By Roxana Arama
January 29, 2018
It’s early 1918 and the Great War has exhausted all the parties involved: from the Western Front, where resources are scarce, to the Eastern Front, where Russia has been engulfed in a bloody revolution. Having prevailed in the east, Germany could now try to crush France and Britain before the United States might intervene, or it could declare victory and leave the war to its drained enemies. This is the premise of James Emerson Loyd’s fascinating trilogy of alternate history The Great War Won. A small group of German officers led by General von Treptow risks negotiating across enemy lines with the French and the British in an attempt to influence the leadership into seeking peace in Europe. As the titles of the first and second book suggest (Who Desires Peace… and …Should Prepare for War), the conspiracy fails, paving the way for the American intervention developed in Book Three (A Power of Recognized Superiority). Yet the groundwork has been laid for a different outcome than the one we’re familiar with.
What if Germany had not been thoroughly humiliated and reduced to abject poverty in the aftermath of the Great War? Could totalitarianism in Europe, communism in Russia, and World War Two have been avoided? These questions are not a theoretical exercise, but an exciting saga involving trench warfare, secret missions, sword fights, U-boats, spies, cabarets, princesses, assassins, and real historical figures such as US Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, US Major George Patton, British Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill, French Prime Minister George Clemenceau, German Corporal Adolf Hitler, German Spartacist leader Rosa Luxembourg, and Irish rebel leader Michael Collins, in addition to a cast of memorable fictional characters. And, of course, there’s the romance angle—each of the three main fictional officers has romantic entanglements with two women: General von Treptow with Princess Claire of Baden and Rosa Luxemburg; Colonel Knorr with Belgian war widow Estelle Vandenburg and Alexandra Breithaupt, a younger German woman working at the Dutch Embassy in London; and Erich von Seeckt with Isabella Boecker, a spunky, headstrong German, and with Russian counterrevolutionary Nadezhda (Nadia) Karotkin.
The Historical Novel Society selected James Emerson Loyd’s epic trilogy as an Editor’s Choice and nominated it for Best Indie Novel of 2016. HNS’s Steve Donoghue writes:
“Loyd’s strong, supple prose never falters, his ear for dialogue never dulls, and his knack for capturing historical characters with well-chosen small details never deserts him.”
Red City Review writes about the first volume in the trilogy:
“The book’s major strength is how it expertly combines both fact and fiction. (…) This book clearly entailed a lot of research on the author’s part and it seamlessly blends real historical events with fictitious ones that allow readers to see the first World War through the eyes of a German officer and those around him.”
Welcome to Rewriting History, James. You live in San Antonio, Texas, and you describe yourself as “a recovering architect and retired real estate executive,” as well as “an amateur historian of the twentieth century.” What fascinated you about WWI? What prompted you to write about it?
For some reason I have been fascinated by history since childhood, and in particular WWI and the interwar period. When I decided to write something, that period seemed less picked over than WWII, and re-reading some of my histories, I decided the year 1918 was most susceptible to a counterfactual/alternative history treatment. Wanting to create something of my own, a fictional world within the real world, there were enough historical elements and hints to create a different, yet plausible outcome. The prompting came about when I retired early to look after my wife as she recovered from a medical issue and found time on my hands and decided to do something entirely new and different (my wife and I were high school sweethearts, separated for 24 years, but she insists she always said, way back when, I would write a book someday—she didn’t say it would be any good).
Is there any prior knowledge about WWI the reader should have before picking up your books?
The trilogy is written for more of a like-minded niche market, but also the general reader, although it can be admittedly dense and difficult. A basic acquaintance with the period helps, above all a sense that this war was the great calamity of the 20th century, responsible for all that followed.
Without giving away too much, what are some of the inflection points in your alternate history? Where did you diverge from the historical record in order to explore the meaning of historical events? What are some of your “what ifs”?
The whole thing is a great big “what if,” but I tried to keep it as grounded in reality as much as possible. The analogy I use is a string tied tautly between two poles (January 1 and December 31) representing the actual timeline, with my narrative another thread winding around it, loosely at first but tighter and tighter as time passes. The main inflection point, or divergence, centers on the key strategic decision of the war: Germany’s last-ditch attempt to win the war on the battlefield before America’s strength could be brought to bear. That offensive (bolstered by a million troops brought west from a defeated Russia) almost prevailed, but left Germany exhausted. Had my German protagonists, real and fictional, dissuaded or diverted that offensive and simply called it a day while in a position of strength, events would have taken a very different turn—that’s the basic premise.
Your Notes and Attributions chapter does an impressive job of sorting fact from fiction in your trilogy. Tell us about your research methods. What sources did you use, and how much research did you do until you felt comfortable with your subject?
Researching was fascinating fun. I had a good grasp of basic events, but uncovered tons and tons of material new to me. I read the memoirs of three key characters: Prince Max of Baden, the last Imperial chancellor, the German general Ludendorff, and the American John J. Pershing (careful to sort out the merely self-serving stuff). From all my sources I gleaned small details, some personal, some geographical, some military that added a great deal of authenticity to the narrative. My research used secondary sources listed in the bibliography, but there’s a lot more out there.
I researched as I wrote, both looking ahead and confirming and expanding my current efforts. I can’t say I planned it out in detail, because I had little idea of what I was getting myself into, but generally knew where I was headed. When I needed detail on a particular event or person, Wikipedia was useful as an overview and pointer to other sources, as well as picayune things like foreign spellings.
And my research influenced my writing and story structure. John Irving’s advice (picked up in the Wall Street Journal!) is to write the ending first. I had already started, but had the end in mind, so wrote it straightaway; it survived mostly intact. Another bit of illumination: around 85% of books are purchased by women. I was 100 pages into the first book when I saw that and realized I should maybe add more female characters. By the trilogy’s end, my women were easily the equal of any of their male counterparts.
Did you make any interesting discoveries about WWI history?
Among the things I discovered were some absolutely eerie coincidences. For example, as I was beginning to shape a series of episodes in St. Petersburg, I came up with the notion of Churchill enlisting Teddy Roosevelt to make an expedition to Russia to ascertain conditions. This became a major story within the story, but six months later as I was researching some other Churchillian aspect, I came across a reference that he had proposed the exact same notion. In another, I wrote one of the German officers into a teenage summer as a cowboy in Wyoming as the guest of a Senator. Months later, beginning to write about Black Jack Pershing, I learned he had married the daughter of a senator from Wyoming. That played a major role later on, but I had no clue when writing the original scene. Who knew? Not me.
Your trilogy takes the reader from Washington, D.C. to London, from Paris and Berlin to Saint Petersburg. Have you had a chance to visit any of the locations in your books?
I have not been to Berlin or Russia, but many of the other locations. The trip I really want to take is to the WWI battlefields, then St. Petersburg. I created my locations with Google Mapview as much as my historical references.
Is there a character in your trilogy that you relate to the most or share personal history with?
My favorite character, I think, is the fictional Princess Claire of the Grand Duchy of Baden, sister to the real Prince Max. Originally, I pictured her as a malevolent character, a vamp; only when I introduced her into the narrative at a dress ball did she reveal her true nature to me, the lost love of our hero, General von Treptow. Sometimes flighty, sometimes shrewd, always persuasive and dynamic, she evolved rapidly into what the Historical Novel Society’s review termed “a spectacular literary creation.” She single-handedly talks the Kaiser into abdicating; gotta love her.
Can’t slight the others, particularly Churchill’s aide Reginald, Lord Elsmere, and Loren Reifenstahl aka Miss Lorelei, a Berlin transvestite, cabaret entertainer and adept killer. Creating these characters and letting them grow was a revelation.
How long did you work on your trilogy? How much time was research and how much was developing and refining the story?
I began in autumn 2011; each book took about a year to research and write, and another six months of editing, proofing and converting; the former was fun, the latter not so much. Writing and research overlapped, one being stimulated by the other: An American walks into Lord Elsmere’s library, browses the shelves, plucks two versions of the Iliad. Greets his host with “Οινοψ ποντοξ—the wine dark sea; I don’t know Homeric Greek, but the scene prompted me to research the original text. Final, final on Book Three was summer, 2016.
What was the process of writing such a long saga? Did you map out its main characters and events beforehand, or did you work them out as you wrote? How did you manage its complexity?
I wish I could say I had a process. I just started writing, and let the scenes and characters come to me. I did have a general structure in mind, but honestly had no idea I would or could write 1,300 pages. One help with the complexity was a 2013 desk calendar, a large one; that year’s days of the week matched 1918, so I could map out real and fictional events fairly easily, matching them up.
The characters, as I’ve said, grew into themselves; the major fictional characters ended up significantly different in some ways than originally contemplated, growing more real and authentic with each episode.
In your About the Author chapter, you describe your writing process, “With a rough idea of a subject – how that collapse could have been prevented – he sat down at the keyboard and began writing. Before long he found himself simply taking dictation from his characters as they grew into the storyline, and a thousand pages later, he was done.” How much revision did you do after you finished your first draft?
Revision? I don’t do no stinkin’ revision. Seriously, in 450,000 words, there were more than a few typos, grammatical adjustments and the like, but very few major revisions, mostly synching up episodes to the timeline or adding personal or material details. I would begin each episode with the characters in mind and a general idea (mental, not written) of what was to transpire, then just write. My characters were so well-formed and their voices so familiar I could let their dialogue carry the scene—“taking dictation.” And so, the vast majority of episodes are as originally written with only a tweak here or there. A capable editor would sigh.
Many of your characters are German, and you wrote their parts in English. I don’t know German, but I’m curious if you do, or if you took into account the specific sound of your characters’ languages (French, Russian, etc.) when writing their dialogue in English?
I don’t speak any of the foreign languages, but do know some words and phrases and importantly, word roots. The Russians do speak in a somewhat cartoonish, Boris and Natasha-like diction, a reasonable effect. I established a hierarchy of formality with the Germans at the top followed by the British and French, then American slang, attempting to imbue the dialogue with the conventions and tones of the time while not seeming too terribly stilted to the modern ear.
Your books are historical fiction, detective fiction, and soon a nonfiction book about the Civil War. How different is it to write in these genres?
Between the historical fiction and the detective story (Starter, co-authored with David B. Matheson), the most obvious difference is research—the history is there to be mined for facts and details, and the more authentic, the better (and mistakes more obvious!). The detective story uses personal histories and a familiar geography, so very little in the way of research was required, especially if your co-author is a retired police officer and knows his stuff. I’ve also written a semi-science fiction novella (which I like, but no one else does), and that was somewhere in between—learning about plagues, disease vectors, etc. One very important thing: I try not to be didactic or overbearing in description of places, technologies, etc. I choose to let my characters’ dialogue carry all my books—let them explain, briefly, the bolt action of a 1905 model Russian rifle rather than a lengthy exposition by a disembodied narrator.
Other than that, I simply write, mindful of language and diction differences, of course, and write mostly in dialogue not description. That means I’m writing about people, and people are people, regardless of time and setting.
Do you have certain themes you gravitate toward as a writer?
I really only have one theme—create and populate a world, whether a suburb or a battlefield, with a strong preference to the “what if” scenario based on actual events, as in the trilogy.
You do have a writing partner for your detective novels. Do you have a writing community for the entirety of your work? Do you have beta readers you trust?
Starter, the detective story is a one-off (well, maybe a two-off—the notion of a sequel is luring me into its 5,000th word). Otherwise I work better alone, at my own pace. I do have several “beta readers” to whom I entrust drafts; being good friends, their reviews are suspect, but they are intelligent and well-read and have given me great encouragement. When one of them annoyed his wife by reading Book One of the trilogy late into the night, I knew I was onto something.
You mention on your website that your next project is “a nonfiction novel based on my great-grandfather’s experiences as a Georgia infantryman in the Civil War, including a miraculous rescue at Gettysburg.” Where are you in the process of writing your book? Is the experience of completing The Great War Won trilogy now influencing the way you develop your new project?
I am about 5,000 words into the Civil War book, with no real notion of how long it will be, shorter than the WWI work, certainly. More of a chronological straight line with discrete actual events and only a few characters, it will be considerably less complex, but the process of fleshing out a character’s role in real events is much the same. The most important influence is simply that I am a better writer today than when I got started on this adventure, thanks to my maturation(?) writing the trilogy.
Thank you, James, for taking the time to answer my questions.
Thanks again for this opportunity and for reading my book.