Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What Happens on the Titanic Stays on the Titanic: An Interview with David Kowalski

Today marks the release of David Kowalski's debut novel, The Company of the Dead.  Nathan Ilten caught up with him and asked a few questions about time travel, Philip K. Dick, and the origins of his novel...

The Company of the Dead exhibits a number of similarities with Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. To what extent did Dick's novel influence your own? What are other major influences?

David Kowalski: I’ve read a lot of Dick’s works, years ago, including High Castle. (For the record my favourite is Maze of Death). There was one sole part of High Castle that consciously influenced me and that was the idea that certain places, in an alternate timeline, hold the resonances of other possibilities. That became quite important actually. I looked at a lot of alternate history and science books on time travel as part of the preparation for my book, as well as genuine history books on the 20th century and the Titanic in particular. Major influences would have to include Heinlein’s By His Bootstraps, the ultimate in paradox tales. Also Charles Pickover’s Time, a Traveller’s Guide and Crowley’s magnificent novella, Great Work of Time.

If you came into the possession of a time machine, what would you do with it?

Seriously? Probably the same thing as you, though I’d be a lot more discreet. I will say one thing on this subject however, though it’s a little obtuse. When I was first writing this novel the original ending, in my opinion, just wasn’t working. I didn’t know how to resolve it but I pressed on. Then, about a third of the way through, I had this dream. In the dream I was sitting in a room with a film maker who was telling me they were keen to film Company. Great news, right? But they had issues with the ending. Then the film maker went on to tell me the way he would end it and I thought it was brilliant. Spot on.

I remember waking up with tears in my eyes. In those few moments between waking and dream, I thought it was all real, and I was so upset that someone else had come up with that conclusion. Once I realised what had happened I swiftly wrote it all down and incorporated the changes. So you could say that I was visited by a future version of myself who supplied the ending.

You mention that your novel started as a short story--what parts of the novel did this contain? If I had to guess, I would say the prelude.

Definitely the prelude. Originally the Titanic arrived in New York Harbor, unscathed, in 1912. I had a happy ending but no real story. There was a murder on the ship, and a time traveler, but nowhere to move with the text. Then it just got bigger and bigger.

Two medical doctors play prominent roles in your novel--Wells and Gershon. Were these characters (at least partially) inspired by medical colleagues of yours, or by your own experiences as a doctor?

Photo of David Kowalski; credit David Kowalski
I would have to say both. I trained as a neurosurgeon, for a number of years, before switching over to OBGYN. (Long story but part of the reason that I started writing.) There is an operation, described early in the text, that I had assisted at a number of times, that has fallen by the wayside for reasons stated in the story. A number of personalities I worked with inspired various characters in my books and not only the two doctors. Poor Dr. Wells is an inspired guy with a God-complex who can’t always see the forest for the trees. Not uncommon in my profession I’m afraid.

You've already done a fair amount of scientific writing. What differences do you see between that and writing fiction?

Scientific writing, done well, isn’t supposed to contain any fiction, and usually, in the good journals, it doesn’t. They really are quite different. Scientific writing offers up a hypothesis, tests it as rigorously as possible, and ideally comes up with a valid, repeatable conclusion that can be applied to the field. It’s all technique and little art. I prefer fiction.

Last but not least, a somewhat technical question. It appears to me that the paradigm of time travel used in your novel says that each time a trip into the past is made, the "reality" from which the trip originated is replaced by a new reality. However, when Kennedy and his men take their short trip back to NYC,  they seemingly interact with their reality of origin--without their actions in NYC, the trip to the past would not have occurred. How can this be explained within the above-mentioned paradigm?

What a great question. Hard to answer without giving stuff away. I see it as two separate time loops. The small loop involving New York has various outcomes, that replace themselves but always end with Kennedy’s crew, in varying incarnations, able to travel further back where the second loop occurs. I don’t really want to say anything else. What happens on the Titanic, stays on the Titanic.