Ian Tregillis’s debut fantasy novel BITTER SEEDS (UK | ANZ) is a sinister reimagining of World War II events. In this supernatural alternate history, British forces use dark magics to hold back an invading army of Nazi superhumans. Orbit’s James Long put some questions to Ian on where he got his ideas from . . .
The premise of Bitter Seeds – Nazi super soldiers versus occult powers conjured up by British Warlocks – is unusual, to say the least! What was the original inspiration behind the story?
A number of years ago, around 2002 or 2003, I read a magazine article about a little-known Allied secret project during the Second World War called Project Habakkuk. Habakkuk was conceived during the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, when German wolf packs were destroying Allied shipping convoys. The idea – and this is one of those wonderful places where truth is so much stranger than fiction – was to build ships out of ice. It sounds mad but it’s actually a rather clever idea! Alas, for various reasons the project never made it past the prototype stage (Maybe because it is just a little bit mad.)
But I couldn’t get that image out of my head, of vast bergships plying the North Atlantic and changing the course of the war. So I began to wonder how the Axis might have responded if Habakkuk had been a success. A few days later, as I was driving to work, the answer hit me out of the blue: obviously, Ian, the Germans would have sent a pyrokinetic spy to sabotage the shipyards . . .
The ice ship never made it into Bitter Seeds, but the pyrokinetic SS agent did.
Bitter Seeds is largely set in London in the 1940s with a comprehensive cast of English characters. Given that you are American, how difficult did you find it to tap into the British psyche of this particular period in history?
Extremely difficult. I won’t make any claims about how well I did (or didn’t) succeed, but I certainly tried my best. Without a doubt, it was the most daunting part of the entire project.
It’s sometimes said that the past is a foreign country. If that’s true, then when I tackled Bitter Seeds I found myself writing about people who were doubly foreign to me. Not only foreign in terms of country and culture, but also foreign in terms of the era. It was by far the most challenging part of the research process. By comparison, big historical events are relatively easy – that’s what history books are for. It takes far more ground work to derive a reliable picture of the daily lives of people in a foreign country seventy years ago. Particularly the lives of Londoners during the Blitz, who endured terrible conditions with legendary resolve.
Luckily for me, I was able to scrounge up some wonderful research materials such as information packets from the Imperial War Museum and Norman Longmate’s invaluable reference work, How We Lived Then.
I also mined the BBC People’s War archive for bits and pieces of verisimilitude. I tried to read widely from writers of the period, like Evelyn Waugh. And I became a fan of Foyle’s War along the way.
On a related note, how much research did you undertake in preparation for the novel – were there plenty of London field trips?
London is truly one of my favourite cities in the world. I love it there. I’ve been to London twice, but both trips were long before I started writing! At one point I did dig out my photographs from those trips, but they weren’t very useful. I had to rely on historical archives, old photos, and contemporary descriptions. I was able to find a high resolution scan of a London map published in 1940, and that was a godsend.
Someday soon I’d like to return to London and visit the locations that I used in my books. But only when I know I won’t die of shock and embarrassment . . .
In the course of writing Bitter Seeds and the sequels, I filled a bookcase with reference books and materials. Some pieces of information are relatively easy to find, such as the approximate date when Churchill renamed the ‘Local Defense Volunteers’ to ‘Home Guard’. Other things are trickier, such as where a particular general was at a particular time on a specific afternoon.
Bitter Seeds features an altered history of World War 2, with various changes to recorded events – some minor, others considerably more significant. How much fun did you have playing with history, and how difficult did you find it to make significant changes that nonetheless remained plausible given the internal logic of the story? In addition, did you feel some sense of responsibility not to dilute the importance of what remains a terrible conflict?
I felt a very pressing obligation to somehow stay respectful of the real-life conflict, with all its heroism and horror, while fiddling with history to suit the story I wanted to tell. Whether or not I succeeded is not for me to say, but I was very aware of that tightrope while writing Bitter Seeds and its sequels. That included much contemplation of the atrocities of the Holocaust before I decided to tackle this project. I tried to make the atmosphere of Bitter Seeds the atmosphere of a world where something like that was possible, and was clearly happening just off the side of the page, even if we never see it directly.
Having said that, in terms of the general course of the warfare itself, it was a lot of fun to read up on the events and devise a secret explanation for everything that did (and didn’t!) happen.
Once I knew how I wanted the story to unfold, and where I wanted it to go, choosing the pivotal events to change was fairly straightforward. I knew I needed a major event early in the war that was as close to Britain as possible . . . And then I read about a very strange order given by Hitler himself during the Dunkirk evacuation – every history book I checked agreed that this happened, but to this day nobody understands why.
Once I knew what I was changing, and why, devising a mechanism for those changes was relatively easy. That’s a benefit when one of your characters can see the future! (But it did require working out most of the trilogy in advance before I wrote Bitter Seeds.)
There are places in Bitter Seeds where I thought very carefully about exactly what changed, and how. But there are also places where I just winged it for the sake of the story. I wouldn’t stake my life on the plausibility of my violence to history!
You’ve described Bitter Seeds as a novel in which ‘good people do bad things’. By the end of the novel, the moral lines have become very blurred indeed. Was this a deliberate move away from black and white depictions of good and evil, or did it occur naturally during the writing of the novel?
As a reader, I tend to connect most easily with characters who have a bit of grey about them. Human beings are complex. Nobody is purely good or purely evil. Everybody has good days and bad days, everybody has pangs of selfishness and moments of selflessness. I’m not claiming that in some folks the scales aren’t tipped mighty far to one side or the other, but in general we’re a complicated species. So I certainly wanted to avoid sharp delineations of black and white characterisation.
I also didn’t want to fall into the cliché of portraying all the Axis characters as cartoonish villains and the Allied characters as flawless, noble, square-jawed heroes. That’s why I found it fun to make the guy in the traditional hero role, Marsh, a bit of a jerk. And I tried to give our Nazi point-of-view character, Klaus, a well-defined character arc.
But I think the story would have turned out a little grey even if I hadn’t wanted to play with the characterisations like that. It’s hard to avoid at least a little bit of darkness when you have blood magic on one side and a precognitive sociopath on the other.
The story involves a variety of diverse characters, from the all-action Raybould Marsh, to the troubled aristocrat Will Beauclerk and the enigmatic Gretel. Was there a character you enjoyed writing more than the others, and if so for what reason?
Gretel is a very fun character to write. But the more I worked on Bitter Seeds, the more I discovered I had to dial back her physical presence on the page. Part of that was because of her precognition, which meant she knew as much as I did about what was going to happen next. When we first meet her as an adult in chapter one of Bitter Seeds, she’s already thinking ahead to events in the final scene of The Coldest War. That made handling her scenes a little tricky.
So even though she’s the axis mundi of the entire trilogy, I found her scenes worked best if I treated her like a spice to be used sparingly. And trying to see the world through her eyes was like piecing together a puzzle: if you could see many years into the future, and you could anticipate every action, every word spoken by the people around you, what would be the simplest, most efficient, most counterintuitive means of bringing those people from point A to point B? That’s where I had the most fun: knowing what she was doing, and why, and then working backward to devise fun and intriguing ways to show her going about it without giving everything away prematurely.
You’re a physicist by profession, which perhaps goes some way to explaining the science fiction elements in Bitter Seeds. This doesn’t account for the dark, occult powers that the British warlocks consort with – what was the inspiration behind that, and how deeply did you need to delve into occult research in order to make the Eidolons the terrifying presence they are in the book?
The magic practiced by the warlocks in Bitter Seeds is more or less good old-fashioned demonology with the serial numbers filed off. A long time ago, when I was a kid, I read The Devil’s Day by James Blish and I was struck by the notion that one might achieve magical ends by appealing to an outside agency. So I knew I wanted to do something with that.
I’m also interested in linguistics. I’m not particularly good at languages but I find the topic interesting nonetheless. So I’d read a bit about how scholars and theologians centuries ago strived to reconstruct the original language that Adam and Eve spoke in the Garden of Eden, the pre-Tower of Babel language. But it always seemed to me that the language of ‘Let There Be Light’ couldn’t possibly be a human language . . . And then I read about John Dee and his claim that he could talk to angels because he had learned their secret language, which he called Enochian.
It all came together when a friend of mine, a linguistic anthropologist, told me an ancient legend that involved raising infants such that they never heard any human language – the idea being to see what language, if any, they would speak by default in the absence of outside influences.
You’re part of the New Mexico Critical Mass writing group, which includes many talented writers like Daniel Abraham and George R. R. Martin. How important was their advice and support to you during the writing of Bitter Seeds?
I’m extremely fortunate. Originally, I intended Bitter Seeds as a practice novel. An extended writing exercise, and nothing more.
But when I first brought the idea to the group (feeling a little embarrassed because I was convinced it was a terrible idea for a book), they were highly enthusiastic about it. And they immediately convinced me it was a trilogy instead of a single book. They were right. Also, as I’ve said, because of Gretel’s precognition, which extends across multiple books, the trilogy took a fair bit of planning in advance. So the group got together one Sunday and, over the course of a long afternoon, we plotted out the whole thing on a whiteboard. The outline changed quite a bit over the course of writing the books, but that skeleton served me very well!
The group’s encouragement and enthusiasm has been invaluable to me.
While Bitter Seeds is your first novel, you’ve written a variety of shorter fiction, including stories for George R. R. Martin’s Wild Card series. How easy do you find it to switch between the two mediums, and do you prefer one over the other?
I’m not very good at switching mental gears – I don’t like to multi-task if I can avoid it. So I find jumping back and forth between different projects rather difficult. I prefer to write short fiction as a palate cleanser between longer projects, but deadlines rarely work out that way!
I enjoy writing novels because I get a sense of accomplishment from finishing a manuscript. Even if it’s a terrible first draft, I can look at the pile of paper and feel proud that I stuck with it to the bitter end. But I enjoy short fiction because while the sense of accomplishment isn’t as large (for me personally), they take far less time to write and rewrite. The improvements become evident much more quickly when you’re rewriting thirty pages instead of six hundred.
Both forms are very challenging to me. But I try to learn from my mistakes . . .