Friday, October 5, 2012

Interview: Chris Nuttall

Long-time contributor, online AH enthusiast and prolific writer Chris Nuttall sits down with me to discuss his upcoming book The Royal SorceressFind all the places you can buy this novel on Bitly.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

There isn't that much to tell, really.  I was born in Edinburgh, went to a set of terrible schools and spent much of my time reading.  Most of what I know comes from books rather than actual studies at school, I’m afraid, so I developed a wide range of interests.  Eventually, I started writing for myself after seeing too many books with great ideas and poor execution (a pet peeve).

Do you still live in Edinburgh?

No.  At the moment, I am living in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, with my wife.  It’s hot!

What were some of your earliest writings about?

I messed around with a space opera when I was 17, but the first completed novel I wrote – The Gunpowder Plot, of 2004 – was focused around a coup d’├ętat in Britain, led by an aristocrat who believed that the country was on the verge of collapsing into rubble unless drastic measures were taken.  In hindsight, it isn't too surprising that the novel was rejected; I made a whole series of mistakes, even if I did churn out 120’000 words of story.  One day, I will probably return to that book and rewrite it with everything I know now. 

That was followed by The Peacekeepers, which featured a multiracial alien invasion of Earth, heavily inspired by David Weber and John Ringo.  It was the first of many explorations of the alien invasion theme; I love those stories and there just aren't enough of them.  Again, I made a vast number of mistakes in writing the story and I’d prefer to forget that I wrote it. 

After that, there was Endeavour, which was set in a future universe effectively under military rule, and the first version of Outside Context Problem, which was another alien invasion story.  The name, of course, came from Iain M. Banks; it started with a UFO crash-landing on Earth and went onwards from there.  Empire featured a rebellion against a Galactic Empire, an idea that was partly inspired by Weber’s Insurrection, but went in a very different direction.  I made mistakes with that idea too, but I learned enough to use the same basic idea later for a far more readable book.  When The Empire Falls started with the alien-ruled Galactic Empire falling apart, leaving the human race (a relatively minor conquest) alone at the edge of the explored galaxy, with barbarians pressing against the gates.

Second Chance grew out of wondering what would happen if modern-day Britain was to be sent back in time to 1940, just before the Battle of Britain.  Britain is, of course, a full-fledged country, rather than a town or island.  I enjoyed writing the series, but in hindsight there were lots of niggles with that I will fix if I ever rewrite.  The Multiverse War grew out of the same basic concept; Carrier Wars, the first book in the series, transported the USS George Washington to a world where Britain won the American Revolutionary War and ‘America’ never really existed.  Cue cultural shock, particularly as this British Empire is at war with the French and the French have a carrier of their own from our France.  A later book in the series had a carrier from Nazi Germany being sent back to 1942, with the crew forced to come face-to-face with the evils of Nazi Germany.  I enjoyed a little joke too; the design for the Graf Zeppelin is cool, but rather impractical in real life.  But the Nazis did that quite a bit in OTL.

John Ringo was kind enough to allow me to write two books set in the Posleen Universe, both currently available from my website.  I could do a better job now, I have to admit, but I learned a great deal from writing them too. 

I should confess that some of my writing was inspired by frustration with books I’d read over the years.  The Gunpowder Plot came out of reading Six Days, which was a very interesting book...BUT had the bad guys so powerful they had to make idiot mistakes to lose.  I thought they should have won and a story set in that world would have been very interesting.  Of course, given the nature of the villains and the fact that I have gotten a bit more politically savvy over the years, it would either have been a politically-charged dystopia or utopia, depending upon your politics.

What got you interested in alternate history?

History did, really.

I started reading history at a young age and never really stopped.  Somewhere along the line, I ran into a book about the German invasion of Britain in 1940 and slipped, without realising it, into the world of alternate history.  Ironically, the second or third AH book I read was Stars and Stripes Forever, which I believe I reviewed for your site, followed by Tilting the Balance.  That got me hooked on Turtledove and I read most of his early work; I still remember being disappointed that How Few Remain wasn't a sequel to The Guns of the South.  Somewhere along the lines, I started reading AH on the web and founded Changing the Times in hopes of creating an Internet archive. 

My first foray into alternate history related material was United States Starship, followed rapidly by the Second Chance series and the Multiverse War.  All of them are now available for free download from my website.

What is The Royal Sorceress about?

Ah, a hard question.  <wink>

On the surface, The Royal Sorceress is centred around Lady Gwen, a teenage girl who grew up in an alternate world where magic was discovered during the Seven Years War and aided the British Empire to crush the American rebels in the Battle of New York.  Gwen is a magician, but 1830s Britain isn't keen on the idea of female magicians, at least until they realise that Gwen is the only known magician who can replace Master Thomas, the previous Royal Sorcerer.  Unluckily for all concerned, the gap between rich and poor has grown wider and Gwen finds herself in the heart of a revolutionary storm that threatens to tear the British Empire apart.

Underneath, the novel is a meditation on the dangers of both revolution and reaction, how revolutionaries can shatter social order completely and thus lead to tyranny and how reactionaries can impose a tyranny of their own – and therefore either crush a country or make a second revolt inevitable.  Gwen grows up in a world that is profoundly changing and that isn't something to delight many people on both sides of the divide. 

Under that, there is a subtext about the dangers – and foolishness – of class, race and gender prejudice.  Gwen would have been far more effective to the forces of reaction if she’d been allowed to become a magician much earlier; Jack wouldn't have become the villain (or antihero) if he hadn't been exposed to what we might as well call a social glass ceiling.

Who is Jack?

Jack is...well, he’s either a villain or a well-intentioned extremist, depending on your point of view.  I can't go into too many details without spoiling a major plot point, but suffice it to say that Jack got a very unpleasant wake-up call and ended up deserting the Establishment to join the rebels.  

There are many ways to look at him.  I tend to consider him someone so obsessed with his cause that he allows the ends to justify the means, not an uncommon pattern among historical revolutionaries.  Most revolutions end in bloodshed because revolutionaries either take their eyes off the prize or don’t know when to stop.  Or become so self-obsessed with their own brilliance that their plans fall apart.  Jack misses something of vital importance because he can’t be bothered thinking about something that isn't immediately important.  Gwen...doesn’t.

How does magic work in the story?

Bad question.  Don’t you know that if you look too closely at a magic system, it stops working?  <grin>

The simple answer is that magicians channel inherent power through their minds, which manifests itself in a number of different ways.  Blazers, for example, can produce lethal beams of light, or create hologram-like illusions.  Movers are (in our terms) powerful telekinetics, with the ability to pick up objects, throw them as weapons – and even fly.  Charmers can manipulate minds, although I played with the concept by having the weaker Charmers be more effective, as their powers are more subtle than the brute-force suggestion of their stronger brothers.  I don’t like the concept of perfect mind control, so someone who is logical and prone to thinking through their moves would be able to counter the manipulation without, perhaps, knowing what was happening.  

Most magicians have one particular talent; Gwen is almost unique because she is capable of using multiple talents, hence the decision to forget sexism and recruit her for the Royal Sorcerers Corps.  This makes her incredibly capable compared to a normal magician, although they tend to be more skillful with their own individual talents.   One combat team of sorcerers – who will be introduced in the next story – have team members with different talents, allowing them to complement each other.  I’m still trying to decide if I can get away with calling them Excalibur.

But there’s a lot the characters don’t really know about magic.  That will be important later.

What historical figures appear in The Royal Sorceress?

Only a handful appear, although many are mentioned.  The most significant figures for the story are Lord Liverpool and the Duke of India, who became the Duke of Wellington in our world.  And the epilogue features someone I don’t name directly, but who cast a long shadow over both worlds.

What inspired you to write the novel?

A very early inspiration was an early Christmas present from my Grandmother, a book containing the complete adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 

A second (and much later) inspiration was a book that tried to argue that Sherlock Holmes had been a woman in disguise.  It was surprisingly convincing.

A third inspiration came from reading about General Howe’s blunder at New York.  It was the moment when George Washington came closest to total defeat, pinned against the river by the advancing British.  But Howe moved slowly and Washington managed to escape, saving his army to fight again.  I started to wonder about what would have happened if Howe had radios to coordinate his forces...and, after a long rumination, the basic bones of the magic system took shape and form. 

And then there was all the reading I did on the French Revolutions, the major unrest that spread across Europe in the late 1800s, the unhappy rumblings in Russia...

What sources were particularly helpful when researching for the novel?

All sorts.  I researched the revolutionary era in Britain, America and Europe pretty intensely for basic ideas.  Then I looked into the social structure of the times, particularly its treatment of rich and/or aristocratic women, who were treated as minor children to a very great extent, and the poor, the lower classes as they would have called them. 

Who designed the cover?

Alison Buck, another writer for Elsewhen Press, designed, painted and produced the cover.  It’s very much in-period, with Gwen wearing the black uniform of the Royal Sorcerers Corps, with airships and London in the background.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

Well, I suppose I should start by mentioning Bookworm, which has also been picked up by Elsewhen Press.  Bookworm is more a straight light fantasy novel, with a heroine who – unlike Gwen – would prefer to remain firmly out of the spotlight.  But she winds up caught up in an unfortunate series of events that threaten both her life and society itself. 

Beyond that, there are too many to list, really.  I have a long string of ideas in various stages of development, from basic ideas to outright plots that only need to be written up.  Right now, I have finished the first draft of Schooled in Magic, a story that puts a girl from our world in a magical academy in another world.  It is very different from The Royal Sorceress, not least because I gently poked fun at boarding school stories as well as stories where someone from our world, stranded in the past, changes the world completely within the year.

A major frustration I have is that I would like to write a series as wide-ranging as the Night’s Dawn trilogy, but that needs a publisher to agree to consider all three books. 

Many ideas, background notes and story outlines can be found on my blog.

What are you reading now?

Again, really, too much to say.  I read a LOT!

Right now, I have been studying Ancient Rome and the surrounding era, particularly the books written by Adrian Goldsworthy.  I’ve been picking up books on the American Founding Fathers in the local library (well worth a read).  And, most importantly for some of my work, I read everything I can get my hands on about the War on Terror. 

Do you have advice for would-be authors?

Basically, if you want to write, write

Yes, I know; that sounds like pointing out the obvious.  But I’ve seen a lot of people start to write, often coming up with promising ideas, and then abandoning it after a chapter or two.  Writing requires commitment; write, write, keep writing...that’s really the most important thing I can tell you.

Second, learn to tell the difference between a good critic and a bad critic – then pay attention to the good ones.  Someone who points out that you spelled a word wrong is doing you a favour – God knows that spelling mistakes slip past me because I know what it should say.  Having your work taken apart can be devastating, but you can learn a great deal from the process.  The good critic is NOT your enemy – he’s helping you to defeat the problems that can make the difference between publication and vanishing into nothingness.

Sometimes this can be embarrassing.  At one point, I wrote a line that unintentionally implied that interracial marriage was akin to incest, a statement that would have been very offensive to a large number of people, including my wife.  A critic pointed it out before anything actually happened with the book.  As embarrassing as that was, it was a good thing.  Like I said, the good critic is NOT your enemy.

Telling the difference between the good critic and the bad critic is easy, once you put your anger aside.  The good critic is pointing out issues with the story; the bad critic is making it personal.  If you write a story set in a Nazi-occupied USA, the good critic will press you to explain how the Nazis reached America with an army; the bad critic will call you a Nazi in alternate historian clothing.  And it goes downhill from there.  A really unpleasant species of bad critic – a troll, in other words – will nudge you into defending your position time and time again, either in the hopes you will say something he can slam or just to waste your time.  Ignore him. 

Third, keep researching.  If you want to write a story set in WW2, read around World War Two and learn how the different zones of combat interacted.  Soak up knowledge like a sponge; you never know what will come in handy as you write your stories.  Did you know that there was a good chance Hitler suffered from Parkinson’s Disease?  Or, for that matter, that both Goring and Himmler detested Theodor Morell and would probably have had him removed if Hitler hadn’t been so devoted to him?  In a Nazi Victory world, Hitler is unlikely to survive past 1950 anyway.  Who is likely to be best placed to be the next Fuhrer

Fourth, sort out the details of your world first, at least in general terms.  If you have the Nazis winning the war, work out how they did it and what happened afterwards.  You don’t need to hit your readers with all the details, but make sure that YOU are clear on what happened. 

I think that those are probably the best pieces of advice I can give.  If you want to read further, Eric Flint does an excellent series of articles on the subject.


* * *

Check out Chris' Amazon page to see a list of his books you can buy.

1 comment: