Gregory Keyes a livré avec l’Age de la déraison un cycle majeur de la science-fiction. Interview à l’heure de la réédition chez Pocket.
Actusf : In France , Pocket Editions are publishing again The Age of Unreason. How did the ideas this cycle is based on come to you ?
Gregory Keyes : They came backwards. When I was working with the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi, I found myself traveling on a mostly nineteenth-century landscape. I started imagining an alternate history set in the now, but in which history had gone very differently — a history in which there was a more even racial and cultural mix of peoples in North America. That meant doing something bad to England sometime before the mid-eighteenth century.
After I sold my first novel (The Waterborn), I wanted to take my wife to Europe. We went to Florence and Prague. In Florence I saw this fantastic museum of ancient scientific instruments, and in Prague many things related to the arcane, and these became a part of what was going on in my head. When I mentioned these vague ideas to Veronica Chapman — my editor at the time — she asked if I could move the story back to the point where history changed and make it a trilogy. At that point in time, as a young novelist, I might have agreed to be roasted with potatoes and onions, so I said "yes" without really knowing I could, and then went frantically to the library and immediately dove into research. Fortunately, the early eighteenth century was filled with fantastic ideas and characters without contrivance ; Europe was moving from one paradigm of thought to another, and even scholars like Newton were caught between those worlds. I then thought it might be fun toask the question, "what if the world was put together in such a way that the method of Newton proved out not science, but alchemy ?
Actusf : In this cycle, you have inserted historical characters in an almost completely imaginary setting. How did your public react to this ? Did some of your readers reproach you this mix of history and imagination ?
Gregory Keyes : Early in the books, history is still going similarly to how it did go, but by the end, yes, things have gone very strangely. I really haven’t been criticised in the US for this mix of real and fabulous, but part of the problem there is that European history isn’t terribly familiar to most Americans. Newton’s Cannon starts during the War of the Spanish succession — which I believe could be called the first true world war. Most Americans have never heard of it. The more successful alternate histories in the US are those that deal with our own Civil War or World War II.
My suspicion is that the Age of Unreason books have been both better received and more criticised in Europe because there is a better level of understanding regarding the history and personalities I am distorting, although I’ve never seen the criticism. I’m sure this is partly because while I can read (with some difficulty) French and Russian, I don’t know Spanish, Italian, etc, and therefore don’t always know what the reviews are saying.
Actusf : Why did you use historical characters ? Was it more for fun, or because they lend more believability to your story ?
Gregory Keyes : For fun, mostly, and to give me familiar personalities to hang very unfamiliar things on. I also enjoyed trying to understand them through their writings or descriptions by their contemporaries. In the case of Newton, he was absolutely central to the whole idea, and his proposition that God could create infinite and different universes by making slight changes in the particles and energies that make up the world was my premise.
Actusf : How did you build this cycle ? As the story goes by, the storyline becomes more and more fantastic, with the fate of the whole world at stake in the end. Didi you know from the start where you wanted the story to go, or did it come progressively ?
Gregory Keyes : Well, both. I knew the trajectory I wanted to take, but not exactly how I would get there. Adrienne, for instance, was not even in my original outline, but then I realised I needed someone at the French court. She changed almost everything about the journey.
Actusf : How would you describe your version of Benjamin Franklin ? Why did you choose him, and how do you see him ?
Gregory Keyes : I noticed Franklin would be a young man at the time this story started, and I thought he would be a fun character, one whose eyes we could see the changes in the world through. I think he was a very different person when he was young than later, when he wrote his autobiography, and I base that on his essays and on a journal he wrote. As an older man, he set himself up as the model of what an American should be — self- made, frugal, temperate, virtuous. As a young man from a poor background he wanted fine things. He was a prankster, he was judgmental and sometimes overly proud. But he had from the very beginning a fantastic mind.
Actusf : Did you use a lot of historical documentation for this tetralogy ?
Gregory Keyes : I did a fantastic amount of research for these books. I read several biographies of each person. I read books written in the period — Dafoe and Voltaire, for instance — to get a feel for language. I studied the way science was understood then. At the time I was a graduate student in Anthropology, so research was natural to me. But fiction isn’t footnoted in America . When I saw the first French version of Newton’s Cannon and saw all the notes I was highly impressed.
Actusf : Would you like to come back to the world of this cycle later for a novel or a short story ?
Gregory Keyes : I did write one short story for Amazing Stories about Franklin in Prague, and that was fun. I would like to return to my original idea and write a story set now, in 2007. It would be a very different story, because there would be no recognizable characters at all.
Actusf : This cycle is finished since several years now. Retrospectively, how do you look back at it ?
Gregory Keyes : I really enjoyed writing those books. I think there are things I might do a little differently now, but I’m still very happy with them.
Actusf : You have also written two trilogies in the Star Wars and in the Babylon 5 universes. How did these project originate ? What is your opinion about them now ?
Gregory Keyes : I was a fan of Babylon 5, and was asked to write the books. I had a good relationship with the people at Babylonian Productions, and a very free hand in a lot of ways. Star Wars was similar, although there were a lot more people involved in writing those books. I’ve come to think of media books as a particular form, like haiku. You don’t complain about the number of syllables if you want to write haiku, you work within that frame. Having said that, I think I would have preferred to have more time to write them, because they usually have to be written very quickly. Still, I enjoyed, playing in those universes.
Actusf : Your latest book series is The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone. How would you describe them shortly ?
Gregory Keyes : It’s a large-scale fantasy, with a big cast of characters. I had never written one of these medieval/renaissance European fantasies before, and my ambition was to do it, but do it with a bit of a twist, especially in realising the characters. Like all of my work, its become sort of a thing of its own, now, because it came to life for me. The essential premise is that humanity was once enslaved by ancient race, but human’s defeated their masters with the use of a sort of magic called the sedos. They were warned by the last of their foes that one day they would regret using that power, and my book starts a few thousand years later when the consequences of using it start to reveal themselves
Actusf : What are your latest projects ? Are you currently working on something ?
Gregory Keyes : I’m still finishing the Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, and although I’ve a number ideas for what comes next, I haven’t fleshed them out enough to talk about yet.