Greetings! It's time for another exciting steampunk interview! Today's interview candidate is one of my fellow authors, David Lee Summers. He's an awesome guy from the Southwest with a wide variety of written works. I believe his writing is accessible to both general audiences and hardcore steampunk fans. He also dabbles with horror and other forms of science fiction as well. Take a look at our Q&A session to find out more information.
Q: Why did you become an author of steampunk fiction?
A: I became an author of steampunk fiction before I knew it had a name and before steampunk had really become as big a part of the genre landscape as it is today. I've always been interested in fiction that had something of a retrofuturistic feel because of movies like Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Harryhausen's First Men in the Moon. This continued with Doctor Who, especially in the Tom Baker era, when he had his wood-paneled TARDIS console room. From there, I discovered anime like Galaxy Express 999 where images of the past were overlaid onto the future.
As to what actually made me take the plunge into steampunk, back in 2000, I was editing a magazine called Hadrosaur Tales. One day I read three submissions in a row about knights on a quest to slay a dragon. They were all very similar and I found myself thinking ,how would I do the story differently? I put dragon slayers aboard an airship and imagined aerial dog fights between dragons and hunters. The story was called “The Slayers" and it appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine in 2001.
By around 2005, I started writing some weird westerns featuring mad scientists and strange inventions. When I discovered Cherie Priest's Boneshaker in 2009, I realized a lot of what I was doing could be pulled into the steampunk category.
Q: It seems like every steampunk fan as his or her opinions about the genre. How would you define steampunk?
A: While many people think of steampunk as literally being set in Victorian England, I've also read a lot of great steampunk set in the Wild West. I've read some steampunk that's set on alternate worlds where magic exists, and I've read steampunk set in an alternate, contemporary reality where we never left steam power behind. I've even seen some set in the distant future where the world has regressed to steam power.
When I looked at all these examples of steampunk, and the common threads that tied them together, I came up with the following definition: Steampunk is Victorian-inspired Fantasia. It doesn't literally have to be set in Victorian England, but it does tend to be inspired by the look and feel of Victorian England. As for “fantasia," I'm using Webster's definition: “A work in which the author's fancy roves unrestricted."
Q: Do you recall any favorite steampunk festivals?
A: The challenge of this question is that I've had wonderful moments at almost every steampunk festival I've been to. I especially remember some lovely conversations with writers like Tim Powers, Cherie Priest, Gail Carriger, Kaja and Phil Foglio, and Vernor Vinge. I've also had a chance to spend time with musicians such as Captain Robert of Abney Park, Bunny Bennett of Steam-Powered Giraffe, and Nathaniel Johnstone.
If I had to narrow it down, I would say I really love it when steampunk festivals are held in really immersive environments such as Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios outside Tucson, Arizona or Her Royal Majesty's Steampunk Symposium which was held for a few years aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. It's just a delight to see people in these environments wearing their steampunk finest and then watching the delight on the faces of those other visitors who just came to visit the venue for the day, not knowing what they were in for.
Q: Steampunk settings are often whimsical, elaborate, and larger than life. Why is this such a common practice in steampunk fiction?
A: I think this is a carry-over from steampunk fiction's roots in the science fiction and fantasy genres where many of the stories are rooted in big mysteries, big quests, and big ideas. Readers and writers aren't necessarily looking to recreate the world as it was but either a world where they can give those big ideas free reign or a world they would like to live in and explore. If you want Victorian London as it was, read or write historical fiction. If you want Victorian London with mad scientists and maybe a few monsters, you're going to make it larger than life and maybe even a bit whimsical.
Q: Stock characters are also a staple in steampunk tales. Do you incorporate any classic stock characters in your work?
A: I presume you're talking about characters such as “the mad scientist" or “the airship pirate" and so forth. The short answer is, yes I do include these types of characters. The challenge is that they need to be an organic part of the story and they need to feel like complete and well-rounded people when they appear. For example, the “mad scientist" in my Clockwork Legion novels is an exiled Mexican naturalist who has a dark past. He studies animals by making automata of them. He has no desire for revenge, but will help when he can and he is prone to distraction and whimsy, largely because he's trying to forget his dark past. My “airship pirate" is a Japanese samurai who hijacks a Russian airship in order to overthrow the Japanese emperor and restore the samurai to power. She's not your typical pirate after loot, but trying to get the emperor into a war he can't handle with his new army. She hopes she can step in and restore control as the new shogun.
Q: Besides your own work, what are your favorite steampunk books?
A: Among my favorites are Song of the Slums by Richard Harland, which imagines the steampunk origins of rock and roll and The Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling, which asks what would happen if the British Islands had been hit by an asteroid in the Victorian era and the empire moved to India. I love Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate novels because of how well they capture the mix of whimsy and adventure that makes steampunk so much fun. I also need to give a shout out to Jack Tyler's Beyond the Rails series which imagines an airship crew doing its best to make a living in Africa.
Q: Unfortunately, Mortal Engines failed epically at the box office. Do you think more film studios will take a chance on the steampunk genre?
A: Absolutely. The reason I'm so certain is that I make a point of catching at least one round of Hal Astell's Apocalypse Later short film screenings whenever the two of us are fortunate enough to be at a convention together. There are many filmmakers working on steampunk shorts of various kinds, and many of them are absolutely amazing. Many of these filmmakers are young up-and-comers who will, one day, be driving projects at major studios. Not everyone in charge of American studios today “gets" steampunk, but there are new filmmakers who are doing great things with the genre. Even if the major studios never take a chance, I suspect we'll see some exciting indie film projects down the road.
Also, when we speak of film, we have a tendency to fixate on American film. I like to point out that Hiyao Miyazaki made many steampunk-infused films in Japan that are both successes and classics of the genre. The only problem is that Americans have never really learned to appreciate the art of animation and treat as any more than kid's fare.
Q: I enjoy the Star Wars Steampunk Universe and other steampunk crossovers. What’s your favorite steampunk mash up? Perhaps video game characters, superheroes, Harry Potter, or something else?
A: One of my favorites is a graphic novel I purchased years ago called Gotham by Gaslight in which Batman tracks Jack the Ripper. It was recently made into a DC animated film of the same name, but with a somewhat expanded plot and given even more steampunk elements. I also love it when steampunk gets mashed up with other literary genres such as steampunk fairy tales.
Q: Would you recommend traditional publishing or self-publishing for budding authors?
A: I'm very much a hybrid author who has published with professional publishers, small presses, and has self-published. My recommendation is to always try for the big professional sale first. You'll get the most money and the best editing for your work. You'll get your work out into bookstores where people actually see it. If you don't land the professional sale, it never hurts to fall back on smaller presses or even self-publishing later.
For a new author, I would tend to recommend working with a small press even ahead of diving into self publishing. A reputable small press will connect you with a good editor and will provide some measure of distribution without you having to lay out cash. While there are a lot of good self-publishing communities out there, I think you really need to understand how publishing works before you try it yourself, so you can learn what kind of editing you need and how to find those editors. Self-publishing is a business and you need to make that work. There's a big learning curve. Pay attention and learn while you're marketing to those other publishers so that you're ready in case you do need to fall back on self-publishing.
Q: Creating an interesting and cohesive plot is tricky. I usually begin with a general concept and some bullet points. How do you usually create the plots for your books?
A: Like you, I start with a general concept or an idea. If the book is a sequel, I might start by asking “what are my characters going to get involved in next." Often from there, I'll go into a research phase to get some details about my idea and see if it's plausible in light of the historical time period and to see if there are any interesting “what if" questions about the time period to explore. Once I have all this together, I typically take a day or two and start brainstorming plot points. I'll make bullet points on the page where each bullet point describes a scene that will forward the plot. I typically map out my plots in great detail.
That said, I don't constrain myself to the outline while I'm writing. If I write a scene and the characters take it in a different direction than I thought from the outline, I'll run with it, especially if it's more interesting than my original concept. If I deviate a little, sometimes I can bring the plot back to my outline with a new bullet point or two. However, I'm not at all afraid to completely re-outline the ending of a book if my characters go off in a much different direction than I expected.
Q: You also published some horror novels as well. Why does the horror genre appeal to you?
A: I think most writers want to explore the human condition. We're fascinated by those things that make us laugh, make us cry, make us fall in love, make us want to explore new places, and make us want to build new things. Horror is a way to explore both the best and the worst in people. A horror writer tries to understand what makes people do the very worst things imaginable, such as unleashing an unspeakable evil into the world. It also lets us explore what makes us noble. What makes a person stand up to that unspeakable evil and confront it even when a person's own life or family are at stake? Can a good person unwittingly cause evil? Can an evil person be redeemed? I think these are interesting questions that the horror genre is especially well suited to address.
Q: What are some of your additional hobbies and passions?
A: In addition to being a professional writer, I'm also a professional astronomer who operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory outside Tucson, Arizona.
Looking at my hobbies, I'm an avid cook who likes to explore recipes. Meals do play an important role in all my books and I've been known to share interesting recipes from time to time at my blog. I've also been devoting time to exploring my family's history. I come from pioneer stock and I have an ancestor who fought in the War of 1812 under William Henry Harrison. Davy Crockett's second wife is a several-times great aunt, and I recently learned my great great grandfather owned a bookstore that Walt Disney used to patronize as a boy. How cool is that? Family stories and family history also serve as important inspirations for my stories.
I also love to travel and see new things. Unfortunately, working as a telescope operator and writer doesn't give me so much income that I can go everywhere I want, but I have traveled quite extensively around the United States and that has served to influence aspects of both my steampunk and my horror fiction.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Right now, I'm working on the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of my space western novel, The Pirates of Sufiro. It tells the story of a crew like the one from Firefly being stranded on a planet and the colony that grows up around them. For the record, Firefly itself is only seventeen years old!
I'm also hard at work on a short story for an anthology. I don't want to jinx it by giving too much away, but I will say that the premise can be summarized as Russia's Baba Yaga meets the Arabian Nights.
That's the end of David's interview and I hope you learned something new. I'll leave plenty of useful links below. Leave a comment if you have anything to say about this interview. David and I got to know each other through the steampunk community and I'm really glad it happened. I'm going to post more steampunk interviews and information throughout the year. Thanks a lot for visiting and I'll see you guys next week.
David's Clockwork Legion Steampunk Novels are:
Owl Dance – http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html
Lightning Wolves – http://www.davidleesummers.com/lightning_wolves.html
The Brazen Shark – http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html
Owl Riders – http://wwwdavidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html
An assortment of my steampunk short stories:
“Fountains of Blood" in Straight Outta Tombstone edited by David Boop
“The Sun Worshiper" in After Punk edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Greg Schauer https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07CW3S8R8/
“The Steam-Powered Dragon" in Gaslight and Grimm edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01E6C03OA/
“A Specter in the Light" in DeadSteam edited by Bryce Raffle
“The Jackalope Bandit" in Den of Antiquity by the Members of the Scribbler's Den
“The Slayers" first published in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, now available as a standalone short story. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00A9H1BSO/
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