Editor Interview – Gary Oswald
For the past few months here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, I’ve been conducting interviews with some of the authors that I have previously reviewed on the blog, but it’s always been my intention to expand the range of these interviews. I also want to chat with the people involved in the publishing process – illustrators, graphic designers, editors and publishers – to get their unique perspectives on the world of publishing and the challenges they face. I’ve been very fortunate, therefore, to get some time with Gary Oswald, who is both author and editor in the Alternate History genre. Gary has the weighty responsibility of editing and maintaining the blog over at the Sea Lion Press website, which publishes a long-running series of genre articles, book reviews, discussion points and vignettes, and also contributes articles himself on several subjects. He’s also edited the upcoming Sea Lion Press anthology Grapeshot and Guillotines: Revolutions That Never Were (which I should also note includes a short vignette from me!). In this interview, Gary chatted with me about his background and interest in Alternate History; his experiences in working with authors on articles for the Sea Lion Press blog, and gaining traction in a niche genre; his own Alternate History articles on the blog, covering a number of topics; and how he found editing an entire anthology of Alternate History Revolutions.
Hi there Gary, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer!
It’s a genuine pleasure Adam, we’ve done this the other way around with me interviewing you, so I feel honoured to be on this side of the situation
Perhaps we could start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming interesting in Alternate History? What attracted you to it as a genre compared to other, perhaps more popular, types of fiction?
I think a lot of it is down to my job. I work as a lab technician in a University, and one of the perks of that job is free access to a massive library of non-fiction books and that meant if I heard an interesting fact about an area of history, I had the resources available to me to find the context. I used to just walk into the library and come out with 7 books on 19th century Benin because I’d seen something about the female soldiers of that area and wanted more information. It’s a massive privilege to have access to that reservoir of information without having to pay for it, I consider myself extraordinarily lucky.
Mind, I am a bad student of history. Alex Acks, who is a great steampunk AH writer, once edited an anthology called ‘no shit, there I was’ about crazy pub anecdotes. And I often view History as that. So a good historian looks at Abraham Samuel, who was a slave in the Caribbean who ran away, joined an American pirate ship and ended up marooned on Madagascar where he became King and formed his own Empire, and thinks about the trade connections and slave routes and what this interactivity tells us about intercontinental trade during the time and the economic system of the world. I just view it like Abraham is sitting next me in a pub saying’ no shit, there I was’.
So as these anecdotes took over more and more of my brain, I started searching online for historical discussion and found my way to counter factual discussion and then fiction. I think counter-factuals are interesting to me because of the way it shows that so much of the way the world works isn’t innate but down to choices and could have been different. There are societies with more than two genders, without private property, which viewed slavery as social welfare and so on, our current society is not the only way to do things.
John W Campbell said the ideal of Science Fiction is to ‘write a creature who thinks as well as a man or better than a man but not like a man”. Admittedly, Nicole Rudick was correct to point out that a woman also fits that definition and Campbell would never print a story about one of those, but I think Campbell was right that that’s an admirable goal.
And AH history at its produces societies that work as well as our current one but do not like our current one. The creature that does not think the way you think could well be you, if the tenants of your society were different.
I know that there tend to be a couple of ways in which fans of Alternate History get engaged with the genre – either through the internet (message boards and forums) or the perhaps more ‘traditional’ way of picking up interesting-looking books. What were the specific routes that got you into the genre? And did you gravitate towards any specific authors, or topics?
I certainly read AH books before I started talking about it online, I will still go to bat for Jasper Fforde’s ‘Eyre Affair’ or Arvid Nelson’s ‘Rex Mundi’, but I never really sought out the genre or even recognised it as one. My first encounter of it in terms of ‘this is something I want to see more of’ was on reddit’s ‘what if’ sub where an historian wrote a very long and very good post about how Mexico would have evolved if the Spanish hadn’t turned up. And that made me think, wow this is a cool way to talk about history and I want to see more of it.
The drift into fiction from that is not an intuitive one. It took me a while to work out that the counter factual essays I was devouring were in the same genre as the fantasy setting of the ‘Eyre Affair’. But a lot of online fiction blended the lines between the two and that worked as a bridge.
In terms of authors and topics. Jonathan Edelstein is someone who really won me over to the genre, he’s a fantastic writer and great guy and he focused on third world history in a way most people don’t, he’s written a published book about Gabon with Sea Lion Press but he also wrote non published stories about Haiti and Nigeria.
My two favourite AH books, Bearfish by John O’Brien and Bear Cavalry by DG Valdron, are both about animal husbandry AH, in the former hippos are introduced into depression era USA as a source of meat and in the latter Bears are farmed and domesticated on Iceland. So that’s a topic that obviously chimes with me,
I’ve noted in some of my book reviews – both here on the blog and the Sea Lion Press blog as well – that there are often only a few topics and areas that AH genre fiction seem to focus on – things like Nazi Germany and the American Civil War, for example. Why do you think that is? And why such a focus on those topics, compared to events and countries that are just as interesting but don’t seem to get as much attention?
I think AH reflects Historical knowledge. You write about what you know about. And those events are events everyone knows about. Which means a ) you have an audience who understand what the stakes of your story are and b) you don’t need to do as much research.
I recently interviewed a professional writer of historical fiction, Tanja Kinkel, and she said she spends three times as long researching the historical background of a period as actually writing. If you have a full time job in addition to your writing, you probably won’t do that. And, as a reader, if you see a story about 19th century Haiti you might not pick that up if you don’t know the subject for fear you won’t understand the nuances.
As an author for the Sea Lion Press blog, you’ve written articles covering a number of diverse topics that are often overlooked by authors, publishers and fans, which I’ve often found fascinating. Your most extensive series of articles covers the wide-ranging topic of Africa During The Scramble and the counter-factual possibilities to be found in late-19th Century Africa. What made you decide to focus on that subject?
The short answer is I knew enough to write it and nobody else had beaten me to it.
The longer answer is if your interest in Alternate History, as mine is, is about ways in which societies are run which are different to how we run societies now then you need to look at the losers of History. And Africa lost in the 19th century on a staggering scale. Politically, economically and culturally their way of life was destroyed and replaced. So my first set of articles about 19th century Africa were about ‘this is how this society functioned and how it could have evolved had it not been conquered’.
But that conquest is the elephant in the room when talking about African History and so I wanted to look at how that conquest actually happened and to the extent that it was or was not inevitable. Militarily, the Africans put up a much bigger fight than is often assumed.
And what have you discovered during your writing that the Alternate History genre could perhaps learn from, or at the very least make use of?
My old hobby horse about cultural choices not being innate is the main thing I think that is useful in AH world building. West Africa had a long and proud history of female soldiers for one, which flies in the face of a lot of assumptions about gender roles being defined by genetics.
Also, and I shouldn’t have to say this, but colonialism is awful. If your AH Empire is not oppressive and genocidal you are not honestly representing how colonial Empires worked.
You also wrote a thoughtful and engaging piece for the Sea Lion Press blog on the Alternate History stories that can be found on fanfiction website Archives of Our Own (AO3). In that article, you make the distinction between Alternate History and Alternate Universe which is often used by fanfiction authors when writing their own works. It certainly seems like there are potentially many more writers of counter-factual fiction than might be realised under the strict genre definition of ‘Alternate History’ – do you think it’s possible to further link AH and AU together, and possibly reinvigorate the AH genre as a whole?
I think most Alternate Universe is more fantasy than Alternate History but it’s always difficult with genre boundaries, in theory every piece of fiction is counterfactual because a non real person is in it.
I’d personally draw a distinction between fiction about alternate history and fiction based on a what if in the same way I’d draw a distinction between fanfiction and fiction with other people’s characters (like movie sequels or adaptations). I think AH as a genre has developed its own tropes and if someone wants an exploration of counterfactual history, recommending them Dracula (which is technically an AH in that it’s set in a world where vampires exist) wouldn’t be what they’re looking for.
But there is certainly an awful lot of writers of what we’d consider genuine AH content writing it under the AU name. I find it fascinating the way in which online AH content has gender segregated itself. There are lots of women writing AH content in female heavy spaces but forums like Alternatehistory.com and sealionpress.co.uk tend to be overwhelmingly male. I’m not sure how you change that. I’d like it if the people writing earnest essays on dreamwidth and tumblr about Aaron Burr as President turned up on our forums but I think they prefer to stay where they are rather than enter a male space and I get that. I just wanted to make people aware that a female AH community exists.
I’ve always read online amateur fiction. It’s free for one. There’s been times in my life where I didn’t have much spare money for entertainment and it’s nice to find something you can read for free at the library if you don’t own a computer. And the author is accessible to you, so you can say ‘hello, this is good’ and they actually hear it and there’s something quite pleasing about people just creating work for the thrill of creating work and having it read with no money involved. I’ve read webcomics, I’ve read (and written) erotic romances and obviously I’ve both read (and written) fanfiction and read (and written) Alternate History.
Both communities mean a lot to me, I’d be equally pleased if that article meant AH fans checked out the fanfiction communities as vice versa.
When you’re not writing articles for the Sea Lion Press blog, you’re working as an editor to collate together articles and take submissions for it. How have you found that process? And has anything surprised you about the submissions you’ve had for the blog?
It’s been great fun. It’s been nice to have something during lockdown to be honest with you. Mostly it’s just a matter of keeping an organised schedule and fact/spell checking articles that come in when they come in, so you don’t build up a backlog.
The surprising thing is how generous people are with their time and knowledge. Like with the amateur writers I talked about above, it’s pleasing how much people are willing to write essays for free just to share knowledge and give other people something to read.
You’ve also conducted a series of interviews with figures throughout the Alternate History genre, talking with authors, graphic novelists, and even audio drama producers. Where did you get the idea to embark on this sort of project? How did you define it in terms of who you’d like to talk with? And has anything surprised you in the course of conducting these interviews?
I nicked the idea off you, is the honest answer. When David Flin started Sergeant Frosty Publications, I wanted a way to cross promote that and I saw that you were doing author interviews and me interviewing him about Sgt Frosty seemed like a good way to draw attention to his new project.
I’ve kept doing it because well I find people interesting, I don’t think you can be interested in History if you don’t, and I wanted the opportunity to chat with people I admire, especially since lockdown has meant I do less of that than I would like. The AH community is so large and healthy, that people have all sorts of different projects and it’s been great to talk to them about what they’re passionate about.
I tried to pick people who represented different parts of the hobby, professional writers, and reviewers and podcasters and artists. People who got into it through cosplay or romance fiction or military fiction or comics. Again it’s such a big community, it was nice to chat about areas within it that I didn’t know much about.
The most surprising thing again was just how many people were willing to give up their time to talk to me, when I have such a small platform and so I can’t really offer anything material in return.
From editor of the Sea Lion Press blog to editor of an anthology – you’re the editor of the upcoming Grapeshot and Guillotines: Revolutions That Never Were, coming soon from Sea Lion Press. What can you tell us about the genesis of this project? And how have you found the process of editing an entire anthology, compared to a blog?
Like all great stories, it began when I was drunk in a pub. I was with Paul Hynes, a fantastic writer who focuses primarily on WW2, and we were talking about the narrative possibilities of revolutions and how many good AH short stories have been written about the subject. And by the end of it, I’d agreed to pitch an anthology about it.
I have certainly made worse choices while drunk. Honestly editing the anthology has been an absolute pleasure thanks to the quality of stories sent to me, yours included. The one bad thing about it, which isn’t a case for the blog, is I had to reject a handful of stories that didn’t fit the themes or the tone and that’s hard. It’s not nice to have to tell someone that you’re rejecting them, especially when the stories were all good, just not what I was looking for.
In your Foreword to the anthology, you note that a revolution is a “classic setting in fiction. And understandably so. Revolutions are a rich source of drama and moral uncertainty.” What does the term ‘revolution’ mean to you – both personally and in terms of the anthology? And how can that drama and moral uncertainty be used to explore counter-factual possibilities?
I think a Revolution is a failure of a state, essentially. It’s when the current status quo is deemed so unsatisfactory that reform must happen and then it doesn’t. And so violence happens and the status quo collapses.
Violence is always something that shouldn’t be celebrated but it’s dramatic when things fail and morally, both sides, the state and the rebels, are often violent, both sides are often flawed. Do you support the status quo out of fear of something worse replacing it or do you support the rebels in hope of building something better?
The great thing about counter-factual possibilities is you can put that drama into familiar circumstances. Would you view a revolution differently if it happened in Birmingham rather than Bloemfontein?
You contributed your own story to the anthology, entitled Man’s Holy Cause set in Saint-Domingue and France at the start of the 19th Century. Tell us a little about it, and your inspirations behind writing it.
Well, the Haitian Revolution is an event I find fascinating. Thousands of slaves in the French Empire rose up against people who kept them in a brutal system that killed thousands of them. And, despite it being deemed impossible by everyone before it happened, they won their freedom by doing so. They defeated multiple European armies, they built an independent country and they did more than anything else to end the entire slave system of the Atlantic world by convincing the world’s governments that abolition was better than another revolution. And yet they were rewarded for this great achievement by corruption and poverty. It felt like an event worthy of being revisited in AH.
So I wanted to write about Haiti, I also wanted to write about the Courtois brothers.
Sévère Courtois is another one of those people that I would love to sit next to in a bar. He was born in a mixed race family in Haiti just before the Haitian Revolution and became a fantastic fighter for liberty. He fought for the USA vs the UK in the War of 1812, for the Mexicans and Colombians in the Wars of Spanish American Independence and ended up forming his own Island pirate nation in what is now Providencia Island in Colombia. The title is from a quote of his ‘It is Man’s Holy Cause and duty to establish independence in all the Universe’ which tells you a little about the man. Vanessa Mongey wrote a great essay about him for Cambridge University Press in 2012, which is where I first encountered him.
In that essay he and his brother, Joseph, who was a member of the Republican Guard in Napoleon’s Army and later attempted to open up schools and newspapers in Independent Haiti, were used as examples of the way a mixed race elite were briefly able to obtain power and influence in the wake of the Haitian Revolution but I just saw two fascinating figures and wanted to give them further adventures. So in the story, the Haitian Revolution goes slightly differently as does the War of 1812 and Sévère and Joseph end up in Spanish Florida during the attempts by the Mexicans to annex it.
What other stories are we going to find within the pages of Grapeshot and Guillotines? What counter-factual revolutions and uprisings have its authors imagined? And are there any well-known names in the anthology?
There’s some fantastic stories in there, I am genuinely so pleased by the wonderful writers who contributed stories for it. There’s a wide range of revolutions covered by the book from Canada and the USA to China and Japan with stop offs at the Ottoman Empire, Italy and El Salvador among the way.
In terms of names, Tom Anderson, of Look to the West, is one of the great names of online AH writing and it was a genuine privilege to have a story from him. Likewise Brent A Harris and Jared Kavanagah have a proud pedigree as writers, as does the aforementioned Paul Hynes.
But some of the new writers were also revelations. J. Concagh has never had a story published before but his tale, about a rebellion in Trinidad and Tobago led by the Marxist historian CLR James, was one of the best AH stories I’ve ever read. Something I think elevated by the fact that John comes from an Afro-Caribbean family and had personal connections to the events he wrote about.
Finally – a question about the future. The Covid-19 pandemic (something that will surely be a fruitful and controversial topic for the Alternate History genre for many years to come!) has caused a great deal of uncertainty for authors, editors and publishers across all manner of genres, and I’m sure that has included yourself. Do you have any plans for the future in terms of writing and editing? Will there be more articles for the Sea Lion Press Blog? And perhaps any more anthologies – or perhaps even your own works
I intend to keep editing and writing for the SLP Blog until someone makes me stop. I can easily think of another 30 or 40 articles I’d like to write, about African History, about Irish History (another area that lost hugely) and about animal husbandry.
This anthology will contain my first ever published fiction, and while I am much more comfortable with essays rather than stories, I’d quite like to write more. I’ve written a handful of AH stories on online forums and the more you write, the more comfortable you get at it and the more likely I am to produce something worth publishing.
I’ve been reading a lot recently about Liberia and I think there’s a story in there. Liberia is a country where reform kept being rejected until revolution was inevitable and the result was decades of violence and suffering. That didn’t have to happen, there were people saying that the current status quo would lead to bloodshed for a century, you just need them to be listened to.
You can find out more about Sea Lion Press at the publisher’s website, which also has an attached forum for the discussion and writing of Alternate History and counter-factual scenarios. You can also follow them on Twitter at @SeaLionPress
The anthology that Gary has edited, Grapeshot and Guillotines: Revolutions That Never Were is now available for purchase on Amazon UK; and if you’re interested in any of the publishers other works, they can be found via their website and Amazon