Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Interview: Blaine Pardoe

After reading Never Wars, I was intrigued enough by the alternate history found in this counterfactual book that I wanted to talk to the author, Blaine Pardoe. I learned some interesting things about this alternate historian, including his upcoming alternate history trilogy. Check it out below:

Who is Blaine Pardoe?

That’s a harder question than I thought it would be to answer. In my daytime job I work in Information Technology as an Associate Director for Ernst & Young LLP. My off-hours I’m a writer. I got my start doing role playing game supplements and sourcebooks, then I started writing novels for BattleTech and MechWarrior. I’d like to tell you that it is like having a super-hero secret identity, but it’s not quite that cool (but is close at times).

I like telling people that my second career is the neat one. I've have won honors (the Harriett Quimby Award from the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame, the State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan, and others) and have had some of my books hit the New York Times bestseller list (The Murder of Maggie Hume – which I co-authored with my daughter).  I’ve been on Bill O’Reilly’s show, have spoken at the US Naval Academy, the US National Archives, and the Smithsonian.  I get to meet a lot of neat people as a result of my writing career.

If you are going to write good military sci-fi, you have to know history so I decided to branch out into writing non-fiction military history books (along with true crime).  A lot of my work focuses on the early 20th century military history and aviation. I find the research almost as much fun as writing the books themselves.

A lot of writers stick to one genre to build up a fan base and become big there.  I violate that thinking by writing in a lot of genres.  Why?  I write what I like to read – it’s that simple.

What got you interested in counterfactual history?

Like a lot of people I started with Philip K. Dick’s The Man in a High Castle.  Harry Turtledove really made alternate history more mainstream and palatable for the masses. Turtledove’s works were seductive in the way he wove in famous characters as part of an ensemble of characters.  Most recently I've enjoyed Robert Conroy’s books.  His voice will be missed in the genre.

I became enthralled with the concept of a single moment in history changing and how that might have rippling impacts on events.

What is Never Wars about?

Never Wars is a summation of the colored War Plans of the United States between 1904 and 1943. The US was in its infancy when it came to war planning during this era.  Plans were drafted against a number of different potential enemies. These plans give you insight into US political and military thinking.

More importantly, for alternate history buffs, these are the wars that US planned to wage but didn't. Some are minor in nature – like War Plan Tan – US intervention in Cuba.  Others like War Plan Red – the 1935 war planned against Great Britain, are stunning in nature and present a world view few of us have contemplated.

What inspired you to write the book?

I wrote The Fires of October which was about the US’s planned (but never used) invasion of Cuba at the peak of the missile crisis.  Getting that material unclassified and out in digestible form was a huge task. For me it was a great “what-if” that almost happened. When I read Conroy’s Castro’s Bomb, I meshed it up against my research and found huge gaps. I came to realize that a lot of alternate history authors (and readers) could benefit from access to these kinds of unpublished war plans.

While working on that book, one of the archivists said, “Have you ever looked into the colored war plans?” I had heard of them but had never looked at them. So between pulls (getting requests fulfilled at the Archives II in Maryland) I hit the microfilm and started to look at the plans. I was stunned. We were planning to wage war against Mexico and Canada – and China too?  The “alternate historian” in me thought, “wow, there are a lot of AH fans out there that would love to see this material.

The work proved daunting. There were a lot of versions and variants of the plans, and many of those were incomplete. The Joint Planning Board had ordered most of them destroyed at the start of WWII (probably to avoid embarrassment if would-be allies found out the US had planned to invade them) but I was lucky that some survived – buried in various records repositories at the Archives. Piecing these together was a challenge but rewarding.

Which of the color-coded war plans did you find most intriguing?

Two stand out for me:

War Plan Red – the 1935 plan to go to war with Great Britain was probably the most interesting.  If you think of the historical context, this was the period when Hitler was coming to power but the US focus was against the nation that would become her staunchest ally. Almost buried in the war plan was the US plans to use chemical weapons against Canada at the start of hostilities. Not only was this a violation of treaty, it was a stunning revelation.

War Plan Black – the 1915 plan to go to war with Germany. The Joint Planning Board presumed that Germany would win WWI in Europe in a matter of weeks/months. When they tried to seize the French colonies in the Caribbean, it would violate the Monroe Doctrine and put the US at war with Germany. The US Army was a pittance of men, and the assumption was that Germany would crush our east coast Navy and land forces in the US before we could muster an army that could repel them. The analysis of the landing sites was neat to come across but the best was the plans for the siege of Washington DC. I live outside of DC and finding the map with the trench and communications lines and the thought of Germany laying siege to Washington was, well, awesome.

Any one of these chapters could (and should) be a game or an alternate history novel.

Who designed the cover?

My publisher, Fonthill Media, did the cover. We were torn on images. They wanted a lot of photos for the book, but how do you use a lot of photos for wars that never happened?  It led to some curious email exchanges. They were great to work with and I’m pleased with the cover they chose.

Do you have any other counterfactual/alternate history projects you are currently working on?

I have done a lot of writing for Catalyst Games Labs' Leviathans miniatures/board game, which postulates flying battleships at the turn of the 20th century. I hope to be doing more work on that project. For now, I’m taking a break from military history to work on a sci-fi military trilogy. I've finished book two and I can’t wait for us to release the entire series. It is good to be back working on some fiction.

I am about one-quarter of the way through an alternate history book – the first in a trilogy – tentatively titled Confederacy of the Damned.  The first book is set in the Civil War, the second will be in the Spanish American War, and the final will be in WWI. It is a very neat book. I put it on hold to work on the military sci-fi stuff, but I hope to get back to it sometime later this year.  

Other than that – my next book to hit bookstores is Sawney Bean: Dissecting the Legend of the Scottish Cannibal.  Going to Scotland to research this book was a lot of fun and took me to some unexpected places and directions.

What is Confederacy of the Damned about?

Confederacy of the Damned is an alternate history steampunk novel.  I can almost hear the moans from the purists – “Steampunk is not alternate history.”  I get that, but I think the two coincide. I have always wanted to do a good steampunk novel. The issue I have had with most Steampunk novels is that they toss you into a story well after the divergence in the timeline. As a reader you are expected to simply accept the change in history as something that happened in the past. You are thrust into a novel with technology that doesn't fit the era and you are simply expected to cope with it. With Confederacy I wanted to change that dynamic. I wanted to take the readers along through the divergence in the timeline from the start, and through the eyes and perspectives of a number of different characters. The first book is before the traditional Victorian era Steampunk so you are there are the birth of the new timeline/universe.

I’m a big Civil War history buff (I used to do private tours on the Manassas battlefield and I still go out with a metal detector on private property to dig up bullets and buttons from the war.)  If you look at the Confederacy’s problems in 1863-1864 a central one was a dwindling supply of manpower. Losses simply could not be replenished. What if Great Britain provided the Confederacy with a Bokor from Haiti, a witch doctor that could raise the dead?  Equipped with zombie troops, the Confederacy might stand to turn the tide of battle. So, you get the British helping the South, but not with troops. (Technically I just heard another moan from the alternate history gang at the word, “zombie.”  I’d apologize, but I think it sounds interesting.)

The US Government is far from idle against this new form of enemy troop. President Lincoln, a man prone to overextending his powers and bending the law, essentially breaks into the patent offices to cope with the new threat while the Army struggles to hold the South at bay. Gatling guns, crude airships (compliments of Thaddeus Lowe) and even steam powered tanks (land monitors courtesy of John Ericsson) are fielded against the new Confederate threat that closes in on Washington. I actually found supporting patents from the period for caterpillar tracks and some of the other technologies.

With the book I get to explore how deeply religious Southern officers cope with the use of dark magic in order for their cause to survive. Having some change sides is both fun and entertaining.

It is an ensemble cast of characters which pit the darker forces of the Confederacy against the technological innovation of the Federal Army. Wars are not won on battlefields alone though, and this conflict goes far from the battlefields of Virginia.

I will concede, this book is a bit of a mental romp, meshing and merging two genres is bound to not appeal to elements of both. At the same time I wanted to really have some fun with it…to take history out and drive it around like a mad-man.  Confederacy of the Damned allows me to do that. While pundits may take shots at the concept, I didn't want to go down that well-worn path of, “The South wins the Civil War, blah, blah, blah.” I wanted to go where others had not gone before and to lay the foundation for the next two books that would follow.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

First and foremost, get a day job. Writing is neat and fun and you meet awesome people. If you look to make a living off of it, it becomes something else. It is one of the few professions you can do while having another job that ensures you have economic stability. Get a degree, get a good day job that allows you to be a writer at your leisure.

Talk to other writers. I've learned a great deal from people that are smarter than me who had already done a lot with their writing careers.

Finally – write. It doesn't matter what you write, but write. One of my first jobs was writing an editorial column in college for the Central Michigan Life.  I still do that today for the Culpeper Times newspaper. I've done computer games tips books and books on any number of subjects and genres. Just write and write a little each and every day.

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