TimePaths

The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  Genres and Labels: An Interview with Kurt R.A. Giambastiani
Octavio Aragão of Intempol

20 Nov 2004

General Custer is alive and well as President of a USA where the Cheyenne still exists as a Nation and ride dinosaurs instead of horses. Is this your average Alternate History piece or just a strange scenario where an author could try different genres and styles in one single story? Kurt R. A. Giambastiani, author of THE FALLEN CLOUD SAGA, talks here about the limitations of the literary labels, his interest in American natice cultures that includes his own Micmac ancestors, and even alternate contemporary politics.


OCTAVIO ARAGÃO - According to your family names, you have a double heritage, Italian and Native American — Micmac, if I’m not mistaken. How does it affect your work? Is there any interest by you in your antecessors and your family and, if so, how does it appear in your novels?

KURT R. A. GIAMBASTIANI - Italian, Breton, Swiss, and Micmac (or Mi'kmaq), yes...a typical American pedigree. In my curiosity about the history of my various ethnic rootstocks, I've read a great deal about the places and peoples in my background. Some have appeared in books, while others have not. Still others have come in due to an interest unrelated to my ancestors.

I suppose, though, that you could say that my interest in my Micmac heritage eventually led me to my writing about the Cheyenne in the Fallen Cloud Saga. For years I studied the many and varied cultures of the North American native peoples, and so when the notion of a culture clash set in an alternate America arose, I had a base of information from which to draw ideas.

On the other hand, my most recent book (DREAMS OF THE DESERT WIND) is set in Jerusalem, drawing not on my ethnic background, but on my experiences living in Israel. So while my ethnic history may have influenced me in some works, it’s really my curiosity and my own, personal history that drives me.

OA - You are a writer who specializes in the sub-genre of Alternate History. Why not Historical Fiction or SF (since AH is quite a mix of the two genres)? What first attracted you to the AH lines?

KRAG - Well, alternate history is not really my specialization; it's simply my track record. THE YEAR THE CLOUD FELL was my debut novel, and that led (as it often does) to a sequel, and then another (and another). So, to date, most of my work has been in AH. My latest book, DREAMS OF THE DESERT WIND, is not an alternate history but a "modern fantasy." But I do have a strong interest in historic and ancient cultures, and this has colored my novel-length work to a great degree.

AH is simply where my Fallen Cloud Saga fit best. I mean, if you want to tell a story where Cheyenne Indians ride dinosaur mounts to fight off the western expansion of a 19th century America led by President George A. Custer, you're pretty much locked into AH. But the Fallen Cloud Saga isn't your classic alternate history. It's not a point-of-divergence novel. It imagines a world that is both very similar and very different from our own.

I don't seek out a genre label for my books...that's the publisher's job. I don't sit down and say, "Hmm, I think I'll write an historical fantasy, now." I just write the stories I want to write. Some fit easily within an established genre. Most don't. I've published works of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mainstream, alternate history, historical fantasy, as well as articles of non-fiction. I've also written pieces that really don't fit any genre, or fit more than one at once. DREAMS OF THE DESERT WIND is such a book, part thriller, part science fiction, part romance. It drives my agent crazy, though, and makes the job of marketing and selling my work much harder.

OA - In your FALLEN CLOUD series, General Custer survives Little Big Horn and turns himself, according to his own ambitions in our reality, into President of USA and also in a interesting character alongside his son, George Custer Jr., hero of THE YEAR THE CLOUD FELL, first novel of the series. What’s your secret to building such personalities?

KRAG - In the case of the Custers, I had help. George and Libbie Custer were fascinating persons in historical reality, and they left behind letters and writings that I used to build their Fallen Cloud counterparts. But I always try to make my characters as memorable as possible and the keys to that are making them understandable and making them human.

George Armstrong Custer is one of the most reviled and disparaged figures in American history, but during his lifetime, he was a tremendously famous hero. While I wanted the reader to see him as the enemy, as the "bad guy," I also wanted you to empathize with him. To do that, he can't just be a mindless megalomaniac or a preening fool. He has to be understandable; you have to be able to see his thinking and say, "Yeah, I can see why he'd do that." Likewise, he can't be monolithic. He has to have internal conflicts. We all have doubts and second thoughts. The characters need them, too. Through the Fallen Cloud Saga, Custer's internal compass shifts and his goals begin to change. As they change, he moves slowly from the "bad" side to the "good" side in the reader's estimation. This also helps to make him more real and more memorable.

For other characters like George, Jr., Speaks While Leaving, Mouse Road, and Storm Arriving, the same rules apply. Good-guy or Bad-guy, they all need to be comprehensible and believable. They need to be real people, with real desires and real conflicts and real doubts and insecurities. If they're just cardboard cutouts, you won't care about them, and you'll forget about them when you turn the page...IF you turn the page!

OA - You are launching now your new book, DREAMS OF THE DESERT WIND, a non-AH
novel. Is this your first step into the mainstream? If so, do you believe there is a great difference between mainstream and genre novels or, like our last guest Philip José Farmer, "a novel is a novel" plain and simple?

KRAG - DREAMS OF THE DESERT WIND is a cross-genre novel. It has corporate espionage, political intrigue, mind-to-mind communication, a love triangle, and more, all wrapped up in a clash of modern and ancient cultures set in the heart of the Middle East, Jerusalem. While this is the first novel of mine that sits outside the AH sub-genre, I'm not sure I'd call it "mainstream."

From a sheer business perspective, I'd respectfully disagree with Mr. Farmer. Genres are Labels that help publishers sell books. If you pick a science fiction novel off the shelf, your expectations are different than if you picked up the latest "literary" novel. Publishers count on that, and foster it, but this heavy reliance on labels also fosters a more formulaic output, and that is counter-productive to the artistic aspects of fiction.

From an artistic (or storytelling) perspective, yes, "a novel is a novel." More than that, some of the best work coming out these days successfully flouts the traditional genre labels, blending elements of various genres. Primarily, I see the breakdown of that all-encompassing "mainstream" label. Writers like Susan Power and Christopher Moore are creating works that have undeniably genre elements, but that are being published as mainstream. In the end, though, these labels are a marketing tool, and while they may dictate how a novel does as a piece of merchandise, they have nothing to do with a novel's success as a novel.

OA - Do you receive a lot of mail asking if your settings and characters are free for use in role playing games or fan-fictions. Why not produce, as Michael Moorcock and Larry Niven did before, your own RPG based in your fictional universes?

KRAG - No, I don't receive much mail on this subject, but I'm not against the possibility of licensing any of my creations for use in legitimate RPG universes. I played RPGs for years in my youth, created my own worlds--some historical and some fantastical--and would love to see the world of my Fallen Cloud Saga adapted for an RPG. To date, however, I've received no serious offers.

As for fan-fiction, though, while I understand the compliment implicit in it, I do not grant permission for my works to be adapted into fan-based work. Mostly, this is to protect my creation, and to protect my ability to license it for use in an RPG or other work that can reach a greater audience. I've also found some fan-fiction to be distasteful and disrespectful to both characters and setting, and I won't risk them being misused in that way.

OA - Now let's turn a little political: as an AH writer, what do you believe would happen to the United States ú and also the World ú if the results of the last Election was another?

KRAG - Oh, boy. Well, at least the election is over! You know I'm not a devotee of the "point of divergence" philosophy, so to be consistent I'd have to say that, in the long run, I see no difference one way or the other. America will survive, it will weather this Puritanical storm, and its supremacy will eventually wane in comparison to other global coalitions like the EU.

In the short run, though (and here I mean in the next 10-20 years), I do see two paths based on this election's results.

The way we're going, I see an America that becomes more class-based, more intolerant, and increasingly isolated from its neighbors and allies. An isolated America is a dangerous America, so I worry about my country and the world in general. I think we're in for a rough time. The other way, I see an America that works to rebuild its place as an honored member of the global community, attacks the causes of religious fanaticism and not the symptoms, and leads the world rather than fights it. Perhaps from this, you can guess that I'm not happy about the way things turned out?

Octavio, thanks so much for your interest and allowing me this opportunity to chat!

   

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