JMW: Hello! This is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is S.M. Stirling, the best-selling author of the “Nantucket” trilogy, The “Emberverse,” and many, many more wonderful books. Welcome, Steve.
S.M. Stirling: Glad to be here.
JMW: Glad to have you. The week before Memorial Day, Ace Books announced that it would be publishing “Sky Blue Wolves the last volume in the “Emberverse” series, in 2019. How does it feel to be wrapping up the series?
S.M. Stirling: Well, you never really feel that it’s going away, because it’s still there on your shelf. And anything you write, bits and pieces of it come up again all through your career and help form the next thing you’re going to do. I wrote my first book in high school. It was the only literature course I ever took that helped with writing. The teacher gave us each a ream of paper and said, “You’re going to write a novel this year. Once a week we’ll get together and discuss it.” And I wrote a novel. And it was a terrible novel, but bits and pieces of it have been helping me ever since. And I’m sure the “Emberverse” will be…the “Change” books will be informing anything I do in the future, as well. It’s been a long and enjoyable cohabitation.
JMW: When you started the “Change” books, did you realize the saga would take so many to tell?
S.M. Stirling: Well, no, but I did deliberately design the universe that would have room for as many books as I wanted to write. You have to be careful about that when you’re writing a series. Patrick O’Brian did the “Aubrey Maturin” books, some of the best historical novels ever written, ran out of Napoleonic period. He hadn’t anticipated writing so many, so eventually he was reduced to writing 1813 twice, 1813 A and B. And I took a warning from that, and from “Sherlock Holmes” by Conan Doyle, and a number of other series. And I designed the world with enough amplitude to write in, no matter how many books I wanted to do.
There’s an infinity of stories can be told about the real world and if you’re gonna design a fictional one it should have the same broad canvas.
JMW: What did you like best about working in that particular world? What was the thing that made you go, “Oh, I really enjoy this”?
S.M. Stirling: Well, I designed it so that I could put in anything I wanted. Robert E. Howard did the same thing for the Hyborian era, but he did it as a paleolithic-prehistorical mash-up in which, supposedly, the ancestors of historical cultures were all present. So you had medieval knights, and ancient Egyptians, and Picts who were more or less like Iroquois, and Turks, and three types of the Caribbean pirate, all existing at the same time. And it was a glorious mash-up for it’s day, but a little hard to do today. So, I did it in a post-apocalyptic setting where a lot of people, since the modern world has gone away, fall back on what they think of as the customs of their ancestors. Actually, what they’re falling back on is sort of folk memories and stories and books.
So I got to have, well, faux-Celts who actually are faux-Celts, and know it. So that I could have Roman legionnaires and Lakota Indians, and pirates all mashed up together.
JMW: And samurai.
Emberverse series 3-book set: Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War, A Meeting at Corvallis
S.M. Stirling: Oh, yes, samurai and knights, knights and samurai. Yes.
JMW: What was the hardest part of the saga?
S.M. Stirling: The hardest part is keeping it all straight, and keeping the plot from becoming too much like real life. Real life doesn’t have to be credible, it just exists. For example, my father’s mother met my father’s father because her ship hit an iceberg in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in 1912. No, it wasn’t the Titanic. And she was taken to St. Johns with the survivors and met my grandfather there because he owned the hotel she was put up in. Now, what are the odds on that happening? My mother’s father and mother met because he was gassed at in 1917, and he was sent to convalesce at a hospital where my grandmother was a volunteer auxiliary attachment nurse. They never would have met in England if the war hadn’t happened. They were three social grades apart, so they eloped and both their families hated it, and they went to Peru. So again, what are the odds of that happening? You can’t write like that, even when you’re writing science-fiction and fantasy, people will say, “It’s gotten completely out of hand, his imagination is running away with him.” No, he’s actually being too realistic.
JMW: That’s so true. That is hard, in anything you write, to keep it that way. But I do have to ask, you know, talking about things that seem unlikely, why are people named Walker always so villainous? In the “Nantucket” trilogy, in the “Change” books…
S.M. Stirling: Oh, that’s the same family. If you note, the “Nantucket” trilogy and the “Change” books are linked, and that’s the same family in Montana that produced the William Walker in the first book. And of course why you use William Walker as a villain, it has a certain resonance. You may notice that one of the ruined towns haunted by cannibals on the coast of New England in the “Change” books is named Insmouth, so…
JMW: Lot’s of little Easter eggs scattered through the text.
S.M. Stirling: Well, mediocre writers have influences, great writers steal. I try to be great.
JMW: This is true, this is true. Off the subject of stealing, your next book will feature Teddy Roosevelt. Can you give our viewers a little bit, or a little teaser about that new series?
S.M. Stirling: Yes, well, Teddy Roosevelt is our most interesting president. It’s debatable whether he’s our best president, but he’s our most interesting one. He’s our only president who actually leapt off a horse onto the back of a mountain lion and stabbed it to death. Which he actually did. And I’ve always been fascinated by the character and by the period, because it’s far enough away from us to be thoroughly alien, yet close enough to be disturbingly familiar. So I wanted to do something with Teddy.
One of the bitterest, or at least the oddest, ironies of that period is that Theodore Roosevelt, who was a fitness fanatic avant la lettre and exercised rigorously all his life, died in his sleep of a heart attack when he was in his 50s. While William Taft, “Big Bill” as he was called, who had a special 7’x4′ bathtub installed in The White House, lived into his 70s. So I reversed it. William Taft has a heart attack and dies in the summer of 1912, and Teddy Roosevelt is swept back into The White House, which would have happened in that event. Because without the republican votes, but the Democrats would certainly have lost, Woodrow Wilson only got 42% of the vote. And then hi-jinks ensue. The butterfly flaps its wings, and many things are altered.
JMW: Many things are altered, which leads into my next question. When you are setting out to do an alternate history such as this, how do you choose your point of departure?
S.M. Stirling: Well, you stick to the Civil War and World War II. No, I’m just kidding, those have been overdone in my opinion. The difficulty with alternate history is that most people don’t know much history, so they don’t recognize the changes you’ve made. Teddy Roosevelt, I’m fortunate in that most people at least have heard of him. But there are many potentially fascinating points of departure for alternate history where you have difficulty selling it to publishers because they say, “No one will know about that.”
The Civil War has an interesting one that Harry Turtledove used. In the 1862 campaign, Robert E. Lee’s general order, listing where all his units were and what he wanted them to do, was sent by courier. The courier wrapped it around three cigars, and they fell out of his pocket. And a Union soldier picked up the three cigars, turned the writing, the message over to his superior. His superior recognized the signature, which was that of someone he’d gone to West Point with. And that turned the fate of the Civil War, because the British were about to recognize the Confederacy, they were just waiting for another Confederate victory. Instead we got Antietam which would never have happened if “McClellan the Slow,” as he was known, hadn’t gotten those orders.
JMW: Yes, he was a brilliant administrator, but really lousy on the battlefield.
S.M. Stirling: Yeah, for one thing he believed Pinkerton, and Pinkerton had always told him he was outnumbered three to one. So the history is a compendium of unlikely chances. So there’s never, if you know any history, any shortage of spots where things could have gone otherwise.
Winston Churchill was nearly killed, in his life, seven or eight times. He charged the 21st Lancers at Omdurman through 8,000 armed Dervishes. He was nearly hit by a car twice in the 1920s. He came close to dying of illness. He was a battalion commander on the Western Front, and recklessly brave. Instead, he survived all these things and came to be Prime Minister in 1940.
Adolf Hitler was a runner on the Western Front for four and a half years. The average life expectancy of a runner was about three months. Just to name one instance, he left battalion headquarters with a message, and three minutes later a shell landed and killed the other four runners who were waiting for messages, right where he’d been up until that point. That he survived until 1918 was a miracle or at least the devil looking after his own.
JMW: Too true, unfortunately.
S.M. Stirling: And if either of those men had been missing in 1939, the world would be unrecognizably different.
JMW: Oh, yes. Getting back to the more general though, if you had a chance to visit any of the worlds you’ve created, including that of your urban fantasy “Shadowspawn,” which world would you visit?
S.M. Stirling: I don’t know how strict the censorship is on this interview, there’s an old saying that “adventure is somebody else in deep shit far away.”
JMW: I think we can get through that.
S.M. Stirling: Yeah, okay. I write adventurous fiction, so the last thing on God’s green earth I’d want to be would be to be pitchforked into any of it. There’s the “Shadowspawn” series, the world is secretly being run by sadistic supernatural monsters. There’s a couple of dystopian…
JMW: Real life, in other words.
S.M. Stirling: Yeah. There’s a couple of dystopian ones, where the overwhelming bulk of humanity dies for one reason or another. Asteroids hit the earth, technology stops working, we’re thrown back in time to the Bronze Age, where I wouldn’t have the medication I need to keep alive. The one I think I would like would be the two-book series I did, “The Sky People” and “In the Courts of the Crimson Kings,” where as the alternate history MacGuffin, Mars and Venus were terraformed by super powerful aliens 200 million years ago, and we only discover this in the mid-twentieth century. And that accelerates the space race, people visit Mars to meet the beautiful cave princess in the fur bikini running away from the neanderthals. No that’s Venus, sorry. They go to Mars for the canals and the ancient fallen civilizations. So I would really like that one. It’s more or less the consensus future of ’30s science-fiction, and I would like that a lot. And also, I’d have all the modern conveniences.
JMW: Very important, I agree.
S.M. Stirling: You know, getting back to nature and getting close to the land is wallowing in the dirt with the bugs.
JMW: And the lack of antibiotics.
S.M. Stirling: Yeah.
JMW: We’re coming up towards the end, and we have two questions we always ask. The first one is, what are you working on now?
S.M. Stirling: I’m working on the Teddy Roosevelt alternate history. Teddy’s actually a peripheral character. It focuses on secret agents working for Teddy. It’s going to be called “Tales from the Black Chamber.” We haven’t settled on the titles yet, but the first one’s probably going to be called “None Fit to Die,” which is from a saying of Teddy’s, which was if you were afraid to die, you weren’t fit to live. And he really meant it.
JMW: He would, he would. Anything you’d like to add?
S.M. Stirling: That I’m privileged to make a living doing the thing that I would do in my spare time if I had to work. So I get to wake up every morning and say, “Oh goody, I get to work today.” That’s a rare privilege, and I appreciate it. And I appreciate the people who buy my stuff and make it possible for me to do that, because I got fired from every other job I’ve ever had, or quit.
JMW: You obviously found your place. Well, thank you, Steve. And thank you for BuzzyMag.com.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.