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INTERVIEW: Dennis O’Flaherty on KING OF THE CRACKSMEN, Steampunk, and More

dennisDennis O’Flaherty is an author with several decades’ worth of film and television credits under his belt, including the Francis Ford Coppola–produced Hammett. He also wrote many episodes of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television cartoon! King of the Cracksmen, his debut novel, is available now from Night Shade Books.

Kristin Centorcelli: Dennis, congrats on the new book! What inspired you to write King of the Cracksmen? Will you tell us a little about it?

Dennis O’Flaherty: I became a member of the Writers Guild of America (West) in 1978, with my first studio job, a development deal on a script that I pitched at 20th Century Fox, and I’ve been scribbling something or other for a paycheck ever since, from film scripts to cartoons (my favorites were the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, back when the Turtles and I were both young and green) to cigar ads to you-name-it.

Ask any writer that’s been a hired writing machine for that long what they dream about writing and it’s almost always a novel, mostly because you know nobody will pay for it up front so nobody has the right to potchkey around with it while you’re trying to write it. So after much deliberation (or at least a long walk and a nap) I came up with an idea about a New York safecracker back in the 1870’s, and scribbled and scribbled at it till I finally realized I was going to need that lightning machine from “Bride of Frankenstein” before I could ever say “It’s alive!”

Then one day in my local library I saw a copy of K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices on the Express shelf and it looked so intriguing that I took it home and plunged into it. It was my first steampunk book and I was blown away: fun with history! Crazy humor! Making stuff up without researching every other sentence … I never looked back. I named my cracksman Liam McCool after Finn McCool, one of the great legendary heroes of Ireland, made him co-chairman of a New York gang called the Butcher Boys, set him up against an evil usurper who had seized the U. S. Presidency from Abraham Lincoln, made all of the U.S. west of the Mississippi Russian territory (“Little Russia” after Andrew Jackson sold the land to Tsar Alexander II to balance the budget), gave Liam a budding romance with Becky Fox, a beautiful, stand-up journalist heroine modeled on nineteenth century wonder woman Nellie Bly, and let ‘er rip. I don’t think I’ve had that much fun writing since the Turtles.

KC: Why do you think readers will root for Liam McCool?

DO: My feeling about Science Fiction & Fantasy readers in general and Steampunk readers in particular is that they tend to be a bit more critically-minded than the average fiction reader. Go back to H. G. Wells: you’ll see that the imagination and fun in his writing are always accompanied by a very sharp and judicious eye on the society of his time. And as complex and adventurous as SF & F have become since those early days, that responsiveness to human problems has always been part of the best writing in the field.

So I let myself be guided by that model when I wrote about Liam McCool facing down the bad guys in a U.S. based solidly on the realities of America’s Gilded Age, when money was all and people who didn’t have any could either like working for those who did, or lump it. Liam lumps it – he’s an outlaw, and I think that anybody who likes outsider-heroes, whether it’s Robin Hood or Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, should be able to root for Liam and his sidekicks.

KC: What supporting characters did you enjoy writing the most?

DO: Well, I find myself starting to grin immediately when I think about Crazy Horse, whom Liam and Becky meet when they travel to Little Russia on a mission for the Freedom Party. I’ve always loved the real history of the American West, and always admired the historical shaman/chief Crazy Horse, so I had a lot of fun with him, making him a leader of The People in their struggle to throw off the yoke of their Russian oppressors. As it happens (in King of the Cracksmen, anyway), Crazy Horse was adopted in his youth by the head of the Tsar’s secret police in New Petersburg (formerly Minneapolis), and sent to Imperial Russia to study at the University, where (of course) he became fluent in Russian and got involved in a love affair with a noblewoman and a duel with … well, folks, let’s just say Crazy Horse and Liam and Becky and Laughing Wolf (formerly General George Armstrong Custer) raise some hell in Little Petersburg, and I’ll bet you’re gonna have fun reading about it.

KC: You use real events and people from history in the book. What kind of research did you do, and what was one of the most interesting things you learned?

DO: I was involved for many years in serious academic research on European history, going from Cambridge, Mass., to Oxford, England, to Soviet archives in Moscow and Leningrad, and always with American history as a relaxing hobby, so by the time I went to work on this novel “big” historical questions required very little research and all my attention could go into into interesting details, like: did they have Mason Jars back then? Did they have gas light in the small towns of the Pennsylvania coal fields? Did they know about Jiu Jitsu in the U.S. and Europe? And a whole bunch of other genuine little brushstrokes like that, that make up the texture of daily life in a novel.

Then there were some bigger things that I deliberately played around with, like Tesla’s work with electricity. In my 1877, Tesla has won the struggle with Edison for commercial and scientific supremacy, so I had to look into the known history of Tesla’s work in order to feel comfortable with improvising on it. That’s when I discovered to my surprise that he had actually done serious research on the wireless broadcasting of electrical energy, which led inevitably to the idea of a “death ray” based on the same technology. Sorry, “hard SF” guys, this was just too much temptation for a humble scribbler like me: in King of the Cracksmen, Tesla has actually succeeded in transmitting electrical energy without wires, and is lighting the area around Madison Square with it, and as for the death ray … well, you gotta read it!

KC: What authors have been the biggest influences on you, in your writing, and in life?

DO: That’s a really tough one, because like most word-workers I have a lot of favorite authors in various areas of fiction. Probably the most important influence on my writing and my life has come from Charles Dickens, whose works I read through from beginning to end when I was a kid. He gave me three really important gifts: an awareness of the constant war between justice and injustice, a love of quirky and complex characters, and a love of words in all their many sounds and shapes.

Then comes Mark Twain, who is as central to American literature as Dickens is to English. With Twain come two indispensible gifts: the sound of real American speech, for which he had an incomparable ear, and the gift of laughter. If you readers haven’t looked at Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer since you were kids in school, for pete’s sake go read ‘em again now that you’re grown up. You can laugh yourself into fits over some of his scenes, and you’ll recognize some of the basic tricks of the American sense of humor, which he seems to have been the first to do much with.

In my own writing, I have had to struggle for years with the Dickensian legacy of wordiness, so I keep trying to refresh my head with Elmore Leonard, whom Twain would surely have invited to share a bottle of whiskey and who writes tighter than Hemingway.

KC: What are you currently reading? Is there anything that you’re looking forward to this year?

DO: I’ve finally gotten around to Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, which I’m loving. And at the same time reading Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story, Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim, and the Complete Stories of Paul Cain from Black Mask Magazine (if you don’t know Cain and you like hard-boiled, he’s a must). Coming out in the next few months, I’m looking forward to Olen Steinhauer’s All the Old Knives and The Whites by Harry Brandt (AKA Richard Price).

KC: What’s next for you?

DO: A sequel to King the Cracksmen, what else? I’m far enough along with it to be able to say that if you have fun reading King of the Cracksmen, you’ll probably have at least as much fun reading The Calorium Wars. Who knows? Maybe even more!

About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).
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