SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Steampunk Legend James Blaylock
Philip K. Dick and World Fantasy Award Winning novelist James P. Blaylock is considered, along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, to be one of the Founding Fathers of Steampunk. His novels include Lord Kelvin’s Machine, The Stone Giant, The Magic Spectacles, The Last Coin and The Disappearing Dwarf. His latest novel, The Aylesford Skull (now avilabale from from Titan Books) is a Langdon St. Ives steampunk tale set in Victorian England that follows up Lord Kelvin’s Machine, Humunculus, The Ebb Tide, and The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs. He is currently director of the Creative Writing Conservatory at the Orange County High School of the Arts, where Tim Powers is Writer in Residence. Mr. Blaylock was born in Long Beach, California and studied English at California State University, Fullerton, receiving an M.A. in 1974. He lives in Orange, California, teaching creative writing at Chapman University. Many of his books are set in Orange County, California, and can more specifically be termed “fabulism” — that is, fantastic things happen in our present-day world, rather than in traditional fantasy, where the setting is often some other world. His works have also been categorized as magic realism. He can be found online at Goodreads and via his website at JamespBlaylock.com/.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?
James P. Blaylock: I was apparently born to be a reader, because I was a fairly introverted kid who was happy to spend time alone and who grew up in a house with good books in it. My mother was an inveterate reader, and by the time I was ten I was reading Twain, Steinbeck, Conan Doyle, and a number of other writers, borrowing the books from my mother’s bookcase. For a year or two I mainly chose them because I liked the binding: black cloth with red or gold printing preferred. A frontispiece illustration would close the deal. Seeing that my sister and I were both readers, my mother started hauling us down to the local library, where she very helpfully steered me toward Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I also read all of the seafaring novels of Howard Pease and all of the Black Stallion books and batches of books that still lurk in the dim recesses of my mind, although I’ve forgotten titles and authors. Also, back in those days the monthly crossword puzzle book published short stories by Poe, which I read avidly. I recall being fascinated by the title of “Descent into the Maelstrom” even though I had no idea what a “maelstrom” was. I figured it out as I read the story. This sort of thing went on for years. What’s funny is that I associated the term science fiction virtually entirely with Verne and Wells, and it wasn’t until I was 19 or 20 and signed up for a class in science fiction at the university that I was asked to read Dune and The Left Hand of Darkness and Double Star and a dozen other works of modern science fiction. It would seem impossible that I was a book nut who had read so much early science fiction and yet nothing written after about 1925, but that’s what happened. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it was to discover Dune that late in the reading game – a little like being back in the Stanton Free Library as a ten-year-old and having my mother hand me a copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth.
SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?
JPB: I’ve already chatted about some of them in my response to the preceding question. I don’t know how it works for other readers and writers, but I was evidently heavily influenced by my very early reading despite the obvious fact that I was unprepared to read most of those books. I have vivid memories of reading Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle back in those days, for example, although I couldn’t have had any idea of the American Communist Party or the Wobblies or anything else political. Steinbeck’s novels have an “effect” that’s sensory and atmospheric and which comes through in description and dialogue. It was that effect that attracted me at the time and that has stayed with me since and that I still look for in books. Twain had a different but equally profound effect, as did Poe and Conan Doyle. In that regard my attraction to books has remained the same. My first novel, The Elfin Ship, was inspired by The Wind in the Willows, Huckleberry Finn, and The Hobbit, among other books (and I’d bet a shiny new dime that Tolkien had read The Wind in the Willows more than once himself). I was immensely influenced by That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis and by War in Heaven and All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams. The novels and stories of Robert Louis Stevenson had a profound effect on my early writing. Right now I feel the urge to walk into the other room in order to scout out the books, just for the sake of a more inclusive list, but if I do that this answer will become tediously long.
JPB: I wrote my first short story in the 5th grade, which means I was ten or eleven years old. I had a book-loving teacher, who read out loud to us every day. I remember that he asked us to choose between Tom Sawyer and The Yearling, and how disappointed I was when the class chose The Yearling, even though I had read Tom Sawyer two or three times by then. I wrote my first story for that class – about a walking skeleton named McCob, who smoked a corncob pipe and terrorized a family in a farmhouse. I remember that it was a particularly brilliant story, so it’s a good thing that it doesn’t survive; I can go on thinking that way.
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
JPB: I learned to write by reading. I can’t imagine a writer learning to write in any other way. I very quickly tried to write so as to capture the effect, say, of Steinbeck or Twain. I had heaps of two paragraph attempts, consisting mainly of descriptive detail and set in the Salinas Valley, sun coming up or going down beyond the mountains on the horizon, etc. I had no story to tell, so two paragraphs was about it. Years later, I was at the university before creative writing programs had come into vogue, and I was a literature major. I did take one creative writing class that I very much enjoyed, but I learned the craft by being compelled to read widely in lit classes. I’ve never attended a workshop, although Tim Powers and I and several writer friends used to get together on Friday nights to read things back when we were still in school. We spent part of the time reading (encouraging each other rather than saying anything useful) and drinking wine and eating pizza. The virtue in it had nothing to do with workshopping and everything to do with having a bunch of small Friday deadlines. I got quite a bit written.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels, screenplays? How long before you made your first sale?
JPB: I started with short stories and pretty much stayed there for years, mailing my stories out to editors starting when I was around twenty years old. Very soon after that I met Tim Powers, who was also mailing things out, and we became good friends. For Tim, writing, finishing, and mailing out work was simply the thing one did. I fell into his way of thinking, which went a long way toward teaching me perseverance. I sold my first story, a goofy thing titled “Hans Clinker” when I was 25, which meant that I had been collecting rejection slips for a solid five years. I sold my first novel, The Elfin Ship, to Del Rey books when I was 29. Up until then, my efforts to novels were uniformly rejected. Thank goodness that editors would buy a novel in those days on the basis of two chapters and an outline. I failed to write a dozen novels that way instead of spending years trying to complete one or two. Thinking through novels thoroughly enough to come up with a 12-page outline was great practice. When I got going on The Elfin Ship, however, it was so enjoyable that I finished the thing before mailing it to Del Rey. Essentially I wrote the novel for fun. It turned out that the writing that was most naturally appealing to me was also the writing that worked best for an editor. That was a nice lesson. E.B. White once advised that we should write for “an audience of one.” When I did that there was a larger audience waiting.
SFFWRTCHT: Along with college buddies KW Jeter and Tim Powers, you are credited as a founder of steampunk. How did the concepts of steampunk develop for you all and how do you define it? (That’s oft debated, so curious how you three regard it.)
JPB: At the time – this was the mid 1970s – the three of us were hanging out together quite a bit and all had a natural interest in the literature of the Victorian era. We had all grown up reading Verne and Wells. K.W. was writing a time travel book that was a spinoff of Wells’s The Time Machine, and Tim was writing a book about the siege of Vienna, which became The Drawing of the Dark. I was reading through all of Stevenson and was crazy for The New Arabian Nights and The Dynamiter, which led to my launching a short story titled “The Ape-box Affair,” which I sold to Unearth magazine. Soon I launched another piece of Victoriana titled “The Hole in Space,” which I sold to a magazine called Starwind. So out of camaraderie and common literary interests we found ourselves writing the stories and novels that ten years later came to be known as Steampunk, a term that K.W. invented in the late 1980s. By that time, other writers were writing the sort of books and stories that we had been writing many years earlier. So… we had no definitions. We weren’t writing Steampunk at all, because there was no such thing. Definitions came later. I don’t much like definitions, because (by definition) they’re exclusive rather than inclusive – restricting rather than liberating, which sounds a little fancy but is accurate enough. It could be that early Steampunk novels like The Anubis Gates, Infernal Devices, and Homunculus somehow defined the genre, but they did so without any intention on our part to define anything.
SFFWRTCHT: Steampunk has taken off and evolved over the years. Are there trends you enjoy? Are there some you dislike?
JPB: I enjoy most of it, actually – the costumes, the jewelry, the makers and the writers and the people who simply want to be a part of an invented world or to contribute to the invention of that world. I’m put off by shoddy, bandwagon, commercial trash that inevitably comes to litter the landscape when something suddenly becomes fashionable. So I’m not happy to see Steampunk teddy bears on sale at Target, or choose-your-own-adventure Steampunk books or other brain-dead moneymakers. If I’m partly responsible for that end of things I’ll probably end up spending a few months on a chain gang in Hell.
JPB: My opinion doesn’t count for much except as it pertains to my own writing. In that regard, I want a sense of adventure, a historical setting (Victorian or thereabouts) that seems authentic, writing that is not anachronistic and which is loaded with the colorful trappings of that era. I want a seriousness of purpose, even it the book or story is intended simply to be seriously funny. I want a good story, not merely a good Steampunk story.
SFFWRTCHT: The Aylesford Skull revisits Professor Langdon St. Ives, whom you first introduced in earlier novels. Which came first: plot, character or world? And who is Langdon St. Ives?
JPB: Langdon St. Ives is a Victorian explorer and scientist who is also an amateur detective. He has dabbled in space travel, time travel, undersea travel, dirigible travel, and every other sort of travel. Now that he’s married to his intrepid wife Alice and has two young children, Cleo and Eddie, he’s a little less anxious to rush into danger, but the world conspires to drag him in that direction anyway. He is often on the outs with the Royal Society, who find him dangerously eccentric on occasion. He first appeared in “The Ape-box Affair,” a short story in which he fires an orang-outang into space, only to have the ship land in the duck pond in St. James Park. The orang-outang escapes into London wearing a space helmet and carrying the ship’s oxygenating box. A batch of wild misadventures ensue. St. Ives has figured in a number of short stories and in several novels: Homunculus, Lord Kelvin’s Machine, The Ebb Tide, The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs, and, most recently, The Aylesford Skull. The novels do not have to be read chronologically. Another adventure, The Secret of the Ring of Stones will appear later this year from Subterranean Press. I’m not at all sure which came first, plot, character, or the world of the stories. When I wrote “The Ape-box Affair” I had in mind an effect as much as anything else (like I was talking about earlier.) The effect was in essence the world of the story, but I needed characters to populate that world, and Langdon St. Ives appeared in the story with most of his sensibilities already plain to me. I needed something for St. Ives to do, and the plot grew up around him. I can’t seem to separate those elements.
JPB: This is a tough question, because the idea grew out of a number of things. I’m fond of Japanese magic mirrors, which were the rage back in the Victorian era, and were thought to be paranormal in some mysterious way. I’m also fond of the idea of lamps. That sounds a little kooky, but lamps are packed with metaphoric weight, like the streetlamp in Narnia. Mirrors and lamps suggested photography to me, which led to my running into Conan Doyle, who was a serious amateur photographer. Conan Doyle famously was a doctor aboard the steamship Mayumba along the African coast. The ship came very close to exploding when the coal for the boilers caught fire. I had in my mind that this mirror/lamp would project figures onto Thames mist or granary dust or suspended coal dust. Over the course of six months, while I was developing the story, these sorts of elements began to accrete until they gained a sort of critical mass. When that happened I could picture the sort of book that they might evolve into. When I could see it, I could begin to write it, although the research didn’t stop by any means, and much of the best stuff in the book came into my mind while I was writing it.
SFFWRTCHT: You make extensive use of setting. How much research on that part of England have you done? Did you go there? Read a lot? How do you approach capturing culture and setting so vividly?
JPB: I did a heap of research. I’d been to London twice, but never to Kent, and so I depended entirely on reference books, photos, stories of river pirates and smugglers, an old book on fishing, books on dirigibles, old dictionaries, and so forth. It’s always the case that a writer can use only a very small percentage of the stuff discovered in research. What you see in the book took me six months to come up with before I started writing, and of course I wasn’t starting from nothing; I’d written a number of other Steampunk novels. People often comment on my evident interest in setting, but it’s nothing I set out to do consciously. I’ve never thought, “Perhaps I’ll write a novel with a lot of setting.” As I said earlier, I suspect that I’ve got a novel to write when I picture an effect – a tone and atmosphere, the weather of the novel (figuratively as well as literally). What I’m talking about is almost entirely sensory: plot and character follow. It’s the effect that suggests plot. The sensibilities of the characters are a factor of the sensibilities of the effect and of the plot. I can’t successfully begin writing the first chapter until I can literally picture a number of chapters, until I know that the effect isn’t momentary, but has become essential to the entire novel. That leads naturally to stories in which setting is as vital as character, and equally naturally to characters who are affected by their surroundings (as I am).
JPB: All this talk about “effect,” which is fairly quickly going to sound like gibberish if I don’t watch out, means that I’ve invented a heap of stuff in my mind long before I begin to write a novel. Also, I’ve always sold novels by showing editors early chapters and plot synopses. They don’t require it of me these days, but I do it anyway. So I’ve done a lot of work on any novel before I write the first chapter. That being said, once I can picture the novel in my mind, and I know that I’ve got a way in and a way back out again, I put all outlines and most notes away. At that point the writing itself begins to generate useful stuff. The act of writing is far more inspirational and suggestive than any mere thinking about the writing.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like—specific block? Write ‘til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
JPB: I work when I can find the time to work. I’m also a teacher, and it’s strangely true that it’s better to make an editor wait than to make students wait. It’s useless for me to try to write anything much with less than a 4-hour block of time, although I can edit work well enough with an hour or two. Back in the old days, Tim Powers had a rule that he had to write 1,000 words a day. I borrowed that idea, and it led to my developing a little bit of self-discipline. So I grab the time when I can and then convince myself that I’m a slacker if I come up with anything less than 1,000 words before I quit for the day.
JPB: I don’t require silence, but I do require privacy. If the view is too good I’m easily distracted. I’m a technological nitwit, learning only enough of the word processing software to get the job done. I’m unfamiliar with Scrivener, for example. Not sure what it is. As for music, I find it incredibly distracting unless it’s someone else’s music, in which case I can tune it out. I have writer friends who listen to music in order to focus, perhaps hearing it eventually as a variety of white noise. I really have no idea. I read a book to focus and to clear out the cobwebs: language seems to me to be the natural focus for a writer. Most often the writing fairly quickly begins to call me away from the reading.
SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?
JPB: Typically two years. In the late 1980s I quit teaching for a couple of years in order to write more. Weirdly, it still took me two years to write a novel. I found that I missed the mental activity of teaching and I missed being out and about in the world, so I went back to teaching, and it continued to take me two years to write a novel. I seem to be stuck with that.
JPB: I can’t remember any specific pieces of advice that were rotten. I must have heard some, but I didn’t listen. I was fortunate early on to know writers who found success despite their eccentricities. Now I believe that they found success because of their eccentricities. I’ll use Phil Dick as an example. If you’ve read Phil Dick, you know that he wrote like nobody else on this or any other planet. His books took the prize when it came to sheer weirdness. Think about Martian Time Slip or Dr. Bloodmoney or Valis. I admired those books, and my admiration for them gave me the idea that I could work my own eccentricities as a writer, that I could write in a way that was distinctly my own, and that it would be a good thing. That made me a happy writer in those early days, and it’s still making me a happy writer. Phil wasn’t the sort to give anyone advice, but that’s one of the things that I took away from my brief friendship with him.
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to? Any plans for more St. Ives novels?
JPB: Look out for a short St. Ives novel titled The Secret of the Ring of Stones. Also, I’m quite happy with my novel Zeuglodon, published late last year by Subterranean Press. I’ve got an idea for a sequel to that one. First, though, I’m fixing to write another Steampunk novel for Titan Books, not a sequel to The Aylesford Skull, but picking up where that one left off.
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