Musings with Harry Turtledove
~ By RICHARD FOSS ~
On a shelf in Harry Turtledove’s living room, a Greek amphora sits next to a Hugo. “That’s the one that survived the Northridge earthquake,” Harry explained. “It is, of course, a copy. I got it at Pier One Imports about thirty years ago.” The Hugo? “No, that’s genuine. It’s for ‘Down in the Bottomlands,’ the best novella of 1994.” The Hugo and amphora – along with the telescope which sits nearby and the heaps of books that clutter every horizontal surface- are fitting symbols of a career that has had many turnings.
Harry could well have been an academic – he was on track to be an astronomer in college, but while browsing in a used bookstore he found a copy of L. Sprague De Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall.” The book changed his life, leading him away from matters stellar and toward a fascination with history and cultural conflicts. He dropped out of Caltech at the end of his freshman term, spent a year at Cal State LA getting his grade-point average to the point where it was visible to the naked eye, then relaunched himself on a dedicated study of Byzantine history. He got his degree and teaching credential, but along the way something unexpected happened- he discovered a skill at writing and actually managed to sell a fantasy novel. Success followed success, and he abandoned the halls of academia for good. If he had stayed on that path, where would he be now? “A mercenary academic, struggling for tenure, I guess,” he mused. “Positions in Byzantine history only come available when somebody dies, sometimes not even then. I’m happier doing what I’m doing, telling lies for a living. I was a perfectly competent teacher, but I think I’m a more than competent writer. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. It’s a happy accident that I was born into a society that is wealthy enough, that has enough people reading the same language, that someone can make a living as a writer. There aren’t many languages in the world even now where that’s true, and throughout history most writers have had to have another job to pay the bills.” The study of Greek culture did come in handy, though – many of Harry’s early works involved cultures which resembled both contemporary and ancient peoples of the Middle East.
Harry’s recent works show less influence of ancient societies. “I’ve done about what I can do with it for now,” he explained. “I wrote a straight historical novel a few years ago set in the Byzantine Empire under the pseudonym H. N. Turtletaub, and I’m using the same pen name for a set of seafaring adventures set in Hellenistic times. That will allow me to keep my Greek fresh- I was reading the Odyssey in the original last night, which was kinda fun. It has been thirty years since I formally studied Greek, and it was nice to know the grammar still works even if my vocabulary has shrunk.” In Harry’s pleased smile it is easy to see the scholar he might have become, a historian teasing meaning from some forgotten fragment of a manuscript.
Harry’s skills at academic research have been useful in many of his other projects, notably the acclaimed Civil War novel “The Guns of the South,” in which he used an incredible wealth of historical detail. Harry modeled the Southern regiment on a real one, with results that were quite unexpected. One of the major – and seemingly unlikely – characters of the novel was suggested by a real person- a private who fought with distinction until a military policeman’s search brought forth the revelation that this particular soldier was a woman disguised as a man. “I saw that incident in the record of the regiment and just said thank you to the universe,” Harry remembered. “It was too good not to use. I used all sorts of other things too – I found a detailed description of a ring worn by Jefferson Davis’s wife, and I found a place in the book where it fit in perfectly. Nobody who reads the book is going to really know all the things in there that are true, but hopefully the whole book will have the ring of truth.”
Harry has written many works in other periods, always with a twist – an Eighteenth Century America in which ancient humans never crossed the Bering strait and the forests teem with animals which survived as a result- such as mammoths, giant sloths, even Neanderthals. A modern world in which the government tries, and mostly fails, to regulate the use of magic. A Second World War in which the Allies and Axis united against a common enemy that came from space. Other books are set in worlds that never were, a mystic and ancient Asiatic landscape in which the gods play with human fate, a fragmented planet in which every sliver of land has been fought over for generations. Every printed piece has the depth and vividness of real cultures, real people, and that is what is at the heart of a Turtledove story.
Standing in the cheerful clutter of the house in not-particularly magical or mystical Granada Hills, it can be hard to connect Harry the man with Harry the scholar and author. Scholarly authors are supposed to be imposing, a bit distant, definitely on the serious side. This doesn’t quite fit Harry’s tendency to interject puns and jokes into even deep discussions, or his modest, unassuming personal style. “I speak to the world through what I put out on paper. That’s one of the nice things about being a writer rather than an actor or musician,” he explained. “I’m not a public person, a Harlan Ellison or Steven King. I wouldn’t want to be Steven King, the man can’t even go outside in his own town without being mobbed. The science fiction community does have celebrities, but on a much smaller scale. ” Harry seems to revel in his quiet life, in the fact that he can spend time with his family.
In fact spending time with the whole Turtledove family is a delight – like Harry, his wife Laura and their three daughters are writers, all possessed with sharp wits and a talent for barbed humor. “Straight lines are dangerous in this place,” observed Harry on an occasion when his wife and middle daughter had both hit me with zingers. The lively repartee within the household is vastly entertaining, and shows a closeness and intelligence that are several cuts above the average American family’s dinner table conversation.
Seeing Harry so comfortable in this environment, it’s inevitable to ask if he has ever wished to live in any of the worlds he has created. His answer is unequivocal. “No,” he said with finality. “For one thing, comfort and any time before the middle of this century are mutually exclusive. Little details like antibiotics, dentistry, and anesthetics make a big difference, one which is grossly underestimated in most fiction. For another, I delight in the incredibly easy access to information we have now. Even before the internet I could go down to the UCLA library and find out just about anything I wanted to know. Most times before now, if you were curious, you stayed curious, or you invented your own bizarre explanation for something.”
Harry Turtledove has the best of two worlds, one the modern and accessible society we all live in, the other the wonderful, often primitive, but exciting worlds that live within his own head. Civilization and Harry Turtledove’s career both started with the Greeks, and like both they move onward in wonderful directions, one day at a time.