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Planting Bitter Seeds: an Interview with Ian Tregillis by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 22 March 2010

Links: Review: Bitter Seeds / Author's Website /

In a World War 2 gone very, very wrong, Nazi freaks of science have helped the German military smash France and leave Britain reeling. Desperate, the British turn to entities they barely understand and cannot control.

This is the story of Bitter Seeds (part one of The Milkweed Triptych) by Ian Tregillis, wherein one ordinary man may be the pivot on which the fate of the world turns.

SFRevu: Ian sat down with SFRevu for an interview recently, to give us some insight into how this fascinating story came to be.

Ian, tell us about BITTER SEEDS. It's a big, complex story of magic versus science during wartime. It's pretty hard to summarize, so how would you describe it to someone sitting next to you on a bus, for example?

Ian: Bitter Seeds is a fantasy alternative history of World War II, with superheroes, warlocks, spies, demons, and explosions. My friend Daniel Abraham describes it as an adventure story with gray heroes and gray villains, battles and intrigue, magic and spectacle. It's about the human costs of war, both in battle and behind the lines.

SFRevu: Was there any one thing that gave you the inspiration for this story?

Ian: One thing? No. There were many sources of inspiration!

One piece of Bitter Seeds sprang out of an article I read, years ago, about a bizarre piece of World War II trivia called Project Habakkuk. For a while, the Allies had seriously considered building aircraft carriers out of ice. (Mythbusters did an episode on this a while back.) Needless to say, it never went anywhere. But I imagined what might have happened if the project had taken off.

Clearly the Third Reich would have sent a pyrokinetic spy to sabotage the shipyard. The ice ship never made it into my book, but the superhuman German agent did. As did the project that created him.

Another piece came along after I saw the movie Minority Report. I enjoyed the depiction of clairvoyants anticipating events a few minutes in advance. But the more I thought about that, the more it bothered me. A really good precog wouldn't work mere minutes ahead -- she'd be thinking years ahead of everybody else...

SFRevu: It seems like this would be a book requiring massive research. True?

Ian: Yes, indeed. Is it ever. I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to research for this trilogy. And, for the cultural issues, I had very diligent first readers. (Thanks especially to Toby Messinger.)

Any alternative history is a daunting undertaking, but the Second World War is particularly thorny. It's a subject that countless people are passionate about, whether as historians, enthusiasts, veterans, or victims.

SFRevu: Very true. Considering we're still making movies about it sixty years afterward... but research for something like this is all about facts, right?

Ian: I strived to get my facts straight, not just to satisfy the people who know the period forward and backward, better than I ever could, but also to respect the experiences of the people who were there. It was very important to me that the depiction of the war in this book didn't minimize or marginalize the reality of it. World War II was unlike anything else in human history. It cast its shadow over the next 50 years of western civilization. And, for people of my generation, the scope of it is almost impossible to grasp.

The war was far too vast to cover in any single book that isn't a history tome, but even for the pieces of history that brush up against the edges of my novel, I found myself hitting research questions on just about every page. It wasn't simply about being certain that a particular make and model of firearm was available in a particular month of a particular year. It was about knowing how history changed, and where, and when, and how the little changes to history spiraled out into the big ripples that washed across countries.

(One thing that blew my mind as I got in to this project was discovering how often there are disagreements between the history books. But speculative fiction thrives within the disputed boundaries of What If.)

And yet the biggest component of research wasn't about the war per se. It was about life on the home front. About the historical period. How did people talk? How did they dress? How did they curse and court and greet one another?

I'm sure that in spite of my best efforts, there are places where I still managed to bungle things. But if people find the real howlers, that's okay. I'd like to think that means the book has captured their attention.

SFRevu: Do you have a favorite character? Alternately, is there one character who is unexpectedly easy to write or a character who is unexpectedly difficult to write?

Ian: None of the characters were particularly easy to write. Every single person in this book inhabits a different country and a different era than the ones I know. (If it's true that the past is a foreign country, then I was writing about people who were doubly foreign to my own life experience.)

They were strangers to me when I first started this project. It couldn't have been any other way. They got more cooperative as I went along, but it was a long haul getting there. It's probably safe to say I got more cooperative with them, too, as my understanding improved. Again, I'm sure that I've committed some howlers, but as a writer all you can do is your level best and then move on.

But the trickiest character, by far, is Gretel. It's damn difficult to write a character who knows everything the author does. She threatened to blow up the book more than once. The whole trilogy, in fact, because the first time we meet her in Bitter Seeds, she's already thinking ahead to events in the sequel, The Coldest War. Sometimes writing Gretel is a bit eerie, because it feels like she's peeking out of the page at me.

SFRevu: There are some truly unsettling, even horrifying things that happen in this novel. Were there any scenes that were especially hard to write? And how do you approach showing too much versus showing too little?

Ian: I tried to make certain that the darker events in this book were essential for advancing the plot or developing the characters (or, ideally, both). Otherwise they threatened to become gratuitous add-ons included merely for shock value, and readers would see that.

My guiding philosophy was to trust the reader's imagination. Imagination is far more powerful than anything I could put on paper. So I tried to convey just enough that there's no room for doubt in the reader's mind about what's happening, yet still leave plenty of room for the reader's imagination to take over.

I hoped this approach would convey the gravity of those dark events without becoming gratuitous. Don't know if I succeeded in that, but that's how I approached it.

SFRevu: The British warlocks have to negotiate with the Eidolons (who strike me as a bit like Lovecraftian Elder Gods) to make things happen. How did you develop this system of magic, and what sorts of possibilities did it open up for you in terms of telling this story?

Ian: The system of magic that the warlocks practice is essentially a gussied-up form of demonology. The concept of using demons to perform magic goes back a very long time, but I first encountered it when I read The Devil's Day by James Blish. More recently, when I started kicking around the ideas behind this novel, I decided that I wanted to incorporate Enochian, which in some traditions is the putative "language of angels" ascribed to medieval mystics like John Dee.

These notions were knocking around in the back of my head when a friend of mine, a linguistic anthropologist, happened to mention a legend that sometimes gets mentioned in her field of study. It goes back to the ancient Greeks.

They supposedly sought to identify, once and for all, the oldest culture. They reasoned that the oldest culture would speak the oldest language, and that the oldest language would be the most natural-- the language that people would speak automatically or spontaneously in the absence of other influences. So the legend goes that one of their philosophers took some newborn children and raised them far out in the country, isolated from all linguistic influences. And that, sure enough, they eventually started speaking, I don't know, Sumerian or some such.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty dark. But I got to wondering... what if somebody really did try that experiment? And what if it worked? But if you take it to the logical extreme (I'm using "logic" loosely here), the very oldest language wouldn't be a human language at all. It would be the language of creation.

After that, the next bit was figuring out the mechanics of the magic-- how it works, what's possible (and impossible) with it, and most importantly the price. Because all magic should come with a steep price.

Magic is by its very nature a circumvention of natural law, a means of doing impossible things. The tricky part is making it sound sensible, and making it sound as if it's internally self-consistent. (In my opinion, Tim Powers is the undisputed king of doing this. If magic actually worked, it would work like it does in his novels.)

Once I established the ground rules, I had to make certain that nothing violated those rules. And that everything that followed was at the very least self-consistent. So in a way, the magic system was more restrictive than permissive, in terms of opening up possibilities.

SFRevu: You've written about super-humans before-- can you compare and contrast Bitter Seeds with your work in the Wild Cards series?

Ian: When I joined the Wild Cards consortium, I found myself climbing a very steep learning curve. Seventeen novels worth of backstory is pretty daunting when you're the new kid on the block, invited to play in the sandbox with people who've already been there for 20 years.

I found it wasn't even a matter of learning the backstory so much as it was a matter of getting the hang of how things work in Wild Cards land: how stories are pitched, what makes WC stories work, how different members of the consortium work together, how George and Melinda give editorial notes and assemble the novels... It's a lot to absorb.

But when I tackled the Milkweed books, I had a clean slate. I got to build the world from the ground up, and devise the rules from scratch; in Wild Cards, the rules have been in place for a long time.

And they're good rules, otherwise the series wouldn't have lasted for more than 20 novels. That was a little bit intoxicating. It's hard work, but it's also tremendously fun.

Also, Bitter Seeds gave me the opportunity to write about superpowers that I couldn't easily touch in Wild Cards. Either because they'd already been done a few times, or because they would have been far too difficult to incorporate into shared-world mosaic novels.

SFRevu: What can you tell us about where the story goes from here?

Ian: Gretel has a plan...

SFRevu: How did you get started writing? And who do you consider your foremost influences?

Ian: That's a long story, so I'll try to condense it into discrete phases. I've been extremely fortunate in my brief writing career.

The first thing I did when I decided to become serious about writing was join the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. It is without doubt the smartest thing I did. I received help from many wonderful writers there-- people like Elizabeth Bear, Charles Coleman Finlay, and Amanda Downum, just to name a few. Charlie has been a mentor to me several times in various venues over the past 7 or 8 years.

After a couple of years on the OWW, I attended the Clarion workshop. My instructors there were Joan Vinge, Charlie Finlay (again!), Gwyneth Jones, Cory Doctorow, Leslie What, and Walter Jon Williams. They were all terrific. Walter deserves special mention, as well as my undying gratitude, because near the end of the six weeks he mentioned that he, too, lived in New Mexico, and hey, would I like to join his local writers' group?

Well, duh.

So that's how I met Melinda Snodgrass, Daniel Abraham, Vic Milan, and a few more folks that people might recognize from Wild Cards, plus bestsellers like Steve Stirling and the criminally under-appreciated Sage Walker. Oh, and that George R.R. Whatshisface guy. Years later I'm still grateful that they let me join the group, because it's been like attending a monthly master class by some of the best and most successful writers in the business. (Sometimes I bribe them with food so they'll let me stay.)

SFRevu: You work as a physicist, so you have a *strong* science background. Has this helped or hindered you in working out the mechanics of this story... or has it made really no difference at all?

Ian: It's been interesting. My original concept for the mechanics of the superpowers was that I'd let myself break or bend one physical principle for each superpower, and that otherwise the powers had to adhere rigorously to physics and biology and all that good stuff.

That idea went out the window almost immediately. It was too constricting. So now I just nod politely at "real science" as I sprint past it. For instance, there is a character in Bitter Seeds with the power to become insubstantial and walk through walls. I decided it would be fun, and somewhat logical, if he couldn't breathe while insubstantial. After all, how would those air molecules interact with his lungs? So I wrote that into the book. Every superpower should have its drawbacks, right?

But later I realized that the same line of reasoning implies he's also deaf while insubstantial. And how is it he doesn't fall through the floor the instant he dematerializes? After all, gravity still works... And what about the invisible woman? If light really is passing through her body, wouldn't that make her blind? Probably, but that wasn't the story I wanted to tell.

So I spent a lot of time thinking about how these characters do the things they do. The end result was a mythology that is, I hope, internally self-consistent, even if it isn't the least bit scientific. After all, the goal of a fiction novel is to tell an entertaining lie. So why should reality interfere with that?

SFRevu: Wow! Well, this has been great, getting a peek "behind the scenes" of The Milkweed Triptych. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Ian: Thanks for interviewing me! This was fun.

Coming soon from Tor books: The Milkweed Triptych

    Bitter Seeds (April 13, 2010)
    The Coldest War (February, 2011)
    Necessary Evil (Autumn, 2011)

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