Author Interview: Alan Smale

Today I am interviewing Alan Smale, author of the new alternate history novel, Eagle and Empire, the final book in the Clash of Eagles trilogy.

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DJ: Hey Alan! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview! For readers who aren’t familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Alan Smale: Sure, and thanks for having me on! I’ve spent all my life in the sciences, and by profession I’m an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. But I’ve also been writing fiction for as long as I can remember; at high school, I used to stay inside and write during the lunch hour instead of going out.

I made my first professional short fiction sale in the early 1990s and have been going strong ever since. When people first meet me, they expect me to be a hard SF writer because of the physics background, but I’ve always been a history buff as well, and when it comes to fiction I’ve been gravitating to the past rather than the future for many years now. I did write some SF early on, as well as some straight fantasy and horror, but these days my output is solidly alternate history, twisted history, historical fantasy.

I’m originally British, and grew up in Yorkshire. I went to Oxford, and then came to the U.S. in my late twenties, and somehow I never went back again. I’ve been a U.S. citizen since 2000.

DJ: What is Eagle and Empire and then the Clash of Eagles trilogy about?

Alan: It’s the thirteenth century A.D. in a timeline where the classical Roman Empire never fell. The Emperor Geta managed to defeat his brother Caracalla in a bloody civil war, and then brought in reforms that staved off the Crisis of the Third Century A.D. As a result, the Empire managed to remain strong and repel the “barbarians” that assaulted it, to remain a world power. Now the Norse have discovered North America, and Rome is moving in.

That’s where the first book begins, with Roman general Gaius Marcellinus marching his legion in from the Chesapeake Bay in search of gold and glory in this brave New World. What they find is completely different to what they expected. In the early 1200s A.D. the Mississippian Culture is at its height. The city of Cahokia, on the Mississippi close to where St. Louis is now, is a dominating force. Cahokia was a mound-builder city, a Native American metropolis of some 20,000 people. When Marcellinus’s legion smacks up against Cahokia, the Romans come off worst.

Now we’re in the third book, and three more crack Roman legions are in Nova Hesperia – North America. They’ve made an alliance with the Hesperian League of tribes, an extension of the Haudenosaunee League of our world, that’s been building up over the years since Marcellinus arrived. And over on the western coast, the Mongol Horde of Genghis Khan has landed. The battle for Nova Hesperia will take place on the Great Plains of North America, with the various Native American nations and tribes making their own necessary alliances, trying to survive while trapped between these two powerful invaders.

DJ: What were some of your influences for the Clash of Eagles trilogy?

Alan: The original idea came while I was reading Charles Mann’s non-fiction book about pre-Columbian America, 1491, which has a section about Cahokia. As soon as I read that, I knew I wanted to set a piece of fiction there. And, for some unknown reason, it was immediately obvious to me that my antagonistic power had to be Rome. It was a chance to explore a completely different European incursion into North America, to cast history in a very different light, and see where the story took me.

I was also deeply affected by a trip I took to Mongolia in 2008. The Mongolian landscape is incredible, the people are wonderful, and the whole history of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde is very powerful and evocative, a goldmine for a writer.

Other influences? Well, I’ve always been interested in really audacious alternate histories. Different versions of the world we know.

DJ: Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them? 

Alan: My main point-of-view character is Gaius Marcellinus, Roman general. He’s in his late forties and extremely competent, but all he knows is war and the legions. He’s very comfortable in masculine company, but his marriage and former family life have been disastrous. In North America he’s in a completely different situation than he’s accustomed to, a different way of life with a different way of thinking. In addition to all the action and intrigue of the books, it’s in Nova Hesperia that Marcellinus finally evolves as a human being and begins to understand family and community. The New World teaches this old dog new tricks. However, he’s also bound by his oaths to Rome, and to other oaths he’s sworn in the meantime, so he’s really backed himself into a corner and has to figure out what he can do that’s best for everyone, without sacrificing his personal honor.

Sintikala is his sometime-nemesis, sometime-ally. She’s the chief of the Hawk Clan in Cahokia, and didn’t approve of Great Sun Man – Cahokia’s war chief – sparing Marcellinus’s life. She’s also been through a tough time: her husband was killed by Iroquois in the long-standing blood feud – the Mourning War – between the Mississippian and Iroquois cultures. She has quite a unique perspective on events in Cahokia.

Great Sun Man orders three children to learn Marcellinus’s language, and by the third book these kids have grown up into quite a bit of power in their own right. Tahtay is now the War Chief of Cahokia, after a coup and a long struggle in the second book, Eagle in Exile. He’s half-Blackfoot, torn about whether he wants to live in Cahokia at all; a very serious young man, scarred by an earlier wounding in battle. I was about to say that he plays a pivotal role in the events of the third book, Eagle and Empire, but in fact all three of the “children” do.

Kimimela is Sintikala’s estranged daughter and by the third book is also Marcellinus’s adopted daughter. Nothing straightforward about this “family.” She’s also learning her mother’s warrior skills and will probably take over the Hawk Clan one day, if she can survive the coming massive conflict between the Romans and the Mongol Horde. And then there’s young Enopay, who loves and admires all things Roman but is still shrewd enough to manipulate the Romans around him when necessary, in the service of Cahokia. He’s a complicated character.

Another favorite character who comes to the fore in the third book is Taianita. Once a slave in a Mississippian town far to the south of Cahokia, she’s struggling to find a life for herself and a place in Cahokia. Her story got a lot more complicated in the third book than I was anticipating. She was just such an interesting character that I wanted her to play a bigger role…

DJ: What is the world and setting of the Clash of Eagles trilogy like?

Alan: It’s North America, early thirteenth century. Overall, the climate is not that different from today – very hot and humid in Cahokia in the summer, but with very bad winters. Cahokia and the Mississippian Culture are as accurate as my research could make them, based on archeological studies, with a couple of exceptions which will be obvious to the reader when they occur. It’s a mound-building culture, so Cahokia is a city of flat-topped pyramids of packed earth and clay. Fairly low-tech: swords and shields for the Romans, spears for the Cahokians… until they start building catapults and ballistas. And when the Mongols arrive they bring with them the fire lances invented by the Chinese: iron pipes with gunpowder packets at one end, that shoot flame. These are historically accurate, the forerunners of firearms, and they cause quite a problem for the Romans and the Cahokians.

In Cahokia, the war chief and elders are male and the clan chiefs are female, which also has historical precedent. Other nations and tribes, obviously, have different societal setups.

And on “violence” versus “peace”, it’s safe to say that there’s more conflict than most of the peoples there are really comfortable with. 😉

DJ: How have the reviews been from readers, bloggers, and reviewers for the first two books of the Clash of Eagles trilogy? Is there anything that your audience seems to be particularly enjoying or is eager to find out more about?

Alan: The readers seem to enjoy the authentic background, both for the Native American setting and the Roman military presence. And people seem to be liking the characters, thankfully. I do sometimes get the compliment that I did a good job on the second book in the trilogy – gave it a strong story arc and made it a satisfying read in its own right. I was happy with that, because it was a goal of mine. I’ve suffered through a fair number of trilogies where after a terrific first novel, the second book is mainly filler and setup for the third. There certainly is some setup in Eagle in Exile, but there’s a lot more to it than just putting the ducks in a row for Eagle and Empire.

DJ: What was your favorite part about writing Eagle and Empire and completing the final book in the Clash of Eagles trilogy?

Alan: There were scenes in Eagle and Empire that I’d been looking forward to writing for years. Big battle scenes, wrenching personal scenes, even calm and humorous scenes. When I was pitching the books originally, I have to confess that there were things about the third book that I hadn’t completely worked out, and finally getting to grips with those and working everything through and seeing how it all fit together was very satisfying.

DJ: What do you think readers will be talking about most once they finish Eagle and Empire?

Alan: I hope they’ll be wanting more! Eagle and Empire does finish out my character arcs, but the world of Clash is big and complicated, and there’s lots of scope for further stories in different parts of it.

DJ: What was your goal when you began writing the Clash of Eagles trilogy? Was there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?

Alan: It wasn’t an initial goal, but I realized while writing it that several themes were coming out: the experience of being an outsider in a culture (it’s not just Marcellinus – several of the other characters in the Clash of Eagles books are also outsiders in one way or another); the idea of oaths and loyalties, and the conflicts involved in staying true to them. Which leads me to another emerging theme, which was the idea of redemption. In the Clash books several of my characters change for better or worse, in ways that I hope readers find interesting.

DJ: I’m always curious when authors finish a series, how close to the original course they stayed when it is finally completed or if it ended up evolving and changing. Did the plot stay the same as you had first imagined it? How about the ending? The evolution of your characters?

Alan: I always knew how the various story arcs would resolve. I knew how the climactic scenes would work out, I knew who would live and who would die. I’d seen the last scenes vividly in my mind for years, but I held off from writing them until everything else was done.

Having said that, some of the intervening events did change. Some scenes were cut, others expanded. Some of the characters – Enopay, Hanska, Taianita – ended up having a bigger hand in the events than I’d anticipated. The characters grew in the telling! And others play a smaller part than I’d originally sketched out for them.

For me, that’s all part of the natural progression of story. I do outline, and in detail, but outlining and preparation only takes me so far. Once I’m deep in the writing, character motivations and strengths end up torqueing things. But those factors tend to make the story stronger.

DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from Eagle and Empire that you can share with us?

Alan: This was an interesting exercise. There’s actually quite a bit of humor in the books, but it surprised me how much the humor relies on the reader being familiar with the characters and situation – a lot of the wit and humor doesn’t really work out of context. So instead I’ll choose the moment where the precocious young Cahokian, Enopay, swears his oath. I’ve already mentioned that Marcellinus’s oaths are integral to his character (“From personal experience, Marcellinus also knew that an oath sworn in blood weighed upon a man’s soul like no other”), but I admit I did find it a chilling moment when I had to put these words into the mouth of a twelve-year-old boy:

“You think I am defeated? No.” Enopay stood. “You think you are the only one who can swear high and mighty oaths? Here is mine. I am Enopay of Cahokia, and I will fight the Mongols until I die.”

DJ: Now that Eagle and Empire is released, what is next for you?

Alan: I’m working on an outline for the next book. It’s a different world from the Clash series, but still alternate history, still ancient-world with… well, let’s just say “precocious technologies.” Some of those possibilities really excite me. When you look back at the history of the ancient world, and the incipient technologies that existed in some parts of it, it’s clear the world might have gone a completely different way. And that’s all I’m saying, for now. 🙂

DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?

Twitter: @alansmale

Facebook: www.facebook.com/AlanSmale

Website: www.alansmale.com

Goodreads: Alan Smale

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alan-smale-6759956/

Reddit: Alan_Smale

Amazon Author Page: Yes

DJ: Before we go, what is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Eagle and Empire and the Clash of Eagles trilogy that we haven’t talked about yet?

Alan: The start of the first book, Clash of Eagles, is very “masculine”, as we begin in the world of the legions. But the rest of the book, and the two sequels, are much more balanced in terms of gender. I’m always worried that some readers may quit after a few chapters because they think it’s just going to be all guys, all the time. It isn’t.

DJ: Is there anything else you would like add?

Alan: Nope, I think that’ll do it!

DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!

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*** Eagle and Empire is published by Del Rey Books and is available TODAY!!! ***

Buy the Book: 

Amazon | Barnes & NobelGoodreads | Kobo

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About the Book:

The award-winning author of Clash of Eagles and Eagle in Exile concludes his masterly alternate-history saga of the Roman invasion of North America in this stunning novel.
 
Roman Praetor Gaius Marcellinus came to North America as a conqueror, but after meeting with defeat at the hands of the city-state of Cahokia, he has had to forge a new destiny in this strange land. In the decade since his arrival, he has managed to broker an unstable peace between the invading Romans and a loose affiliation of Native American tribes known as the League.

But invaders from the west will shatter that peace and plunge the continent into war: The Mongol Horde has arrived and they are taking no prisoners.

As the Mongol cavalry advances across the Great Plains leaving destruction in its path, Marcellinus and his Cahokian friends must summon allies both great and small in preparation for a final showdown. Alliances will shift, foes will rise, and friends will fall as Alan Smale brings us ever closer to the dramatic final battle for the future of the North American continent.


About the Author:

Alan Smale is a professional astronomer, but his writing tastes have always veered more towards alternate and twisted history, fantasy, and horror. His novella of Romans in ancient America, “A Clash of Eagles” in Panverse Two, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and the first book in a trilogy set in the same universe, CLASH OF EAGLES, appeared in 2015 from Del Rey in the US and Titan Books in the UK and Europe. The series continues with EAGLE IN EXILE (March 2016) and will conclude with EAGLE AND EMPIRE (2017). Alan has sold 40 short stories to magazines including Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Abyss & Apex, Paradox, and Scape, and original anthologies Panverse One and Two, Apollo’s Daughters, Book of Dead Things, and Writers of the Future #13.

Alan grew up in England, and has degrees in Physics and Astrophysics from Oxford University. He serves as director of an astrophysical archive, and performs research on black hole binaries at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Alan also sings bass with well-known vocal band The Chromatics, and is co-creator of their educational AstroCappella project.


 

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