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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Fran Wilde Interviews Elizabeth Bear about her New Steampunk Novel KAREN MEMORY

Elizabeth Bear

Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Author Elizabeth Bear recently spoke with Fran Wilde for SF Signal about her new novel, Karen Memory (coming from Tor in February 2015).

Bear’s novels and short fiction to-date represent an astonishing body of work: twenty-six novels (including collaborations), one hundred short stories, and two short story collections. She has received awards including the Locus Award, the Audie Award, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the John W. Campbell Award and four Hugo Awards.


Fran Wilde: KAREN MEMORY hits the shelves on February 3. The action is packed, the characters have polished their hearts of gold, and the cover is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. How ready are you for people to get their hands on this book?

Elizabeth Bear: Isn’t that cover amazing? I can’t wait to hold the book in my own hands, let alone having it to hand to anyone else! The anticipation is always the hardest part, of course-where all the work is done, and there’s nothing left but the anticipation of how the book will be received.

I feel as if books aren’t real if they aren’t being read.

So far, advance press seems pretty positive. I hope that continues.

FW: Tell me about the best darn sewing club in Rapid City.

EB: Karen Memory‘s protagonist is a parlor girl, which is to say a high-class prostitute working in a “parlor house,” or bordello. She’s a resourceful young woman surrounded by other resourceful women, all of them trying to survive and thrive and protect their friends in a world that considers them-and most women-disposable.

A period euphemism for such women was “Seamstresses,” and I promise you that nobody can rip a seam like these girls.

FW: Is there a historical basis for Madame Damnable’s?

EB: There was a madame in Seattle during the Gold Rush period known as “Mother Damnable,” who was quite a notorious battleaxe-and a player in local politics. At once point she ran official city business out the downstairs and prostitution out of the upstairs of the same house.

My own Madame Damnable is not quite modeled on her, but is definitely inspired by her. Much as Rapid City recalls Gold Rush towns like Seattle and San Francisco without actually being those places, historically speaking.

FW: Your heroine is strong and brave, but her stomach sometimes betrays her outer toughness. Did that complicate writing Karen’s scenes? If so, how?

EB: Well, Karen isn’t fond of the sight of blood. Which occasionally challenges her, as she’s wandered into an adventure plot where she and others do get hurt.

The thing is, I wouldn’t say that particular quirk made writing her harder. Characters, like people, are imperfect-but that imperfection is what makes them interesting.

FW: Cultural and historic icons come to Rapid City as well. How did you choose who got to be in the gang and in the book?

EB: There’s only one historical character in the book, unless I’m forgetting somebody. And I don’t want to spoil that. So let’s just say that I knew this particular little-known individual had existed, and I felt like they deserved wider recognition, and and how history has treated them suited the book’s themes about the importance of the lives of erased and disenfranchised people admirably. So in they went!

FW: The gears that turn KAREN MEMORY are 100% working parts, touched with whimsy. What can you tell us about any one piece of tech in the book?

EB: Well, my boyfriend’s favorite bit of tech is the sewing machine converted to a combat mech by enterprising prostitutes.

I’m pretty proud of that one myself, to tell the truth.

FW: Steampunk has at times been called out for romanticizing expansionism and hiding the dark side of the periods it inhabits. KAREN MEMORY is a love story to the west that doesn’t blink the grim realities away. Why is that important?

EB: I had two goals in writing this book. One was to tell a fun, fast-paced adventure story-but the other was, as I mentioned above, to illuminate the lives of people who were so prevalent in the American west during the 19th century, and who are so often ignored and erased. The American west was a diverse community, but that’s not what we see represented in many modern stories set there.

I think that there’s a lot of good work being done now by women writers and writers of color reinventing the Western narrative to show more of that complexity-I think of Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary, and Catherynne Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, and Emma Bull’s Territory-all of them Weird Westerns, and all of them quite sideways from the usual Western protagonist.

FW: In KAREN MEMORY, euphemism plays an important role, often to hilarious effect, putting names to the un-nameable, or the unprintable, while also pulling back a curtain on historic facts. Are the euphemisms in the book historic or of Karen’s own creation?

EB: Western slang is absolutely the best slang. There’s a level of linguistic playfulness and street poetry involved that compares with Cockney rhyming slang, or the inventiveness of language used in urban African-American communities. It’s ironic and smart and delightful.

There can be a tendency among middle-class, conventionally educated readers and writers to forget that less privileged people can still be intelligent, curious, playful. That language is a tool we all share, and that Shakespeare, English’s reigning hand with a triple entendre, and Samuel Clemens, one of the great American prose stylists, were both largely self-educated.

Karen has her own turns of phrase, of course-but a fair amount of the slang she uses is authentic. The cowboy’s velvet couch, for example, or his nightly shot of coffin varnish…

FW: Karen’s voice resonates long after the book is complete. How important was getting the voice right to a book like KAREN MEMORY?

EB: I have a theory that any first-person narrator lives or dies on their voice. They’re raconteurs-fictional raconteurs, certainly-but we listen to them because we like the way they tell a story.

It’s why the noir voice endures: it’s entertaining. And snark and sarcasm are entertaining, too. We love a narrator who can make us bark with laughter.

FW: Aside from Karen, who is your favorite member of Madame Damnable’s Hotel Môn Cherie?

EB: There’s a deaf, odd-eyed white cat in the book who I think I have to vote for. He’s modeled on a cat I took care of a couple of years for a friend who was stationed overseas, and to this day I retain a grudging fondness for that horrible, horrible animal.

FW: Thank you, Elizabeth Bear, for joining us at SF Signal!

You can read more from Bear at her tumblr, website, on twitter as @matociquala, and on goodreads.

Fran Wilde is an author and technology consultant. Her interviews and roundtables have appeared in Apex Magazine, GeekMom, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and on the SFWA blog. You can find her in various locations, including twitter (as @Fran_Wilde) and at her website. Fran’s first novel, the high-flying adventure, Updraft, debuts from Tor on September 1, 2015.

3 Comments on [GUEST INTERVIEW] Fran Wilde Interviews Elizabeth Bear about her New Steampunk Novel KAREN MEMORY

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // January 20, 2015 at 11:26 am //

    Yeah, that weaponized sewing machine is the real deal 🙂

  2. Cheryl Holsonbake (@cherylreads) // January 20, 2015 at 5:17 pm //

    As the owner of both an antique and a brand new sewing machine, I can’t wait to find out what they can REALLY do!

  3. I was already really excited to read this book, but this interview has made me want to go out and buy it right now! I love the promise of exploring voices that are often ignored in most idealized stories about the American West, since that’s often been the biggest turn off for me when it comes to westerns.

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