Andrew Dennis's writing career has been, so far, all within the 1632 alternate history universe started by Eric Flint's novel 1632. The research for that work spawned a huge on-line community, an on-going series of anthologies, which themselves morphed into an on-going series of printed books, and several NY Times best-selling novels, including 1634: The Galileo Affair by Flint & our interviewee, Andrew Dennis. Their latest collaboration is 1635: The Cannon Law (don't blame me for the puns, folks), which comes out October 2006 and is a direct sequel to The Galileo Affair.
Like many writers, Dennis got his imagination kick-started very early. "I can remember, vaguely, writing things when I was a very small boy, stories about narrow escapes from dinosaurs and things like that. Mostly I was doing that to pass the time when there were monsoons, sandstorms or (once, memorably) a plague of termites outside. I spent several of my formative years in expat communities around the world - Nigeria and Oman were the two longest stays - so sometimes the reasons why I couldn't go out to play got a little exotic by the standards of my hometown.
"Later, at High School, there was a phase where several of us were writing comedy serials (full of schoolboy humour, naturally, and featuring each other as characters) that got passed around. I didn't really take it up seriously, though, until my late twenties, under a combination of two influences: first, that several years of a legal career had brought me to the conclusion that I really, really hated lawyers and wanted another career, and second, a truly execrable but bestselling novel that I'd better not mention by name convinced me that, frankly, if that could get published, so could I. My first novel was, thankfully, rejected by everyone. Looking back on it, I can only describe it as 'bloody awful' (but still better than that book I'm not mentioning, which has run to several sequels now). Efforts to sell short fiction culminated in selling "Between The Armies" for Eric's Ring of Fire anthology.
"I can't pin down influences too tightly, since I read my own weight in books every year (and I am not a small man) and my tastes pretty much cover the whole spectrum. The majority of it is SF, though, and I still have the first SF book I ever read: a 1956 SFBC edition of I, Robot."
Which answers the question, what's the first SF you ever read…. "Yes, 'Little Lost Robot,' by Isaac Asimov; I began at the beginning of I, Robot and more or less didn't move until I reached the end. I think it says something about the age of the genre that the first thing in it I read had been bought by my grandfather, and passed by him to my father and then to me. It says something about my habits as a bibliophile that I've still got that book. I also still have, somewhere, an edition of Voyage of the Space Beagle [by A.E. Van Vogt] of similar vintage, and I can still remember scenes from that."
For Dennis, being an Englishman is not enough. He includes in the perks of being an SF writer a pass for any eccentricities he might want to indulge in. "It's an amazing excuse for entertainingly bizarre behaviour. A few years ago, when Eric came over to London, I found myself taking long, carefully measured paces across the Millennium Bridge in London to sort out a point of technical feasibility for something Eric was researching at the time (and which hasn't seen print yet). Eric claimed he couldn't do it as his legs are too short, so I was the one smiling and waving at passers-by who were frankly staring at the lunatic goose-stepping across the Thames.
"It's also a hell of a lot better than 'I'm a lawyer, actually' when it comes to picking up women in bars.
"Finally, it's the best method I've ever found of avoiding real work."
Speaking of lawyering, I wondered if Dennis used real life experiences in his work. "Oh, certainly. Much of what is depicted in the first episode of 'Fish Story', [in Jim Baen's Universe] for example, actually happened. Not all on the same night, and between Eric and Dave and I we jazzed it up some for publication, but it wasn't more than a couple of consecutive weekends' drinking and only thinly fictionalised. Since more than one of the participants has threatened grievous bodily harm in the event of further disclosures, I'd better say no more about that.
"I've also met a lot of interesting people over the years due to being a lawyer. If there was a good side to being a lawyer it was that I got to meet some truly memorable characters, usually in police station interview rooms. They were generally a cut above the kind of folks I tended to meet later in my career, in company boardrooms.
"Other than that, there're a few things I've done that seemed like a good idea at the time that will be turning up in future stories. In many cases, with me frantically insisting I made them up out of whole cloth."
Dennis' favorite among his characters is, I must confess, also one of mine: "Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, without a shadow of a doubt. I can only hope I contrive to grow old that disgracefully. He was originally in The Galileo Affair as a simple foil for Cardinal Bedmar. Within four or five paragraphs he was making an exhibition of himself, and once Eric and I had passed him back and forth a few times we had a real gem on our hands. I've always had a weak spot for disreputable characters like that."
Dennis, despite his eccentricities, is consistent when it comes to writing habits. "I try and make sure I get a couple of hours free every day, and the precise time doesn't much matter except that I tend to do better when I'm not tired. Otherwise, any period of forced idleness will see me get out a pen and paper and start scribbling. I got something like four thousand words done on a five-hour flight recently, as well as watching a truly awful movie and plotting the horrible death by torture of the revolting little brat that kept kicking the seat behind me."
It's clear that Dennis is flexible as a writer, too. When asked who should play his series hero, he answered, "This is a tricky one for me, since I don't think I've written anything that would make a good movie, yet. However, if this ever happens and we can get Kiera Knightley, I can easily make a nude scene absolutely essential to the plot." Good to know, Andrew.
Since Dennis lives in England and his collaborator Eric Flint in the U.S., I wondered how the long-distance collaboration worked. "Pretty easily, actually--email is a handy invention. Eric tells me what to do, I go ahead and do as I damned well please, and Eric edits the results and adds bits here and there while cursing me out for being a disrespectful and willful nuisance. He loves it really."
I also wondered if the 1632 topics on Baen's Bar influenced his writing process. "By and large, they don't in any specific way; what I tend to find is that when links get posted I follow those and that's where the influences come from, either in material on the web or the print references it cites. Since the story can go forward in an infinite number of possible ways, and only one of those ever gets picked (in some cases, several years ago) the chances of any of the contributors actually hitting on the real plotlines are pretty slim. It'd be fairly worrying if they did. The combination of minds--all of them professional scribblers, remember--that's working on this series adds up to a very strange mind indeed. If there's an individual out there that's capable of thinking, on their own, the same way all of us do together, they're either a world-domination class genius or barking mad. Most likely both.
Of Dennis's favorite non-SF authors, "Orwell leads the field by quite some distance; I'm currently on my third set of his Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism, having reread the first two into tattered illegibility (the current set is looking decidedly badgered as well). His novels are pretty good, too, and Animal Farm even survived my being forced to study it in literature classes. He's probably the best stylist that modern English has ever seen for sheer readabilty. George MacDonald Fraser is another favourite, and a lot funnier than Orwell, both in his fiction and his memoirs, and you've got to admire a writer with the range to produce Quartered Safe Out Here and Red Sonja in the course of one career. As well, of course, as his screenwriting credit on the only adaptation of The Three Musketeers that's worth watching. Spike Milligan is another I've re-read a lot, and the first time I can recall laughing so hard I couldn't breathe it was at 'Rommel? Gunner Who?' and the Goons will always have a special place in my heart, spleen and kidneys. There are plenty of others whose name on the spine of a book I take as a recommendation, but those are the top three."
Like many authors with wild imaginations, when asked about the scientific breakthrough he'd most like to see, Dennis gets practical. "I'd like to see fusion cracked sooner rather than later, but that's mostly engineering at the moment--incredibly difficult engineering, but they're working on it. It's simply too useful not to have, and once it's in play we can find better uses for fossil hydrocarbons than burning them. If you insist on a genuine leap in understanding rather than results on currently promising lines of inquiry, I want something, anything at all, that might lead to a practical means of travelling faster than light --all the current possibilities are more than slightly impractical." But not to go overboard with the down-to-earth stuff: "I also want flying cars, ray-guns, sentient robots, scheduled rocket-ship flights to Mars, the moon on a stick, all the tea in China and Shakira's phone number."
I was particularly interested in finding out where an alternate history writer would go, if he could go back in time. Dennis's choices seem to me particularly English. "If it's just one event, then I'd have to think about which of the VE and VJ day celebrations I'd turn out for. Not the victories themselves, those were won by professionals at hard, dangerous work and spectating, like it's a sporting event, is disrespectful --like pressing your grandfather for stories about the battles.
"And not the formal, parades-and-speeches celebration, either. Those had nothing to do with the people that those victories were won by and for. I'm talking about the celebrations that involved people waking up the next day with hangovers, on the floors of places they didn't recognise and not minding at all. Nothing to do with presidents and kings and great brass generals, but the people who actually fought and won the war. People who seem to get forgotten when the histories get written. The names of the generals who signed the paperwork get remembered, but not the names of the men that that paperwork ordered forward.
"Of course, I'd insist on taking part. If I'm limited to spectating, then there are a couple of sporting events I'd like to see. W. G. Grace at the height of his powers, or possibly the Leeds v. Arsenal cup final of 1972. Or, for possibly the finest piece of practical joking ever performed, I'd like to see the 'Bouncing Tosca' incident. Apparently--and like all good legends, it's been attached to any number of opera houses and any number of divas--the stage hands on one production of Tosca got so heartily sick of the leading lady's behaviour they replace the crash-mat she was supposed to land on in the final suicide scene with a trampoline. So, having sung her way to pitch-perfect oblivion she hurled herself to her doom and bounced back. In some versions of the story, three or four times. Perfect, perfect physical comedy."
"If I can spend some time, then there are some feats of ancient engineering I'd like to watch in progress. Not to find out how they're done-- most of the 'mysteries' are in the minds of people who've never done a hard day's physical work in their lives--but simply because I like big structures."
For more on the 1632 universe, go to: www.1632.org