Friday, July 29, 2011

Interview: Sebastian Breit

I bring you my interview with Sebastian Breit, author of Wolf Hunt:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I've worked in the financial sector before I decided to study English and Political Sciences in Trier, where I currently live. It's the oldest urban settlement in Germany, and a place where the Roman past lurks behind each and every bush. It's an inspiring environment. When I'm not busy writing you'll find me either blogging, reading, hiking, or enjoying life together with some good friends. You can find me blogging at The War Blog or at my personal website.

When did you start writing fiction?
I started out as a teenager when I began writing fantasy for myself - in German, at the time. I think it's a story that happens like this a thousand times over every year: a young boy devours fantasy novels and then comes up with the idea to write one of his own. Well, unless you're Christopher Paolini we know how 99% of these efforts turn out, and it was no different with me.

I began writing in earnest when I got onto the Internet in 2000 and joined the Spacebattles.com forums. Back in the day the only creative writing outlet there were the so-called “Story Debates”, which were basically either character or nation-based role playing games: instead of dice and miniatures you used your writing skills to play. Some of these games took years, had a dozen plus members and ended up with literally millions of written words. In general, they were truly terrific training grounds, and looking back at my writing back then, especially the first five years, I can see the huge leaps I've made.

I got back into more serious writing in 2007, admittedly through writing fan fiction. I know, many writers frown at the topic, but where “Story Debates” were the equivalent of playing basketball with your friends in the street, writing fan fiction was playing soccer in a stadium, for an audience. Writing fan fiction largely absolves the writer from world building. He can concentrate on plot and characters. After I felt sufficiently prepared, I went on the write my own stories, of which Wolf Hunt is the first finished one.

What book(s) influenced your life the most?
Thinking about it I've got to come to the conclusion that of all the books I've read it probably was The Battlefield of the Future – Between Caucasus and Pamir by author and journalist Peter Scholl-Latour. An odd title, I know, but it kindled my interest in international politics, espionage and military history. I did a quick search on Amazon – it's not available in English. But then it's outdated by now anyway.

Which writer(s) would you consider a mentor?
There are many writers whose work I've thoroughly enjoyed and whose influence may have helped me along the way – Robert Jordan for establishing a grand design, George R.R. Martin for infusing it with a sense of gritty realism – but I can't say there's anyone out there who I'd call a mentor.

Do you have a specific writing style?
No, not really. I try to adapt my writing style to the tone and structure of the story I'm writing. That is, a story featuring only one point-of-view character will end up being more personal, direct and dialogue-based than one where I use an omniscient POV. It's also dependent on the genre I write in: a cyberpunk thriller demands a different focus from me than, say, a WWII alternate history novel does. In the latter case I know people will spot details which are wrong. As such, I occasionally tend to go with David Weber-ite info dumps there.

What got you interested in alternate history?
That must have been the movies The Final Countdown about the USS Nimitz being transported back to December 6, 1941 and Fatherland with Rutger Hauer. Before that, I wasn't aware such a genre even existed. I guess that planted the seeds in my mind to one day do something similar on my own.

What is the German alternate history scene like?
It exists, but can't really offer much in the way of a qualitative or quantitative output. You get books with some interesting ideas once in a while - Kaiserkrieger by Dirk von den Boom is about a light cruiser of the Imperial Germany Navy transported back to 378 C.E. - but largely it is ASB schlock. I'd really like to say something nicer than that about the German AH scene, but it's a) small and b) really not that good. I've blogged about one of the worst excesses of German alternate history writing – Kaiserfronthere.

What is your novel Wolf Hunt about?
The story starts in the year 2024. The world we know is crumbling. A devastating war in the Persian Gulf has left the global economy in ruins, and civilization itself is beginning to crack under the strain.

When a war-weary task force of NATO ships races against time and a rival fleet to prevent Brazil's descent into a murderous civil war, their mission is unexpectedly upset by a mysterious tempest. Thrown back in time, Captains Steven Flynn and Florian Hallwinter with their crews emerge in the year 1940 as the world is gripped in the fires of World War II.

Presented with the opportunity to change both past and future for the better, they find themselves drawn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests. While overcoming the suspicion of their natural allies of the time proves harder than they imagined, they soon discover that even the best intentions carry the seeds of doom. For whereas Flynn is American, Hallwinter and his crew are from Germany...

Wolf Hunt is about the journey of these two similar yet different groups of men to change history itself as it is about the clashes - and the clash of cultures which ensues - along the way. For the Americans, it's about witnessing a place that calls itself America - the America of the 'Greatest Generation' even - but which culturally and socially is rather alien to the place they know. For the Germans, it's as much a story about clashing head-on with their nightmares as it is a quest for national redemption.

The novel features a large number of historical characters like FDR, J. Edgar Hoover, Hitler, Himmler, members of the German Resistance, and many more. The novel aspires to portray them realistically and tries to open a window in the 1940s into both Europe and the United States.

What inspired you to write Wolf Hunt?
History.

Wait, that's not enough of an answer, is it? All right. Writing Wolf Hunt was an almost therapeutic measure for me. Going back in time to grab the chance to avoid mass murder, ethnic cleansing and bring about a better future: I guess nobody writing AH hasn't harbored that thought. And for modern day Germans, Hitler is as close to an incarnation of the Devil as it gets. The echoes of what he's done still reverberate through German society. Without them and the guilt-inducing education they have created, Wolf Hunt would've never been possible.

Going through the German higher school system, growing up in the 1990s, it was a non-stop bombardment with Nazi crimes and the Holocaust. Do you know how often I was treated with the Holocaust in class? Twice in German literature (Damals war es Friedrich, Der Vorleser), once in English (some book in grade 10 about a traumatized Jewish refugee girl in the US and her friendship with the protagonist), once in French, once in Religious Education (Catholic), once in Social Sciences class and twice in History class - not counting extra-curricular mandatory activities like watching Schindler's List, visiting former concentration camps (twice) or taking part in project days with the topic of the Third Reich (and of course, most prominently, the Holocaust).

Needless to say, getting this dosage isn't exactly the best thing: usually, you either become a drone, a cynic or, worst case, go full circle and become a Neo-Nazi. At some point, you're just fed up with it. Imagine going to school in the US or the UK, and for two straight years all you're taught is how much of a bastard your ancestors were for killing the Native Americans and colonizing the world and that you'd better take a good look in the mirror every morning to remind yourself not to become like them. That's about the gist of it.

You also don't learn a thing about WWII except who started it and when it ended. All I know about the war I learned from books I read on my own time. In fact, I've probably learned more about history and WWII in the past twelve months than I did in the thirteen years at school.

How did you come up with the title?
The working title was The Fires of Time, but I soon realized that the story had a lot of potential to be continued after the initial novel. As such I began searching for a possible common theme to be used in titles, and per chance realized that Hitler's most consistent code name was “Wolf”. From thereon it really was just a tiny step. The novel's about the efforts to kill Hitler, so, well Wolf Hunt it was.

Who designed the cover?
My cover illustrator is Jorge M. Jacinto. He's a young and very talented Portuguese freelance artist. I approached him with the idea for the cover, and he gave me nearly complete creative control about the process. He's very professional on the artistic and on the business side of things, so it was a pleasure working with him. You can check out his portfolio.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
The past determines who we are, and sometimes even the best of intentions can have dire consequences. History very seldom is black and white: most of the time we're just dealing with different shades of gray.

What are you reading now?
At the moment I'm reading Noch war Polen nicht verloren (Poland Wasn't Lost Yet) by Tomasz Lubienski. It's about the situation and self-assessment in Poland in the six months before the outbreak of WWII. It's more a series of personal essays about the author and his close family, but given that the pre-war history of Poland isn't that much of a well-known subject I was happy to take what I could get.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Right now I'm looking forward to East Wind Returns by William Peter Grasso.

What are your current projects?
Right now I'm working on a cyberpunk/noir action thriller and I'm trying to get an 'Alternate History' anthology launched. Beside these I've just started a small series about the locations featured in Wolf Hunt on my website.

Do you have any new alternate history books you are working on?
Yes, I'm in the process of finishing the outline of the sequels to Wolf Hunt. Clash of Eagles will deal with the European fallout of the events of the first novel, whereas Dragons' Gambit will put a stronger focus on the US and the Far East. In-universe, both books take place at around the same time, which will be between October 1940 and March 1941.

Do you see fiction writing as a career?
While I would be delighted to never again do anything but write novels, I'm realistic enough to know that only a handful of people really can make a living that way. Having said that, I do have enough ideas in my head (and on paper) to keep me writing, if not for the rest of my life then at least for the next ten years (and then I'll have new ideas).

Do you have any advice for other writers, especially on publishing a novel?
Polish your manuscript. Use beta-readers or a critique circle. Preferably both. Reread it till your eyes are bleeding. And then once more. If you want to publish it on your own, check out the blogs and forums of people who have already done so. The amount of time and pain this will save you is astronomical. More, if you go at it own your own, realize that while you have all the freedoms of decision, you also carry all of the responsibility. Think about your options and choices. Go for quality instead of speed. And schedule your tasks. If you make the necessary searches even before your final draft is done, you'll see results and sales very fast.

Who do you think is going to take the Sidewise Awards this year?
Of the ones nominated in the long-form category I've only read Robert Conroy's Red Inferno 1945, which I enjoyed. However, I'd hope one of the less well-known names will get the prize.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks alot for posting this and taking the time to interview me.

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  2. That's a fascinating interview.

    Sebastien, I was a German translator during the Cold War in West Berlin in the U.S. Army. I lived most of my personal life away from the military and among Germans. Back then I was surprised to see things like classified ads for people still looking for loved ones they'd been separated from during the war (this was in the mid 1970s). The cultural guilt(for lack of better word) about WWII was evident to me but I had no idea how it was working out in the schools and such. Your comments give me much food for thought.

    Your work sounds very intriguing, especially given your unique perspective. I look forward to reading it. Viel Glueck beim Schreiben!

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