Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Interview: Greg Ahlgren

I now present to you my interview with author Greg Ahlgren:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm a post-middle-aged trial lawyer in Manchester, New Hampshire, with what is essentially a small-town, one-man law practice. Most of my work is criminal defense, although I do handle some domestic and some personal injury work. When not writing, or engaging in silly things like trying to earn a living practicing law, I can usually be found glued to the T.V., especially when there is some college sports on.

I am also an attorney, but I am just starting out, and I hope to be a published author as well. Any advice on how to balance your career and writing?

That's a tough one. The only way I have been able to do it is because I am self-employed, and my secretary works for me alone. I tend to draft my writing in a notebook, and then I dictate the manuscript and give it to her for typing. If I worked for someone else, or for the government, there is no way that I would be able to do my writing at work. It would be cheating my employer. And writing at home can be problematic. Everyone who has a family has to decide how much time they want to divert for themselves at home. To some, barricading oneself in a room away from his or her spouse and children may not be the kind of lifestyle one wants to live. Everyone is different. Of course, if you are single, writing at home at night, or on weekends, is fine.

But at work I can sneak dictation time between client appointments or days when things are slow. If I have a multi-day trial blocked off on my schedule, and the case settles, well, then, voila!

Any other advice for future authors?

That could be its own interview. First and foremost, find someone to edit and proofread your work. Those are two separate functions. And stay away from a spouse or the guy you play racquetball with on Thursday nights who says, "Sure, I'll look at it."

The ideal editor is a high school English teacher with a red pen and plenty of ink. I know there are money considerations, since the financial rewards of writing are pretty meager, so it is rarely worth it to hire a professional editor. Plus, I don't know how good they are. Don't assume an agent or publisher will perform the service either. I can't tell you how many indie books I've read that were pretty good in concept, but were rife with missing quotation marks, misspelled words that often spell check won't pick up because they spell another word, or flat out grammatical mistakes, etc. That's the proofreading part, and the more we proofread our own manuscripts, the more we read right over the same mistakes without catching them. Nothing is perfect, and I'm sure there are undetected mistakes in mine, but we all need to minimize them. There's a lot of criticism of indie books on the Kindle boards, and that is a big one. A rising tide lifts all boats, so we should all try to help each other out in this.

The editing part is more subjective. Here's a piece of advice for any writer: Don't have an ego. If someone says "This scene adds nothing to drive the plot," then cut it out, no matter how clever you think it is. The same with unnecessary verbiage. Cut, cut cut.

Along this same line is "Don't make mistakes." I really don't think that one has to do a whole lot of historical research to write a history based novel - but the one thing you can't do is screw it up. If you are not sure what time in the afternoon Chamberlain ran out of ammo at the Little Round Top, don't have him checking his watch and noticing that it says 3:30, because someone somewhere is going to say "Aha!"

Two quick examples. Remember The Bourne Supremacy? Great movie. At the end, Pamela Landy tells Jason he was born "4-15-71," and he figures out that he needs to go to 415 East 71st Street in New York. He goes, unravels his past, gets chased, climbs to the roof, gets shot at, and jumps off the roof into the East River. The movie ends. Say what? Four fifteen East 71st is on the other side of York, so Jason would have had to jump over York, and even then how does he jump over East River Drive to splash into the river? (This is aside from the issue of who wants to jump into the East River anyway.  Personally, I might have taken my chances with the business end of the Glock.)  However, there is one building that spans East River Drive at the end of 71st, but it is on the other side of the street, a block and a half away from 415.

Or Alex Berenson's The Midnight House, a great book. Bestseller. Terrorists are using the Wi-Fi at a Los Angeles' Dunkin' Donuts to send out their communications. The problem is that there are no Dunkin' Donuts within 60 miles of L.A.  A friend of mine e-mailed Alex and told him, and Alex actually e-mailed back, said he had checked and that my friend was right, and that he should have used Krispy Kreme.  No, what Alex should have done is gone to the Store Locator page on The Dunkin' Donuts' website. Remember: Don't screw it up!  If you don't know it was raining in Hartford on August 3, 1885 in a history novel - don't say it was.

What got you interested in alternate history?

I'd categorize it more as an interest in any type of history, since I'm a self-confessed history addict. I have only published two other books: Crime of the Century: The Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax, which is a true-crime analysis, and The Medici Legacy, an international thriller based in part on the Japanese germ warfare experiments of World War II, specifically the notorious Unit 731 actions in Pingfang, so although perhaps those two books aren't strictly "alternate history," they are both based on actual historical events. Of course, [laughing] detractors of my Crime of the Century analysis might very well characterize that book as alternate history.

What is your novel Prologue about?

It opens in June 2026, in an alternate future in which the Soviet Union has won the Cold War and occupies most of the former United States, now known as the Soviet States of America. Two MIT professors have discovered a subatomic particle that can accelerate matter to speeds faster than light, thereby opening wormholes in time. Working with fellow resistance leaders, they try to figure out where it all went wrong, and devise a plan to go back to the early 1960s to change decisions made in what the reader is told was JFK's first term. But, of course, as in all thrillers, the plan goes kaplooey, not everyone is who they claim to be, and the time-traveling revolutionaries have to make up their Plan B, and then C and D, on the fly.

What inspired you to write the novel?

That Kennedy had a meeting scheduled with his top political and military advisers concerning Vietnam for Sunday, November 24, 1963 has always intrigued me - as it has many of that era's historians. What would JFK have decided? Some subsequent defenders of his administration maintain that he would have decided at that meeting to pull out of Vietnam. As an aside, I have a friend, "Woody" Woodland, who used to have a radio talk show and once interviewed Dave Powers, Kennedy's adviser and confidante. Dave told Woody that Kennedy had actually told him in the week prior to the assassination that he, Kennedy, had already decided to pull out of Vietnam and was going to so announce at the scheduled November 24 meeting. Two days after the assassination Johnson still conducted that meeting as Kennedy lay in State, but as we all know LBJ told Henry Cabot Lodge that day that he would "not lose Vietnam." Looking at the paperwork released in 1997, it is almost impossible to tell if LBJ's directive after that meeting was much different than Kennedy's would have been, especially since National Security Action Memorandum 273, signed by LBJ on November 26, was actually drafted while Kennedy was still alive. However, if Powers was accurate, and some historians believe he was, the bullets in Dealey Plaza did not kill just one American, but over 50,000.

Then, after the collapse of the Eastern block and the Soviet Union, there were countless television specials in which various "experts" opined why the Soviet Union collapsed. I was watching one of these one evening when a professor at a university in Scotland appeared on the screen and gave his opinion that the single greatest reason for the collapse of world Communism was the decision made by American President Lyndon Johnson to stay and fight in Vietnam. Listening to this, I was astonished. I had never heard such a theory and, quite frankly, have never heard it repeated. He believed that the fight in Vietnam delayed Communism's ability to expand - a necessary ingredient to maintain an inefficient economic system - while also depriving them of an expanding circle of trading partners while simultaneously contracting the West's trading circle. Although the Communists finally succeeded in Vietnam in 1975, by then the world had changed, other Southeast Asian and Malay nation's economies had improved, and Communism had been tipped into its death spiral.

But if you join these two versions, Powers' and the professor's, you are left with a theory in which Kennedy's assassination led directly to the demise of World Communism. The logical philosophical contra-positive is that had JFK lived, Communism would have survived and continued expanding.  It seemed as though everyone else who has written a what-if-Kennedy-had-lived scenario has been compelled to describe some Utopia. And I've always liked challenging conventional wisdom.

And finally, there was my own personal challenge to see if I could write a scenario where both the Warren Commission version of the events, and the conspiracy theorists' claims, were both right at the same time. Thus, I have one of my characters having the word-for-word conversation with Oswald at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City in September 1963 that was testified to at the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979. The green Nash, the sniper atop the grassy knoll in a Dallas policeman's uniform, the $6,500.00 cash transfer to Oswald in Mexico City, they are all there, as is also the Warren Commission's version of Oswald munching fried chicken on the sixth floor while prepping the Mannlicher.

How did you come up with the title?

Actually, I didn't. I have only written three books, and all three of my originally selected titles were recommended for change by the publishers. With three strikes aren't I supposed to be out? My original title for Prologue was The Intervention Project, since that is what my characters call their time-travel scheme. However, the publisher thought that title made the book sound like it belonged in the self-help section of a bookstore for addiction recovery. I had a friend who then suggested Prologue to History, or just Prologue.  I went with the latter.  Hey, who knows, under that theory maybe if I had kept the old title I'd be selling more copies now.

Who designed the cover?

It was designed by the original publisher. They came up with three or four possible covers and I had my friends vote on them. I abstained.

JFK surviving his assassination is a very popular point of divergence. Why do you think that is?

I am 59 years old. To my generation the JFK assassination is what the Pearl Harbor attack was to my parents, and what the 9/11 terrorist attacks were to my daughter. It is a reference point that benchmarks history. Prior to November 22, 1963 the U.S. was a different place - peaceful, confident, and smug. Assassinations were things that only happened in far away South American juntas, not in OUR obviously superior democracy.

Dallas changed all that. It may have been coincidental that racial unrest, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the student protests, and the decade's social and gender upheaval, all happened after Dallas - but one from my generation will always be tempted to succumb to the nagging suspicion that November 22 was somehow causal - the proverbial watershed in American history - just like WWII and its social aftermath was for our parents.

For those reasons I think those of my generation who experienced that November weekend will always wonder - what if?

If you could have gone back in time at the same date as your characters, would you have tried changing anything?

Sure, why not? I guess after buying all the right lotto tickets (did they have them back then? Maybe not) I go to the Depository and shoot Oswald. Gotta' make sure there are no witnesses and I dummy up a good self-defense claim 'cause Texas was frying people right and left back then and there is no guarantee I could get out of the building and away safely. Although it'd be ironic if Kennedy gets saved, and then got waxed the next year by Goldwater anyway, because Barry would not have pulled out of 'Nam.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

I'm playing around with the 1960s again as a concept; I lived through it as a student. Maybe a comparison of those who went to fight and those who stayed and fought against the war. In my opinion they both acted honorably, and they both made sacrifices, although in our contemporary world with its polarized political extremes those two sides - those who went and those who refused - tend to be either glorified or vilified, depending on what side of the political spectrum the observer stands. But like I say, it is just a concept at this point.

What are you reading now?

I just finished Unpunished by Grasso and Wolf Hunt by Breit. Believe it or not, I do not own a Kindle or other e-reader, but my daughter has allegedly bought me the Kindle Fire for Christmas that has already shipped. When it arrives I am not sure what I will download first.
Those interested in learning more about Prologue can check out my review of the novel.

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