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
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?
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.
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.
Have you a particular interest in Native American legend and folklore?
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?
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
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.?
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.
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?
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
You use languages (Cheyenne and French) in your books, is languages
a strength of yours or did you do a lot of language research?
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Has Western culture (ie.christianity) smothered and destroyed cultures
that are different from their own?
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.
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
Why dinosaurs? You seem to lean towards a theory of loss of habitat
rather than a comet destroying them.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
Is Western society too ready to dismiss other
cultures as secondary or savages both in History and today?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
I can't choose one. Not just one.
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
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
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.
History is said to be written by the victor. How true is that and
do you think modern history is objective enough?
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?
Forgive me if I'm a little vague in my answer, but I'm still working
on my theories in this regard.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Again on your website you say that you always write longhand, is
is still the case? And why do you do it?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
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.