Thursday, May 17, 2012

Interview: Rhys Davies

I now present to you dear reader my interview with Rhys Davies, author of Timewreck Titanic.  Enjoy:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Oh, this is a hard one. Well, I was born just before Christmas 1986 in the town of Pontypridd, South Wales. As a child of the nineties I grew up on an eclectic mix of Saturday-morning cartoons, blockbuster films and all manner of literature, which I guess eventually coalesced into a love of science-fiction and fantasy; as an example, when I was young my favourite movies were Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and Titanic. Through these I somehow found my way, at age eleven, to reading full-length novels by authors such as Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy, though looking back on that I’m a little ashamed at how fervently I worshipped before the altar of ‘airport literature’. Thankfully that was a phase I eventually grew out of.

My then taste in reading material notwithstanding, it was apparent from my childhood that I was going to develop into a ‘creative’ individual, so it only made sense that I should pursue a suitable dream (namely, becoming a published author), and eventually I attended Lancaster University in the northwest of England, studying English Literature with Creative Writing.

Nowadays I’m very much a multimedia person; I write stories, shoot amateur films and edit videos and audio dramas for fun. It’s only now though that I’ve actually started trying to build a career out of these interests, and, fingers-crossed, I’m about to see some success in that.

What got you interested in alternate history?

Well, as I mentioned already, I was very much a fan of Back to the Future as a kid, which got me to wondering what the consequences might be if one tiny event in the course of time was altered or prevented, and from that dangerous line of thought I eventually arrived at where I am now.

In all seriousness however, I once read that the two most dangerous words in human history were “what if?” and I have found myself spiraling further down that particular rabbit-hole. I can’t remember when it was that I ‘discovered’ the genre of alternate history, but it was probably when I read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Much like a model-maker might craft a boat, locomotive or landscape from scratch, shaping it to match his personal vision, JRR Tolkien had sought to ‘create’ a complete mythology with these books; the back-story explored in the Appendices, but barely touched on in the actual narrative, led me to the concept of ‘world-building’, which acted as my ‘gateway’ to Alternate History. I think that is the main appeal to me, the freedom to craft an entire reality and then either guide it towards one particular outcome, or let it take on a certain life of its own and see where this divergent timeline leads.

What is Timewreck Titanic about?

The basic premise of the story is that on April 14th 2012, the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking, a number of ships have gathered over the wreck site to pay tribute. Suddenly, several vessels from the fleet are thrown back in time by exactly a century. They find themselves in close proximity to the sinking Titanic, with no guarantee they can ever go home. The rest of the story flows from that concept, explored through the multiple perspectives of both real-life figures involved in the disaster, and a number of fictional time-travellers who are all-too aware both of the terrible cost of the sinking, and of the bloody course that the twentieth century is set upon. I’d like to think that the story asks the reader ‘what would you do in this situation?’ but honestly that would be giving me too much credit!

What inspired you to write the novel?

Much as I would like to say the concept sprang fully-formed into my mind, the actual story is much more convoluted, and consists of three divergent ideas coming together.

I’ve felt an affection for the ‘Ship of Dreams’ for many years and, at the same time, a certain dissatisfaction in how almost every film or novel involving the ship just tells the same story all over again, with perhaps the addition of a fictional subplot or two. After reading a rare exception to that rule, Joseph L’Episcopo’s One Last Voyage, which exposits that Titanic just missed that infamous iceberg and sailed on until withdrawal from service in the 1940s, I began wondering whether or not I could do something similar.

At the same time, I was reading Eric Flint’s excellent 1632 stories, in which ‘Grantville’, a West Virginia mining-town, is displaced in time and space, landing in the German province of Thuringia in the middle of the Thirty Years War. The idea of a large group of modern ‘everymen’ being forced into interaction with historical figures appealed to me, set several gears turning in my mind and opened my thoughts to the possibility of combining alternate-history with time-travel. In tribute to this, one of Timewreck Titanic’s main characters, Jordan Jones, hails from Farmington, a real town in the same region that Flint drew on to create his fictional community of Grantville.

Finally, through the zombie-horror film Outpost, I stumbled across the urban legend of ‘The Nazi Bell’, a supposed anti-gravity device developed by the Nazis during WW2. The similarities with the equally mythical ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ struck me as good material for a story, but at first I was considering developing it into a webcomic starring a Captain America-esque superhero to be named ‘The Spirit of St Louis’, powered by technology smuggled out of Germany by defecting scientists. The project stalled however when I was unable to locate an artist to collaborate with.

Then in August 2011, I met a gentleman named Gary Chalk, an author and illustrator, while the both of us were on holiday in France. During a very long ferry-ride he described to me how through e-books and self publishing it was nowadays easier for new writers to get a foothold in the publishing world, and I decided I would try and write something short, sharp and snappy and publish it online as an experiment.

That’s all well and good, but unfortunately, I did not know what to write about! Then, about a month later I was driving home one night and listening to some rock music at eardrum-shatteringly loud volumes. A series of rapid electric-guitar chords suddenly caused me to visualise the image of a helicopter taking off from the deck of a ship and powering across a dark ocean to a sinking vessel, the Titanic, while a figure yelled through a megaphone the words “Captain Smith, prepare to receive pumping assistance!”

Eureka. Suddenly all three individual ideas dovetailed together. The Titanic, time-lost people, and secret tech. I finally had my idea.

After musing on it for a month I finally sat down on October 3rd last year and started writing. The initial plan was to have a first draft of 120,000 words completed by Christmas, but the story just kept growing until it was not finished until April, by which point it had nearly doubled in size. Far from being ‘short, sharp and snappy’ Timewreck Titanic somehow grew into this massive narrative full of numerous ships and characters, probably because I kept indulging myself by working in every new idea that came to mind.

What sources did you use in researching the novel?

Too many to name in all, but besides my own library of Titanic literature, the most valuable resource I found to hand was the Internet. Through it any prospective writer has unlimited access to historical documents, period accounts, modern commentary and debate, and multiple perspectives from which to build your own stance on a familiar subject. It’s amazing how much information can be at your fingertips in seconds nowadays; in fact one problem I had was that right up until the final day of writing I kept stumbling across new tidbits which prompted more and more rewrites, until eventually I just had to say to myself “STOP!”

Readers have complimented you on the period language used in Timewreck.  How did you get such a good grasp of the old lingo?

Honestly, I’m not consciously trying to sound ‘ye olde world’ when writing, it just comes quite naturally. I honestly believe that after years of digesting period books and drama, I’ve assimilated some of the language of the time. The only actual convention I set myself when crafting dialogue was to keep the period characters simply ‘formal’ rather than pushing the clichéd “I say, old fruit, Pip-pip, tally-ho!” style of dialogue. Against this, the time-travellers are ‘looser’ in their language, and more prone to using informal slang, abbreviations, contractions, curse-words and nicknames, which perhaps goes further to underscore the differences between the two eras.

How did you come up with the title?

The title was actually one of the harder parts, because I wanted something that would convey that this was a time-travel novel, and that the Titanic was involved. Ultimately it was a friend of mine, Daniel Price, who finally suggested that ‘Timewrecked’ would be a good base to build upon, as it combined the idea of ‘time’ with a nautical theme, and matched the idea that the majority of the characters have in effect been shipwrecked, becoming castaways in time. After a little massaging, I finally settled on the current title, Timewreck Titanic.

Who designed the cover? 

This is a bit of a story itself. My father recently retired from a position at the local further education college, and through some of his old contacts he put me in touch with their Art Department. I sent in a brief describing the book and explaining that I needed a piece of art for the cover, and their response was extremely enthusiastic. As a result, designing a cover for Timewreck Titanic was set as a project for that term’s first year class, with me going in once every two weeks or so to give pointers and feedback. There were eighteen students, all of whom had their own vision of what the cover should be, and choosing a winner was pretty tough; in the end I narrowed it down to three and then went and slept on it for a fortnight before making my final decision. The winning artist is an incredibly talented guy named Gwalchmai Doran, and I’m sure he’d be gratified at the positive mention his work has already received in the site’s review.

Why do you think we continue to see works set during the sinking of the Titanic?  Why are people so intrigued by this tragedy?

That’s a question I tackle multiple times in the book itself, and I’ve still not got a definite answer. The best I can offer is that it is a ‘romantic’ tragedy in which all parts of society were involved, from the painfully elegant passengers in First Class to the hopeful immigrants travelling in Steerage; it is impossible among all these different people to not find at least one we can empathise with, which humanises what might otherwise be a very impersonal disaster.

Contrast as well the horror of that fateful April night with the all-too-brief life of the great ship herself; born of boundless optimism, and five years in the making, she sank in less than three hours, gaining in her death a certain immortality. In my eyes, this huge vessel born on a Belfast slipway is tangled up not just with the individual lives of all who sailed in her on that one voyage, but also the society that birthed and built her. Titanic was the first disaster of the twentieth century that managed to reach out to people in all walks of life (though sadly, not the last), and that is no less true today.

If you could travel to any point in the past, when would it be and why?

I’d say the early-to-mid 1950s, just to experience first-hand the post-war sense of pride and accomplishment, and to witness the last hurrah of the Age of Steam, such as the great locomotives and ocean liners that once bestrode the world like giants.

Plus, hey, with my future knowledge I could probably be the Bill Gates of this new timeline. “Money, money, money...”

The last half of the 20th century had a lot of tragedies and armed with knowledge from the future, would you attempt to intervene in any of the events?  

Most likely. It would be wonderful to prevent the worst excesses of the Cold War, but it is questionable as to whether or not a single individual could make a considerable difference based on how much momentum the nuclear arms race would have already gained by the 1950s. Alternatively I could opt not to take action and allow history to proceed ‘on course’ until the 1960s or 1970s, when I could potentially intervene in events such as the Kennedy Assassination or the Vietnam War.

Ideally, if I was travelling in time with the goal of altering history, the ideal temporal destination for me would be the era of the Titanic’s sinking, in those crucial years leading up to the First World War. My belief has always been that the ‘War To End All Wars’ actually started the chain of events that led to the deprivations of the 20th century, and that the first priority of a time-traveller seeking to play God with history would be to avert that conflict or lead it to a quicker outcome in favour of the Allies.

What do you think would happen as a result of your interference?

I’d say it was impossible to predict. One of the lessons history has taught is that it does not run on tracks; once you turn it loose, it is going to run amok into pastures new. This is the potential danger of meddling in post-WW2 politics; the world came so close to atomic war in the original timeline that there’s a grave risk of accidentally inflaming the Cold War into actual nuclear annihilation.

Tampering in Edwardian history at least removes the hazard of immediate destruction, giving that nuclear physics was still in its infancy – the flip-side is that in order to procure peace you would have to prop up a pair of oppressive regimes (Imperial Germany and Russia) in the hope that they would turn towards a better path, but with no guarantee that they will. The outcome could be stability, or simply allow the conditions that led to both WW1 and the Bolshevik Revolution to fester until they erupt into a new and equally devastating conflict.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

Oh boy, yeah. Besides initial ideas for the next volume in the Timewreck Series and a potential handful of children’s books, for the past six or seven years my best friend and myself have been co-developing a work called Project Aurora, the first volume in what promises to be a massive science-fiction story (practically an ‘epic’). We’ve had several false-starts but with my recent success in completing Timewreck Titanic I’m confident in finally making some headway on it. It’s going to be a much-more focused narrative set in the early thirty-first century, centred on three youths gradually uncovering a century-old conspiracy in which they are all unwilling pawns.

What are you reading now?

Surprisingly, not much at all. During the final few months of writing I basically stopped reading for pleasure in order to focus on the project, and now that I’m done I’m having a hard time picking up something new; I’ve tried getting back into the 1632 books, and the second volume of Orson Scott Card’s Ender Series but I’m struggling, so if anyone has anything good they’d like to recommend, drop me a line. Quality alternate history would be very welcome.

Do you have advice for would be authors?

Don’t give up hope guys; there has never been a better time for aspiring writers to break into the market. The Internet has opened up all manner of possibilities for self-publishing and self-promotion. Once published, you can also gain new insight from evaluating the finished manuscript, exploring strengths and weaknesses through feedback from readers, so gaining valuable experience as a writer. More importantly, once you’ve completed your first manuscript, you can set it to work earning you some cash on formats such as the Kindle and Lulu. In a sense, your work becomes an asset that can begin drawing in revenue even as you try promoting it to publishers and agents.

And as the song says, “don’t stop believing, hold onto that feeling” – if you’ve got an idea, or a concept, or a vision, hold on tight and take it as far as you can. You might at times doubt yourself, and question your abilities, but you only fail if you give up along the way. So sit down, pull up a keyboard, and see where your imagination will take you!

Good luck!

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