Hi Kurt! Tell us a little bit about why you chose Roanoke as your Nation!
All the stars aligned. I really had no choice.
My initial rough plan was to write Colonial America, but that was before we settled on a 16th Century time period. Because I'm stubborn, I stuck with the same geography and started rooting around in the late1500s and early 1600s to see what caught my eye. The early, disastrous English settlements were too good to pass up.
The backdrop to your stories is incredibly creepy. Lost colonies, awful winters, starvation. How much of this is made up and how much comes from history?
Pretty much all of it. It was a rough time. Most of the initial setting in the Roanoke stories is based in historical fact, to the extent that I can point to exactly where real history and my alt-history diverge.
The Starving Time at Jamestown was real. The winter of 1609-1610 almost extinguished the colony. There were lots of reasons, which I won't get into here, but suffice to say: in just a handful of months, the 500-strong colony was reduced to 60 survivors. Even the cannibalism isn't fiction--there's archaeological evidence that suggests at least one teenage girl was butchered for meat during that winter.
That kind of background is a gift to a writer, because all I needed to ask myself was what would it be like to survive that? How would a person move on? That gave me Elizabeth. And then the next natural question… to where would she move on?
That's when Roanoke became inevitable.
The lost colony of Roanoke is, I think, a part of historical folklore that occupies a place in the heads of most Americans--or the kids, at least. It's got everything: exploration, disaster, and, above all, mystery. Governor White left approximately 115 colonists on the island in 1587 when he returned to England to seek help. He only managed to return three years later, and by then the place was abandoned. No colonists, no corpses, just cryptic messages carved in a tree and fencepost. 115 people, poof, gone.
But as good as it is, it wasn't just the story of the lost colony that drew me to Roanoke. It was the occult.
I knew one of my characters had a strange artifact that could be tied to the portal world. But I was looking mostly at who would have been involved with such an object rather than where it came from. England, turn of the 17th Century, weird mystical obsessions… it can only be John Dee, right?
I didn't want to use Dee himself, so I started looking at associates. He hung out with Thomas Harriot, astronomer and scientist and maybe-weirdo, and Henry Percy, who was nicknamed the "Wizard Earl" because he was so into alchemy. Just the right trio to be tracking down strange magical objects and phenomena. But then I started to tingle when I learned that both were pretty tight with Walter Raleigh, the driving force behind settling Roanoke. Then I learned that Percy's brother was George Percy, who was in charge of Jamestown during the Starving Time. Then I learned that Harriot went on an expedition to the New World. Just one. And the destination? Roanoke. At that point, I gave in. It had to be Roanoke.
How far back does your own family go in America?
Far enough that I'm not sure how far. I know at least one ancestor fought in the Civil War (on the wrong side, cough). That line of the family can be definitively traced to early 19th Century New York. I have some haphazard genealogical research that traces parts of the tree back to at least early 1700s Mississippi and Louisiana (which were French territories at the time). It only gets hazier from there.
One thing I know for sure: the most recent immigrants in my direct family line were my great-great grandparents, who emigrated from Sweden in the early 1900s.
Are these stories similar to your past work, or is Archipelago's historical fantasy new territory for you?
There's tonal similarities, but no, historical fantasy is new to me. I mean, like probably every fantasy writer I've written more than my share of stories set in a pseudo-Medieval magical realm, but I've never done anything this rooted in actual history. In some ways it's easier because real stories like Jamestown and Roanoke can be short-cuts to characters and motivations.
The level of research is definitely new, but it's fulfilling and I keep finding weird coincidences (like the Dee/Roanoke connection mentioned above) that just fit. And in at least one case, my aimless procrastiresearch led me to a Biblical translation controversy that provided the entire theological underpinning for a character that shows up in a later story. I got chills when the pieces clicked together.
So: new territory, but I'm loving it.
Your characters have made some dark choices. What's the weirdest thing you have ever eaten?
Dog food, cricket… nothing too weird, really. Some regional foods that have notorious reputations but that are in fact perfectly delicious, like haggis and Cincinnati chili.
But thinking about this more (and inspired by Jamestown), I'm going to go with fingernails. I used to have a terrible nervous nail-biting habit, and when you get right down to it it's pretty weird to gnaw slivers of keratin off your own body and devour them.
Yup, that's officially creepy. Thank you, Kurt, for taking the time with us this week!
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