Interview Transcripts

Kurt Giambastiani: Alternative History 4/8/05

Event start time:

Thu Apr 07 19:00:04 2005

Event end time:

Thu Apr 07 21:02:35 2005

Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, all!


Welcome to our Professional Connection Inteview.


Tonight we're chatting with Kurt Giambastiani.


Kurt Giambastiani writes Speculative Fiction, including the Fallen Cloud Saga, with four books out of five already on the shelves and the fifth book in progress. In this version of American History, the Europeans and Native peoples follow a different path in a very different world, while in Dreams of a Desert Wind, step into an alternate Middle East and listen to the voice of the desert wind.


Kurt, Welcome! I managed to miss you entirely at NorwesCon two weeks ago...dunno how THAT happened!

Kurt Giambastiani

Probably because I wasn't there to be seen!


I'm not much of a con-goer.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah...I feel better!...I was kicking myself for not hunting you down.


I have to say I am intrigued by your Fallen Cloud alternate American history


for those of you who have not checked out Kurt's website .  How did you get there?

Kurt Giambastiani

Get where, Mary? To the website or to the idea for it?


For the saga, I mean?

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, the idea of the alternate US.

Kurt Giambastiani

It began as a short story idea.


What if American Indians rode dinosaurs?


It bloomed easily into enough information for a novel


and that turned into a five-book series.

Mary Rosenblum

Cool idea...didn't you publish that short story? I kept thinking that I had seen it when I looked at your books.

Kurt Giambastiani

No, I never developed it as a short story.


The research too quickly expanded the original idea

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, I bet it did. :-) All my SF novels started as short stories and simply got too big. So how did you get started writing?

Kurt Giambastiani

Actually, I was dared into it...


A friend of mine, who knew I liked to imagine stories and suc


challenged me to write a short story for his writers group.


They were all writing a short story based on the same first line.


So I took him up on it, wrote it, and sold it.


After that, I was hooked.

Mary Rosenblum

I guess so! Okay, you're the exception that proves the 'rejection slips come first' rule! :-)


Did you go straight to the novel from there?

Kurt Giambastiani

I got plenty of rejections between Sale #1 and Sale #2.


No, I gave myself 5 years to sell to a "major" market, in short stories.


I did that, and then went on to the novel form.


I still write short stories now, but mostly as a way to develop an idea for a novel.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, good! For all the aspiring writers out there struggling with rejection slips, I'm glad to hear that you're mortal. LOL


Is alternate history a subgenre of Sci-Fi? How do the stores treat it?

Kurt Giambastiani

Yes, and they treat it as exactly that: a subgenre of Sci-Fi.


You'll find it interspersed with all the other sf/f on the shelves.

Mary Rosenblum

It doesn't really cross over into mainstream, does it? I can't remember any in particular.

Kurt Giambastiani

Some writers make it over to mainstream or to historical fiction, but not many.

Mary Rosenblum

So what enticed you into alternate history? The cool idea?

Kurt Giambastiani

I never actually read any of it before I wrote the Fallen Cloud books.


And lots of hardcore alt-history fans think I went too far off the beam to be called "alternate history".


But the idea of an alternate America took me there, Big Time.

Mary Rosenblum

Was it your dinosaurs that got the alt-history fans up in arms?

Kurt Giambastiani

Primarily, yes. Their complaint was that I "changed too much" and yet kept much of history the same.


It comes from a difference in philosophies about the nature of time, and the differences one change might create.

Mary Rosenblum

Don't you hate it when people dealing in created universes start making rules? :-)

Kurt Giambastiani

LOL...Yes! I was told that what I had proposed was impossible, and I always countered with "Hey, it's FICTION"

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding. I guess sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, out here in speculative land. :-)


How far into alternate do typical alt history books go? Indians and dinosaurs sounds almost like alternate prehistory. heh

Kurt Giambastiani

Good question...Most AH books deal with a specific change to an event in human history.


Nazis won WWII.


The South won the Civil War.


Most of them deal with a change in some war or battle or some such


and they extrapolate from there.


My changing the fauna of the Americas dating back to the Cretaceous period was a bit too much for some.

Mary Rosenblum

But it sure is a fun read. :-)


What percentage of fiction sales comprise the speculative genre?

Mary Rosenblum

Gosh I don't have a number for that, Kurt, do you?

Kurt Giambastiani

That's a hard one to even begin to answer.


I don't know that anyone has the data for it.


Looking at the shelf-space, though, I think you'd have to say that sf/f/h accounts for about 10-15% of all Fiction sales


Wild guess, though.

Mary Rosenblum

It's not huge, but it's significant. I do know that Romance gets the biggest share of the pie, and mystery is pretty big...that's of the fiction market.


I must say that I really like Dreams of the Desert Wind out from Fairwood Press.

Kurt Giambastiani

Thank you! It's my favorite published book, so far.

Mary Rosenblum

I thought it was more sophisticated and complex, but I haven't read all your saga books.


And you have some lovely imagery.

Kurt Giambastiani

For DREAMS, I drew heavily on my experiences in the Middle East.


It's a place filled with amazing images.

Mary Rosenblum

When you're writing something that is fairly close to the real world like that and how difficult is it


to let the reader know what is familiar and what has changed?

Kurt Giambastiani

Well, I always assume that my readers aren't stupid


and that they're aware of current events and a bit of history, too.


So I don't spoon-feed them with big red letters saying;


"Oh, by the way, the Palestinian state doesn't exist yet!!"


But there are places where you have to make sure it's known that Things Are Different.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you find yourself creating characters who will have a 'need to know', or situations that will make some realities clear?

Kurt Giambastiani

Not for the purpose of laying out what's different, no


though I find "sidekicks" a very useful tool for getting exposition into the prose


without being ham-handed about it.


Mostly, I'll merely mention the difference a couple of times, when it comes up.


But only when it's pertinent to the plot.

Mary Rosenblum

I guess you really do have to assume that your readers have SOME reasonable knowlege of the time you portray in your book!

Kurt Giambastiani

Yes, otherwise they wouldn't have been drawn to it in the first place.


That's the assumption, anyway.


And it's not so much the differences that are important


but what the characters DO about the difference.

Mary Rosenblum

True. And I suppose, you are really writing for different 'levels' of readers.


Some will enjoy the story and characters and know some things are different


while others, with a deeper knowledge of the period, will be more impressed with the breadth of your changes.

Kurt Giambastiani

Yes, and for example, those who read the Fallen Cloud books will (I hope) enjoy the story on a basic level


while those who know something about George A Custer will enjoy seeing the changes in him.


And those who enjoy political intrigue will enjoy that part.

Mary Rosenblum

I have to say that it did occur to me that even if your books are read by someone raised


on the proverbial desert island who had never heard the name Custer


and had no idea whether dinosaurs roamed the western US or not --


that reader would still have a good read.

Kurt Giambastiani

That's the hope, anyway! Custer is an interesting character whether you know the history of the real Custer or not.

Mary Rosenblum

I think you may have answered info's question, but I'll pose it and see if you want to add more.


For the sake of argument, if someone isn't as up to date on events, present day or historic, do you write your novels so they are still understandable at that level?

Kurt Giambastiani

Yes, info, I do. I want it to be interesting to anyone who picks it up, and not just students of history or of a period.


But I also want those history students to be pleased!

Mary Rosenblum

And I have to say that the alternate history books I've read have tended to revolve around


major historical events that are widely known.

Kurt Giambastiani

There are some that are more into minute changes


but those are more scholarly in nature,


almost "thought experiments" about what might have been.


The more popular works are about things You Should Know About.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah yes, we have a local writer who is essentially writing for history grad students.


How much research goes into one of your AH novels and how do you know when you've gotten enough material to get started?

Kurt Giambastiani



But about 3-6 months of reading goes into the background material for my books.


That's per setting, not per book.


I was able to leverage research on Fallen Cloud Book 1 into Book 2 (and 3 and 4).


Each one requires more research, but only about another month or two.


But I'm never satisfied with the detail


though my editors shriek at it all.

Mary Rosenblum

So when do you know it's time to stop researching and write?

Kurt Giambastiani

Research is seductive and addictive


so at a certain point, I've just learned to stop.


Mostly, though, it's at the point where all my "big" questions about the characters and plot have been answered.


The other research comes later, to fact-check and fill in details.


For every fact/detail in the books, there are 5-10 I left out.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah....that's the real task for me...leaving facts out! How do you decide what stays and what goes?

Kurt Giambastiani

I've been accused of putting "too much history" in my books.


And to a certain extent, it's true.


I've had to reread and rewrite with a more critical eye


and look for those facts and details that clog up the prose


or have no strong purpose for a scene.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you give your book to critiquers at all, or work on it solo until you turn it in?

Kurt Giambastiani

In writing a book...any book...I hit a wall at every 30,000 words


and I have my wife, who is my First Reader, read through what I have so far.


Then she says "No, it's NOT stupid," and I go on.


But no one else reads it until it's done


and then it goes to my circle (small circle) of First Readers for critique.

Mary Rosenblum

I think we all need that reader who can tell us 'it's not stupid." :-) How much revision do you end up doing?

Kurt Giambastiani

My rewrites are not extensive, primarily because I'm an outliner.


I outline the plot to a fairly detailed level before I begin


so my rewrites are line-level or


in rare cases, moving/removing chapters or scenes.

Mary Rosenblum

I have to say that I really reduced my revision when I began outlining in detail. But how much does your outline change from the original outline to the finished story?

Kurt Giambastiani

Good question. Answer: both a little and a lot.


I always end up in basically the same place


but sometimes I take a different route getting there.


Characters can and do assert their will and bring in new twists.


But because my plots are fairly intricate


I can't just let it freewheel...I need to know where I'm going to end up.


The outline is a "serving suggestion" not a recipe.

Mary Rosenblum

I use very much the same method...and it's particularly useful in mystery where you HAVE to get to that end! :-)


But there are many many ways to get from page one to 'the end'.


How does an alternate history writer avoid the "that's already been done" problem? Do publishers care?

Kurt Giambastiani

It saves a LOT of grief from going down blind alleys...for me at least.


Yes, publishers care...a LOT.


But an AH writer would avoid the "Been there Done that" problem the same way any other writer does,


by knowing what's been done.


Or if you ARE doing something that's been done, do it differently


with a twist or spin that's good enough to get it noticed.


Does that mean another "Da Vinci Code" wouldn't sell?

Kurt Giambastiani



In fact, I think that Dan Brown's made a new sub-genre of thriller


that many will emulate.


I bet there are a hundred knock-off titles on editors’ desks, waiting to be read.

Mary Rosenblum

And here need the twist or new approach that makes YOURS stand out.

Kurt Giambastiani

There's a big difference between similar and derivative.

Mary Rosenblum

True, and Kurt, wouldn't you say that


just as with Hollywood, the publishing world does like to repeat 'winners’ if they can?


The same but different this time?

Kurt Giambastiani

Absolutely...and to the detriment of the medium, IMO...

Mary Rosenblum

No argument from me there, sigh.

Kurt Giambastiani

It's the "Do that again!" mentality that makes it harder for innovation.

Mary Rosenblum

And sends some very fine books to the small press publishers like Fairwood.


I was struck with the similarities between Brown's book and Katherine Neville's The Magic Circle. Is one derivative?

Kurt Giambastiani

I haven't read Neville's book, so I don't know. I'd guess that they were merely similar, though, unless Neville's book came out on the heels of Brown's.


So you have to be familiar with the body of extant works? That sounds like a lot of reading or at least research.

Kurt Giambastiani

Well, if you're not (as I was not familiar with AH)


you run the risk of writing a book that is too similar to what someone else has done.


I'm sure many of us (myself included) have written a short story


only to have someone in your critique group say


"Hey, that's just like Roger Zelazny's BLAHDIBLAH book!"


You have to be aware


or you might repeat.


Similar ideas will crop up in writers' heads.

Mary Rosenblum

And I think one has to realize


that EVERYTHING more or less has been done, and that does not


prevent you from doing something similar that will have as much or even more power as that 'original'.

Kurt Giambastiani



How many versions of ROMEO AND JULIET are out there?




The plays themselves were reworks.


A retelling can be as powerful as the original.

Mary Rosenblum

It can indeed. And what role do you feel that characters play in those retellings? Is that where the difference can lie?

Kurt Giambastiani

In the end, yes.


Though some retellings might change setting more than characters.


The characters have also changed.


Isn't that also because our perceptions are all so different?

Kurt Giambastiani

Every reader brings him/herself to a book


and will read different things into a work.


I've had readers tell me they got things out of my stories that I never put in there.


But they're not wrong...It just came from the reader, not me.


You said you have had a few reject slips between your first sale and the second - was there a lesson you learned between those two sales?

Kurt Giambastiani

That writing is hard work!


And there were many rejects.


A long time between sale 1 and 2.


But I knew that Sale 1 was a fluke.


All the other writers I knew told me so!


Rejections taught me to toughen my skin


and to work some discipline into my writing habits, if I wanted to succeed.

Mary Rosenblum

What is your writing day, like? Do you work every day?

Kurt Giambastiani

When I'm working on a project, I have a weekly goal, not a daily goal.


I have a schedule for writing...some evenings, some weekend writing.


But with a full-time job and wanting to see my wife now and again, it takes some scheduling.


I'm also not a fast writer.


A book a year is about my best, with research and all.


But as the old saw goes


a page a day is a book a year.


So I work to a weekly word count goal.

Mary Rosenblum

I want to talk a bit more about how you juggle life and writing, since nearly everyone here is doing just that...but hommemonk had a comment on rejection slips.


But what if you're not that tough?

Kurt Giambastiani

hommemonk, I don't think any writer is that start out.


So it hurts...sometimes a lot.


But as they came in, and as I learned about the craft


I saw that I was getting better.


One also has to realize that there are just some idiots out there


in editors' chairs.


And a rejection slip doesn't mean that the story is bad


only that it didn't do what you wanted it to do.


The fault is in the words, not in the writer.


And so you learn.


And you get tougher.

Mary Rosenblum

That's very well put, Kurt, thank you.


Were the other books in your Fallen Cloud series written under contract? Or do you write a book and then look to publish it when you’re done?

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, did you sell the entire series of five?

Kurt Giambastiani

It was complicated.


I wrote Book 1, not thinking of it as the first in a series.


My agent sold book 1, and they wanted a sequel.


So I rewrote it so that it had a loose end at the finale


and at that point, I wrote the outline for all five books.


But we sold Books 1 & 2 together


and then sold Books 3 & 4


before they were written.


Book 5 has not been sold, yet.

Mary Rosenblum

So everybody go buy books 1 - 4 and then Roc will publish 5, too. :-)


Kurt we have quite a few folk in the audience who are working on that first novel and could use some advice...did you get an agent before you started shopping your novel


or did you send it around on your own first?

Kurt Giambastiani

I decided early on that I would try for an agent before I marketed my book.


My thinking was that an agent would help me sell it


and I didn't want to waste any opportunities by marketing it myself.


But you can go either way.


Agent first or market while agent searching.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, you can do that in SF and romance, but just about nowhere else anymore, alas.


Did you find your agent through the cons, or by a reference from another writer?

Kurt Giambastiani



I found my agent by sending out a bazillion query letters


and sending them chapters/synopses when they asked for them.


It took me a year (!) to find my agent.


And now I'm actually looking for a new agent.

Mary Rosenblum

Ooooh, thank you! You are a great example, Kurt. A lot of writers get terribly discouraged at how long and drawn out


the find-an-agent process is. But see? It DOES work!


So how come the new agent?

Kurt Giambastiani

My writing has been moving and changing


and my old agent doesn't think she can do an adequate job of representing it.


Primarily, I'm drifting away from genre work and towards mainstream.


My old agent was strictly genre.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, that's what I was about to ask. Yes, a lot of genre agents don't really cross over into mainstream


and good for your agent for being honest about it. Who is your agent by the way?

Kurt Giambastiani

Eleanor Wood, of Spectrum Literary Agency

Mary Rosenblum

Oh yes. She's good, and yes, honest about what she can handle. :-)

Kurt Giambastiani

We've always had a very straightforward relationship.


What does it mean to drift towards mainstream?

Kurt Giambastiani

Good question, wardg.


For me, it means that my books are less interested in the "tropes" of sf/f


and more character-driven, more internal.


Basically, my characters and their relationships are either the drivers of the action


or are the entire point of the tale.


So there's less external action.

Mary Rosenblum

I thought Dreams of a Desert Wind was certainly heading in that direction...not really a Roc book.


And I thought it was much stronger, to be honest.

Kurt Giambastiani

No, it's not. But I'm glad that Patrick took a chance on it. The characters are the main reason the story exists.


Is there really that much difference between genre and mainstream?

Kurt Giambastiani

Writeaway, I'd say that there CAN be that much difference.


There definitely are character-driven sf/f books, but they're not the norm.


While if you read anything by...oh, Alice Hoffman or Louise Erdrich


you'll see the sf/f elements, but they're not the heart of the story.


The characters are.


Does mainstream necessarily mean more marketable?

Kurt Giambastiani

Not in my opinion.


Mainstream is a genre, just like sf/f.


And mainstream is really the one genre that's becoming LESS restrictive


while the others are becoming MORE restrictive.


Mainstream might pay more, though!

Mary Rosenblum

And there's probably more competition.

Kurt Giambastiani



Does it help your references to have been "agented" before? I your search for a new agent does the fact you've been taken seriously before by an agent help you in your search at all?

Kurt Giambastiani

I laugh...I cry...


Yes, it means I get rejections at a quicker rate!


I hope that it means I'm getting to the top of the line, and getting a good look from a rep.


But there's no guarantee.


Hello! I'm joining a bit late so forgive me if I've touched on something you've already answered. How do you go about getting all the needed background information that makes historical stories so accurate?

Mary Rosenblum

Where do you start your research?


This is helpful even to people not writing alternate history


who are simply trying for realistic settings.

Kurt Giambastiani

Thanks for the compliment, ashton...I work hard to make those stories seem real.


Whether they're sf/f, AH, or mainstream


I've compiled lists of websites and reference works.


I have a library full of books on subjects like the Cheyenne and Alexandria and


such places and peoples that I've used in my books.


And I have CDs full of maps and details from the Library of Congress


and such places. You acquire a lot of reference material, and it all leads to more.

Mary Rosenblum

Do you tend to begin with the internet?

Kurt Giambastiani

Often, yes, though with the Cloud books, I started with a book about dinosaur extinction.


That led to another book


and finally I went out to the 'net.


How do you know when you've got enough research done to begin the book?

Kurt Giambastiani

When I have all the questions about the plot answered, I have enough to start.


But as long as I'm not sure if chapter X makes sense, for whatever reason


I'll dig further.


Research of the details comes later, and during the writing.


But STARTING is the important thing, I've learned.


Otherwise, I'd do nothing but research, and never get the book written!

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, it can indeed be a nice sinkhole! So you keep researching right up through the end of the book?

Kurt Giambastiani

Yes, especially we mentioned earlier...I sometimes deviate from the outline.


When I do that, I need to know that I'm heading down a viable path


and there's always the odd question, like "When were plows invented?" that must be answered.


A trick I've learned, though --


when I'm writing, and I come across a detail I'm not sure of.


I type  <?>


It's a little phrase or item I can easily search on.

Mary Rosenblum

Those markers are handy when you need to go back and find that detail in 350 ms pages!

Kurt Giambastiani



And it doesn't slow me down in writing.

Mary Rosenblum

I use XXX myself. :-)


So many new writers think outlining is a daunting task they'd just as soon not deal with. Have you found outlining to be invaluable?

Kurt Giambastiani

For me, yes...but I know others who simply can't, and who do well enough as writers.


But they're usually fast writers..."Swoopers" I call them.


They breeze in on a weekend and pound out 30,000 words


and if they have to rewrite 10,000 of them, so be it.


I write slowly...maybe ten pages on a very good day.


So outlining saves me from making 10,000 word mistakes.




And you'll have to outline it anyway


when you write up a synopsis to show the publisher/agent.

Mary Rosenblum

And you'll have to learn to write a GOOD synopsis!


I don't usually write that fast... but once I've got a story outlined, I know what's going to happen and the joy is taken out of the writing.... I think I should learn to use an outline, but i don't know where to start... any suggestions?

Kurt Giambastiani

There are different places to find joy in writing.


There's plotting, characterizing, detail, prose.


Lots of places.


But perhaps you could start with what I call "The Hardy Boy Outline."


It's very brief --


One line per chapter.


Perhaps a little more for the complicated parts.


But it leaves you LOTS of room for expansion and sub-plots


and there's tons of fun in that.


Especially for stories.


You don't have to outline much.


Remember that I'm writing novels, at 120-140,000 words.


I NEED that outline!

Mary Rosenblum

And a lot of outlining has to do with revision time. You don't have so many of those 10,000 word mistakes!


So Kurt, since we're getting short on time, want to tell us what's next for you? You have a Ploughman series that you hope to sell, right?

Kurt Giambastiani

I have a two-book historical fantasy set in 9th century Brittany.


Those are my Ploughman Chronicles.


And I just finished a time-travel romance that I hope to sell.


I'm very excited about that one.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, cool. They are quite hot!


Try Dorchester.

Kurt Giambastiani

I got to do lots of research for that.


Will do!


And now I'm working on a more mainstream novel.


So, lots of possibilities.

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding! I liked what you had on your site about the Ploughman Chronicles...good luck with that one!

Kurt Giambastiani


Mary Rosenblum

That's the one that's based on a story you published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's magazine, right?

Kurt Giambastiani

Yes. The story was "Ploughman's Son," and it bloomed into a novel, and then into a second novel.

Mary Rosenblum

Cool...good time period, too.


So an outline is really just to keep the details of characters and plot lines straight?

Kurt Giambastiani

I use an outline for many things, those among them...


Also, it helps me keep "on theme," so I remember what I want to say with the book...


And if I know that we're going to have a big battle scene in three chapters...


I can start building the tension now.


That sort of thing.

Mary Rosenblum

So Kurt, what advice would you offer folk here? What have you learned that you want to share?

Kurt Giambastiani

The most important lesson I have learned...


Is "determine your goals"


Decide on what you want to get out of writing.


Do you want fulfillment?






Because you have to orchestrate your career differently for those different goals.


Writing is an art, but Publishing is a business


and Publishing doesn't give a whit about your artistic soul.


They want to make money.


It's harsh


but it's part of that toughening up process we spoke of earlier.

Mary Rosenblum

That's right...and I'd like to add a complimentary bit of advice, myself, here


which is, define what success means to YOU early on. Because there are many different 'standards of success'


in this business, so don't let yourself get sidetracked from yours.

Kurt Giambastiani

I agree completely, Mary.

Mary Rosenblum

Paja has a last question, let me slip it in here.


How do you know when a book is blooming into another one?

Kurt Giambastiani

paja, I generally know that during the outlining process.


It becomes very clear when the story has farther to go than one book will be able to tell.


Another vote for outlining!

Mary Rosenblum

Yep. :)


Thank you for being with us tonight, Kurt!

Mary Rosenblum

Indeed! Thank you VERY much for coming...

Kurt Giambastiani

My pleasure!

Mary Rosenblum

You’ve really had some excellent things to say.


Thanks a lot I have a lot more notes than usual from this interview!


Thank you so much. Blessings.

Kurt Giambastiani

I'm glad that you all enjoyed the chat!


I had a great time.

Mary Rosenblum

You've been an excellent guest, Kurt. Best of luck with Ploughman, and your time travel romance!


Good night!


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