Alan Smale’s Clash of Eagles series combines some of my favourite things: fantasy, historical fiction, and Romans. So one day, one day when I finally get my time turner, I definitely want to read them. Until that time though, I decided to settle for the second best option and that was to ask Alan for an interview. He obliged and had some great answers about the research he has done for the book, whether his work for NASA influences his writing, and promoting science through song. Check out Alan’s latest novel Eagle in Exile from Titan Books, out now.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Alan Smale?
A writer, a scientist, and a singer. These days I mostly write alternate and twisted history and historical fantasy, though I’ve dabbled in SF and horror, and have had about three dozen stories published in a variety of genres. I’m the author of the Clash of Eagles trilogy; the second book, Eagle in Exile, just came out and I recently delivered the third, Eagle and Empire, to my editor. Back in the real world, I grew up in the north of England and studied physics and then astrophysics at Oxford, then came to visit the US for three years to work on a space shuttle payload and somehow never left. I now work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where I study neutron stars and black holes, and also manage an astrophysical data archive.
How would you introduce people to Gaius Marcellinus?
It’s 1218 A.D. in an alternate universe where the Roman Empire never fell. Now, largely thanks to Norse seafarers, the Empire has discovered the existence of North America. Gaius Marcellinus is the Praetor – the Roman general – who leads the first legion into the New World. They’re searching for gold or anything else they can plunder. What they find is a huge, thriving, complicated continent full of peoples who put up such a spirited resistance that his expedition quickly finds itself in mortal peril.
So Gaius is career military. Promotion in the Roman army is merit-based, and Marcellinus has worked his way up through the ranks. He often finds himself at odds with the more patrician Romans around him. He’s a skillful soldier with a ton of experience fighting in the Russian states, Arabia, and even further into India, but when he comes up against the Iroqua and then the Mississippian Culture, he’s forced to completely reassess everything he thought he knew. He understands his martial world very well, but he has a lot to learn about family, about community, and basically about people who aren’t also career military. In addition to being an action-adventure and historical fantasy piece, Clash of Eagles is the story of how Marcellinus becomes a more complete human being.
In Clash of Eagles you transport an entire Roman legion to North America and basically matched up Roman martial prowess against Native American fighting traditions. With Gaius having integrated into Cahokian society, have these two opposing fighting styles mixed as well? Have the Cahokians adopted some of the Roman forms?
The main reason that Gaius Marcellinus is still alive is because of his knowledge of fighting methods that are new to the Cahokians. (Cahokia really existed: it was a Mississippian city of some 20,000 people based around huge mounds and other earthworks, located roughly where St Louis is now.) Cahokia has many innovative fighting methods and technologies of their own – which is what enabled them to stand up to Rome in the first place – but they’re certainly keen to learn more about legionary fighting tactics, about how to make steel, how to hurl rocks using siege engines, and so forth. Like many peoples the Cahokians are traditional in some ways and experimental in others, and smart enough to see that Rome’s technology can be useful to them. In his turn, Marcellinus learns a great deal from the Cahokians.
If time travel were an actual possibility and you could choose to visit either Rome at the height of its power in the era of the Julian-Claudian dynasty or Cahokia in its prime, which would you choose and why?
Wow, what a fabulous question. Although I’ve become completely absorbed with Cahokia over the past few years, I’d have to choose Rome. I’ve been fascinated by the Romans my entire life, and there would be so much to see and experience there that I wouldn’t be able to turn down an opportunity to walk the Forum and the streets, stand on the hills, watch the people and the street life, eat the food, and find out the real answers to some of the questions I’ve always had. Our mental picture of Rome is shaped as much by movies and TV as it is by the actual ground-truth history, and I’d love to know what it was really like.
How did you research the history of the Native American nations you included in your books? Did you read a lot of academic texts, talk to tribal historians, both?
I did a huge amount of research, reading both popular and academic texts. Over the course of writing the series I’ve read over 150 books on various aspects of North American cultures, as well as shipbuilding, metallurgy, geology, all kinds of other areas where I wanted to get my facts right. Most of the research focused on Cahokia and the Mississippian Culture, which is where I’ve delved the most deeply. I’ve also spent a lot of time scribbling notes and taking pictures in museums, and searching around online. The goal is, of course, to get the details as accurate and convincing as possible, and to do justice to the cultures I’m writing about, rather than to bleed scholarship onto the page for its own sake. (And even if I felt the urge to do that, my agent and my editor would soon beat it out of me.)
Your day job is working as a research scientist at NASA. How does your writing, especially writing alternate history, help in your research? Does it help you think outside the box and try different approaches or are those parts of your brain completely separate?
I think of my fiction-writing and my astronomy career as being largely separate animals. My research is all about the data and the analysis and interpretation, and it’s necessarily very mathematical, very analytical. I’m trying to narrow possibilities down to a final science result, or make decisions about technical matters. Writing fiction is more imaginative and open-ended. It feels as if my brain is working in a very different way when I’m writing.
But both do require a lot of research, and the skills I’ve built up reading academic papers in astrophysics have helped a lot when it comes to reading archeology and anthropology texts. I also organize and synthesize all my information in a very similar way in my work-life and writing-life. So I don’t think that my writing helps my astrophysical research, per se, but I do see ways where my science background has helped me become a more efficient and organized writer.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve just delivered the third book. I loved writing Eagle and Empire and pulling the strings together on all the character arcs. There are climactic scenes in Empire that I’d been looking forward to writing for years. I’m keen to hear what my editor, Mike Braff, has to say, and to get cracking with any revisions, but in the meantime I’m figuring out what to write next. I have several ideas, but none have gelled to the point where I’m ready to start writing yet. I may well write some short stories to explore some of the options.
Appearance-wise I’ll be at San Diego Comic Con in July, Worldcon in Kansas City, MO, in August, and World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH, in October. I don’t have any other appearances planned at the moment, but I’m certainly open to doing more while I don’t have a book deadline hovering over me!
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Singing! I sing bass with a six-person vocal band called The Chromatics, three men and three women. We’ve been together for many years, and have a wide repertoire of pop and rock originals and covers. We also have a project called Astrocappella, which is a collection of astronomically correct a cappella songs. Our CD is in use in schools across the country, and overseas as well. We do regular gigs at the National Air and Space Museum in DC, and have done other performances at museums and teachers conferences in New York, California, Florida, the Carolinas, Alabama, and Louisiana over the years. We also perform at science fiction conventions like Philcon, Balticon, and Shore Leave, and would like to do more of that, because SF fans seem to relate well to our astronomy songs and some of our other more wacky techno-dark originals.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on advanced reading copies of several upcoming books. Of those I’d emphasize New Pompeii, by Daniel Godfrey, which is out in June, and Arabella of Mars by David Levine in July. The first is an SF thriller set roughly in the present but mostly within a Pompeii whose inhabitants have been brought forward in time just before the apocalyptic volcano. The second is a Regency interplanetary romance, Patrick O’Brian in space. And I have another ARC I’m really looking forward to, which is Indra Das’ The Devourers.
I’ve also been catching up on books that have come out in the last couple of years that I didn’t have time to read because I was writing: the Pierce Brown Red Rising series, The Martian by Andy Weir, Updraft by Fran Wilde, Lightless by C.A. Higgins, and Myke Cole’s Control Point series. Lots to read!
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
On my computer, my files are very well organized. But my office is much more of a mess than I’d like and my bookshelves are a bit chaotic. In principle I have a scheme. The fiction is shelved alphabetically by author, but the hardbacks are separate from the paperbacks. The books I use for research are grouped together by topic, so I have a section for Romans, a section for Cahokia and the Native Americans, a section for the Vikings, and so on. But then I have a shelf of the books that I’m supposed to be reading next, all jumbled up, and other shelves (and piles on the floor) where everything is lumped together more or less at random. Can I lay my hands on a particular book when I need it? Usually. But I do need to tidy up a bit.
Bio: Alan Smale is the author of numerous short stories, and has been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Realms of Fantasy. He won the 2010 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He grew up in Yorkshire, England, but now lives in the Washington D.C. area. He works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center as a professional astronomer.