June 11, 2015

Heavy Is the Steampunk That Wears the Crown: an interview with Beth Cato, author of "The Clockwork Crown"

About Beth Cato's The Clockwork Crown: Rich in atmosphere, imagination, and fun, the action-packed, magic-filled sequel to The Clockwork Dagger is an enchanting steampunk fantasy, evocative of the works of Trudi Canavan and Gail Carriger.

Narrowly surviving assassination and capture, Octavia Leander, a powerful magical healer, is on the run with handsome Alonzo Garrett, the Clockwork Dagger who forfeited his career with the Queen’s secret society of spies and killers—and possibly his life—to save her. Now, they are on a dangerous quest to find safety and answers: Why is Octavia so powerful? Why does she seem to be undergoing a transformation unlike any witnessed for hundreds of years? 

The truth may rest with the source of her mysterious healing power—the Lady’s Tree. But the tree lies somewhere in a rough, inhospitable territory known as the Waste. Eons ago, this land was made barren and uninhabitable by an evil spell, until a few hardy souls dared to return over the last century. For years, the Waste has waged a bloody battle against the royal court to win its independence—and they need Octavia’s powers to succeed.

Joined by unlikely allies, including a menagerie of gremlin companions, she must evade killers and Clockwork Daggers on a dangerous journey through a world on the brink of deadly civil war. 

Gef: What was the impetus behind Octavia Leander and these novels? Did the character come to you first or something about the setting or the story? 

Beth: I started with only the most basic idea: I knew I wanted to write about a healer. I love steampunk, and I hit on the concept of doing a steampunk Murder on the Orient Express, but on an airship, with a healer. I asked myself, why would people try to kill a do-good healer? I thought of an unsold story of mine and decided to build on that setting. Everything grew from there.

Gef: One of the things that intrigues me about steampunk is the balance of borrowing from historical events and the wild what-if's employed through the worldbuilding. For you, how much historical context is necessary when crafting this playground for your characters? How intensive does your research get? 

Beth: Quite a bit of research, though I made things much easier on myself since it takes place on my own world with my own created history. When I first started on my rough draft of The Clockwork Dagger, I created a number of documents where I typed out everything from uses of herbs to proper sequence to conduct a healing to deep details on the airship Argus, which was based on the Hindenburg. 

I built onto that by reading extensively and taking tons of notes. Even though Octavia relies mostly on magic, it was important for me to get medical details as accurate as possible, so I read a number of books on Civil War and World War I medicine. The mood of the period is especially important, and for that I read a number of World War I-set novels. My airship details are drawn from airships.net. Still, the research for this world is miniscule compared to the books I've gone through for my next steampunk project, which is set on Earth!

Gef: I first became aware of your work through your short fiction, starting off with "Red Dust and Dancing Horses." Was there much from your experiences in writing short stories that you applied in writing Clockwork Dagger and Clockwork Crown? 

Beth: First of all, it delights me that you bring up "Red Dust and Dancing Horses," which is still one of my personal favorite stories. You were the first person to review my work--that story--and I've never forgotten your kind words. So thank you for that.

When I resolved to start writing again in about 2007, my goal was to be a novelist. After a few attempts, though, it became pretty clear that my efforts sucked. The ideas were good, but not the execution. That's when I started writing short stories and poetry. I made--and still make--a conscious effort to become a better writer. Short stories trained me to write, revise, make myself vulnerable to critiques, choose what advice to accept, and cope with the constant submission-rejection process. Novels involve all that on a much bigger scale.

Gef: It's not often I see a duology on bookshelves. Have you been tempted to traipse into trilogy territory? 

Beth: Absolutely. It all depends on the story. It simply turned out that The Clockwork Dagger's full story arc was perfect for two books. My next series--who knows?

Gef: Along with the two novels, there is also a novella that serves as a prequel of sorts. What brought that about? 

Beth: I'm pretty excited about this. Harper Voyager approached me about writing more stories in the Clockwork Dagger world for their Impulse line. I'll have three tales released over about the next year. The first one is "The Deepest Poison," which goes into deeper detail on a pivotal event a few months before The Clockwork Dagger. It's from the viewpoint of Miss Percival and my heroine Octavia is more of an antagonist. It's a pretty fast read--just 7,000 words.

Gef: What do you consider to be the strength or saving grace of steampunk? 

Beth: There's been some criticism of steampunk literature, that it glorifies the Victorian era. I haven't seen that in much of what I've read, and the truth is, I feel the need to do the very opposite. The real Victorian and Edwardian eras were not pleasant for most people. I mean, geez. Colonialism. Toxic factories. Disease. War. Those aspects should not be glorified. Steampunk is a chance to rewrite history. All that ugliness can be there, but the heroines and heroes can be any color, any nationality, and they can triumph against the odds.

I see this same spirit in the real steampunk community, too. It embraces all ages, people, and body types, and everyone looks fabulous!

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away? 

Beth: From the time I was about four, I wanted to be an author, but by my late teen years that dream was dying. I had no confidence, and I was subjected to very bad advice that I should not write fantasy. This came from two very different angles. I had a college creative writing teacher see me reading a fantasy book, and he sneered, "That's not a real book!" I also had family members who, very compassionately, told me that writing about magic and fantasy would condemn me to hell. I really didn't know what to read or write anymore. It took me almost ten years to realize I needed to be true to myself and write what I needed to write.

For what it's worth, these family members still don't agree with the subject matter of my books, but they still bought copies of The Clockwork Dagger and we're at a very respectful agree-to-disagree level about it.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Beth: Oh, historical fiction. I've loved it since I was a kid and became obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have found myself pulled into more mysteries in recent years, too. I absolutely adore the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley. It's set in the early 1950s in rural England, with an 11-year-old girl with a passion for chemistry and finding dead bodies. A TV series is in the works and I am Muppet-arm-flailing in wait. I so desperately want it to do the books justice.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Beth: People can always find the latest news on BethCato.com and follow me on Facebook or Twitter! I have those new Clockwork Dagger stories coming out, and I always have other stories and poems being published, too. I'll even have a space opera hockey story in the Galactic Games anthology out from Baen in 2016. I hope I can announce other cool stuff in public soon, too!

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