I met Jeff Provine through the Resistance Front and Carnival Of Cryptids short story anthologies, so I was excited when he sent me a link to the YouTube trailer for his new alternate history novel Hellfire. I thought it sounded like a great story, so I decided to ask him about the novel and his other upcoming projects…
For those people who don’t already know you, who is Jeff Provine?
I’m a curriculum developer and college prof from Oklahoma teaching things like Composition, Mythology, and a seminar I developed for Freshmen, The History of Comic Books. Outside of the classroom, I lead local ghost stories, telling spooky tales that I’ve collected in several volumes of Oklahoma lore. In addition to teaching work, I write short stories, steampunk like my Celestial Voyages series of space Victorians, young adult multiverse Dawn on the Infinity, and alternate history with my latest book: Hellfire.
That’s a pretty solid resumé. How long have you been writing?
The famous story around the family is that I was “writing” stories even before I could write. I would make up long, rambling tales as a little kid and have my mother write them down for me (since I couldn’t read yet, I presume she used a fair bit of motherly shorthand). My favorite classes all through school were creative writing, and then I began to seriously practice around middle school with Star Wars fan fiction. From there I’ve evolved into all kinds of directions in science fiction, comics, and non-fiction.
What are your favourite genres, and why?
My favorite genre of absolutely all time is magical realism. That may be a bit strange since I spend so much energy working in hard science fiction, but I’m constantly fascinated by the matter-of-fact reaction of characters to, say, an angel washing up on shore after a storm. It’s a texture of story that I hoped to incorporate into Hellfire.
That’s my favourite genre too, and for the same kinds or reasons. Possibly my favourite ever novel is One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
So I get your background and your genres, but what’s the favourite thing you’ve ever written, and why?
I’m one of those whose favorite is always “that thing I’m working on now.” I always get wrapped up in story development and crafting ideas, seeing where they can go next. That being said, if someone pointed a gun at me and made me choose, I’d likely say my blog of alternate history, This Day in Alternate History, since it has 366 different timelines, one for each day of the year. It was a behemoth project, and it’s had numerous stories come out of it.
I didn’t know you ran that blog, and it looks right up my street – I love learning new things about stuff that I don’t know anything about. I’m definitely going to check that regularly.
On to your new novel – what is Hellfire about?
In a world* where the miraculous Newton’s Catalyst causes fire to burn hotter than it should, mankind is leaping forward with technology like steamboats, locomotives, and airships. Yet these advancements come at a terrible cost as those near the fire hear constant whispers from the beyond that drive them mad. In 1856, fireman Nate Kemp learns that the fire’s heat is leached from hell itself, and now more than whispers are beginning to slip through.
*I love “in a world” trailers.
You’d have to be a monster not to love an “in a world” trailer. Now, without giving anything away, what element of Hellfire do you most like, or are you most proud of?
I really like how the setting came together. Part of the altered history is that Aaron Burr was successful in his colony west of the Mississippi. Having traveled through that part of the US numerous times, it was fun to see its sea of living green on the page. In addition to all that, I was able to make use of nineteenth century perspectives at the beginning of the study of mental health, such as the crusades of Dorothea Dix, which is a crucial part of history that we need to be reminded of in our modern treatment of mental care.
That sounds pretty rewarding, actually. What made you want to write the novel?
At the time, I had just published Dawn, and I was looking to tackle a wholly new project. While I was in the middle of a conversation about technology and progress about heavier-than-air travel, the conversation turned to how much weight the fuel required for steam power needed. It got me to thinking, “What if you could ‘warp’ in the heat instead of continually feeding a fire?” Later the ultimate source of endless fire struck me (a whole lake of it, one might say): hell itself. That had all kinds of potential downfalls and benefits, a prime mixture for storytelling.
Ah, the good old “hey, what if…” starting point. But what made you choose this period in history?
I had to work to narrow down a proper time period. It needed to be in the Industrial Revolution to capture the surge of heavy technology but pre-Civil War since that changed so much for the geographic area. A few more tweaks and necessities, and 1856 came together nicely.
That makes sense. I always assume that an alternate history would be difficult to write, as you have to combine historical credibility with a speculative element that becomes almost like sci-fi – what did you find most challenging about writing Hellfire? What did you find most rewarding?
This Day in Alternate History gave me a lot of practice in chasing butterflies, that process of sorting out what kinds of changes might be expected if that little “what if” happened differently. The biggest challenge in Hellfire was balancing this Newton’s Catalyst technology: it’s so powerful, but it’s also so dangerous as the whispers constantly haunt the user. In the end, that may have been the most rewarding aspect as well. The story could certainly be read with a theme of warning about the Internet, as it has changed everything and brought us so much closer with information, yet a lot of us have sacrificed our quiet and freedom for it.
“Newton’s Catalyst” is a really evocative and also highly plausible name – how did you come up with it?
It’s often touted that Newton wrote more on theology than he did mathematics, and his other multitudinous writings on alchemy are fascinating studies. He truly stood with one foot in medieval magic and one in modern science. With all of his chemical tinkering, this sounded like the perfect place for this “miraculous” catalyst to have been discovered.
Ah, of course. I’m a big fan of Isaac Newton for a number of reasons – I’ve been meaning to write a short story about him, Leibniz and the development of calculus for a while now, as I find it fascinating – so I get where you’re coming from.
As it’s an alternate history novel you must have done a lot of research – what was the most interesting thing you learned that you didn’t know before you started writing the novel? Did anything surprise you?
The heaviest research was getting the exact area of the Bastrop Tract purchased by Burr, how that whole deal went, and so forth, even though that was just background to the story and did not go much into the novel anyhow. This research was also super-rewarding as historical research usually is when little gems pop up, like reading about the LeMat revolver, an ancestor of the Taurus Judge with a nine-shot cylinder and a 20-gauge second barrel for shot built into it. I’m not a major gun nut, but ogling a design like that makes me want to be one.
That’s fantastic, and for me those discoveries are often the most enjoyable part of writing a novel. In my own research, for example, I recently discovered that Somerset churches often incorporate grotesques called “Hunky Punks”…
Which authors have influenced or inspired you?
Going way back, two of my biggest influences have been Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Verne for his dedication to showing scientifically how his wondrous machines work and Wells for illustrating the impact of technology and environment on society. There are countless others, and I rarely read anything without taking away a little bit of something, whether it be characterization or sensory description or chapter cliffhangers or, since we’re talking about alternate history, the awesome ways to pinch and twist historical stories as Eric Flint of 1632 fame and of course Harry Turtledove have done.
And what’s next? Do you have any other projects lined up?
In addition to some short works, I’m putting together a series of educational videos about writing stories. These stem off lesson plans from my comics classes, where students make actual comics themselves. There are a lot of creative writing videos out there, and many of them are inspirational with their discussions of creation, but none that I have found really break the process down into really “engineering” the story.
I like the sound of that – keep us posted.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, either about Hellfire, your other works or upcoming projects?
Hellfire launches June 8 from Tirgearr Publishing. Since we’ve been all serious and actiony, for some laughs, check out The Academy, my webcomic about kids in a magnet engineering school that is now being reposted with “director’s commentary.”
Thanks so much for answering my questions, Jeff – I wish you the best of luck with Hellfire.