Thursday, December 1, 2016

Steampunk Author Interview: Robyn Bennis

I first met Robyn Bennis last year after a panel discussion I was on at FOGcon, whereupon we immediately began chatting it up about steampunk. I quickly realized she knew way more about the genre (and its subgenres) than I do, and so was thrilled to find out she had her first novel, a rollicking airship adventure called The Guns Above, forthcoming from Tor books this coming spring. Robyn was kind enough to sit down and chat about her new novel, her experience working in the sciences, and copious reading recommendations.

GC: Based on my exhaustive Google search, there’s not much out there in the way of published fiction from you (although I did find at least one scientific article in Nature that it looks like you co-authored). Is there any fiction you have that readers can get their hands on before the The Guns Above comes out next spring?

Author Robyn Bennis
RB: Unless I come up with a killer short story between now and May, The Guns Above is going to be my first publicly available fiction. I've been very shy about posting any of my previous fiction, and I almost never submitted. Something changed after I finished this book, though. I think Sam from Quantum Leap may have been involved, because all of a sudden I was submitting personalized queries to every agent with even a vague interest in steampunk. And my memory of those months of querying is pretty much Swiss-cheese, so the data all fits. My next clear memory is signing the agency agreement with Paul Lucas at Janklow and Nesbit. (Alas, Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.)

GC: What can readers expect in the new novel, style-wise? From the cover blurb, we know there’s going to be a lot steampunk and airship action, but is it fast-paced, more character oriented, geared toward all-ages or YA? And can we expect to see any of your dry sense of humor that readers of your blog have come to know and love?

RB: Oh, it's going to be dry. Let me give you a little taste from the opening scene, as Lt. Josette Dupre lies wounded in the aftermath of a chaotic battle:

Her only living companion was a carrion crow that stood atop her boot. She tried to kick it off, but lacked the strength for even that trifling movement. The crow held firm, staring back at her with little black eyes that reflected the flaming wreck of the airship Osprey. She had no memory of her escape from the stricken ship, but she must have gotten out somehow. If she were still inside, she would be on fire, and she was reasonably convinced that this was not the case.

That's the world through Josette's eyes. Even facing death, she doesn't lament her situation. She assesses it and starts working on a plan. My other point-of-view character, Bernat, is overprivileged and a little more high-strung, so his world is a tangle of anxiety and discontent. He's a truly awful human being, and I consider it one of my crowning achievements that so many of my early readers fell in love with him. That probably makes me a truly awful human being too, but I'm okay with that.

But as much as I enjoy exploring the dark, ugly depths of my characters, I wanted this to be a page-turner that can be enjoyed by all ages, so I worked hard to keep it lively and fast paced. It's not easy to strike that balance, but after a lot of long writing days, I think I've managed it.

GC: Awesome. I, for one, am excited to read it. Let’s talk a little about your career-path as a writer. A lot of readers have this misconception that writing a book is pretty straight forward business—you just write a book, and if it’s good, it gets published. In reality, most novelists have spent years, likely decades, honing their craft by writing gobs and gobs of stuff before they finally get a novel published. What’s your writing journey been like to get to this point? Are you one of those rare author specimens to actually have the very first novel they’ve written get published?

RB: I guess it can happen. Shelley gave us Frankenstein at 19, and I read somewhere that Veronica Roth wrote the first draft of Divergent on the blanket they wrapped her in after she was born. So it's possible for writers to have a natural talent, and get it right the first time out of the gate.

That is not me, though. I wrote my first short story when I was 10, started my first (never completed) novel when I was 24, started my first (eventually completed) novel when I was 30, and started The Guns Above at 34. I'm…somewhat older than that now, so this has been a long time coming. I console myself with the thought that, if I'd been good at it right away, my life would have gone down a completely different path and I wouldn't have had the experiences I needed to write The Guns Above. And I'm quite fond of The Guns Above, so that's a comforting thought.

GC: Per the jacket blurb on The Guns Above, one of the key conflicts is that your protagonist, Josette, is the first ever woman to captain an airship in the Royal Aerial Signal Corps, and there are some powerful men who are threatened by that and want to make sure she fails. Are there are any real life experiences that inspired you to explore this vein of conflict? I know you work in the sciences, which doesn’t exactly have a sterling track record when it comes to gender equity...

RB: I could talk for days about this, but I'll try to restrain myself. I've experienced the usual list of annoyances. I've had my own ideas pitched back to me at meetings, as if I hadn't just spoken them. I've had my years of experience with a particular assay ignored, in favor of someone who's never performed it himself, but whose entire body of knowledge comes from reading the Wikipedia article on it. I've discovered that colleagues in the same or even lower positions are being paid a lot more than me, and received patronizing lectures when requesting raises to make up some of the difference.

Of course, Josette would look at those problems and roll her eyes. I mean, none of my bosses ever tried to get me killed (that I can prove, anyway.) But I've definitely drawn on the dismissive attitudes I've seen in my own life, to inform what she goes through.

GC: You've blogged on occasion about your personal quirks, as well as your family. In what ways do your personality and life-experiences come through in the novel?

RB: I'm sorry to say that I can't give a thorough answer to that, on the grounds that being honest would put me at risk for a libel suit. Let's leave it at this: I'm not not saying that some of the more colorful characters are based on my family members.

GC: Ha, fair enough. What authors influenced you, both as a person/reader, and as a writer who gravitated towards steampunk and Gaslamp/black powder fantasy?

RB: Like a lot of readers, my earliest exposure was in the proto-steampunk works of Jules Verne and H.G. Welles. For a while after that, I appreciated steampunk more as an aesthetic than a genre. Then I discovered Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius comics, and I was like, "Wait, we're still allowed to write this stuff? Well, obviously I'm going to do that."

But what I also looked to, when I started The Guns Above, was Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. I've always loved the style, the characters, and the detailed Age of Sail naval action, and I've tried to bring some of that into my book.

GC: What’s next for you on the fiction front? Can readers expect a follow-up to The Guns Above? Any short fiction, or unrelated projects in the works?

RB: I've been working on the untitled sequel through most of this year, and I'm getting ready to send the manuscript to my editor at Tor, Diana Pho—who is a joy to work with. She just has a way of zeroing in on the weak spots and coming up with exciting ideas for fixing them. After that, I'll start thinking about some short fiction and other projects, but we'll have to see if any of them see the light of day before The Guns Above comes out in May.

GC: Awesome, I hope the sequel-writing process goes well. Now that your first book is coming out, any pro-tips for authors trying to write their first novel?

RB: Don't let up. Write whenever you can snatch the time. Write on the bus, write on your lunch break, write in the few minutes of peace you have when you get home from work. Demand an hour in the evening from your loved ones, if that's what it takes. They can manage without you for that long. Take the chance to unwind now and then, obviously, but don't let a break from your writing turn into abandonment. If you absolutely, positively can't stand to work on your novel another day, then examine what went wrong and work to fix it when you start the next one. Or work to fix it while writing short stories, or essays, or anything really. You're still in it, as long as you're writing and striving to write better.

GC: Well said. How about some book recs for readers looking for something new?

RB: Holy crap, how many pages do we have for this? 2016 may be a garbage year in every other conceivable way, but it's been a fantastic year for fiction.

Right now I'm reading A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. This is the sequel to the excellent The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and so far it's really ramping up the feels on me. It takes the rich landscape from the first book and looks at it through the eyes of very different characters, which is something I always like to see. The thing I really love about this series is how, as flawed as the characters are, they aren't cutting each other's throats just to keep the tension up. Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of tension, but it's nice to take a break from it now and then, and inhabit the minds of characters who are striving to be good people.

My favorite book of the year (so far) has to be Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, in which an infantry captain who's been disgraced for winning a battle the wrong way has her mind inhabited by a dead general so she can retake an impenetrable space fortress from heretics who seek to change the calendar and thus alter the utility of borderline-magic technology and even reality itself. On top of the skill with which that beautiful, beautiful madness is executed, this is some of the best milfic written in the last decade.

And there's Death's End from Cixin Liu, which did something I couldn't have imagined: it topped the first two books in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series. I really thought the series couldn't get better, after [spoiler] [spoilered] the [spoiler] at the end of Dark Forest, as that seemed like a crowning moment of awesome so crowningly awesome that it would never be surpassed. (Yes, as a matter of fact is it difficult to talk about this series without spoiling it. So just start at Three Body Problem and work your way forward.)

Okay, I'm going to gush forever if I don't speed this up, so LIGHTNING BONUS ROUND!

All the Birds in the Sky is about a witch and a mad scientist trying to get along as children and then as adults, and it's gorgeous. Read it now. Borderline is an ownvoices story about an attempted suicide survivor and double amputee with borderline personality disorder, who finds herself in an L.A. noir story with fairies. Read it now! Seriously Shifted just came out. I haven't read it yet, but it's by Tina Connolly whose Ironskin series is awesome, so it pretty much has to be good. Read it now!! Oh, and Dragon Hunters came out earlier this year. I haven't read it yet either, but it's the sequel to When the Heavens Fall, which was a gritty, stomp-you-in-the-face adventure that I couldn't put down. Read it now!!! Oh, and while we're on the subject of gritty, stomp-you-in-the-face adventures, there's this guy named Garrett Calcaterra putting out kickass fantasy that I also can't put down, and hey are you two related because you have the same name I think?

GC: Ahh thanks, and yes, we’re intimately related, for better or worse. Since you initiated the Lightning Bonus Round, let’s finish it up with a couple quickie questions. What can we genetically modify to make the world a better place? Or at least more fun?

RB: As a confirmed albeit out-of-practice geneticist, I'm cautiously optimistic about modifying plants to make stuff. We're already engineering plants that make drugs and plants that make plastic or plastic precursors. Right now, producing plastics from plants is not terribly cost-effective, and it's usually worse for the environment than just making it from oil. But if we can achieve efficient production in plant-species that aren't as petroleum-intensive as today's crops, it could be a game-changer.

As for fun ideas, I have one word for you: octorangutans.

GC: Best insult to an airship sailor?

RB: "Where did you learn how to aim a cannon, the navy?"

GC: Anything else readers should know about?

RB: CDEDBD ducks. Too obscure?

GC: Probably yes, but that’s what the interwebs are for: to search for obscure references. Thanks for taking the time to chat, Robyn!

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