Monday, January 14, 2013

Steampunk Interview: James P. Blaylock

I first met James P. Blaylock in the Fall of 1999 when I took one of his classes at Chapman University for my MFA degree. Sadly, I had never heard of Blaylock before. I was an avid reader of genre fiction already, but I read mostly the classics—Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Burroughs, Bradbury, Poe—and the stuff I read from contemporary authors was limited to embarrassingly few authors. I quickly remedied that problem, gobbling up Blaylock’s The Last Coin and then going on to read a ton of his short fiction. I found his writing to be unlike any other writer’s. It is a fantastic cross of sci-fi, fantasy, and literary fiction; quirky and funny, but at the same time, it explores very tangible problems that cut to the core of the human condition. I took as many Blaylock classes as I could, absorbing the wisdom he had to offer, and through him I even got a chance to meet Tim Powers, whose work I’d already discovered by sheer coincidence.

After graduating, my literary knowledge expanded and I discovered that Blaylock, along with Powers and K.W. Jeter, were the three progenitors of Steampunk. The term, which was jokingly coined by K.W. Jeter in a letter to Locus in 1987, was used to label the weird brand of Victoriana sci-fi/fantasy the three of them were all writing during the 80’s and into the 90’s. Seminal works of the genre include Homonculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine by Blaylock, The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and The Stress of Her Regard by Powers, and Morlock Night and Infernal Devices by Jeter. Since then, the genre has drastically evolved at the hands of a slew of other writers, film makers, video game developers, and counter-culture do-it-yourselfers. So much so, in fact, that many fans of the genre hardly recognize the seminal works as Steampunk.

It’s high time Steampunk fans, and the world at large, get a chance to discover how the whole business started, and lucky for us, Blaylock has a brand new Steampunk novel, The Aylesford Skull, that picks up where he left off in the early 90’s, genre expectations be damned. Blaylock was kind enough to sit down and chat with me about the new novel, living up to expectations, and what it’s like writing in the 21st Century.

Calcaterra: The Aylesford Skull is the first full-fledged Langdon St. Ives novel since Lord Kelvin’s Machine in 1992. Was it difficult going back and revisiting characters you created twenty odd years ago?

Blaylock: It wasn’t at all difficult returning to the writing of Steampunk. I once thought of going back to my first novels, which were set in an imaginary land, and writing more of them. I have wonderful memories of writing them, and I’m still quite happy with the result. I found, however, that I couldn’t easily do it. Perhaps I’d changed. Perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough. (On the other hand, I’ve often found that writing that requires a great deal of effort [not the same as a great deal of work] is often the worst writing once it’s done.) My experience with the Steampunk books, however, was different. My knowledge of the Victorian era and my ear for the language of that era had in fact grown over the years, as had my attention to detail and my ability to plot and to develop characters. Once I decided to launch “The Ebb Tide” it was an effortless business to fall back into that world, which made it a heap of fun. I happily made previously thin characters come more fully to life, and I even more happily developed new characters. Before I knew it I’d become a Steampunk writer again. The Aylesford Skull turned out to be my longest, most densely and quick-plotted book to date, with a large cast of characters that I’m very fond of. Can’t wait to write another.

Calcaterra: From the early reviews I’ve read and your interview with Dread Central earlier this month, it sounds like the reader will be treated to a more up close and personal look at your villain, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. Why did you decide to devote so much of the story to his narrative?

Blaylock: The first appearance of Narbondo was in a story I wrote nearly thirty years ago titled “The Idol’s Eye.” In it, a petrified Dr. Narbondo is a long-suffering idol in a Borneo jungle, whose ruby eye is gouged out. Enraged, he makes his slow, lumbering way back to London in order to retrieve it. A year later I started writing Homunculus, in which Narbondo is an evil genius terrorizing London and is the nemesis of Langdon St. Ives. I saw very clearly that the original Narbondo couldn’t possibly be this same character, but must be… Narbondo’s father!—never mind how: I’d figure that out later. In Homunculus we don’t learn much about Narbondo’s past, how he turned out to be such a bloody-minded villain. When I wrote Lord Kelvin’s Machine, in which Narbondo threatens the life of Alice St. Ives, it was necessary to reveal more about him, his childhood and the troubles of his past. In The Aylesford Skull there’s a great deal more of that, the information being central to the workings of the plot. He’s a better character on account of the development. Also, The Aylesford Skull is a multiple viewpoint novel, and it was both necessary and convenient in the book to have a Narbondo’s-eye-view of thing.

Calcaterra: You have a penchant for reusing characters and character names in your work: St. Ives, Narbondo, William Ashbless. Are you a closet Tolkien, with boxes and files full of family trees and timelines tracing the St. Ives lineage from the Victorian era to the 1950s and The Digging Leviathan?

Blaylock: In a word, yes, although unlike Tolkien, who seems to have been an intensely dedicated, organized planner and forecaster, I’ve gone at it a little bit haphazardly, and by now the doings of my characters over the years can only be explained by hauling in a time machine, jabbering about multiple universes, and setting off fireworks to distract the reader. Fortunately, there was a time machine in Lord Kelvin’s Machine, and when Dr. Narbondo (going under the name Dr. Frost or Frosticos) arrives in the 1950s Los Angeles of The Digging Leviathan, he’s either made use of this time machine, or has consumed an elixir brewed from carp glands (carp famously being immortal) or both. Edward St. Ives is in fact the great grandson of Langdon St. Ives, which explains, or makes a nod at explaining, why William Ashbless (also an apparent time traveler or immortal) is hanging around with Edward and his brother-in-law William Hastings. To confound the issue, Frosticos also sails his submarine into my recently published novel, Zeuglodon, the True Adventures of Kathleen Perkins, Cryptozoologist, which in a strange way seems to be a corner of the out-of-time world of The Digging Leviathan and of my novel The Paper Grail. None of these connections are important for the casual reader, however. But I’m amused by the thought that a young reader who first discovers my books by tackling Zeuglodon, might be happily surprised to discover The Digging Leviathan or The Paper Grail later on. The connections, I fear, are going to increase as time goes by; in fact they’re already increasing in the sequel to Zeuglodon, which is in its early stages at this point, and is tentatively titled King Solomon’s Ring. I get a big bang out of this stuff. I hope my readers do also, if they catch on to it.

Calcaterra: How much do you care about genre classifications? On the cover of The Aylesford Skull, you’re touted in bold print (rightfully so) as “Steampunk Legend” and yet your writing doesn’t necessarily fit the modern definition of Steampunk. Liz Bourke's review of The Aylesford Skull on complains that the “absence of over-the-top cogs-and-wheels and steam-powered machines comes as something of a culture shock.” Do you get annoyed by reviewers and critics who have no experience with the seminal Steampunk you, Powers, and Jeter wrote back in the 80’s? Do you feel compelled to add more of an anti-Imperialistic ethos, or more gizmos and gadgets to your writing to meet new readers’ expectations?

Blaylock: It’s difficult to annoy me. Bees and cockroaches don’t annoy me. Brussels sprouts don’t annoy me, although I cheerfully pitch them into the trash. That being said, I have no interest in cogs and wheels for the sake of cogs and wheels. I dearly love a machine, but only if the machine is necessary to the novel. The Aylesford Skull badly wanted a dirigible, so I ordered one out of the Literary Props catalogue. In short, I really don’t like labels and definitions and classifications. An editor once told me that I’d probably make more money as a writer if I’d settle down and write genre fantasy (instead of the nut stuff I was inclined to write, or at least that was the implication) but I’ve never had any interest in doing that. I doubt that I could. Reviewers, not being able to find a useful, consistent category for my books, often parse them out into different groups, and then label those groups. The Last Coin, for example, is typically shoveled into the “Christian novels” category, and so must have baffled a few Christians. When it was published it got good reviews in both a conservative Christian magazine (can’t remember the title) and in an edgy punk rock magazine titled Forced Exposure. I like that. Ultimately, I would never argue with people who spend time classifying my books, but I pay no attention to those classifications either about my books or books in general. When K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and I were writing our early Victoriana there were no definitions, roadmaps, etc.; we were winging it, and in many ways I’m still winging it, in that I’m writing what I please. A couple of reviewers, including the reviewer you allude to, claimed to be surprised that The Aylesford Skull was “serious.” But why on earth shouldn’t the book be serious? Why should Steampunk writers avoid being serious? My most recent effort, “The Pagan Goddess” isn’t “serious.” It’s meant to be whimsical and funny, because the story I had in my mind to tell wanted to be whimsical and funny. So it goes.

Calcaterra: Titan Books, your publisher for The Aylesford Skull, is also releasing new editions of Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine. How excited are you to have these books reach a new audience?

Blaylock: I’m quite happy for them to reach a new audience. I hope they reach an enormous audience, and that the new audience reads all the Blaylock they can get their hands on. Robin McKinley once wrote, “Nobody should be spared the unique perversity of Jim Blaylock’s world view.” I agree, although I don’t know what she meant by “perversity.” “Hedgehoggery” would have worked better. (I read once that hedgehogs were responsible for the proliferation of crop circles in England. The article was quite moderately convincing.)

Calcaterra: You’ve been writing professionally for 35 years now and the publishing world has changed a lot. Have you found it necessary to change your habits as an author to better adapt to the world of e-books, social media marketing, and mass media mergers?

Blaylock: I stubbornly resisted change, as usual, but the world dragged me along with it. When I sold The Elfin Ship to Del Rey Books back in the late 70s, I asked Lester del Rey whether the book would be promoted in some way. He told me that it would not, that useful advertisement would cost above two hundred thousand dollars, and that the company very carefully chose the titles that were likely to earn back that kind of money. Most books were lucky to get an ad in a trade magazine, or a display in a bookstore. The only way to rise above that level was for your book sales to reach critical mass, thereby making it likely that advertising would boost them into the Big Money category. Now, happily, there are ways to reach thousands of people with news of your book. I’m doing that now, and have been for the past three weeks. My publisher, Titan Books, is currently sending me on a blog tour. I sit in my study, drinking coffee, writing interviews and articles and doing podcasts, at no real expense to anyone, aside from the time involved. What’s not to like about it? I’m going to stubbornly resist any further change, of course.

Calcaterra: You’ve written several Langdon St. Ives novellas over the last couple of years. “The Ebb Tide” and “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs” are both available from Subterranean Press, and the “The Pagan God” is forthcoming. Any chance you’ll compile all three into one book?

Blaylock: There’s a good chance. I’d like to see another omnibus edition with J.K. Potter illustrations, a companion volume to The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, which Subterranean Press published several years back and which collected all of my Steampunk work up until that time. I might write a couple of short stories first in order to add calories to it, however.

Calcaterra: Please do. The more St. Ives and Narbondo stories out there, the better. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. It’s been a great pleasure. Now, one last question for you: Do you have a secret workshop, and if so, what are you building? Readers are placing even odds on an airship, a time machine, and a mechanical mole that will burrow you to the core of the earth where you plan to hang out in Pellucidar and hunt saber-toothed tigers while wearing a loin cloth.

Blaylock: That’s it exactly: I’ve always been fond of a mechanical mole, and have been since I first read Burroughs’s At the Earth’s Core. (I’m moderately fond of flesh and blood moles, too.) One of my favorite things about the mole in the Pellucidar novel, is that it drilled into the center of the hollow earth only because the inventor neglected to make it steerable. Once they got going, there was literally no turning around, which is a little bit like my writing career, come to think about it. Cheers!

Calcaterra: Thanks!


  1. Well played! Great interview with an outstanding writer, and not just because of his works, but also because of how he talks about the craft of writing. I particularly enjoyed you asking him about not having enough cogs and gears, and of course I equally enjoyed his answer.

  2. Thanks! Turns out this whole interviewing business is pretty easy. The only catch is you need to find someone fascinating like Blaylock to interview.