Robert Kroese on Alternate History & Publishing
In our continuing Storyteller’s Showcase series, we invited Robert Kroese, author of such books as Mercury Falls and his 2018 Saga of the Iron Dragon series, of which the first book in the series has been nominated for a Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel.
EJ: Hi Robert. So tell us a little about yourself.
RK: I am 6′ 1″ tall and I am a straight white male. Despite these handicaps, I have been able to achieve some measure of success as a novelist. I had a pretty traditional, conservative, middle-class upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a strong Calvinist bent that probably warped my mind forever. My interests kind of meander all over the place, depending on what I’m working on or obsessing about at the time. I do love to travel, and I’ve been to 13 countries in the past few years.
EJ: You published Mercury Falls about a decade ago. What was the inception of the idea, and what influenced you to experiment with indie publishing?
RK: When I started Mercury Falls, I had a moderately popular blog call Mattress Police, which was very irreverent and satirical. Around the time my blog started to take off, I was elected to be a deacon and treasurer of my church. Anybody who knows me would tell you it’s a terrible idea to put me in any kind of position of authority, particularly managing money, but there I was. The juxtaposition of these two parts of my life–the irreverent smartass and the guy with a very important job in the community–led me to create the character of Mercury, who is an angel who is assigned to help out with the apocalypse but who doesn’t like being told what to do and gets distracted by things like beer and ping-pong.
EJ: You’ve been very prolific with your books releases since Mercury Falls. What’s your daily routine like in terms of writing? How often do you write, and how do you deal with things like writer’s block and finding inspiration?
RK: When I’m actively writing, I try to write 2,000 words every day. I’ve been writing an average of 3 novels a year for the past 6 years or so. I don’t think “writer’s block” is a thing. It’s just a name people give to not writing. If you have a story to tell, tell it. If you don’t have a story to tell, go find one. The world is full of ’em.
EJ: You’ve recently published the first two books in the Iron Dragon Saga. How long did the idea gestate before you went ahead with it, and what kind of influences led you to explore the alternate history genre?
RK: I had the idea for this series before I even started on Mercury Falls 10 years ago, but I wasn’t sure I was up to writing it. Last year I finally felt like it was time to do it, for a number of reasons–the main one being that I thought I finally had the skill as a novelist to pull it off. As far as influences go, one of the series that really struck me as a kid was Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld. I was fascinated by the idea of humans from a variety of cultures and technological backgrounds starting from nothing and trying to recreate modern technology. In the second book of that series they end up building a magnificent riverboat (with Mark Twain as the captain!), and I thought it would be cool to take the idea a few steps farther and try to have primitive people build a spaceship.
EJ: The last book in the series, Voyage of the Iron Dragon, is slated to be published this December, and the first was published back in January. That’s an incredibly short period of time between books. How do you deal with things like burnout?
RK: I do find it’s necessary sometimes to step away for several weeks between books to read, brainstorm, and work on other projects to give my mind time to recharge and come up with new ideas. But in the end, being a novelist is a job like any other. Sometimes you don’t want to write but you do it anyway. I only stop when I feel like the quality of the work is suffering.
EJ: So what comes after Iron Dragon? Got anything interesting in the works?
RK: I’d like to do a few more books in my Starship Grifters / Rex Nihilo series. Those books are like the polar opposite of Iron Dragon. Basically no research, no serious issues or conflict; just a lot of bad puns and insanity. Beyond that, I’ve got a vague idea for a sort of epic time-traveling sci-fi/fantasy series centering around the Knights Templar.
EJ: What advice would you give people who are looking to become storytellers? What mistakes did you make either in writing or publishing, and what lessons did you take away?
RK: To be honest, I got pretty lucky in my writing career, at least early on. I had near-perfect timing in getting into the ebook market and was fortunate enough to get picked up by Amazon Publishing when they were just starting out and basically throwing money at promising new authors. So the odds are slim that you’re going to have the sort of success I had, even if you’re a better writer than I am. So I’d say: have modest goals. Don’t quit your day job. Realize that this is a long game. Keep writing, keep improving, keep changing, keep learning about the market.
EJ: Do you believe we are affected by the characters and stories we are exposed to? If so, can you name three characters and the stories they are from that you feel had a profound effect on your personality as an adult, and what effect that was?
RK: There are definitely characters that had an effect on me, but I’m not sure the effect is as clear or dramatic as “I really like this character, so I’m going to be like that in real life.” A lot of times it’s more a matter of seeing a character and thinking, “Wow, I’m just like that character, and he overcame his challenges, so maybe I’ll be okay too.” For example, I strongly identified with Peter Parker as a kid, because he was this super-smart nerdy little guy who just wanted to get along with people and do the right thing. I didn’t think I was going to be fighting Doctor Octopus in real life, but it helped me to understand that the way people viewed this kid had very little in common with who he really was. Another character that I strongly sympathized with was Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, who could always think his way out of the traps set by his bumbling bureaucratic adversaries. Going a bit far afield with my third example, I always identified with the little boy in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I’ve had this constant sense of needing to be aware that just because every single person around me believes something, it isn’t necessarily true.
EJ: Name a song on your playlist.
RK: Breaking Benjamin’s “Diary of Jane” is playing right now, and that’s as good a song as any.