The Allure of Steampunk: An Interview with Richard Harland
A short while after the NSW Writers Centre Speculative Fiction Festival I thought about interviewing a steampunk author to go with my posts on steampunk. Of course, I soon thought of steampunk author Richard Harland. I really enjoy his novels and had met him once or twice before. Plus, he used to lecture at my university. Luckily for me, Richard has kindly answered every single one of my terrible questions. Thanks so much Richard for all of your thoughtful answers!
1. How did you first discover the genre of steampunk?
More like, it discovered me. I wasn’t paying attention when the term was coined, when the first steampunk novels came out thirty-odd years ago. I just had a novel I wanted to write, without ever thinking of it as a kind of novel. My ideas for Worldshaker were developing more than fifteen years before the book finally appeared, and in my mind it was a sort of gothic alternative-19th-century, like Mervyn Peake, but with gadgets and machinery. It was only much later that I noticed a new sub-genre being born – or re-born – and I realised my planned novel could fit right into it. And its name was steampunk! I saw how I could pitch my novel to Australian publishers with a good chance they’d be interested – and from then on I started talking about steampunk non-stop.
2. What is your favourite steampunk read?
Hmm, tricky, because a lot of what I like is steampunkish, on the edges of the genre. For steampunk proper, The Difference Engine, by Gibson and Sterling, Mortal Engines and Predator’s Gold by Phillip Reeve, and the Wolves of Willoughby Chase series of novels by Joan Aiken. For steampunkish, Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, Perdido Street Station and The Scar by China Miéville.
3. What is the allure of writing steampunk for you?
It’s where my imagination is most at home. Looking back now, I can see my steampunk tendencies clearly showing through in my earlier books like the Ferren trilogy, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and The Black Crusade. I love claustrophobic urban settings, invented old-fashioned machinery, and dark, foggy atmospheres. The fog – or factory-produced smog – has engulfed the whole world in my latest, Song of the Slums.
4. How much research was required for Worldshaker and Liberator?
Not much. The world of those novels diverges from the real world in 1804, when Napoleon digs a tunnel under the English Channel and invades England. So, from that point on, there was a huge amount of invention needed, rather than a huge amount of research into historical facts. The research I did – with the help of a uni lecturer – was mostly into the plan for the tunnel and the real engineer who devised it.
I think what matters in steampunk is to get the authentic atmosphere, which no quantity of mere facts can ever give you. Perhaps I could say my research has been a whole lifetime of reading 19th century novels, absorbing the feel and taste of the period.
5. Your next novel, Song of the Slums, is a gaslight romance. What in the world is that? Does it relate to your other work?
‘Gaslight romance’ is really just a variant of steampunk. I call Song of the Slums sometimes steampunk and sometimes gaslight romance. The new term is useful for pointing to a slightly different kind of appeal – less invented old-fashioned machinery, more 19th century society and yes, more romance. Song of the Slums does have some fabulous machinery, but it’s in the background compared to Worldshaker and Liberator. I haven’t stopped writing steampunk, I’m just writing steampunk with a special flavour.
6. Music features largely in Song of the Slums and you used to be in a band. How much did your past experiences of the music world influence your novel?
A little real experience and a lot of imagination! But the real experience was very, very important. I needed to create the sense of what it’s like making music in a band, being up on stage, bouncing off an audience – the sheer elation of it, the euphoria of success (not that we were ever very successful – still, we had our moments!) The book stands or falls by whether I can make the reader share that experience, and – big sigh of relief! – all my feedback so far says I got it right.
It was much, much more than just influence. I’d never have started writing the book if I hadn’t had that experience to work from. I mined it, I delved back into it, I dug out every tiny atom of potential inspiration!
7. What was your favourite part of writing Song of the Slums?
My favourite part was the downhill glide, when the story had been set up right, the characters took over and the whole climax unfolded by itself. It wasn’t like me doing it, it was like me hanging on for the ride! And that started to happen from before half way through. I love that gathering momentum, when nothing can go (seriously) wrong and the different parts of the story converge and illuminate one another. I walk around with a vague, dreamy smile on my face – I just can’t stop living the novel when it gets to that stage!
8. What’s your next project and will it feature more steampunk fun?
I hope my steampunk novels are exciting and un-put-down-able, but I don’t know about the word ‘fun’! I’d like to think there are some fairly serious emotions in there – certainly I included some dark and occasionally scary stuff.
(You noticed I’m not answering the question? It’s not that I’m trying to be secretive, it’s just that it’s actually very difficult to answer!)
9. What’s a question you’ve never been asked before about your writing/novels that you’ve always wanted to be asked?
I may have been asked this before, but I don’t think I’ve ever given a proper answer. It’s about the hardest question I can think of: “Richard, how do you create your characters?”
10. Now answer it.
Ah, that’s a very tricky question you’ve asked there, Richard! Creating characters must be the most subconscious, subliminal thing in the whole creative process.
I’ve always tried to create very strong stories in my novels – more and more, I want to create equally strong characters. Of course, people say character IS story, but I don’t think it’s as easy as that. If you just create characters who interest you and then put them together in a novel, yes, they’ll all do their own things, develop and change. But will they converge to produce a satisfyingly powerful climax? I doubt it. In realistic novels, it’s hardly important, since the characters’ lives can just wimble-wamble around and fade away as things tend to fade away in ordinary life. But I don’t read – or write – fantasy for that sort of realism.
(Detour: I was talking with friends about soccer yesterday – a particular game, Malaga versus Dortmund, where the tension built to a crescendo as the team that had been one-nil down came steaming back and scored twice in the last few minutes to win the game. Whereas most soccer games tend to get duller towards the end, as the side in the lead simply protects its lead and usually wins by default. That’s the benefit of fiction – you can make the first kind of game happen rather than the second! It’s not a falsification, such games do happen – they’re just far less common in reality than the second kind of game.)
I got a bit carried away there – my pommy soccer-loving background! My point is that it’s not individually interesting characters who make a great story, but just those special combinations of characters whose interaction produces something bigger than any of them separately. The great trick is to match character to story and story to character. It’s a kind of juggling act to get the best of both worlds – but that probably holds for all aspects of fictional creation. My ideal a story that builds up to something really exciting and moving, but with characters who matter for themselves, not just ciphers in the service of the story.
I draw my characters mostly from real people – or parts of real people, the parts that get my imagination going. What would it be like to be that person in that situation? – is the question I’m always asking myself. Not everything engages my involvement and empathy – but then it doesn’t take much to get an author going! Astor, the central character in Song of the Slums, is drawn from a couple of real people, but she gained a life of her own when I didn’t have to think about those people any more. No need to wonder how her two sources would have spoken or acted – she’d taken on her own inner energy and momentum! I think I said somewhere in my www.writingtips.com.au that the best characters are always created from the inside out – and yes, that seems even truer to me now than when I first said it.
I also believe the best characters have a time dimension, that is, they come out of a particular past. Verrol in Song of the Slums was a fairly standard romantic lead until I started delving into his upbringing in a crime gang. Now he’s probably a more romantic figure than ever, but he’s also a very particular person, not standard at all!
Astor’s mother and stepfather are very much a character combination, and my favourite strand of story outside the main narrative of Astor, Verrol and the band. The two of them together are so much more than either of them apart – as if caught in a fatal dance. I admit, I let their big character revelation have its head near the end of the book. It’s not that it doesn’t work in with the story, because the impact of mother and stepfather on Astor is crucial – but it’s a bit off to the side from the main excitement and audience appeal. But it appealed to me so much that I couldn’t resist holding off the main climax and letting their situation play out!
Thanks so much again for your wonderful answers, Richard. Now everyone go buy Song of The Slums. I know I will be…
Richard Harland has been an academic, performance artist and writer, publishing 15 full length works of fiction, three academic books, short stories and poems. He is the author of the Eddon and Vail science fiction thriller series, the Heaven and Earth young adult fantasy trilogy and the illustrated Wolf Kingdom series for children. His latest forays in steampunk are Worldshaker, Liberator and now, Song of the Slums. He has been awarded the Australian Aurealis Award on five occasions for his fiction.
Song of the Slums is published 1st May by Allen and Unwin
You can find Richard’s website: Here
He has written a number of aspiring writer tips: Here