Thursday, August 20, 2015

Interview: Tom Black

For years I have been saying that the alternate history you find on the Internet is as good as or even better than what you can find from traditional publishers. So when I heard that Tom Black and other members of AlternateHistory.com were starting a publishing house, called Sea Lion Press, for web original alternate histories, I was overjoyed and immediately reached out to Tom for an interview. Here is what we talked about:

Who is Tom Black?

Tom Black (left) and Jack Tindale
I am a proud resident of Croydon, South London. I have lived there my whole life (apart from three years studying History at the University of Leeds) and currently work as the general manager of the Croydon Citizen news magazine which I co-founded in 2012. In addition to writing alternate history, I write plays and occasionally perform with DugOut Theatre. I'll be 25 in September.

What got you interested in alternate history?

When I was about 13 years old, I was a big player of WWII Online, the cult MMOFPS set in the Battle of France. Someone on the forums began talking about Worldwar, Harry Turtledove's series about aliens invading during WWII. That sounded cool to me, so I got hold of the first book (it was in my local library, something that still astonishes me) and very soon found myself hooked. After Worldwar, I moved on to Turtledove's Timeline-191 books, and began looking for other ways to explore alternate history. Soon I was playing Hearts of Iron II (I was briefly part of the team for the Kaiserreich alternate history mod for that game) and posting on the ParadoxPlaza forums, mainly about alternate history. From there, I saw AlternateHistory.com get talked about more and more, and so I decided to post my first major timeline, "The People's Flag", on there. It was an attempt to flesh out the very complex and highly implausible backstory of the Kaiserreich mod. It therefore wasn't very plausible, but it was an awful lot of fun to write. By then, I was studying History full-time at Leeds, and I was hooked to AH. The rest is (alternate) history.

You are a member of AlternateHistory.com, correct? How would you describe the place to someone who has never been there?

I go on AH.com more than I go on Facebook. It's introduced me to some of my closest friends, and has a community that has not only helped me grow as a writer and as a historian, but also been there for me in low moments in my life. I've been a member for five years, and I would describe it as an online forum full of alternate history discussion, debate, exciting new writing and often very witty humour. It also has a political and non political chat section, both of which generate fascinating discussions that enrich my life and have introduced me to different viewpoints I otherwise wouldn't come across.

What inspired you to create Sea Lion Press?

It all happened very quickly. A few months ago, I was talking to Jack Tindale over a pint and remarking that there really is a lot of very good writing on AH.com that a lot of people would never get to see. It's hard to get non-forum users to read through stories on web forums. It's also not the best medium for it.

I got a Kindle about six months ago, and was quickly impressed with how readable ebooks are. After realising Andy Cooke had already had success with some self-publishing on Amazon, I put two and two together and decided that the best way to bring AH.com (and alternate history in general) to a mainstream audience was to set up a unified publishing house that could develop a name for itself and thus help its authors. I passionately believe that there are a lot of potential readers of AH out there who like the sound of it but wouldn't know where to begin: history is just so broad, and everyone has different areas of expertise.

So that's how it came about. The plan is now to make it bigger and bigger, publishing stories about any period, any place, any theme. The only requirement is that the stories are well-written to the extent that a mainstream audience will not object to paying for them. The hope is that over time, Sea Lion Press will introduce new readers to the many worlds of alternate history, in addition to generating a little bit of income for those of us publishing our books through it (every author gets 100% of their royalties, Sea Lion Press doesn't currently take a cut as there's no real costs for us to need to absorb). It doesn't matter that none of us will grow rich from this - it's already immensely satisfying to make even a small amount of money from something we all do as a hobby. If my hobby can buy me a pint of cider every once in a while, that's a great bonus.

When will you open up Sea Lion to unsolicited submissions?

I hope to do this very soon. The response to the Press' launch has been extremely heartening, and I would love to bring more and more authors on board. However, simple time and workload are the obstructions at the moment. I won't bore you with the details, but obviously a bit of work has to go into each book we publish. Right now, I'm at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (working with DugOut Theatre, who I mentioned above) and am also juggling my day job at the Citizen. There's no way I would have time to read through unsolicited submissions at the moment.

Thankfully, spreadsheet wizards like Andy Cooke have helped me put in place some processes and documents that will make it easier to produce books at a faster rate. While I wouldn't like to be much more specific than 'very soon', I think we will open our doors to unsolicited submissions after the next wave of publications. That's currently meant to happen in September.

What can you tell us about your Sea Lion stories: "Shuffling the Deck", "For Want of a Paragraph" and "Zonen"?

They're three very different kinds of AH, which is why I chose them as my own contributions to our first wave. "For Want of a Paragraph" is probably the most accessible, at least in terms of style and form. Its subject matter is supremely geeky - the rulebook of the Labour Party and the slow downfall of Gordon Brown - but it is told as a traditional narrative, with viewpoint characters and so on. I recommend it to fans of The Thick Of It, The West Wing and House of Cards.

"Zonen" is written in the style of a long-form journalistic article, about a narrator travelling around present-day Denmark and Germany to learn about the Danish Zone of Occupation in post-war Germany. It's a more personal tale than anything I've written before, and was really an attempt to explore how a potentially big change can lead to very few major changes over the years in the history books - but still big impacts on individual people's lives.

"Shuffling the Deck" is simultaneously the geekiest and the most light-hearted of my three currently available works. I co-wrote it with Jack Tindale based on a premise of re-ordering Britain's post-1945 Prime Ministers. Their reputations are also altered as a result, so we end up with Anthony Eden becoming the hero who won WWII, Ted Heath dominating 1980s politics and reshaping the economy, and Harold Macmillan remembered as bumbling do-nothing. It's very much aimed at political geeks and people who like the more 'parlour game' aspects of alternate history, but it does also make some interesting observations about circumstances being more important to historical events than the great man theory.

Any other upcoming stories that will be published under the Sea Lion label soon?

At time of writing, we're about to publish Andy Cooke's "The Fourth Lectern" and "The Fifth Lectern". These explore a very different British political scene from 2010 onwards. You can find them on our website already.

In our next wave of books, in September like I said, we'll be publishing at least half a dozen. There's a couple more by me, including "Meet The New Boss", which explores a Soviet satellite Britain. I'm very excited to revisit that one during the editing process. There's also two more from Ed Thomas, author of the tremendously popular Fight And Be Right. His works "A Greater Britain" and "The Bloody Man" (which we're splitting into volumes) are part of the second phase. Jack Tindale's "La Isla Blanca", in which the Spanish Armada annexes the Isle of Wight, is coming too.

As for new authors, we've got Steven Digena's "Bombard The Headquarters!", a novella about Lin Biao successfully assassinating Mao in 1971. Other far eastern work we've got in phase two includes the first volume of Paul Hynes' Decisive Darkness series, in which Japan doesn't surrender in 1945, and we have another very exciting major project about China in the pipeline.

We're also going to publish a collection of short vignettes, tentatively titled Ten Prime Ministers Britain Never Had. These will be by various authors, old and new, and have been selected for their inventiveness, imagination, and entertainment value. We think this will be a popular work with our more mainstream audience.

Our website is updated regularly, and we have a 'coming soon' page there - I recommend bookmarking it!

Sea Lion Press appears to be very British-centric with its alternate history library. Is this intentional or do you plan to expand into other areas of history?

The name 'Sea Lion Press' and our first wave of titles are deliberate choices, made to attract attention in the British book market, where there is a small but growing alternate history genre reaching mainstream consciousness. From an artistic perspective, this decision is also in part because of the 'British renaissance' of timelines on AH.com in the last few years: there have been a lot of British political TLs written, and many of them are the kind of well-written timeline that made me think 'these really are worth publishing for a wider audience'. There's also the simple fact that I and many of our authors so far are British ourselves, and so we have written about what we know.

However, we are by no means going to stay solely British (indeed, we've already published books about Russia and Denmark). As I said above we have books about China and Japan coming up, as well as some American work. Other timelines we plan to publish in the near future are global in their scale, featuring dozens of countries. Alternate history is an international topic, and we are taking deliberate steps to include something of interest to everyone, be they a Sinophile, a Westminster geek, or a lover of Latin America.

Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

Alongside my regular writing partner Jack Tindale, I am currently working towards finishing "The UK Presidential Election", a novella set on an election night in a British republic. And before you ask, yes, the country is still called the United Kingdom. You'll have to read it to find out why! That should be finished in a month or so. I have some silly shorts planned after that, but for now my focus is mainly on getting Sea Lion Press up and running. And of course, Jack and I are steadily rewriting "Agent Lavender", our AH 1970s spy thriller, and getting it ready for publication.

What are you reading right now?

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and Dominic Sandbrook's White Heat, a history of Britain in the 1960s. The latter on Kindle, the former in dead tree format. They're very different, but both excellent.

Any advice for aspiring writers and publishers?

For writers: join a writing community. They can take many forms (web forums, real life meetings, college classes etc), but I found myself writing a lot more regularly and trying out new things once I began regularly posting on AH.com. It's incredibly useful to have an audience - and it is not hard to find one - that wants to read what you produce and is happy to provide feedback. I would also repeat the old adage of 'read, read, read'. It almost goes without saying that the more you read, the more your own writing style will mature.

As for publishers: just do it. I was astounded by how easy it was to get Sea Lion Press off the ground. If you're the kind of person who can see a project through, you will be able to put together something like this. Find a genre you're passionate about, build relationships with people who are writing that kind of thing, and just do it. Set up a website, come up with some house styles, find a friend who can handle the graphic design and you'll be up and running in no time.

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