Author Interview: Fenton Wood
We sit down with the author of the Yankee Republic series to discuss these classic-feel, sci-fi adventures
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I loved Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves (you can read our positive, long-form review here!), and while we have not posted reviews of any other books in the Yankee Republic series, I can attest that they continue to impress.
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A young radio engineer travels across an alt-history America, encountering primeval gods, mythical beasts, and tall tales come to life, in a quest to build a radio transmitter that can reach the stars.
YANKEE REPUBLIC is an old-school adventure series with traditional values and down-to-earth heroes. Escape from the pessimism and propaganda of modern fiction, and take a journey through a mythic America that might have been.
The Kickstarter for the Yankee Republic Omnibus is on now, and Fenton Wood has graciously given me some of his time to answer a few questions about the series!
You describe the Yankee Republic as an old-school adventure series. Were there any stories from this genre that made an impact on you as a writer? What about the alternate history elements?
It’s not a typical alternate history story, because the history isn’t the focus. Some influences include Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card, The Seven Citadels by Geraldine Harris, and the TV show Adventure Time, which takes place in a strangely altered post-apocalyptic world.
People have said that Yankee Republic is a unique take on American magical realism, but Alvin Maker was first. I love the way Alvin has to learn a difficult real-world skill (blacksmithing) in order to develop his abilities as a Maker. The plot structure of Philo’s quest was an homage to The Seven Citadels, reimagining the seven sorcerers as various outré characters ranging from scientists to ancient gods.
You’ve also mentioned The Three Investigators was a favorite of yours as a kid; did that have an impact on your writing?
I loved the ingenuity and realism of The Three Investigators. Philo, Randall, and Pete are basically The Three Investigators with their personality traits swapped around. I introduced a new trio in Book 2 with a similar dynamic.
Even though you have extremely detailed factual elements, your stories are accessible even for young readers. How much general knowledge do you expect your audience to have?
The story should be accessible to readers age 10 and up. The plot incorporates linguistics, genetics, and astrophysics, but it’s presented in a way that’s easy to understand.
How much of your mythos is “alternate” (history or science). What do you think is the most surprising thing you included in your books that is true about the “real” world?
Most of the myth and folklore is based on historical sources. There really is a temple to Viridios, an obscure god who may be connected to the Green Man and to ancient harvest rituals. “The 101 Tales of Randall” are mostly real. The ELF transmitter is real.
What were some challenges or highlights about writing this kind of story?
I spent a couple of years developing the plot in my head before I wrote anything. The biggest challenge was adapting radio technology to the requirements of the plot. I had to learn the basics of radio and figure out how to create a pirate mountain station, a transcontinental AM station, a shore-to-submarine transmitter, and an interstellar transmitter. The last one requires a super-metal with properties that don’t exist in reality, but most of the radio tech is realistic.
What is the most interesting thing you have learned in the process of writing this series?
The most surprising thing I learned about was the Theia hypothesis. An iron-rich planetoid collided with the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, creating the Earth’s unusually large iron core. The core acts as a dynamo and generates a magnetic field that repels the solar wind and prevents it from stripping away the atmosphere.
You have talked a little on Twitter about working with Hans G. Schantz on some of the science and math involved in your stories. Can you comment further on how your research influences your writing process and informs or alters your plot?
The series would have been very different without Hans’ input. It would have been lazy Hollywood-style writing where the science is treated like magic. Hans saved the story on several occasions by figuring out how to do the impossible with real technology.
I get frustrated when I see lazily written movies or YA novels that could have been so much better if they had put a little effort into the research. Real-life sciences and trades have a wealth of interesting details that make for a better story.
Your writing has a strong sense of place. Were any of the settings based on real locations or were there other inspirations?
The alt-history setting is a way to compensate for my lack of travel and experience. Instead of describing real places, I can just make stuff up. Porterville isn’t really Appalachia, it’s a composite of Ray Bradbury’s Illinois and the strange Deep South cultures in Huckleberry Finn. Iburakon isn’t really NYC, it’s more like an Old World city.
The easiest way for me to relate to other cultures is through their myths, so I gave Iburakon its own myths based on the real history of NYC. If I tried to evoke the atmosphere of NYC by describing it in a realistic way, I don’t think it would work. I’m not a city person and I couldn’t imagine living there.
Music plays a significant role in your stories. How has music influenced you and your work? I know you have talked about metal on twitter.
I was a lyricist before I was a novelist, and I wrote mythology-influenced lyrics that provided a lot of material for the Yankee Republic series. I used music and lyrics as a way to portray the culture of the mountain people. The experimental music project in Book 2 was influenced by my work as a music producer and engineer.
I had to come up with an alternate history of American music to fit the overall history. It’s more insular and more rustic. A form of jazz exists in the Regnum, a strange country corresponding to Louisiana, but it isn’t well-known in the Republic. I grew up on thrash metal and death metal, but my biggest musical heroes are probably Brian Wilson, Brian May, and Wendy Carlos.
You have mentioned Zelazny as an influence on your lyrics, which in turn influenced your antagonists. Could you describe how? Any lyrics you would be willing to share as examples?
Zelazny uses myth in most of his stories, and he’s responsible for my mythological obsession. Whenever I write a story, I look for parallels in real-world myths to give it more resonance.
A lot of metal bands draw on mythology or fantasy literature. I used to write narrative lyrics with dark, Zelazny-esque protagonists. They were original creations, not borrowed Zelazny characters. A lot of them ended up in the Yankee Republic series, but they were made more sympathetic. Most of the lyrics weren’t very good and they probably won’t see the light of day.
What do you hope your readers take away from Yankee Republic?
The people in the Yankee Republic don’t want to fix the world or control other people. They accept their limitations and look for practical solutions, instead of pursuing grandiose visions that lead to disaster.
The Ancient Marauder legend, which describes an ancient conqueror being struck down by divine wrath, is an important part of their culture. That’s why the Republic is much smaller than the US and isn’t a world power, and it’s peaceful instead of being torn apart by partisan struggles. Wherever Philo goes, he is careful to act as a guest and not as a conqueror. He values home and family much more than empty things like wealth and power.
Another thing I learned from The Seven Citadels was how to write a hero who solves problems without using violence. There’s nothing wrong with war stories, but I don’t have the experience or knowledge to write them. A lot of my writing approach is dictated by the necessity of working around my shortcomings. That’s why my stories are so odd and eccentric.
With the conclusion of the Yankee Republic series, what are you working on next? Will you ever return to this setting or characters again in the future?
My next book will be NIGHTLAND RACER. It’s influenced by classical mythology, in contrast to Yankee Republic, which used a lot of pre-Indo-European and indigenous mythology.
I’d like to write an entire book about the World-Tree, because it’s a very big story that was barely hinted at in Yankee Republic.