Chicon 2000

Toastmaster: Harry Turtledove

Rev. 25-Jun-1998
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Harry Turtledove began his writing career somewhat atypically, as an historian of the Byzantine Empire. After producing a highly regarded translation of the Chronicle of Theophanes and a number of scholarly articles (some of them cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium), he retreated from academia to the comparatively more secure life of a freelance author and began writing what are certainly some of the best-informed and most imaginative alternate history tales ever. He won a Hugo in 1994 for his novella, "Down in the Bottomlands", and his combination of time travel with alternate history, The Guns of the South, made it to the best seller lists. More in line with his scholarly interests are Agent of Byzantium, in which the Roman Empire has survived its historical fall but is beginning to be infected by inevitable modernity, and the fantasy Videssos Cycle, a series of novels tracing the exploits of a Roman legion snatched into a world of magic.

interview with Jeremy Bloom

If you've been to a WorldCon in the past decade, you've seen Harry Turtledove. Surpassingly tall and gangly, with a high balding pate and bushy beard, you might mistake him for a sci-fi Byzantine monk. Which is somewhat appropriate, in that he holds a doctorate in Byzantine history. We spoke to him in his tastefully cluttered living room of his small house in Canoga Park, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Actually, the house would be a fairly good size if it was just him and all the books, but when you add in his wife (mystery writer Laura Frankos) and daughters Allison, Rachel, and Rebecca, it makes for crowding. Buy more of his books so he can move into a bigger place...

JB: You've been coming to WorldCons for years, and writing for years, but serving as Toastmaster for Chicon 2K will be your first major role at one...

Harry: And god knows why. I'm not funny. I'll have to get up in front of thousands of people and tell them I'm not a funny guy. I can make puns; I guess if I do that they either won't notice, or will lynch me.

JB: It sounds like you're looking forward to this.

Harry: Oh, I am. I ran into Bob Eggleton in the art show last year in San Antonio. This was Saturday... we're friends, he's illustrated a couple of my books, we've known each other for a while. Believe it or not, I used to have hair as long as his. When I had hair. It's been a while. So Bob came running back, and asked me, "Can you keep a secret?" I said, "Yeah..." and he said, "I'm artist guest at the Chicago WorldCon!" and I said, "Cool! I'm toastmaster!" And we high-fived each other right there in the art show!

Laura: They looked like little boys on a playground. It was priceless.

Harry: and then Sunday night the toast puns started. About making rye jokes and being half-baked... It's going to be great fun. And it's an excuse to buy a tux. If you think I look Rabbinic now, you should see me in a black tux.

JB: You've had a prolific year. How many books are out so far this year, four?

Harry: Let's see. There's been Fox and Empire, an adventure fantasy, the fourth in the series of Garen the Fox; Between the Rivers is a stand-alone fantasy set right at the beginning of civilization with gods and demons being objectively real. It's great fun, and borrows some of its ideas from Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. How Few Remain, an alternate history set in 1881, in which the south won the Civil War in 1862, is out in paperback, but that was last year's hardback. Great War: American Front is just out, set in that same universe, in 1914 with W.W.I breaking out on both sides of the Atlantic, with Great Britain and France being allied with the Confederate States and Canada and the US being allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

JB: You are pretty much the Dean of alternate history writers. How did that happen?

Harry: When I was 14 or 15 years old, I found a copy of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall in a second-hand bookstore. I read it, and thought "This is so cool," and starting trying to find out what Sprague was making up and what was real. I was hooked. I got into Cal Tech [engineering], flunked out most ingloriously at the end of my freshman year, spent a year at Cal State LA getting my GPA up to the point where it was visible to the naked eye -- and visible to the naked eye of my draft board, which was a relevant consideration then -- went to UCLA and earned a doctorate in Byzantine History. I'm unemployable, how are you? If it hadn't been for Sprague I wouldn't have the degree I have -- I wouldn't have gotten interested in Byzantine history any OTHER way. I wouldn't have written a lot of what I've written, because I wouldn't know the things I happen to know. I wouldn't have met Laura, because I happened to meet her when I was teaching at UCLA. So I wouldn't have the children I have, clearly. Other than that it hasn't changed my life at all

JB: Blame it all on de Camp.

Harry: I do. He knows. I don't know whether he's pleased or appalled, but he knows. I never really intended to write Guns of the South. It was an accident. I'm friends with and correspond with -- and am going to collaborate with, on a fantasy novel -- Judith Tarr. And Judy was complaining one day that the cover art on an upcoming novel of hers was "as anachronistic as Robert E. Lee holding an Uzi." I looked at that line in her letter and I thought "I can do something with that." And when I wrote her back I asked, "Who would want to give Robert E. Lee an Uzi? Time traveling South Africans, maybe? If I write it, I'll give you an acknowledgment."

JB: And then ten years later...?

Harry: A year and a half. I was finishing a two-novel contract. And having done all the research for Guns of the South, I thought I could use it productively for other things, too. And so, here we are. Three novels later, the third just out. And three more are finished and waiting to be published.

JB: But some have argued that alternate history isn't properly science fiction at all.

Harry: The way I do it, I use the standard SF technique. Because one of the things SF does is postulate: if we changed this, what happens next? Most of those changes are set in the present and then you examine the future, or set in the future and then you examine the farther future. I say, all right, what if we make that change and set it in the past? With as rigorous an extrapolation as I can make. I suspect part of it is "write what you know", because one of the things I learned how to do was lots of historical research. That may be why we have a lot of alternate histories these days -- a lot of escaped academics, like me, trying to write SF. I've written SF that's not alternate history; I've written fairly hard SF, fantasy -- historically-based fantasy, high fantasy, funny fantasy. I hope it's funny fantasy, anyway. This hasn't seemed to confuse my fans.

JB: Why has there been such a fascination with the Civil War as a setting for alternate history?

Harry: For me, two reasons. There is a general fascination with that period because it's a key period in the history of the United States. We are what we are now, for better and for worse, because of what happened during those four crowded years. And if things had happened differently, things would be different.

JB: Of course, there's no question about your World War series [in which W.W.II is interrupted by an invasion of earth by aliens who call themselves "The Race", forcing an alliance of Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt to save humanity] being SF. But how much did your studies of the late Roman Empire influence the way you shaped The Race and their empire?

Harry: Probably not at the conscious level. But subconsciously... I wouldn't be surprised.

JB: It was an interesting change to see your Race: an intensely conservative land-based empire that frowns on innovation in anything smaller than glacial time-scales. So often we presume that spacefaring races will be just like us: technology junkies inventing something new every other week, and conquering new frontiers whenever we find them.

Harry: But it doesn't have to be that way. The thing is -- unless you believe the Roswell stuff, which I don't, we don't have any experience with other spacefaring races.

JB: It has been said that the film "Independence Day" was basically your World War books brought up to modern day.

Harry: Aliens invading is not a new concept, and I don't take credit for it, for heaven's sake. It's War of the Worlds. I started thinking about the World War books back in the '70s, and didn't write them back then for two reasons. One, I didn't know enough. And two, I knew I wasn't the writer yet I needed to be to undertake the project. And while I was gathering research and thinking about things I wanted to do in the mid '80s, of course, Niven and Pournelle came out with Footfall. And I wanted to punt them, because they closed off several things that would have been cool to do. For example, if they have a brain trust of SF writers in theirs, and you have a brain trust of SF writers in yours.... you know.

JB: Do you read any non-SF alternate history?

Harry: There's not a whole lot of non-SF. Sobol's For Want of a Nail, which is enormous fun.

JB: My introduction to the genre was, as a child, reading McKinley Cantor's If the South Had Won the Civil War.

Harry: I was in junior high when I read that. I don't... think it had enormous influence. I certainly remember it from that day to this, and that's a long time ago.

JB: How about historical novels?

Harry: Sprague de Camp, of course. Mary Renault was the best in the business. If Plato had written in English, he would have written the way Mary Renault writes. I wish I could write like that, but my head's not wired that way. My favorites are Last of the Wine and Mask of Apollo.

JB: What about Gore Vidal's historicals?

Harry: I liked Julian very much. The American ones are good. The other ones, where he goes back to the ancient stuff, I don't think are as good, because the attitudes of his characters are too modern. And the really scary one is Messiah. That'll make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

JB: What's coming up?

Harry: I've just sold to Tor a major new fantasy series, sort of high-tech fantasy about 1930s or '40s technological level set on an imagined world with technology achieved through magical means. If you can imagine The Winds of War set as a fantasy novel, something like that. I'll be interested in seeing what people think of it.

JB: Any more historical novels in the works?

Harry: In August, a straight historical novel, Justinian about the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II who ruled at the end of the 7th century and then again at the beginning of the 8th century, and had a very adventurous career, to put it mildly. In 705 he raised a rebellion and came back; as they were sailing across the black sea this storm blew up and one of his henchmen says, "Lord, if God spares you, promise you'll have mercy on your enemies." Justinian says, "If I have mercy on even one of them, may God drown me now!" And the storm STOPPED.

JB: If that wasn't historically true, you couldn't make something like that up.

Harry: Fiction has to be plausible. All history has to do is happen.

JB: I understand you are doing that as H. Turtletaub. Why is that?

Harry: The things you have to worry about as a writer these days. It's not going to sell nearly as well as the alternate histories, and this way it won"t go down as being written by "Turtledove" in the chain store computers [in which case they would order fewer of his next book]. That's the only reason.

JB: You've focused pretty much on the US and on Rome/Byzantium. How about other settings?

Harry: I don't know enough. I've been reading Ssu-Ma Ch'ien's Chinese history lately. I know history in the west on the level of personalities. China I know on the level of dynasties, if that. It's much more demanding.

JB: How about Biblical?

Harry: Not really. It's either been done to death, or you're competing against the real text of the Bible, and I hope I'm smart enough to know when I'm fighting out of my weight. It's funny. I've done Roman stuff and Greek stuff; I've studied Christian theology, as part of that historical context, much better than I've studied my own [Jewish, although not particularly active].

JB: You have a long association with WorldCons. Your daughter Allison was born the day the 1984 LA WorldCon opened...

Laura: Allison was actually due 15 days before. I had been telling him ...

Harry: I was just starting to sell regularly then.

Laura: And for the first time since the beginning of his career there was a WorldCon right here in our own back yard. I told him, "Don't worry, the baby will be born, my folks are here, you go down, you'll meet people, this'll be good, this is important." And then she didn't come. And didn't come. And didn't come. And it was one of the hottest Augusts on record, and we didn't have air conditioning, and I was dying... And she finally decided to show up the day the WorldCon opened. I think she did it on purpose, because ever since then she gets to celebrate her birthday at WorldCon and she thinks this is a kick... she loves celebrating her birthday out of state, out of country. She's very mad at the Baltimore folks, since she doesn't get to do it this year.

Harry: We started taking them to Loscon back when Rachel was just a baby, when Rebecca wasn't even born yet. The first time we took the whole gang was to Boston in '89 when Allison turned five.

JB: Not only do you have three daughters, but between Laura and her brother [Steve Frankos] you have quite a few literary lights in the family. Is this a good thing?

Harry: It's a wonderful thing. Laura and I are each other's first readers and biggest fans. And we encourage our daughters to write. This is a wonderful way to make a living if you can do it. The potential is there for them.

Laura: All three of them have already won awards or prizes or contests for writing.

Harry: Whether that translates into selling is another question. But you want to strangle people who start selling at 13, anyway....

JB: Speaking of awards, I see you've got your Hugo there behind you.

Harry: I remember walking around at Winnipeg feeling as if someone had hit me with one of Larry Niven's tasps. My entire pleasure center had been jolted all at once!

JB: But why isn't it on the mantle? [It's on a dusty stereo speaker, next to the lamp, the telescope, and an Archie McPhee mug full of pens.]

Harry: This is earthquake country. We're two and a half miles from the Northridge epicenter. Heavy pointy things don't go on the mantle.

JB: But you're also close to the epicenter of the film industry. Has there been any interest in any of your books from that quarter?

Harry: Hollywood so far has left me severely alone. If I had to make a guess, I'd say it's because the idea of alternate history is very hard to get across to a mass audience.

JB: But there was some talk of your doing a story for Sliders?

Harry: They approached me. I was very flattered. But I'm working on two or three things at once; I just don't have time to do it.

JB: And how about forthcoming convention appearances?

Harry: Baltimore, of course. But these days I try to limit it. I did ten of them in '95 and I just went batshit. That was crazy. Everybody that asked me, I said yes. I was all over the place. So at this point my only plans are Rivercon 22 in Louisville and BucConeer.

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