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Beth Cato on WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE and Historical and Cultural Accuracy

Beth Cato is the author of the The Clockwork Dagger steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager, comprised of the novels The Clockwork Dagger and The Clockwork Crown, and the novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone. Forthcoming is a novel set in a richly imagined new world, Breath Of Earth. Beth’s short fiction has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. You can follow Beth on Twitter as @BethCato.


Paul Weimer: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me again. (I interviewed Beth for SF Signal in June 2015) Please refresh the memories of our readers on who you are and what you do.

Beth Cato: I’m Beth Cato. I’m the author of the Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, with a new series starting this fall. I have something of a reputation for my deliciously evil baked goods.

PW: We’ve talked together about the Clockwork Dagger-verse before, in terms of you writing short stories set in its world. Tell us about Wings of Sorrow and Bone. Where does it fit in the Clockwork Dagger timeline? What’s the story?

BC: Wings of Sorrow and Bone takes place after the novels in the Clockwork Dagger duology, but it’s written to stand completely on its own. It can’t help but give away a few spoilers from the books, but I tried to keep that to a minimum. The story follows two very different teenage girls who strike an uneasy alliance as they work together to save a laboratory of gremlins from callous experimentation. I like to summarize the novella as ‘Girl power and gremlins!’

PW: How does it feel to have garnered a well-earned Nebula nomination for Wings of Sorrow and Bone? Did you bake something for yourself to celebrate?

BC: It feels bizarre. I was completely gobsmacked by the phone call from SFWA to inform me that I was a finalist. I bawled and babbled through that whole call. For me, being a Nebula or Hugo finalist was a life goal. I never expected it to come at this point. I’m humbled and honored.

I’ve barely had the chance to bake anything, period! Since late October, I’ve labored under heavy writing deadlines with barely a day’s break here and there. Most of the sweet stuff I bake is sent along with my husband to his work, and they were actually asking after me, worried that I had some prolonged illness. I’ve been that busy.

PW: Do you have plans for any more novels or stories in the Clockwork Dagger ‘verse? Are there any characters or ideas you want to explore within it?

BC: I have one more Clockwork Dagger story that comes out in late April. It’s called Final Flight and follows Captain Hue as he tries to survive another Clockwork Dagger agent aboard his airship Argus. I don’t have any other stories or books planned after that, but I’m very open to writing more in the world. I would love to continue Octavia’s story.

PW: Let’s pivot to your next hotness. What’s the elevator pitch for Breath of Earth?

BC: A different 1906 San Francisco. United States and Japan allied with a goal of world domination. A secretary who is secretly the most powerful geomancer around. A big earthquake might just happen, too.

PW: Breath of Earth is an alternate history historical fantasy. How is writing that different than the secondary world fantasy of the Clockwork Dagger series? How did your writing process change with the change of material? How did writing the Clockwork Dagger series prepare you for this new project? What did you have to learn?

BC: Writing this kind of alt history is intense. I’m a total history geek, so I’ve been research-crazy for this project for about three years now. I want to get the facts right as much as possible–things like, hey, 1906 San Francisco was paved with basalt blocks–and it drives me bonkers that there are certain to be historical or cultural errors. At the same time, it’s wonderful to reference elements of Earth, which I couldn’t do with Clockwork Dagger and its secondary world. I can bring in references to the Bible and Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln living to a ripe old age.

Clockwork Dagger taught me a lot about how to write, and, most importantly, rewrite. I needed that practice. Breath of Earth features some very complicated world-building. If I had tried to write something like this five years ago, I would have utterly failed. From a research perspective, it has been emotionally draining, too. Not just the amount of material, but the horrible content. Chinese immigrants to California endured hell over a hundred years ago. I’m a native Californian, and the reality of their experience was not taught in school. I include an extensive bibliography in the book with the hopes that people will read about what really happened and be humbled by how far we’ve come…or not.

PW: Being a native Californian as you are, the physical setting makes sense to me. But what drew you to tell this story, at this period in your diverged history?

BC: I have been fascinated by earthquakes from an early age. I was three and in the bathtub when the Coalinga earthquake occurred not far away from where I lived in Armona, and I’ll never forget the terror of the water splashing out of the tub all on its own. We drove out to Coalinga a few days later to view the devastation, too–my mom used to live there, so it was very personal for her. The fronts of buildings were gone, exposing them like dollhouses. I was nine when the next big quake struck San Francisco, and felt that one, too; I was old enough to seek out books on the even more devastating quake and fire from 1906. Really, when I was figuring out another book to write, it felt natural to explore a subject that has intrigued me for so long!

PW: Where is the point of divergence from our own history? What’s the branch point?

BC: The American Civil War. In this history, it ends early due to an alliance between the Union and Japan. Major cities of the south are obliterated by airship bombardments. Abraham Lincoln isn’t assassinated. Chinese history likewise diverges as Emperor Qixiang doesn’t die young, and he tries to unify China to resist a Japanese invasion.

PW: What do you like, or don’t like, in your own reading of alternate history?

BC: I love alternate history and I would really like to see more that takes place outside of North America or Europe, or that explores a marginalized perspective within those places. I read alt history with the hope of learning–I want to understand what really happened, and what could have happened differently. I really enjoy when magic is mixed into history, too. Books like Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and J. Kathleen Cheney’s Golden City trilogy do such a great job of bringing new voices and settings to life.

PW: Where can readers find you at conventions and the like this year? Where can they find you online?

BC: To answer the last question first, I’m active on Twitter @BethCato and my website BethCato.com has information on my books, stories, and glorious baked goods.

I’ll be at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, the LA Times Festival of Books in April, the Nebula Conference in Chicago in May (I sure wasn’t planning this until my nomination!), Phoenix Comicon in June, and WorldCon in Kansas City, Missouri in August. My website lists my appearances on the right-hand side, so folks can always check there!

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!
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