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Volume 7857

How Did You Discover Edgar Rice Burroughs? ~ Part II

Den visits ERBzine's Bill Hillman
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Those arenít regular alternate histories?
Theyíre more fantasy or science fiction,
than the sort of things people think of with alternate history.
A lot of alternate histories are pretty cliche.  The Confederacy wins the Civil War, or the Germans win World War II.  Theyíve both been done to death.

But history, human history, is this vast tapestry, and it is so fluid an anarchic.

I think weíve largely discredited the ĎGreat Maní theory of history, this notion, that history is created and driven by Ďsuperhumaní ĎGreat Mení who rewrite the maps.  If Napoleon didnít exist, Revolutionary France had lots of talented generals, and more importantly it had soldiers and advantages, and its enemies had disadvantages. Without Napoleon, weíd still have the Napoleonic Wars, weíd just call them something different.  Or take Isaac Newton, if he didnít exist, other scientists would have come up with all of his stuff within a generation. We talk Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison, but a lot of other people were working on powered flight and light bulbs.

But in rejecting that, weíve fallen into this notion of historical determinism.  Itís all economics and demographics and geography and thatís that. Start with Sumer and Persepolis, and weíd eventually get Rome and Beijing, and weíd eventually end up here, more or less.  Thereís something to that, but a lot less than the determinists think.

The truth is that history, the human story, is a chaotic one. They say a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world.  Thereís something to that.  History is full of so many arbitrary choices, and these arbitrary choices and events have consequences. Potentially huge consequences.

Iíll give you two examples - gunpowder and penicillin.  Both of these were complete flukes.

The Chinese didnít set out to invent gunpowder, they had this cockeyed medical tradition based on mixing and matching random substances based on arbitrary values. The people who invented gunpowder were ironically trying to come up with an immortality elixir. It was a complete accident.

Well, as an accident, it could have never happened. We might never have discovered gunpowder, or if we did, it could have been decades, centuries, a thousand years later.  Imagine how the last thousand years of history happens without gunpowder? Totally different.

Or, since it was accident, it could have happened anywhere, any time when someone was screwing around with potions.  The Romans could have come up with it two thousand years ago, the Greeks twenty-five hundred years ago, the Persians three thousand years ago.  Pick any one of those, history is crazy different. Hell, the Olmecs or the Andeans in the New World could have stumbled over it - imagine Europeans encountering gunpowder empires in the new world?

Penicillin - discovered completely as a fluke, as a result of an insecure laboratory. A bit of mold blows in, a guy looks at a slide at the right moment, he draws the right conclusion. Thereís no reason that had to happen. What if it didnít?  Thereís an argument weíd have figured it out eventually, we had the scientific method, we had a lot of researchers and scientists. But how long would that take?  Ten years? Twenty?  Forty?  How many inferior less effective options would have been followed. We have a problem with Big Pharma, imagine Big Pharma investing billions in non-antibiotics and fighting to protect their investment and infrastructure? How many people would have died from lack of antibiotics, from inferior options, and how would that have affected things. Would wars have turned out the same without large scale antibiotics to save lives? Would farming develop the same way without systemic use, or would there be less food, smaller herds, more expensive livestock? What about how we practice medicine?

Or supposing antibiotics had been figured out or discovered a generation earlier?  Could it have been a century earlier?  How does that change things?

Historical determinism takes a beating.  Itís there, yes - geography, demographics, economics, climate, disease, the big picture stuff.  But thereís so much more, and thereís so much arbitrariness.  Itís fascinating.

Everywhere you look in history, you can find points where a decision or event could have gone a different way, and everything would turn out differently.  We can embrace thought experiments, assuming different things happened, and work out where that goes.

I like the deep stuff, the obscure stuff.  Itís a chance to do deep research, to go off in interesting directions.

On top of Green Antarctica and Ice and Mice, Iíve actually published a couple of alternate history books on top of the online stuff.

What are they?

I did a book called Bear Cavalry, itís published.
It was inspired by an internet meme - you know youíre in trouble when the enemy cavalry coming at you arenít riding horses, theyíre riding bears!  I worked out a pathway for bears to get picked up in Labrador, domesticated by Vikings in Iceland, who raise them as a replacement for pigs, eventually ride them, and then eventually, medieval knights are riding into battle.  A lot of research, but it was fun, and fun to write.

Vikings, Bears and Knights - sounds like fun.

What was the other one?

I did another book, actually a two book series called Axis of Andes.  This involves real war - the Peru-Ecuador War of 1941.  In real history, itís just a nothing thing, it lasts a month, a few hundred people are killed, Ecuador lost 40% of its territory, but no one lived there.

It turned out that way because Ecuador was a basket case in the Depression. They went through something like fifteen changes of government in ten years. When the war was on, the President of Ecuador kept his best troops in Quito because he was more afraid of being overthrown than the invaders.

But supposing things went differently. Some little change, a flip of a coin, and instead, Ecuador has a stable government for ten years, a stable government that sees the war coming, and does everything it can to prepare and win... including getting in bed with Adolph Hitler.  And the next thing you know, what in our history is a little brushfire, becomes a real war with a country bent on defending itself, that turns into a raging firestorm that drags in country after country until all of South America is burning.

It reads like a real history book - not a novel in a historical setting.  There are narrative bits, but actually, the characters are the countries, and the focus is on the tragic comic history of South America leading up to the war, and the human ambitions and failures of the war itself.

Itís actually my best selling book. I think it might have a cult following. Go figure.

These books - Axis of Andes, Bear Cavalry, Dawn of Cthulhu and Fall of Atlantis,
theyíre all self published right?

Yes they are.  Under my Fossil Cove imprint.  I also publish a few other writers - Scott Ellis and R.J. Hore. Remind me to talk about that later.

I didnít start out as a self publisher.  I had a lot of short stories published in magazines and anthologies, and my big breakthrough was a novel, The Mermaidís Tale, published by Five Riverís Press in Ontario.  I had a contract for a second novel with Five Rivers before they closed down.

And Iíve got a book coming out with At Bay Press called Twilight of Echelon. Remind me to talk about that later, too.

And I am querying publishers and agents with my actual novels, Iíve got about four in play.  Working on novels five and six.

But yes. I self publish.  About twenty books so far, itís hard to keep track.  It started out as an experiment - mainly non-commercial, but personal projects that I thought had value, that I wanted in the world. The commercial projects, I keep taking to commercial publishers. But there was stuff, I didnít think anyone would see enough money in, so I just wanted them in the world myself.

It was an interesting learning experience.  Iíd like to think I got pretty good at it, at the whole process.

Except marketing.  I suck there.  But Iím learning all the time. Maybe someday Iíll get the hang of that.

. .



What made you decide to start self publishing?

Oddly, it was getting my first novel, The Mermaidís Tale, published by Five Rivers.  Suddenly, I felt like a real writer, and I had a contract for the next book, I was on the verge of a real career.

The thing was, it was like with Bill and ERBzine.  I had a lot of stuff just floating around in my hard drive that Iíd done and no one was seeing.  I guess it comes back to Bill, inspiring me that maybe there was a place in the world for my stuff.

Iíd written all these short stories, published in small magazines. Well, now they were burned, theyíd published. Thereís not a lot of market for short story reprints, everyone wants original stories. But the magazines were long one.  I wanted them out in the world again.

Iíd been doing these film reviews for Doctor Who fan films, I thought theyíd make a nice book.

Iíd worked on a book about the LEXX television series. It was a space opera that came out of Nova Scotia, by the same people who did The Industry, and Made in Canada. Very regional, brilliaantly surrealistic and absurd.

Iíd fallen in love with the series, I was a huge fan, and Iíd been invited by the creators to write the book.  I spent three years working on it. It went through several publishers, then it died.  Iíd gone up a giant blind alley and came out with nothing.

Thatís actually what killed my writing career, until Bill Hillman came along.

But anyway, with LEXX, it kind of broke me to lose that book. I thought I was so close to getting published and launching a career.  In the end, three years of work, ending in nothing.

I said ďto hell with it,Ē wrote the book I wanted to write, exactly the way I wrote it.  I printed one copy, gave it to the star, and then stuck it in my hard drive to gather dust.

Youíre starting to see a theme? I had all kinds of stuff crowding my hard drive that was basically homeless - published and now unpublishable, or obscure, or failed or just quirky and interesting, but I didnít see a market for it.

None of it was really economic.  None of it would appeal to a commercial publisher.  But I still thought it was good stuff that deserved to be out in the world.

I thought, why not?  Why not take some of these things in the hard drive that had no commercial prospects, and do them up, set them free, release them to the world?  How hard could it be?  A lot harder than I expected actually, but thatís another story.

I had the confidence from Bill Hillman, and from publishing a real novel with Five Rivers, to assure me that I was a decent writer and my work was worthwhile.  I was a real writer, I had established that. I had a real book published with a real publisher, and I had a contract for another.

I wasnít self publishing because I wasnít good enough to get published any other way.  I was good enough. Iíd proven that to myself.  That gave me the freedom and confidence to decide to experiment with self publishing.

So I just started slowly emptying out the hard drive, a few books a year.

I think my first books were Dawn of Cthulhu, then LEXX, then a Who book.  And after that, a few more books each year. Particularly short story collections.

What are your short story collections?

I have five of them out, or maybe seven, depending on how you classify them.

I have three collections of horror stories. I released them one a year.   Giant Monsters Sing Sad Songs, There are No Doors in Dark Places and What Hungers Also Devours.  I used to write a lot of horror. Not so much now, maybe Iím better adjusted.

But dark haunting stories of vulnerable people in vulnerable situations, desperation and insecurity, and monsters of course. Lots of monsters.

Horror is probably the most genuine literature.  Literature is really about who we are as people. But as people, we live with a lot of masks, a lot of falsehoods, we have this security that insulates us from the world.

But the thing with horror, really good horror, this is about the truth of us. Itís about our vulnerabilty, our insecurity, the genuine self with the armor and insulation stripped away.  Horror is not about action or inaction, itís about reaction.  Something happens, something happens that we donít want, and we have to deal with it.  Thereís some deep honesty there, we find who we really are, when weíre vulnerable and under pressure.  Horror is us without the masks of our self pretensions.

I suppose that raises Burroughs, doesnít it?  With Tarzan, he had this idea of trying to get back to the ultimate truth. His idea was that civilization was all about masks and pretensions, this wall of artifice that took us from our true selves.  Tarzan was Rousseauís Ďnoble savageí without the hypocrisy and cruelty of civilization.

Interesting, I never really thought about the parallel.  I think Iím a lot less optimistic than Burroughs, though.

In horror, the masks are the monsters. In real horror, in effective horror, the monster is always a mask. Itís this rubber mask, this metaphor pulled over what really scares us and freaks us out.  Itís a way to deal with something we canít deal with, confront what we canít face. And in that way, horror is the most genuine, the most honest literature, because itís about dealing with what really disturbs us. Itís wrestling through metaphor with the things we canít cope with directly.

Thatís good horror.  Crap horror is, like every other kind of crap, just more crap.  Crap literature of any kind, even the high-falutin literary kind, is just junk. As I said before, judge by the best, because if we judge by the worst, nothing survives, and if you selectively pick the best here and the worst there, to compare, then youíre not being honest.

Iíd like to think I write good horror.  I hope I do.

I did a couple of original stories for the collections.  But almost all the stories were previously published - several of them got Honorable Mentions in Years Best Fantasy and Horror or Years Best Science Fiction anthologies, I even got a paragraph mention in the annual round-up one year.  I remember years after they were published, Iíd run across people at conventions that remembered them, which is a weird but flattering.

Maybe I do write good horror?

Then I did two collections of funny fantasy stories - Terry Pratchett style stuff.  Drunk Slutty Elf and Other Stories, and Drunk Slutty Elf and Zombies

I actually wrote the title stories especially for the collections - there are three stories and thirty thousand words about the Drunk Slutty Elf, and her friend/employer a Gray space alien looking for parts of his crashed ship.

Itís funny stuff, hopefully. Stories about the secret life of giant monsters, ghosts behaving badly, vampires that canít get away from their fans, ghost hunters encountering hamsters from other dimensions, a King Kong meets Dracula.

Humor, comedy, is often the flip side of horror.  Humor is often about horrible or disturbing things, itís a break or disruption in the natural flow, the normal state of things.  Itís a cognitive dissonance.  Itís just that itís happening to someone else, far away.  Thereís a degree of removal.

I will analyze horror.  I try not to analyze humor. Nothing kills a joke like trying to explain it.

I had my first ever book launch for the Drunk Slutty Elf books - fifteen books in, finally got around to it.

I also got into trouble with them - some people were very offended by the title, Drunk Slutty Elf.  I donít think it was the Elf part that offended. I took some flack, from both the prudish and the PC sides.  For the book launch, I had to call the collective set the ĎDrunk Elf Chronicles.í

Iíll be honest, thereís something like a million books published every year. Regular, normal, bland titles... thatís just lost in the crowd. I tried that already. I wanted book titles that would push the envelope. If that meant shock and offend, so be it. At least it gets people to pay attention.

But hereís the thing about the ĎDrunk Slutty Elfí character. Sheís uncontrollably promiscuous, but doesnít care about sex, sheís constantly driven to get as intoxicated as possible, sheís glib and superficial, sheís unable to form real relationships or friendships, sheís manipulative. Add up those symptoms: Thereís something very dark in her history, her childhood. Remember the flip side of humor. I kind of want to explore that in the character someday.

The thing with a character like that - sheíd be a walking nightmare to live with or be up close to in real life.  But in fiction, with a little distance, sheís a hilarious train wreck of a character spreading chaos wherever she goes.  Or at least I hope so.  I invite you to read and decide.

. .


Thatís five, you mentioned two more?

The Dawn of Cthulhu, that was actually my first self-pub. It was an experiment.  It was three pieces - a History of Lovecraftís Cthulhu Cult, an exploration of actual real-life lost continents (there actually are sunken continents, they just sank a long time ago), and biology and evolution of muppets if they were real animals. I thought that maybe, given how popular Lovecraft is, if I had Cthulhu in the title, I might sell a few books.

The other was a follow up, a few years later - The Dawn of Atlantis - itís got Atlantis as an ecological story, Greenland without the ice, a rigorous path of Romans to the new world, and a 50s sci fi cinematic universe..

Iím thinking of doing one more, Iíve got a few pieces in progress.

Den's Interview is Continued in
Part III: ERBzine 7858

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