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With dragons and steampunk and fiction
And sci-fi and gnomes with afflictions
The knights that are able
To sit at our table
Can feed all their readers’ addictions
© jane jago 2017
Brent A. Harris
Interview by Bonnie Milani
Bonnie: Your up-coming novel, ‘A Time of Need’, is an alternate history set during the American Revolution. Could you explain a bit just what ‘alternate history’ means?
Brent: Sure! And thanks for having me. Alternate history is when a writer takes one historical fact about our past and changes it. Then the past as we know it unravels to reveal a completely new world. What if a sharp-eyed soldier saw Lee’s Special Order 191 on the ground and recovered it before it fell into the hands of the Union? What if Teddy Roosevelt won his third term in office and persuaded a reluctant America to enter WW1 early? These are threads that masters of the genre have woven, and they’ve inspired me to write my own.
Bonnie: In ‘A Time of Need’ you’ve re-imagined George Washington as a British loyalist (Oy!) and Benedict Arnold as the great American leader with some serious character flaws. Talk about a reversal! Whatever made you conceive of Washington as a British loyalist?
Brent: The nice thing about writing alternate history, as the late Robert Conroy once said, “You’ll never run out of ideas.” The truth about Washington is that he always wanted to be part of the British forces, but every attempt was either thwarted or he was turned down. His mother refused his attempt to join the Royal Navy. And his service during the French and Indian War was all in the attempt to petition the British Foot for entry. I believe he tried and was turned away three times in his quest to purchase a commission. Washington’s eagerness to lead the American forces twenty years later came from both his ambition and perhaps a feeling of scorn at being passed over by the British so many times.
Bonnie: What is it that drew you specifically to the time period of the American Revolution?
Brent: I’ve always loved history the same as a poet loves words or an artist loves colors and canvas. Not a lot is written about the American Revolution; go to a bookstore and compare sections: Civil War and WW2 are fat with books while America’s founding is skeletal. It’s a shame because our history wasn’t founded on the mythos of founding fathers rallying the war cry for liberty. It was founded on rifts between families, loyalists and rebels, fought by famished farmers, led by a few ‘radical’ idealists up against the greatest army of its time. The future was far from pre-ordained. It’s scary how close it came to collapse on many occasions. One loud clang of pots to break the still night air as Washington retreated, one clear morning instead of fog; the Revolution was, in many cases, constantly one clear sky away from failure.
Bonnie: You’ve said elsewhere that history needs to be taught as real stories about real people instead of flat, dry facts. That is SO true! How do you think ‘A Time of Need’ could help Americans of any age better understand our actual history?
Brent: History is about people. Flawed, angst-ridden, passionate people – who made a lot of mistakes. The American Revolution is about those people. It’s about the slaves that found themselves caught-up in a world where words like ‘freedom’ didn’t apply to them. It’s about farmers who didn’t know if they could grow enough tobacco or indigo or rice to make it through to the next trading season, or if they had a trading partner left. It’s about Hessians who had no interest in being involved at all. And it’s also about the generals who cared for their own ambitions and agendas, sometimes moreso than the people under their command. If there’s one thing I hope to do with A Time of Need, it is to hold its world as a mirror to our own. After you’re entertained, of course.
Bonnie: Now, tell us something about yourself. What first drew you to science fiction and alternate history as opposed to, say, writing straight historical novels?
Brent: Historical fiction is a pretty fun and gritty genre. While I appreciate the stories it brings (I haven’t shut down the possibility of writing in the genre in the future) I’m too much of a science fiction fan to start off limiting myself to what is just in the historical record. I like the Science Fiction aspect of building new worlds and discovering what those worlds might say about our own. I think alternate history bridges that gap between Science Fiction and straight historical dramas.
I read a lot of Science Fiction and we exhale what we take in. I love history, comics, board games, and all things science-fiction, so for now, I think I’ll meddle in the genre some more until, like my cat getting her ears scratched, I see something shiny dangling in the corner and stop, then stalk over to pounce it.
Thank you for having me!
Brent A. Harris is a Sidewise Award nominated author of alternate history. He also writes science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Previously published works can be found through Insomnia Publishing, Rivenstone Press, Rhetoric Askew, and Inklings Press, the latter having published his short story, Twilight of the Mesozoic Moon, which reaped the Sidewise Award nomination.
He is the author of A Time of Need, an alternate history of the American Revolution, which sees a world where George Washington fights alongside the British against American forces marshaled under a power-hungry Benedict Arnold.
Brent A Harris resides in Southern California, where he's become convinced that Joshua trees are in fact, real trees. When not writing, he focuses on his family, shuttling children around as a stay-at-home dad, and staying up late to write after they are nestled in their beds.
When most people hear that question, common images come to mind. We usually think of fantastical, imagined worlds with knights, sorcerers, exceptional creatures, new species, and in some cases, new languages. There are heroes and heroines, life-changing quests, battles with swords and magic, and evil-doers plotting to destroy mankind and obliterate life as we know it.
Those are some of the images evoked when most people think of this genre. But what is Epic Fantasy? That question appears innocuous enough. In the age of Google and instant information, it’s simple to find the answer to such queries. Or is it? When typing “epic fantasy definition” into my search bar, the first response is Wikipedia. Ah yes, the wealth of information that it provides is astounding. However, when I click the link, “High Fantasy” is the result. For some reason, High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy are presented as interchangeable genres, having exactly, or nearly identical meaning. From my perspective, the concept of Epic Fantasy has become simplistic and marginalized over time.
Let’s look at the short definition Wikipedia provides: High fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, defined either by its setting or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, and plot.
The EPIC in Epic Fantasy should be an indicator of something deeper and more multifaceted than a fantastical world encompassing heroes and like themes. In an Epic Fantasy, the cast is large, the world building is intricate, it’s usually expressed in several viewpoints, and the success or failures of the “heroes” has a substantial effect on the entire world. That level of intrigue elevates the story and increases the breadth and controversies (moral and otherwise) associated with it.
The word EPIC itself is in reference to an epic poem, epos, or epopee. These lengthy works detailed exploits of heroic deeds and events significant to differing cultures and nations. Classic Epic Poems recount the journeys of their heroes and the physical and mental fortitude brought forth to overcome and subsist during devastating trials. They were lengthy and complex works depicting great battles, mystical forces, intervening deities, and malefic beings. The Epics weren’t meant to merely entertain; their meaning was greater than that. They not only told these masterful stories, they revealed the impact these adventures had on the world as a whole. A few examples of such works are Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Aeneid, Mahabharata, The Iliad and Odyssey, Story of Ramayana, and Paradise Lost.
So, what’s classified as Epic Fantasy in 2017? That definition has certainly altered over time and will probably continue to remain malleable to a certain extent. Evenso, there are specific criteria that we look for in fantasy as a whole. I’m not speaking of the common tropes readers and unfortunately many authors have begun to rely upon: elves, dragons, ogres, and dwarves. I’m referring to much broader elements and concepts. Some examples are the story’s time-span encompassing years or more, a new and engrossing world or setting, a well-defined magic system, devastating conflict, complex characters, and mythos. Those common aspects are almost universal and applied differently depending on the author.
The world itself is contrived by the author and requires time to acclimate the reader to this fantastical creation, its magic systems, mythos, species, deities, and histories. Most Epics are grand in scale, structure, concepts, and prose. Thusly, Epic Fantasies usually span several volumes, covering multiple years, and depict the growth of characters and their mounting conflicts.
When discussing Epic Fantasy, one author is mentioned before any other. J.R.R. Tolkien is usually revered as the master of Epic Fantasy. His novels, unique languages, and fantastical worlds have fascinated readers for decades. With his exceptional world building, characters, and structure, Tolkien is an accepted standard for many fantasy authors and readers alike. But even Tolkien received inspiration from other sources. The exceptionally written epic poem, Beowulf definitely fits that bill just as the Elder Edda, Leiden Riddle, Macbeth, The Pickwick Papers, and greats like William Morris, George MacDonald, and Owen Barfield.
Recently, I was a panelist with Christopher Paolini and Michael Livingston at a convention. It was enlightening to hear their viewpoints about Epic Fantasy (classical and otherwise). Both are accomplished authors in their own right and draw inspiration from Tolkien and others. During our conversations and audience questions, the definition of what constitutes Epic Fantasy varied immensely.
What is Epic Fantasy? That question will probably be debated for years to come. Epic-ness isn’t defined by merely the length of a story or even by how many battles are fought and how much magic is used. Epic tales definitely encompass a new and fantastical world facing perils and destruction. There’s a well developed magic system, complex and flawed characters, unique world building and species. But if it lacks a definable and significant change to this world and what its denizens must undergo, relatable and complex characters growing to achieve this common goal, and how this failure would impact the world, it’s lacking in Epic-ness. Epic doesn’t speak of the verbosity of the author. Epic speaks to the depth, significance, intrigue, scope, characterization, and plot created by the author to draw us into this fantastical world and care about the outcomes of its characters.
I don’t remember the first time I tried to tell a story. My mother always maintained it was about forty seconds after I said “mama’. I’m inclined to doubt her on this one point, since it takes more than a word or two to make a story. Still, by the time I was six or so, it was my duty and delight to tell Mom a bed time story each night. And, like bed time stories everywhere, my tales did the trick: Mom never stayed awake to the end. That might be satisfying – or just a relief – when you’re a parent. It feels a whole lot less satisfying when it’s my stories that put my audience to sleep. Obviously, I had to improve.
I spent my youth and early adulthood working through the ten thousand ways that stories don’t work. I experimented with POVs; came up with intriguing, intellectually stimulating plots that disregarded mundane things like logic or character or development. Then I tried ignoring plot altogether – character was the thing! Always, I could feel the story I was trying to get out. I could feel the wrenching emotions of my characters. I just couldn’t get the damned stuff to come across on the page. My readers – Mom, my Grandmother, and any unlucky cousin too slow out the door – tended to wander off within a page or two. Or worse, fell asleep.
It’s a testament to just how deep the need to tell my stories ran that I kept on trying. Non-fiction was no problem: in college, I wrote an early environmental fairy tale that was picked up by the State of NJ for its grammar school curriculum. I scripted TV programs for the school. And I kept writing stories. Only now my audience consisted of college professors. The universal advice: stick to non-fiction, kid.
So I did. I went on to earn a Master’s in Communication (Journalism, what else?) from Stanford. I freelanced feature articles for newspapers up and down the East Coast, did a cover story for Science Digest, and features for magazines ranging from ‘Peninsula’ to ‘Mankind’. I built up a portfolio, but my bank account stayed close to empty.
I finally got tired of living on the border of bankruptcy. I moved to L.A., developed a career in insurance for the Hollywood crowd. I had one huge advantage over other agents: everybody else believed that selling life insurance is the hardest sell on the planet. I knew better. Compared to trying to sell my stories, getting somebody to put money down on his own death was child’s play. I built a career, earned a good reputation. By the time I left to start my own agency I was representing Hollywood lawyers under pension audit to the IRS. (A job, I might add, that is guaranteed to make one sympathize with the tax man.)
It wasn’t until my whole family died that I realized I had to either figure out how to make my stories work or go not-so-quietly crazy. So I threw myself into really studying what makes a story work. I took classes: UCLA extension, post-grad Professional Writing classes at USC, where I had the great good fortune to study under Hollywood’s structural guru, Syd Field. I found a professional caliber writer’s group that was willing to let me in. I wrote stories and turned them in to be shredded. Only now, finally, I had critics who told me why my stories didn’t work:
- No conflict
- No clear protagonist
- No clear antagonist
- No desire line for the protagonist
- No character development
- No plot development
- Faulty structure and/ or pacing
- All of the above
I asked questions. I rewrote. Listened to my best effort get shredded. Again. Re-rewrote. Swore, pounded desks, swore some more. Tried whiskey; didn’t help. Drunk may have worked for Joyce, but it only rendered my stuff incomprehensible. But over time, slowly, I learned what makes a story tick. I learned it’s not any one element of character or plot or structure but all of them together, weaving in and out and around each other within the DNA strand of the story world. I learned why generalities don’t work for characters and their motivations. I learned to hate and cherish the question ‘why?’.
And if I learned nothing else it was that writing in and of itself is not the way to improve your story-telling skills. Simply writing and rewriting without honest, critical feedback only hardens errors into bad habits. Nobody can teach you the NEED to tell stories; that’s a divine gift. But effective, emotionally powerful story telling is a craft. To make your stories affect readers the way you intend, you need the guidance of writers and editors who can analyze your work and explain the elements you’re missing. Why? Because, pure and simple, no writer can see those mistakes on his or her own. We’re just too close to the material.
The good news is that today it’s easier than ever to find honest, critical feedback:
- Join a FB writers group (where better to start than our own Sci Fi Roundtable?)
- Put your stories up for critique. Note that’s a critique, not an Amazon review. Your first (and second and …) draft is just a starting point, not the finished product. As Hemingway supposedly said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
- LISTEN to the critiques! A good critique will NEVER take aim at you personally, but having your best work-to-date reduced to rubble still hurts. Accept it – and get better.
- Remember that your story MUST stand on its own two feet. Readers can never feel what you did putting the words down unless those words make them feel it.
- Resubmit to your critique circles. When your story is as good as you can make it, then hire a professional editor to critique it.
- Then LISTEN to your editor! It will hurt (trust me on this one!) but listen anyway.
And finally, the day will come when a beta reader picks up your story and feels what you felt. There are precious few thrills on Earth to match the feeling.
And then it’s time to take everything you’ve learned up another level with your next story.
By Claire Buss
Originally posted on April 23rd 2017 on Matthew Olney's Blog
I never need an excuse to spend the evening curled up with my favourite book, but events like World Book Day aim to encourage non-readers to pick up a book and have an adventure. That’s the great thing about reading, it will take you somewhere you’ve never been before or if you’re lucky, take you back to explore it all over again. Often readers of fantasy get a bit of a bad rap – there can be mocking and sometimes you don’t want to admit that you read sci-fi & fantasy because it puts you in a pre-determined box, but when you're celebrating reading I think we can stand loud and proud and shout to the stars that we read fantasy and it’s brilliant.
Or to put it another way – isn’t all fiction fantasy? Because it’s fiction therefore it’s not ‘real’. When you read that chick-lit novel about girls doing lunch and talking about their love lives you may sit wistfully wishing you could be a "lady wot lunches". It’s no different to me wishing I could go on a quest in a magical land. My imagination just requires a little more immersion, perhaps.
It can be difficult for an avid reader to entice a non-reader to pick up a book, especially when you stumble over the intricate plot twists of sorcery and sword fights. But think about the books that brought you into the genre. I can go as far back as The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, talking animals in Farthing Wood by Colin Dann and The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy. These aren’t hard-core fantasy tomes. They’re magical children’s books and what a great way to get kids reading by giving them a little bit of adventure. I mean, Harry Potter wouldn’t have been the sensation it’s been without the reader’s ability to immerse themselves in an alternate reality.
Not only am I an avid reader – of all genres but with a particular liking for fantasy & sci-fi – I am also an author. My book is hard to define, it doesn’t really set within a predetermined category. It’s listed under sci-fi because it’s set 200 years in the future but there are no aliens or spaceships. It’s dystopian because there has been a mass extinction event; we learn how humanity coped, adapted and now tries to break free of control. But it’s hopeful and in general, dystopian novels are bleak and literally end of the world. And my book is not about a plucky group of teenagers. Instead it looks at the relationships of couples and how they cope with massive life changes. Being a new author it’s hard to get readers at first so you turn to friends and family, most of whom said 'Oh I don’t read Sci-Fi'. However, once I am able to convince them that The Gaia Effect is not hard-boiled sci-fi, that they should try it, that they might be surprised and hey look, it’s such a lovely slimline novel with great cover artwork – how can you say no? Then they read it and text me, telling me off for making them cry. Success! All reviews from family and friends start with the phrase ‘This is not my usual genre’ or ‘I don’t normally read Sci-Fi but…’ and I think that’s the key, if you can just get a non-reader to try something new they might be surprised.
Let’s not forget that genre is an invention of the publisher to make it easier to categorise books and not a request from the reader. I don’t think about genre when I recommend books to friends and family. I think about them and choose books to fit, overriding any objections of ‘I don’t read that genre’ with reminders of all the previous excellent recommendations I've made. Once we’ve managed to get sporadic readers picking up our novel and getting to the end, our next challenge is to ask them to write a review – even a simple star rating is enough, every little bit helps.