By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed The Company of the Dead by David J. Kowalski, hailing it as “an alternative history masterpiece that defies convention and genre to become a tome worth sinking into.” It is truly one of the greatest books to have ever graced the digital pages of this online magazine. It is therefore with the greatest pleasure that AMO presents a recent interview with accomplished doctor and author David J. Kowalski.
Hello Mr Kowalski, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I never quite know how to answer this question. I’m 45, devilishly handsome, and I started writing back in 1998. I also work as a doctor in the field of gynaecology and obstetrics, which is kind of a 24/7 occupation.
Have you always enjoyed writing?
I always wanted to write, but apart from creative writing at school etc, I never really turned my hand to it till I started Company of the Dead. Nothing had really grabbed me as a project until then.
Was it tough making the jump from writing for professional medical journals to writing your first work of fiction?
Not at all. They are chalk and cheese. Medical writing is very formulaic. There is a fairly fixed jargon and lexicon and little room for being creative. To be honest I do it because I have to. Writing fiction is more of a passion, and whilst it can be a labour it’s a labour of love. Of the two, I know what I’d rather be doing.
Where did the initial idea for The Company of the Dead come from?
Company began life as a short story. The premise was simple enough. What would happen if the ship missed the iceberg? I wrote it and was left with a pretty little story that had a happy ending but no real meaning for me. As I examined various possible outcomes the tale grew in the telling (if I may paraphrase Tolkien). It kind of got out of control. Think of it as a very very big novella.
How would you briefly outline the premise of the book to someone who knew nothing about it?
It’s 2012. The Cold war between Greater Germany and Imperial Japan is drawing to a close. America, divided and scarred, will be the final battleground in a world distinctly different, yet disturbingly familiar to our own. Joseph Kennedy – JFK’s great-nephew, has concrete proof that the world he lives in is the result of a time traveller’s intervention, one hundred years earlier, aboard a ship called the Titanic. His world is heading towards an apocalypse that only he and his team can be prevent. This is the secret history of the Twentieth Century.
Is it true that the book took you 10 years to write? If so, was this due to your demanding profession or was it simply due to the amount of research involved?
I think those are two among many reasons. The thing is that I was writing for myself, with no real agenda or timetable. I was also learning the craft on the job, so I went through a host of drafts. There was a lot of research involved. With so much speculation involved in alternate history I had to try ensuring that the book had a solid grounding in reality.
The Titanic plays a key role in the narrative – what made you decide to build the story around this tragic event?
At the time I started writing I was aware that James Cameron was working on a new movie, maybe you’ve heard of it. At the time, though, most critics were anticipating that it was going to flop. There was a fair bit of buzz on the subject and I became aware that interest in the ship, while waxing and waning, seemed a constant undercurrent ever since the sinking. The story of the Titanic struck me as great way to frame a story spanning the Twentieth Century.
Why do you think people are still fascinated by the Titanic even today?
When the anniversary of the sinking happened I followed it on a live Twitter feed re-enacting events around the sinking. There were more than 100,000 people following the feed. It was strange for me, to say the least. Without trying to sound too ghoulish, it was a day I had been thinking about, on and off, for almost fifteen years.
My take on it is that the event has assumed the status of a modern myth, our first one really. It’s all so inconceivable. The world’s largest, grandest ship, strikes an iceberg on her maiden voyage. It’s the captain’s last journey, before retirement. The ship is populated by some of the richest, most influential people on the planet, and most of them join her at the bottom of the Atlantic. It’s hubris absolutely demolished by nemesis, and everyone can find some meaning in her loss. We hear about it first, when we are very young, and I think it stays with us.
The level of detail in The Company of the Dead is staggering – how much research was involved and how did you go about ensuring that everything felt believable, no matter how fantastical the events unfolding became?
I’m very pleased if you found it so believable. That was very important to me. I read as widely as I could on all the subjects I thought relevant. I studied the deck plans of the Titanic from the keel up. I wanted Titanic buffs to appreciate that everything I described aboard the ship was plausible, I suppose because I was living the story as I wrote it. The story called for strange technologies so I spoke with aeronautical engineers and physicists and studied aircraft design. I read history books and cultural studies and scientific papers and military diaries. I talked to historians, army veterans, Native Americans, gangsters, anyone I felt could be of help.
The book has many different characters – is there any one character in particular that you would consider the ‘main’ character?
The novel was written with different chapters having different narrators. That gave me the opportunity to give each character their due whenever I was taking their point of view. Wherever possible I wrote each narrator as if they were the main character. I think most of us feel that we are the star of our own life story. At least I hope so. Having said that I think that Kennedy and Lightholler are the big Two of the story.
The reader could be forgiven for initially thinking that Jonathan Wells is in fact the main character – was this intentional?
Absolutely. I was going for something similar to the opening of Psycho in that respect. And he is fairly important after all. His actions tend to haunt the book.
Who is your favourite character in the book and why?
I don’t really have any favourites. By default, writing from each point of view made me feel close to all of them. I enjoyed Morgan and Webster’s story arc as it tended to take them to places I had never anticipated when I first started writing.
Authors often base characters upon themselves and the people they know – was this the case here and which character would you say is most like you?
Marty – that’s kinda personal. They are all a little like me. I once read, in Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, a description of how he creates his characters. I can’t track down the source but this is what I took away from it, and I think it holds true for me. Each character starts off with a large chunk of me at the core. But they step through thresholds that I would not be brave or foolish enough to cross and then they are on their own. I hate to say it but the character I feel I most relate to is Morgan. He spends much of the novel out of his depth.
The Company of the Dead features elements of science fiction and time travel – how difficult is it to convey such themes and remain within the realm of believability?
Believability is in the eye of the reader and there are a lot of them out there. I had to focus on creating something that I would accept and hope that it passed muster. I never thought of Company of the Dead as science fiction. The time travel, and other speculative elements, are crucial to the plotting but, to my mind, remain part of the backdrop of the story. To my mind, if the characters are real enough, and the internal logic of the book is honest, what is left has to be believed, or at least trusted.
If we ever develop the technology to time travel in the future – should we?
Fun question. We have a tendency to precede intent with capability and then stand around asking well, what the hell do we do now? Going to the future seems safer than the past because we at least are protected, and we also have a tendency to disregard the possible future results of our actions. Marty – you are making me go all philosophical and stuff. I’m going to say that we shouldn’t and we would.
What do you think is really going on – if anything – at Roswell and Area 51?
OK, seriously, we need to go grab some beers, but mine can’t be warm, alright? My research about Roswell and Area 51 was inspired by a brilliant book called Travels in Dreamland, by Phil Patton. I heartily recommend it. Conspiracy, by Daniel Pipes was also very helpful. Essentially Area 51 is probably a test site for new aircraft and was possibly used for testing stolen Soviet technology. And Roswell, well that was just a weather balloon. I do have another theory, though, regarding crashed Time Machines and secret Black Ops but I think you know where to find out more about that.
In your opinion, does The Company of the Dead belong to any particular genre?
I said earlier that I never thought of Company as a work of science fiction but I am very proud of that label. Some of the best writing taking place right now is in area of speculative fiction. Is Cracking Good Yarn a genre? Let’s call it that and be done with it.
The Company of the Dead was first published in 2007 in Australia – are you pleased that Titan Books has finally released the novel in the UK, US and Canada in 2012?
I’m thrilled with the overseas release. I was criticised, when the novel first came out, for the absence of an Australian flavour. I wrote a novel set on the world stage so I am very pleased that it is now available to readers everywhere (at least those who speak English, for the moment).
The new front cover is spectacular – did you have any involvement at all with its design?
Nope. That was done by the guys at Amazing 15, who clearly live up to their name. Of note, their final product is very similar to what I initially had in mind, but well beyond what I had imagined.
The name of the book is also a real eye-catcher – how did you settle on the title?
The original title was going to be ‘Entering the Whirlpool’. A line from Eliot’s Wasteland, which I reference throughout the novel. My Australian publishers advised me that the title was a bit ambiguous and, let’s face it, nondescript. In retrospect I have to say that there are enough books out there with titles lifted from the works of T.S. Eliot.
As you know the opening sentence of my novel is:
“Jonathan Wells stood by the starboard railing, a gaunt figure in a dinner jacket. His coat billowed gently, borne by the ocean liner’s rapid passage.”
My editor came up with this opening instead:
“One thing was for certain. He could only allow himself to speak with those who would soon be dead.”
It was punchy but not the tone I was after. I didn’t make the change; however I was inspired with the idea of using “the company of the dead”, a line that belongs to one of my characters as it had many connotations.
Although a generous 750 pages long, The Company of the Dead never feels padded – did any material or ideas get left on the cutting room floor?
Yup. The original manuscript came in at 1,000 pages, which was my goal of sorts. I kind of turned into an egomaniac as the book grew. The material I discarded, with the exception of one chapter, did not need to be there. That single chapter was my favourite chapter in the book, and it was a difficult decision to lose it. My editor had trouble with it as, unlike the rest of the novel, it was written in first person. It used to sit right at the heart of the book and I felt it was the microcosm that reflected the macro of the novel’s world. The problem was that it took the reader out of the novel, addressing them directly. It also clarified a point of plot that was better left muddied. I was very sorry to see it go however its absence has led to other projects.
Do you think the book could be adapted into a successful film or would you prefer the story to remain solely upon the written page?
I can’t say too much about this but I’m currently talking to a few people about taking the book to the screen, either as film(s) or a mini-series. I wrote the story with no budget on my imagination so I feel it has great potential on film. It’s a big story.
I don’t feel too precious about how different a film might be from the story as the words will always be there if anyone wants to go read them. The book will always be the book.
What is your favourite part of the book?
I recently was carrying a copy of the book around with me as I was supposed to meet someone to give them a copy. I had some time to kill so I started looking through it. Now, I hadn’t really read any of the material in years and it was quite surreal for me. Because I wrote the story I would most want to read I don’t really have any favourite parts. None of it felt onerous at the time of writing. I guess I enjoy the small moments, the snatches of conservation in those calm moments between the storms.
What would you say the main themes are that run throughout The Company of the Dead?
I talked a little bit about this earlier. It’s funny because I read different reviews and I am astonished by some of the ideas and thoughts people take away from the book. I love that, because each of those opinions is as valid as my own. My problem is that the answer I would give you would change, depending on when I gave it. So, here’s what I think today. I think it is about wish fulfilment, carried to extreme depths. It’s about choosing between the difficult and the easy options and the price of that choice. I think it’s about sacrifice and what it means to be a hero.
Despite Wells’ efforts, the Titanic seems eternally doomed to sink – do you believe in fate?
I do when it suits me, I suppose. I mentioned earlier about people being the stars of their own lives. Sometimes, in order to impose structure on the chaos that we encounter we have to have something to identify as an opponent. Something to struggle with and against. At the very least it can help give some meaning to what we are doing. Let’s call that fate.
You are currently working on your second novel – can you tell us anything more about this?
I’m working on two projects at the moment, one is a potential sequel, or perhaps I should say companion piece to Company. Company of the Dead was written quite deliberately as being sequel proof. I’m taking that on as the challenge I have created for myself. I am also working on a separate work, more fantasy than science fiction, that I am very excited about.
Thank you for your time Mr Kowalski – The Company of the Dead is a book I just can’t stop talking about and I can’t wait to read your next novel!
Thanks Marty, and stop calling me Mr you are making me feel particularly old. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. The questions were great.