Exclusive Interview: “1637: The Transylvanian Decision” Co-Author Robert E. Waters
For more than 22 years, author Eric Flint wrote or co-wrote dozens of books in his Ring Of Fire series of alternate history novels, while also asking other writers to do the same. It is regarded as one of the best alternate history sagas in science fiction. But while Flint sadly passed away this past summer, the Ring Of Fire story isn’t done just yet. Co-written by Robert E. Waters, 1637: The Transylvanian Decision (hardcover, Kindle) picks up where Flint’s 2020 novel 1637: The Polish Maelstrom left off. In the following email interview, Waters discusses both his contributions to Decision, as well as how he feels about his late collaborator, both personally and professionally.
Robert E. Waters
For people unfamiliar with the Ring Of Fire series, what is it all about?
The 1632 / Ring Of Fire series was created by Eric Flint, and is an alternate history series wherein a small West Virginia town (Grantville), through a cosmic accident, is transported back to the early 1630s, and placed in the middle of Germany. At that time, one of the most devastating wars of the continent, The Thirty Years War, was in full swing. But despite its small, rural status, Grantville and its citizenry begin to change the history and course of Europe with its so called up-time sensibilities, technologies, and its modern library packed with historical knowledge.
The series has been in publication since 2000, and now has over 35 novels and anthologies published by Baen Books. Over the course of 22 years, nearly 200 authors have published short stories, novels, and non-fiction articles dealing with various aspects of the series. The storylines in the series itself has spread from Europe all around the world. There are stories set in the Americas, China, India, Russia, etc. It’s considered by many to be the greatest alternate history series in the history of science fiction. I certainly believe that.
Are all of the books part of the same story or are there sub-series and stand-alone stories?
Well, it’s a little of all of that. There is a so-called “mainline” series of novels that Eric Flint wrote, which includes the novels 1632, 1633 [which he wrote with David Weber], 1634: The Baltic War [also with Weber], 1635: The Eastern Front, 1636: The Saxon Uprising, 1636: The Ottoman Onslaught, 1637: The Polish Maelstrom, and now 1637: The Transylvanian Decision. All of these novels share a continuing narrative and a similar cast of characters.
But there are other side-story narratives that carry the series to other parts of the world, such as The New World series — 1636: Commander Cantrell In The West Indies [with Charles E. Gannon], 1636: Calabar’s War [also with Gannon], 1636: The Atlantic Encounter [with Walter H. Hunt]. 1637: No Peace Beyond The Line [also with Gannon], and 1637: The Coast Of Chaos [with Gorg Huff] — and The India series —1636: The Mission To The Mughals [with Griffin Barber] and 1637: The Peacock Throne [also with Barber] — to name just two. Eric wrote many of these sideline novels in collaboration with other authors in the series, and some of them even borrow characters from the mainline novels.
And then what is 1637: The Transylvanian Decision about, and when does it take place in relation to the preceding book, 1637: The Polish Maelstrom?
The first chapter in 1637: The Transylvanian Decision takes place during the concluding chapters of 1637: The Polish Maelstrom. From there, it picks up shortly after the events of Polish, as main character Morris Roth continues his plans to move his army, The Grand Army Of The Sunrise, eastward into Ruthenian lands to ensure that the so-called Chmielnicki Pogrom of 1648 — wherein tens of thousands of Jewish citizens are massacred during the Polish-Cossack Wars — does not occur. Morris has had this plan to eliminate the pogrom for years. His plan begins to take shape in 1637: The Polish Maelstrom and continues in 1637: The Transylvanian Decision.
As Morris is making his plans to move his army eastward, a representative from the Prince of Transylvania arrives with an interesting offer. The offer will give Roth and his army almost unfettered access to those Ruthenian lands he wants to reach, but it would also severely annoy (if not outright anger) Murad IV, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire who at this time in history, is in control of Transylvania (either as a vassal or as a protectorate, depending upon who you talk to). Transylvania and its prince want out from under the bootheel of the Ottomans, and Morris Roth’s army can help them do that. But the costs are high, the stakes are high. Ultimately, Roth accepts the offer and off we go. The novel is about the events that take place as Morris plans and then enters Transylvania to uphold his part of the deal.
Who came up with the idea for 1637: The Transylvanian Decision?
The idea for the novel came about while Eric and were discussing our collaboration in 2019. We had discussed collaborating on a novel many years earlier, but for various reasons, those ideas never came to fruition. Eric wanted to collaborate on something, and I certainly did as well, but we weren’t sure what to do. He asked me for ideas. So, I suggested that we write a novel based upon the very first story I wrote in the series, a short piece titled “The Game Of War,” wherein a young Swiss nobleman learns military tactics from playing up-time tabletop wargames in Grantville. He then applies that knowledge on the battlefield. Eric read the story and wrote back (and I paraphrase), “No, this won’t work. The focus is too narrow to develop into a full novel. However, it does make me realize that we have never had a novel in the series that focuses chiefly on the military side of things. We’ve had armies on the march and battles in previous volumes, but we have never focused on the military exclusively. Let’s do that.” I greed immediately and off we went.
The idea to continue with Morris Roth and the Grand Army Of The Sunrise from the previous “mainline” novel was Eric’s idea. And it made perfect sense: if Eric wanted the focus of the novel to be the military and warfare, using Roth’s Grand Army Of The Sunrise was the perfect focal point.
And just to be clear, even though this takes place in Transylvania, this is not a vampire story, correct?
Ha! Yeah, that question doesn’t surprise me. Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Count Dracula, does come up in conversation a few times in the novel. I mean, many of the Americans who came through the Ring Of Fire do have this preconceived notion of what Transylvania is all about: vampires, ghouls, and bumps in the night. But in fact, the actual historical figure, Vlad The Impaler, was a Wallachian prince, which is the country on the southern border of Transylvania. Ol’ Vlad spent serious time in Transylvania during his reign of (some might call) terror, but he was more Wallachian than Transylvanian.
So, to answer your question: no, the novel is not about vampires…at least not the kind that sink their fangs into your throat. There are monsters in the novel, for certain, but none played by Gary Oldman on the big screen.
Okay, so then if 1637: The Transylvanian Decision is not about vampires, I assume it’s also not a horror story. But is it just an alternate history story, or are there other genres at work in it?
It is a novel that continues one of the mainline narratives in the Ring Of Fire series. And it’s an important novel, in my humble opinion, for what Roth and his Grand army are trying to do: stop the wholesale slaughter of Jewish families during a war that hasn’t technically happened yet in this new timeline but may very well happen regardless of the Ring Of Fire or the altering of history. In some ways, you could define it as a kind of anti-horror story: a story trying to prevent a terrible horror from happening.
1637: The Transylvanian Decision is far from being your first novel. It’s not even your first Ring Of Fire novel; you previously co-wrote 1636: Calabar’s War with Charles E. Gannon. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Decision but not on anything else you’ve written?
Well, I’ve always liked the way Bernard Cornwell and Jeff Shaara write battle scenes in their novels. Cornwell wrote the Sharpe series of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars; Shaara picked up the authoring mantel after his father Michael Shaara [The Killer Angels] died and continued with his American Civil War series. Both of these authors write good battle scenes.
But there were also two novels in the Ring Of Fire series that certainly inspired my interest in collaborating on 1637: The Transylvanian Decision: Griffin Barber’s and Eric Flint’s novels 1636: The Mission To The Mughals and 1637: The Peacock Throne. The choreography of the battle scenes in those novels are very well done. I made a point to at least match the flow of my own battle scenes in Decision to those novels.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on 1637: The Transylvanian Decision?
Certainly, the battles in HBO’s Game Of Thrones had some influence on my development of the battles in Decision. Not the battles themselves, per se, but the aftermath of those battles, the casualties strewn across the battlefields, the blood and gore. I made it a point in Decision not to be overly gratuitous in these depictions of the physical and mental costs of warfare, but I wanted to be honest to the readers and showcase both and the glory and the cost of war. During battles, important characters can rise up and do great things to bring their side victory, but characters can also die, and sometimes, brutally. That’s the nature of war and Decision shows both the glory and the terrible costs of battle.
The press materials for 1637: The Transylvanian Decision start with the question, “Can history be changed to save the Jewish people?” Anti-Semitism has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic. You touched on this a moment ago, but did any of the recent anti-Semitism have an impact on Decision?
I would answer this by saying both yes, and no. Yes, in that, on the granular level, while writing the novel, the spike in anti-Semitism over the past couple years did inform my writing of the novel in that it made me believe even more in Morris Roth’s cause. I think his cause is sound and justifiable, even if it’s just fiction. Fiction can have a profound impact on a person’s thinking, beliefs, sensibilities. But also no, it didn’t, in that Eric planned to have Roth pursue the elimination of the Chmielnicki Pogrom long before this most recent spike in anti-Semitism. Roth’s cause would have moved forward regardless of recent events.
Sadly, Eric Flint passed away this past summer. How do you think working with him on 1637: The Transylvanian Decision has influenced what you’ve written since then, and how do you think it might influence your future novels?
Eric definitely had a more light-hearted style than me. Most of the novels he wrote in the Ring Of Fire series reflect that, though there is a scene or two in Decision that he wrote that made me whisper in shocked delight, “Oh, no you didn’t just write that!” Our collaboration was wonderful, and I won’t soon forget it. He imparted to me two very useful pieces of advice. First, do your research but write the damn story. Meaning, don’t get bogged down in infinite research. At some point, you have to stop researching and start writing. And second, don’t add anything in a novel that doesn’t further the plot. Keep your focus on the plot and move forward to achieve that goal. I’ll definitely try to adhere to that advice going forward.
And then, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you think you’ll miss most about him? Not as a collaborator, or as a fellow writer, but as a person?
He was a kind man. He often gave off the vibe of being a grumpy, acerbic fellow, but he wasn’t. He was always kind to me and to others. I’ll miss his kindness.
Going back to 1637: The Transylvanian Decision, is there anything else you think people need to know about this book?
The Transylvanian Decision is a book primarily about war, battle, and the preparation that the characters go through to prepare for those battles. It’s about how battle impacts the lives of the characters in the novel. There are a number of new, young characters in this volume of the series. The novel takes great care in showing how warfare impacts their day-to-day, and how they rise above it to endure and keep moving forward toward their ultimate goal: eliminating the Chmielnicki Pogrom.
Finally, if someone enjoys 1637: The Transylvanian Decision which of your other novels or novellas would you suggest they read, and what other book in the Ring Of Fire series that you didn’t co-author would you suggest they read after that?
There are two of my publications that I would like to suggest. First, my novel The Last Hurrah, which is a media tie-in novel based on Mantic Games science fiction sport game, DreadBall. DreadBall is a thrilling, but dangerous, futuristic sport where its players can find themselves dead when they step onto the field. The novel is about an old retired ex-player who comes back as a coach and cobbles together a rag-tag team of DreadBall players who fight for their lives to win an important tournament.
Secondly, I wrote a novella that was published earlier this year: Eyes Of The Wolf. Published by e-Spec Books, it’s a story about a Central American “cryptid” creature called El Cadejo, a part wolf, part goat beast that rises again, crosses the border into the U.S., and threatens the citizens of Texas. My FBI agent in the story, Chimalis Burton, is an expert on Native American cryptids, and she’s assigned the case to investigate and ultimately find the creature before it causes too much harm. If you like supernatural horror, check it out. [For more about Wolf, check out this interview.]
As for other books in the Ring Of Fire series, there are so many good novels in it, it’s difficult to narrow it down to one single volume. But if you are not familiar with the series but wish to investigate, I’d recommend the first novel in the series: 1632. That’s the novel where it all began. Read that novel and then you can go into various directions depending upon what part of history (and the altering of it) you enjoy the most.