Gail Carriger on steampunk, Finishing School and more

At the 2011 Romantic Times Booklovers Convention, Gail Carriger was kind enough to let me corner her and brandish my smart phone in her direction – unfortunately, given the unholy sensitivity of my Droid (it could pilot a stealth bomber, I swear), those lacking an iron constitution or ready access to Dramamine will perhaps want to listen more than watch, or just skip to the text below, but enjoy as Gail not only shares pearls of steampunk wisdom, but even goes so far as to drop a few juicy tidbits about Heartless, and her upcoming YA series…

Byrt: Off the Fiction in History panel, I wanted to ask: you were talking a little bit about Gothic paradigms in steampunk, do you want to talk a little bit more about what you were referring to?

GC: Well I was specifically talking about kind of the birth of Victorian Gothic literature – so, like the vampyre, and you can even go further back, to something like The Monk, where certain archetypes in characters were originally established, which are later tapped into by people like Poe. But I was specifically referring to things like Innocent Eve, Human Eve, and Evil Eve, which you can see those character archetypes have persisted into the modern day – in movies, and things like that -and the hero versus the villain kind of dynamic. But steampunk taps into those ideas, and then takes- so they takes like the Evil Villain idea, but then they make him a mad scientist, for example. That’s kind of how steampunk takes those tropes and plays with them. Part of that has to do with the fact that both romance and mysteries and westerns and science fiction and fantasy all stem out of the Gothic literature, so you see those tropes persist to the current day. And so for me, one of the joys of writing steampunk is that it was the literature that I love – science fiction and fantasy and romance, it was all born out of the Gothic lit – and here steampunk is kind of traveling, not only back to the Victorian era, but back to those original tropes, which makes it so much fun to write.

Byrt: Now if you’re incorporating so much into steampunk, what are the quintessential steampunk elements that you don’t get anywhere else but in steampunk? What makes steampunk, steampunk-y?

GC: That- that’s such a hard question to answer, because everyone who writes steampunk has a different idea of what steampunk is. It certainly isn’t just the gloss of goggles and airships, you know – those are sort of the iconic images associated with steampunk, but if you’re writing it, it has to have something more than that. I think to me, one of the hard and fast rules is that science to some degree has to be integral to your plot, if you’re writing steampunk, because the whole whole idea with this time period, for the Victorians, is that it was this amazing transition from the fear that the Church had engendered in humanity – so you have a fear of the spirits, of the dark underworld; you have a fear of hell, essentially – to this great upsurge in intellectualism and the industrial revolution that was going on, which led to a fear of science, a fear of technology, the idea that technology could get out of control. And so you see the rise of the technological monsters, you see Frankenstein”s monster, you see Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and those are monstrosities that used to be the provenance of the devil, that are now the provenance of science. And so the Victorians and steampunk literature have this idea that both the worst that humanity has to offer and the best that humanity has to offer, both come out of science. So you can get yourself into horrible predicaments because of your science, but you can also be saved by the noble idea that if you can just invent the perfect technology, that humanity can save themselves. And that is an ideal that I think that we still have, particularly in American culture, today.

Byrt: Do you think- Is that why people think of Sherlock Holmes as steampunk, because he’s that kind of scientific rationality as the answer to the darkness of-

GC: That’s an excellent thought. I hadn’t- I mean, I think of Sherlock as a cozy mystery, right? But that might be – and of course the most recent movie certainly has steampunk elements in it. But that’s a really interesting point, yeah he is an intellectual, he does believe that everything can be solved by the power of the human mind. I think there is a slight difference, if you wanted to nitpick, in that Sherlock Holmes is not inventing to solve the problems, he’s just using the power of his mind – he doesn’t try and come up with a gadget that will solve everything. But of course most steampunk doesn’t necessarily do that, doesn’t necessarily have a gadget that will solve everything – most of the time you have a gadget that’s run amok, and that’s part of the fun.

Byrt: Now why are dirigibles such a steampunk icon? I mean, when I think – I always think of the Hindenburg, which might just be my brain going to the 30’s, but-

GC: No, that’s tropes – the Hindenburg is a zeppelin, of course, which is slightly different – but I think it’s because this is kind of, steampunk is the dawn of flight. The Victorian era, this time period, is the dawn of flight – so you get the first major experimentation with flight. I mean there were balloons before this, during sort of the Renaissance time period, but it wasn’t until, again, the age of invention hit that people started to put propellers on balloons, engines on balloons, and really experiment with heat and how you might make something rise, and also start to come up with the idea of manned flight – there were ornithopters as well, which are sort of the very first ideas of helicopters, and then of course you get the Wright brothers, and you get the first airplanes as well – so I think it’s partly to do with that, the dawn of all of that technology, but I think it’s also partly to do with the fact that you take something iconic that represents a Victorian world slightly skewed, and sort of the fastest way to do that, image-wise, is to depict say Victorian London and then put an airship in it, and that immediately tells everybody, visually speaking, that we’re dealing with the past, but a slightly different past, and an airship is a really good convenient way to do that.

Byrt: It’s hard to miss… Well, speaking of dirigibles, you have a YA series coming from Little, Brown next year?

GC: Yes I do!

Byrt: Could you tell us a little bit about that?

GC: Well, it’s going to be in the same universe as my current series, but 25 years earlier. And I’m actually going to be dealing with – it’s a little bit more involved with the technology, a little bit more steampunk-y, if you like. And it’s going to be dealing with the technological revolution – that’s kind of a big scoop, I haven’t really talked about that yet. You’re going to see a bunch of tech going on in these books that doesn’t happen in the Parasol Protectorate books. One of the major arcs of this series, which is a four book series, is understanding why that technology was abandoned – so it was abandoned for a very specific reason. And that of course ties into my own love of archeology – I’m really interested in technological revolutions in the past, and why certain techs were invented and not used in a way that we now consider really practical. For example, fireworks: the Chinese had fireworks and used gun powder, but they used it for thousands of years just to set up fireworks, it never occurred to them to kill anyone with it.

Byrt: Ah, the western world…

GC: So there were many techs like that throughout history, and so this is kind of a little bit of an exploration of that, but for the main line of the story, it’s about a young ladies’ finishing academy, where young ladies are taught to finish everything, and everyone, and anything. And it takes place in this sort of massive floating finishing school that is a series of three dirigibles that are crammed together, that float aimlessly above Dartmoor in Southern England.

Byrt: So will there be more deadly parasols to come?

GC: There might be a few parasols… I think Alexia and her crew kind of have the parasols under control, but there’s going to be some fun other little accessories and gadgets, certainly.

Byrt: Now this takes place 25 years before your current series – will we see perhaps the progenitors of anyone we might happen to know?

GC: One of the joys of working in a universe that has immortals is that they’re immortal- so you can see-

Byrt: Lord Alkedama, perhaps?

GC: There are certainly going to- There are definitely names that I’ve dropped in this series – that you maybe have thought was a very minor character, or throw away character, or even a character that’s mentioned because they died – that are going to be major characters in this series, so that’s one thing. And there are certainly a couple of beloved characters that might show up and have a little cameo – and then there are also characters that are secondary characters in the Parasol Protectorate books, that are children in these ones, so…

Byrt: And for the romance fans, because we are at the Romantic Times convention – will there be perhaps a romance at the heart of the new-

GC: Oh, definitely. And I think, in classic Gail Carriger style, it’s not going to be exactly what you expect in a romance. So, I’m not going to give any more away, but yes, there is definitely a romance.

Byrt: And of course coming up soon, very soon, is Heartless.

GC: Yes, July 1st – and that’s number 4 of 5, and the series is going to end with 5. And Heartless, speaking of Sherlock Holmes, is kind of my little ode to a Sherlock Holmes cozy mystery. So it mostly takes place just in London, but Alexia is kind of waddling around, and getting into everyone’s business, and trying to figure out a mystery that for once is not someone trying to kill her.

Byrt: Now will the bundle of joy perhaps be arriving? Or is that a book 5 – or is that a spoiler- Spoiler alert!

GC: Spoiler alert! Yes, you’ll get to meet some aspect of the Inconvenience.

Byrt: The Inconvenience will take form! Excellent. And then my last question for you, again because we are at the Romantic Times convention, what is your favorite romantic scene, line, moment – in literature, movies – anything.

GC: Oh my god. I’m totally going to give myself away with this one… Okay, I don’t know how to answer this question properly! Well, I love Elizabeth Gaskell, and I think that the BBC’s adaptation of North and South was brilliant, and I love the scene, the very ending scene where they’re at the train station together and he hands her the flower, and he’s like- they hold hands. Oh, I love that scene, very much. Um, I think I have a real sweet spot for the reunion kiss, for Brokeback Mountain, where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character finally, they finally reunite, so I really love that one. Then there’s the kiss in the snow in Latter Days, which is one of my favorite indy flicks – boy on boy, I’m afraid… It’s like-

Byrt: Love is love!

GC: You know, for me, it’s kind of like somebody gave you chocolate, and then somebody gave you peanut butter, but you’d never met a Reeces peanut butter cup… And yeah, a couple of gay boys together is pretty much the Reeces peanut butter cup as far as this straight girl is concerned.

Byrt: Beautiful boys…

GC: Although there’s always Tipping the Velvet – gotta give props, the last sequence in Tipping the Velvet is really sweet, too. They’re both in their muscle gowns, and they’re going home to see her family… I could keep going, because I have a real weakness for romantic movies. It would be much harder for me to say romantic in fiction – there were some fantasy books that I just love, love, love. There’s a great book by Elizabeth Edwards – is it Elizabeth? No, something Edwards (Yurt note: It’s Claudia J. Edwards) – it’s called Taming the Forest King, and it’s a fantasy book, but it has a really wonderful romantic storyline in there, and the end sequence for that book is just gorgeous – and it’s straight! So, you know…

Byrt: Equal opportunity!

GC: So many options… It’s so beautiful, so, I recommend Romance readers out there give that book a try – you have to stray into the fantasy section, but, oh, it’s so romantic. It’s fabulous

Byrt: Alright, well thank you Gail for taking the time with us this convention-

GC: My pleasure!

Byrt: And carry on, and parasol away.

GC: Oh, thank you.