Interview with Meljean Brook, What the heck is steampunk? by Maili
Let's suppose I'm an innocent lamb that somehow ends up at your signing table in a bookshop. After winning me over with a dorky smile, how would you summarise Here There Be the Monsters (a novella from romance anthology Burning Up) and The Iron Duke?
You know that times are tough for writers when a dorky smile isn't enough. Alas!
Describing the books, I'd mention the gadgets and zombies and giant squid (those are popular, right?), but when it comes down to it, they're romance. The world looks a bit Victorian and a bit Regency, but it's not truly either – and the stories feature characters who fall in love on their adventures through that world, which can be both a wondrous and dangerous endeavour (see previous mention of gadgets, zombies, giant squid.)
Everyone has their definition of Steampunk and you, of course, have yours, but not many have explained the origins of their definition, so I’m grabbing this chance to ask: What are the origins of yours?
I first heard the term "steampunk" from one of my professors about ten years ago, while reading Neal Stephenson's THE DIAMOND AGE for a Pop Culture class. So that was the first time the actual term made its way into my head, but I was aware of the *idea* of steampunk for longer, and through various formats.
For example, I remember reading about the London Science Museum creating a working difference engine, and "what if" speculation went hand-in-hand with it. Or reading about Victorian inventions that simply didn't work – but there's always fun in imagining they did. And on the fictional side, there were shows like "The Wild Wild West" (I have my grandpa to thank for that, and Will Smith to blame for my seeing the movie in 1999.) And then it seems like every time someone in a comic book or novel travels back in time, the guy from the future constructs some gadget out of gears and gunpowder, and armored knights end up riding bicycles.
Just little things, adding up over the years – and so by the time I first heard the term steampunk, I was already familiar with science fiction within a historical setting. Steampunk just gave it a name – and a cool name, at that.
What is your definition of Steampunk?
Science fiction in a historical setting that predates a widespread use of electricity and/or internal combustion engines powered by diesel or gasoline. But although I say "historical," the actual era doesn't matter all that much to me. If the alternate history timeline creates a world where people are still running steam engines in 2511 A.D., that's just as steampunk as a story set in the Victorian era. In that case, the pre-modern technology gives the feel of a historical setting, which works well enough for me.
There have been some heated discussions about Steampunk as some feel there are definitive elements that differs Steampunk from Alternative Historical Fantasy and Gaslight Fantasy. Do you agree with this school of thinking?
Yes, except that I'm going to add a BUT as big as my own. As I described above, my definition of steampunk is "historical science fiction." And so the more supernatural/fantasy elements that are used in the worldbuilding, the more those books move from steampunk to gaslight and fantasy – BUT.
I also don't think that it's feasible for readers, booksellers, and publishers to keep differentiating between these subgenres on a large scale (the problem of labelling and shelving alone would have booksellers across the nation *headdesking* together). And so I wouldn't be surprised if every alternative history with steampunk elements is going to be lumped into a "steampunk' category. Like "paranormal romance' contains demons, vampires, fairies, shapeshifters, and so on, I think "steampunk romance' will inevitably become a catch-all term for historical romances that contain even a hint of gadgetry or a dirigible, even if the paranormal elements are stronger.
Does this bother me? No. (Not any more. I'll admit to biting my tongue the first few times I heard of books containing vampires and werewolves and systems of magic being described as steampunk.) Do I understand the frustration that steampunk purists are feeling? Absolutely. (I also suspect that there are quite a few who are just as irritated by the idea of steampunk romance.) Unlike paranormal romance, which is a big umbrella underneath which all of those supernatural creatures like vampires and demons naturally fit, other subgenres are being crammed beneath the steampunk romance umbrella. I think it's perfectly understandable that steampunk fans are saying, "Hold on a second. Tell me again why you're calling that steampunk?"
But I also don't know if there's a better alternative to cramming them together as they enter the romance genre. Steampunk romance is so new, and there isn't a lot of it – but there are several books which look a lot like steampunk, and share the same elements, and they fit more comfortably under this umbrella than under "historical paranormal" or something similar. And so I don't have a problem at all if books that are better described as gaslight, or "steampunk-y," or "with steampunk elements" are just called steampunk.
It's not perfect, but I think it's easier to have the steampunk classification more open than narrow – especially for readers new to the genre (and most romance readers are.) If a book with steampunk elements opens up a new subgenre for them because of a shared name, I'm happy with that.
You pitched the Iron Seas idea to an editor two years ago, describing it as “The Pirates of the Caribbean meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen“. Were these films the ones that sparked the idea?
Oh, god no. Ha! I hadn't even seen The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen at the time I pitched the books (I'd heard too many terrible things about it). No, I used those movies as examples simply because "steampunk" wasn't on the romance-reading radar at the time. It was only last year that we saw BONESHAKER, LEVIATHAN, and SOULLESS come out, and speculation and buzz about the genre began to pick up in romance circles. Two years ago, there wasn't even that.
And so I didn't want to scare my editor or my agent by throwing "steampunk" at them, because it wasn't an established romance subgenre, and no one had any idea yet whether steampunk would be marketable. So I compared it to movies that I thought would offer them the best visual idea of what the series might look like, and to show that there was an audience for it. (Perhaps not so much with the League movie, but definitely PotC.)
So the movies didn't inspire or influence me at all, but they did help me sell the Iron Seas. My editor came back and said that the steampunk series sounded different and fresh, and bought the first two books on the basis of that pitch … which was a huge leap of faith on her part. She was familiar with my voice and my previous work, of course, but I hadn't even given her any pages at that point, just the idea. Maybe the steampunk buzz began earlier among publishers, and it was just a right-pitch-at-the-right-time moment.
Those first two books are Here There Be the Monsters and The Iron Seas?
The first novella and novel, yes. The second novel, tentatively titled Heart of Steel, will be out next year.
I was petrified when I started your novella, Here There Be the Monsters, because I so badly wanted it to live up to my idea of a Steampunk romance as other authors' Steampunk-labelled romances – although great reads – didn't. Some are pretty much Gaslight Romance and some, Alternative Historical Fantasy. Honestly, you have no idea how ecstatic I was when I found that Here There Be the Monsters really is a Steampunk romance. But what makes it work is the romantic element. This is your intention, isn't it? Did you find ensuring the world-building wouldn't overwhelm your characters' romantic relationships difficult?
I love steampunk, but I love romance more. So I always try to tie the romantic plot and character arcs to the main action of the story, so that the worldbuilding elements provide as much of the romantic and external conflict as possible – but the romance itself drives the story.
Is it difficult? Yes and no. I always worry (in this series and in my Guardian series) that the worldbuilding details and the external conflicts will overwhelm the romance – but I think this is true in any subgenre of romance. Spy subplots and political intrigues and clothing in historicals. The suspense part of romantic thrillers. The details of magic systems in paranormals. It doesn't matter what subgenre you're working in, you have to make certain that the romance isn't overwhelmed by the world you're building.
For me, the easiest way to maintain that balance (and it doesn't always work) is by making certain that the worldbuilding provides the romantic tension and shapes their characters. Whatever stands between my heroes and heroines has been created by the world itself, and so the only way to clear a path to the HEA is to describe that part of the world – and describe the problem they face – and so both are presented at the same time to the reader. When all of that work is done, and the romantic conflict and the world are well established, then my characters can solve the problem (or maneuver around it.)
So it's all tied together. I don't switch between the romantic plot and the how-does-this-world-work plot. The progression of the romance can't be separated from the progression of the worldbuilding or the external plot – and I try not to have any Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a dastardly plan unfolds– moments. The hero and heroine are always in the center of the action, and so even if they aren't gazing lustfully at each other, they're together and moving forward.
What I find interesting about both stories is that they take place after Rhys Trahaearn (hero of The Iron Duke) freed Britain from the control of the feared Horde. What's the story behind this decision, regarding the timeline?
Two reasons, both completely selfish. I've been writing the Guardian series, which is on a long arc toward an ultimate victory. But as much as I love the Guardians, I didn't want to do the same thing again with my steampunk series: Small victories with each book, and the stakes rising with each installment. Building up a few characters to be the Big Hero/ine in the final book, the ultimate confrontation. It's a new series, and I wanted to do something different.
And I don't intend to continue with the Guardian series after the last book in that arc, but a part of me wants to. Because I want to explore the aftermath and the consequences – no victory comes without a price, and a part of me wants to tell the stories of those who paid for it. And so with the Iron Seas, I had the victory over the Horde come first.
So I've got a powerful empire on the verge of collapse. I've got nations, small and large, scrambling for power, for their place in the New World, and desperately trying to hold onto the ruins of the Old World. I've got villains who aren't as easily identifiable (no demons here), heroes and heroines who've been beaten down and scared to death, but are still trying to build their little piece of Earth into something better. There's no big arc, just isolated stories about different parts of this world.
And between the two series, I'm writing everything I want to be writing right now, and it keeps writing in both series fresh.
In the Romance genre, the settings of British-set romances are usually England and Scotland so it's pretty much left to two authors Mary Balogh and Margaret Moore to wave the Welsh flag through their romance novels. Why did you choose Wales as Rhys Trahaearn's stomping ground?
Three reasons: coal, iron, and an early vision of The Iron Duke that didn't pan out. In the Iron Seas world, everyone on the British isle has been affected by the Horde occupation, and all of its population oppressed and changed in some way – but the Welsh got the worst of it as the Horde severely modified their bodies and enslaved a good portion of the population to work the mines.
Originally, I'd planned to have the first book in the Iron Seas series engage with the conflicts and issues that arose between Wales and England after the Horde left, especially in regards to coal and iron – resources that everyone needs, under the control of a population tired of being used to procure it for a foreign ruler. But as I worked it through, I realized the book was becoming far more political than I wanted it to, and was lacking the sense of adventure that I'd envisioned for the series. So I changed the focus, but Rhys Trahaearn's birthplace remained the same.
How do you pronounce Rhys Trahaearn's name, anyway?
He would pronounce it trah-HI-arn. But everyone in London who learned his name by reading the newssheets or who first heard it in the parlors and streets would probably call him trah-HARN.
One of most interesting things about your Iron Seas stories is the sinister Horde and its nanotechnology, and how it affects various characters including those two heroines – and formerly, children of the Horde – Ivy, who has artificial arms, and Mina who has a nanotech-infested body. How much research did you do on technology, or did you make up as you went along?
For the nanotech, it was a little bit of both – research and just making it up – but even the made up stuff didn't seem so farfetched after doing the research. It seems that every week there is announcement about nanotech and the incredible things it can do, or some future application for it is revealed and under development. So some of the uses that I made up for it in the Iron Seas didn't feel that impossible. And although the Horde's technology evolved differently than ours did, they were using steam-powered tech 500 years before its widespread use in our "real' timeline – so I thought that was enough time for them to have developed nanotech.
As for the other technology – the steam engines, the influence machines, the dirigibles – I've tried to root that as close to reality as possible, and almost all of it comes from research of real historical tech. There are differences, of course – Leonardo da Vinci truly did design a human-shaped automaton, but he never built an army of them as he'd been rumoured to have done in the Iron Seas world – and I've taken a few liberties with efficiency and functionality, but there is very little in the Iron Seas that couldn't have been created or hadn't been designed by a real historical figure.
The title of your latest novella, Here There Be The Monsters, who are the monsters?
If we define monsters as something huge and frightening, there are several in the story. [Very mild spoilers ahead!] The megalodons and kraken are real monsters in the physical sense. Mad Machen is a human monster, but only because it's an image that he's carefully constructed. The slave traders are monsters (and the worst of the lot, in my opinion.) Ivy's fear of the Horde and of being controlled is a personal monster, as is Eben's fear that he can't offer her everything that she deserves.
So there be many monsters in the novella.
I think quite a few readers are aware that your favourite character from the Guardian series is Colin Ames-Beaumont, who has his own story in Demon Moon. Of all characters in The Iron Duke and Here There Be the Monsters, who’s your favourite character so far and why?
I have a hard time choosing between Ivy and Mina (my two heroines.) I love the heroes, Eben and Rhys, and both stories have several secondary characters about whom I could easily write a story (or five) about: Constable Newberry, Lady Corsair, Dame Sawtooth and Jasper Evans, and Scarsdale, just to start.
Pretty much every character in the Iron Seas has been through some form of hell, so it's not that Ivy and Mina are stronger or have survived worse than anyone else. But at the beginning of their stories, they are both in a position where they don't have much power – in society or compared to the heroes. They're vulnerable, and they *know* they're vulnerable. So they both have to use their wits and their will to get what they need, and to protect themselves … and they have to be smarter and often more stubborn than the people who can overpower them. They have to be bold women, but they aren't fearless – oftentimes they are scared to death, but they still take chances to protect themselves or the people they care about.
And I love that about both of them. They aren't the same character in any way – Ivy is much sweeter than Mina, who has a tendency to dislike and distrust everyone she meets. Mina is more emotionally reserved, whereas Ivy is quick to laugh and to anger. But I really loved writing both, and being in their heads – I honestly can't choose between them.
Not even with a gun pointing at your head?
Ah, well, if a gun is pointed at my head, then it's probably being held by Lady Corsair – and by this time next year, after I've written her book, she might very well top the list. So Lady Corsair it is!
But, okay. If I have to choose, it would probably be Mina. But Ivy has robot arms! -okay, still Mina, and perhaps only because it was my first time writing a heroine with a family who loves each other so fiercely. Most of my characters are Guardians or vampires, so their families are long dead – but Mina's relationship with her mother, father, and brothers was an enormous part of her character, and it became one of my favourite parts of her character, as well.
For what it's worth, my current favourite is Lady Corsair (a world-weary but easily amused, savvy and mysterious captain who appears in both stories). Will there be more after the third Iron Seas story?
As many as I can write without repeating myself – or until my publisher says, "Enough!" I've set up the world so that I can explore a different part of it with every book, and so I hope to keep the series fresh. Each story should stand alone and bring something new to the Iron Seas world.
The second novel will be more of an on-the-ground, Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones type of adventure (there I go again, comparing them to movies) and in the third, I hope to write with a Western flavor – with a twist, of course, since the U.S. doesn't exist in the Iron Seas world, and the Wild West develops a bit differently than in our world.
At this moment, however, I only have contracts for two books and one novella. So those are coming for certain, and the rest depends upon both reader and publisher interest.
I'm desperate to know your answer to "How can there be a Wild West if the U.S. doesn't exist?", but I'll stick with this question instead: Will you have a map of the Iron Seas world drawn up for us readers at your site?
I hope to have maps and an alternate history timeline up by the time the Iron Duke releases. They won't be needed to understand the world, but I think would be nice extras. So, yes. I can't promise that the maps will be pretty (I have to rely on my Photoshop skills) but they'll be there.
Nice one. Thank you so much for finding the time to do this interview.