Exclusive Interview: “Alice Payne Arrives” Author Kate Heartfield
As the ending of Deadpool 2 showed (especially the Super Duper $@%!& Cut of the movie), going back in time to change history can be tempting. In the following email interview, sci-fi writer and former newspaper journalist Kate Heartfield discusses her politically-adjacent time-traveling novella Alice Payne Arrives (paperback, Kindle).
To start, what is Alice Payne Arrives about?
It’s about a highwaywoman in 18th century England who gets tangled up in a war between rival factions of time travelers from the future.
Where did you get the idea for Alice Payne Arrives and how did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
The mystery element of the story came first: I had an idea about a highwaywoman leading a double life who has to solve a crime before the parish constable does, so that said parish constable doesn’t discover her secret while he’s poking around. That element is still what kicks off the story in the book, but the answer to the mystery creates bigger problems for Alice.
It sounds like Alice Payne Arrives is a science fiction story. Is that how you see it, or is there a better way to describe this story?
Absolutely. The time travel in the book is technological, and some scenes in the book take place in the future.
When it came to describing how time travel works in Alice Payne Arrives, did you base it on a specific fictional depiction or did you look into real-world theories?
I’ve read a lot about both the scientific and fictional approaches to time travel. One of my favorite books dealing with the former is Physics Of The Impossible by Michio Kaku, and one of my favorite books about the latter is Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. I didn’t base the version in Alice Payne Arrives on anything in particular, though; I just went with something that made sense for me and my story. Time travel is almost certainly impossible, so I didn’t set out to explore technological possibilities with this novella; I set out to use a science fictional concept to explore social science. And tell a fun adventure story.
Now, in the plot summary included in the press materials for Alice Payne Arrives, it says, “It’s 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse. It’s 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history — to save history — but seventy attempts later she’s still no closer to her goal. It’s 2016 and…well, the less said about 2016 the better!” I bring this up because when I read the line about 2016, I immediately thought of the election. Should I have?
Yep, it’s meant to be a reference to the actual events in our timeline: mainly the Brexit vote in the UK in 2016, and the election in the U.S. later that same year. I’m Canadian, but both of those events have had and will have massive repercussions for the whole world for decades. The timelines in Alice Payne Arrives are always shifting, so one can never be sure that the timeline for the characters is the same as our own, but I couldn’t write a book about time travelers trying to change the future of humanity — climate change, global security, global prosperity — that didn’t have any references to the events of 2016.
So did you set out to write something with a political and/or social bent to it, or did you just start writing this story and the political/social aspects just came up naturally?
I have a degree in political science and I’m a former journalist, so obviously those themes interest me. But more broadly, I think that exploring political and social questions is just one of the things that stories do. Science fiction in particular has always laid a valid claim to being “the literature of ideas,” and that’s what appeals to me about writing it. So while Alice Payne Arrives is not a didactic book, it’s a highly political book. It asks a lot of questions.
Are you at all worried, given how high tensions have been running since then, that having a book about a time traveler going to 2016 might cause problems? Or do you not give a fuck?
Just to clarify the reference in the jacket copy: There aren’t any scenes set in 2016 in Alice Payne Arrives, but the year does come up in conversation between time travelers. If that makes anyone mad, meh, so be it. Political philosophy drives the plot of the book, which explores the arguments for and against the most literal and stripped-down of progressive and conservative views, respectively: one faction of time travelers values progress highly, and one faction values tradition and caution highly. But those factions don’t map easily onto any current political parties.
Alice Payne Arrives is not your first published work. Are there any writers or specific stories that were a big influence on Alice Payne Arrives, but not on your novel Armed In Her Fashion or any of your short stories?
I’m a big fan of Connie Willis, and one of the great things about her books is that they’re very transparent about how she solves some of the biggest problems any writer of time travel faces. If your characters can go back and re-do anything they like, how will you preserve the tension in the story? And if cause doesn’t necessarily follow consequence, how does a writer make sense of the story? Just as a fantasy writer has to design a magic system, a science fiction writer has to design a time-travel system. Willis’ time-travel system has restrictions built into it to prevent paradoxes and major alterations of history. I actually went in the opposite direction with my own time travel system because I wanted to explore alterations of history, but seeing how Willis designed her system helped me be aware of the problems I would run into, and prevent them from driving me completely up the wall.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of them have a big impact on any stories in Alice Payne Arrives?
I have sometimes described this book, half-jokingly, as “Doctor Who meets Hamilton,” and both that TV show and that musical are big influences on it. It’s got the fast, sweeping pacing, twisty plot, and big stakes of a Doctor Who episode, and it’s got the 18th-century-but-different vibe of Hamilton. And it’s got an “Okay, so we’re doing this” dedication to taking an idea as far as it will go. Or at least, that was my hope.
And this will be my last inquiry into your influences: You used to be a writer and editor at the newspaper The Ottawa Citizen. How, if at all, did you career in journalism impact either what you wrote in Alice Payne Arrives or how you wrote it?
I feel strongly that what I do in fiction is not all that different from what I did in journalism: Bearing witness and asking questions. But there was no conscious crossover with this book.
Now, you’ve already said that you’ve written a second book in this series, Alice Payne Rides. First, without spoiling anything, how does that novella connect to the first one in terms of chronology and narrative, and when might it be out?
Alice Payne Rides is coming out in March 2019 and is already available for pre-order; it’s got a lovely cover and we’ve finished the main edits on it. I won’t say too much about how it follows Alice Payne Arrives except to say that it does follow the same characters and it takes place afterwards…as much as anything can be said to be “afterwards” in a time-travel universe.
And why isn’t it called Alice Payne Leaves? Is that because you’re hoping there will be more than two books?
Ha! I suppose because that title never occurred to me! And it doesn’t actually fit what happens in the second book, plot-wise.
But is that the hope, that this won’t be just the two books?
Two books are all that I have planned for now, and I’m content with where the story stands after two books. But if readers respond well, I’d be happy to write more. I have some half-formed ideas about what happens next. “More Alice Payne books” are definitely on my list of things I might write, but there are several other items on that list too, so it’ll be a matter of taking stock and discussing with my agent and editor about where it would be wisest to invest my time and energy.
As you probably know, some people like to wait until an entire series is published, and then they read all of the books in a row. But is there any reason — a story-based one — why you think people shouldn’t wait until Alice Payne Rides comes out before reading Alice Payne Arrives? Or that they should?
I actually wrote Alice Payne Arrives as a stand-alone, though in the jargon of our business, it was a “stand-alone with series potential.” And when my editor asked me about said potential, I had an idea he liked. So while the ending of Book 1 does set the stage for the next phase of Alice’s life, it brings the plot of Book 1 to a conclusion. It isn’t a cliff-hanger. It was designed to be read as a single book.
Earlier I asked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that may have had an influence on Alice Payne Arrives. But has there been any interest in adapting any of the stories from Alice Payne Arrives into a movie, TV show, or game?
No news on that front, yet. But I think it would work well as a TV series, because of the way the storylines end by opening up more possibilities, shifting alliances and introducing new conflicts. There is a lot of scope for these characters to change and grow over the long term. Plus, as I said, the plot style owes a lot to Doctor Who, and to other SF shows, such as Orphan Black.
If Alice Payne Arrives was to be adapted into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
Oh man, I am the worst at dream casting. I’d be very interested to hear from readers on that, though! I am also eagerly hoping for fan art.
As for games…hmm…I actually write text-based interactive fiction — I’ve written one for Choice Of Games and am working on another — and it might be fun to put Alice into a game at some point. But I haven’t really thought about it.
Finally, if someone enjoys Alice Payne Arrives, what book of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for Alice Payne Rides to come out?
My friend Kelly Robson wrote a brilliant novella called Gods, Monsters And The Lucky Peach, and it came out earlier this year from the same publisher as Alice Payne Arrives [Tor.com Publishing]. I didn’t read her book, or even know about it, before I wrote mine, but the two books together make an interesting contrast, I think. They take very different approaches to time travel, are told in different styles, and are set in very different times and places. On a deep level, they’re asking some similar questions, but they’re evidence of the broad range that time-travel novellas can cover.