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Interview with Alex Wallace

Alex Wallace is the most well read person I have met and will probably ever have the joy of knowing. We met virtually before my freshman year at William & Mary began when we were both working for a small online publication. We later met in person at the Quiz Bowl club. Over the course of our shared time in college, Alex always blew our team away with his deep and specific knowledge of geography and history. We travelled across the state to tournaments, and I don't think I'll ever forget singing "Our Alma Mater" in UVA's Rotunda together. We also were in swing club together, and it was unforgettable to watch him dance at social events. With his suit, cape, and hat, Alex looked every part the historical gentleman, and he was always a willing partner (an especially useful trait when our number of leads was less than our eager followers). Post college, Alex was one of the first people to purchase a book for my classroom library, and the comic book he bought is still being eagerly read by my students. He has been an avid writer for a variety of projects and will be taking on the role of blog editor for Sea Lion Press at the end of the month. Alex was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me (his responses have been lightly condensed) about book recommendations (you'll struggle to find a more thorough or researched list) and his experiences as a writer.

  1. What books have defined you as a reader? In other words, what books made a significant difference or impact in your life and have shaped you the most? Why?

So much of my reading habits come from my dad. I got started with science fiction with his big collection of paperbacks he kept in his office. A large chunk of midcentury science fiction - 1950s to 1980s, roughly - is my bedrock as a writer, and all of what I have written owes something to that, in one way or another.

There was also stuff I read as a kid. I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, and perhaps it has left more of a mark on me than I thought. I can see a certain wry humor coming from Lemony Snicket.

2. What originally sparked your interest in alternative history? What texts, in your opinion, are classics in the genre, and, on a similar note, what are AH books that you think everyone should read? Why?

Minor nitpick: we prefer to call it alternate history - alternative conjures images of conspiracy theorists going on about ancient aliens and the illuminati and whatnot. We make no bones about how we’re writing fiction.

It ultimately comes from when I was in eighth grade looking on Wikipedia for new science fiction to read. I stumbled across Harry Turtledove’s WorldWar series, which looks like a typical alien invasion plot until you realize the year of invasion is 1942. World War II grinds to a halt as the warring powers have to figure out when there is an actual unifying threat. It was a revelation to me that my interests in history and in science fiction could be combined. I then read all eleven books in his Southern Victory series, and the rest is (alternate) history.

For introductions: that’s hard. My friend Colin Salt has argued quite convincingly that alternate history is a setting, not a genre. You can tell all sorts of stories in an alternate timeline, from mysteries to war stories to romances (there’s at least one dedicated AH romance novel!), and all interact with the setting in different ways.

Perhaps it’s best to make recommendations based on your reading background:

If you’re coming into the genre from science fiction, you could start with Turtledove’s WorldWar series. You could also start with the sprawling 1632 series headlined by the late Eric Flint (may he rest in peace), about a small West Virginia mining town flung through time and space to the titular year in the middle of Germany - which was embroiled in what we would call the Thirty Years’ War. Lou Antonelli’s (may he rest in peace) novel Another Girl, Another Planet could also work here, being a Heinlein-esque science fiction story in a world where the American and Soviet space programs were stronger. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series will also work for this audience, with a similar premise to Antonelli. Another good space alternate history novel is Allen Steele’s spellbinding novel V-S Day.

If you’re coming to the genre from fantasy, you also have options. There’s Harry Turtledove’s siege fantasy Thessalonica or his road trip fantasy The House of Daniel. More recently, there’s the work of P. Djèlí Clark, all of whose work is fantastic alternate history involving Africans or the African diaspora. Mike Resnick’s Dragon America could also serve this demographic well.

If you’re coming from detective fiction, your best bet is the classic alternate history mystery novel Fatherland by Robert Harris. Its only real competition in terms of its quality is Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is delightfully odd in its setting.

If you’re coming from spy fiction, there’s likewise several examples. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland blends Lovecraftian-style horrors with spycraft. For something more grounded, there’s Our Man on the Hill written by my good friend Matthew Kresal.

If you’re coming from literary fiction, you may be surprised to know that established literary authors dabble in alternate history from time to time, with mixed reception from dedicated AH fans. The classic of this particular sort of AH is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which was adapted into an HBO series which I would frankly argue is better than the book. More recently, there’s Dennis Bock’s The Good German. Some readers may have heard of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham; I found it to be good in its craft but that it wastes the potential of its genre.

And some other novels that don’t quite match any of those categories but are high quality:

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.

To Climates Unknown by Arturo Serrano.

Yaqteenya: the Old World by Yasser Bahjatt.

Between the Helpless and the Darkness by Brent Olson.

After Dachau by Daniel Quinn.

Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg.

Civilizations by Laurent Binet.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville.

The Smithtown Unit by Colin Salt.

In and Out of the Reich by Paul Leone.

Freedom’s Rampart by Katherine Foy.

3. You also have an interest in history. What regions and time periods have most captured your interest and why? If you had to recommend some nonfiction books to someone looking to get into history, which would you recommend and why?

I’ve found my historical interests gravitate towards the modern, by which I mean from maybe 1700 onward - but I’ve read books about before, and I’m trying to diversify - running the largest alternate history group on Facebook makes having a large knowledge base essential. Generally, I’m interested in things like imperialism, colonialism, insurgencies, and the sort. In terms of region, I’ve read about forty book on Israel and Palestine for a podcast I was on; I find the entire Israeli utopian project to be fascinating (and was alerted to it by the introduction of Zion’s Fiction: a Treasure of Israeli Speculative Literature edited by Emanuel Lottem and Sheldon Teitelbaum, if you’re in the mood for falling down a rabbit hole). I’m trying to bolster my knowledge of the Philippines, where half my family is from, as well as ‘global South’ history more broadly.

In terms of introductions, I’ve found that this question becomes harder and harder to answer because I have so many books to choose from! If you’re willing to read a doorstopper of a book, I can recommend Robert Hughes’ masterwork The Fatal Shore: the Epic of Australia’s Founding, which is the first book whose prose really wowed me.

If you want something shorter, I would recommend a sort of popular historian, the type that takes a particular subject and bounces around all the strange nooks and crannies of said subject. Erik Larson is the undisputed king, but Simon Winchester is easily a close second. Other good books in this genre include The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask and 1956: the World in Revolt by Simon Hall.

4. You clearly have a thirst for knowledge based on your participation in Quiz Bowl and Model UN in college. Can you tell me a little more about both of these experiences? How did they help to shape you as a student and person? What are some of your favorite stories from these experiences and why?

Quizbowl taught me how little I know. In any round, you are guaranteed to be exposed to something you’ve never heard of in your life. It forced me to really broaden what I consume, to learn different areas of history, to confront what a small slice of this world I actually know anything about. In that regard, it was invaluable.

Incidentally, it’s a game where you have to recall the most unlikely things at a moment’s notice; I think it had a major part to play in my ability to make annoying puns.

My favorite story from Quizbowl is when I witnessed a student from Liberty University have to answer a question with the song I Just Had Sex.

Model United Nations’ benefit for me was less in terms of knowledge and more in terms of people. In high school, I had to really learn to understand governments with wildly different worldviews than the Northern Virginia policy consensus, and that helped.

5. You've been developing a reputation as a reviewer of alternate history and have published several articles. How did you break into this, and what advice would you give to others about getting their work published online?

I had an idea about different strains within alternate history fiction; Gary Oswald, the Sea Lion Press blog editor, put out a call for new articles and I pitched it to him and he accepted it. I kept having more ideas, and he kept accepting them, and it spiraled from there.

To those who want these sorts of articles published - just ask! More often than not, editors need content, and they’d be happy to take a well-written piece on a relevant subject.

6. What writers have inspired and shaped your writing?

One of the drawbacks of reading as much as I do is that it’s hard to pinpoint single influences. I can certainly say 1950s-1980s science fiction did a lot for me; of those, the most influential single author is probably Arthur C. Clarke, for I read an omnibus edition of his entire short fiction. His novel Childhood’s End is one of the books that really got me into the genre, as was Carl Sagan’s Contact.

After those writers, the next biggest influence is Harry Turtledove, whose book blurbs describe him as the ‘master of alternate history.’ Turtledove combines a truly bewildering breadth of historical knowledge with a cracking ability to spin tales. My ambitions have changed a bit from simply aping him, but he still has set the benchmark for what I want to achieve in the genre.

Influential more in form than in content is Timothy Zahn, the masterful writer of space opera action-adventure tales most famous for his work in the Star Wars expanded universe. I read in an interview that he writes with interesting scenes or events in mind and then constructs the story to make said interesting scene or event make sense. It’s how I go about writing my short fiction.

7. What writing projects are you currently working on? What are your goals as a writer?

I’m not working on a novel right now, but I do keep writing short stories for the Sea Lion Press forum’s monthly vignette challenge (a competition I have won, as of writing, nine times) - here’s one I wrote, and another, and another.

More broadly, I’m trying to infuse my alternate history writing with the literary quality and lushness of a certain sort of historical fiction that I love. This would include works like Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin, Frank Delaney’s Ireland, Vladimir Voinovich’s Monumental Propaganda, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Jean Lartéguy’s The Centurions, David Benioff’s City of Thieves, or David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black, to name a sample thereof.

I also want to write a series of essays about various forms of partner dance (ballroom, swing, blues, etc.) in which I joyously partake. They’d be partly a memoir and partly an amateur ethnography of sorts of this culture, a culture I love with all my heart. I still keep being too lazy to actually write it.

8. What has been your most rewarding experience or proudest moment being a part of an online community of readers and writers?

My proudest moment in the alternate history community is the anthology Building a Better Future edited by David Flin of Sergeant Frosty Publications. It was born in the widespread distress among mostly American, British, and Western European AH fans at the (ongoing, as of writing) Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a charity anthology; I don’t make a dime from it, for its proceeds go to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukrainian Humanitarian Appeal for refugees fleeing the war. I’ve promoted it more than the anthology I actually make money from. Its release went in tandem with a write-a-thon, organized by Lena Worwood, and its proceeds likewise went to the aforementioned charity.

It means a lot to me for two reasons:

The first is that I am half Filipino through my mother’s side. I was raised on stories of my grandparents’ childhood during the Japanese occupation in World War II. They are stories of spies manning halo-halo carts, of a relative lost in the Bataan Death March, of infants bayoneted for target practice, of a fourteen year-old girl (a relative) married off to a forty-year-old Filipino man so she wouldn’t be taken off and be made into a comfort woman. I see what the Russians are doing in Ukraine and all those stories come flooding back to me. I am convinced that the Russians are now doing what the Japanese did in Manila: to leave the country a wasteland of rubble and traumatized women, or in other words, nothing worth liberating. When I am told of Mariupol, I think of Manila. When I am told of Olenivka, I think of Bataan.

The second is that our genre has a long and somewhat dodgy history when dealing with war. Much of the genre’s theoretical basis comes from wargaming, and many today get into the genre through Paradox strategy games (for an earlier generation, it was the Red Alert games). There’s a problem of treating war merely as something ‘cool,’ of planes and guns and tanks and ships and bombs, and not as a cause of widespread suffering and death. That we AH fans, representing five different countries, could come together, buck that trend, and create an anthology within seventeen days to help those fleeing an awful war speaks very positively of many in said community. It is, at least in my time in it, the online alternate history community’s finest moment.

9. Is there anything that I'm missing that you'd like to share with me on the topic of reading, writing, or life?

This is something relevant to all three: I think the cause of much handwringing nowadays comes from an insistence on rationalizing what are fundamentally emotional experiences. When we read a novel that touches us, the core of the connection is an emotional one; it made us feel something. You can explain it with any number of literary techniques and any number of schools of thought, but the core is something deep within our animal brains.

The zeitgeist does this to all art, ignoring what makes art meaningful. I told you before that I’m a dancer; there’s this consensus that lurks in every forum where it is verboten to discuss how basic human wants and needs affect any given dance floor. Blues dance, I feel, gets hit with this particularly hard (and I can hear the pitchforks being sharpened in the distance).

The same applies to literature; it feels like writers are afraid of admitting that they are human. When writing a story, you can talk about literary structures or turns of phrase or archetypes or what have you, but they all have a purpose: furthering the story’s emotional core. It’s what writing groups neglect, that all fiction, indeed all creative art, is about what could be termed ‘vibes,’ the gut emotional reaction that makes great works of art what they are. It’s something that creatives forget at their own peril.

If you, for some reason, want to read more of my work, my nonfiction can be found at the Sea Lion Press blog, NeverWas Magazine, and Warped Factor. I am also the editor of the anthology AlloAmericana: Myths and Legends from Other Americas, published by Sea Lion Press. I moderate Alternate History Online on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards.

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