Our next Science Fiction Trading Card Spotlight features Alan Smale, who is displayed on card number 359 in the Science Fiction Collection. Alan is a popular science fiction writer who has had several books and dozens of short stories published so far in his historic career. His novella of a Roman invasion of ancient America, “A Clash of Eagles”, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, and his Clash of Eagles novels, set in the same universe, are available from Del Rey. Alan’s short fiction has been published in Asimov’s, Writers of the Future, Vol. 13, Podcastle, and numerous other magazines and anthologies. His non-fiction essays have appeared in Lightspeed and Journey Planet, and he is now a regular columnist for Galaxy’s Edge. Alan is also the co-creator of the educational AstroCappella project, spreading astronomy through a cappella to schools nationwide.
How early in your life did you know you would be a writer?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, my stories were mostly Tarzan and Star Trek rip-offs (okay, let’s call them “fan fiction”). I started – and finished! – my first original novel when I was nine or ten, about a vaguely James Bond-ish hero who worked as a troubleshooter for an oil company, fighting saboteurs and rebels and other nefarious characters, in spectacular locations. Lots of action and derring-do. (Why an oil company? Darned if I know. I guess I was just trying to do something different from the “secret agent” trope that was everywhere, at the time.) So, basically, I’ve always wanted to be a writer.
What does it take to be a professional writer today?
Patience! Tenacity. Flexibility. Enthusiasm. Cheerfulness (where possible). Oh, and a talent for wordplay, along with a sharp eye for editing. A good sense of character and pacing, and the ability to write snappy and convincing dialog.
Did you ever think when you were younger you would be on a trading card?
Gosh, no. I could never have imagined it.
Growing up in England, I collected all kinds of trading cards. Back then, the cards I was interested in came with bubblegum, or tea – seriously, I had a large number of Brooke Bond and PG Tips Tea cards. I was aware of American baseball cards, and had seen pictures of them, and I understand there are similar sports cards now in the UK and Europe, but I didn’t own any. My favorites were the Batman story cards, based on the Adam West series from the 1960s. But no: back then, it certainly wouldn’t have seemed possible to me that I would ever be featured on a trading card, and especially not as a science fiction writer alongside such a stellar cast of other SF writers!
How has writing today changed from when you were younger? What do you like or dislike about the changes?
When I was growing up, authors would have long careers with the same publishing house. Once the author broke into print, more often than not the same house would keep buying their future books. Some might be great, others not so good – and then perhaps in their fifth or sixth book they might hit it big, with a Nebula or Hugo, or a novel that would hit the bestseller lists. There was more career development within the publishing houses.
The field is very different today. Selling a book to a publisher doesn’t guarantee they’ll take your next one. A large number of authors I know bounce from publisher to publisher, editor to editor, with each book. It forces us (and our agents!) to be much more entrepreneurial. I really loved my first editor – Mike Braff, who at the time worked for Del Rey – and the rest of the Random House crew, and would have liked to work on more books with them, but it was not to be. They weren’t wild about my next book idea (an alternate history set in the Mediterranean in the fourth century, still unsold), and then Mike left Random House for pastures new shortly after. Fortunately, I also adore my new crew, publisher Shahid Mahmud and editor Lezli Robyn, and the rest of the team at CAEZIK SF & Fantasy.
What are your favorite type of books and why?
I read widely, but science fiction has always been my favorite genre. Over the past fifteen years most of my writing has been alternate history, historical fantasy, and hard SF, and those subgenres tend to be the ones I read the most. I also read a lot of non-fictions, mostly history, as research – although sometimes the research gets so enjoyable that I have difficulty persuading myself to stop reading and start writing! As light relief, and a total change of pace, these days I’m also slotting in some of the classic noir and hardboiled writers that I never read earlier in life: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Robert Parker. Those authors had a very crisp, straightforward writing style, although I do very much enjoy ornate and lush prose as well.
What are your favorite hobbies today?
I love to travel, and I love to read. I’m also in a semi-professional a cappella group called The Chromatics, a six-person vocal band. We’ve performed all across the country and have recorded nine albums over the years. Many of our original songs are “techie”; we have a whole album of astronomically correct songs called AstroCappella, which are used in schools across the country. I love singing with the group – it’s very different from being behind my computer at work or being behind my computer when I’m writing!
How has your involvement in the writing profession been important to you?
The writing community is now central to my life. My best friends are equally split between my “science life” at NASA and my writing life. My fellow authors have encouraged and advised me over the years, and I’m trying to pay this forward to the next generation of authors and help out where I’m able.
What do you think about electronic books that you can download versus the actual physical hard copy?
For books I know I’m going to love and luxuriate in, or simply reread a number of times, I greatly prefer a physical copy that I can hold in my hand. It’s somehow easier to immerse myself in the printed page than in(?) a computer screen.
But for those books I just need to read once, quickly, I’m more likely to buy the ebook – they’re often cheaper, and don’t take up space on my shelves. I guess travel is a gray area – I’ll often buy books to read on my phone while I’m traveling, so I don’t have to cart the physical books around.
What authors do you admire today and who did you look up to as a child?
As a child, I very much hit the classic SF writers: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, Larry Niven, Robert Silverberg. I did have a crazy summer vacation when I was about twelve when I read both Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” – I often joke that this combination scarred me for life. More recently in the alternate history field I’ve loved books by Steven Barnes, Jo Walton, and Nisi Shawl, as well as Stephen Baxter, Harry Turtledove, and Eric Flint. In the SF genre, and genre adjacent, I’ve recently read excellent work by Daniel Godfrey, Sarah Gailey, Colson Whitehead, Charlie Stross, Sarah Pinsker, Tamsyn Muir, Rick Wilber, Nancy Kress, Indra Das, Tom Doyle, Karen Osborne … and I’m sure I’m forgetting a whole bunch of people that I’ll kick myself later for not including. Many of those I’ve named are also featured on Walter Day trading cards, of course!
If you did not become a writer, what would you be doing?
In my day job I’m a scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, doing research into black holes and neutron stars in our galaxy, and also managing a data center and enabling other researchers to effectively obtain and analyze their data. So, if I wasn’t a writer, I’d still be doing the same thing during the day. I’d likely have different hobbies – I’d spend more time playing guitar, doing community theater, reading more widely than I’m currently able to, and so on.
What are your favorite books past and present?
In the alternate history field, I think the standout books for me (somewhat) recently have been “Lion’s Blood” and “Zulu Heart” by Steven Barnes, which postulates a North America that was initially colonized by African nations rather than Europeans, and “Everfair” by Nisi Shawl, set in the Belgian Congo. In straight historical writing, it’s hard to beat Stephen Pressfield: “The Afghan Campaign” in particular evokes what it must have really been like to go to war in Alexander the Great’s army. A lot of Bernard Cornwell’s books are also worth reading for that depth of historical background. Given my love for all things Apollo, I’d recommend “Carrying the Fire” by Michael Collins and “A Man on the Moon” by Andrew Chaikin. And back in the SF genre, Kim Stanley Robinson’s massive Martian trilogy “Red Mars”, “Green Mars”, and “Blue Mars” is a tour de force that I’m looking forward to rereading one day. His alternate history “Years of Rice and Salt” is great, as well.
What are your opinions about today’s generation of books?
There’s a great deal more variety and diversity in fiction across the board, and this is very healthy for everyone – in the SF genre, mysteries, mainstream, the works. I also feel that the quality of non-fiction writing has dramatically improved over the last ten years. Historical and technical non-fiction writing now tends to be a lot more vivid, and less dry. The surge in indie houses and self-publishing means there are a lot more books, and a lot more “niche” writing for particular subfields. It’s a great time to be a reader!
If you could own one arcade game or pinball game, what would it be and why?
In my student years I used to play a lot of pinball. There were a couple of tables that I really liked – I can’t remember what they were called now, of course – but if I could pluck one of those old and clunky but oddly appealing tables out of my memory, or out of history, and have it technomagically appear in my office, that would be great. And also, an amazing distraction, when I’m supposed to be writing.
Are you still involved with writing today, and what role do you play?
My short fiction has been published in a large number of magazines and original anthologies over the past thirty years, and my CLASH OF EAGLES trilogy came out from Random House/Del Rey in 2015-2017. These are alternate history, set in a universe where the Roman Empire survives until the thirteenth century in its classical form, and is now moving into North America, at the time when the Mississippian Culture is at its height. My latest book, HOT MOON, is an alternate history thriller about the Apollo program, set entirely on and around the Moon with 1970s technology, and I’m already contracted to write a sequel. And I have various other book ideas swirling around in my mind, just waiting for me to find the time to write them. So, I’m still very active as a writer, and also spend a lot of energy going to science fiction conventions and workshops, talking to other writers, and mentoring where I can.
What do you see yourself doing in the next 10 years?
Writing a lot more books! Probably quitting my day job – though I enjoy it, and particularly enjoy the people I’m currently working with – so that I can write full time without exhausting myself. And traveling the world. I’ve already traveled a lot, including great trips to Mongolia, the Galapagos, Morocco, China, Japan, and across Europe, but there’s still a lot left to see!