Q and A with Phong Nguyen, PAGES FROM THE TEXTBOOK OF ALTERNATE HISTORY
Tell us a little about your book:
At critical moments in world history, every political, spiritual, and cultural leader foresaw a different destiny. Columbus had planned a Western sea route to Asia; Hitler applied to art school twice; Joan of Arc prophesied that she would become a mother. It is out of their failures that history itself is made. But what if the history-makers succeeded in the fulfillment of their best-laid plans? In Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, Phong Nguyen explores a myriad of pasts in which these icons of history made a different choice, and got what they wished for.
How did you choose the historical figures you wrote alternate histories for in this collection?
Since the book is written in the form of a textbook parody, it was important that all the historical figures I used were already prominent historical icons. The few exceptions (Khufu, John Smith) are known via their associations to other historical monuments (the pyramids) or characters (Pocahontas). Beyond that, I chose the characters I would emphasized based on whether I found a compelling alternate history story somewhere in their biography. Abraham Lincoln, for example, would have been an obvious choice, but I did not find such a compelling alternate history for his life story. When I learned that Dionysus II had offered Plato the city of Syracuse to turn into the utopia that he describes in The Republic, on the other hand, the story pretty much wrote itself.
What kind of research did you do? (It's clear that you know quite a lot about the time periods and the real lives of each of the people you've written about.)
I feel like I answered this question fairly well on the blog Necessary Fiction, so if you don't mind I'll quote from that here: "For each story, I would do copious, but limited, research. I needed to know enough about the historical personage, the era, and the most current understanding of that personage and era, so that the story would have something interesting to say to the historian.
But if I got lost in the research, and found myself speaking only to the historian, I risked becoming obscure, arcane, over-specialized. So I settled into a rhythm of reading at least 3 but no more than 5 books on the chosen historical figure and his/her era, so that I had a stake in the historical conversation, but not so great of a stake that I became a partisan in it; I needed just enough knowledge to tell a compelling story set in another milieu, and no more — my duty and allegiance being the art of the story. (If you are tempted to be impressed by the amount of research that went into this, don’t be. Research was such pleasure and distraction that it more often took me away from the writing than drove me to it. As a result, I had to become a research mercenary. I scoured these books with one question in mind: what can I use?)"
If you could add another story or two, who would you write about?
I keep a Tumblr page where I list many of the "outtakes" from the book: the alternate history of the alternate history. Among those are "The Great Wall of Utah," in which Brigham Young makes good on his wish to "make a wall so thick and so high around the territories that it would be impossible for the gentiles to get over or through it" (http://www.sacred-texts.com/mor/hou/hou26.htm). Another is "The Conversion of Saladin," in which the Muslim crusader visits the camp of the Christian army under Richard the Lionheart and, rather than being repulsed by the drunkenness and debauchery he witnesses (which happened in fact), he experiences a Rumi-like conversion to intoxication as a path to godliness. I at first hoped to complete those stories, but now I feel like I've said all I wanted to say on the subject of alternate history, and I hope that some other writer becomes interested in telling those stories.
If you don't mind telling us, what are you working on now?
Currently I am working on a novel titled The Adventures of Joe Harper, which concerns Tom Sawyer's second-in-command in his band of robbers. The book was inspired by a passage from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which has become the book's epigraph: "Then they began to lay their plans. Joe was for being a hermit, and living on crusts in a remote cave, and dying, some time, of cold and want and grief; but after listening to Tom, he conceded that there were some conspicuous advantages about a life of crime, and so he consented to be a pirate."
The Adventures of Joe Harper concerns the boy Joe Harper returning 15 years later to a post-Civil War America, to the town of St. Petersburg, and after a failed life of piracy, finding all his family either dead or moved away. So he fulfills his lifelong dream of becoming a hermit and dying in a cave of cold and want and grief. He has a Romantic ideal of a lone man in the wilderness which is at odds with his social nature, and this contradiction in his character leads him on the hobo trail, and on a journey to rescue a friend.