I am absolutely delighted to introduce my readers to eclectic, prolific writer Allen Appel. I guess we have known each other for more than ten years now, but have never met face to face. One of those writer-buddy relationships in which propinquity plays no part. I have interviewed Allen a couple of times, we have read each others’ works in manuscript and offered suggestions, and we even survived a couple of attempts at collaboration.
I don’t doubt that many of you already know Allen’s work: he is best known for his time-travel series of thrillers featuring Alex Balfour, a history professor who is tossed about in time through the course of five books of the series. Time after Time initiates the series, and we find Alex back in the Russian revolution. Publishers Weekly, felt that readers ready to withhold incredulity “will be rewarded by scenes of cliff-hanging and head-bashing, slaughter, torture and hairsbreadth escapes, . . . true romance and wholesome sex.” New York Times Book Review dubbed this series opener “fine entertainment.”
The next book, Twice upon a Time, takes Alex and readers to the American West. Kirkus Reviews termed the novel a “high-speed, deftly handled sequel” which blends “time-travel, authentic backgrounds, and speculative fancy.” Book three, Till the End of Time, finds Balfour transported back to World War II attempting to stop the Japanese from developing their own atomic bomb. Publishers Weekly once again had praise for Appel’s fiction, calling this series installment a “thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable adventure.” The fourth book in the series, The Sea of Time, sets Alex aboard the Titanic in a novel that went unpublished for a couple of decades. Fifth in the series, In Time of War, sees Alex traveling back to the Civil War era in the U.S. “Those in search of exuberant Civil War-flavored entertainment will find much to enjoy here,” noted Publishers Weekly. Similarly, Booklist declared of this title: “Appel has adeptly combined science fiction and history into another compelling adventure that stretches back and forth through time at a breathless pace.”
Allen is in the process now of re-issuing all these titles as e-books at a very affordable price. If you have not yet read his series, now is the perfect time to start! All available at Amazon Kindle.
Allen, it is great to have you on Scene of the Crime. You know the drill–let’s start with a description of your specific locale in time and space.
Each book in the series takes place in a different locale. My interest is the past rather than a place. My character, Alex Balfour, who can travel through time, can’t influence where he goes so I send him to a period I want to research and write about. In the first book he goes back to Russia, circa 1917, because the publisher of the book was interested in the place and period. I did some research and agreed.
Why time travel?
The past, at least to me, is endlessly fascinating, so it doesn’t matter so much where I go as when I go. The five novels took place during the Russian Revolution, Custer’s Last Stand, WWII, the Titanic and the Civil War.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
The past is as much a character as any of the folks who people the pages of my books. I hope the reader is as happy reading and immersing himself in a specific period as I am writing about it.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
I’m completely conscious of the time period as I write. The way characters talk, what they see, how they think, it’s all tied to the period they live in.
How does Alex Balfour interact with his surroundings?
Being able to travel through time is the curse and blessing of my character’s life. Since he can’t control it, he is always aware that he might be going into the past or coming back into the present at any time. And while this frustrates and at times terrorizes him, he also is exhilarated by the experience.
Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do local (ie those who actually live in your novels’ setting) reviewers think, for example?
The way I write these books is to research and gather all the material I can about a period, particularly photographs. In the first book I would sit in the Library of Congress and leaf through picture books of the period. When I would come across a particularly compelling photo, I would take notes on it and later write a scene putting my characters into the picture. This worked well, except all the pictures were in black and white, which drove me nuts. Sure the sky was blue and the grass was green, but what color were the houses? among many other things. So I would write a description, get to the color of the house and just say, to hell with it, the house is yellow. After the book was published I was at a party and there was an old Russian man there who had read the book and liked it. Were there any mistakes, I asked? No, it was fine, he said. Were there any yellow houses there in Russia in those days, I asked, trembling. Oh, yes, he said, there were many yellow houses. Whew.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I made a mistake in my first book, Time After Time, which still makes me shudder every time I think about it. I have never told anyone what it is, and, thank God, no one has ever caught it, maybe because it is so glaringly obvious. I will go to my grave with that dark secret.
Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Readers often say this scene is one of their favorites… 1917. Alex is back in the past in Russia. He has no money, no way to live, so he goes to a pawnshop and pawns his father’s pocket watch. The pawnbroker asks him if he has anything else, and Alex realizes he has his trusty Swiss army knife with him.
…Alex pulled the knife from his pocket and held it out. “Genuine Swiss army knife,” he said, wondering if there even was a Swiss army in 1917. He let the question pass as he felt himself gripped by the goofy scene he was now playing. “Absolutely genuine; I doubt if there is another in all of Russia.” A stab in the dark, but probably very true nonetheless.
The pawnbroker took the knife and turned it in his hand. He looked up at Alex and then back at the knife. Alex took the knife and opened one of the blades, then another. He paused for effect, then opened up the tiny scissors, waited, and with a small flourish, pulled out the ivory toothpick secreted in the handle. The pawnbroker’s eyes widened as he took back the knife.
“Faberge?” he asked, watching Alex closely and at the same time staring at the wonder in his hand.
“L.L. Bean,” Alex said mysteriously. The pawnbroker nodded solemnly.
“Five hundred,” the pawnbroker said. “And call me Levinovitch. ”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I grew up reading everything. My mother simply handed me whatever book she had just finished and I would read it. James Michener, anything that was big and fat we devoured. I still love big fat novels. Let me say, though, before you ask, because everyone always does, that Jack Finney is not one of my favorite writers nor was he an influence. Many people think I am the author of his much beloved time travel book, From Time to Time. Now that we have that out of the way, I would say that the best time travel book ever written is Replay, by Ken Grimwood, who tragically died before completing a promised sequel.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Paris in the thirties. The artists were fascinating. I want to sit in a bar and have a drink with Kiki, the whore of Montparnasse.
What’s next for Alex Balfour?
I’m glad you asked. Nothing, unless lots of people go to http://theappelstore.com and buy the existing five books in the series. That must be the most shameless piece of self-promotion ever on Scene of the Crime. The publisher has declined to put out any more of the series because it never reached bestseller status. I’d love to continue the books, but I can’t unless I come up with enough money to tide me over while I write. So to hell with the publisher, we can do this on our own. Here’s the scene, envision it… the evil publisher has poisoned my lead character, Alex Balfour, and he lies dying…
Peter, rising from where Tinker Bell lies dying: “She says—she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies. Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!”
OK, America, don’t let Alex die. Clap your hands, and say you believe. And buy a few books. Thanks.
Thanks again, Allen for joining us at Scene of the Crime.