|A Moment in Time|
An Interview with Harry Turtledove
|conducted by Sandy Auden|
A single moment can define a lifetime. And as an alternate history author, Harry Turtledove is only too aware of this
fact. Over the years, he has exploited a number of these "moments" and created different histories for us all -- alternative
outcomes to the American Civil war, a Spanish-style England where the Armada won and aliens arriving on Earth to upset
the balance in World War II.
For Turtledove, his life-defining moment happened early in his life and came in the unusual shape of a story about a 1940's gentleman who was transported back in time to just before the fall of the Roman Empire.
'I ran into a copy of L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall in a second hand bookshop when I was about 14 years old,' says Turtledove. 'I was already interested in history as a result of my SF and fantasy reading but Darkness was what really got me going. I started trying to find out how much Sprague was making up and how much was real, and I got hooked. I was a science person by original intention, but flunked out of Caltech at the end of my freshman year, not least because of a serious inability to do calculus. The fact that I found The Lord Of The Rings that year didn't help, either, because I read the trilogy obsessively. But the calculus trouble, as well as never having learned how to study because high school was easy, were the bigger factors.'
Up to this point, Turtledove had not really noticed history in school. He recalls: 'I can barely remember at all how it was taught, so it couldn't have been that exciting, could it?' But after Lest Darkness Fall, his impressions of history changed and he wrote his first novel. 'I was about 16 and it was an alternate history involving Romans. No one will ever read it though, because it's no damn good. Finishing it, however, counted a good deal all by itself.'
Over the next few years, he expanded his new interest for history into a doctorate and became a history teacher at UCLA. 'I wanted to become an academic. I loved working with primary sources but much less, I'm afraid, with secondary literature, which would have held me back a good deal. I published a translation of a ninth-century chronicle and a few scholarly articles. I've done a few other translations that I've circulated here and there in samizdat form (which is a Russian term meaning circulated in typescript and Xerox, rather than formally published). At this time, the job market in Byzantine history was poor, which puts it fairly mildly, and I never landed a tenure-track position. So I've ended up telling lies for a living instead.'
It wasn't a straight path to the lies of alternate history fiction though. 'Not everything I've done is historically based: most of my stuff, but not all. I've written moderately hard SF, plain old bang-and-slash sword and sorcery, funny fantasy, mainstream fiction, a mystery short (that was historical), and the occasional non-fiction. Even now, I'm working on a new Conan the Barbarian novel called Conan of Venarium.' But despite the distractions, once Turtledove was on the alternate history path, his passion began to evolve. 'History is what I know the most about, so that's what I write the most. These days, I feel I understand more about the way things work than I did when I was younger -- which, of course, may be just an artefact of having more history of my own under my belt now.'
So how influential was L Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall on his life? 'Well, let's see,' he says thoughtfully. 'Without it, I wouldn't have the degree I have. I wouldn't have written most of what I've written -- although I already had the writer's disease so I would have written something. I wouldn't have met the lady I'm married to, because we met when I was teaching history at UCLA, and I wouldn't have the kids I have or be living where I'm living. Other than that, it probably didn't matter to me a bit.'
(This interview first appeared on Sci Fi Channel Europe.)
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.
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