David Wostyn, a resident of France, is an author of alternate history and an author and editor of "With Iron and Fire," an anthology of stories set in a world where the Chinese Empire survives and becomes a regional power in its own right.
Wallace: What made you interested in writing?
Wostyn: I'd say that when you like to read, the idea that you could give writing a try sort of comes naturally. As Umberto Eco said, books aren't about things, they're about other books. Now, writing is one thing, being published quite another. I was convinced until last year that I would remain an amateur writer indefinitely, then Tom Black founded Sea Lion Press and gave my work the opportunity to be released commercially.
Wallace: What got you into alternate history?
Wostyn: There was plenty of time travel in the science fiction stories I read as a teenager, and there was always this interrogation, explicit or not, about the consequences of changing the course of history. I think the first actual AH novel I read was "The Hammer and the Cross" by Harry Harrison. I grew increasingly fascinated with the idea of exploring divergences in the historical timeline. Then in 2004, I came across AH.com and, for the first time, I could share ideas with a community of fellow alternate history fans.
Wallace: Do you have a background in Chinese history? If not, what made you acquainted with the historical background?
Wostyn: My academic background is in political science, and my day job is in public education, but I did study Chinese language and civilization for two years. I have made a dozen trips to China and Taiwan, and my wife is Chinese. The rest comes from reading up on Chinese history.
Wallace: What inspired the particular idea for "With Iron and Fire?"
Wostyn: I first had the idea, all those years ago, while perusing an encyclopedia of military aircraft. I asked myself, "Which ones of these would a different China use?" But then I had to come up with that different China in the first place, and it grew from there. This is why there has been a fair amount of focus on aviation in the successive iterations of the timeline. The choice of Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao as the leaders of alternate China comes from my Chinese philosophy classes; I liked those two guys, admired what they tried and failed to do in OTL, and decided to give them another chance.
Wallace: What made you want to make this book a collaborative work?
Wostyn: After being a member of AH.com for a couple of years, I started noticing certain people who were very good at writing fiction. It occurred to me that a short story format would be an engaging way to explore aspects of the timeline that weren't developed in the main narrative. So I launched the "Tales of the Superpower Empire" and managed to attract quite the talent pool over time. The first one to volunteer was Tom Anderson of "Look to the West" fame, but the one who's grown into the timeline resident writer is Bruno Lombardi, the author of "Snake Oil." Bruno and I have a kind of creative attunement to each other — I can send him a disjointed jumble of ideas, and he'll turn them into a great story.
Wallace: Did working with so many other authors pose a significant challenge to the endeavor?
Wostyn: I realized around 2012 that it was getting difficult to keep track of everyone's contributions. Ideas were going back and forth via email, PMs, Word files, etc. The solution was to set up a dedicated discussion board, modeled after the one used by the "France Fights On" authors. It's a bare-bones thing but it makes teamwork much easier.
Wallace: How did each writer add their own touch to the shared world?
Wostyn: Each writer has his own style and his own field of expertise, and I've tried to make the best use of both. Pablo Portillo is very knowledgeable about Japan, among other topics, so I delegated to him the Japanese part of the timeline, "The Sun and the Mirror." Jason Sharp is a field geologist with extensive experience in Arctic prospection, so his contribution took the form of a highly original story about the rise of the diamond mining industry in Yakutia. Henry Yeh is an aircraft enthusiast whose work on alternate aviation in the timeline will be featured in the second volume. And Bruno ... Let's just say that Bruno and I got so carried away at one point that what was going to be just another story grew into a novel-length work, "The Road to Yakutia.".
Wallace: How did you make sure each contribution was consistent with the others?
Wostyn: Proofreading and more proofreading. I was very keen on the whole ensemble being a seamless shared universe, and that meant looking carefully for any inconsistency. Whenever a detail was changed in the main narrative, I made sure to have any story that referred to it retconned accordingly. We were always at war with Eastasia, and Greedo always shot first.
Wallace: You’ve said that this project was 12 years in the making. Did it change over that long?
Wostyn: It definitely did. The first time around, I woefully underestimated the amount of research I needed to do in order to pull off a decent timeline. I started over twice more before I was finally satisfied with the result — third time's the charm. But then, I’m a lazy perfectionist, a very bad combination for a writer.
Wallace: Do you have any future projects in the works?
Wostyn: I’m looking forward to a print edition of "With Iron and Fire." The team and I are currently working on the second volume, which is tentatively scheduled for the end of the year. I've also been contributing to the "France Fights On" timeline, which has two volumes down and a third one to go. Then there’s a project my wife has been trying to talk me into, something called “having a child.”
Wallace: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Wostyn: Your first reader is yourself. Write what you always wanted to read but that nobody has written yet. Chances are there are other people out there who will want to read it, too.