I now present my interview with Robert G. Pielke, author of A New Birth of Freedom: The Visitor. Enjoy:
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure can…and a lot of it will be true…..only kidding…… ;-)
Where are you from?
Baltimore, Maryland – just outside the northeast corner of the city limits, on US 1….a.k.a. Belair Road [the home of Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglass, John Wilkes Booth, H.L. Mencken, Frank Zappa, Upton Sinclair, Billie Holliday, Johnny Unitas, Tom Clancy, George Herman Ruth, Cab Calloway, Dru Hill, Joan Jett, Connie Chung, Tupac Shakur and, of course, John Waters.]
Why did you go into teaching?
Ah…yes…a good question, one that I never stopped asking myself:
It all began with the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” that gave Pres. Johnson the authority to perpetrate a limitless and aimless war in Southeast Asia. I was in Advanced AFROTC in college at the time. Although I had a lot of interest in history, philosophy and political theory, I could see no useful employment following college with that kind of degree. [I only took philosophy courses to meet girls!] Basic ROTC [Army or AF] at that time was a requirement for land grant universities and so was military service – the draft was universal. So why not do my time as an officer? That meant applying for Advance ROTC. Not too long thereafter, in one of my Air Science classes, our instructor gave us a “pop quiz” – which we all failed. We were to identify “Ho Chi Minh,” “Saigon,” “Hanoi,” “Viet Cong.” “Dien Bien Phu,” “Ngo Dinh Diem” and “Madam Nhu.” None of us had a clue! Whereupon our instructor commented that we were going to learn these answers the hard way….intimately…within a year.
Well, after doing some research and some thinking and re-thinking, and after noting the controversies beginning over the Tonkin Resolution, I decided that there was something wrong with this foreign adventure – and I wanted no part of it. So, I turned to one of my specific interests in history and philosophy – the study of religion. [Not practicing it…studying it.] Could I do this in grad school? That would get me out of the draft for a while. Sure, but you had to have good grades for grad school. [I was floating along with a rather weak “C” average.] How about going to a seminary for the background stuff then grad school after that? I wrote to numerous seminary instructors around the country and many advised me to go for it. [I was Lutheran and the closest seminary was in Gettysburg!] Ok! I had a plan….and once in Seminary, the draft board mistakenly thought I was a ministerial student, and assigned me a permanent deferment! [I never got around to correcting their error.]
My opposition to the war was initially pretty much based on “saving my own skin” But soon, when seeing the social activism of many seminary profs and other students, it grew in a socio/political/moral opposition, and that carried through to graduate school afterwards.
Now, what can a person do with a BA in history/political thought and a M.Div. in theology and a Ph.D. in Social Ethics? You got it….exactly nothing….except teach! One application for an assistant prof in Philosophy at George Mason University and I had a job. [There was only one other applicant….times were different.] And…having taken precisely zero courses in education, I had to sort of develop my own pedagogy. And I was pretty happy with it.
Sorry your asked????? Hahahahah
What did you teach as a professor?
Even though I was a history major in college, I also had a heavy concentration in philosophy – almost enough to have a double major. And after my succeeding years in various levels of “schoolage” I wound up teaching courses in philosophy – mainly intro stuff, like phil 101 [ugh], logic [yea], ethics [yea also] but also some advanced courses – usually in the ethics, political philosophy and social ethics areas. Early on “doing my stretch” in Academia, I also taught some courses in philosophy of religion and even a few world religions courses.
While I did manage to get tenure and promotions within the academic world [I published rather than perished], I was always a “trouble-maker” in terms of my approach to education and learning. Students either loved it or hated it….but most eventually got into the “hang” of what I was doing. [Hardly any of the faculty did – and none of the administrators! Hahahaha]
Did you ever check out your profile on Rate My Professor?
Of course! Many times – and as I’ve said, there were few if any neutral students about my approach – I never pleased all of the people – or even most – just some [and not all of them all of the time]…and that’s ok… My student surveys we a lot more positive, since most of the people who hated my approach had dropped the course before the surveys were taken!
What got you interested in alternate history?
I went to the movies every week as a kid – before we had a 13 inch Mad-Man Muntz TV and afterwards as well. So I saw pretty much everything, and a lot of what was playing were cheap-o “Westerns” [Johnny Mac Brown, Hopalong Cassidy and the like], but there were some major productions as well. What interested me most were the stories that involved “Indians” – and they had a distinct flavor: good cowboys and bad Indians. Oh sure, there were a few that countered this prevailing image, and I particularly liked them, like Broken Arrow [sometime in the ‘50s].
My father was an avid reader of western novels and he introduced me to the idea that Indians might not be all evil, and might have been justifiably angered at the Europeans stealing their land. He wasn’t nearly as open to change when it came to other ethnicities, but this mere possibility let to me “supposing” different scenarios….like “what if” all the competing tribes were to have united to keep the Europeans at bay until some kind of equitable arrangement with the new settlers could have been achieved. I didn‘t put it in these words at the time – I was about 7-10 years old! But I did try my hand at writing a novel, White Cloud, about an Indian who achieved this kind of unity among all the tribes. [It was three pages long with one paragraph.] Ever since, I’ve always had a “what if” in my mind when watching movies or TV as well as when reading fiction or nonfiction. [I used this scenario in my first SF/TT/AH novel [The Mission].
I’m still a sucker for alternate history stories, but there is always a part of these stories that gives me pause: the “shift” from the history as we know it to the alternate course of history. Not all writers deal with this, but it’s what I find most fascinating. Without a concentration on this, these stories are not much different from the kind of run-of-the-mill speculations that historians do routinely. A lot of WWII and Civil War novels just proceed on a different path without explaining why or how the shift took place. Historians don’t have to deal with this – they’re just speculating – but storytellers must deal with it. It’s what differentiates mere historical speculation from speculative fiction.
BTW I differentiate between Alternate History and Alternate Universe stories. The latter take place in an entirely alternate reality where no “shift” takes place, like a lot of [most?] Steam Punk.
In genuine Alternate Histories something has to be introduced to accomplish the “shift.” Two “shift” inducers have always appealed to me: time travel and alien contact. There are others of course: natural catastrophes, nuclear war, global warming, etc. But as they use to say – that’s not “my bag.”
What is A New Birth of Freedom: The Visitor about?
– hopefully the 19th!. It combines alternate history, time travel and double first contact themes. [This caused editors and agents who read early proposals to shy away from my project – “too many genre!” “I see coherence problems!” “Why are you doing this to yourself!” But I had a theme in mind that – to me – brought these things into harmony. Obviously the title of the trilogy [prior to the colon] is “lifted” from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and in a very real sense, that’s what the book is about – the assumptions and implications of that phrase.
I’ve always been intrigued by Lincoln’s gradual “evolution” from a state of pretty much total ignorance about that “peculiar institution” of his times to the state of a full blown abolitionist. It had a lot to do with his encountering actual slaves as well as well-educated freed men. [Fredrick Douglass, for example – yup…two “s”s] It also had to do with his similar encounters and evolution with native Americans. The beliefs he was raised with about the inferiority of these other races was gradually wiped away [picture personal waste removal and cleansing here] by these encounters. And the essence of these encounters was communication…unexpected, intelligent and provocative communication.
There’s a “subtext” or two that runs throughout the trilogy, and I sort of had this in mind from the beginning. I never say anything about them, of course – that’s why they are “sub-ed.” They are not really necessary for the plot or story, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. One has to do with the belief that some people have that in-depth communications with other species is inherently impossible. [Noam Chomsky, for example] I reject this notion completely. Also, there is a more recent belief that communications with other-worldlies should be avoided at all costs…forever. [Stephen Hawking, for example] I reject this too.
So, that’s what the trilogy is all about….unexpected communication. Book Two is subtitled The Translator! [I will be released in November, 2012.]
What else inspired you to write the novel?
Along with my fascination with Lincoln, something did happen – as a catalyst – to suggest a venue and time frame. It began with my interest in America’s Civil War. [I care little whether others might prefer something akin to “War of Northern Aggression” – I can live with that – as long as others remember that sometimes aggression is justifiable.]
After a trip our class took to Gettysburg – I think the 6th grade [my memory cells have been severely challenged throughout the years and there’s no “Scotty” to fumble around with substitute Dilithium Crystals], I wanted to know more about the battle. And, although not a “Southern boy fourteen years old,” I could imagine that third day of the battle when it’s not yet two o’clock, and Pickett’s Charge “hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin…” [quotations from Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust]
So I imagined….what if Longstreet hadn’t nodded for Pickett to proceed….and why would he have done that….I needed a “shift point.” And “the Pests” provided one.
American Civil War alternate histories are very popular. Why do you think that is?
First of all, “history” is never a thing of “the past” – it always has to do with how we perceive and understand certain events now. Historicism is “nowism”! When I reflect on the Viet Nam War, for example [called “the American War” in Viet Nam] or the Peloponnesian War, my reflection is taking place in the present. It’s never an “ago” thing – it’s always a “now” thing.
As for the American Civil War, hell, that never had an end! It’s still going on! It has taken many different twists and turns and embodiments, but it’s with us today – and it’s personalities, places, events, issues and the like have achieved an iconic and/or symbolic status. Our interest in the ACW is not a look backward….it’s a look at ourselves today. The Civil Rights Movement a few years ago was a manifestation of its continued viability, as are the issues surrounding federal vs. state authority in health care today. Even the debates over the Second Amendment are part its continuance. The very name of this “imbroglio” is up for grabs. “War of Northern Aggression”? “Civil War”? “War of Southern Rebellion”? “War to End Slavery”? The only thing that’s changed is the “weaponry” and the kind of battles being fought.
And the “what if” of alternate history feeds into all of this. Books are written and movies are made, and all of them are the results of us looking at ourselves today….
What is the future like before the Pests arrived?
Book three [The Historian] will deal with this...and more. I thought the story would “play better” if I, in a sense, worked backwards. Plus it makes the furtherance of the protagonist’s plans complicated. The paradox problems of time travel and the infamous “butterfly effect” make his mission all the more risky. In other words, “plot complications” abound – and I like that!
BTW – I’m at the plotting stage for book three at this time, and the gaps of the first two will indeed be filled in.
Who designed the cover?
I suggested the Civil War photo [a widely recognized one] and the idea to replace the original third person [General McClernand] with my protagonist in a way to suggest a time travel theme. She did the photo-shopping and the character creation. [The guy on the left is Alan Pinkerton]
If you could go back in time, when would it be and what would you do?
Well there are a lot of things I did and said that l’d like to correct…or do and say more, but I suspect you are asking an alternate history question. In that case, I have to put on my logic professor’s hat and point out that if my reason for “going back” is to change something, then the old time travel paradox kicks in – If I wind up changing it, then my very reason for “going back” is negated…and I would thus never have gone back in the first place! ;-)
Do you have any other projects you are working on?
After the trilogy, I want to do a long form science fantasy novel involving communication with dolphins. I’m also doing some preliminary plotting on this book.
Then, I’ve been working on a story involving the contemporary relationships between former Viet Nam vets and Anti War Protesters. This would be a straight literary novel. [I’ve already got the title: Don’t Mean Nothin’]
Have you ever thought of returning to White Cloud? Native Americans are such an untouched topic in alternate history.
I used the scenario in my book The Mission….and make use of a rather noteworthy Native American in my current trilogy. But White Cloud itself…it’s an open question. I’m always interested in the “shift” when doing alternate history – why does it happen. If I get a satisfactory answer to that….who knows????
What are you reading now?
Like a lot of writers, I can’t read any kind of book while writing. I asked Harry Turtledove about this at the last Worldcon in Reno, and he too confessed this same incapacity. Others agreed.
I am surprised to hear about authors not reading when they are writing. What benefits does it bring and don't you find it difficult?
Actually, I thought I was pretty much alone in this…but it seems that most authors feel this to one degree or another. If I were to pick up a book for reading enjoyment – while writing – I would inevitably find myself thinking as an editor. [“That could be written better…or more clearly…or maybe not at all”….and so on. And there’s always the possibility of being unconsciously influenced by someone else’s writing.] Writers really are much more isolated than you might think….most of us isolate ourselves from the very thing we are doing. Kind of ironic, huh? [Films are a different kind of medium…and they pose none of these problems.]
Do audiobooks apply to your ban on reading while writing?
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter use William Johnson as a character, but we use them differently. And I’m not in any danger of having the latter affect my use of him. There’s something about the media themselves that makes a difference to me [a la Marshall McLuhan – whom I rely on heavily in my book about rock music in American Culture].
Do you have any other advice for would-be authors?
Sure….write every day! If you suffer from something called “writer’s block,” then in all likelihood you have nothing to say. I really dismiss this whole “writer’s block” thing as nothing more than a recognition that someone wants “to be a writer” more than she/he wants to write. The writing itself should be enjoyable…even if no one ever reads it or knows about it.