Changing Yesterday Interview
It's 1901, and Battle Commander Liore has travelled back in time to stop a war that will rage for over a hundred years. But time itself is against her. Whenever she changes history, a new beginning to the war emerges and the world once again teeters on the brink of disaster.
To make matters worse, Barry the Bag has stolen Liore's plasma rifle, the most dangerous weapon in the world. The owner is on his trail, and she doesn't take prisoners. Can anything prevent Liore from risking the world's future for the sake of revenge?
Sean McMullen is one of Australia's leading SF and fantasy authors, with fifteen books and sixty stories published, for which he has won over a dozen awards. His most recent novels are and The Time Engine (2008), The Iron Warlock (2010) and Before the Storm (2007). In the late 1990s he established himself in the American market, and his work has been translated into Polish, French, Japanese and other languages. The settings for Sean's work range from the Roman Empire, through Medieval Europe, to cities of the distant future. His work is a mixture of romance, invention and adventure, while populated by dynamic, strange and often hilarious characters. When not writing he is a computer training manager, and when not at a keyboard he is a karate instructor.
Author: Sean McMullen
Interview with Sean McMullen
Question: What research went into Changing Yesterday?
Sean McMullen: Quite a lot of research, but some experience as well. For example, I've sailed on a few ships, and spent a day on the original Queen Mary at Los Angeles. Ships are not like airliners, they are more like moving hotels turned on their side. For a few days or weeks they become entire societies, with class distinction, snobbery, privilege and deference all built in, along with guaranteed adventure and the chance of romance.
Specific research for the novel included all the usual things: reading novels, reading newspapers, looking at the art and fashions of 1901, watching documentaries about ocean liners, even watching the movies Titanic and A Night to Remember, and going to the Titanic Exhibition. Movies are not a bad way to lay the foundations for a novel, because these days the directors and producers do their historical research pretty carefully. The Illusionist and Miss Potter were also very helpful in getting the general mindset established. Some of the minor details were the hardest. For example, how much did a newspaper cost in Paris in 1901? Where did the ships dock on the way to London? What was the timetable for the Adelaide Express? What sorts of pistols did the police use? Some of that sort of thing was available in the Internet, but a lot is still only available in books. That meant a lot of time in the State Library.
Question: How difficult was it to write a book set in 1901?
Sean McMullen: Reasonably difficult, especially with Melbourne as the setting. A lot of historical novels look and sound a bit like a modern costume party, so I wanted to get the values, manners and ways of thinking correct for 1901 teenagers. Changing Yesterday also had to appeal to modern readers, yet not seem boring or have very strange attitudes being taken for granted. Newspapers give a good general impression of what people were doing and thinking. This is how I learned that life in Melbourne was just one continuous party for the three or four months in the leadup to the opening of Australia's first parliament. It was way bigger than the Millennium celebrations ten years ago, but all that had been forgotten.
Researching travel on ships and trains was a real problem, because not much was written about it. Some people just sat about and read books on the voyage, so there was nothing to write about. Others got up to stuff that they would definitely not want known, so they obviously did not write about it. Fortunately a lot of research that went into the movie Titanic was highly relevant for me, and the internet filled in other details like where the ships stopped on the voyage to London, what the officers were called, their duties, and so on. A great trick was needing to explain historical things to Liore, the cadet commander from the future. That allowed me to tell the readers what was going on while one of the other characters was explaining it to her.
Question: What do you enjoy most about writing young adult books?
Sean McMullen: Developing the characters, and helping them grow up. Life is a pretty harrowing voyage of discovery for younger teenagers. One is still treated like a child, even if one looks pretty much like a skinny adult. This sets up a lot of great dramatic tension and situations that we have all experienced. It is a very exciting time of life because of the new freedoms and responsibilities, but it is also full of embarrassment and mistakes, especially where romantic entanglements are concerned. All of this provides scope for a lot of comedy and tragedy, which is the raw material of novels. At a more general level, teenagers often ask why the world is the way it is, break rules that adults don't question, and take risks for no apparent reason. As an author I can use that to develop some very brave and idealistic characters who would not be entirely realistic if they were adults.
Question: As a teenager which books did you enjoy reading?
Sean McMullen: That's an interesting question. When I was a teenager, kids who read books were looked upon as a bit nerdy, and copped a lot of teasing and even bullying. I made sure that my classmates knew that I read books to uncover the really interesting stuff that the teachers skimmed over in class. Nobody was very interested in Chaucer until I pointed out to my friends why the Miller's Tale was not on the reading list. Macbeth was all a bit boring until I rewrote the witches scene as an episode of the Goon Show - with the three witches as Henry Crun, Minnie Bannister and Bluebottle, and Macbeth as the Famous Eccles. The teacher was not amused, and I got either detention or the cane, I can't remember which. Some people just don't appreciate art.
That all made the other kids think I was pretty cool for doing so much reading - even though it got me quite a lot of detention - but it also covered for when I was reading more refined books. If my mates saw me reading Jane Austin or Thomas Hardy, they would assume that I was looking for rude bits and not laugh at me. I ended up reading a very strange mixture of Nineteenth Century romance and science fiction as a result. When I borrowed novels by Trollope and Verne from the municipal library, the librarian would assume that the Trollope novels were for my sister. She never found out that my sister had moved to London.
These days my novels get reviewed in the Romantic Times as well as the science fiction and fantasy magazines, so you can see my teenage reading habits coming through after all these years.
Interview by Brooke Hunter