Thursday, November 17, 2011

Interview: Dale Cozort

I now present to you my interview with author Dale Cozort:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live in a college town near Chicago with my wife, daughter, three cats and a lot of books. I’m a computer programmer and teacher as well as a long-time science fiction fan and writer. I have a huge and diverse range of interests, ranging from computers and history to martial arts. I love animals and did a stint as a foster home for orphan Samoyeds. I also love alternate history and do a 5 times per year online newsletter of alternate history scenarios and stories. I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade, and haven’t missed a day of writing since July 8 of this year, when I took a pledge to write every day for at least thirty days. I’m well over a hundred days into that now.

What got you interested in alternate history?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t. As soon as I realized there was such a thing as history I started speculating about what could have happened differently. I guess it grew from sympathy for the underdog, though as I got more sophisticated I realized that in a pretty high percentage of cases the people who lost in history were no better morally than the victors, and in many cases were worse.

What is your novel American Indian Victories about?

American Indian Victories is a series of alternate history essays on how American Indians could have potentially done better in their competition with Europeans. It’s pretty in-depth and I suspect that you have to be a fairly heavy-duty history geek to follow some of the essays. Some are pretty accessible though. One talks about what might have happened if the Pequots won their war in the early years of New England settlement, for example. I put that one online in an earlier form, and I guess some middle-school kid did a history of the Pequots based on it. I got an e-mail from the teacher that started out not thrilled with me, but I think at some point they figured out what I was doing and this was supposed to be alternate history. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by how well the collection has sold over the years. Sales come in spurts. I’m guessing that somebody stumbles across it, tells their friends about it and it gets a little burst of word of mouth.

Funny you should mention the student who made the mistake of believing your story was real history. My mom would often ask me whether I ever confused the alternate histories I read with real history. As a parent/teacher yourself, do you have any suggestions of what to tell parents/teachers when a child stumbles upon alternate history?

I try to introduce high school and up students to the concept if they ask. That probably wouldn’t work with most middle school and kids, though a card game called I think Chrononauts with some alternate history concepts is apparently popular at a variety of age levels. By the way, the concept of alternate history doesn’t always translate well to other cultures. I’ve had a couple of Greek nationals write me extremely irate e-mails in response to an alternate history where the Italians timed their invasion a little less stupidly and did somewhat better in their invasion of Greece--though I still have the Greeks outfighting them.

Back on topic, what inspired you to write American Indian Victories?

I never intended to write anything book length on this. I wrote quite a bit of it as essays for a web-based alternate history newsletter. People kept suggesting that I put the best stuff in a more permanent format, so I polished the best of the Indian stuff up, wrote a few new scenarios and did an enormous amount of polishing to get things up to publishable quality. I may do the same thing with the World War II stuff at some point if the demand is there.

How did you come up with the title for American Indian Victories?

It seemed natural, and I never considered anything else.

Who designed the cover?

Me, actually. I did a mockup by putting an actual arrowhead on a scanner, then mirroring it using Photoshop and arranging the arrowheads in a V for victory symbol. It’s simple. It works and it stayed for publication.

What is your novel Exchange about?

In the near future, we have a series of Exchanges. A town sized piece of our reality temporarily swaps places with a same-sized piece of a reality where humans didn’t make it through a long-ago bottleneck. The other reality has a lot of the old Ice Age animals like Mammoths, plus some exotics like aggressive and semi-intelligent little monkeys. These Exchanges have become ‘routine catastrophes’, sort of like hurricanes and big earthquakes and they tend to fade from the news in a few days unless they’re in the big cities. If you happen to be in one you’re suddenly cut off from the rest of humanity and on the frontier, with a wild alternate dimension one street over or even replacing the other half of your house.

Of course that setup opens up a lot of possibilities with people who are not happy with our society trying to get to the other dimension so they can stay when the Exchange reverses. It’s like going to another planet except without the travel time and there is a lot of intrigue over people trying to get over there and other people trying to keep them out.

Of course the most important part of the story is the characters and plot that went into it, and there I have a touch of mystery, a touch of international intrigue and a point of view character who seems totally out of her depth at first, but grows through the story to reach a goal.

What inspired you to write the novel?

Exchange started out as two ideas. First, I wanted to explore what would happen if our society suddenly had room to expand again, sort of a repeat of what happened when Europe discovered the New World, only on a larger scale and with a very different society doing the discovering. I wanted to make settling this new world difficult enough that it didn’t become a mindless extension of all of our problems. People have to work to get there and to a certain extent be lucky--or unlucky. Second, I wanted to explore what would happen if we faced an ecological invasion, the sort of thing that Australia went through with rabbits and all of the other introduced animals that are eating the continent bare. I made the other dimension animals better than ours--smarter, faster, tougher, faster breeding. If some of them get loose here they would eat the place down to bare rock and we would all starve to death, so a constant part of the background to the novel is a military effort to keep those animals out by whatever means necessary.

How did you come up with the title?

We went back and forth between Exchange and Bear Country. The other reality has acquired the informal nickname Bear Country because of the large carnivorous bears that live there, but also in the old sense that in the military dangerous territory is often called Bear Country. We tested that name and discovered that people expected a western or something Disney when they saw it, so we went with Exchange instead. 

How does an author test the effectiveness of their proposed story title with their target audience?

With Exchange the testing was pretty informal. To be honest I think it could have used more testing. Among other things, it’s a good idea to do a Google search on the title and one on Amazon. That avoids a lot of problems. For example, if you Google “Exchange” you get a lot of hits on the Microsoft software product by that name. That’s one of many things to look out for.

Who designed the cover for Exchange?

Pav Kovacic did the cover illustration and Guy D. Corp did the rest. Stairway Press (the publisher) handled it, and I didn’t have much contact with the artist or designer, though they were nice enough to let me have some input.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

More than I want to think about. I have two more novels completed--well, actually one ready to go and one needing final editing on the last 70 pages. They’re both alternative history related. One is tentatively titled Char. It involves a brilliant twenty-something lady from a technologically primitive alternate dimension ending up in ours, totally baffled by what is going on, especially since she lands in the middle of mid-night paintball game, which then leads to a murder she is suspect of committing. The other is called “All Timelines Lead to Rome.” It’s set seven years after we discover a way to create portals to an alternate reality where a mysterious X-factor froze Rome into the patterns of the early Roman empire, and eventually spread to the rest of the Old World, causing stagnation in China, India, and Japan as well. As a result, Europeans never discovered the New World and Indians have done their own thing for the last five hundred plus years.

I also have four more novels at the 60-90% written level, including a sequel to Exchange, plus a novel that takes all of present day earth and dumps it into a different and more interesting solar system, where human civilizations have spread across the solar system and then collapsed twice. Mars and Venus were terraformed over a million years ago by a mysterious non-human race called the Builders and humans followed in their footsteps after their society collapsed. Steve Stirling did something sort of similar with his Sky People and its sequel, but I take this in some very different directions and the two story lines are only superficially similar. I’m also currently writing a series of short stories where a German discovery in the late 1920s leads to the Nazis going after their lost African colonies rather than trying to head east into Poland and the Soviet Union. As a result World War II doesn’t happen and the Nazi regime lasts longer. I just finished the first of the series. It’s set in 1955. The Germans have just tested their first atomic bomb and the world is reacting to that. There will be other stories in the series and maybe eventually a novel.

World War II alternate histories are extremely popular among alternate historians, do you have an opinion about why that is?

First, it was a colorful war, with a lot of dramatic personalities and a lot of movement, unlike World War I, where the predominant image is of a bunch of kids fighting and dying over a few yards of mud-puddle. Second, there was a lot of controversy after the war, with the German generals writing books claiming that all of Germany’s defeats were Hitler’s fault and implying that they could have done a lot better if he hadn’t interfered. Third, some of those controversies got embroiled with Cold War emotions and propaganda, with a lot of people in Europe and the US wondering if we created a bigger and more dangerous monster by supporting the Soviets against the Germans. Finally, World War II is recent enough that there are still quite a few veterans around. I was helping a friend of a friend with his computer about a year ago and discovered that he flew a cargo version of the B24 ‘over the hump’ from Burma to China during World War II. He still had his uniforms and told me quite a few details about the plane that may make into a future alternate history novel.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

First, understand that writing is a tough game. The current market is evolving in a direction that forces writers to also be marketing people, to interact with the public far more than they have needed to in the past. If you’re painfully shy and hated speech class, being a published writer may not be where you want to go. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. It just means that being published and trying to make a living at it may lead you places you would rather not be, and maybe even places that you got into writing to avoid. Ask yourself, would you enjoy being a salesperson? If the answer is resoundingly no, then write because you enjoy it. Write because it’s good therapy. Don’t try to make a living at it.

Second, know more about your characters and your world than you tell your reader. I compare a writer’s knowledge of character and world to an artist’s color palette. The more colors an artist has available the better their color choice can be. The more a writer knows about their characters and world, the better their choice of which details to use in the story can be. Knowing a lot about a world or a character doesn’t mean that all of that information goes into the story. A lot of it should stay in the writer’s notebook because if you put it in the story the story will bog down, become an infodump. The info in the notebook is valuable because it gives you choices on what details you need to reveal to make the story work.

You say authors have to market themselves if they want to make a living off of writing. Is the Internet a useful tool for would-be authors?

Used carefully. If you pop up in an Internet group and only want to talk about your book you’ll turn people off. If you create a website or blog and then don’t update it regularly it can look abandoned and be a turnoff. A nice looking website with interesting content can be a major plus. It can also take enough time that the marketing tail wags the writing dog so to speak and you end up spending all your writing time marketing for stuff you don’t have time to write. If you don’t have a website or a blog already it’s a good idea to think through the amount of time commitment a feature will be. Some good ideas simply take too much time and will kill your actual writing.

What is Point of Divergence APA?

Point of Divergence is an alternate history Amateur Press Association. You can think of it as a cross between an ongoing alternate history writers’ group and a kind of Do-It-Yourself magazine. Five or six times per year a group of fanatic alternate history enthusiasts send copies of their zines to me. I collate the zines and send them back out. Zines consist of stories, reviews, news related to alternate history, and comments on stories from the previous issue.

How does one contribute to POD?

Typically you contact me for a copy of the last issue and then start sending zines in. There is a small annual membership fee and members pay the postage for the zines. POD has been around since late 1995 and typically runs 100 to 150 pages per issue.

What are you reading now? 

I just finished Charles Stross’s Laundry series, a demented cross between James Bond and Lovecraft, with a lot of inside jokes for computer types. I’m not sure where I’ll go next.

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