Interview with Ian Tregillis

After reading Ian Tregillis' Bitter Seeds (Canada, USA, Europe, AbeBooks) and going out on a limb by claiming that it was likely the speculative fiction debut of the year, I knew I'd have to interview with author. Of course, I finished the novel in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina, so that was that.

But when I returned home, I asked George R. R. Martin for Tregillis' contact details. Here we are, a few weeks later, with one very interesting Q&A, if I may say so myself! Especially his answer to the Holocaust question. . .

You can also read an excerpt here.


- I know that you jokingly refer to BITTER SEEDS as “Watchen meets Inglorious Basterds”. But how would you describe the novel to potential readers?

I describe it as a fantasy alternative World War II featuring superpowers, warlocks, spies, demons, and explosions. Daniel Abraham describes it as an adventure story with battles and intrigue, magic and spectacle. I like that description because it fits my goal for the book (regardless of how the final product turned out).

- Labels appear to have gained more and more importance in today’s market. I called BITTER SEEDS a “paranormal alternate history yarn,” but I’m curious to know how you’d label your work? Wondering in which section BITTER SEEDS can be found in a bookstore brought to mind the story about Dan Simmons removing copies of THE TERROR from the fantasy section to them in the Fiction section because he felt it didn’t belong there.

I'd never heard that story about Dan Simmons. Interesting.

Your description of BITTER SEEDS as a paranormal alt-history yarn strikes me as pretty accurate. My first love is science fiction, and so I've always thought of myself as an aspiring SF writer. Though the magic probably pushes this book closer to fantasy territory. But it's a strange kind of fantasy, with battery-powered superhumans. When I started this trilogy, I thought that maybe it was a science fantasy story, because from the beginning it was important to me that the two sides of the conflict are engaged in very different disciplines -- science in the case of von Westarp, and demonology in the case of the warlocks. But I'm not sure the science is presented in a way, or explained in enough detail, to really make it a *science* fantasy. It's really just a patina on that side of the weirdness.

Just before it debuted, my editor joked that he hoped the swastika on the cover would have booksellers shelving the book in the thriller section. But I don't have any qualms about being classified as a genre writer. I'm having fun.

- How well-received has BITTER SEEDS been thus far?

Beats me.

I've been so focused on finishing the final Milkweed book, NECESSARY EVIL, that I've avoided discussions of BITTER SEEDS as much as possible. (I killed my Google Alerts as soon as review copies went in the mail.) A friend of mine had been in a similar situation, where he was finishing a trilogy just as the first book came out, and he said it made it very hard to finish the current book while listening to how people responded to the first in the series. So I took his advice and tried to stay focused on the task before me.

But, I do know that BITTER SEEDS went into a rush reprint a few weeks after it was released. No word yet on how many of those extra copies will turn into bookstore returns and how many will turn into bona fide sales, but initially, anyway, demand exceeded expectations. I hear that's a good thing.

And I've received some wonderful emails and letters from folks who read and enjoyed the book. That has been, by far, the best part of this experience. As a reader, it never occurs to me to take the time to contact the writers of the books I enjoy (selfish jerk that I am). I'm glad and grateful that so many people are not like me.

- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write The Milkweed Triptych in the first place?

I guess it came about from a collision of unrelated influences. I'd been reading a bit about unusual research projects during World War II, particularly Project Habakkuk, an allied effort to build aircraft carriers from ice. The sheer weirdness of that stuck with me. Later, the movie MINORITY REPORT got me thinking about precognition and the limits it imposes on storytelling. And, of course, I've always loved adventure stories. The Milkweed books are, at heart, my attempt to tell myself an entertaining adventure story full of weirdness.

- Can you tell us a little more about the road that saw this one go from manuscript form to finished novel?

I've been very, very lucky.

In the late summer 2006, I brought the idea for a single standalone novel to the monthly meeting of my local writers' group. At the time, my motivation was simply to have a project that would allow me to focus on issues of craft for the next year or so, rather than spending my time devising a new short story every month. (Our group has a pay-to-play rule, meaning one has to submit new material for critique in order to participate in the meetings. It keeps things focused and professional.) So, when I started this project, I never had any aspirations for it other than as a writing exercise.

I'd been playing around with bits and pieces of Milkweed in short form, so it seemed natural to use that sandbox for this experiment. I brought the general outline of the universe to the group, and solicited their advice on whether it would be worth spending a year on this writing exercise. They were very enthusiastic. They also immediately convinced me the story was larger than I'd envisioned, so the project turned into a trilogy. The group helped me plot out the trilogy (we spent a whole day on it), and then I got to work.

In fall of 2007, my agent requested a look at what I had of BITTER SEEDS thus far, so that she could start strategizing about how to try to sell it when the time came. It wasn't finished, and in fact what I sent her was literally the as-typed first draft of the first 2/3 of the book, complete with little notes to myself embedded in the text. A few days later she got back to me and requested permission to quietly start showing it around. So that's how it ended up in Patrick Nielsen Hayden's hands at Tor. We met at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga a few weeks later, and a few days after that we had an offer on the trilogy.

I submitted the completed manuscript for BITTER SEEDS at the end of April, 2008, because the original plan had been to bring the book out in 2009. But by then the economy was tanking, so Tor decided maybe it wasn't a good idea to debut a brand-new, unknown author in the depths of the Great Recession. So, BITTER SEEDS got pushed back a year.

Meanwhile, I turned in #2, THE COLDEST WAR, in late June of 2009, and I'm going to turn in #3, NECESSARY EVIL, before the end of August. The second draft is finished.

- If your readers could only take one thing away from having read BITTER SEEDS (apart from enjoying the read) what would you want that thing to be?

That's a tough question. My only hope all along has been that the book finds its way to readers who enjoy it. I'm not trying to convey a message in the book, so I'm not sure what else readers would take away from it other than the reading experience. I hope it entertains folks, and that they feel it was worth their time.

- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

I like to think that my personal hygiene isn't too bad.

- By the same token, what would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?

I'm a strong believer in the notion that writing is a process of continual improvement. So, quite honestly, there isn't a single aspect of the writing craft where I *don't* want to improve.

I have a private (and lengthy) list of specific things I want to work on. But airing that dirty laundry in public would be a bit like a stage magician saying, "My card pushes are a little weak. Watch closely next time and you'll see how I cribbed that ace of spades..."

Milkweed has been a blast, but it grew away from my original intent. It wasn't exactly a straightforward, simple, self-contained project where I could focus on issues of craft. I'm looking forward to starting something new, where I can concentrate on the writing without worrying about which month in 1940 did Churchill rename "Local Defense Volunteers" to "Home Guard". Not to mention trying to plot a trilogy around a precog who kept threatening to blow up the books from the inside.

- Electing to go with World War II as the overall story arc backdrop means that you likely had to go through extensive research to write BITTER SEEDS and its sequels. Given the passionate and sometimes contradictory nature of works pertaining to WWII, it must have been tricky to trust one source more than another?

The research has been daunting, no question. I have an entire bookcase dedicated to research for this trilogy. I tried very, very hard to get the facts straight and the details right wherever possible.

In general, when researching historical details pertaining to the war itself and military issues, my rule has been to try to find confirmation in at least two independent sources. That's not always possible, but works fairly well for names and dates. I've tried to give precedence to people who were actually there. Churchill, for instance, who wrote 6 volumes about the war. When I have had to choose between sources, I've chosen interpretations that fit the story I'm trying to tell. Because, after all, in the end these are books about superpowers and demons and spies. I tried to go with choices that meant for a better story.

I'll give you an example. One of the major turning points in the history as presented in BITTER SEEDS pertains to the Dunkirk evacuation. Though I don't present many details about what changed in this first book (it gets covered in more detail later in the trilogy) I spent a *lot* of time pouring over history books. It turns out that one of the most controversial orders that Hitler gave throughout the entire war pertained to a particular tank column that was barreling to Dunkirk just before the evacuation began. It's an established historical fact that the panzers could have reached Dunkirk prior to the start of the evacuation. It's also an established fact, irrefutably documented many places (including in the daily diaries of members of the high command who met with Hitler on the fateful day) that Hitler ordered the column to halt its advance on Dunkirk for 2 or 3 days. And most of the books I consulted point to this as being an important factor that enabled so many of the French and British forces to get off the beach. (Not the only factor, but one of them.) But none of the books entirely agree on WHY Hitler gave this order. For the purposes of my book, it was important the order was never given in the first place. So I had to think about the circumstances surrounding that day, and figure out what changed. That's an example where many books agree on the facts, but none entirely agree on the interpretation.

And there are places where the history books flatly contradict one another. A friend of mine wrote her own WWII novel, and she discovered major discrepancies in the reported circumstances surrounding the capture of Heinrich Himmler.

- I mentioned in my review that you had an eye for historical details. You managed, I believe, to capture the essence of the various locales found in BITTER SEEDS, as well as that of the historical periods, the language, the clothings, etc. Was this a result of extensive research as well?

First, thank you for that. I'm glad I was able to fool you! ;-)

Yes, the historical research wasn't confined to names and dates and military issues. In fact, that's the relatively easy stuff. That's what history books are all about. The trickiest research, where I focused most of my effort and energy, pertained to slice-of-life issues. The first drafts of the Milkweed books required extensive fact-checking.

For issues of period detail and slice-of-life stuff, which is more subjective and not amenable to cross-referencing, I drew a lot of material from the personal reminiscences of people who lived in Britain during the war. (To that end, "How We Lived Then", by Norman Longmate, has been invaluable. So have the BBC "People's War" archive and the Mass Observation Project.) So, most of the little details about life in Britain during the war are taken from real events. (The bit where Marsh picks up a little boy's lead soldiers at the train station, for instance, is taken from the description of an actual scene at a London train station, which appeared in a September, 1939 Associated Press newspaper piece.)

In another place, I culled a fact about wartime Britain (in this case, that the statue in the middle of Piccadilly Circus was removed from the city for safekeeping) from the actual minutes of a meeting of the London City Council. That's a hard one to cross-reference. But in cases like that, I make a conscious decision to trust the source. (They kept the statue in a barn for the duration of the war, incidentally. Again according to the minutes.)

And then there are places where, as a fiction writer, I had to punt. Either because the information wasn't available or because I had to make choices for the sake of the story. And, sometimes, both. So, I'm sure my description of the interior of the Old Admiralty building circa 1940 is hilariously incorrect. But I chose to lay it out that way in order for the story to unfold as needed.

Also, it helped to have extremely generous and patient British and German beta readers. I'm sure I made a mess of things even in spite of their help, but that's not their fault. And I ran the books through my local writing group; several of our members have written their own historical novels, and thus had their own research to draw upon.

- In my review, I wrote: “The only aspect of this novel which sort of kept nagging at me was the total absence of the pogroms and the entire Jewish angle of WWII. Considering just how important what came to be known as the Holocaust was and still echoes down the decades since the end of the war, it felt odd -- to say the least -- not to see a single mention of this atrocious genocide.”

Would you care to elaborate on this? I’m probably not the only reader who noticed that there is no mention of the Holocaust. . .

You know, there are some readers who felt that not writing directly about the Holocaust was one of the few things I did right, given my ham-handed treatment of history. I tell ya, a guy just can't win.

Just because something isn't mentioned by name doesn't mean it isn't there. (And, honestly, would you really want to read a book that attempted to exorcise the curse of its WWII setting merely by mentioning "Final Solution" a couple of times? Because I'm not convinced that merely mentioning an atrocity absolves the story of its responsibility to acknowledge and understand its context. The state-sanctioned murder of 6 million people isn't something you merely name-check.)

I thought very long and very hard about how to approach these books before I started. This isn't a project I undertook lightly.

BITTER SEEDS is achingly aware of the Holocaust, and I'm a little surprised by the suggestion that it isn't. Von Westarp carries out grisly human experimentation (which amounts, the vast majority of the time, to murder) in the service of what he believes is a higher ideal. His efforts eventually become institutionalized and formalized by the Third Reich. That horrific backdrop to the story is meant to echo the Holocaust. Later, when von Westarp is preparing for a massive expansion of his research program, the means he devises for mass disposal of bodies are specifically meant to echo some of the real-world atrocities that took place in the concentration camps. (And it's no accident that von Westarp's fictional farm is situated fairly close to the real-world site of Buchenwald. I specifically included a scene where the ubermenschen practice their abilities on prisoners from the camps. When VW's children need people upon whom to practice their powers, the SS sends over a truckload of prisoners, including Jews, from the camps.) There's also a scene where one of the major secondary characters is cremated, and his ashes rise up into the sky, then come back down mixed with snow. That was intended as a deliberate nod to a particularly chilling visual in Schindler's List. (I'm not comparing BITTER SEEDS to that film in any way, shape or form. But it's a film I respect quite a bit.)

These things are there, and they're there for a reason. They're my way of acknowledging that the story would never have been possible outside an environment where a horror like the Holocaust was taking place.

Readers may disagree with my choice to approach the subject discreetly, and that's absolutely their prerogative. But just because something is addressed obliquely doesn't mean it's being dismissed, or approached with a cavalier attitude. I made the choices I did because it became clear while thinking about how to approach this book -- and, in fact, the very question you raise about the Holocaust -- that there's a fine line beyond which devoting scenes to an exploration of the Nazi genocide would have meant devoting the entire *story* to that subject. Otherwise, it would have read like Hogan's Heroes. (Think on that, and shudder in revulsion as I do.)

Over at Making Light recently, Debra Doyle wrote about some of the pitfalls of writing alternate history. One of her points is so germane to this discussion, and her take on it so perfectly right, that I'm going to quote her (the full text of her post is here). In her case she was talking about the American Civil War. She said, in part:

"Concentrating on any one aspect of it, within the confines of a novel, is inevitably going to mean not dealing with any number of other aspects, and at that point you’re a fit victim for the 'there is no mention of Z in this book' line of criticism. For which the only honest answer a writer can give is, 'A book about Z would have been a different book, and the book that I wanted to write was this one.'"

And she's right.

Earlier, I said that the Milkweed books were my attempt to tell myself an entertaining adventure story. So, just as a thought experiment, let's recast this discussion in terms of films rather than books for a moment: Nobody ever criticizes "The Guns of Navarone" for not being "Schindler's List". Why, then, are books different? "Navarone" (not my favorite film, but a suitable example for this discussion, and in fact based on a book by Alistair MacLean) is a WWII action/adventure movie about a completely fictitious commando mission in the Greek Isles. The Nazi genocide doesn't play a direct role in the film. Is that a failing? If so, how should it have been incorporated into the story?

Well, I think it becomes pretty obvious that directly incorporating the Holocaust into "The Guns of Navarone" would be a completely different movie. Not a bad movie, per se, but a different one. Different from what the filmmakers wanted to pursue. Which again is neither good nor bad, but a simple fact.

And, frankly, I don't think an action/adventure movie (book) is necessarily a good venue for serious, respectful contemplation of the horrors of the Final Solution. (Again, the worst-case scenario would be something akin to "Hogan's Heroes". Which, if you can't tell, was a TV show I really hated.) I suppose one could argue that perhaps this suggests that any action/adventure stories set during WWII are inherently flawed because they're not a commentary on the Holocaust. It's not for me to say one way or the other, but that argument does strike me as tarring things with an awfully wide brush.

Alternatively, then, maybe the argument is that WWII stories that don't directly address the Final Solution should be avoided. But I still think that's deeply flawed reasoning. For instance, if BITTER SEEDS had been a book about the Pacific theater, or about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, or about the Burma Road, or about a naval battle off the coast of Argentina, would it have been odd to omit a discussion of the concentration camps in Europe? Of course not. So where do we draw the line between compulsory inclusion and egregious name-checking? The Second World War is an enormous subject. No one story can cover it all. History books that attempt to cover the entire war are thick beasts.

Now, just to be 100% clear, I'm not saying there's no need for stories about the Holocaust, whether fiction or nonfiction. Because there is, and there always will be. I feel very strongly that any story -- book, film, stage play, whatever -- that *does* touch on the horrors of the Holocaust should do it honestly, unflichingly, and respectfully. But not every story is the proper framework for that.

- What can readers expect from the upcoming sequel, THE COLDEST WAR? It's obvious that Gretel has a hidden agenda, and I have a feeling that her storyline will be as important as the war itself.

All of the strange and seemingly inexplicable things that Gretel does in BITTER SEEDS are explained in the sequel. And yes, Gretel's agenda takes center stage.

BITTER SEEDS is the book where Marsh meets Gretel, and where she puts her pieces on the board. THE COLDEST WAR is the book where he figures out her plan. NECESSARY EVIL is the book where he has to deal with it.

- Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the cover that graces BITTER SEEDS? Have you seen sketches of THE COLDEST WAR cover art?

I haven't yet seen the cover art for COLDEST WAR, but I'm told they're working on it now, and I'm dying to see it. How could I not, when John Jude Palencar and Tor's art department absolutely knocked it out of the park with BITTER SEEDS? I love, love, love the cover art. It captures the tone of the book and so many little touches from the story, it blew me away the first time I saw it. (Also, part of my first reaction was, "Wow. I guess this really is a dark book. My beta readers weren't kidding.")

I'll bet every first-time novelist has secret fantasies (and secret nightmares) about their first cover art. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd ever have one of my books graced with Palencar artwork. I've been a fan of his for years, so it was a thrill when Tor hired him to do the cover.

- How difficult was it to write Gretel? She is so far ahead of everyone else that it must get tricky to keep her character under control. Obviously, she’ll never be a POV character (unless perhaps in the final volume of the trilogy). But even though we see her story unfold through the eyes of other characters, were there instances where you had to rein her in, so to speak?

Great question. Yeah, she's tough.

I discovered, through lots of trial and error, that Gretel works best in small doses. Or maybe it's better to say that the best solution I found, given my particular strengths and weaknesses as a writer, was to use her sparingly. Which is a strange thing to say since she's basically the axis mundi around which the entire story spins. But I found, over and over again, that scenes of protracted interactions with Gretel always tended to flounder. She's a looming presence in the story, but it's hard to keep finding new ways to make her *physical* presence interesting.

That's all aside from the fact that Gretel's precognition required thinking through the entire trilogy before writing the first book. Because half the fun of writing Gretel was the challenge of writing a character who knew everything I did about the story. I mean, wow, foreshadowing gets really easy when you have a character who knows everything that's going to happen in the next book. But that had to be bought with a lot of effort on the front end.

Also, good catch. The third book, NECESSARY EVIL, does contain scenes written from Gretel's point of view. But even then, even after her aims and motivations are laid on the table, I still found it difficult to write her. So I ended up writing far fewer scenes in her POV than I had originally intended several years ago. But we do get to see how her power works from her POV.

- Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

I wish I knew. I admit that I'm a little doubtful. It's a strange thing, though, because it seems to me that speculative fiction is totally respected in literary circles as long as it's not called by name. It becomes difficult to respect once it's openly related to that science-fiction stuff.

I mean, how is FAHRENHEIT 451 not a science fiction novel? Or 1984? Or BRAVE NEW WORLD?

There are authors who write novels that could easily be classified as science fiction, but who vehemently deny that's what they're writing, because the stories they're telling, after all, are about stuff. Their stories are important. In other words, there are plenty of authors who don't know what speculative fiction is all about. (Particularly spec-fic's red-headed stepchildren, science fiction and fantasy.)

But the good news is that for every literature snob, there's an author like Michael Chabon, who has won both a Pulitzer and a Hugo (and an O. Henry award, and a Nebula) and who has said that he values his Hugo just as much as his Pulitzer. I think that's pretty cool.

- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy/Hugo Award? Why, exactly?

Gosh. That's a really good question.

I guess it depends. In this wacky alternate universe, do I still have a mortgage to pay? :-)

I'm not going to lie and say I'd walk away from the income boost that might come from bestsellerdom. But that's never been my goal. I never took up writing in the hopes that I'd make wheelbarrows full of money and retire before age 40. I took it up for the sake of having a creative outlet, and for the sheer joy of creative expression. If other people enjoy what I'm doing, then that's one hell of a cherry on top. So a World Fantasy or Hugo or Nebula would probably make me cry.

- More and more, authors/editors/publicists/agents are discovering the potential of all the SFF blogs/websites/message boards on the internet. Do you keep an eye on what's being discussed out there, especially if it concerns you? Or is it too much of a distraction?

Too much of a distraction. As I said earlier, I try to avoid discussion of the Milkweed books as much as is practical. It's impossible, and downright foolish, to avoid it all, of course. (Otherwise I'd have missed opportunities to do interviews like this one!)

I'm a fairly private person, and very shy. Heck, I don't want to know what people are saying about me in real life, much less online.

That said, I'd do myself a huge favor if I could find a way to be more engaged with online discussions and social networking. But there are only so many hours in the day, I do like to sleep. My "real" job takes about 12 hours/day, including the commute, so after that and writing, I don't have a lot of extra time in the evenings.

- You have dealt and written about superpowers as a contributor in the Wild Cards consortium. Did that experience help prepare you in any way for the writing of The Milkweed Triptych?

It certainly motivated me. One of my first character proposals to George and Melinda involved a character who could walk through walls. But since they'd already done that a few times, they felt my proposed character wasn't sufficiently distinct to become part of the Wild Cards universe. Fair enough.

But I still wanted to play with that power. So that's what Klaus got.

- Speaking of the Wild Cards, are you guys satisfied with the response the latest triad garnered from fans, both old and new?

It was a strange experience to join Wild Cards so many years into its life. My sense is that overall the long-time fans have liked the new triad, and found it a worthy addition to the series. (Although some folks would have preferred a continuation of the older characters and stories. You can't please everybody...) On the other hand, I know the new triad has also introduced a new crop of readers to the series, and that's terrific, because that was our goal.

- With a new Wild Cards title on its way, can you tell us what the new kids on the block (David Anthony Durham, Paul Cornell, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Cherie Priest, and David D. Levine) bring to the dance?

I didn't pitch a story for the newest novel, FORT FREAK, so I didn't have a chance to work with the newest additions to the consortium this time around. (And there was no guarantee I would have landed in the book even if I had pitched a story. Competition for story slots is getting pretty fierce these days. I mean-- just look at that lineup!)

The newest additions to the consortium are incredibly talented. George and Melinda significantly raised the bar for subsequent Wild Cards novels when they brought this group into the fold.

- What can you tell us about FORT FREAK, just to whet our appetite?

Since I wasn't involved with the latest Wild Cards novel, I don't know a whole lot more anybody else. But I have heard that our editor at Tor liked it very much. And, based on everything I've heard informally, I fully expect FORT FREAK to be the strongest of the four most recent WC novels. As far as I know, it's scheduled for June, 2011. George has posted an excerpt from FORT FREAK on his website.

- Anything you wish to add?

Thanks for the opportunity to do this interview. It was fun!

5 commentaires:

Itchy said...

I enjoyed Bitter Seeds immensely but then again, I have always been drawn to the "what if" type stories.

The copy I read came from the local branch of the county library and so I read it quickly (I have a strange aversion to extending a check out period beyond the original due date).

I want to read it again and this time, I want to read it at my own pace. That being the case, this book will be added to my own, personal library. Only books I truly enjoy and will be read many times get that honor. :)

Martin said...

Reding the blurb, I was reminded of Charles Stross'series of the Bob Howard books.

Ever read those, Pat?

Andrew Leonard said...

Great interview, Pat.

Bitter Seeds is one of the best books I've read this year.

The Grand Leaf said...

Seems like a nice, down to earth kind of guy. Can't believe he works 12 hour days and still finds the time to write.

Enjoying Bitter Seeds thus far

brainshades said...

I liked Bitter Seeds quite a bit too, and this interview even more. I find most blogger/email interviews to be really generic and not terribly interesting. But not this one - very nice job, Pat!