What if John Wilkes Booth Shot My Grandfather?

A Roundtable Discussion With Guy Gavriel Kay, Susan Matthews, Sean Russell and Pamela Sargent

Note: This feature is the transcript from a live event produced by SciFi.com for HarperCollins. The live event took place online during the annual Internet-only science fiction/fantasy conference, EosCon 4.0. The topic of this panel was "What if John Wilkes Booth Shot My Grandfather?" The panelists were bestselling fantasy authors Guy Gavriel Kay, Susan Matthews, Sean Russell and Pamela Sargent.

Moderator: Hi everyone, welcome to EOSCON 4.0. I'm your Moderator for SCIFI. This hour we're chatting with writers Guy Gavriel Kay, Susan Matthews, Sean Russell, and Pamela Sargent. The topic is employing history and alternative histories as springboards for fantastic fiction.

Moderator: Okay... First Question. What's the allure to an alternate history?

Guy Gavriel Kay: I'll wait, someone go ahead.

Pamela Sargent: You aren't as bound by the facts of history -- although you have to pay attention to them.

Susan Matthews: It's play in one of it's [sic] purest forms . . . "what if."

Sean Russell: What If someone had bought one of Hitler's paintings? Perhaps he would have become an artist and then...

Susan Matthews: Oh, please, I didn't just say "it's" did I? Pamela Sargent: But one big hazard is the gratuitous alternate history.

Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay: I'm more intrigued by the things that fantasy avoids ... such as co-opting the life of a real person. Or pretending we know something about people we do not know about. Fantasy allows flavor, ambience, mood, theme, without presuming to "use" real lives.

Pamela Sargent: Frankly, much of actual history can be read as alternate histories. It can be "created character in alternate historical environment."

Susan Matthews: But alternate history doesn't need to mean "historical characters in a historical environments" . . .

Guy Gavriel Kay: Susan, the punctuation police will be too busy with my typist to nail you. :)

Susan Matthews: [pulling cap low over brow, with an eye out for the punctuation police]

Sean Russell: Are we talking about alternate history or fantasy inspired by history?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean, good question. I'm obviously more focused on the latter. And on trying to sort out the "correctness" of Susan's habit. :)

Sean Russell: I'm with you, Guy. I've never done an alternate history, but they look like fun.

Pamela Sargent: I sometimes feel that historical fantasy can be more true to the past, because often it better reflects how people then viewed the world.

Susan Matthews: My angle is more along the lines of history that falls outside common knowledge . . .

Guy Gavriel Kay: What If ... Sean Russell had written an alternate history novel? :)

Susan Matthews: Taking advantage of someone else's already existing historical "plot" and hoping people just think I'm particularly creative.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Pam, not sure ... how do we know?

Moderator: So that means the secret history, Susan?

Guy Gavriel Kay: I think fantasy is better seen as an admission we don't, and so it is upfront about being invented.

Susan Matthews: Not so much secret as just exotic for most Western European readers, for example -- like most of Chinese history. Great stuff.

Pamela Sargent
Pamela Sargent: We don't know -- we can only imagine. But a Mongol shaman, for example, is going to see a world more akin to fantasy than a 21st c. woman.

Guy Gavriel Kay: [grins at the crosstalk. The bar is crowded and lively.]

Susan Matthews: If the glass is empty, the writer will talk.

Guy Gavriel Kay: The thing is, for example, that we are so far removed from the worldview of even a 12th century European that such a figure would be truly alien to modern readers (and writers). Doing his or her story as fantasy is honest about that ... space.

Pamela Sargent: Good point, Guy.

Guy Gavriel Kay: [sits up and pays attention.]

Susan Matthews: Taking his or her history as the backbone of my novel, on the other hand, is shameless recycling, and I'm all for it.

Moderator: When you're writing a Fantasy based on history, how much of a responsibility do you feel toward the actual history? Do the fictional manipulations of the story "plague" your conscience?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Good question The answer is ... exactly the opposite. My conscience (such as I am pleased to call it!) would be plagued by the pretense that I have an idea of what, say, the marital relationship of Justinian and Theodora was, in Byzantium ... but if I invent a Valerius and Alixana pair who are inspired by but clearly not identical with the originals, the freedom and sense of creative license flows from that.

Sean Russell: I've tended to make a world by drawing from a time and place. In which case I feel no responsibility toward the history at all. I make that up.

Child of Venus by Pamela Sargent
Pamela Sargent: I wouldn't willingly violate the history. One of my favorite historical fantasies was one I wrote so that every fantastic event could also be explained realistically by readers in our "alternate world."

Sean Russell: I tend to approach things in the way Guy describes. I had a Darwin character who was no Darwin. I felt no need for him to do or discover the same things as C. Darwin.

Guy Gavriel Kay: I'm increasingly worried by the sense of license many writers have today to use any life lived in any way they want. I see fantasy as an antidote to that sense of entitlement implied there, and the privacy issues raised.

Pamela Sargent: You're talking about a kind of gratuitous alternate history there.

Sean Russell: Have I told you about my new book -- The Life of Guy B. Kay?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean, that middle initial gets you off the hook!

Susan Matthews: I would rather feel that "republishing" someone's fascinating life and struggle is a gesture of respect and admiration, always allowing for full source acknowledgement in the forward matter.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Pam, yes, in a sense. More, say, Joyce Carol Oates' book on Marilyn Monroe, or the new novel on Chang and Eng the Siamese twins...

Moderator: Joyce Carol Oates has mined more than a few lives in that respect :)

Guy Gavriel Kay: I was just about to ask if it would be OK if I put a Sean Russell and Pam Sargent in a novel, say at an SF con party and had you do scandalous things...

Pamela Sargent: Guy, you're talking about an author's moral responsibility. I think that has to be kept in mind for any writing.

Susan Matthews: (For the record, I'm thinking about people who have been dead for much longer than Marilyn Monroe.)

Guy Gavriel Kay: You see, if someone's alive they can sue, if dead they can't ... but does that make them "available" to us, in and of itself?

Pamela Sargent: But in all honesty, I get more upset about the "psychobiography" than about a work clearly labeled fiction.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Pam, there's another can of worms to fry and run up the flagpole.

Susan Matthews: I've named a deeply troubled protagonist after a great Polish patriot and American Revolutionary War hero, but I like to think that the Polish patriot in question is very patient about the whole thing.

Sean Russell: The lines between fiction and biography are harder and harder to see.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean, yes, very much so. As in the "authorized" Reagan bio.

Pamela Sargent: That's what worries me -- a lot of people don't know the difference, Sean.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Patient Polish patriots ... a dime a dozen.

Susan Matthews: Thadeuz Andrej Bonaventura Kosciusko, one in a million. If you please, sir.

Guy Gavriel Kay: [grins] I know, Susan. Was playing with the alliteration, not the figure.

Susan Matthews: [placated]

Moderator: There actually used to be a great social club in Dunkirk, New York named after Thadeuz Kosciusko :)

Moderator: Moderator can no longer type...

Guy Gavriel Kay: I've just killed my sixth typist, not to worry.

Guy Gavriel Kay: I assumed a social club played soccer, rather than drank ale. Made sense.

Susan Matthews: [grin]

Moderator: Next Question: Where is the line drawn between historical fantasy, and alt history?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Now that I'd like to know!

Sean Russell: Just to the left of "and".

Pamela Sargent: Hard to answer, but I know it when I see it.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Except I truly hate the fetishistic pursuit of sub-sub-sub-categorization!

Susan Matthews: If John Wilkes Booth Shot my Grandfather and I'm a Lincoln, it could be historical fantasy ... If John Wilkes Booth shot my Grandfather and I'm the grand-daughter of Jefferson Davis, it's alternate history.

Guy Gavriel Kay: I suppose alternate history does play off, as people said ten minutes ago, "What if?" Historical fantasy does not anchor itself around that sort of question.

Sean Russell
Sean Russell: I tend to think alternate history has a premise that goes something like: Wellington shot himself while shaving on the morning of June 27, 1815, and Napoleon won.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean and I are clearly channeling each other. I type faster, he's more articulate.

Susan Matthews: You silver-tongued devils.

Sean Russell: The rest of the book is either about what could have happened, or it's about how Wellington shot himself while shaving.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Keith Roberts' Pavane ... Elizabeth I died before the Armada invaded, Spain won.

Pamela Sargent: Wonderful novel!

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean's idea gave rise, clearly, to a world where Gillette rules sooner!

Sean Russell: HA!

Guy Gavriel Kay: Shave Safe, Save the World!

Susan Matthews: The Divine Wind did not repel the Chinese? Korean? armada, and there was never an Imperial Japan.

Moderator: And if Elizabeth I died before the Armada, and her death was a sacrifice to appease some Sea God, who in turn sank the fleet?

Susan Matthews: Admiral Lord Nelson survived the battle of Trafalgar to define the course of Polar exploration and man the first British expedition to Antarctica.

Guy Gavriel Kay: The Moderator is clearly emailing David Hartwell with a novel proposal, even as we sit here!

Pamela Sargent: Definitely historical fantasy.

Guy Gavriel Kay: I want to linger on the "honesty" of fantasy for a second...

Moderator: Okay

Guy Gavriel Kay: It seems important to me to note how direct fantasy is about what it is not, and I see this as a huge virtue.

Sean Russell: You can do many things on honesty but lingering is not one of them.

Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay: We are not offering the illusion we know what Henry VIII said to Anne Boleyn the night before he decided to have her arrested. That makes for "compelling" fiction, but at the root of it is a sham and fantasy, working with the same kinds of figures, eras, themes ... avoids that. I find it liberating as a writer and as a reader.

Pamela Sargent: In other words, Guy, much or most historical fiction is fantasy that doesn't call itself that.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Pam, Doctorow is on record as saying his invented JP Morgan in Ragtime is more "true" than any biography. This strikes me as hubris, actually.

Susan Matthews: As a theoretical issue, then ...

Pamela Sargent: What would you call The Lion in Winter?

Guy Gavriel Kay: A great play!

Susan Matthews: Is it more honest to write an alternate history with a Rommel named Rommel . . . or to write one's own book of whatever sort with a character who simply shares all of the desirable or undesirable attributes one imputes to Rommel, and call that character original?

Guy Gavriel Kay: You see, I'm not saying these things should be avoided or banned. We very often praise works of art and note a moral problem with them.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Say Birth of a Nation or Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films...

Pamela Sargent: I'd say that we have a responsibility to be as aware of what is know (or at least believed) as possible -- we have to know what we're doing and exactly what we're about. Even if the reader is more vague about it.

Sean Russell: Susan; is this about honesty in fiction? To my mind it doesn't matter if the character is named Rommel or not. If you write a wonderful book, I don't care.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Susan, the New York Times said of the Oates book on Monroe, "We finally have the inner thoughts of Marilyn, as never before." I thought it was up there with the dumbest review remarks I'd ever read.

Moderator: Practically all fiction is some form of fantasy. Isn't honesty more than just telling the exact "factual" truth?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean, you really don't care? Really?

Pamela Sargent: Of course, Mod. Facts are often mutable.

Guy Gavriel Kay: We usually don't know full factual truths; fantasy can be a way of noting that.

Sean Russell: No, I don't care. As long as the book isn't a lie. They don't claim something is true that we can't know. They admit it to be fiction.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean, we'll get to the films of Oliver Stone pretty fast on that path!

Moderator: Okay... Next Question... What's the longest amount of time any one of you has spent researching a historical event or era to write about it?

Susan Matthews: Forty-seven years [grin]. Okay, I didn't learn to read till I was six-ish, so forty-one years.

Guy Gavriel Kay [grins] Good one, Susan.

Pamela Sargent: Seven years for Ruler of the Sky, my novel about Genghis Khan, including getting pneumonia in what was then the Soviet Union, while researching!

The One Kingdom by Sean Russell
Sean Russell: I research my next book as I'm writing, but often I know a fair amount about it to start, so the "research" gets spread over years.

Pamela Sargent: Research is ongoing -- everything a writer does is research.

Guy Gavriel Kay: I can't even think about a next book while writing one, so each one starts cold. The thing to dodge -- I suspect the others will agree -- is Grad Student Syndrome ... delaying the writing because there is always one more article to chase down or person to email.

Pamela Sargent: Research is, of necessity, always going to be incomplete.

Susan Matthews: What they said. [grin]

Pamela Sargent: Having to research is also the best rationalization for writer's block I know of.

Sean Russell: The important thing about research is to do it in an exotic place.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Hah!

Susan Matthews: Yeah, with nice young men in little clothing, and large quantities of rum drinks.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean's latest novel demands careful study of the single malt distilleries in Scotland.

Pamela Sargent: So why did I pick something that required Central Asia?

Moderator: So every novel should be researched in Belize, Susan?

Susan Matthews: Highland or Islay? -- oops! needs more research.

Moderator: So when do you stop fitting your research into your writing?

Guy Gavriel Kay [exercises great restraint and lets the scotch thread dwindle.]

Pamela Sargent: I can tell you one thing, Susan -- rum and Scotch beat kumiss any day.

Susan Matthews: What writers must do for their Art! [grin]

Guy Gavriel Kay [continues to sit calmly.]

Sean Russell: Sorry, don't understand the question.

Moderator: The great novel about the elfish origin of Lagavulin has yet to be written.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Dave, I think you are asking when the research should stop and the writing start?

Colony Fleet by Susan Matthews
Susan Matthews: To answer the question I think the answer is "never" -- your research never stops cross-pollinating your book(s). And vice versa.

Moderator: I think the question asks...When do you stop researching?

Guy Gavriel Kay: Susan has it.

Guy Gavriel Kay: There is an obvious risk of the "undigested research" problem, where the writer is so keen to show how much they've learned it bogs down the book.

Pamela Sargent: There's a lot of research that has to be done before I start writing, but then I keep researching as I write and rewrite -- don't know how else to do it.

Sean Russell: I've still been researching books after they were published. I just got hooked on the subject.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Sean, yes, I'm still in two Byzantine listservs, two years after finishing the Mosaic.

Sean Russell: I think Guy is right; the real question is what do you leave out.

Pamela Sargent: I've had a month's worth of research end up as one printed page in the end.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Critical. You want to know much more than you need, so it is effortless. Well, so it looks effortless. :)

Susan Matthews
Susan Matthews: This backgrounds that often-repeated admonition that the writer knows much more about the world than the reader actually ends up seeing on the page . . . the depth and background are there, even when only implicit. But if research is incomplete and poorly considered, it will show.

Pamela Sargent: Cutting is painful, because you have to cut away all that research you've mastered. But I think there always has to be more in the book and the writer's mind than the readers see.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Put another way, in fantasy terms, if we are doing a "variation on a theme" of history, we need to know the theme pretty well, to vary it intelligently.

Sean Russell: After I finished my nineteenth century books, I had all this information that I no longer had use for. I ended up co-writing an historical mystery with a friend set in that time period just so the work wouldn't go to waste (coming out from Bantam in the Fall).

Moderator: Time is running out for this panel. So let me cut in and ask a Final Question... What could real life history teachers borrow from historical fantasy to bring history alive in a classroom?

Guy Gavriel Kay: [pours Sean a drink for typing "an historical."]

Guy Gavriel Kay: I do wish I too had a friend set in that time period, mind you.

Susan Matthews: I like the precarious and arbitrary nature of some world-changing events, myself.

Pamela Sargent: The notion that history is full of great stories -- that's so often lost.

Guy Gavriel Kay [ducks]

Pamela Sargent: The notion that history is contingent and not fixed.

Guy Gavriel Kay: One obvious thing, I believe, is using historical fantasy, if well done, to draw attention to lifestyles, mores, elements of daily existence, moving away from the focus on "great" figures.

Pamela Sargent: Yes, Guy, showing that our instinctive ways are really just our own parochial customs.

Sean Russell: Good historical fiction is more fun to read than your average history text. I wish my history teachers had given us War and Peace.

Pamela Sargent: I actually had a history teacher who assigned some historical novels.

Susan Matthews: Making an emotional connection with Theucydides can be one of those universality-of-human-emotions breakpoints.

Susan Matthews: Pam, my favorite history teacher in all the world assigned All Quiet on the Western Front and similar works.

Guy Gavriel Kay: Susan, yes .. ot cuts both ways. I love both how the past is so much like today and so stunningly different. Both need to be illuminated.

Moderator: Let me interrupt here, because it's time to open the floor. This has been great fun. Thank you all so much for sharing your thoughts.

Sean Russell: Thanks, good luck to those hobbits.

Pamela Sargent: I think more people would love history, if they realized it was full of great stories.

Guy Gavriel Kay: It was fun, I apologize on behalf of the other three for all the typos.

Pamela Sargent: Thank you.

Susan Matthews: little known fact ==> hobbits are demons at trigonometry-on-the-fly. Ahem.

Guy Gavriel Kay: S'all right, Susan I'll buy you a cyberdrink.

Moderator: We're out of time. Thanks for a great panel!

Copyright ©2001 by HarperCollins. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. Reproduction or dissemination of this transcript in any manner whatsoever is strictly prohibited.

Photograph of Guy Gavriel Kay by Beth Gwinn.
Photograph of Sean Russell by Don Deese.

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