AHF Interviews John R. Stuart
John R Stuart is an alternate history writer, author of the Rebel Empire series of novels, that begins with Gettysburg Redux, and comprises to date four novels.
I am a resident of Cambridge, in south central Ontario, Canada, however, I was born and raised and lived for over 60 years in Toronto. Prior to establishing myself as a fulltime writer I was a Telecommunications engineer for Bell Canada.
Facebook : www.facebook.com/John-R-Stuart-348789225215080
John R Stuart's AHF profile: www.alternate-history-fiction.com/john-r-stuart.html
Thank You John R Stuart for your interest in being interviewed. There follows below, the questions and answers:-
How long have you been writing? What is the first work of yours that you remember, and did you do anything with it?
My first attempts at writing occurred many years ago, probably 45 years ago, when I was still in high school. I no longer have copies of these Sci-Fi stories; however, I do recall they were well received and were entered in a Province wide short story competition.
My next attempt at writing is my coming of age short story - MR. JABLOWSKI'S TREASURE which was written for a short story contest.
I began to write seriously in the mid 1980s after my father challenged me to write a book. I've been a voracious reader for years and I had suggested to my father that novel writing looked easy. He threw down the gauntlet and suggested that I couldn't do it. The result was a two-year journey - which led to the development of Gettysburg Redux.
Now with the publishing of the 4th book in the REBEL EMPIRE series - CONFEDERATE KNIGHTS - I feel I've fully realized a live long dream as a writer. Confederate Knights is the final book in the REBEL EMPIRE series and I'm currently working on a crime noir novel set in Paris in 1946 entitled, BLACK STOCKINGS- RED BLOOD.
Who were the earliest authors to be an inspiration for your writing? Which other authors do you consider to be an inspiration and for what reason?
Where do I start? There are many, many writers that I admire and that have influenced me over the years. A partial list would have to include - Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Lee Burke, Frank Herbert, L. Frank Baum, Alexander Dumas and the grand master of them all - George R.R. Martin.
Martin - because he inspired me to write boldly and to do terrible things to my main characters. I have to say more about Martin. In my opinion he is the perhaps the greatest living writer. When I examine his Fire and Ice series I'm blown away by the scope, depth and complexity of his incredible story. How he keeps track of characters and storylines that span multiple books is inspiring.
Special mention must also go to Arturo Perez Reverte and Carlos Ruiz Zafron - because when I read their works I can see the story in a cinematic form in my mind. These two writers use words the way a painter uses paints.
In battles such as Gettysburg, the topography of the land is vital in many ways to the outcome of the battle. Are you inspired by any landscapes or buildings, or even towns and cities? Or do you see them as accompaniments to the achievements of the characters?
With a novel like Gettysburg Redux the topography of the battlefield is more than just fields, hills and ridges, it becomes a fully formed character in the story. I visited Gettysburg in I believe it was 1986, the year before the I began the book. I had always been interested in the American Civil War and I took my family there for a short vacation. It would be impossible to write about the battle of Gettysburg unless one has looked across the fields where Pickett's Charge occurred, or seen the twisted rocky landscape of the Devil's Den or imagined what the charge up Little Round Top was like.
The idea for Gettysburg Redux took seed when I was on a guided tour of the battlefield and the guide relayed the fact that if General Richard (Old Baldy) Ewell had strenuously continued the battle on day one, there was a strong likelihood that the Federal army would have been defeated and the disasters of day two and three would never have occurred. It came to me, that if one fact had been altered the course of the war would have been changed and possibly world history as well.
How easy is it to keep track of a major battle in your writing? Do you game it out, or have a physical board where you can see the units and their positions, or do you manage to hold it all in your head?
With a battle of historical importance - such as Gettysburg I simply based my alternative battle on the actual battlefield and then picked several logical, but different outcomes and additional conflicts. For the Battle of Serpent's Mounds, I sat down and drew out the terrain, and then plotted out the defensive positions and lines of attack. Once I was happy with it, I mapped it out and included the map in the book.
I will admit, creating a completely new fictional battle was both creatively exciting and somewhat terrifying. It had to appear plausible and I spent a great deal of time looking at actual Civil War engagements to research the new battle. It's a bit like choregraphing a dance, there's a lot of moving pieces, especially when you are writing on a grand scale. The challenge is to insure the individual characters don't get lost in the chaos of the battle.
How much do you worry about getting the patterns of speech, and the individual nuances of an individual's vocabulary correct, where these are historical figures rather than characters of your own creation?
A book like Gettysburg Redux which contains both historical and characters of my creation would't succeed unless the characters spoke in the correct vernacular and style. The pattern and style of speech for a character like Robert E. Lee or James Longstreet by necessity had to be quite different to that of a common soldier like Ben Gallows or Brooks Callahan. Now the historical character - General Jubal Early was a joy to use, because he was a foul-mouthed, coarse evil old man. It's hard to find a period in history that is as fun to explore and write about as the Old South of the Civil war era.
How much knowledge of how events really went do you expect on the part of your readers? Do you think it is important that they understand the details of where history changes, or only the overall effect after the battle?
For a book like Gettysburg Redux, it probably helps if the reader has a basic understanding of the American Civil war and the battle itself, but once the fabric of history is bent and altered I don't think historical knowledge is too important. Once again, most readers of alt fiction have a reasonable knowledge and I think that's why they can appreciate the subtleties of the altered story.
For the other three books in the series, where the timeline has been altered so greatly, historical knowledge isn't required.
Do you feel a degree of sacrilege when you kill a major historical character in your writing, who in reality survived the war, or badly wound someone who escaped such a wound in reality?
Sacrilege, no it's mandatory. If a writer is going to tackle an alternative history story it is paramount to alter the actual events of history, and for me there is no better way to do that, then to alter the lives of famous historical characters. A prime example would be the untimely death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. I believe if he had been in command of the Confederate forces on the first day at Gettysburg, it would have been a completely different outcome. Would a Confederate victory at Gettysburg have won the war for the CSA- perhaps?
Every reader of history has their favourite historical characters, who would you say yours were in this period of the American Civil War, and why? Are some of them anti-heroes rather than heroes? And does your opinion of them affect in anyway the fate you have in store for them in the story?
Beyond a doubt, my favourite Civil War character is General Robert E. Lee. Here is a man that lost the war, yet is regarded as one of the greatest generals in US military history. He was held in such high regard that he offered a command in both the Confederate and Federal armies, image what that decision must have been like? If he had accepted the command of the Union army I suspect the Civil war would have been a significantly shorter war.
I also have a great interest in Confederate General Jeb Stuart. At one time, I considered writing an entire alt history novel on Stuart, but I couldn't find a story that inspired me. I did write about Jeb again, and dedicated an entire chapter to him in Confederate Knights.
How far ahead have you plotted the long-term story that begins in Gettysburg Redux?
Gettysburg Redux was originally written as three separate books. With the title of THE SOUTHERN TIDE. Part one was the GRAY WOLVES, Part Two was WITH FIRE AND SWORD, and Part Three was THE SERPENT'S JAWS. When I completed the initial three parts I had a vague idea to continue the story with a fourth novel where the victorious Confederacy was a dominate world power and it was embroiled in a long bitter war with Great Britain.
A major part of the proposed storyline would have included a military alliance between the CSA and the German Empire. After Gettysburg Redux was published in 2012 as book one of REBEL EMPIRE, I decided to continue the story and those early story ideas became - book 2, REBELS & DESPERADOS.
R&D grew into what I believe is a much better story than I had initially intended. I believe it's important for a writer to grow and explore the craft of writing and when I set out to write R&D I wanted to shift from a traditional military history based story to a much more action packed form of alternative history narrative that was a fusion of Jessie James and James bond with a strong measure of the Wild Bunch thrown in for good measure.
The third book - FOR THE GOOD OF THE CONFEDERACY was a natural extension of the storyline from book two. There I continued the war between the CSA and Britain, and threw an Empire of Japan and German Empire alliance. It was a fulfilling opportunity to complete the story of the protagonist and villain from book two.
What sort of journey has it been to bring your work to publication?
It's been a long and challenging trip. Back in 1994 I followed the traditional process of seeking an agent, editor and publisher. I must have send out over 100 hundred query letters, and as is so often the case - no one was interested. The book discs went into a box and gathered dust for nearly twenty years until - the age of self-publishing arose. As soon as I realized I no longer needed a publisher I decided to enter the world of self-publishing. The only problem now was that the first book was on old floppy discs and was written in the antiquated Lotus 123 system. It took me nearly six months and hundreds of hours to correct the book and fix the formatting and eventually convert it to WORD.
Tell us about how the cover for Gettysburg Redux came about?
When I was ready to publish Gettysburg Redux I realized the next hurdle to be faced was to get a cover. Today, there are lots of programs and web based applications for the design of an eBook cover, but in 2012 it wasn't that easy. I've been very active in the hobby of collecting original comic book art, so I immediately thought that I could use one of my comic book artist friends to produce a cover for me. The artist that initially took the cover commission had to decline the job due to previous commitments. I then went to my second choice - Filipino artist Lan Medina and he did an incredible job. I had admired his work for many years and he had a window of opportunity which met my needs perfectly. I provided him with several pictures of Confederate soldiers and weapons and I laid out the key elements that I felt would describe the story. I was interested in a cover image that would bring to mind a gritty battlefield drawing, as if it had been done by a veteran of the war. The final product was an amazing 11 x17 ink wash battle scene featured two of the book's major characters. The cover art is hanging on my office wall in a place of honour.
If you could go back in time to learn the truth about one historical mystery or disputed event what would it be?
That's a difficult question. I would probably want to go back in time to December 15th, 1944 to see what actually happened when famous band leader and musician Major Glen Miller disappeared. His plane went somewhere In the English Channel. What happened, was it engine failure, was it friendly fire or is there a deeper mystery to be solved?
Another mystery that I'm interested in is finding out what happened to Raul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was responsible for saving the lives of a least 100,000 Jews in Budapest during WW2. He was arrested by the Soviets in 1945 and then disappeared without a trace.
When you create afresh a great character for one book, do you find it easy to have them play a role in a sequel, or do you worry that you are shoe-horning them in, or giving them mere vignettes simply because they are known from the previous book?
I try not to use a character unless they will play an integral part in the story. There can be a tendency to shoe-horn a character in, but I find that doesn't work well, it's almost like window dressing. One of the things I like best about writing is the creation of new characters, and choosing an interesting name for them. I get great satisfaction in that part of the writing process. I do believe that using characters in sequels adds a great deal of continuity to the story, these are characters the reader knows and are familiar with.
With alt history fiction, a writer also needs to use real people from history. That gives the story a feeling of authenticity. Choosing those actual historical people can be a challenge as they need to be both interesting and also fit into the story. For me, I used people that came from the hierarchy of the C.S.A military to build the foundation of my stories, and then created characters that complimented those actual characters and energized the story. Many of these real characters were 'larger than life people', they make writing very easy. People like James Longstreet, Jubal Early, Al Swearengen and Nickola Tesla provide that genuine atmosphere.
During the writing of my novels I purposely created a library of characters to use in the books, and often these characters didn't actually get into the story. Almost like the editing process of a movie, where certain scenes end up on the cutting room floor. If they make the cut, they're in my opinion a great character, if not they may still be interesting, but just didn't fit into that storyline.
Some of these characters were the genesis for the last book - CONFEDERATE KNIGHTS. A friend of mine said to me one day "What really happened to Big Drake Kensington in Rebels & Desperados?" I really loved writing about Drake Kensington and I had killed him off, shall we say - off camera. I realized I needed to finish that story and that led to CONFEDERATE KNIGHTS, and gave me an opportunity to devote a single chapter to some of these either unused characters, or ones that needed a definitive ending.
Have you tried for a common theme among the covers of all books in the series? As a self-publisher, do you feel you have complete control over this aspect of publishing, unlike those who go the traditional route?
Since I was writing about an alt history time-line where the CSA have become a world power, it made sense to incorporate the Confederate battle flag on each of the covers. As a self-publisher, I have the creative freedom to decide what images to use. That can also be a challenge that writers with a regular publisher don't face. For those writers, the publisher usually determines what the cover image will be. But I don't have that problem. For Rebels & Desperados I needed a rugged outlaw's image for the wanted poster featuring my main character - Black Jude Lee. Since I had based that charter's appearance on my son - Andrew, it only seemed fitting to use a photo of him from his scruffy younger, days as Black Jude on the cover.
When it came time to design a cover for CONFEDERATE KNIGHTS, I played around with a variety of ideas and it finally came to me that using the actual image of one of the characters would be hard to improve on, so I found a great image of General Jeb Stuart.
While I do have complete control of my books, let's not kid ourselves. Every independent writer would love to have a main-stream publisher sign them and publish their works. In today's market, there are literally thousands of writers struggling to find a publisher. I consider it to be like the chances of winning big at the lottery- for most of us - it just ain't going to happen.
The biggest problem independent writers face is getting exposure. Let's face it for every famous main stream book there are thousands of other books from independent writers out there that are just as good, perhaps better. The difficulty is finding a way to get your books into the reader's device. I normally find that once a reader finishes the first book of the Rebel Empire series, they continue on to read the remaining three books.
As the series developed did you get a feeling for one character that they would have a great destiny to the end of the series and thus need to be "protected" in events to come?
When I completed Gettysburg Redux I was planning on using Ben Gallows as the prime character for the future novels in the series. When I sat down years later to write the first sequel I discarded that idea to create new characters. For me writing has to keep me interested, interested in my own stories and characters. I don't think most readers truly understand the writing process and how drawn-out and boring it can become. A writer becomes immersed in their story often for months and years. If the writer isn't interested and excited by the characters- then I doubt they will produce an interesting story.
That being said, some characters must fall to allow others to rise. If I learned anything from the books of George R.R. Martin, is that no one is "protected".
John R Stuart, Thank You very much!
John R Stuart's books can be bought at the following locations.
The Rebel Empire series begins with Gettysburg Redux:-
You can buy the second book,Rebels and Desperados:-
You can buy the third book, For The Good of the Confederacy:-
The fourth book of the Rebel Empire series is Confederate Knights:-
John R Stuart has published two books that are not in the Rebel Empire series. These are Ramble On:-
and Mr Jablowski's Treasure:-