Dear Readers: A Letter from Harry Turtledove


From the Desk of Harry Turtledove


Dear Readers,

Since Del Rey Books has just reprinted The Videssos Cycle in two omnibus volumes, I thought I might say a little about how I came to write them.  They go back a long way in my life.  I found The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the summer of 1966, right after I graduated from high school.  I read them and read them.  When I went off to Caltech for my freshman year of college, I took them with me and read them some more.

Reading them so much is one of the reasons I flunked out of Caltech, too.  It’s not the biggest reason–that would be a severe inability to do calculus–but it is one.  There were a few other Tolkien-obsessed people at Caltech besides me.  We would argue about the books and try to decipher Elvish and do our best to stump one another with obscure quotations.  And we would argue.  I claimed that Tolkien’s soldiers were not good at their trade, and that a few cohorts of Roman legionaries would go through them like a dose of salts.  Thanks to L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, I’d already got interested in ancient and medieval history.

I’d also already tried my hand at writing.  In the summer of 1967, after I’d flunked out of Caltech, I wrote a novel to back up my claim.  I dropped Romans into the world of The Lord of the Rings, setting my book about a thousand years after the One Ring went into the fire.  Unpublishable?  Totally!  What I did, basically, was try my hand at fanfic more than thirty years before there was any such thing as fanfic.

Life went on.  I ended up with a doctorate in Byzantine history from UCLA.  I taught there for two years while the professor under whom I’d studied had a guest gig in Greece.  I kept writing, and sold a fantasy novel and a couple of short stories.  I got married.  I got divorced.  I met the lady I’m still with all these years later.  I did the kinds of things you do when you’re growing up, in other words.

And, in the fall of 1979, I decided I’d really write seriously:  an hour a day every day, no matter what.  I didn’t think the plot of my Tolkienoid novel was too bad, but this time, instead of setting it in a world someone else had made up, I put it in my own, one based on–surprise!–the real and (for most people) really obscure history of the Byzantine Empire.

I started keeping a list of all the ancient and medieval writers I borrowed from (take from one, it’s theft; take from a bunch, it’s research).  Some of them I read in the original Greek and Latin, because they hadn’t been translated into English, though most have by now–one of them, in fact, by me.  You may well have heard of people like Herodotus and Thucydides, Plutarch and Xenophon and Julius Caesar.  But if you know authors like Menander Protector, Michael Psellos, Michael Attaleiates, and Theophylaktos Simokatta, watch yourself, because you’ve been doing the same kinds of things that left me unemployable.

I was thirty when I started writing The Videssos Cycle, almost thirty-four when I finished.  I’d learned more than history since my eighteen-year-old self set a book in Tolkien’s universe.  I’d learned a little about what it means to be a person, and I’d learned something about how to write, too.  I’d also learned something about stubbornness, both in the writing and in trying to sell what I wrote.

Selling The Videssos Cycle took almost two years.  My wife and I had our first daughter while I was trying to sell it.  One evening in April 1985, we’d put the baby to bed and were getting ready to go to bed ourselves–it was about half past ten–when the phone rang.  We looked at each other.  Who would be calling us at that hour?  It was Judy-Lynn del Rey, calling from New York (where it was three hours later).  She told me Lester, her husband, wanted to buy the books.  That was one of the most amazing moments of my life, and one of the most frustrating, because it was too late for me to call most of my friends and shout the news from the housetops the way I wanted to.

Lester del Rey was, mm, an exacting editor.  I did several months of revisions to get the books the way he wanted them.  Looking back, I have to admit he was right more often than he was wrong–and I’ve learned to live with the places where I still don’t agree with him.

The last thing I want to talk about is my byline.  When I sold my first fantasy novel, the publisher renamed me Eric Iverson.  They said no one would believe Harry Turtledove, which is my real name.  I decided to live with it, though I gave myself a middle initial, G., which stood for Goddam.  The pen name had certain uses:  I could use it for my fiction and my own name for academic nonfiction, which I still published then.  But when Lester bought The Videssos Cycle, he named me Turtledove again–people would remember it, he declared.  I objected that I was just starting to get known as Iverson.  He said he wouldn’t buy the books if I wanted to stay Scandinavian.  I stopped objecting.  But I may be the only writer in captivity who’s had both his pen-name and his own name imposed on him by force!  I hope you will remember my name–that’s Harry Turtledove–and look for the reprint of The Videssos Cycle (and maybe even some other things I’ve done).

Happy Reading,

Harry Turtledove

  • Hunh. I had vaguely heard, somewhere, about the Romans in Middle Earth fanfic, but dismissed it as an urban legend of sorts.

    The Videssos books are some of my favorites, given how relevant they are to *several* of my interests. I am very glad they are back in print.

  • Tom Monaghan

    I’d like to read that Roman in Middle Earth written by Harry now!

  • AmyCat – Book Universe

    Er… “Thirty years before there was fanfic”? Not by a long shot: at the time you were writing this, “Star Trek” fans were already active, and fanfic was one of the major activities in that fandom. However, people were writing fanfic based on literary rather than media sources as far back as Sherlock Holmes. (I could even make a case for some of Shakespeare’s works being “fanfic” — derivative — based on various classical sources which you probably know better that I do!)

    Interesting to know this about “Videssos”, especially since another of my favorite authors, Lois McMaster Bujold, re-wrote one of her “Star Trek” fanfiction ideas (a female Federation captain falling in love with a Klingon) into the start of her “Vorkosigan” series.

    Twenty or thirty years from now, we may see a Hugo winner and best-selling author explaining how s/he got started writing fanfic on Livejournal… 🙂

  • Chuk

    1967 was actually right about the time fanfic was starting up, mostly in SF and Star Trek fanzines.

  • Herewiss13

    “What I did, basically, was try my hand at fanfic more than thirty years before there was any such thing as fanfic.”

    I’m _pretty sure fanfic existed before 1997. Quite a ways before that. Possibly even before 1967.

  • Stig Carlsson

    By some strange coincidence i am actually re-reading the Legion series for the nth time. Still good, but now i know enough to see where Harry cheated a little bit on the Roman stuff to make it easier on the reader. … And the reason why, too. No problem… 😉

  • Off Season Fire Sale

    You could make an argument for the existence of early modern Canterbury Tales fanfic:

    But thanks for the background. I may have to give these a look. 🙂

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