Author Interview – Tom Anderson
Following on from my first author interview with Paul Leone, author of the upcoming The Mysteries of Zillah Harvey: Volume One, I was lucky enough to catch up with another author who’s had titles released by Sea Lion Press, who specialise in publishing Alternate History fiction. Tom Anderson is one of the most prolific – and successful – authors under the Sea Lion Press banner, and was recently nominated for the prestigious Sidewise Award for Alternate History alongside his co-author Bruno Lombardi for the short story ‘N’oublions Jamais’. He was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions about his writing background, his experiences in writing in both the Alternate History and Science-Fiction genres, and his latest title Well Met By Starlight, which was launched at the end of July.
Hi there Tom, thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how that led into writing and then being published?
I’m from Doncaster in South Yorkshire and my day job is teaching chemistry at the nearby University of Sheffield. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been interested in science and technology, and also been a voracious reader. They say kids today start with ‘screen time’ too early, but I have a photo of myself using a BBC Micro at the age of one. I am grateful in retrospect that primary school at that time encouraged creative writing, and ultimately a lot of my ideas stemmed from the imaginative crossovers me and my best friend Brad would create while trying to figure out how our Manta Force toys could fight International Rescue or whatever. After writing on my own for many years, I started posting work on forums around 2006, including alternate history work (more on that later) which ultimately led to me joining SLP [Sea Lion Press] when it was founded.
When you started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
As a kid I used to wear out copies of Roald Dahl or Dick King-Smith stories. My dad raised me on Tolkien and I read “The Lord of the Rings” at an early age, along with Narnia, and those, er, ‘influenced’ some of the stories I wrote for primary school. That’s the fantasy (some children’s TV shows like “The Dreamstone” also helped) and the sci-fi came from “Thunderbirds” and, eventually, “Star Trek” as well as Terry Pratchett’s humour and writing ability. At one point I was writing stories on that BBC Micro with a dot matrix printer that used the same characters and settings as old fantasy-type stories I wrote, but now they were in space with suspiciously Trek-like starships. So I suppose I’ve always been into genre-blending. My liking of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” series, combined with my later fondness for Diane Carey’s Star Trek novels which turn up the ‘space is an ocean’ angle to eleven, led me to use Ransome references throughout my latest novel Well Met By Starlight. More recently, I’ve become fascinated with reading older fiction, especially detective novels (partly due to being poor during my PhD and finding out-of-copyright stuff on Project Gutenberg!) and these have influenced my period writing.
Looking back through your published fiction, you started out writing Alternate History fiction like The Unreformed Kingdom (the latter one of the first titles I ever reviewed on this blog!) and The Curse of Maggie. What attracted you to Alternate History as a genre?
While they were my earliest published works, I came to AH relatively late, mostly because I grew up thinking history was relatively uninteresting as a topic–partly because of the way it was taught at school (see my rant in the introduction to the first Look to the West book, Diverge and Conquer). My first real introduction to the concept of AH was the seminal real time strategy game “Command and Conquer: Red Alert” which is a classic of the ‘killing Hitler only makes things worse’ sub-genre. I think the first AH novels I read were Harry Turtledove’s “Worldwar” books, mostly because I saw them on the SF shelves and grew curious. Finding out a series of interesting what-ifs in the 18th century ultimately led me to write Look to the West, inspired by other long AH projects such as Jared Kavanagh’s “Decades of Darkness”. I first became interested in political AH around 2010 when I read some of my uncle’s book collection, in particular “Time to Declare”, David Owen’s autobiography, which is full of what-ifs such as suggesting the Falklands War could have happened four years earlier if the situation had been different.
After those initial titles, which were sort of novella-length, you then moved into novel-length titles like Not An English Word and then the popular Look to the West series, which is currently on its fourth title. How did you find the process of moving from shorter works to entire novels, and then from novels to an entire series?
Bear in mind the publication order does not reflect the order in which the books were written; the first volume of Look to the West was written around 2007-8, albeit in a rather inferior form! Historically I grew my fiction-writing skills through (unpublished) works in the 1990s. Back then, one couldn’t just look up things like ‘what is the wordcount of popular book X’ so I based everything off a casual mention in one Star Trek book I read that it was 127,000 words, and actually aimed for that as a default novel length for some time. I find it harder to write self-contained, shorter works than just keep going with longer ones.
Following on from that, have you found your writing style changing as you’ve written more and more fiction, and moved from short fiction to novels and series?
I’ve tried to evolve my writing style in a more workmanlike direction, as I’m reflexively too prone to flowery asides that can interrupt the flow of the action. I was able to indulge those tendencies in the asides in the first part of The Twilight’s Last Gleaming which updates the reader on the progress of an asteroid heading towards Earth in an omniscient narrator fashion. Look to the West is unusual as it’s told in a scrapbook style with bits from multiple different in-timeline history books. I try to vary my writing style a bit from author to author, but I will confess to enjoying being able to evoke a pompous, up-himself, ‘clearly this common misconception is entirely wrong’ priggish historian style in many of those books quoted.
As you’ve published AH fiction that’s set across multiple centuries, have you found it easier to write fiction set in the more distant past, rather than events that occurred within living memory? Are there challenges of writing about, say, the 19th Century that might not crop up in regards to the 21st Century?
That’s a very good question! Certainly writing about recent political events is always going to be charged with emotion. I think political AH tends to focus on elections rather than their aftermath for a good reason, as nobody wants to read about the other party winning and it turning out better for the country, even if it’s possible given how unpredictable history is. To lead into the other part of your question, one important thing to remember when writing in a past setting is that people have always been people. Technology and slang may change, but people in the 1880s or the 1730s were basically like us: they liked jokes, especially stupid and much-repeated ones, had zero respect for their politicians (who were clearly nowhere near as good as the ones we used to have, says every generation) and the youth were lazy and soft or the elderly were entitled and prejudiced, depending on which group you ask. One of my favourite things to do in AH is read books – ordinary, everyday books like detective or adventure stories – written in a particular era and allow that to influence my writing when it’s set there. This feels far more authentic than deliberately trying to do an archaic style that’ll inevitably sound stiffer than the real people would have.
Speaking of the 21st Century, your latest titles from Sea Lion Press have been a duo of novels (The Surly Bonds of Earth and the recently-published Well Met By Starlight) that blend Alternate History and Science-Fiction to envision the near-future experiences of humanity. Could you tell us about the concept behind the series, and what readers might expect from the two novels?
I planned the basic events of these books more than 20 years ago, filling in backstory for books set later on. I never knew if I was ever going to turn them into stories, as I wasn’t sure if there was a story there worth telling. As I wrote more stories set around the present day and history, I gradually concluded there was a tale to tell. “The Surly Bonds of Earth” describes how we go from a world that looks largely similar to our own (but see below) to the beginnings of what we associate with a futuristic science fiction setting, from a world of limited resources to a limitless universe–overcoming many trials on the way. Well Met By Starlight, on the other hand, is a story of first contact with aliens. Both of these have been told many times before, but I hope to bring something new to the table with a rather different vision of the future, as I’ll describe below.
What led you to put those two genres together, and what has your experience been in writing The Surly Bonds of Earth as a series? Were the two books influenced by anything – or anyone – in particular?
Historically when I wrote science fiction I was more interested with coming up with alien races and barely featured humans, so when I decided I needed to develop the future of humanity as part of it, learning more about history was a must. I started doing this development around the year 2000, heavily based on the optimistic ‘end of history’ assumptions of someone whose visions of the future had been built on events in the 1990s. Then 9/11 happened and sent the world down a different track. Rather than throw out the vision I’d been building, this was around the time I started becoming interested in AH, so I thought “Why not just make this AH?” This is not to say that The Surly Bonds of Earth is just ‘our world without 9/11’ as I introduced some changes earlier, but it fundamentally a vision of the future built on 1990s assumptions. I like to throw in a few AH Easter Eggs for people who know a bit about corporate history; in the early chapters of The Surly Bonds of Earth, Pierre Janvier is woken up by a home A.I. made by a company called Cadabra–this was the original name of Amazon. Similarly, Apple is never mentioned because in the 1990s for a while it looked as though the company was fading in relevance, while other 90s technology companies such as Psion and Stormix appear to still be going. And politically, the EU has gone from strength to strength while the USA suffered from a period of isolationism and inward-looking malaise, as seemed the trend in the 1990s.
As far as influence goes, the character of Seth Graham in The Surly Bonds of Earth started out as a running joke in my sixth form, in which my friend Graham pestered the Physics teacher by asking if various concepts could be renamed after himself. I developed the idea of ‘what if the inventor of faster-than-light travel was like that and got first dibs on the first offworld colony’? From this simple joke came the much more in-depth treatment of The Surly Bonds of Earth, but that book is nonetheless dedicated to Graham and his family!
As a more general question I like to put to authors – what’s your favourite piece of fiction that you’ve had published? And do you have any plans to return to that world and its characters?
This is a cheating answer, but at the moment I have to say Well Met By Starlight; this is finally me publishing the kind of science fiction that is closest to my heart. “Look to the West” is my most popular series, but I’ve always regarded it as a kind of side project by an amateur–after all, I’m a scientist, not an historian! As far as everything else goes, I am very happy with how The Twilight’s Last Gleaming came out, and I do want to return to that world one day, but only if I am sure there is a story worth telling.
Finally, to draw the interview to a close, what’s next for you on the writing front? Will we be seeing a third novel in The Surly Bonds of Earth series? Or perhaps a return to straight Alternate History?
At the moment I am working on prepping the fifth volume of Look to the West, titled To Dream Again, for publication. After that, my next big project will be the next book in the Surly Bonds series, On the Wings of the Morn, which follows straight on from Well Met By Starlight. However, I also hope to look at some shorter side projects again!
Well, thanks for chatting with the blog Tom! I wish you the best of luck with your writing, and look forward to seeing what you come up with next!
If you’re interested in any of Tom’s titles, all of which I can highly recommend, they can be found through his Author Page on Amazon. His latest novel, Well Met By Starlight, is out now from Sea Lion Press, and you can order it from the following links:
“This day in human history…is the day it stops being only human history!”
The year: 2139. Faster-than-light travel has saved humanity from the dwindling resources of an Earth subtly different from our own, but old rivalries have not faded.
Heinrich Adler had a promising career in the European Space Agency, before he threw it away over the death of the woman he loved thanks to the corruption of his captain. Now he is called back to service as the one man Admiral Walker can trust. A distant new world has been discovered, one which does not fit the Earth-clone pattern of the other colonies. Only by joining forces with the United States and ASEAN can Europe’s Magellan beat the Russians’ own long-range mission there.
But intrigue stalks the corridors of the Magellan, and Heinrich must decide whom he can trust. Because on that distant world, he—and all of humanity—is about to get a lot more than he bargained for.
“Well Met By Starlight” is set in the universe of The Surly Bonds of Earth (also available from Sea Lion Press) but can be read as a standalone story.