*bounces off walls* Hullo, readers. D’you remember that Steampunk Spotlight I created, like, a couple of months ago? Well, I have another steampunk author on the wings here – the lovely AG Carpenter. Follow her blog and Twitter for all her updates. What I love best about this interview is actually its length and the depth AG goes into when thinking about steampunk. I particular like her thoughts on the individual versus society and how that is brought into steampunk fiction.
What inspired you to start writing Steampunk novels and novellas?
Comic books. I was reading a lot of graphic novels at the time and really enjoyed Mike Mignola’s HellBoy series, and the dark and disturbing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. I didn’t even know what kind of subgenre to put them in, but I was very much in love with the alternate history meets speculative technology aspects of those works and I thought “I could write something like this.” But I hadn’t even heard Steampunk, so I spent five years or so tossing around an “alternative history” idea before one of my beta-readers said “This is probably Steampunk.” Which gave me a specificity in abiding by or breaking all the tropes that have developed within that sub-genre. I love tropes and digging in deep on one or two and then turning them on their heads.
Does your writing process differ between writing Steampunk stories and other speculative stories?
Not really. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been writing speculative fiction, but the “what if?” elements invariably are there to help me highlight some part of the story and the characters. So, when I choose a setting it’s based off ‘what will best highlight this story?’ Sometimes it’s space opera, sometimes it’s straight fantasy, sometimes it’s steampunk.
I have a fondness for Steampunk on a visual level because it has an aesthetic that appeals to me, but not every story works with corsets and cogs.
Alt-history fantasy has expanded into a whole umbrella of genres, including Dieselpunk and Atompunk. What, in your opinion, is a vital attribute of a Steampunk setting or story?
The advent of steam power changed labor in our world in a permanent way. We’ve since moved on to other types of engines and power, but the groundwork was laid in steam. It made agrarian work easier, and enabled a system where things could be mass-produced. Cloth, for example. And carpets. Typewriters, sewing machines, light bulbs. All of these things that needed mass-production in order to survive as household necessities. Steam made available and affordable – a different class of living even for the poverty class.
It also meant a decline in specialty and artisan trades and the training that went along with it. The industrial working class was more utilitarian because anyone could be trained to run a machine. Even a child. So, we gained better living conditions, but lost some of the individuality we’d had previously.
That’s something that Steampunk draws on pretty heavily, I think. The clash of individual against society, the march of progress that is also regressive, the loss of the old ways in the face of a new conformity. These are ideas that Dieselpunk, Cyberpunk, etc build on, but the changes are, in some ways, never going to be as drastic as the advent of steam. (Computers, of course, have drastically changed the way we can interact as individuals. But I’m not entirely certain the changes have improved society to the same extent as we see with the Industrial Age. The improvements are less striking. To me, anyway. I still use a pen and paper to draft parts of my work, so I’m old fashioned in that sense.)
The Industrial Age. (Or just an excuse to display this photo 😉 )
How did you go about building your Steampunk world? Were any aspects stronger/more well formed than others when you started writing?
I started with the basic idea that I was looking at a particular time period (1888. And, yes, for exactly the reason you’re thinking.) And the knowledge that magic had been predominant, but the development of Steam as an energy source was bringing Science back to the foreground.
Then I wrote a story. A really bad draft that was exhilarating at the time, but makes me cringe to look at now. But I knew I had the bones of a story I liked so I started working on it to make it better.
As I went, I started solidifying more about the world. Ireland was never conquered by the English because it was a stronghold of the magic folk and they beat back Crom and his attempts to appropriate Ireland. Crom was afraid of magic and science and had plunged Britain into a sort of dark ages because of it, but traces of that prejudice have remained ingrained on the British folk. And most of the technology used to be driven by springs and magic, but is now being transformed into less refined steam-driven technology.
Each of those little revelations occurred as the story came together, so it wasn’t an immediate vision of the world I was working in. More of a connect-the-dots affair. Which is always fun, because it kept me interested even when I was working on what seemed like the zillionth draft.
Do you participate in other parts of the Steampunk genre/lifestyle or only the writing side of Steampunk?
At this point it’s only the writing side. Because money and I’m not especially crafty. I drool over all the nifty things – laptops and desks and clothes – but it’s not a practical addition to my life at this point.
I can certainly concur with that point! Any advice to readers and/or writers just getting into the Steampunk genre?
When I was first working on the Steampunk Novel I put some of the chapters up for feedback on a particular writing forum. I was feeling my way through writing a novel and refining my storytelling skills and needed some solid critique to help me find the weaknesses in my craft. Which can be a bit of a brutal way to learn how to write fiction, but the publication world is not for the thin-skinned. Some of the comments I got told me that I shouldn’t have magic in a Steampunk story. Or that I needed more of certain tropes. Or that the voice of the story didn’t fit the genre. They wanted more like Peake and Dickens and I’m less wordy and less conversational than either of those, despite loving their work.
I was pretty discouraged for a while and actually put that first novel aside because I thought maybe I couldn’t write in the genre. But I poked around a little more and looked at more examples – and back at the things that had originally inspired me – and eventually I realized that just because Steampunk is a sub-genre and has particular tropes, it doesn’t mean there’s not room for new work. I couldn’t let what someone else expected from me control what I wanted to write.
It’s that whole “To thine own self be true” adage and it’s scary. I’ve come to realize that I will probably always write about magic and really bad things will always happen to my characters and there will always be some doubt about whether or not my characters will make it to the end of the book alive, let alone live happily ever after. But they will be my stories and that is more important than just writing what someone else wants me to write.
So, that’s my advice. If you want to write a specific thing (Steampunk or Contemporary Thriller or whatever) then find out what it’s made of, then write the story you want to write. Even if it doesn’t seem like it hits all the same notes as what has already been written, there is always room for new work. Always.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film cast
Magic is awesome, though. 🙂 Tell us a little about your journey to getting an agent.
I started my Agent Quest in December of 2012. Over the next ten months I sent out a lot of queries. A lot. And I got a satisfactory number of partial and full requests, but no offers, just a steady stream of “Not quite right for me.”
In July of 2013 I received an invitation to Revise and Resubmit. I was excited. I got a long email from the agent with notes on things they wanted changed. Some of them I agreed with and some I didn’t, but that’s part of the editorial process. I spent four weeks revising and sent the new MS back.
Then came the rejection. It was not just a rejection, it was detailed and criticized things that had not been brought up previously. Things that had to do with writing style, the voice of the book, and my writing craft in general. I was… gutted. And angry.
I went back through my list of possible agents and found one that I had been hesitant to query because there was this rumor that he didn’t rep fantasy. And there were no guidelines on the single webpage for his agency. But my gut said “This guy.” So I sent just the query and told myself I’d give it another couple of months and then maybe it would be time to move on.
Four minutes later I got a response. Please send me the full manuscript. After I stopped doing my victory-dance-in-my-desk-chair, I sent the MS and settled in for a wait.
About two weeks later I got a phone call in the middle of the afternoon from a number I didn’t recognize. When I answered a cheerful fellow on the other end identified himself as Bob Mecoy and said he’d read my manuscript and loved it. He wanted to know if I could tell him more about the “potential sequels” I’d mentioned in my query. We exchanged a few more emails, had a long phone call about another round of revisions to the novel and suddenly I had an agent.
I know you didn’t ask for advice here, but I will say that if anyone is thinking about finding an agent you really shouldn’t give up. I see stories about folks who turn to self-publishing or the small press route after receiving only a handful of rejections from agents. And those are both valid options for many folks, but if you really think having an agent represent your work is the best option for you, don’t give up on it. You put time and effort into writing your novel, do the same for finding an agent.
SO true. Tell us something interesting about your Novel.
The magic in the Steampunk Novel is essentially energy that is manipulated by sound. But it’s not merely spoken or even sung. It’s an enharmonic manipulation where there is a base tone and a melody tone sung at the same time. (YouTube has some pretty fantastic videos of “throat” or “overtone” singing.)
The fantastic detail of the magic is the use of words in multitone singing, of which I’ve not found any examples in real overtone singing. But the singing itself is absolutely real. (And amazing. Seriously. Check out YouTube.)
Okay. For your pleasure, readers:
Thanks for giving such an insight into your writing processes and steampunk-ness, AG!
A.G. Carpenter writes fiction of (and for) all sorts. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Stupefying Stories and Beast Within 4: Gears & Growls. She prefers Die Hard to When Harry Met Sally and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly over Animal House. Her favorite color is black. Repped by Bob Mecoy.