Monday, May 24, 2010

Full Steampunk ahead for Kate Milford's "The Boneshaker"

For weeks I was a complete lunatic trying to get my purple mitts on an ARC of a book that sounded so wonderful I was searching for a DeLorean so I could jump ahead in time to grab a copy of it. Apparently not all DeLoreans are not equipped with a flux capacitor. They left that part out in the sales pitch. Now that those bitter weeks have passed, the day has come. As of this moment you should be holding a copy of Kate Milford's The Boneshaker in your hands, reading furiously without any urge to stop, except only for the urge to read what she had to say about her debut novel here.

Do you remember when the muse hit you to write The Boneshaker? What were you doing at the time?

Kate Milford: Not specifically…I know I was working at Williams-Sonoma at the time, and that I was living in a sixth-floor studio apartment with Sprocket, a miniature American Eskimo who had moved in with me about six months beforehand. I was commuting by car from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Short Hills, New Jersey, so I bought audio tapes of Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Golden Compass, which both helped put me in the right frame of mind for it. Then there was this article in the New Yorker about the Jamaica Ginger epidemic, and all this research I had done into Victorian medicine that I hadn’t found a home for…I wish I could tell you something specific, but it was more that this collection of stuff kind of came together in my head.

Can you talk to me about your writing process? How do you prepare for the difficult task of writing that first draft?

KM: I come across things that I think are interesting, and I sort of save them up. I might not know what I’m planning on doing with all that reading I did about Faraday, for instance, or Coney Island in the late 19th century, but then I’ll find something else that interests me and it’s the missing piece and then all of a sudden it all starts to coalesce. Then at that point, I just go for it and start writing.When I hit a brick wall, my husband and I go out for lunch or dinner and he scowls at me while I try and talk through a story problem. Inevitably he interrupts like five times (and they’ll all be great ideas, but totally irrelevant to my current problem, so I write them down and a couple weeks later they solve unrelated problems I didn’t even know I was going to have). I yell at him to focus on the issue at hand, and he gets very crabby and sits and glares at me some more and then I finish and we sit there for five minutes and then he asks if he’s allowed to talk yet and I say yes very snappishly and then he asks a question or two and I answer them and suddenly I realize I know what to do to get through the brick wall.

I also keep big computation notebooks where I map things out—notes on characters and places, very, very poorly drawn maps, lots of little arrows going all over the place. You know those giant quad-ruled notebooks with the red-brown covers and page numbers printed inside? I love those. Completely obsessed with them. But I’m terrible at outlining. Really, atrociously bad at it.

What is the hardest part about writing for you?

KM: The toughest part for me, at least right now, is that there are so many things I want to write and I struggle to manage my time. I want to be writing constantly, but it appears I still need to show up at work 40 hours a week, sleep at least four hours a night, and somehow find some time to exercise and behave as though I know my husband and dogs exist. I generally have three projects at any given time that I’m actively writing, too—which is not the least stressful or the most efficient way of going about things. So I find all of that difficult. I just need more time. MORE TIME!!! I love it, though. I’m not happy if I’m not writing. Even the tough parts are pure joy.

Kate, I am so glad you said that. I am cut from that cloth. I have three projects going at the same time. I think my brain is moving so fast sometimes, it is the only thing that I can do to keep the cogs spinning.

Bringing steampunk to middle-grade readers is a wonderful idea and what I love about this book (from reading the synopsis) is that your protagonist, 13-yr-old Natalie Minks, is really into automatons. What influenced you to put your story in this world?

KM: Well, if I’m perfectly honest, the mechanical weirdness in this book sort of got there by a different route than via steampunk. I love steampunk; I devour it; but most of this book was written before I had read a lot of it. I’m going to get a little nerdy for a minute here, so I apologize in advance. This is where my husband, when he reads this, is going to roll his eyes and ask just how much whisky I’d been drinking when I wrote it (I notoriously do my best geeking out after a few glasses) but I swear to you I’m writing this at noon and I’m still finishing my first pot of coffee. No liquor involved.

One of my favorite writers is E.T.A. Hoffmann—I love a lot of his stories, but there are two in particular that I got a little obsessed with back when I started writing The Boneshaker: The Sandman and Automata. Right at about the same time, I went to Strand Books and found this old book on the collections at the Museum of Automata in Grenoble. It’s in French, and I can’t read a word of it, so it’s just this big pictorial full of creepy old mechanical oddities.
I just like mechanical things. I think they’re beautiful. I also think they’re creepy as hell, which brings us back to Hoffmann. In Hoffmann’s works, there’s this pervasive fear of the double—of something being mistaken for something else—that I find really compelling. Freud wrote a really famous essay on the uncanny that argues that it’s not actually the fear of the automaton passed for a human or the doppelganger passed for its twin that really creates a sense of the uncanny, but the feeling in Hoffmann’s stories that one can’t quite tell if the protagonist is experiencing the real or the fantastic. If it’s the real, he’s going a little bit mad. If it’s the fantastic, he’s got even bigger problems. Also, the familiar becomes terrifying when suddenly something happens to render it questionable, unfamiliar. This is what happens to Natalie when she discovers machines that behave in impossible ways. To her, machinery is beautiful in its logic, its reliable cause-and-effect. It’s comforting to her, familiar even though she’s still learning about its intricacy. Jake Limberleg’s machines are motivated by forces outside her experience, which is so powerfully frightening for Natalie that this alone is enough to tell her there’s something wrong with the Medicine Show.

I think kids experience this sense all the time, this feeling of the uncanny. I know I did. My grandmother used to collect antique dolls, and I was always absolutely sure those things with their weird mobile eyes were watching me at night. I went through a stage as a kid where I was positive—absolutely positive—that everyone in my life had been replaced by lookalikes that were pretending to be my family. (By the way, I never grew out of it—I just decided one day that if they were all in on it and they had their stories together well enough that after however many weeks or months of trying to catch them out in their lies I still couldn’t prove anything, then what difference did it make? Might as well just give up and go along with it. So don’t think you ever fooled me, Dad.) The whole point is, I think kids are very open to the idea that their world might not be as simple or as straightforward as their parents claim.

Are there traces of a young Kate in Natalie? (It's okay if you had a large robot collection, you can still keep your girl club card!)

KM: Yes, I think so—I was raised by folks who loved building things and who loved collecting things. My father always had basement workshops when I was a kid; I remember sitting on a rolled-up rug listening to Orioles games on the radio while my dad repaired old TVs, oscilloscopes, whatever. My mother’s parents were antique dealers for a while, and their house was full of things to discover, and my father’s mother is just absolutely unable to throw things away, so as kids we used to treat a trip to her attic like a trip to the museum, only way more interesting because you just never knew what you were going to find. Plus it was an unfinished attic where you had to walk on the boards across this sea of fiberglass to get to the most interesting boxes, and there were only like three bulbs with pull-cords to light the whole thing. It was a total adventure. I had a chemistry set, and I had this weird electrical board that you could use to do circuitry projects with, and I think my bicycle had a name. But I didn’t really get obsessed with mechanical things until later in life. I don’t know what started that, but somewhere along the line my husband stopped bringing me flowers and started bringing me Ziploc bags full of motion-picture camera parts. Last time I was home, my dad gave me a box of old radio tubes. I keep them in bud vases. So I guess it’s more that there are traces of a current Kate in Natalie.

Did you realize that you were writing a story that would appeal to both girls and boys?

KM: I had no idea, except that I did ask a couple of boys (namely my husband Nathan and my neighbor Ray) to read it at various times during its writing and they didn’t seem to get too bored. In fact, now that the book’s actually out in stores, I’m really looking forward to hearing from kids who read it. Up to this point, I’ve mostly only heard from adult readers. Which is maybe a good place to say, write me! I can be reached by email at kate(at)clockworkfoundry(dot)com. Let me know what you think. I may take a little while (see the above mentioned full-time job), but I promise I’ll write back.

What are you waiting for!? Write to Kate already!

You've conquered the completion of the book, landed publishing, and have people anxiously waiting to get their hands on it (like me). How long has this journey been and what would you do differently (if anything)?

KM: Five and a half years or so, I think, if you go from the first draft through the release this week. That’s two years spent writing, a year and a half to find an agent and for that agent to sell the book, and two years from the sale to the release—with time spent revising and editing at every stage. I think that’s right. So far, there’s nothing I would do differently, but right now I’m finding that I need to keep really focused on doing the writing of my next book. I don’t want to look back a year from now and think, man, I really should’ve gotten moving on that other book a lot quicker. Things I think I did right were finding a really wonderful critique group and getting involved with a few online communities during the revising and submitting of the book. I think it’s really easy to feel like you’re writing in a void, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Plus the really mind-bendingly frustrating parts like writing and sending query letters and waiting for responses are much easier when you have people to talk to about it who are going through the same thing.

Now comes the promotion stage. What did you do/have you done to prep for this part of the journey? Any tips for other writers about to launch a book?

KM: Well, I knew Clarion was making some fairly beautiful arcs, so I started thinking early about who I wanted to send some to. I reached out to writers I particularly liked and/or who I thought were likely to find The Boneshaker interesting and maybe have something to say about it, and asked if I could send them copies. They were all really gracious in their responses and several were kind enough to blog about it, which send some traffic and some new reviewers my way. I set a few copies aside for contests and giveaways, which was fun. I tried (and for a little while, I think I succeeded) to participate in things like online chats, visiting and commenting on other writers’ blogs, staying active on message boards that I’d found useful like the SCBWI, SFWA and the Blue Boards, which I do think is really, really important, because writers love, love, love to talk about books they like and to help promote peers that they have good relationships with. For instance, I wrote a series of posts on the Nebula Award finalists, and honestly the main reason I decided to do it was that I’d read six or so of the finalist pieces and knew an additional three finalists in some way or another and I was so excited to crow about their nominations. Right now, though, I’m really struggling to keep active between the book launch and finishing the next book.

So to summarize, I guess here are my tips:
  1. Start thinking early about what contacts you have and what they can help you with, both in your writing network and in your life outside it. I’ve found people are very eager to help get the word out about the book, which is wonderful and has opened avenues up for me that I didn’t even know were there.
  2. Build yourself a network and participate in it. Spread the word about other writers you like and other books you like. This will be most helpful to you if you do it because it’s a good thing to do and it helps others, not because you expect to get something out of it.
  3. Be gracious and polite and genuine at all times. I’m hoping I’ll commit fewer faux pas if I keep this as my inner mantra, because the whole book promotion thing is about asking people to talk about my book and about me, which (speaking as somebody with fairly severe social anxiety in the first place) I’m genuinely uncomfortable with.
  4. Social media is great, but don’t let it—or anything—take up so much time that you don’t get to the actual writing and revising of your book.
Can you spill any beans about new stories that you are working on?

KM: I suppose so! The one I’m revising like mad right now takes place in a city called Nagspeake. ( It’s a city with a very tenuous relationship to its own history, much of which is unknown, and here and there throughout it are structures made of semi-animate iron that nobody really knows much about. Charlotte, whose mother is a ferroculturist studying Old Iron and whose father is a nautical chartmaker, accidentally stumbles on a hidden city in Nagspeake. Chaos ensues. There’s also more to Natalie’s story, but I think I’ll save talking about that for another time.

Are there other steampunk stories out there that you are reading that you can recommend to new fans of the genre?

Oh, there are so many good ones. Just a few off the top of my head--

For teen readers:
Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan
Arthur Slade’s The Hunchback Assignments
Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series
Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a fairy-tale with some steampunk details and sensibilities to it and is just gorgeous (and it just won the Andre Norton Award, and you can get it online at Ms. Valente’s website.

For adults:
Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age
Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthology
Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker

I’m restraining myself from getting up to look at my bookshelf now. Plus there are about a million on my to-read list, like Philip Reeve’s Larklight and Hungry City Chronicles, K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices.

I'm with you, Kate. The stack of books to be read are ginormous and it doesn't stop growing. This was a blast for me and I can't thank Kate enough for stopping by the Asylum and sharing her wonderful stories and amazing tips. I have a feeling that we are going to be reading her stories for many years to come. To learn more about Kate, read more interviews, and check out her blogs go to: The Clockwork Foundry

1 comment:

  1. Awesome interview! I've heard nothing but great things about The Boneshaker and can't wait to grab a copy for my scarily large to-read pile!