10 Questions with Jared Kavanagh

Jared Kavanagh is a writer of alternate history and other speculative fiction. He is the author of the Sidewise Award-nominated Lands of Red and Gold alternate history series, and editor of the Alternate Australias anthology. He has also had a variety of short fiction published in anthologies from Sea Lion Press and B Cubed Press.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?

Outside of writing, my working life can best be described as a serial job-hopper. My record so far is thirteen jobs in a single year. I stopped counting how many jobs in total once it hit seventy. Sales, IT, town planning, to name but a few. Fortunately I've always been consistent in my love of writing.

I grew up between a few different countries, mostly Australia and New Zealand. I now call Sydney home, and it's just ticked over to being the longest I've lived in one place. Most of what I write is alternate history, with some fantasy, science fantasy and other speculative fiction. Or "weird stuff", as I've described it a few times when that's quicker than trying to give a long-winded explanation.

2. What drew you to that particular genre and/or age group?

I've always been drawn to the question of "what if?" Wondering how things would have turned out if people had made different choices or something in the world had happened differently. Having a family who moved around so many times certainly lent itself to wondering what life would have been like if we'd moved somewhere else. I've also always been interested in finding out what I think of as "nuggets" of history—interesting stories or unusual facts. Not a deep study of history—I'm no historian—but various factoids which strike me as fun or intriguing. Put those two interests together, and writing alternate history was a natural fit.

3. What’s your best known work?

Walking Through Dreams, my first novel in the Lands of Red and Gold series. It's an alternate history of a different Australia where a new crop—the "red yam"—evolved thousands of years ago, which led to the development of a new form of farming across much of Australia. The novel tells the story of the different cultures which emerged as this form of farming spread, and then the first couple of decades of what happens when European trading companies (mostly the Dutch) first make contact with this very different Australia.

Since it covers such a broad span of history, the novel uses a variety of storytelling techniques to convey what happens. The main ones are omniscient narration to describe some of the changed history, vignettes from various characters to show what life is like in the changed world, and snippets from "historical documents" (history books, letters, fiction-within-fiction) to explore different aspects of the world.

Walking Through Dreams was recently nominated for the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History (nominations delayed due to COVID-19). The winner will be announced in mid-December at Discon III. I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed, but it's an incredible honour just to be nominated. Book 2 of the series, The Proxy Dance, has also been delayed due to COVID-19 but should be out by the end of the year. I'm putting the finishing touches on Book 3 at the moment.

I should add that Walking Through Dreams does not attempt to depict any real First Nations cultures. Their stories are their own to tell. All of the cultures described in this novel are fictional, given how much things would have changed with over ten thousand years of a different history.

4. What inspired you to write it?

The immediate inspiration came from reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. In that book, Diamond tried to explain the history of different parts of the world. He wanted to answer the question of why did Europeans end up colonising the Americas, Africa, Australia and other places, rather than the other way around. His explanation focused on differences in geography, flora and fauna, such as what kinds of potential crops and domestic animals were available in different regions. In particular, he said that the only domesticated crop that originated in Australia was the macadamia nut.

Diamond's explanation was incorrect in some of the details. There's been more domesticated crops that originated in Australia, even if only counting the ones which Europeans know about, and not the many more which First Nations peoples used (and use). But it got me thinking, what if Australia had a crop so productive that it led to a different style of farming? Walking Through Dreams was the result.

5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, pantser or somewhere in between? How do you research?

My writing process varies a lot from story to story. For the first fantasy series I wrote (unpublished—I was still learning the craft) I wrote out a detailed outline that included lots of character information, chapter titles and key points, and so forth. I knew what would be the main points of the final scene of the last book before I started writing the first book in that series.

For my most recent series, Lands of Red and Gold, I took a different tack. I spent a lot of time researching the setting before I started. Writing alternate history is like that—you first have to understand what real history was like, then work out how things might change if things developed differently. But for writing the book itself, I had a few very general points in mind, then just started writing and saw where it took me. I enjoyed that approach more because it meant I could enjoy finding out about the story while I was writing it.

The majority of my research is conducted online—there's so much of it available these days. But I do have a large collection of print reference books of history and related subjects which I go to for some questions.

6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?

As part of researching the setting for Lands of Red and Gold, I needed to look into what the likely diet would be—the "agricultural package" of crops that would be used. That led me to look into what archaeologists have found out about the diet and health of ancient peoples. And it turns out that the best way to study that is what's carefully termed paleofeces, or less delicately, ancient crap. It's not my first choice topic for dinner table conversation—in fact, it doesn't feature in the top 1000—but there's no better way to find out exactly what people were eating, or how healthy they were. It's how we know, for example, that salt miners in Austria 2700 years ago were eating blue cheese and drinking beer. Looking into things like that helped me to work out parts of the setting which fed (no pun intended) into my alternate history tales.

7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?

My most personal story was "Dire Insurance", a story which appeared in the anthology Oz is Burning. That anthology was commissioned after the recent Black Summer bushfires, where a portion of the proceeds are donated to WIRES. This story had a protagonist of a man whose wife had died and he was essentially just existing. That character was an amalgam of a couple of family friends, and writing about him brought back a bunch of memories. What made it more personal was that the character also had to interact with a rather bureaucratic and, well, dire insurance company. In writing that scene, I drew on the time when I worked for such a company. It was a challenging experience thinking about how in my past job I'd been dealing with people who'd had such challenging experiences themselves.

8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?

Terry Pratchett, for his humour, philosophy and ability to create memorable characters using only a few lines and hints. I've tried to follow his ability to develop vivid characters, even if they only appear for a single vignette or short fiction.

Steven Brust, for his versatile storytelling style where he uses a wide variety of different techniques to tell stories within the same series. For instance, a novel where the framing device is fragments of the protagonist's drycleaning instructions—sounds strange, but really effective in context. Or another one which is the protagonist's origin story told in alternating timeskips between the "present" and flashbacks which tell the character's life up to the start of the novel, with the flashbacks told in chronological order but seamlessly interacting with the "present day" of the story. I've tried to emulate his ability to combine disparate story elements and techniques into a unified whole.

Harry Turtledove, probably the most prolific alternate history author of all time. He's written a wide variety of alternate histories, such as the WorldWar saga where aliens invade during World War II, Ruled Britannia where William Shakespeare lives and plots in an England which was conquered by the Spanish Armada (to name but two), and exceptional short fiction. He's given me inspiration first to read in the genre, then to write in it.

9. What books are on your bedside table right now?

Heroes, by Stephen Fry (just started), The Rooster Bar by John Grisham (next to read), and Alternative Dispute Resolution (a textbook / reference work). And Beauty and the Beast, an illustrated children's version of the Disney film (1991 version), for when my kids don't want to sleep in their own beds.

10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?

My books are available through Amazon. My Amazon author page is: https://www.amazon.com/Jared-Kavanagh/e/B0825DKBBC/

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