The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  Of Clouds and Thunder: An Interview with Kurt R.A. Giambastiani
Vegar Holmen of The Alien Online

21 Nov 2002

VEGAR HOLMEN: Where does the name Giambastiani originate?

KURT R.A. GIAMBASTIANI: The Giambastiani name comes from a little town in Tuscany called Lucca, not far from Pisa. It's a rather rare name, even in Italy, and remarkably survived immigration to America intact. I've been told it's a compressed form of John the Baptist, but have not been able to confirm this.

VH: You have written an alternate history. Is this a particular interest of yours, how action and its consequences affect history?

KRAG: History has always been an interest of mine, but I had no particular interest in alternate history prior to publication of the first book in my Fallen Cloud series, The Year the Cloud Fell. Since then, though, I've had a crash course in the alt-hist "canon." While it can be interesting to wonder how history might have been different had "x" not happened or if "y" had won the war, that's not enough to hang a whole novel on. It's only a starting point.

VH: Have any authors within the Alternate History genre provided you with inspiration?

KRAG: I do not, as a rule, read within the alt-hist genre. While much of it is very clever and even scholarly, from a pure readership standpoint I find a lot of the plots to be unsatisfactory. And, between my full-time job, the research reading I must do, and writing, I hold my fiction-reading time at a premium. As a result, I tend to read those books that I hope will teach me something about the craft, or with plots and premises that seem particularly compelling. I also make a point of reading at least one work of non-genre fiction for every sf/f book I read.

That's not to say that I haven't found enjoyment or inspiration within alt-hist. Philip K. Dick's work is always interesting, and more recently, I've enjoyed the work of Stephen Barnes and Kim Stanley Robinson. It's the unusual premise or the iconoclastic view of established history that I find most intriguing.

VH: Have you a particular interest in Native American legend and folklore?

KRAG: Not in legend and folklore, really, but certainly in the spiritualism of Native American tribes. Of course, one can never lump all of what we white folks refer to as "native Americans" into a single basket. The cultures of this continent's original peoples were incredibly varied--agricultural to nomadic, democratic to monarchical, peaceful to warlike--but if there was one generalization I'd be comfortable making, it would be to say that their spiritualism and theologies were distinctly non-Western. Whereas European/Western thought and theology tend to view Mankind as the ruler of the world and user of its resources, native cultures here generally saw Mankind as part of the world and one of its resources. There is an appreciation of the human's place in the world, and a respect for the planet's other inhabitants that white society still struggles toward.

VH: In the prologue of the book you mention your debt to the Cheyenne for allowing you to use their lore and legends. And you have also only used the bits that they wanted to share. Why the Cheyenne and what connection do you have to them?

KRAG: I have no personal connection, background, or lineage to the Cheyenne. Like many white Americans, I am able to trace a part of my lineage back to a native forbear, but my native blood is Micmac, and not Cheyenne.

I chose the Cheyenne as the central People of my Fallen Cloud series because they were the right people for the story I wanted to tell. Cheyenne society of the nineteenth century was very advanced and surprisingly complex. The whites of that era saw them as savage, primitive, and barbaric, but the Cheyenne lived by an established code of laws, governed themselves with a body of elected officials, and defended themselves with military precision. They traded with peoples from Canada to Mexico, made alliances with other tribes, and were a major player against the U.S. in the War for the Great Plains. Though they were not technologically advanced or industrialized by any Western measure, even a cursory look at their culture would show that they were definitely not primitive. This all made them the perfect protagonist for the story I wanted to tell.

VH: The main theme that comes through from your books is the injustice done to the Cheyenne regarding the land being taken from them. Is this one of the skeletons that the USA has in their cupboard that is not addressed adequately? It seems to happen today as well as in the days of the frontier. Is it a black spot in the history of the U.S.?

KRAG: Personally, I feel that what Europeans did to the native cultures of the Americas was worse than its enslavement of Africans. Slavery was a terrible crime that still bears its stamp on today's cultures, both black and white, but what America did to the Indian was nothing short of genocidal. White America not only took from them the land that they inhabited, but killed non-combatants, slaughtered food sources, and used techniques that today would be considered nothing short of biological warfare. Once they had succumbed, we denied them their languages, their culture, and their history.

The crimes against the Indian of North America cannot possibly be adequately addressed, at least as one considers restitution or reparations, but I think we Americans should not shirk from looking at what past generations did, so as not to repeat their mistakes on other peoples. Just as, through literature and fiction, we explore the crime of slavery, so should we examine the immense arrogance, cruelty, and deceptions we perpetrated upon the natives of America.

VH: George Armstrong Custer Jr. lives and interacts with the Cheyenne. Are we in modern society too aware of the difference between cultures and not aware enough of what we have in common?

KRAG: I grew up in the Cold War era, when the Soviets were America's big bad enemy. During this time, it was all too easy to consider the Russians as different, evil, and lacking in all our so-called "American values." In books and films, Soviets were always the bad guys, painted with a brush of inhumanity and callous disregard for human life. Was this accurate? Of course not. But it made it all that much easier for us to hate them. And, when Gorbachev implemented his policies of glasnost, America was suddenly faced with the reality that Russians loved their children, complained about their landlords, and got together for evenings with friends just as we did.

Fast-forward and now we hear the same sort of rhetoric from radical quarters, but this time it's not the Russians; Islam is getting the rap. The shock-talk airwaves of America carry the same hate for Muslims that was used against the Soviet Union and Communism. In this post-September-Eleventh world, it's too easy to concentrate on the differences, than on the similarities.

VH: How bound did you feel using a true personality from history (Custer) and what research did you do for it? Why did you choose Custer?

KRAG: Let me start with your second part. I chose Custer because I felt he would really bring something to the party. Firstly, he's inextricably entwined with Cheyenne history. Secondly, nearly every American has heard of Custer. They all have a certain built-in idea of him, and that idea is almost universally unfavorable. Popular media have portrayed Custer as a buffoon, a popinjay, an egomaniac. Right off the bat, he's larger-than-life, and that's a terrific basis, especially when you want to throw it on its head.

I disagree strongly with that image, and wanted to show the reader a Custer s/he never knew. Through reading histories, memoirs, and most importantly, reading the letters between Custer and his wife, Libbie, I had learned of a Custer very different from the one presented by those who concentrate on his final end. Custer today is the Custer of Little Big Horn, but I wanted to show the Custer of Bull Run, Gettysburg, and yes, even of Washita.

But I don't feel restricted by using Custer, not at all. I do feel a certain obligation to write him as I had imagined him through his letters and memoirs. I work to keep my Custer true to the habits and beliefs of the original man, extrapolating how he might behave as a politician, and as a father.

VH: As regards to the father and son relationship between Custer Jr. and Sr.; Is that due to the profession they're in (army) or is it to do with fathers not being able to show feelings towards their son because of being afraid to look soft/weak?

KRAG: The Victorian mentality and morality was echoed quite strongly here in America, and the relationship between fathers and sons was one of paternalistic distance and instruction. That's the basis for the strained relationship between young George and Custer, Sr., but then I had to factor in the added strain of having what was nothing less than a legend for a father. Having a famous parent or sibling can exert a peculiar tension on family members, and young George would certainly have felt that.

But I don't believe that fathers are unable to show their feelings. Many don't; many are distant, or emotionally absent. But firstly, we learn to parent by watching our own parents, and Custer's father was a cold, distant man who only late in life came to realize the loss he suffered by never really knowing his son. And secondly, society exerts an immense pressure upon us, and the society of others in the late nineteenth century was paramount to a person's stature and position. Custer, had he lived to be a father, would not have considered it proper to dote on his son as he did his daughters.

VH: You use languages (Cheyenne and French) in your books, is languages a strength of yours or did you do a lot of language research?

KRAG: Languages are not a strength of mine. I have studied German, and I learned and studied in Hebrew when I lived in Jerusalem. They've always been a struggle for me, however, and I never achieved fluency in either. Being an American, this personal failure brings me little inconvenience.

Not so for my characters, though. The well-bred in America often learned French, as it was still considered the "language of diplomacy" by many. And the Cheyenne of the 1800s often spoke upwards of five languages. They could often communicate with the Siouan tribes (Lakota, Dakota, etc.), with their own Algonquian relatives (Arapaho, Suhtai), with French-speaking traders, and with English settlers and soldiers, all in their own languages. In addition, there was a sign language that was highly utilized throughout the Great Plains; a language that some say was the basis for American Sign Language, though again, I've not confirmed that theory.

Language is one of those things that imparts a great deal about a culture. Sometimes just the sound of it can tell us something about a word or phrase. English is such a syncretic language, that it's more how it is spoken than how it sounds. But French has a definite music to it, as does Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. Cheyenne, too, has a distinctive sound, and I researched the language a great deal in order to bring it accurately to my books. When writing about different cultures, and the clash of cultures, there's nothing that separates us as much as does language.

VH: Laughs like a Woman is a great character from the first book in the series, is the Contrary a real part of Cheyenne legends and lore?

KRAG: Laughs like a Woman is my favorite character from The Year the Cloud Fell. He undergoes so much change during the course of the book.

But, yes, the Contrary was a real part of Cheyenne society, as late as the 1900s. A Contrary was chosen or touched by the Thunder Beings, and had to live an entirely contrary life: speaking in reverse, acting in reverse, doing almost everything in the opposite manner from a normal man. At any one time, there were never more than four Contraries in the whole tribe.

As I said, Cheyenne culture was incredibly complex and interesting, and there was no way I could incorporate every aspect of it in just one book. As a result, in subsequent books, I try to bring in a little more of that culture.

VH: The Spirit powers play a large role in Cheyenne culture, is that still the case today?

KRAG: As with any society, there are those who are spiritually inclined and those who are more secular in their thinking. That was the case with the Cheyennes of the 1800s, as well, and not all the Cheyenne characters in my books are spiritually motivated.

As for Cheyenne culture today, it is as it might be in your own town. Some people are faithful churchgoers, and some are not. There is also a strong Christian influence on Cheyenne society today, as many of the aid and charitable societies that reach out to modern Cheyenne communities are faith-based. In fact, I have devoted a portion of all my proceeds from the Fallen Cloud books to the St. Labre School in Ashland, Montana, which, though a Christian organization, also incorporates into its teachings the traditional spiritual values of Cheyenne and Crow society.

VH: Has Western culture (ie.christianity) smothered and destroyed cultures that are different from their own?

KRAG: Unequivocally, yes, though I put that at the doorstep of secular Western culture as well as Christian/evangelical Western culture. The American Indian is a prime example of this, where children were taken from their families, put into schools, forbidden to speak the only language they knew, beaten when they did so, all in an effort to wipe out every vestige of the original cultures of America.

One of the smartest things that Ancient Rome did was to absorb the cultures it conquered. It borrowed, adopted, and reinvented older religions and societies as something that was new, but also recognizably ancient to those it overran. Islam, too, in its heyday, adapted itself to the new lands of Spain and Africa. Western expansion has been incredibly inflexible, from New World colonialism, to the (I'm sorry) the British Empire, to America's Manifest Destiny. Some will say that those cultures were inferior, and produced nothing, but I would counter with the idea that there is more that a culture can contribute than money, resources, technology, and dominion. There is art, philosophy, and spirituality, which carry little coin, and are the first victims of tyranny.

VH: Why dinosaurs? You seem to lean towards a theory of loss of habitat rather than a comet destroying them.

KRAG: Yes, and for a terrific analysis of the counter-argument, I refer you to The Great Dinosaur Extinction Controversy, by Jake Page and Charles B. Officer. I do not find the "impact theory" of dinosaur extinction to be completely satisfactory. There were events that took place over too long a period of time to be accounted for by a comet or asteroid impact as the sole cause. Think about it: if we're talking about an impact and only an impact, then you'd expect the dinosaurs and a whole barrow-load of plants to disappear in the wink of a geologic eye. But that didn't happen. It was a million-year process. That doesn't jive with an impact hypothesis.

While I don't dispute the possibility that a meteoric or cometary impact may have delivered the coup de grace for the dinosaurs, I think it is clear to anyone who sees all the data that the dinosaurs were under tremendous stress prior to that impact, and had already disappeared in Asia, Europe, and Africa. North America was undisputedly the final homeland of dinosaurs before any impact. Take away that impact, and might they have lived?

VH: If dinosaurs hadn't died out; in the books they have evolved to compete with other species. They are smaller and quicker. Can you expand a bit on this please?

KRAG: Gladly. An animal population under environmental stress adapts. Mutations which under normal circumstances might die out as being too weak or unattractive as mates, might under other circumstances thrive. One of the first things a large-bodied species does, when placed under a stress such as famine or habitat loss, is to diminish in size. Those mutations that are smaller are now more able to survive, as they require less food, less resources.

When my dinosaurs experienced their diminished habitat and the stress of a drier environment, the larger specimens were now at a disadvantage. They may have died sooner, or succumbed to diseases easier than their smaller brethren. Either way, I postulated, the smaller ones survived, eventually leading to a diminutive versions of the Cretaceous monsters. Being smaller, they would naturally be faster, and would eventually adapt to the new environment of the Great Plains. The prairie was a fertile land that nourished a wide variety of browsers and grazers. My parasauropholus whistlers are akin to the small herds of pronghorn antelope, my ankylosaur hardbacks fill a hippopotamus-like niche that still lays empty in North America, and I eliminated the large prairie and mountain cats--from smilodon to puma--and filled the role with my smaller but still deadly tyrannosaur walkers. In addition to these main players, I've allowed other, inconsequential species to survive in specialized terrains or roles.

VH: Is Western society too ready to dismiss other cultures as secondary or savages both in History and today?

KRAG: The coin of post-Enlightenment society is technology and science. It's how we measure one another. It's the realm in which we compete. And, given that strict, quantitative ruler, it is all too easy for the top-of-the-heap to dismiss any and all who lag behind. What we don't often comprehend is how difficult it is to build up an infrastructure that will support a technological society like we currently enjoy. The seemingly simple problems of water delivery can be overwhelming, much less the dream of broadband wireless communications. Western society sees things through Western filters, and is either impatient with or dismissive of any culture that can't keep up. Why don't they just do this? or why don't they just build one of those? Cultural arrogance is rampant, but, 'twas always thus. On the other hand, those who rail against globalism aren't helping emerging cultures, either.

VH: In History, what would you consider to be the most pivotal moment for mankind? What about US history?

KRAG: You might call my position on this biased, but I think that the most pivotal moment for mankind was the creation of language. I mean, we probably could have done just about everything without standing erect, without opposable thumbs. We would have discovered fire, the wheel, electricity, all that, but take it all, everything we've done, and try to imagine it without language, and you'll fall short. Language, with its ability to capture, transmit, and store knowledge, was the greatest advance in human history.

Second to that, I consider the invention of writing to be the most important moment in history. And I don't mean Gutenberg, or even the Chinese. I mean the human who drew one line in the dirt, then drew another one, and then said "Two." That was the moment when the world changed. Imagine a world without writing, or without language, and you have the law of the jungle.

As for the most pivotal moment in U.S. history, the easiest and probably most correct answer is the day we wrote that letter to King George and started the whole ball rolling. Second to that, I think there's a constellation of possible answers, but for myself, I'll pick July 3rd, 1863. That was the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when the North and South collided in what has often been termed "the high-water mark of the Confederacy." Had Lee listened to Longstreet, or used Pickett merely as a diversion and flanked the Union line, America would be a much different place.

VH: If you could choose an event in history that you could change, what would it be and how would you change it and what of the consequences?

KRAG: I can't choose one. Not just one.

I think the world might be a better place, had Adolf Hitler died in a barfight, but who's to say that Goebels or Himmler might not have been as bad or worse? The world has been a roll call of despots and just since Hitler we can point to Stalin, Castro, Amin, and Saddam Hussein just to name a few. Would the death of one eliminate the creation of another? Or would another simply rise to fill the vacuum?

And every nation has its critical moment wherein live would be better had that been reversed. I would like to see a free Tibet, an undivided Korea, a more dovish Israel, and a September Eleventh that did not happen.

So, I will pick an event for myself. I will pick the death of JFK. I would change that, because on that November afternoon, my nation changed. If JFK had lived, I believe that our involvement in Vietnam would have been lessened. And Martin Luther King, Jr.: if you can kill a president, you can kill a black preacher, right? We wouldn't have had a Nixon or a Watergate. I can even postulate, given Kennedy's predilection for letting the Communists get right up to the edge, an earlier demise of the Soviet Union as the Russians tried harder and harder to best us without the resources to pull it off. But mostly, I'd pick that because on that day, the entire demeanor of my nation changed. We lost hope, we lost faith, and we lost our idealism. We became polarized, divisive, and bitter.

VH: History is said to be written by the victor. How true is that and do you think modern history is objective enough?

KRAG: I believe that history is definitely written by the victor, and that's something that probably comes through in my books. I'm interested in the defeated. I'm interested in hearing the other side of the story, if for no other reason than to understand what I'm fighting. Today, in Afghanistan, we write history. Today, in The Hague, we decide the history of Serbia. No, modern history--modern media--is not objective enough. History is objective, and must be understood in context. If I told you of a kingdom in which for the crime of adultery a woman could be stoned to death, you might tsk and shake your head, but if I told you that it was Kuwait, last year, and that trucks brought in loads of stones for the purpose, your reaction might be different. Without context, history is meaningless.

VH: Action and consequence affect the line of history? Does it the lines of life decision tree not picked die off? What about parallel timelines?

KRAG: Forgive me if I'm a little vague in my answer, but I'm still working on my theories in this regard.

I don't see time as a thing that exists in the past but not in the future. I see time as already existing, in toto, and our idea of "now" being the transit of our consciousness through that pre-existent time. However, neither do I see time as pre-determined. If a path is changed, that change is telegraphed into the future and into the past.

Thus, I don't see time as a virtual tree with branches of possibility, with each action choosing one branch and causing the others to "die off." I see time as a dynamic, coherent whole; susceptible to change, but not to cosmic change. It's all going to end either in entropy or a Big Crunch, and there's nothing I can do to change that, but I can surely change my life.

That's why my books, despite their broadly hypothesized changes from our own historical timeline, maintain a great deal of similarity to our history. I've gotten a lot of heat from hardcore alt-hist fans who natter on about Point of Divergence and how a small change in 1853 will create a huge difference by 1958, but I say, hey, that's your philosophy. Here's mine. A postulated change does not necessarily evoke the greatest possible divergence.

VH: You state on your website that your opinion of a lot of fiction isn't very high. Why is that and what in particular are you referring to?

KRAG: Several years ago, I reviewed a lot of the short fiction published by small press genre magazines. I read several of these 'zines each month, and more often than not I found the fiction they contained to be basically awful. Poorly written, derivative, badly edited, take your pick. It was, in fact, the exception rather than the rule to find a story that had a strong, believable plot with comprehensible characters and a logically derived ending. In fairness, I have to say that this was not the case with the professional-level magazines, which carried a quality of fiction that was usually anywhere from good to astoundingly good.

In novel-length fiction today, I find many of the same flaws. Endings that fall apart, dialogue that no human would utter, exposition that sends me to sleep.

Believe me or not, I put this all down to word processing software. The act of writing is so much easier these days, that folks who really can't write are writing. I also blame the proliferation of desktop and web publishing (an outgrowth of word processing), where any yob with a computer and a couple grand can start a magazine. The craft of artfully stringing together words (writing) and the art of culling and molding the thought behind those words (editing) are dying, being replaced by emailers and cut-n-paste formatters.

VH: Again on your website you say that you always write longhand, is is still the case? And why do you do it?

KRAG: I used to write everything longhand. I wrote five novels, longhand; just me, a pen, and a pad of paper. This is no longer the case, however, because writing five hundred pages longhand takes a lot out of your forearm. So I've cut back on the longhand simply out of physical necessity. And then there's the speed factor. I can write a book faster on the computer (yes, a word processor) than I can longhand.

But I still retreat to longhand when I get stuck or when the words just aren't flowing well enough. To write longhand is to connect with the words. It's a complete sensory experience: the sound of the pen on the paper, the feel of the nib's resistance, the smell of the ink, the shape of the actual words. And, because it takes longer to write the words, I am forced to take the time to formulate them. Editing isn't cut and paste, but cross-out and circle and arrows. It's a slower process, but in it I hear each and every word, and I hear it in the rhythm in which it might be spoken aloud. It's a more organic process than composing at the keyboard, and it imparts a certain lyricism to the writing.

VH: Short stories and novels are two very different beasts, do you find it easier to write one or the other?

KRAG: I'm definitely better at novels. Novels have the elbow-room to expand, stretch, and take a walk. Short stories have to be sparer, and the stories themselves have to be less complicated. I work better in multiple viewpoints which is anathema to most magazine editors. The short story is much harder, in my opinion.

VH: Has your professional background helped you in any way with your writing?

KRAG: I work as a computer analyst/project manager, and except for the ability to organize my time, there's nothing that I take from that to the arena of writing a novel. Before I started writing, however, I was a musician, classically trained and performing with symphonies and quartets for many years. The discipline from that musical background is definitely of use to me as a writer. Working all day, running your errands, taking care of all the needs of daily life, it's hard to carve out the time to imagine, research, outline, and compose a 500-600 page novel in nine to ten months. It takes discipline, and my musical training gave me that.

VH: Other projects on the go; apparently there's a scifi novel of first contact in the pipeline, and also an epic regarding Alexandria, could you expand on this?

KRAG: Well, firstly, I have the third book in the Fallen Cloud series, Shadow of the Storm, coming out in March, and I'm currently working on the fourth book. I've planned five books in this series.

Then, I have completed two other projects: another alternate history (a fantasy) set in 9th century Brittany, and a modern suspense novel set in the Middle East.

And I have two other works still in progress. One is a first-contact sf novel in which I want to explore some of my theories about time and its relation to higher dimensions. In it, a scientific group heads to an uninhabited planet. En route, one of the crew dies under circumstances that point to our heroine, the mission's xenobiologist, and after planetfall, they discover a dormant alien race. The questions of who killed the crewmember and the nature of the aliens become intertwined.

My other major project is a large one that may take years to develop. While not an alternate history per se, it does play around with established events. Basically, I want to follow the city of Alexandria from its inception to the present day. Alexander the Great, who founded the city, was purportedly buried somewhere within its environs. There are great legends of power and magic surrounding both him and his tomb, but his actual burial site has never been found. There is so much history in that one city--the only city to rival Rome in its prime--that it will be quite some time before I begin working on that project.


All contents ©2001-2010 Kurt R.A. Giambastiani