Excerpted from 1812: The Rivers of War by Eric Flint. Copyright © 2005 by Eric Flint. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Interview with Eric Flint, author of The Rivers of War:
Question:The Rivers of War isn’t your first alternate history by any means, but it is your first without a science fiction or fantasy element to it. Why the change of pace?
Eric Flint:Two reasons, basically. The first is simply practical. My editor (Steve Saffel) thought that a “pure” alternate history would sell better than one involving a science fiction or fantasy element. Since the project was his idea in the first place, I could hardly refuse. The second reason is that I thought it would be an interesting change for me, anyway.
Q:Do you consider alternate history to be science fiction even if it doesn’t contain science-fictional trappings such as time travel, aliens, technological anachronisms, etc.? Or is it instead a subgenre of historical fiction?
EF:To be blunt, I really don’t give a damn. All of these distinctions between genres and sub-genres–including the very concept of “genre” itself–are completely artificial. Fundamentally, they’re nothing more than marketing devices. If a publisher and/or distributor decides that a given piece of fiction will sell better as historical fiction–or “techno-thriller,” or “serious literature,” or whatever–than as science fiction, that’s how they’ll market it.
But, objectively speaking, the distinctions are absurd. If you were to take it seriously, you’d have to start shelving in the science fiction and fantasy section such works as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Of course it’s a fantasy! No whale that ever lived acts like Moby Dick.) The same with most of the works by Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, and Rabelais–and Tom Clancy, for that matter.
Q:In the postmodern world, the idea of objective history has been replaced by what might be termed a marketplace of subjective histories, in which various interpretations and approaches compete for acceptance. In a sense, it almost seems that there is no history, but only alternate histories. Is your narrative approach here, using multiple viewpoint characters, a reflection of this?
EF:No. I consider that “postmodern” conception of history ridiculous to begin with. Granted, history is a very imprecise science, since so much of the data is hard to dig up in the first place and is then subject to many different interpretations. So? To a greater or lesser degree, the same is true with any scientific field of study. The fact remains that history has an objective reality every bit as fixed as any other area of human intellectual endeavor, regardless of how fuzzy our view of any period of history may be.
However you slice and dice it, it remains a fact that Alexander the Great crushed the Persian Empire at Gaugamela on or about September 30, 331 BCE. You can argue over the exact date and whether to call the battle “Gaugamela” or “Arbela,” and any number of other details. But that it happened basically as recorded is simply an objective reality, not a subjective “interpretation.”
Were that not true, we would be living in a very different world today.
The historical analysis that underlies The Rivers of War is essentially mine, based on a lifetime of the study of history. The reason for the use of multiple viewpoints is twofold. First, to illustrate that what people think of themselves will vary from one person to the next. One person’s villain is another person’s hero, depending on where they stand. The second reason is simply that I think it increases the dramatic effectiveness of the story.
Q:Rivers of War is set during the War of 1812 and features a large cast of historical characters ranging from Andrew Jackson to Sam Houston to the Cherokees John Ross and Major Ridge. Where do the events of the novel depart from history, and why did you choose that particular branching-off point?
EF:Oh, there’s no secret about it, since I’ve discussed it publicly any number of times now. The “break point” in the novel is simple and quite modest. At the Battle of the Horseshoe Bend, Sam Houston suffers only a minor flesh wound in the course of leading the charge over the Creek barricade, instead of the terrible wound that almost killed him in real history. That means he’s able to continue participating in the rest of the War of 1812, and his continued involvement produces a cascading chain of events that produces some different historical results.
The reason I chose that break point was because I decided I wanted to work with Sam Houston as my central character in the story. That decision made, I looked for a suitable break point and this one was obvious.
Q:I take it that you have a background in American history. What drew you to this period and subject?
EF:My master’s degree is in African history. My interest in American history actually developed after I left college. My background in it is really nothing more than very extensive reading.
As for why I chose this period and subject, see Question 1 above. My editor asked me if I could write an alternate history of America in which the Trail of Tears didn’t happen. That was the nature of the project in the first place, so it pretty much automatically set the place and (to a degree) the time. I decided to start almost a quarter of century before the Trail of Tears, because I figured I’d need that much “lead time”–call it “divergence time,” if you will–to make the story work right.
Q:There can be a thorny moral dimension to alternate histories, especially in their relationship to the “true” histories they supplant. In your novel, for example, the Trail of Tears, one of the most infamous and tragic episodes in American history, doesn’t take place. How would you respond to someone who challenged your right, in even a work of fiction, to “erase” this atrocity from American history, in the process also erasing the suffering of the victims and the guilt of the perpetrators?
EF:My response would be to point out that one of the central points of the novel is that categories like “victims” and “perpetrators” are almost meaningless to begin with. Just to name one thing, one of the points of the novel is that the only class of people who can really be considered simply “victims” in the story are black people, not Cherokees.
That can be illustrated graphically by posing a simple question:
First, let’s set the framework. Thousands of Cherokees died on the Trail of Tears–and the casualty rates were even worse for the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws, because their leadership wasn’t of the caliber of John Ross. The exact numbers are in dispute, but it was certainly several thousand and no figure advanced is ever lower than about two thousand. Even that lowest number constitutes 10% of the Cherokee nation at the time–which means that by any definition legally accepted today, the Trail of Tears constituted an act of genocide on the part of the U.S. government.
It was certainly an act of genocide against the Creeks, of whom the best estimate is that half the tribe died on the march. To put that in perspective–and in case anyone thinks the term “genocide” is excessive on my part–keep in mind that although the absolute numbers involved were much greater, Adolf Hitler never killed half the Jews in the world during the Holocaust.
In short, measured by any criterion I can think of, the Trail of Tears was one of the vilest episodes in American history. It was made even worse because, in the case of the Cherokees and Choctaws, it was also a treacherous act on the part of the U.S. government. George Washington treated the Iroquois about as harshly during the Revolutionary War–but at least he had the rationale that the Iroquois were allied with the British and driving them out of New York was essential to the war effort. There was no such excuse for the Trail of Tears. The Cherokees had been allies of the Americans during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and posed no military threat to the U.S. whatsoever.
Okay, fine. Now here’s the kicker: How many black slaves of the Cherokees also died on the Trail of Tears?
The answer is that ... nobody knows. Neither the Cherokees nor the whites involved kept a record of it.
My point in all this is not to excuse the Trail of Tears. It was, as I said, an act of genocide on the part of the U.S. government and one of the worst episodes in the history of the American republic. My point is that you can’t reduce the event to a melodrama with no one on the stage except “victims” and “perpetrators.” It was far more complex than that, and, in many respects, something that happened mostly because everyone–Cherokees as well as whites–blundered toward it. Just about everything that could have gone wrong, did, given the basic historical framework within which everyone was operating. What I try to do in the novel is show how, in an alternate history where most of the major figures involved made better decisions, the end result could have been quite different–and had a major impact on American history as a whole, not simply the history of the Cherokees taken in isolation.
There are, in fact, no “villains” at all in The Rivers of War, beyond a small number of minor characters like a thuggish militiaman and an arrogant British admiral. All of the major characters who figure in the story, whether American–white or black–Cherokee or British, are fundamentally attractive figures.
Yes, even Andrew Jackson, who–as I remind the reader several times–had an impact on American history so fundamental that most of the criticisms leveled against him today (and properly so) are couched in Jacksonian terms to begin with. The stark choice that Jackson presents to Houston early in the novel is one that readers have to come to grips with, and not shuffle aside as an inconvenience to moralistic prattling about “history.” That the American republic committed many crimes in the course of forging itself–the worst, by far, being the institution of black chattel slavery, in which the Indian tribes participated quite willingly–is something that can’t be denied by anyone except a shameless jingoist. But if anyone thinks that the world’s autocratic regimes of the time had any better track record, they’re living in a fantasy world–and the one great advantage to the republic was that it contained a self-correcting mechanism. Take him all in all, during this period in American history Andrew Jackson was the single individual who drove through much of that self-correction.
No, not all of it. There is no magic in history. But an awful lot of it. To name one thing–does anyone in their right mind think you could have the civil rights we take for granted today, in a world where people could be imprisoned for debt? Not hardly–and it was Jackson who got rid of debt imprisonment. To name another, the trade unions have generally been a bastion for civil rights for decades now–and it was Jackson and his followers who were the main political champions of the trade union movement at the time. To name a third, one of the fundamental presuppositions for all civil rights legislation–so fundamental that people don’t usually even think of it–is the elimination of property restrictions on voting. And ... once again, that profound democratization of the American republic, without which nothing else would have been possible, is mostly the doing of Jackson and his followers. That’s why Jackson remains, to this day, the only figure in American history for whom an entire era is named. Yup, it’s true. Historians regularly refer to it as “the Jacksonian Era.” No historian I know of talks about a “Washingtonian Era” or a “Lincolnian Era” or any other.
I did that deliberately, because it’s one of the main points of the novel. Much of what happens in history, including some of the worst things, cannot be explained by the easy and convenient mechanism of “villainy.” A wrong, often enough, is the result of two rights colliding. The flip side of that, of course, if that if people had made the right decisions–which they could have done–then things might have developed very differently, especially in the long run.
Q:It’s obvious that writing an historical novel takes a lot of research into primary and secondary sources. But what about an alternate history? Once the alternate stream of events diverges from the historical, unless it rejoins that main stream later on, aren’t you as free to make things up as you would be in any work of fiction?
EF:No, not really. It’s true that once you get far enough past the “break point” you no longer have to worry about every little detail. (Like exactly how many guns and of what type Commodore Patterson had on the west bank of the Mississippi on January 8, 1815.) But a good alternate history still has to be steeped in the actual history of the times. The truth is, the research really never ends. It takes me, on average, twice as long to write an alternate history novel as it does a fantasy or a straight science fiction novel–assuming the same length of all books being compared–and the difference is entirely in the time needed for research and double-checking historical data.
Q:How closely do your characters resemble what we know of them from history? Do you use their written or spoken words? What else do you do to ensure fidelity to the historical record . . . and what liberties do you feel justified in taking? Just to focus on one area, are the strikingly progressive racial attitudes of your Sam Houston an accurate reflection of the real Houston’s beliefs?
EF:To take your questions in order:
-- They bear a very close resemblance in the case of those characters for whom we have an extensive record, such as Houston, Jackson, Monroe, Winfield Scott, etc. In the case of some, such as Major General Robert Ross, all that remains is the dry facts of his military career. I had to develop his character pretty much from scratch, although nothing I posit is in contradiction to what’s recorded. Finally, in the case of some other characters (such as Patrick Driscol) the only thing in the historical record is the sketchiest possible data–in his case, not even his name being recorded. Those characters are pretty much purely fictional.
-- I use neither their written or spoken words, as a rule. In the case of written, because people in that era wrote very differently than they spoke, and putting their written language into dialogue would have been absurd. (The one exception in the novel is the letter written by Francis Scott Key. Obviously, I made up the content of the letter. But the stylistic devices were taken from actual letters of the period.) In the case of spoken words, although I sprinkled a bit of the dialect of the time into the dialogue, for the most part I simply have the characters speaking in modern contemporary idiom, except that I avoided obviously anachronistic terms. (No one, for instance, will speak of “firing on all cylinders.”) I do this in every alternate history I write, because I think that trying to use period dialect throws the baby out with the bathwater. Inevitably, period dialect sounds stilted to a modern audience–where that same dialect would not have sounded stilted to people using it. The truth is that all people, everywhere and at all times, speak in ... modern contemporary idiom. So that’s what I use.
-- Yes, Houston’s attitudes as expressed in the novel are in fact his. The one liberty I took was presuming that attitudes of his which were recorded at a later period, when he was in his mid-thirties, were the same attitudes he had as a young man. I can’t prove that, of course. But it seems a fair presumption to make. Given that Houston was ultimately a man of his time, the fact remains that anyone who studies his life can’t help but be impressed at the extent to which he chafed against the prejudices of his day. In the case of Houston, there are a multitude of episodes in his life that illustrate that.
Going beyond Houston, one of the things I hope people learn from the novel is that simplistic ideas about how racial attitudes developed and were expressed in American history are usually very far from the truth. People tend to make what you can consider a “default assumption,” which is that attitudes on such issues as race and sex get worse and worse the farther you go back in time. But that’s simply not true. The social position of women in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, for instance, was much better than it became in the 18th and 19th centuries. Likewise, racial attitudes in the early part of the 19th century in the South were considerably better than they became later as the tensions leading up to the Civil War brought the hardcore secessionists to a position of influence and eventually power.
Andrew Jackson, for instance, was undoubtedly as harsh in his attitudes on race as he was in his attitudes toward just about everything. But it’s impossible to imagine Jackson ever agreeing with the Dred Scott decision. The fact is that Jackson took a better position on the issue of the right of black freedmen to be armed the first day he arrived to take command in New Orleans than Abraham Lincoln would take even months after the Civil War erupted.
Q:Did your views of any of the major historical figures in the novel change in the course of research and writing?
EF:Well ... without turning this into a ponderous and long essay, I can say the following about how my views changed:
In some cases, they didn’t change at all, or simply got reinforced. I’d known for decades that Sam Houston was one of the most personally attractive major figures in American history. My studies simply reinforced that impression. The same was true, by and large, for my attitudes toward John Ross. On the flip side, I’ve always detested the figure of John Calhoun–and nothing I encountered in my research for The Rivers of War has caused me to change that assessment in the least.
In other cases, I started off with something of a tabula rasa, in the sense that I really had no pre-conceived notions at all. Probably the most important example here is James Monroe. I really knew very little about Monroe when I started the research for the project, other than that he was the fifth President of the U.S. and, of course, is indelibly associated with the expression “the Monroe Doctrine.” (Even if, in my opinion, that doctrine has come to represent something very different–quite antithetical, in fact–to what Monroe ever intended two hundred years ago.) So I was somewhat surprised–pleasantly surprised–to discover that he was, all things considered, one of the most attractive political figures of the time.
Finally, in two instances, I found my attitudes undergoing a significant shift–with regard to Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. (Clay doesn’t figure at all in The Rivers of War, but he was a major historical player of the time and will figure as the story unfolds.) I’d always had a fundamentally hostile attitude toward Jackson, because of his pivotal role in the Trail of Tears. (The Trail of Tears actually happened after Jackson left office, during the Van Buren administration, but it was Jackson who laid the political basis for it.) But the more I studied the man, the more I found myself ... not liking him, exactly, for he was much too harsh and callous a man to “like.” But I did find myself respecting him immensely, and I also came to understand that his motivations were rarely as simple as modern legendry has made them out to be.
In the case of Clay, my evolution went the other way. I started off with pretty much the standard view of Clay imbibed in high school–one of American’s “great statesmen,” and didn’t Abraham Lincoln himself say so? The more I studied him, the more I found myself disliking the man. Two-faced, sanctimonious, always a slave to personal ambition ... basically, as far as I’m concerned, nothing but a wheeler-dealer of the time. A politician in the worst sense of the term. “The Great Compromiser”–and every one of his compromises was rotten.
Q:This is a book of many voices, but Sam Houston is clearly the first among equals, though Old Hickory gives him a run for the money. What drew you to Houston?
EF:He’s just so damn likeable. Houston was no saint, certainly, and he suffered from one major weakness: he was too much the politician to ever be willing to break decisively with the institution of slavery, despite his deep reservations about it. So, yes, he stands condemned as a man of his time–but who ever isn’t? Once you get past that, though, he was just about the best the old South ever produced, both in terms of his talents and his personal morality and his social ethos.
I could give you a multitude of illustrations, but I’ll just use one. Once Texas became a state, Houston alternated as governor with someone else because Texas had term limits that prevented a governor from being immediately re-elected. (By the way, one of the best arguments against term limits you could ask for was the history of Texas in the beginning. There’s no question that Houston would have been re-elected had the law permitted it.) His predecessor got a law passed that gave all black freedmen one month to get out of Texas or be returned to slavery. When Houston came back into the governor’s office, he saw that he didn’t have the political support to get the law reversed. So he simply used his power as governor to pardon every black freedman in the state–and made it clear to the Texas legislature that he’d keep doing it as long as the law was on the books.
That was pretty much Sam Houston. He could never really bring himself to break decisively with the institutions of the old South. But, within those limits, he acted as well as anyone could. He was unusual, for instance, in that he insisted that his slaves got to keep any wages they earned working on the side. (Standard practice of the time was for the slave-owner to rent out his slaves and pocket the wages himself.) He also insisted that all his slaves had to learn to read and write, so they wouldn’t get cheated, even after it became illegal in southern states for slaves to be educated.
No saint, but still one of the most fundamentally decent men who ever played a major role in American political life. I needed a character with his political and military talents, simply given the logic of the story. That said, an author starting a long story is going to be spending a lot of time inside the head of his central character–so I made sure to pick one whose head I’d be comfortable inside. I like Sam Houston. I always have, since I first read about him in high school.
Q:One of the strongest secondary characters is Patrick Driscol, who comes to America from Ireland by way of Napoleon’s Grand Army. You mentioned earlier that he was based on a real character . . . but in a sketchy way. How so?
EF:Well, on one level, he is a real historical figure. The episode involving the execution of the deserters that begins Part II of the book actually happened, although–at least so far as I was ever able to determine–not even the names of the sergeant and the young deserter have survived in the historical record. Much less their personalities, of course.
So, in that much more fundamental sense, Driscol is essentially a purely fictional character. However, he is based on people of the time, specifically a certain type of United Irishman who emigrated to the United States. Not all, of course. As Driscol himself savagely remarks in the novel, a fair number of the United Irishmen started acting and thinking like Sassenach themselves, once they arrived in America and had black people they could lord it over. But, yes, that type of Irish nationalist-republican is quite true to life, and Driscol is based on them.
Q:Another fascinating character is John Ross, who straddles the worlds of Cherokee and the whites. You seem to be setting him up for a large role in the sequel.
EF:Well, that’s pretty much a given. John Ross was the great political figure in Cherokee history, and remained so for almost half a century until his death in 1866. He will remain so in this story, although the political evolution he undergoes will be quite different in many respects. The same is true for Major Ridge, who was the other principal figure in Cherokee history of the period.
Q:You got somewhat of a late start as a published writer, but you are certainly making up for lost time! How do you manage to be so prolific, simultaneously working on your own books and your collaborations with other writers? You must be spending eight hours a day in front of a keyboard!
EF:I get asked that question a lot, and I always have to puzzle over the answer. It’s true that I put in long hours as a writer, and I undoubtedly work more hours per week than I used to in various previous jobs. But ... for Pete’s sake, let’s have a sense of proportion here. It sure beats ten-hour shifts six days a week running a horizontal boring mill in a machine shop–not to mention the even more grueling work I used to do as a meatpacker and a steelworker. And before that as a longshoreman and a truck driver.
So, I guess part of it is simply that this seems like a big extended holiday for me. Beyond that, I write quickly and easily, and I’m one of those fortunate writers whose first drafts are usually very clean and don’t need much in the way of rewriting. Mind you, they don’t always work right dramatically, so now and then I’ll scrap an entire chapter. But, outside of some minor polishing, I don’t have to do the time-consuming two or three draft rewrites that a lot of authors need to do to get their prose up to snuff. I say “fortunate,” because this is really not a skill I take any particular pride in. It just comes naturally to me, and it’s by no means necessary for a writer. But it is handy, since it’s essentially the writer’s equivalent of what perfect pitch is for a musician. Not necessary, of course–but awfully convenient.
Q:You were instrumental in setting up the Baen Free Library, an online site where readers can read or download for free eBook versions of science fiction and fantasy titles published in print by Baen. Many writers and publishers would argue that this is professional suicide because there is no copyright protection. Why do you disagree?
EF:Well, first, let’s correct one error here: The fact that a work is in the Library does not remove it from copyright protection. Authors frequently donate books to libraries and charity auction, after all, and have done so for many decades. The reason some people think it’s professional suicide is because they assume that official copyright protection simply won’t mean anything if people can get their hands on a free electronic edition of a novel.
For my part, I just think that’s stupid. Granted, most people can be tempted to act immorally if enough of an incentive is waved under their nose. But for a few bucks? Gimme a break. For most people, the ease and simplicity of getting a legitimate edition of a novel at a reasonable price will outweigh anything else–provided they can afford it in the first place. And if they can’t–as is true, for instance, of most teenagers–they won’t be buying your book anyway. So what are you losing, in the real world? A “virtual sale”? Whereas, on the flip side, if you get a fan from reading something for free in a library, you’re likely to see the benefit of that for years to come.
The reality is this: the BIG problem for authors–“big” as in, this is the whale and the elephant and the mountain, all rolled into one, and everything else is peanuts–is that 99.9% of their potential readership never even considers buying anything of theirs in the first place. Nor do they give any more thought, for that matter, to stealing anything.
Even if you’re a “well-known” author, 90% of the potential readership has never heard of you. Of the 10% for whom your name rings some sort of bell, it either won’t be much of a bell or–often enough–it’s the wrong bell. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a fan tell me they initially avoided buying anything of mine because of a first impression they got from ... God knows where. A fleeting glance at a cover, whatever.)
THAT’S the problem. Worrying about online theft in the face of THAT problem is like a man fretting over whether he’s got nice enough shoes to be seen in public when his house is burning down. Or, to use another analogy I’m fond of, it’s like a singer in a piano bar in a roadhouse out in the middle of nowhere worrying that someone in the audience might be taping her performance so they can make a pirate edition–just like they did to Maria Callas!!!
Yeah, right. The real problem is that she isn’t Maria Callas. Even if she has the same talent, nobody has ever heard of her. Frankly, the best thing that could happen to her would be for a pirate edition to become wildly popular. Maybe–finally–somebody would start looking for her work.
As a commercial proposition, that’s the logic of the Baen Library. The book market is one of the most opaque markets in existence, because every book is different and there are a hundred thousand books in any one Barnes & Noble or Borders. Even smaller independent stores will carry thousands of titles. What are the odds that anyone will spot your books in that huge pile? Damn low. So anything an author can do to make themselves more visible will work to their benefit in the long run–and the Baen Library is very good visibility.
Q:That said, will The Rivers of War be freely available online in any form?
EF:That’ll be up to Del Rey. Don’t forget that the publisher owns the rights to the book, even if I retain the actual copyright. So long as they do so, they’d have to agree to anything like that. For my part, my normal policy is simple, and I’m hoping I can persuade Del Rey to let me follow it. I wait until about three months after a book of mine has come out in the paperback edition, and then I make it available for free electronically. The logic behind that is that most sales happen in the first three months after publication anyway, so why not? Even then, the only reason I wait at all is so that the distributors of electronic editions don’t feel like they’re being undercut. If the only editions coming out were purely paper editions, I’d make any novel available immediately in a free electronic edition.
I should add that the problem is often not with the publishers, anyway: it’s with the distributors. Del Rey might well agree with my attitude–but then find that their distributors are squawking so loudly that it isn’t worth aggravating them. It’s something of a dance.
Q:What will the sequel to The Rivers of War be called, and when will it be coming out?
EF:I don’t have a title yet, so I’m just calling it RoV2 for the moment. I did suggest one title to my editor–A Line Drawn in Arkansas–but Steve didn’t think it was punchy enough. Well ... bloody enough, I suspect. So, I don’t know. “Arkansas” may still figure in the title, but who knows?
Q:What other ongoing projects are you excited about?
EF:Oh, jeez. The truth is, if I can paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a book I was writing that I didn’t like. Or I wouldn’t be writing it in the first place. I just finished the first really hard science fiction novel I’ve ever written–it’s titled Boundary, and my co-author is Ryk Spoor–and I enjoyed that a lot. It was a nice change of pace. My big ongoing project, of course, is the 1632 series. I’ll be finishing two more novels in that series this year, and at least two more anthologies. That project has turned into a really elaborate and complex undertaking, complete with its own online magazine and even a small annual convention that’ll now be held for the third year in a row. So it’s always a challenge and always a lot of fun. I’ll also be finished the third of the Joe’s World series this year, the title for which is A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf. It’s both the sequel and in some sense the prequel for both The Philosophical Strangler and Forward the Mage. (The narrative structure of that series is ... complicated.) Those books are always a pure delight to work on. Finally, Dave Freer and I will be finishing another book this year, the title for which, at least at the moment, is Slow Train to Arcturus. I always enjoy working with Dave a lot.
From the Hardcover edition.