“History is much bigger than I am.” – Author Harry Turtledove discusses Agent of Byzantium

“Keep writing.  Nothing happens if you don’t.”

WHAT: The Byzantine Empire has not only survived but flourishes. However, the Eastern Roman Empire has many jealous enemies. Enter Basil Argyros, Byzantium’s version of 007, who has his hands full thwarting subversive plots from plotters foreign and domestic. In each story, Argyros finds himself operating in the context of a newly emerging technology – including the printing press, gunpowder, and distilled alcohol – each of which has the potential to disrupt the civilisation and society he is pledged to protect.

WHO: Harry Turtledove is an author in the genres of alternate history, historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. In this universe, he was born in Los Angeles, CA in June 1949. After failing out of his freshman year at Caltech, he attended UCLA, where he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history in 1977. His dissertation was on ‘The Immediate Successors of Justinian: A Study of the Persian Problem and of Continuity and Change in Internal Secular Affairs in the Later Roman Empire During the Reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine (A.D. 565-582).’

In 1979, Turtledove published his first two novels, ‘Wereblood’ and ‘Werenight’, under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson. Turtledove later explained that his editor at Belmont Towers did not think people would believe the author’s real name was “Turtledove” and suggested that he come up with something more Nordic. He continued to use the “Iverson” name until 1985 when he published his ‘Herbig-Haro’ and ‘And So to Bed’ under his real name. Since then he has gone on to write bestselling ficition, including stories set in a world in which the Confederacy triumphed in the American Civil War, and in which aliens invaded Earth during WWII.

He is married to mystery writer Laura Frankos. They have three daughters.

MORE? Here!

Why ‘Agent of Byzantium’?

Why not?  I was someone who wanted to write science fiction.  I had a doctorate in Byzantine history.  Was I going to write about Estonians?

When one of the big streaming services comes knocking to produce ‘Agent of Byzantium’ as a miniseries, which actor would you like to play Basil Argyros?

Given how little TV and how few movies I watch, I have no idea who actors are these days.

You’ve collaborated with other writers, including Richard Dreyfuss and Judith Tarr. What are the pros and cons? Does collaboration result in better writing?

With luck, the big pro is getting someone who is strong in areas where you are less so, and at the same time shoring up that person’s weaknesses.  The weakness, of course, is that in a collaboration each partner does 100% of the work for less than 100% of the money.

Is there a historical period you haven’t yet tackled that you’d like to?

Probably.  Almost certainly.  History is much bigger than I am.

As a writer what’s the one rule you never break?

Keep writing.  Nothing happens if you don’t.

If you could turn back time and make one change to make today’s world a better place, other than smothering some would-be-tyrant in their crib, when are you going and what are you altering?

There are so many unintended consequences and the web of history is so vast and complex, you never know what changing anything would do.  Even smothering tyrants is dangerous.  There was going to be a World War II after World War I; reasonably smart people saw it as early as the end of the first war.  If you strangle Hitler in his crib, maybe the Germans get a more capable dictator in 1939.

You’ve got a PhD in Byzantine history. What drew you to this “tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery”?

I read L. Sprague de “Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall” when I was 14 or 15.  I got fascinated and started trying to find out what he was making up and what was real (not much and most of it, respectively).  After I flunked out of Caltech at the end of my freshman year–calculus was much tougher than I was–I looked around for something else to do.  Byzantium turned out to be it.  A colleague in grad school got drawn in the same way by Gore Vidal’s “Julian”.

What’s the one thing everyone should know about the Persian problem and of continuity and change in internal secular affairs during the reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine (AD 565–582)?

Justin II and Tiberius II were trying to hold together the expanded Empire Justinian had left them with the paper clips and duct tape he’d also left them after burning through resources to expand it.  That didn’t go real well.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

None of them would do me much good, I fear.  Campaigns are apt to be unpleasant and dangerous, I’m no warrior, and I presume I’m not allowed an AK-47. 😉  I don’t speak Latin, and I’m not really enough of a paleographer to work through manuscript Greek, which was written in all caps and without spaces between the words.  So I’ll stay in the 21st century, thankyouverymuch, with antibiotics, anaesthetics, and the Net that lets me annoy people at great distances and with great speed.

What are you working on now, what’s next for you?

I’m writing a new straight historical, “Salamis”, which is next in the adventures of Menedemos and Sostratos, the Hellenistic traders.  It will be done by this fall.  And I’m working on an a-h novella set in a time more recent than the 4th century BC(E).  We’ll see what happens with it.