You want steampunk? We got steampunk. Here’s James Blaylock — one of steampunk’s first team — talking about his newest, The Aylesford Skull.
Tell Us About Yourself: Who The Hell Are You?
I’m a writer who sold his first short story in 1976, titled “Red Planet,” about a young man on a Greyhound bus in the Midwest who thinks he’s traveling to Mars, but perhaps is confusing Mars with the red agate marble in his pocket Since then I’ve published about 25 novels and short story collections and a heap of essays, introductions, and other short pieces. I won the World Fantasy Award twice, for my short stories “Paper Dragons” and “Thirteen Phantasms,” and the Philip K. Dick Memorial award in 1986 for my Steampunk novel Homunculus. That was still a couple of years before K. W. Jeter would coin the term. My books are translated in 15 foreign countries. My most recently published book is titled Zeuglodon, The True Adventures of Kathleen Perkins, Cryptozoologist. I recently sold a short novel titled The Pagan Goddess to Subterranean Press. I’ve lived in California all my life. Married for 40 years. Two sons. Dog named Pippi. Tortoise named Ollie. Readers can check out my website at jamespblaylock.com.
Give Us The 140-Character Pitch:
Quick-moving plot, river pirates, graves robbed, magically altered skulls, kidnappings, explosions, many strange occurrences, a certain amount of eating.
Where Does This Story Come From?
I’ve been publishing stories about the characters that inhabit The Aylesford Skull (so to speak) since 1978, when Unearth magazine published my story “The Ape-box Affair,” the first domestic Steampunk publication, hence my being referred to as the Grandfather of Steampunk. (Actually there are three Grandfathers, Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter included. I got in first only because it’s quicker to write a publish a short story. Both Tim and K.W. were writing novels at the time.) I prefer Godfather or Grand Vizier or High Priest or something. “Grandfather” needlessly makes me feel older than I am. Anyway, The Aylesford Skull is my fifth novel involving these characters, so its origins in that sense are decades old. The concept of the story, however, came out of my fascination with so-called Japanese Magic Mirrors (also arguably Chinese Magic Mirrors) that were exceedingly cool objects, which seemed to people to be authentically magic. I believe that they probably were magic a few centuries ago, before magic packed its bags and left town.
How Is This A Story Only You Could’ve Written?
I’m not certain how, but I’m certain that it is (unless we’re talking about the infamous roomful of monkeys with typewriters). Bruce Sterling once said that my work had a “refreshing natural lunacy,” and Robin McKinley, in what was no doubt meant as a positive statement, wrote, “No one should be spared the unique perversity of Jim Blaylock’s world view.”
What Was The Hardest Thing About Writing The Aylesford Skull?
The constant research was difficult, or at least time consuming. There was a ton of it necessary in the beginning, when I was working simply to envision the book and the characters, but the real work came when I was writing. I found myself checking any of a hundred different sources on every page that I wrote, and to make matters worse, one thing would inevitably lead to another. I’d start out reading about hops growing in Kent, England, for example, which would lead me to pieces about oast houses, which would remind me of a scene in The Pickwick Papers that I’d best reread, etc. I can’t tell you how much I learned about coal dust, for example, while I was working on the book (utterly useless knowledge in my daily life, I’m happy to say). Also, I’m anxious to get the language “right.” I want it to sound authentic in some sense of the term, not inaccessibly antique, but not characteristically modern, either. I wanted to fool the reader into hearing a novel that I might have written if I were alive in the 19th Century. I constantly read Victorian novels, or modern works set in that time period, just to keep my ear in tune. It’s shocking how often I checked useful dictionaries in order to avoid anachronism or to understand idioms or scientific words of that strange age. I was surprised to discover that “dirigible,” for example, was very new in 1883. If the book were set in 1880 I’d have stuck with “airship” or “air vessel.” I often found myself checking The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in order to find a nifty word or phrase, and then rechecking it in the Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles in the interests of accuracy, and then deciding against using it altogether because I didn’t like the sound of it or because it was too obscure or show-offy. That sort of thing could waste a good five minutes or more, and the result was that it would take twice as long to write the day’s thousand-words as it would have taken me to write two thousand words of a contemporary novel set in California. That being said, it was a great deal of fun.
What Did You Learn Writing The Aylesford Skull?
I learned something that I already knew but that I often forget: that the best stuff in any of my stories and novels flies into my head out of nowhere during the act of writing, and that I have to trust to the language and the muses and not to a lot of pre-thinking. Conversely, much of that cool, flying stuff ultimately can’t be used, because it simply doesn’t fit. There’s a constant interplay of momentary inspiration and rational assessment.
What Do You Love About The Aylesford Skull?
I’m very fond of some of the smaller characters, who began as bit players and then developed into very much more. That’s related to what I was just talking about – part of the very real magic of writerly invention when all cylinders are firing.
What Don’t You Like About It?
Can’t think of anything, and if I could, I’d quite likely keep it to myself. Reminds me of one of my favorite bits from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: “A dwarf who carries a standard along to measure his own size is a dwarf in more articles than one.”
Give Us Your Favorite Paragraph From The Story:
This one is completely impossible. Here’s a paragraph that I like, however:
Wise reeled away. His senses were uncannily sharp in that
moment; he heard the rain beating on the deck and hissing on the
hot iron of the oven, and he smelled the rain and the river, and saw
with particular clarity the lights winking along the far shore. He
felt the railing in the small of his back, and he heard what sounded
to him like the murmuring of the Thames flowing in its bed toward
the sea, its waters unsettled and agitated by the incoming tide. He
found himself teetering backward, his weight levering him over
the railing – the brief sensation of falling and of the dark waters
mercifully closing over him as he drowned in his own blood.
What’s Next For You As A Storyteller?
I’ve got two novel proposals in the works – one Steampunk and one not. Also I’ve promised to write a couple of short stories. That should fill up a couple of years of my writing life. More of the same after that, as long as my brain doesn’t lose air pressure like an old tire.