Monday, March 27, 2017

Altered Europa Interview: Deborah Davitt

Hello, and welcome to our latest series of author interviews.  The long anticipated anthology "Altered Europa" will be coming out April 2, 2017 (ORDER IT HERE), and in preparation for this grand release we're running interviews of various contributors.

MTI:  Today I'm interviewing Deborah Davitt, who contributed Ave, Caesarion.  Starting off, could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

DEBORAH DAVITT:  Hi, there! It’s lovely to speak with you. I was born at an Army hospital in Washington state, but spent the first twenty-two years of my life in Reno, Nevada. That’s where I graduated from college—from UNR—and then I moved to Pennsylvania to get my Master’s degree in English from Penn State. My focus was in Medieval and Renaissance literature.

I’ve taught college-level composition, and have worked as a technical writer in three different industries—defense, space, and computer manufacturing. I have an intense love of literature, history, and science, and I currently live in Houston, Texas with my husband, son, and a rather spazzy Norwegian Elkhound puppy.

MTI:  Now, getting down to business; what first compelled you to weave fiction, and what's your favorite type of story to write?

DD:  Honestly, I started writing at such a young age, that it’s sort of hard to recall. But I loved reading, and I wanted very much to be able to write the sorts of stories that I enjoyed reading most. That hasn’t changed much—I love science fiction and fantasy, and I tend to write in those two domains. . . but because I have such an abiding interest in history and science, both of those disciplines always creep into everything that I write.

MTI:  Tell me, if you had to pick just one author who has influenced or inspired you, who would it be?

DD:  Just one? That’s the hardest question on earth. Quite a lot of my writing and style is what you might call either an extended homage to writers I love, or an extended argument with authors with whom I disagree. Some of those writers are the same people, because I can enjoy what someone’s written, while disagreeing with them philosophically on almost every level.

I’m going to pick Frank Herbert, and bear with me on this. I watched the old David Lynch Dune when I was fourteen or so, and immediately picked up the first novel of the series. I got through it, but the subsequent books, well, fourteen isn’t the best age to read those. Still, the images haunted me, so I went back to the books in college. And once again, I couldn’t comprehend why these books had such a following.

Still haunted in my late twenties and early thirties, I came back to them, and . . . suddenly. . . all the education and perspective I’d gained clicked, and I understood that Herbert, this man taught by Jesuits, always wants you, the audience, to engage with him. To wrestle with him. To figure out the lesson without him explicitly defining it. To be honest, I still am not sure if I’ve understood his lesson in some of the books, and that’s. . . all right. I’ll keep wrestling with him. Because that’s the joy of it.

My own writing style is not much like Herbert’s. It’s shaped by having written online for many years, both in role-playing game and fiction format. I tend to reach out and offer my reader a hand, so that we can stroll through the story together, and as a tour guide, I think it’s my job to point out to the reader when the footing might get a little uneven, or when they might want to consult the guidebook.

MTI:  Your story, Ave, Caesarion, appears in Altered Europa, an anthology devoted to alternate history and altered reality.  Your tale is actually based on a series you've created, called Edda-Earth.  Tell us a little about that series.

DD:  Well, simply put, in Edda-Earth, Rome never fell, magic and science co-exist, all the gods are real . . . and war is coming. That’s the short version, anyway.

The longer version? I’ve always been a little dissatisfied with alternate history that files the serial numbers off historical events and assumes that “well, Andrew Jackson was never president, but everything else went pretty much the same way.” In Edda-Earth, Julius Caesar wasn’t assassinated. The Roman Empire was taken over after his death by his son by Cleopatra, Caesarion the God-Born, not by Augustus. Caesarion, being half-Egyptian and somewhat more aware of reality outside of Rome’s borders, ensured that the people of the Judean province could practice their religion more or less freely and gave their theocracy more power, eliminating the puppet kings who’d governed them, but retaining a Roman governor in the province.

Rome expanded and did not fall; Germanic and Gallic tribes who wouldn’t submit to the rule of Rome were “encouraged” to travel west across the Sea of Atlas (the Atlantic) and colonize ever further and further away, landing in what we’d call North America some five hundred years after Caesar’s ascension.

Dates are thus delineated as “AC, or after the ascent of Caesar. There is no English language, because Germanic tribes never invaded Britannia. The entire “new world” is a patchwork of Roman and native kingdoms. People like the Aztecs (Nahautl) and Maya (Quecha) still retain their own gods, but Rome has put into place one very firm rule for its client states: No human sacrifice.

Needless to say, that rule gets broken.

MTI:  If you could go back to any point in time and change any historical event to create an "altered" world, what would you choose to change?

DD:  If I changed our reality and, say, Caesar didn’t die, there’s a pretty good chance that I wouldn’t exist, or that if I somehow did, I wouldn’t speak English. But, gun to my head, if I had to pick a major event? I’d prevent the death of Arch-Duke Ferdinand. Because without WWI, arguably, the world wouldn’t be in the shape it’s currently in.

MTI:  Indeed, that is one focal point I myself would consider changing.  Now, for further pondering, if a wormhole leading to an alternate reality suddenly appeared in front of you, would you dare to take the plunge and discover what awaits on the other side?

DD:  Do I get to come back, or is this one of those episodes where my get-home-device is broken as soon as I get to the other side? If I don’t get to come home, can I take my husband and son with me?

(Though that raises the specter of taking a seven-year-old on a trek through alternate universes, when even a tiny change to the routine in this one sends him into a tailspin . . . so perhaps these things are best left to the imagination.)

MTI:  Shifting back to your writing, can you tell us a little about what you're working on right now?

DD:  I’ve been writing a slew of short-stories here at the end of the year. Being self-published is wonderful, in a way; I’ve had a lot of very kind reviews, but a track record in the print world goes a long way towards getting people to see you as a credible author. So that’s what I’ve been working on of late, as well as Book IV of Edda. I didn’t really expect there to be a Book IV; the story can be read as complete as is. Because it is complete at the end of Book III. Book IV . . . heh. Well, it takes the concept of alternate history a step further, let’s just say.

MTI:  Other than Ave, Caesarion, appearing in Altered Europa, do you have any other stories being published in the near future?

DD:  Stories, not as yet. I do have a poem forthcoming with Star*Line in their next one or two issues. The poem actually led me to write a short story that I submitted to the Jim Baen competition, and for which I have hopes. Not high ones. High hopes get dashed on the rocks of reality all too frequently. ;)

MTI:  On a lighter note, have you watched any good tv lately?

DD:  I don’t watch that much TV. My husband and I watch about an hour or so a day, pretty much only on Netflix (no commercials, but never up to date), usually before our son goes to bed. I’m usually quite frustrated by the writing in a lot of shows. We’ve been told that we’re too young to sound as much like Statler and Waldorf as we do. I did enjoy Daredevil and the first two seasons of Vikings, and while my husband’s been watching The Walking Dead since it first came to Netflix, I’d avoided it till a few months ago, and then I got caught up on it.

MTI:  How about music?
DD:  Pandora’s introduced me to a lot of artists I would never have heard of before the internet, and my already odd taste has become even more eclectic as a result. Two Steps from Hell, Korpiklaani, Cruachan, Russian Circles, Enter the Haggis, Yoshido Brothers, and some Nightwish and Epica are all additions to my list in the past, eh, four years? Basically, when I write, most of the time I can’t listen to music with lyrics, unless the lyrics are a perfect match for the scene and the characters at hand. Otherwise, the words just get in the way of the words in my head.

MTI:  Can you name three movies that you could watch over and over again and not be bored?

DD:  I have a seven-year-old son. My sample of recent movies is heavily kid-centric. However, I’d cheerfully put How to Train Your Dragon on my desert-island list. And then I’d toss in the two movies my husband and I generally save for Valentine’s Day—Stardust and Princess Bride, on alternate years. If I could pick a fourth, Apollo 13.

MTI:  Readers love samples.  Do you happen to have a story excerpt you'd like to share with us today?

DD:  I love samples, too! This is a chapter header in Book I, The Valkyrie. In it, I tried to imagine what fairy tales would look like in a world in which spirits were quite real, and the pagan origin of such tales did not need to be disguised. I hope everyone enjoys it!


Once upon a time, there were two woodcutters’ children who lived near the Black Forest in southern Germania. Their names were Halvar and Gudrun. Their mother had died when they were young, and when their father married again, it was to the village herbalist. Every day, when their father went into the forest to cut trees for other people’s fires, Halvar and Gudrun followed their step-mother under the shade of the branches that blocked out the sky, and helped her look for mosses, herbs, and mushrooms.

The spirits of the Black Wood were capricious in those days, and a dark mood gripped the forest. The trees whispered of a man with an axe made of steel, who cut too deep, and took too much. The spirits whispered in the dreams of the woodcutter, and showed him blood pouring from the trunks of the trees wherever his axe bit deeply. You have taken our sons and our daughters, root of our root. You will give us yours, in return, or the next time you come to the forest, your axe will turn in your hand, and the earth will drink your blood.

Weeping, the woodcutter knew that he had done wrong, and that he had to make recompense in some way. But he did not wish to give up his son and daughter. He did not speak of the dream to his wife, but rather took Halvar and Gudrun into the forest without their step-mother the next morning, with a piece of bread each. He told them that he loved them, and that the spirits would take care of them. And with that lie, he turned and left them alone in the woods.

But Halvar and Gudrun knew the forest well. Halvar had marked their trail with little cairns of stone, and they skipped out of the forest before nightfall. Their father rejoiced to see them; he thought that the spirits had let them go. But the dream came to him again that night. Give us your children, or your axe will turn in your hands, and the earth will drink your blood.

So the next day, the woodcutter took his children into the forest once more. And this time, he walked so fast that Halvar couldn’t leave cairns of stone behind, or mark the trunks of the trees with his little knife. And again, he said goodbye, and told them that the spirits would look after them. And then he left, weeping.

The children wept, too, because this time they knew it was not a game. As they wandered through the woods, hand in hand, they noticed that birds followed them. Ravens with the eyes of men. But they knew that ravens were the messengers of Odin, and they were not afraid.

After hours of wandering, they found a tiny house, where there never had been one before, in all their wanderings through the woods. A wonderful smell came from the windows of that house, a smell of pies and cakes and all such good things to eat.

Halvar said, “I’m so hungry. Should we knock at the door? Maybe whoever’s inside can tell us how to get home.”

Gudrun shook her head. “No one lives in the forest. Whoever this is, must be an exile.”

“Or a spirit.”

“Or a witch.”

Before they could walk away, the door opened, and an old woman emerged. “Who whispers outside my house?” she demanded. Her eyes were like old gold coins, yellow and a little blind.

The two children remained silent, hiding in the trees. They could feel the forest whispering around them. They watched as the old woman built a pyre of wood in the center of the clearing, near her house. They watched as she wove a little cage made of stout, tough branches. Just the right size for a child. “Come out,” she called towards the woods. “Come out, children. I know that you are there.”

“You’ve made a cage,” Gudrun called back. “What is it for?”

“Why, to hold a little piglet in, when I go to market.”

“You have built a pyre,” Halvar called out. “Who has died?”

“Why, no one, child. I built it to welcome summer next week. Come out, little ones, I have food and drink for you.”

Halvar and Gudrun were tired and hungry, and the food smelled good from inside her house. They came out of the woods, and the woman gave them honey-cakes and cider, and then, quick as could be, she shut Halvar up in her little cage. “See what a fine piglet I have,” she told them, smiling. “When you’re fat enough, I will put you in the cage, on the pyre. I will have my blood, as I did in all the days that went before.” And she put on her tattered cloak, which Gudrun could see now was made of bark and leaves, and the girl knew that this was the Black Forest, the spirit that dwelled at its heart.

For a week, she made Gudrun her slave, and Halvar, she fattened with wheaten cakes. Then she bade Gudrun light the pyre. Weeping, Gudrun did . . . and as the old woman moved the cage to the pyre, their step-mother emerged from the forest at the edge of the clearing. There were good spirits with her—spirits of the deer and the trees—and on her shoulder, a raven perched. The old woman screamed when she saw them, and their step-mother called to Gudrun, “Push her! Push her into the fire!”

Gudrun, who was right behind the old woman, did. The old, withered body fell into the flames, and burned with a smell of wood-sap. Working together, Gudrun and her step-mother released Halvar from the cage, and the brother and sister fell on each other’s necks and wept.

They returned home to their father’s cottage, where he begged them for forgiveness; the raven on their step-mother’s shoulder flew towards him, and plucked out one of his eyes. Their father wept, but he had learned wisdom, and he had his children back in his arms. And once one has suffered punishment, and justice has been done, then forgiveness can be offered.

Willahelm and Jacobus Grahn. Stories for Children: One Hundred Traditional Tales, Ambrones Press, 1888 AC.

MTI:  A fascinating tidbit!  Thank you for a fantastic interview!  Those who want to check out more of Deborah Davitt’s work can pick up Altered Europa!

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