Please welcome Alan Smale to The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Clash of Eagles was published on March 17th by Del Rey.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Alan: My mother taught me to read early, which meant that I read faster than other kids and quickly got through the (limited) supply of books available at my primary schools. I’ve always thought this must be why I started making up my own stories, though I can’t know for sure. But I did start writing when very young; my first story was called “The Mountain Children”, and it was about two girls and a boy, Val, Su, and Chay, who lived in the jungle. It was obviously completely derivative, based on the Tarzan movies and cartoons, but I apparently had fun with it at the time. By my teen years I was writing novels about intrepid men of action while hiding in my room. I took a break from writing while I was getting my degrees and moving from England to the U.S., but I knuckled down and got serious about writing for publication in the mid-1990s.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Alan: When I write short stories I’m definitely a pantser. I find a character or a setting I like and start free associating, and see where the story takes me. I’m often most of the way through before I figure out how it should end. Now I’m writing novels (and quite long novels, with a substantial cast of characters), by necessity I’ve switched around to being a rather careful plotter. In the giant wildernesses of ancient America, even getting my characters to where they need to be through the forests and along the rivers and all at the right times of year when such travel is possible, requires planning and a bit of arithmetic. Plus, for the Clash of Eagles books there’s an intricacy about the plotlines and the various relationships that it would be tough for me to wing. The details of the scenes unfold in real time while I’m writing them, and I’m often forced to make course corrections when my characters insist on doing things I hadn’t originally intended, but I always know my end-points.
I’m also fond of Kurt Vonnegut’s definitions of Bashers and Swoopers: bashers go one sentence at a time getting everything right and when they get to the last word of the story, they’re all done. Swoopers write quickly in a torrent of words and then go back to fix “everything that is just plain awful.” I’m 100% Swooper.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Alan: Finding the time and the quiet to get into the deep concentration mode that works best for me when I’m writing scenes for the first time.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Alan: When I was twelve I read War and Peace and Lord of the Rings in the same summer holiday. I still think I broke myself a little bit doing that, but it did give me the taste for large-panorama epics, centered around a few critical characters. I think ever since then I’ve been more interested in stories set in the past than those set in the future.
For influences, I’d have to list some of the more inventive and offbeat writers: Stephen Baxter, John Kessel, Ursula Le Guin, James Morrow, Tim Powers, Keith Roberts, Michael Swanwick, Harry Turtledove, Jo Walton, Walter Jon Williams, Connie Willis. I also have a weakness for pulp time travel novels, but don’t tell anyone. These days I try to read as broadly as possible, but I’m very aware that I don’t have time to read as much as I should. Once I finish this trilogy I’m going to put myself on a hardcore reading program to try to catch up.
TQ: Describe Clash of Eagles in 140 characters or less.
Alan: When Gaius Marcellinus’s legion is destroyed deep in newly-discovered North America, he struggles to find a place and purpose in this strange new world.
TQ: Tell us something about Clash of Eagles that is not in the book description.
Alan: There are a lot of small, personal, human moments. The book description (correctly) focuses on describing the world and the major conflicts, the broad brush-strokes of the story, but beyond the legions and battles, adventures and culture clashes there are also quiet scenes of human beings trying to understand one another better, work together, solve problems, make things happen. I’m actually rather fond of a number of these scenes.
TQ: What appeals to you about writing alternate history? How easy or difficult was it to go from the short form, the "A Clash of Eagles" novella, to the novel length for Clash of Eagles, which is set in the same world?
Alan: Knowing the real history adds depth and resonance to the altered history. I believe that a great deal of history is contingency. When you read the recorded thoughts and feelings of people who lived in a particular place and time, and what they believed was going to happen next, their predictions are often very sane and sensible and equally often completely wrong. History can go off in all kinds of different directions. I find it fascinating to consider other paths that human history could have taken.
In this case it was very easy to transition from short-form to long-form. The novella version that won the Sidewise Award is actually not all that short: as published in the Panverse Two anthology it ran to about 25,000 words. I did a fairly extensive rewrite when it became the first part of the novel, but the characters, setting, and ambience of the novella are still rather similar. I knew very early on in the novella-writing process that I would be going further. I knew this was the story I wanted to tell.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Clash of Eagles?
Alan: Now that I’ve become a fanatical plotter I’m also an obsessive record-keeper, and so I know that I’ve read over 120 books in the course of researching this series. Many of them have been about Cahokia, Rome, the Norse, everything I would need for the series, even tangentially. I’ve been reading about ancient Rome all my life, but I needed a much greater depth of knowledge about Roman armies, weaponry, and so on, to be able to write about them effectively.
Without doubt, the areas that required the most research were related to the pre-Columbian civilizations of North America. In the era when Clash of Eagles is set the Mississippian culture dominated the Mississippi valley and much of the Ohio valley. Its central city of Cahokia covered an area of over five square miles and had a population of twenty thousand people or more. The Mississippians were a mound-building culture, and Cahokia had at least 120 mounds of various types: square platform mounds, conical mounds, ridge mounds. You can still see its remains at the Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, near St. Louis. I’ve read everything I can find about Cahokia, from popular books to quite dense academic works, and also quite widely about Native American cultures in general to try to make the details of the city and its people as authentic as I can.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Alan: My hero, Gaius Marcellinus, is the easiest to write, because he’s the most like me. He comes from a triumphalist European culture, he’s well-traveled, a cynic, a pragmatist. I think it’s relatively easy to put myself into his Roman mindset. The hardest characters are the Cahokians, because despite all my research they inhabit a culture that’s greatly separated from me in space and time. There would naturally be many differences between us in how we view the world – but I think there would also be some similarities. Adding to the mix, the story is told from the close perspective of Marcellinus, so we only directly discover what the Cahokian characters are thinking if they choose to tell him. We’re limited by his perceptions. And since Marcellinus is career military, and is coming very late to some of the ideas of family and community, there are places in Clash where things should be apparent to the reader that Marcellinus himself completely misses or misinterprets. That requires a bit of care while I’m writing.
TQ: Which question about Clash of Eagles do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Alan: I’m always surprised that people don’t ask me if I really believe the Roman Empire could possibly have survived until the thirteenth century. In fact, I do believe that, quite strongly. Historical trends and events tend to look inevitable when viewed in hindsight, but I believe there’s no inherent reason why the Roman Empire had to fall when it did. With the kind of strong leadership the Empire had in the first and second centuries A.D. it might well have been able to weather the Crisis of the Third Century. And without the civil wars and the economic decline of the third century Rome would have been stronger, it’s borders better guarded, and the Empire as a whole more able to deal with the “barbarian” migrations of the later period. Rome had dealt with much worse in the past. I’ve written in more detail about that elsewhere.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Clash of Eagles.
Every day took the Legion farther from the coast and stretched their provisions even thinner. Battle was ahead, a city to be sacked, spoils to be had – but how far? His men grumbled, and even Leogild’s sunny Visigoth humor began to cloud over.
[The new Emperor, Hadrianus III] had figured that if he set the wheels moving quickly enough and remained popular enough to die of old age, he might leave as his legacy a world where the sun never set on the Roman Imperium.
Candidly, Marcellinus thought the man was cracked.
TQ: What's next?
Alan: Clash of Eagles is the first of three books. I’ve already turned in the second to Del Rey, and I’m currently writing notes and drafting scenes for the third. I’m really excited about writing the concluding book in the trilogy; it contains scenes, adventures, and emotional resolutions that I’ve been looking forward to writing for years. Aside from that, I’m collaborating on a short story with another writer – it’s only the second time I’ve co-written a story, and it’s a very different process. A novella of mine, “Visionaries of Bedlam”, has just appeared in the Apollo’s Daughters anthology, and a novelette called “English Wildlife” is scheduled for the big fall issue of Asimov’s. “English Wildlife” is a bizarre secret history that’s completely different from Clash and from most other things I’ve written, and I’m looking forward to seeing what reception it gets. After that? I’m wondering if people will be interested enough in Clash for me to be able to write more stories in that world!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Alan: Thank you for inviting me!
Clash of Eagles
Clash of Eagles Trilogy 1
Del Rey, March 17, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 432 pages
Perfect for fans of action-adventure and historical fiction—including novels by such authors as Bernard Cornwell, Steve Berry, Naomi Novik, and Harry Turtledove—this stunning work of alternate history imagines a world in which the Roman Empire has not fallen and the North American continent has just been discovered. In the year 1218 AD, transported by Norse longboats, a Roman legion crosses the great ocean, enters an endless wilderness, and faces a cataclysmic clash of worlds, cultures, and warriors.
Ever hungry for land and gold, the Emperor has sent Praetor Gaius Marcellinus and the 33rd Roman Legion into the newly discovered lands of North America. Marcellinus and his men expect easy victory over the native inhabitants, but on the shores of a vast river the Legion clashes with a unique civilization armed with weapons and strategies no Roman has ever imagined.
Forced to watch his vaunted force massacred by a surprisingly tenacious enemy, Marcellinus is spared by his captors and kept alive for his military knowledge. As he recovers and learns more about these proud people, he can’t help but be drawn into their society, forming an uneasy friendship with the denizens of the city-state of Cahokia. But threats—both Roman and Native—promise to assail his newfound kin, and Marcellinus will struggle to keep the peace while the rest of the continent surges toward certain conflict.
Alan Smale grew up in Yorkshire, England, and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. By day he works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a professional astronomer, studying black holes, neutron stars, and other bizarre celestial objects. However, too many family vacations at Hadrian’s Wall in his formative years plus a couple of degrees from Oxford took their toll, steering his writing toward alternate, secret, and generally twisted history. He has sold numerous short stories to magazines including Asimov’s and Realms of Fantasy, and he won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Best Short-Form Alternate History.