BEC KAVANAGH TALKS STEAMPUNK WITH RICHARD HARLAND
Bec: How did WORLDSHAKER come to you?
Richard: It know it'll sound corny, but the idea for WORLDSHAKER began with a couple of dreams, more than fifteen years ago.
In one, I was browsing around this strangely constructed library of many spiral floors, and just happened to discover a massive volume that turned out to be the sequel to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Not the real Titus Alone, but more of the Gormenghast world as I wanted it to be. When I started reading, the story was wonderful, I had it all in my head—until I woke up. Then my memory of the story disappeared, every last skerrick of it! All I had left was the feeling it had given me, a sense of brooding atmosphere and weird dark characters. I wanted to write that novel! – or at least, a novel to give me the same feeling.
The second dream, which launched the actual story, features only slightly changed as Chapter 2 of the novel. I was in some enclosed space on hands and knees, looking down into a half-metre trench like a slot in the floor. I couldn’t believe what someone must’ve just told me, that there were human beings living down there.
Then suddenly I was falling into the slot, down and down. Shapes of metal, cages and pipes on either side, faintly lit by an unearthly green light. I was falling past floor after floor, wire floors that were only a few handbreadths high. And yes, there were human being crawling around on the floors, dirty wretched creatures in rags.
They turned to look at me and I felt their hatred. They meant to tear me limb from limb, probably devour me too. Hands reached out, grabbing at empty air, and still I kept falling endlessly down.
Bec: How would you describe the steampunk genre, and did you set out to write a steampunk novel when you wrote WORLDSHAKER?
Richard: I didn't set out to write steampunk, but a kind of urban gothic, like Mervyn Peake or Charles Dickens. Only my urban gothic drew on huge old-fashioned machinery - a long-time obsession of mine, which first surfaced in the Ferren books.
Fifteen years ago, steampunk existed mainly as a small sub-genre of SF. It was when it moved towards fantasy - with Phillip Reeve and Philip Pullman - that it took on more atmosphere, more texture, more of a social dimension. I wasn't influenced by those books, since I'd formed my world and narrative long before - but I was liberated. It was when steampunk showed signs of taking off that I saw a chance to write Worldshaker with a hope of getting it published.
I think steampunk is the fascination with old steam-age technology, a kind of fascination that wants to intensify that appeal with even more rivets and brass knobs, more cogs and intricacies. It goes hand-in-glove with the appeal of Victoriana atmsopheres - fog and gloom and murky claustrophobic passageways.
Bec: To me steampunk is such a visual genre. Did you have specific images in mind when you created the novel and the characters, and were the final maps and cover art what you had initially imagined?
Richard: Visual? Maybe you're right there. I've always been a very visual writer - not that I ever expected to be, but readers have called my novels 'visual' and 'like a movie' so often that I've had to learn to believe it. I certainly had strong images in mind when I created the novels and characters.
The cover illustration is by Anthony Lucas, who directed the Oscar-nominated film "Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello". I loved that film, and when my publisher suggested approaching Anthony to do the cover (successful film director for a mere book cover? you must be joking!), I knew he couldn't fail to produce the goods - the haunting imagery of the movie so exactly corresponds to what I wanted for Worldshaker. And so it turned out. Anthony's cover image doesn't depict any one actual episode in the book, but it captures the mood perfectly.
The inside illustration was created by Eiko, who lives in Estonia, working from a sketch I sent him. It wasn't a very good sketch, because it gave him completely the wrong idea for his first version. I can imagine but I can't draw! His second version caught the right impression … bit like a WW I dreadnought, but a hundred times bigger.
Bec: Class structure is a theme running through all aspects of WORLDSHAKER from the very layout of the juggernaut to the dynamics in the relationships between the characters. This dynamic is especially evident in the relationship between Col and Riff – how much did these two characters surprise you and lead the story?
Richard: Col was surprising in a surprising way, because he became more and more me on the way through the novel. He started going through real growing-up experiences from my own life.
Riff is always unpredictable, like a flickering flame. I knew she would be, and she is …
Bec: In a world of such rigid manners I loved that the story itself felt so free and the characters were still so full of surprises. Did you find these Victorian-esque manners difficult to work with or did they actually allow you to play around more with people’s expectations?
Richard: What fascinates me about the Victorian age is the complication of surfaces and realities. Outward appearances then were very rigid and hidebound, but that was never the whole story. As in Worldshaker - there's some very ugly behaviour lurking beneath the respectability. Also, some unexpected human feelings, as with Victoria the Second and her new Prince Albert. Social constraints are a great recipe for internal complexity, including all kinds of repression and screwed up emotion.
Bec: In your writing tips, you emphasise the importance of page turning action to genre fiction. How did you approach the action sequences in WORLDSHAKER?
Richard: No special approach for WORLDSHAKER, I just did the action as I've always done it. The most interesting thing with this novel is that the pages keep turning even when there's very little external action - at least, readers have told me that, and I was aware of the momentum when writing. More a momentum of character and relationships and what will be revealed next.
Bec: Do you read a lot of steampunk in your spare time? What would you recommend to other fans of this book?
Richard:There still isn't a lot of steampunk to read - we're at the beginning of the wave. I'd recommend China Miéville and Mervyn Peake for atmosphere - though they're both very slow and neither exactly steampunk. Also Phillip Reeve's Mortal Engines books and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. For movies (and there have been some total turkeys), I recommend City of Lost Children and Steamboy.
Bec: The Filthies really developed throughout the book, what kind of research did you do to create their culture?
Richard: No research - just trying to put myself in their shoes. What sort of behaviour would you develop in a world of terrifying dangerous machinery - so dangerous that almost nobody lives past their early twenties. Everything about the Filthies follows from the conditions of their world, but not always in obvious ways - or at least, not in ways that seem obvious to Col.
Bec: You’ve just started the sequel which from all accounts is going to be a juggernaut of a novel! Do you have an ending planned or are you going to see where the story leads you?
Richard: [I'VE CHANGED 'CONCLUSION' TO 'SEQUEL', BECAUSE 'LIBERATOR' WILL NOW BE THE SECOND VOLUME OF A DUOLOGY - ONE BIG NOVEL INSTEAD OF 2 SHORT ONES]
I don't have endings fully planned, but I always have an ending in view. I love huge rolling climaxes, and they don't happen just by accident. You have to start accumulating material towards them, so that many developments will eventually converge and build up one on top of another. I think of it as riding on the back of a lumbering gigantic beast, which I can guide only by the thinnest and most delicate reins. No chance of slewing the beast around at the last minute - I have to influence its direction right from the start. Or again, I have to plant the seeds that will come to fruition hundreds of pages away.
Bec: Thank you so much for your time and we can’t wait to read LIBERATOR!
Richard: My pleasure!
Check out Richard's impressive website for more fascinating facts and writing tips.