S. M. Stirling hit the New York Times bestseller list for the first time in 2009 with Sword of the Lady, the third installment of his Emberverse II alternate history series. The series is still going strong with the latest installment, The Tears of the Sun, due out this month from ROC. In 2010, Stirling published his first urban fantasy. This year marks his third appearance at Dragon*Con.
Daily Dragon (DD): Welcome back to Dragon*Con! You’ve created several alternate history universes, including that of the Emberverse. Your website biography says you’re interested in history, so I have to ask what spurred you to try twisting it around.
S. M. Stirling (SMS): I don’t think it’s possible to study much history and not think about the alternatives, the might-have-beens. Starting with your own life, of course. For example, my mother’s father met my grandmother because he was gassed on the Western Front (3rd Ypres) in 1917, and then invalided out to England. My grandmother was a VAD, a Volunteer Auxiliary Detachment nurse. They’d never have met otherwise, having been several social grades apart. And she had been bombed by Zeppelins in London. My father’s mother met his father because her ship hit an iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1912, and the rescued passengers were taken to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Consider the probability of that series of accidents, without which I’d never have been born.
DD: Please tell us a bit about the different series you’re working on now.
SMS: Right now I’m working on the Emberverse, or Change series, that started with Dies the Fire. It’s been my most popular work so far, and it’s a sort of gonzo or “mad” alternate history; unspecified superhuman agencies remove all the high-energy technologies on May 15th, 1998—they just stop working. Catastrophe ensues, but the series is more about how people recover than the disaster itself, and ultimately about what was behind it.
I’m also doing an urban fantasy/SF series, the Shadowspawn books: so far, A Taint in the Blood and The Council of Shadows, with A Shadow of Falling Night to conclude the trilogy. It’s more of a secret than an alternate history, and a tribute to the grand old “Unknown” variety of pulp fantasy (Jack Williamson was a particular inspiration). In prehistory, a sub-species of humanity evolved the ability to affect the quantum foundations of reality with their minds; this is the source of the legends of magic…and of shapeshifters and vampires. Then in the 19th century, they use the discoveries of Darwin and Mendel to reconcentrate their genes. I’ve had a lot of fun with that one, too.
DD: The Shadowspawn urban fantasy series seems like a big switch for you. Is it, or are there similarities that aren’t immediately apparent?
SMS: Well, it’s something I’ve had in mind for years. On the other hand, I’ve always had more ideas than time to write them; coming up with ideas is easy for me. The execution is what takes the time and effort.
I’ve been told that I “do good villain,” and there are some deliciously evil ones here, too. And unlike most human villains, they’re self-consciously evil and exult in it, which can be sort of fun…if you’re not on the receiving end, of course.
DD: You wrote one of the four stories in the Clan of the Claw anthology. Will you be doing more linked works like this?
SMS: It’s possible, depending on where the series goes. Writing in the mind of something descended from cats was a challenge—despite having lived with cats for years.
DD: Military history plays a prominent role in several of your series. The World War II era Germans in the Draka series, Norman knights in Emberverse I, the U. S. Coast Guard in Island in the Sea of Time, and the 19th century British Army in The Peshawar Lancers are just a few examples. How did you become interested in military history?
SMS: It’s an important subset of history in general; plus, of course, I grew up on adventure stories, which often include an element of conflict. Reading about the warriors of the past in fiction helped get me interested in learning the facts, or at least as many of them as we know.
DD: The Emberverse series explores different forms of government. Emberverse I has the Wiccan, council-based government of the Mackenzies, the military organization of the Bearkillers, the feudal model of the Portland Protective Association, religious groups, and others. Did you consciously choose these particular models, or did they evolve from the story?
SMS: They’re more or less implicit in the cultures those new groups are using as models, or at least in the folk-myths and legends that they tap. They don’t recreate the past, but they do borrow from it! Making systems of government that would work in the circumstances is interesting, but then I’ve always loved doing research and backgrounding. The problem is not to inflict more than is necessary on the readers.
DD: Island in the Sea of Time and the Emberverse series are linked. What inspired you to link the sort of contemporary world of the Emberverse with the time travel of the earlier series?
SMS: I always had in mind doing stories in the world that Nantucket left behind when it was sent back to the Bronze Age. Obviously, it wasn’t an accident—things were far too neat and tidy for that. So there had to be a greater Purpose…
I pose questions to myself, and my subconscious seems to come up with the answers.
DD: These series would seem to involve a great deal of research. Do you find that you still do as much for each book now as you did when you started writing?
SMS: Not quite as much, because I’ve become more familiar with the detail work necessary; for example, since Dies the Fire, I’ve had much more in the way of contact with the Pagan community, and also with recreationists and others. Each new setting involves more research, though. And I’m continually coming up with new societies, which requires yet more work. It’s lucky I like doing this stuff!
DD: Do you have a particular research method?
SMS: “Omnivorous reading,” for starters. And when I’m dealing with a field (or a type of person) that I’m not familiar with, I try to find someone who’s closer to it. For example, I have several Pagan (of various flavors) and Catholic consultants I use for the Change books, and a restaurant critic I can call upon when I’m doing high-life parts of the Shadowspawn books.
DD: What’s next for you?
SMS: I’m working on Lord of Mountains, which is the next Change book. The Tears of the Sun turned out to be two books instead of one! Then I’ll be finishing the Shadowspawn trilogy, which for a wonder looks as if it will be a trilogy, and the last of the Change books with the Rudi Mackenzie story arc, The Given Sacrifice. After that…who knows? There may be more Change books; I deliberately designed the setting to give a broad canvas. The stories end, but they merge into other stories, and it’s a very big planet we live on. I’m also always kicking around ideas for new work. Right now I’m doodling about a possible alternate-history story set in the 1920′s, involving World War I, which is a rather underused turning point in the history of the world.
DD: A lot of aspiring writers come to Dragon*Con. What advice would you give them?
SMS: There’s always “don’t give up your day job!” Seriously, I’d advise them to read a lot, and to keep writing. Write every day you can, even if you tear it down and start over the next day. And keep firmly in mind that you’re writing because you enjoy it.