heavy on the atmosphere, and which still manages to convey a sense of an intricate multicultural society, with a capital city that has been full of diversity and compromises for centuries.

Cats of East Van

Posted on July 23, 2010 by

It doesn’t get hot here as often or to the degree that it does in much of the U.S., and as a result comparatively few Vancouverites have air conditioning at home. When it’s hot, we turn on the fans, we run our clothes through the rinse cycle and wear them damp, we open the windows, drink iced drinks, and go outside. We sleep badly and swear we’ll get A/C for next year, and some of us actually do. If things keep heating up, everyone will probably install a chiller.

(My house tends to get five to ten degrees hotter than ambient, which is one of many reasons why I didn’t invite a bunch of people I’m meeting with tomorrow to do it here. Melting one’s friends is so gauche!)

Imagine, now, if you had fur! Rumble spends these days lying beside his friend the toilet. I stuck my foot in Minnow, a.k.a. jumpiest cat alive, the other morning, and she did not twitch a bun. And on the one day a couple weeks ago when it was absolutely scorching, I found many of the neighborhood cats snoozing in the shade, lying on lawns, and otherwise keeping cool by just damnwell getting out out. Here’s one:

Cats of East Van

So, heat. That particular searing day, maybe two weeks ago, K was wrapping up a project at her office and I spent the day in mine, drinking tons of water and sweating like crazy. I find a good bake, once in awhile, to be very gratifying, even healthy-feeling. It was a good day. And since then, it’s been a temperature many would find perfect: hot, but not too.

As we head into this weekend it looks to be heating up a bit more, back into the less comfy range. I probably won’t go out in search of more toasty felines, though–I have that day-long meeting Saturday, a hike with Barb on Sunday morning, and some work that’s crept up on me like one of those cartoon naturalists with a butterfly net. I dealt with as much of the pile as I possibly could today, but I don’t feel as though I’ve got very much think left in me for this evening.

What I do have in me is blueberries. My favorite local farmers have once again set up a booth in the Commercial Skytrain Station, and are selling cherries and blueberries for $2 a pound, or 3 pounds for $5. I shouldn’t be telling you this. I should be keeping it a carefully hoarded secret. I want all the blueberries, which are damn near as big as my thumb, and bursting with archived sunshine. But hiding this information from all of you, when several tens of thousands of commuters stream past these guys all day throwing money at them, would be silly. Go. Eat. They’re delicious.

Slightly related because it touches on my neighborhood and photography, I am thinking of sending a few pictures to the This Is East Van project. It wouldn’t pay, but as far as I can tell they aren’t one of those “you pay us to publish you!” scams that I’m more familiar with from seeing scammers pounce, hyena-like, on young poets. If anyone knows whether these guys are legit, I’d be interested. I haven’t published any photos since I was in some (electronic) Chicago-based Art magazine a few years back. This is because I don’t throw much effort at it. But if these guys aren’t crooks it would be nice to try. You’ve probably all noticed I’m really into my neighborhood, and if you’re not sure on that score, “The Cage” comes out on TOR.COM next week and should remove all doubt.

I will have the next Journey interview for you all early next week. In the meantime, here’s another cat.

Cats of East Van

Workshops, and the question of how to fix it

Posted on July 22, 2010 by

The workshop practice of having all the readers speak their piece while the author of a story or book fragment is required to listen quietly is generally accepted. I’ve seen this rule in play at Clarion and Turkey City and literary workshops too, and have heard others refer to them as “Milford” rules. I’m not sure I’ve workshopped anywhere that didn’t have this as a guideline.

Most of us seem to agree that when it’s your writing in the spotlight, the best use of your time is to just pay attention to the crits. Any energy you might spend defending what you were trying to achieve, or explaining things that weren’t clear, or catching the group up on the real life events that inspired your story (“It’s not hard to believe–it’s how it happened!”) is energy that’s better spent on a rewrite.

Where I see more mud and less agreement is in the area of a reader suggesting fixes for a given piece’s problems. There are those who are dead against this: any suggestion from you, the argument goes, is an attempt to rewrite someone else’s story. The answer you’re offering won’t be the right one. If they take your advice, the writer will screw up their story.

How much you get into actively suggesting in a peer workshop may depend on its culture and rules, on how far along the participants are in their writing career, and how well they know each other. I know plenty of people for whom a statement like, “The characterization in this could use some beefing up” would be plenty of feedback. Speaking very generally, though, and as someone who teaches people who are newer to writing, I do believe there are ways to offer concrete suggested fixes without rewriting the author’s work.

In my UCLA courses, where I get to set the rules, I allow writers to suggest specific changes to each other, with the understanding that “Do this to Element X!” is just a different way of highlighting whatever issue you had with that story element. Sometimes it’s clearer, I think, to demonstrate what you think isn’t working when you take a hypothetical bang at fixing it yourself.

So that’s how I go about it–“If you do X,” I’ll say, “then this and that might happen, and maybe we’ll understand why he killed the music teacher.” Sometimes X will be a broad, obviously unworkable suggestion, because the ‘maybe we’ll understand’ is the key to the message.

I suppose I could bend myself into rhetorical pretzels trying to explain how and why I don’t understand or agree with a given writing choice, but often a quick example of how to go about tackling the problem seems to me to be both appropriate and as elegant a way as any to get the idea across.

How about all of you? I’m open to other opinions on this, as always.

In the meantime, here’s a shot from Maplewood Flats that I think is both pretty and soothing:

Maplewood in July