Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Interview: David Kowalski

I now present my interview with David Kowalski, author of The Company of the Dead.  Enjoy:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

This is a hard question. I’d say I was a productive procrastinator. I have a job that is very time demanding, but try to squeeze the most out of my spare time reading, writing, hanging with friends. I have a young family, who grew up around me when I started writing and continue to inspire me. I have wide interests that I dabble in making me an amateur in everything.

Besides writing, what do you do for a living?

I am doctor, specialised in OBGYN. My primary interest is keyhole surgery but I deliver babies and basically look after women’s health issues. It’s a great job but can be very time consuming.

What got you interested in writing fiction?

I was always loved reading. Nothing moved me like a good book and I remain haunted by various images that writers have conjured within me over the years. I wanted to be a part of that if I could, to contribute to that continuum of words that move and challenge us.

What made you choose to write an alternate history?

Matt, you’re coming to punch me but I have to say, I didn’t think I was writing alternate history. I wasn’t aware of it as a specific genre when I started writing. I’d read Keith Robert’s Pavane, and Harris’ Fatherland, but had never thought of them under that label. Company is constructed as a secret history, rather than alternate. The world I proposed is supposed to have actually happened, right under our noses. I have certainly been thinking about ideas for further novels that could be called alternate histories, my concern is that the more they stray from our world, the more they enter the realm of fantasy.

It is curious that you never heard the term "alternate history" despite being well-read in the classics. I have heard, however, that the genre (a sub-genre of science fiction really) is known by other names outside of the US. Do Australians prefer other names for those novels like counterfactual history, virtual history or uchronia?

Um, I don’t really know what terms Australians use. Certainly, by now, alternate history is a very mainstream concept here, as everywhere else. Counterfactual seems more associated with non-fiction works. What I meant was that I didn’t recognise Alternate History as a subspecies of Sci Fi, I just saw it as a feature or backdrop while I was writing my book.

What are some of your favorite "what ifs?"

As scenarios that writers have already explored, I love The Man in the High Castle, (surprise, surprise). Tim Powers’ writing, and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Baroque Cycle amaze me. In terms of ‘What if” scenarios I would like to see explored, or explore myself; Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo, Hannibal’s’ conquest of Rome and Archimedes surviving the fall of Syracuse, would be great starting points.

What is The Company of the Dead about?

Wow, what a question. No one has asked me that and no one (except my mother, which is kind of embarrassing) has really pinpointed where I am coming from yet, so I kind of want to stay quiet on that point. On an important level it is about wish fulfilment and the difference between making easy choices and hard ones. It’s also a little about the road to hell, and how nicely it’s paved.

What inspired you to write your novel?

Well, it started off as a short story, written for my own benefit. I talked above about wish fulfilment. I was between jobs and feeling a little despondent. I started writing about a character, who was similar enough to me. Hopefully slightly nastier and more short sighted. I wanted to punish him so I put him on the Titanic, gave him some choices, and a chance to redeem himself though the price would be high. It grew out of that as the ideas kept coming.

With the anniversary of the Titanic sinking approaching, plus Cameron's famous blockbuster about the tragedy being released in 3D, why do you think people are still interested with the fate of this ship?

I suspect that people will be interested for a long time to come. As an event, it seems so unlikely. The largest ocean liner, on her maiden voyage, captained by an experienced sailor on his last ever voyage. She hits an iceberg with terrible loss of life. It’s inconceivable on a superficial level. I think we first hear about it when we are quite young and it rapidly assumes a quasi-mythological status. It’s tragedy and folly and suffering, spiced with moments of dastardly behaviour and great heroism. It’s our modern day Trojan Horse. I think if we’re here in a thousand years, we’ll be talking about it.

What sources did you use when doing research for the novel?

I read as widely as I could. I read books by Charles Pickover and Paul Nahin on the physics of time travel. I read books about Area 51 and the early twentieth century. I read all the early accounts about the Titanic that I could find; social and cultural histories. I read Walter Lord, Robert Ballard and I found Stephen Biel’s Down with the Old Canoe very helpful. So was The Riddle of the Titanic, as an exploration of Titanic conspiracies. On the subject of conspiracy I read Daniel Pipes’ seminal work, which was eye-opening. I studied maps, deck plane, and engineering designs so I could elaborate on the technology of my world. I also spoke to a lot of people. I was surprised how helpful they were considering I was an unpublished writer at the time. I got to talk to physicists, historians, engineers, war veterans, detectives, retired gangsters. It was great.

How did you come up with the title?

OK, here’s a first. My working title was Entering the Whirlpool. It was from Eliot’s The Wasteland, a poem whose structure I used as part of the scaffolding for the novel. I really loved the title but my editor and Australian publisher were not enamoured with it. I’m glad I dropped it. There are enough books out there (some fabulous Mr Banks and Waugh) that employ quotes from T. S. Eliot.

One of the early editorial suggestions for the novel suggested this as the opening sentence: “One thing was for certain. He could only allow himself to speak with those who would soon be dead.”

It was grabby, and dramatic, but I couldn’t go with it. Later on in the text I talk about keeping the company of the dead, being quiet deliberate about its various connotations. The editorial suggestion inspired the new title.

Who designed the cover?

Amazing 15. Wow, what a great job. I can say that without reservation as I had absolutely no input into the design. The cover recently won a contest in what was the second consecutive win for the guys at Amazing. And well deserved if I may say that. (Now could someone please make me a poster of it for me?)

The website for your novel is very well-done, who designed it?

Ruth Peyser put the site together and did a tremendous job. The design was based on an idea I had. I was trying to recreate the experience of using a computer in the world of the novel. I wanted a baroque, almost decadent feel to that technology. We made a big effort because I wanted the reader to have a little fun at the site.

When did you discover that your novel, which was originally published in Australia, would be marketed oversees?

I found out early last year. I was always keen to be published overseas as I felt the novel would have an appeal in Europe and America. In fact I was criticised for being an Australian writer with no local content in my work. I was never aggressive about pushing for an overseas sale, so when it didn’t happen straight away I just started working on my second book, hoping that its time would come.

If you could travel to any point in the past, where would you and why?

As a spectator there are things I would like to see first-hand, but certainly from a safe distance.

I kind of have a thing for Napoleon. I would love to see the meeting between Marshal Ney and himself, that led to the Hundred Days. I would love to hear him speak and watch the effect of his words on his audience. I would also love to be able to see the seven wonders in their heyday, the Hanging Gardens, the lighthouse, the Colossus of Rhodes. The idea of attending a meeting of the early Royal Society, with Newton and Hooke and Halley presenting their findings, would be awesome. But I would stay real, real quiet.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

I am working on a novel at the moment, set in the present, that is quasi-fantasy. It’s in the first person, and quite different to Company. It’s been a challenge, but I’m really enjoying it.

What are you reading now?

The Canterbury Tales (in Middle English!, slow going), Beevor’s Stalingrad, and I’m about to start Reamde by Neal Stephenson.

Do you have any advice for would be authors?

As I newbie of sorts I would suggest you take the following with a pinch of salt, but these are my thoughts. I think if you want to write you need to be writing, so you can hone your skills and find your own voice. Like any craft it needs practise and discipline. I also think it’s good to read widely, close to the subjects you are working on, to see what’s out there and how it’s been done. I also would suggest that you write the kind of stuff that you would most like to be reading yourself, rather than any perceived trend, and trust your instincts.

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Those interested can also check out my review of the novel.

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