I haven't done a proper interview with a writer here at Steampunk Scholar since my chat with Arthur Slade, author of The Hunchback Assignments in fall of 2010. But even that was an anomaly, with the only other interview I've done at Steampunk Scholar being Rudy Rucker in 2009. By the fall of 2009, I knew that the focus of this blog was going to be steampunk books, and reviews were my primary way of achieving that.
In the wake of finishing my dissertation, I've had trouble returning to the blog in earnest, all the while piling up steampunk reading without review. I haven't been an idle reader, just an idle blogger. But as I was reading Badlands by Seleste deLaney, I found myself with questions and observations begging to be submitted to the author herself. As I switched from Badlands to Kady Cross's The Girl in the Steel Corset, more questions leapt to mind. Granted, I could ruminate on my own answers to these questions, but some were related to inspiration and industry, and in the case of deLaney, I knew I would only be speculating. Unlike many steampunk writers, deLaney's approach to Badlands was not grounded in nineteenth century literature or history. As I found out, it was grounded in the desire to write a damn fine space western, inspired by a Luis Royo painting, and realized through a competition for steampunk romance. Sometimes, it pays to ask the author what they were up to.
Mike Perschon: While I realize this is supposed to be the question I close with, I have to ask about a sequel to Badlands, given that I was reading Badlands on my iPad Kindle app, and I checked to see my position in the book. I was thinking, "Wow, this is really gearing up, I must be around the halfway point by now," but I was actually very near the end. So my first question must be, is there a sequel in the works? Are we going to see more of the world of Badlands?
Seleste deLaney: Yes, there is a sequel! It actually comes out at the end of April, and it's already up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble for pre-order. It's called Clockwork Mafia, and it takes off about six months after the end of Badlands. The series is planned for four books (length may vary as Clockwork Mafia is nearly twice as long as Badlands), with each book revolving around one of the four main women (and their love interests, of course). The last two are not under contract yet, so I have zero information on release.
Mike: Connected to that question, I'm wondering about the process of world-building for you. While you make a few quick nods to real-world history, most of the world of Badlands could have been a fully secondary or other world, like Middle-Earth, or Arrakis. Why did you forego the full-fantasy sandbox in favour of a an alternate history?
Seleste: Badlands started out as a space western with all these crazy planets that had each undergone their own mini-evolution of humans and... it sucked. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 2009 and I shelved it as soon as I hit my 50,000 words because I hated it so much. Literally the only bit that worked for me was the core story, everything else felt wrong. Then a call came out for steampunk romance novellas and a friend poked me about doing something for it. I immediately went back to that story of the warrior woman on the desert planet and the captain of the trading ship that rescues her. Suddenly everything that didn't work as a space western I could see working perfectly on the smaller, more intimate scale of an old west steampunk. From there, I took a look at my crew, did some shuffling around (and re-naming), and things just started falling into place with slavery and the gold rush.
Mike: I hear what you're saying about taking the space opera/western and moving it to a single planet. When I was working on my steampunk Star Wars article, I kept thinking about how interesting it would be to reimagine the original Star Wars trilogy as a steampunk story taking place on one planet. Hoth simply becomes the North or South Pole - Tattooine is some desert, a distant land that the Colonial Empire hasn't yet reached. And I think that was what I sensed about your approach to world-building here. It felt so utterly out-of-this-world, that I kept forgetting it was taking place in a version of America. That's not a bad thing - I'm not one of those steampunk fans who demands historical fidelity. That's usually last on my list of requirements for good steampunk. It can add to the enjoyment, but sometimes historical verisimilitude just gets in the way of a good story.
Seleste: I totally agree with the Star Wars idea! Love that. Honestly, one of the things I love about steampunk is that freedom to twist history. Too much history frankly bores me.
Mike: Is that a devil-may-care attitude about being true to real-world history? I know some steampunk fans are hardcore about there being serious, in-depth history in their steampunk.
Seleste: I have a "get the reader engaged" attitude. I find in-depth history boring, so I snag bits and pieces to use, but I don't get bogged down in it (which is also why I don't write straight historical). For example, Clockwork Mafia...at the time the book takes place, the mafia was still most commonly known as the Black Hand, but most readers wouldn't know that. Readers get mafia. I don't have to bog down the pacing to explain it.
Mike: In some ways, you have a "get the reader engaged" attitude to the love story as well. Is the accelerated "loins a-quiver" response to the object of desire in a romance novel the romance genre's equivalent to action heroes kicking ass effortlessly?
Seleste: The "loins-a-quiver" response is fairly common in romance. That instant attraction and spark and "oh-shit-who-is-this-person?" is part of the fairy tale aspect of romance. Because of the limited time frame of most romance novels (and definitely of my Badlands stories), the insta-attraction is a necessity unless the characters have known each other for a while. I will say, however, that if I am allowed to take the series where I plan, every romance will be different in tone and scope.
Mike: I like that term, "insta-attraction." That's definitely the allure of romance, even for guys, though I'm sure few will admit it. The NaNoWriMo origin of Badlands answers another question I had concerning length. As a novella, Badlands rushes along at a breakneck pace, which works well for both the action and romance, but leaves readers interested in the world you've built feeling a bit let down.
Seleste: Yes, the novella length did involve very minimal information on the world. The funny part is I tried to inject more into Clockwork Mafia in a couple places, but it slowed the narrative too much and was cut by my editor. One section of it though will be on my website later because I know it's a question readers have about the world and the men who are part of Badlands' society. So, basically, I'm more than happy to answer questions about the world, but a lot of things don't make it into the books because we don't want to lose the adventure-style pacing.
Mike: I love the idea of using material that doesn't make the book at your website. That's a great way to expand the world without losing narrative pace. I'm keen on it as well, since I'm interested in the cultures you've built up, especially given the "warrior woman" Ever's heritage. How does someone with that background end up fighting as part of an elite warrior society?
Seleste: Ever. Dear, wonderful, messed-up Ever. One of the thing about patriarchal societies that has always dumbfounded me is the idea of "the first born son." First born prince becomes king. Second born (if I recall in many societies) is supposed to become clergy. I have no idea what happens to the younger ones. But there is this mindset of who does what just based on their birth order that makes no sense to me. When I saw the women laying claim to the Badlands and "taming" it, that was one change I thought was more female-minded. People do the job they're suited to, with minimal care to birth order or even family. Ever was born an old soul, very angry with the world, but very very good with weapons. She'd be ill-suited to be a midwife or a cook or... pretty much anything other than a warrior. So, in the world of the Badlands, that's what she was free to become.
Mike: She's a very easy character to visualize, and not for the obvious reason a male might find it easy to visualize a woman who runs around topless for the first half of the book, though it is about her naked torso: the tattoos. I don't think Ever fits the standard steampunk heroine in her initial outfit, or lack thereof!
Seleste:Badlands was actually inspired by a painting by Luis Royo called "The Wait." A friend showed it to me a long time ago and I knew I had to write the story of the woman in the painting. And honestly, switching that from space western to steampunk was what got me started. There’s a long history of tattooed warriors and I wanted to examine that on a deeper level. You actually find out more about Ever’s tattoos in my favorite scene in Clockwork Mafia. (Oddly, for a romance, my favorite scene is between Henri and Ever, not Henri and her hero.)
Mike: Since Badlands was originally a space western, was the romance between Ever and the captain always an element, or did you add it afterwards? I felt frustrated every time Ever and the Captain were working out their sexual tension, since I absolutely LOVED the opening and wanted more of seeing Ever in her ass-kicking element. Of course, you're writing romance, so that element must be there, and I know from reading reviews on Goodreads that most of your fans loved the whole book, so perhaps I'm just not the target demographic! Still, I have to say, and I hope you don't take this as a criticism, that I'd like to see Seleste deLaney write a steampunk adventure without any pressure to include the Nookie.
Seleste: There was always a romantic element between Ever (the only name that remained from the original draft LOL) and the captain, but it was slower building because they simply had more time. One of the things about my writing that some people love and others find infuriating is that I'm a big fan of...mashing things together. A rollicking adventure is awesome, but I like intrigue too. Intrigue's great, but where's the romance? And so on and so forth. So, I tend to write things like (for example) Badlands--a steampunk-action-adventure-romance. For that series, there will definitely always be romance, but I do have plans (as soon as I finish up a couple series I have going at the moment) for a steampunk-parallel-universe-fairy-tale-adventure.
Mike: That mash-up approach is one of the hallmarks of steampunk. Did you see what you were doing as steampunk, or did that designation come from others? I only ask because Badlands,while recognizably steampunk in its aesthetic approach at points, is also very much its own thing. As you say, you mash many things up to come up with something that is familiar without being terribly derivative.
|The author herself: Speak softly and carry a large gun while wearing a little hat.|
Seleste: I saw it as steampunk, but others confirmed the designation for me. You have to understand though, I was introduced to steampunk first via clothes at a convention, then through random conversations on Twitter where all I thought was, "I want to know more." So I went in search of a way for me to understand steampunk. I'm kind of an odd duck in that I could read/watch a ton of things, but there is always a singular entity that defines a genre in my head. For me, that came in the realization that Briscoe County, Jr. was steampunk. Suddenly all that Victorian London and otherworldly stuff didn't matter. BCJ I understood. BCJ I LOVED. So was that straight-up steampunk? Not for the hard-core, narrow-definition people. For me, it is.
Mike: Okay, given the reference to hard-core, narrow-definition steampunks, combined with your outspoken nature, I'm dying to hear what you'd say to someone on a panel at a steampunk convention who claims that steampunk needs to be political, or serious, in a way that clearly indicates that your work isn't being included in the "club."
Seleste: I'm prone to laughing at people like that. Just as with any genre there are those things that follow all the "rules." I'm much more Pirates of the Caribbean in my way of thinking: "They're more like guidelines."
Mike: Do you have a definition for steampunk?
Seleste: For me, steampunk needs three things (and I'm flexible here even): gadgets, corsets, and the punk angle (some sort of bucking against the system/sticking it to the man/undermining political...blah blah blah) In it's own way, my stuff is very political, but it's not very serious. It's commentary about the state of women's rights and the amount of decay in the political world as we know it. But if I just wanted to write about that, I'd blog about it and fall asleep at my keyboard. (It's great for other people, I'm sure. It's just not my thing.) I'd rather wrap that up in adventure and romance, and I'm not afraid to tell that to people.
Mike: What steampunk have you read, and what titles are among your faves?
Seleste: Most of the steampunk I've read has been of the romance and YA variety. I really enjoyed Scott Westerfeld's YA series, and I love the Steampunk Chronicles by Kady Cross. And of course I have Cherie Priest and Gail Carriger and Delilah Dawson and... LOL there's a lot. If I had to pick a favorite though? Steampunk Chronicles. I'm so excited for book 3 that I get all giddy thinking about it.
Mike: That's encouraging, since Kady is up next here at the blog! She's already been really generous with her responses to my questions.
Seleste: Kady Cross (and all her other names--that's just the one that she is in my head) was incredibly sweet every time I've spoken with her--online or in person. I could go on and on with the awesome authors I've met at events. Gail Carriger was incredibly friendly. Suzanne Lazear... I adore her. Karina Cooper is fantastic. But...as I said above, there are always exceptions, and I've met a few of them too. The point you mentioned about people defining steampunk (narrowly) makes a difference. So, I don't necessarily think there is some huge sweeping camaraderie among all authors of steampunk. When you narrow that field to steampunk romance authors, I think there's more of a "team" attitude. Most of us know what it's like to be the odd man out in those "serious steampunk" discussions, so we're very supportive of each other in general.
Mike: There's an anecdote about you writing a book at age 12 in your bio in Badlands. I submitted an application to a writer's college about that age, so I'm always interested to know what spurred people to start writing, and who inspires them to keep doing it.
Seleste: At age 12? I don't remember. LOL I know Walter Farley was an inspiration earlier than that, and around age 12 was when he responded to a fan letter I wrote for a class project. (He's also one of the reasons I love horseback riding.) The thing is, my writing career was...put on hold shortly after that because I was convinced by family that I needed to "get serious about my future." So I did. Writing took a backseat and I went out and got a degree in chemistry. I was teaching high school and wrote a sample paper for one of my classes to be able to reference if they were stuck. After reading it, one of my students asked me why I wasn't a writer. That was truly the thing that inspired me to try again (many) years later once I was staying home with my kids. One of these days, I'll dedicate a book to her (and stalk her online for an address so I can send her a copy). From there, my biggest inspiration was Kelley Armstrong. I joined the online writing group on her forums and the people there whipped me into shape. Kelley herself actually pushed me to attend my first Romantic Times convention and introduced me to her agent. She's been an amazing mentor and support. I will never be able to thank her enough.
Mike: Finally, beyond the forthcoming sequel to Badlands, is there anything else we should be watching out for from Seleste deLaney?
Seleste: Remember how I said I liked to mash things together? I also like to (need to) mix up what I write--it helps keep my mind fresh for the next project so I don't burn out on one genre. To that end, I have an urban fantasy series called Blood Kissed. The first book, Kiss of Death, is out now as well as two prequel short stories, and the second novel, Kiss of Life, should be out before the end of the year. I also do paranormal romance short stories for Evernight Publishing. And I have a couple contemporary romances coming this fall from Entangled Publishing. I think Gaming for Keeps might be of interest to some of your readers. It takes place at a sci-fi convention and involves a super-secret government agency called TRAIT. I usually tell people if they put Chuck and Leverage in a blender and add a little more romance, that series (For Keeps) would be what came out. I'm really excited to see people's reactions to it.