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.
I love the idea, being a history fan myself. I’ve often wondered what the effect of a leap in weapons design, say the repeating rifle would have had in conflicts such as the war for independence.
Thank you Bonnie and the SF Roundtable for an amazing time sitting and talking with you guys!