duskpeterson: An apprentice builds a boat as a man looks on. (Default)
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[This interview originally appeared in the March 2016 newsletter of Tami Veldura, who writes science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, and queer fiction. Because of a formatting glitch, I've combined her questions with my answers as I originally sent them to her (except for the links, which I've added here).]


Today's interview with Dusk touches on apprenticeship, history, and alternate universes. They've written and published over 70 books. They read and write almost exclusively historical works.


Unlike many of the historical researchers and authors I've interviewed, you have a very narrow range of years that you prefer to focus on: 1880-1912. Why this time period? What stories are here that you're still excited to tell?

The period between 1880 and 1912 is a handy era to write about because it's a time of tremendous drama. Most of the period I cover is called the Progressive Era in the United States: it's the time when activists tried to bring about reform in dozens of institutions that had fallen prey to corruption (according to the reformers). At the same time, marginalized Americans were fighting for their rights. So you have labor disputes, prison reform, attempts to protect children and youths against exploitation, and some less pleasant manifestations of reform, such as attempts at censorship. All of this adds up to a great deal of background material for stories.

In a loose manner, I continue to write about the final years of the Roman Empire in my Three Lands series, and I've written some stand-alone stories set in other periods. But the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century are a lot easier to research than earlier periods, and I find them a lot more fun to research. For instance, when I was researching my novel Unmarked, which is set in a 1910s boys' boarding school, I downloaded a lot of turn-of-the-century memoirs set in boarding schools, as well as novels that were based on the authors' experiences in turn-of-the-century boarding schools. Reading a bunch of entertaining novels – that's my idea of how to do fun historical research.


Your Chesapeake Bay series is an Alternate Universe historical. What aspects of the time period have you altered? How have these details allowed you to tell these specific stories?

My entire Turn-of-the-Century Toughs cycle – which currently consists of six series, including the Waterman series you mention – is set in an alternative version of America between 1880 and 1912.

I've always written alternate-universe stories, from my elementary-school years onwards, but the American alternate history stories occurred by accident. My first Toughs series, The Eternal Dungeon, was set in a dungeon which, for some unexplained reason, existed in the late nineteenth century. My second series, Michael's House series, was set in a neighboring nation in the early twentieth century; the series' characters held the same beliefs about sexuality that were held in Ancient Greek times. By the time I got around to writing the fifth Toughs series, Waterman – which featured liege-masters and liegemen – it was clear that I was writing about a turn-of-the-century world in which classical and medieval institutions still held sway. And it was around then that I plopped a map of the nations I'd been writing about onto a map of the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States (where I live), tilted my map so that north faced east, and found that the two maps matched. At that point, I decided I was writing about an alternative version of America that was settled in classical times.

The advantage that offers me (aside from letting me write about dungeons and liegemen without having to learn how to write British English) is that I can connect the United States to a much longer past. Growing up in the U.S. and, at periodic intervals, in England, I was aware that many English folk considered being "English" to extend all the way back to the BC era. Whereas – at least for us European-Americans in the former English colonies – being "American" extends only back to the seventeenth century. So we've been cut off, to a large extent, from the pre-seventeenth-century era. For example, certain guilds in England originated in medieval times; nothing like that exists in the United States.

In the Toughs cycle, I'm writing about a world where America experienced the ancient and medieval eras. The Toughs nations are all connected with their pre-seventeenth-century pasts – not simply the Europeans pasts, but also the Asian and African and Native American pasts, because in the Toughs world, all of these cultures were brought together during classical times on the soil of the "Northern Continent." Along with a few other alterations – such as giving my characters religious beliefs that don't clash with classical beliefs – this has permitted me to write about customs and belief systems that, in our universe, were dead or persecuted in turn-of-the-century America. Yet at the same time, I place these customs and belief systems within the context of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American society.

What if 1910s Americans were still struggling with the legacy of a non-racially-based system of slavery? What if 1880s Americans had to face the ethical issue of institutionalized torture used to extract confessions? What if male bisexuality was the norm in 1890s America? What if the great Victorian empire of the world was run from America, so that the South African Boer War took place, not on African soil, but on American soil? Those are the types of questions I enjoy asking.

But in saying this, I make it sound all very abstract, as though I created the Toughs settings first and then peopled them with characters. It wasn't that way at all. When I write stories, I start with character and crisis – for example, The Eternal Dungeon started with me taking a young man and plunging him terrified into the experience of being delivered to torturers for questioning. Then I discover the settings of my characters through the eyes of those characters.


You have a website, but you're much more active on your Livejournal/Insanejournal blogs. Have you found an audience for historical readers there? How does that community compare to the goodreads groups you're also a part of?

My main blog is at Dreamwidth, but my posts are automatically mirrored at LiveJournal and InsaneJournal, and from LiveJournal to other places. I'm at DW/LJ/IJ (three blog communities with similar blogging codes) because that's where the fan fiction community ended up in the 00s. I was, and am, part of the fan fiction community.

I'm not sure how many historical readers are at DW/LJ/IJ. Two of the historical fan fiction forums at LiveJournal that I post at, historic_slash and historicalslash, provide one-third of the hits to my website, so I gather that a goodly number of historical fiction readers from the fanfic community are interested in learning more about my non-fanfic stories.

These days (except when I'm being naughty and not adhering to my self-imposed restrictions for Internet usage), I take very little part in online discussion forums, so I'm afraid I can't say how the various forums compare with each other. My general impression is that DW/LJ/IJ is much less active than it used to be, but Dreamwidth still provides a useful blogging center for me because Dreamwidth is strongly committed to freedom of speech and to noncommercialism. I never have to worry about censorship there, and I never have to worry that my blog will become littered with advertisements.


Ao3 is probably best known for its fanfiction archives, but it also holds the work of thousands of original fiction authors. You're one of them. Do you come from a fanfiction background? Have you found the Ao3 audience eager to read your work?

I'm not skilled at writing fan fiction, but I do manage it occasionally. One of the characters in my Waterman series (which is otherwise entirely original to me) was borrowed, with permission, from an original fiction series by Sabrina Deane aka Maculategiraffe.

My writing connection with the fanfic community, from the beginning, has been mainly as a writer of originalfic. In 2002, when I first began posting original stories at fanfic e-mail lists, original fiction was relatively rare in the fanfic community. These days, as you've noted, it's very common, but original fiction is still a small enough literary community that people can easily read the classic stories in the field. The Slash Pile (at LiveJournal and Tumblr) has a handy list of classic works of "original slash," as original male/male stories in the fanfic community are often called.

My own readership has been small but fairly steady; I still get occasional fan mail from readers who've been hanging around my forums since 2002. Needless to say, this pleases me, as well as kudos and comments from newer readers who find me at AO3 or at the fanfic/originalfic forums where I occasionally post notices. To tell the truth, if it weren't necessary to make a living through my writing, I'd confine myself to being an amateur online-fiction writer, because it's much more fun: you get immediate feedback, and you don't have to worry about the possibility of offending booksellers.


You have a serious list of free work available of Ao3. Are you still writing fiction to post there? How do you decide if a story is going to be available for free or for sale?

At the moment, I'm uploading a lot of older works that I decided not to continue marketing professionally or that were never appropriate for the professional market. I also post a story toward the end of each year, as a holiday gift to my readers. And obviously, if I write any fan fiction again, it will end up at AO3.

Beyond that, we'll see. I have to spend a lot of time these days on professional work, but there's no way in which I would give up participating in the fanfic/originalfic community as a writer.


The judges for the Rainbow Awards seem to really enjoy your work. You won an award in 2011 and have been a finalist, runner up, or honorable mention every year since. What is it like having your work considered and judged for this contest? Do you strive to write works that specifically qualify for the RA? Have you considered submitting your work for other awards such as the EPIC or Lambda Literary?

My work was indeed recognized at the Rainbow Awards through 2014, which I consider an amazing run. I'm still not sure why it happened, but obviously I'm honored. That's one of the few times of the year in which I'm able to take part in an event involving other writers, so it's enjoyable for that reason. I do try to ensure that I have at least one novel-length LGBT work available to submit to the Rainbow Awards each year, but I ought to be producing at least one novel-length LGBT work each year in any case, in addition to my many non-LGBT stories. That's the only manner in which the Rainbow Awards affects my output.

I try to keep my eye out for other literary award contests that I might qualify for. I don't qualify for all of them. Lambda Literary, for example, doesn't accept e-book nominations.


Moving away from writing, you've worked in almost every possible job there is relating books and words: editor, journalist, researcher, archivist, and more. Have you always known you'd be working with books? What's next for you in the job sphere?

My father is a literary historian, my mother was an amateur reporter and poet, and my younger brother once stocked the waiting room of the laundry where he worked with books about nineteenth-century English history. I was doomed from birth to be a bookworm.

These days, fiction writing is what my job sphere consists of.


You live with your apprentice! Tell me more. What craft/s is your apprentice learning from you? How did you decide an apprentice, rather than an assistant or intern, was the way to go? How long will their apprenticeship last? Is this a traditional apprentice/journeyman/master progression?

"Are you a journeyman yet?" I asked my apprentice when I read your question.

"I can't be," he replied. "I haven't finished my novel yet."

Which is really beside the point. At the time that Jo/e became my apprentice in 2007, I was seeking a protege, and he (a reader of mine) was having daydreams of being my literary apprentice. That worked out nicely. Initially, I only mentored him in writing matters, but that lasted a grand total of about one month before I realized he also needed help in developing life skills. Three years later, the tables turned when I grew gravely ill. Jo/e uprooted himself to move halfway across the continent, in order to move in with me and care for me.

I'm past the worst of that crisis, but Jo/e is still here and always will be. When he's not doing his own art (he's a fabric artist), he provides some practical help with my writing career; for example, he's the one who checks my e-mail when I'm on a writing streak, because I'm not about to let myself near the Internet when the Muse is upon me. But mainly Jo/e keeps me from being lonely. When one's life is centered on reading and writing, it helps to have someone living with you who reads many of the same stories, who does NaNoWriMo too, and who is eager to discuss with you how well "Outlander" was adapted to television.


Of the several thousand books in your home library: pick two. Why those two?

#1: Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave. My love affair with historical fiction and historical speculative fiction began in eighth grade, when I read The Crystal Cave – as well as T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series – and became enamored with Arthurian Britain. For the next few years, I read every Arthurian book I could get my hands on: the handful of modern Arthurian novels that were available in the 1970s (that's how I first encountered Rosemary Sutcliff, another historical novelist I love), as well as history books about Arthurian Britain. I even started reading Le Morte d'Arthur in medieval English, with the original spelling, which was quite a challenge. This is why the setting of my Three Lands series is as close to Arthurian Britain as my alternate-universe Muse would let me get.

During my teens, I dragged my family around to Arthurian sites in England. My brother, who wanted to be an archaeologist at that age, dragged our family around to Roman ruins. My father dragged our family around to medieval churches. I can't remember where my mother dragged us, but I'm sure it had to do with history.

For some reason – probably because my father was a literary historian – I decided that the best way to learn more about history was to major in English during college. Fortunately, during my junior year in high school, I watched Connections, a highly entertaining British television documentary about the history of ideas. I decided that was what I wanted to study. By coincidence, I lived in the same state as St. John's College (Annapolis), which has a four-year, all-required, multidisciplinary Great Books program.

So I ended up at St. John's. The first year, I read and debated Ancient Greek philosophy in seminar, read and debated Ancient Greek mathematics in the math tutorial, read and debated Ancient Greek science in laboratory, and (of course) read and wrote Ancient Greek in the language tutorial.

Two summers later, I read—

#2: The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault. It was the first work of genre fiction I'd ever read that centered upon romantic love between two males, but I didn't raise an eyebrow. The novel was set in fifth-century BC Athens; if it hadn't featured male/male love, I'd have raised an eyebrow, because I'd been drenched in Ancient Greek writings for a year, so I knew what to expect.

Instead, what took me aback was the fantastic job Mary Renault did at making the past seem both ordinary and extraordinary.

Here's how The Last of the Wine begins:

"When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

"You will say there is nothing out of the way in this."

First thing I noticed: the timeless language. Renault's narrator might have been writing today. But I noticed also that Renault has plunged us into a world where infanticide is common. So we're given this double vision of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The only author I've ever encountered who does this as well as Renault does is Robert A. Heinlein, who manages to make the future seem everyday. But Heinlein's stories (though I love them) seem a bit dated today, because he tied them so closely with the customs of his own time. By contrast, Renault's novels about Ancient Greece remain a fresh blending of old and new.

Naturally, after reading those novels, I was left with a fervor to recreate this magic. I've been trying ever since then.


Growing up you were involved in drama, playwriting, and other performed works. Are you still attracted to stage-work? How did this foundation help your fiction writing?

You're very kind to put it that way. My elementary-school involvement with playwriting consisted of my writing and producing a play about pixies saving the world from being smashed by Halley's Comet (I was into both fairies and astronomy that year) and writing a "radio play" – that is, a play recorded on my family's tape recorder – in which Paul Revere's ride was presented as a series of television news reports. I'm not sure which humorist I was imitating with the radio play, but I remember that my mother had the privilege of voicing the part of a booming cannon.

[Dusk Peterson's aside: I just found that tape! I'll be able to hear my mother's booming cannon again.]

I also acted in a few children's plays, thanks to my parent's efforts to get me involved in community activities. I was typecast every time as the crabby person, which gives me some insight as to my personality as a child.

For the connection between drama and my writing, one has to go further back. In the 1960s, I lived in a small, rural community surrounding a Michigan university. I and the other children in my neighborhood played out spontaneous dramas together, which wasn't unusual, except that we were living in a Seventh-day Adventist community, and in those days at least, Seventh-day Adventists had strong feelings against plays, movies, television, and other secular drama. So, rather than imitate whichever television stories were popular then, we children acted out fairy tales.

On one occasion, for example, I and another neighborhood kid were imprisoned slaves of an Evil Queen (my best friend). She was trying to think up suitably evil things to do to us. I – who never lacked imagination in such matters – suggested that she make us eat the raw onions which someone's mother had left out on a picnic table in the backyard where we were playing.

I can't remember which of us decided we should actually eat the wretched things. Possibly me; I had that sort of bloodthirsty mind. At any rate, all of us kids (there were quite a few of us) had a nibble and pronounced the onions to be appropriate punishment for downtrodden slaves. The drama continued.

That evening, while I was eating canned pears and cottage cheese (I vividly recall the dessert, for reasons you will soon understand), my mother received an urgent call from my best friend's mother.

We hadn't eaten raw onions. We had eaten poisonous flower-bulbs.

At that point – as my father likes to recollect – all the fathers in our neighborhood converged on the town's drugstore, to buy the purgative that the doctor recommended. So I spent the night in the bathroom, throwing up.

My more usual way of ending the day – throughout my entire childhood – was to lie in bed for hours, sleepless with insomnia. The only entertainment I had during those sleepless hours was to continue in my head the stories that I and the other kids had acted out. So that's how my storytelling started: as a way to keep from dying of boredom.

Storytelling is still my main form of entertainment. I'm very lucky to be able to spend my days doing it.

August 2017

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