I remember hearing people talk about 'steampunk' novels a few years ago and thinking that they didn't really sound like my kind of books, since I don't like cyber-punk and I don't like books about machines.
However, I also don't like any form of literary snobbishness and so when a steampunk book came my way, I read it with interest. To my delight, I really loved it. The book was 'Laws of Magic Book 1: Blaze of Glory' and the author was Michael Pryor. I ended up reading all six books in the series, and going on to read other steam-punk titles by authors like Richard Harland and Scott Westerfeld. Its a genre of fiction filled with dash and verve, re-imagining life at the turn of the 19th century with magic, machines and lots of mayhem.
I still don't think 'steampunk' is the right way to describe this genre of fiction. I prefer Michael Pryor's term 'gonzo-historical adventure' which he uses in the interview below, while talking about his new steampunk adventure, 'The Extraordinaires'. I've just finished reading it, and its the sort of roller-coaster ride where all you can do is hang on to your hat and see what amazing and surprising places the story will take you. This would be a fantastic book to give a teenage boy who loves gadgets, magic tricks, and high adventure - which is most teenage boys I know.
Michael Pryor (thanks to Random House Australia website)
Have you always wanted to be an author?
Yes, but only in a vague way. As a young person, I loved reading and I liked writing and I thought being an author would be a fine thing, but it was really only later, in my twenties, that I knuckled down and truly went about seeing if I could do it. I console myself for my tardiness by telling myself that I was training for the job of writer by reading as many books as I could. Vital stuff, that preparation.
Tell me how you first came to be published.
One day, I decided that I had to see if I could do what I’d been thinking about doing for some time. That day, I sat down and wrote a short story. I sent it off and it was published. Over the next few years I wrote and published a dozen or so short stories, and then it was time to gird the loins and see if I could write a whole, proper novel. It took me a few years, with lots of fumbling about and mis-steps, and the day I finished it I received a writers’ newsletter. On the front page was a little note saying that Hodder Headline was looking for YA Spec Fic manuscripts, and that was what I’d just completed. I sent it off and after some discussion and rewriting, it was published. Joy!
Can you explain the steampunk genre for me?
The term ‘Steampunk’ came about in the 1980s, when three writer friends were playing around with what they called gonzo-historical adventures, stories which took the flavour of Victorian/Edwardian stories and added speculative elements. Eventually, one of them coined the label ‘Steampunk’, where he was riffing off the hot SF of the time – ‘Cyberpunk’. In a nutshell, I’d say that Steampunk stories are either set in the Victorian/Edwardian era, or they are set in world where these eras effectively didn’t end. They include bizarre and outlandish technologies or magic, most often hidden from the general populace. They often feature cameos by real historical figures or by literary characters. The manners and the morals are usually consistent with the formality and class consciousness of the times. Oh, and they feature some slashingly stylish clothes, too. Think of the stories of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, but with a modern, knowing sense of irony. Now, from its early days, Steampunk has grown and gone sprawling in all sorts of directions, appropriating and meshing with all sorts of sub-genres, but at its heart it has a sense of the Victorian/Edwardian era not as it was, but as it should have been.
What was your very first seed of an idea for 'The Extraordinaires'?
My first Steampunk series was the six book ‘Laws of Magic’ adventure. This was set in a world remarkably similar to our own, with nations such as Albion, Gallia and Holmland teetering on the brink of war – but it was a make-believe world, nonetheless. When I was finishing the last book (‘Hour of Need’) I was already thinking of nailing my colours to the mast and setting a new Steampunk series in the real, historical world. This immediate pre-Great War period appealed, and in doing my research I found myself intrigued by the first London Olympic Games in 1908 and the great Franco-British Exhibition, of which the games were effectively a part. It was a rich and heady time, and I was drawn to it. But how was I going to have the magical/SF elements I love if I stuck with real history? That’s when I had the idea of the Demimonde, the world that lies side by side and underneath our own, unperceived by ordinary folk. It’s a world of tunnels and hidden underground warrens, where lost legends and ancient conspiracies dwell, where the outcast gather and the outlandish is commonplace. When I had this side by side structure in place, with the obvious potential for characters going back and forth between these two very different existences, the concept was starting to shape up. The seed was growing.
I loved your characters - the wild boy Kingsley and the poised and confident albino girl Evadne. Tell me how you came to invent them.
I knew I wanted my main character to be a young would-be stage magician, as I’ve long been fascinated by stage magic, its practice and its history – so much so that I undertook a course in stage magic. It was enough to tech me the basics, and to teach me that I’d never be a professional sleight of hand artist, but it did send me off in many useful research directions. I needed more, though. I was tossing around possibilities, thinking of ways to make him even more interesting, when I heard a radio presenter mentioning that sometimes his teenage son behaves as if he’d been raised by wolves. It hit me between the eyes. A thousand possibilities assaulted me, as I immediately thought of Mowgli, and India and the duality of nature. Kingsley was falling into place.
As for Evadne, our albino genius inventor, she was fun to create, too. One of the challenges of writing in this mode is that the role of women in society, though changing, was still subservient to men. How, then, to have a feisty, outspoken female character who is still true to the times? I overcame this by making her as unconventional as possible. She lives in the Demimonde, which allows her freedoms that ordinary society wouldn’t. She does, however, have a career on the stage, as a juggler and entertainer. Again, the theatre world allows a certain unconventionality that the ordinary world doesn’t. She is also fearsomely intelligent and staggeringly rich, thanks to her inventing devices and holding valuable patents on them. Oh, and she’s an albino, something of which she’s proud rather than ashamed. When I put all these things together – as well as a dark secret in her past – I had the sort of female character who could use a sabre while juggling five balls and offering a witty observation about our hero’s clothes sense. A lot of fun.
I also loved the cameo by Rudyard Kipling! Have you always been a fan of his writing?
Kipling is a deeply unfashionable writer, mostly because he’s seen as an apologist for Empire and colonialism. Like many observations, it does oversimplify things, but it’s true that Kipling was a man of his time and a great supporter of Britain. I first came across him when I was young, through the Cubs. The Cub movement used Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ as a basis, with the fables of the wise animals and the headstrong boy Mowgli (raised by wolves!) as the backbone for the entire outlook of the organisation. I read the stories and loved the exotic landscapes, the adventures and the sense of the other that Kipling captures so well. I read more of Kipling’s vast output as I grew up, and I was distantly interested in the way his views changed as he lived through extraordinary times, but it was really only when I wanted to make more of Kingsley, my main character, having a background that was remarkably like that of Kipling’s most famous character, that I re-engaged with Kipling’s work. He was a fine, fine storyteller, with a superb narrative sense.
How many books do you imagine will be in this series?
Three books in this series. I’m just putting the finishing touches to Book 2, which is due for an April release.
I’ve always been fascinated by Neanderthals, with the whole idea that humanity had close cousins - as close as bonobos are to chimpanzees – living side by side with us as recently as 25,000 years ago. I’d been reading about the recent work done by scientist looking at Neanderthals, and some of the startling conclusions about their intelligence, tool-making abilities, social structures and language, and I thought they might be interesting to work into a story. I wondered if it was possible to take a character who was planning to exterminate humanity as an act of revenge for the way humanity had reduced her people to a dying few – and to make her sympathetic.
I love setting myself writing challenges like that!
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