Interview with Author and Steampunk Pioneer James P. Blaylock

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By now, most sci-fi and fantasy fans are familiar with the Steampunk genre, where works of fiction and art are placed in a world that features steam powered machinery and is often set in the time of Victorian-era England. In the last twenty years, we’re amazed to see how far and how creative “Steampunk culture” has pushed itself in various media, especially in literature, films, and fashion design. Though many recent fans could not even begin to explain how this genre had started out – how authors, screenwriters, and artists influenced by Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine created several whimsical and fantastic works in the 1960’s and 70’s. This then opened the door for three young authors, who were friends from the same college and were all mentored by the legendary novelist Philip K. Dick, to write their brand of Victoriana and eventually becoming, unbeknownst at the time, the pioneers of Steampunk.

Recently, we had the good fortune to have a chat with one of the pioneers, the talented James P. Blaylock, who is releasing a new Steampunk novel in his Langdon St. Ives/Narbondo series titled The Aylesford Skull published by Titan Books. It’s been twenty years since the last full novel in the series and we find out why it took that long for the book to be published, what sort of research goes into writing Victoriana, and his opinion on modern Steampunk culture.

RTNDR:  This is another steampunk novel for hero Langdon St. Ives and the villain Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. The first novel, Homunculus, was published in 1986 and Lord Kelvin’s Machine came out in 1992 – why did it take nearly 20 years for another new adventure with these characters?

Blaylock:  After writing Lord Kelvin’s Machine I went back to writing contemporary fantasies set in southern California, where I’ve lived all my life.  The Last Coin and The Digging Leviathan, two of my favorites of my own books, were southern California books, and I hadn’t by any means used the place up.  It was taking me about two years to write a novel in those days, and so the years rolled past, one novel following another – actually something like fifteen of them (years, I mean.)  Along the way my brother-in-law gave me a collection of short stories titled Dr. Dogbody’s Leg, by James Norman Hall, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame.  The stories are set during the Napoleonic wars, all of them starting out with a group of seafaring types sitting around a table in a comfortable inn, listening to Dr. Dogbody tell stories.  I loved the book, and still do, and I realized that I missed writing Steampunk.  By and by I wrote a Steampunk novella – “The Ebb Tide” – which opened at an inn of my own inventing, and sold it to Subterranean Press.  I followed that with another novella of the same sort – “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs” – and then was convinced by my agent to write a longer Steampunk novel – The Aylesford Skull – which he sold to Titan Books.  Just yesterday I finished a third companion novella – “The Pagan God” – and recently I wrote a Gaslamp fantasy for Ellen Datlow’s Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells.  Somehow I’ve become a Steampunk writer again.

RTNDR:  The Aylesford Skull and a lot of the “Narbondo” series takes place in Victorian England – how much research did you do on that period initially to get the feel of that era gone by? Also, where do you find your inspiration for the steampunk science included in your novels?

Blaylock:  I do a heap of research, but I also read Victorian writers for pleasure, as well as modern novels set during the Nineteenth Century, so in a sense I’m continually doing research in a broad sense.  As you’ve already pointed out, a lot of time went by between the writing of my early Steampunk stuff and the Steampunk I write now.  I found when I went back to it that I’m much more strongly compelled to get things right.  That required a constant attention to details, not only regard to the events of the story and the small trappings – the clothes and the carriages and the food, etc. – but also to the language.  Given that I was born and bred in the wilds of Orange County, California, my own language is full of Americanisms, and so in the line-by-line writing of my more recent Steampunk novels I constantly turned to the Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles in order to discover when this or that word or idiom was in use and to avoid Americanisms and anachronisms.  Sometimes I checked the dictionary a half dozen times in a page of writing.  That variety of research swallowed big chunks of time.  I’m guessing that I could write a couple of pages of contemporary stuff in the time that it takes to write a page of Victoriana.  As for Steampunk science, I owe a debt to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, from whom I happily borrow things.  Verne, being dead, doesn’t mind that I’ve sailed off in the Nautilus a number of times, never failing to put gas in the tanks when I returned it.  Also, I have a number of nifty “science” books from that era, full of good stuff, including, for example, a list of 19th Century plesiosaur sightings that seems to me to be evidently true.  The magically altered skull lamps came from that same book, with some help from my imagination.  One last thing: years ago, around 1975, Phil Dick convinced Tim Powers and I that the Soviets had perfected a madness ray, which was impervious to the horizon and was at that very moment aimed at Los Angeles.  On any surprising morning we’d all wake up, he told us, laughing like lunatics and crawling around on all fours.  The Soviets would simply ride into town and scoop us all up.  The next day he revealed to us that it wasn’t true, that he had made it up for laughs.  I carried the idea around in my pocket until I could use it, which I did in “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs.”  Inspiration appears in the strangest places.

RTNDR:  What is it like to have yourself with fellow friends and authors Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter be known as the pioneering fathers of the modern steampunk literary movement?

Blaylock:  It’s both strange and wonderful.  In the early 90s I got an invitation from the University of Bologna to attend a 3-day Steampunk conference, one of the days featuring my work.  I was pleasantly stunned not just because I felt honored, but because it was the first time it dawned on me that something had happened.  Over the following couple of decades (as you point out in your next question) Steampunk really evolved, and it’s been fun to watch it.

RTNDR:  What is your reaction on seeing how steampunk culture has matured over the last 20 years? Are you surprised by the way the genre is able to currently attract more “mainstream” fans?

Blaylock:  I was Writer Guest of Honor at Steamcon in Seattle a year and a half ago, maybe two thousand people dressed up in Victorian finery and goggles.  It was an exceptionally cool thing to see.  There were probably ten people at the convention who were not in costume, two of them being my wife and I.  The Dealers Room had something like thirty tables.  One sold books; the rest sold hats and goggles and weapons and jewelry.  That was a little bit disheartening, and I got the distinct notion that a lot of the attendees had no notion that the origins of Steampunk could be found in stories and books written in the 1970s, and didn’t particularly care.  That being said, the popularity of the movement means that publishers are buying more Steampunk books than ever before, including mine.  It could be that “mainstream” fans who are attracted to the trappings of Steampunk will become fans of the literature as well.  Who knows what the future will bring?

RTNDR:  Do you think that the steampunk stories you’ve written and are writing is fundamentally different than the stories written by more modern steampunk authors?

Blaylock:  I blush to say that I don’t read a lot of modern Steampunk.  I’m very anxious not to be influenced or to wonder whether I ought to do something different than what I’m doing.  Also, my attraction to the era has come from books written during the era.  I’m more likely to reread Journey to the Center of the Earth than to read something contemporary.  That being said, I very happily read Lavie Thidar’s The Bookman a couple of years ago.  I love the automata and the lizard aliens and all the rest of the colorful, wild stuff in the book, which amounted to something very different from what I write.  Also, I recently read Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, which was simply brilliant.  Is it Steampunk?  I’m not sure.  I’ll say it is.  I was also very fond of a Steampunk story by Lucius Shepard called “The Rose Street Attractors,” which was included in a fine anthology titled Ghosts by Gaslight.  The anthology contained a raft load of good stories.  If I hadn’t seen Lucius’s name in the byline, I would have known immediately that it was his story.  No one else writes quite like Lucius Shepard or Tim Powers or Lavie Thidar.  And I’m fairly sure that no one else writes quite like I do.  That’s true, I think, whether I’m writing Steampunk or a ghost story set in the southern California foothills.  Too much definition and sameness generally dooms a genre.

RTNDR:  We have heard that you have put together a book of illustrations titled Steampunk: The Beginning featuring scenes and characters from seminal steampunk novels that the three of you have written – could you tell our readers a little about that project? Any chance that we might see all three writing an epic steampunk novel or graphic novel series?

Blaylock:  Actually the book you’re referring to, I think, was put together by the Begovich Gallery at California State University, Fullerton.  Tim, K.W., and I all graduated at about the same time from the university, and the gallery event was meant to highlight our careers as Steampunk pioneers.  Illustrations to our books (Homunculus, The Anubis Gates, and Infernal Devices) were painted or drawn by students in the illustration program – some really amazing work.  The book is available as an oversize, paperback, coffee table type art book titled Steampunk: The Beginnings.  Interested readers can google Cal State Fullerton, Begovich Gallery and type Steampunk, the Beginning into the A to Z Index at the top for photos and videos of the show itself, complete with Tim and I mouthing off about all sorts of things.  K.W., unfortunately, couldn’t make the opening night reception and has since moved to Ecuador.  There’s no immediate threat of the three of us collaborating in any way.

RTNDR:  While reading The Aylesford Skull (which was a serious but very fun read), we’ve noticed that this was one of the longer novels you have written. That got us to ask, will there be more St. Ives novels or novellas in the near future?

Blaylock:  It’s interesting that the word “serious” has been used in a couple of reviews of the book, and now here it is again.  I’m happy that you wrote, “serious but fun.”  When I was developing the book, it occurred to me that the family of my main character, Langdon St. Ives, was about to be threatened in a deadly, cruel and vicious way.  Once I was certain of that, it was evident that the narrative was going to have to be deadly serious, because there’s nothing more horrible for a husband and father to contemplate.  That’s equally true for a wife and mother, of course.  I knew early on in the novel that St. Ives’s wife Alice was going to play a fundamental role in the story, and that redoubled the serious nature of things.  I was determined to have a fast-moving plot and a lot of colorful adventure, and of course I would lighten it up where I could, but all in all the book had to maintain a deadly urgency.  I just recently finished another Steampunk novella for Subterranean Press (titled “The Pagan Goddess”).  I can’t begin to reveal the plot of the story, but I hope that readers will find it amusing.  It’s not what you’d call serious, although there’s a certain amount of bloody mayhem, heads bitten off, dead cows….

Thanks!  – Jim Blaylock

(The staff at Retrenders would like to give a big thank you to James for taking the time out to answer some questions. We look forward to seeing many more wonderful adventures for Langdon St. Ives!)

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This interview is part of the Aylesford Skull Swashbuckling Blog Tour celebrating the release of James P. Blaylock’s first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years. For the opportunity to win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull in a jacketed, signed hardcover with a unique jacket design, just tweet, “I would like a limited edition of the Aylesford Skull @TitanBooks #Blaylock.”

Details about The Limited Edition (available Feb 2013)

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750 Signed and Numbered editions:

Jacketed, cloth-bound hardcover with ribbon

Signed by James P. Blaylock

Exclusive foreword by K.W. Jeter and introduction by Tim Powers

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26 Signed and Lettered editions:

AS_Traycase_3D_black

Same as Limited Edition above but encased in a custom-made traycase.

Be the first to find out when The Aylesford Skull (Limited Edition) is available, by signing up to our mailing list here: http://www.titanbooks.com/signup

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