The Map Is The Territory

In which I geek out about maps. Especially mine.

You know what? I’m incredibly stoked that there’s a map of Nova Hesperia in the front of CLASH.

I’ve always loved maps. When I first read The Hobbit at some tender age, I probably spent as much time looking at Thorin’s map in the frontispiece as I did reading the words. My strongest reason for wanting to read Lord of the Rings -might- well have been to find out more about the territory, and my biggest complaint about the Narnia books was the relative dearth of cartography. I liked the real world too, and the heavens above; I spent a lot of those same tender years poring over a world atlas and studying the constellations on my planisphere.

Even now I find it notoriously easy to get derailed by maps. While doing some minor fact-checking for CLASH I picked up the Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood, and that was it for the next three days. In my office I have a noticeboard. Most of it is covered with maps of pre-Columbian America: the extent of the Mississippian culture, the rough territories of the other nations and tribes, the… You get the idea.

My editor and I did bandy around the idea of having a map in the front of CLASH, but it took a long time for us to get serious. For one thing we were busy with other issues like, say, making sure all the words in the book were right. But I never quite let go of the idea… even though it actually costs me money.

Yep. The map is extra artwork, and someone has to pay for that. If it costs $X to commission a map, then that $X is added to the amount I have to earn out on my advance before I start receiving royalties. There ain’t no such thing as a free map. Well, that’s how it worked for me. Other authors’ mileage may vary, but I have no problem with the logic.

While I was still mulling over whether or not to do it, someone I deeply trust made the comment to me that having a map wasn’t going to sell any books. Damn. I must have bought a slew of fantasy (and straight historical) novels over the years based almost solely on the map inside the front cover. I must be weird. Again. So I checked with some of my writer friends, and was quite relieved when they came back and said “Oh yeah, I’m the same.”

Then again, I chose them as friends, so there may be a selection effect involved here. Hmm.

Anyway, even if they’d all said “Naw,” I’d still have wanted the map.

Its creation was an interesting collaboration. Here’s how it went:

It’s New Year’s Eve 2013 and I’m sitting on the floor surrounded with atlases and topographic maps of North America, writing a thousand-word treatment of what I think the map should look like. It starts off something like this:

“So what we need is a map of the eastern half of North America, but greatly simplified and perhaps containing deliberate errors. We will essentially be looking at it like Romans. To the West the map will be bounded by the Rockies, which are not named, and about which little is known except that there are spiky, snowy mountains there. At least for the first book, the map will not include the western coastline of North America. Featured on the map will be:”

And then a bunch of notes about which rivers, seas, bays, mountains, towns, and trails should be named, and information about the territories of the named tribes, and thoughts on fonts and, gosh, whatever else I could throw in there to state in words the kind of thing I was thinking of. If I could draw I might have sketched it out, but I have no talent in that area at all.

And I sent it in, and then nothing happened for a very long time, and towards the end of 2014 my editor and I were like “Oh, crap, the map,” and went into high gear. We got a map back from the designer and I was like “Well that’s sort of what I had in mind, except what I –should- have said was…”

And back and forth we went: four times, with ever shortening intervals between, and I think we all agreed on the final version at the absolute final possible moment before printing when it could still have been included. I’m not exaggerating here.

But it’s awesome. Truly.

It’s North America in a different universe. A North America with few boundaries and no states, where the waterways are the dominant lines of communication. A North America of the thirteenth century, as it might be perceived by peoples with both Native American and Roman perspectives and influences.

More than that I can’t say without giving away some plot points, so you’ll have to take my word for it: This map is Nova Hesperia. In this case, the map is the territory. And I love what the artist did with it: the similarities to the real North America and the subtle distortions, the simplifications and exaggerations that real early cartographers might have made, the way the forests and mountains are shown. The fonts. The whole deal.

And so here it is, by kind permission of Del Rey and the artist. Please, for my sake and his, if this map propagates anywhere else, make sure Simon Sullivan’s name, copyright and Web site credit stay associated with it, as follows:

Map (c) 2015 by Simon Sullivan, http://www.smswerkstatte.com

And including my name, and the name of the book, wouldn’t hurt either. Thanks, and enjoy!

My Book Launch “Week”

Well, that was a rush.

No, not just a surge of adrenaline, although I had a few of those too. I mean I was busy, much busier than I’d expected.

CLASH OF EAGLES made its debut on schedule, on Tuesday March 17th, and now I’m a published author. Well, okay, I’ve been a published author for two decades in short fiction, but I’m here to tell you that having a novel out from a major publishing house feels completely different. And there was champagne, and celebrations and much rejoicing, and my friends near and far were kind and supportive and congratulatory, and even people I didn’t know went out of their way to contact me to say nice things. Many people sent me pictures of themselves in bookstores holding copies of CLASH, which was quite delightful.

And then there was the work. I knew beforehand that I should expect to work pretty hard, before, during and after. Blog tours are all the thing now, and I was certainly willing to do everything I could to help Del Rey to promote CLASH and send it out into the big wide world. I knew that would mean guest blogs on other people’s sites, interviews, podcasts, and so on, and that in between all those I’d be expected to keep up on social media. I also knew that in my parallel world it would be a busy time at the day job; Murphy’s Law had worked splendidly, and I had a major proposal due on… Monday March 16th. But I’m a pretty organized chap, and I figured I could do all that and, in between the cracks, still be able to blog here regularly about the experience, kinda summarizing what was going on and how I was feeling about it all…

Well, I did most of it. I did. I’d told my group at work that I -really- wanted to submit the proposal early, and we all pulled together, and after three months of work I did indeed press the button on Thursday March 12th to send our finely-honed document on its way into the belly of the beast. A minor miracle (did I mention I love my team?) that freed up a lot of time at the weekend to work on those guest blogs.

The guest blogs were harder than I thought. I’m not a natural blogger. If you’ve even read this far, you already know that. I write blogs much more slowly than I write fiction. I can basically only do it by pretending that I’m writing a long Facebook post.

I did okay. Adjacent to this blog post you’ll find an entry that summarizes all my guest posts for March,  and provides handy-dandy links.

I did not, however, manage to blog here about the experience while it was happening, because when it came down to it, there was a limit to how long I could look at a computer screen every day.

So I’ll be brief: I had a GREAT time during Book Launch Week Month. Didn’t get sick, which was my big fear, but I am (still!) very tired. I’m both happy and sad that things are calming down a bit now, although I do have two live (not written) interviews coming up in the next few days and I’m still wondering what to do about that one – only one – blog post I kinda promised to do and then dropped on the floor. On the other hand, amidst all of this activity I also put together a detailed outline for Book Three of the trilogy, and discussed it with my editor at Del Rey, Mike Braff. And now I’m ready to get going on that. Real Soon Now.

More to come about all this. Stay tuned.

March Guest Blogs – A List

In which I provide links to the ten guest blogs and interviews I did on Other People’s Sites in March, including Paste Magazine, Tor.com, Suvudu, SFFWorld, MaryRobinetteKowal.com, Eating Authors, The Qwillery, and 2 Book Lovers. Wow. March was quite a month.

3/15: On 2 Book Lovers Reviews, In honor of the Ides of March, I and three other writers debate whether there’s better fodder for writing Roman fiction before or after Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon:

http://www.2bookloversreviews.com/ides-of-march-2015.html

3/16: Eating Authors: As part of his long-running series about writers and food, I describe my most memorable meal to Lawrence Schoen:

http://www.lawrencemschoen.com/plugs/eating-authors-alan-smale/

3/17: Dear Readers: On Del Rey’s Suvudu.com site I talk about my thoughts on the eve of Book Launch Day:

http://suvudu.com/2015/03/dear-readers-a-letter-from-alan-smale.html

3/17: My Favorite Bit: On Mary Robinette Kowal’s site, I describe my favorite bit in CLASH OF EAGLES (contains mild spoilers):

http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/my-favorite-bit-alan-smale-talks-about-clash-of-eagles/

3/17: SFFWORLD interviews me about my hero Gaius Marcellinus, research, alternate history in general, and writing this book in particular:

http://www.sffworld.com/2015/03/alan-smale-interview/

3/17: Decline and Rise Part One: In CLASH OF EAGLES the Roman Empire never fell. How? Why? In a guest essay on Suvudu.com, I argue that the Decline and Fall was by no means inevitable…

http://sf-fantasy.suvudu.com/2015/03/guest-essayalan-smale-author-clash-of-eagles.html

3/20: Decline and Rise Part Two: The second part of my essay on why the western Roman Empire did not need to fall:

http://suvudu.com/2015/03/guest-essay-alan-smale-author-clash-of-eagles-part-two-of-two.html

3/20: I am interviewed on The Qwillery as part of the 2015 Debut Author Challenge:

http://qwillery.blogspot.com/2015/03/interview-with-alan-smale-author-of.html

3/25: Five Books that Twist History till it Begs for Mercy on Tor.com:

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2015/03/five-books-that-twist-history-until-it-begs-for-mercy

3/31: Paste Magazine: Another interview? With moi

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/03/alan-smale-imagines-a-roman-invasion-of-north-amer.html

In closing, Paste Magazine was also nice enough to select CLASH as one of its “Ten of the Best New Books in March”. I confess I never in my life imagined my name would ever appear on a list that also included Kazuo Ishiguro and T.C. Boyle. That can’t be right…

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/03/10-of-the-best-new-books-in-march.html

Blog Post Zero: Beginnings

In which I inaugurate the blog with some backstory of how I got here, personally and geographically, and how I’m now on the verge of having my debut novel published by Del Rey.

“Where do I come from? Where do I come from?” – Duncan Macleod, Highlander, the Series.

I was always a writer. I wanted to be a writer long before I wanted to be an astronomer. I’ve been writing for almost as long as I’ve been reading; my first story was called “The Mountain Children”, and it was about three kids who had essentially grown up feral (although I doubt I knew that word then). They were based on the Tarzan of the old Johnny Weissmuller movies that were still being shown on TV then. Two girls and a boy: Val, Su and Chay. Children at home in the jungle. Having adventures.

My earliest interest in astronomy may have come from an old World Atlas my parents owned, with images of the planets in the Solar System as a frontispiece. As far as the Atlas was concerned Jupiter had twelve moons and Saturn ten (as of today: 67 and 62) and I had all their names memorized. Later on I looked at some of those moons, the Pleiades, sunspots, and the smudges of other galaxies through a small telescope I “co-owned” with my father. Astronomy.

By the time I went to secondary school in Yorkshire, England I was writing stories of intrepid men of action while hiding in the classroom during recess. I put the writing aside for several years to focus on (a) getting degrees (b) enjoying life in Oxford, but once I moved to the U.S. to take up a job at the Goddard Space Flight Center I also started getting serious about writing speculative fiction.

When I say I write, people who know me only as a NASA astronomer assume I write hard SF. I have, but generally I don’t, because it feels too much like my day job. My first story was “The Breath of Princes”, published in an anthology of original YA fantasy stories called A Wizard’s Dozen, edited by Michael Stearns. It involved a dragon, and a girl who only wanted to be rescued from it on her own terms. This was before electronic submission, and Michael initially rejected the story in a few terse but regretful sentences, and sealed it up in my stamped addressed envelope. Then had second thoughts, fished it back out of his pile and wrote all over the back of the envelope in his neat handwriting, pointing out the things I’d done wrong and telling me that if I could fix them, he’d be willing to look at it again.

Oh, I thought. Right. I get it.

I rewrote the second half of the story and had it back to him within the week. That story sold, and so did about three dozen others over the years. Fantasy, horror, and yes, SF.

Recently I’ve focused almost entirely on historical fantasy, and alternate and twisted history, with sales to Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, and others.

So where did Clash of Eagles originate? How did we get here?

When you read certain books you can almost feel the metaphorical scales falling from your eyes. It happened when I first grasped Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Oh, right. I get it. It seems so obvious once someone points it out. Why didn’t I realize that sooner?

Guns, Germs, and Steel was such a book for me. It pointed out just how reliant early civilizations were on the natural resources and beasts of burden around them. How the natural geography and environment affects the development of ideas. All other things being equal, crops, beasts, and ideas travel more readily along lines of latitude than north-south or south-north across ecological boundaries. And the early presence of livestock eventually brings immunity to certain diseases. All factors that have major effects on the pace at which societies develop, and what happens when societies at different levels of development clash.

1491 was next. I hadn’t realized till then just many people lived in the Americas prior to Columbus’s voyage and the disastrous European inroads, invasions, and infections that followed. It was also while reading 1491 that I started to think seriously about Cahokia, the great city-state on the Mississippi close to where St. Louis is now. Once Cahokia grabbed me it wouldn’t let go; I got a copy of Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians by Timothy Pauketat, devoured it, and ordered maybe ten other books about Cahokia. The rest, as they say, is history.

Before I knew anything else about the story, I knew that my new invading force would be Romans. Growing up in the north of England and taking vacations in the Hadrian’s Wall area had steeped me in Roman ruins and culture, and it was surprising I’d never used them in a story before. The Roman viewpoint on Nova Hesperia – my North America – was critical to the plot development in many ways. And as for the more… unusual aspects of the story, they just flew into my brain full-grown. Why base a city on huge earthen mounds if you’re not going to throw yourself off them?

I wrote “A Clash of Eagles” in 2008. The characters, ideas, and setting gripped me, and hard. It ended up much longer than I was anticipating: 25,000 words. I’d written a novella I really believed in, and it was too long for any major market.

Fortunately for me, Dario Ciriello existed. Dario was publishing a series of all-novella anthologies, and I’d already sold him a 31,000-word novella for Panverse One called “Delusion’s Song” about the Bronte sisters and a timeslipping anomaly centered on Haworth. Dario took “A Clash of Eagles” for Panverse Two, and it appeared in print in September 2010 to good reviews. Dario also sent in the paperwork to have it considered for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, which may have changed my life.

Cut to the Reno Worldcon in 2011. “Clash” has been nominated, but is up against solid stories by Eleanor Arnason, Barry B. Longyear, Ken MacLeod, and William F. Wu. I know I don’t have a prayer, and at a rather sparsely attended book-signing I confide this to Mur Lafferty at the next table. She admonishes me to prepare an acceptance speech anyway, Just In Case.

Mur Lafferty is wise, because if she hadn’t told me that, I’d have been too flabbergasted to speak clearly when I won the Sidewise that evening. As it was, I remembered my three talking points. Tell the audience what the story is about! (Because most of them won’t have read it, but if you give them a good elevator pitch, they just might.) Give massive props to Dario and Panverse! And thank the judges and everyone in the room who just cheered! (Because you’re insanely grateful, and there are lots of more interesting things your friends could be doing than sitting here listening to you.)

I’d already written most of the novel version by then, but once I got home from Reno I went into overdrive; finished and polished it, sketched story arcs for the sequels, and was querying agents by spring 2012. I signed with the marvelous Caitlin Blasdell of the Liza Dawson Literary Agents in June and did some rewriting and condensation at her behest, and then she went to work.

On May 7th, 2013, I signed a three-book deal with Mike Braff of Random House/Del Rey. More in-depth editing and copyediting ensued, along with cover work, map work, and promotion. Clash of Eagles hits the streets March 17th, 2015, in the U.S., U.K. and other places, in book, ebook, and audiobook formats.

It’s been a long road.

And now comes the next step, the step where I’m a Published Author of Actual Books. I got used to being a short story writer some time ago. This? This feels completely different.

So that’s where I come from.

And now I get to find out where I’m going.