Steampunk World’s Fair (SPWF) is one of the largest steampunk conventions in the world, and this year they amped up their awesomeness by inviting Gail Carriger, New York Times bestselling author, to speak on panels and do a signing. I have never seen a line for anything at SPWF before Ms. Carriger’s signing line. She chatted with everyone in the line including an Alexia Taraboti cosplayer, and a woman with a Bumbersnoot. After she had signed every book put on her table, I got to sit down with her and ask her a few questions.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I just finished Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood. I read it before, way back in the day and I really, really love it, but I remembered it made me cry, and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t keep it around and so I reread it and I was sobbing on the couch for the last two chapters. It was pretty brutal but sometimes that’s cathartic. I love her stuff. They just rereleased a bunch of her books that weren’t ever given any book release, obviously, because they didn’t exist at the time, so I want to support her, so I’ve been rebuying them all and rereading.
Q: What are your favorite genres to read?
A: Well, I read a lot of Young Adult and I gravitate towards science fiction and fantasy in general. If I’m reading fiction when I’m writing a new book, which is not actually that common, but if I am, I will read something as unlike what I write as possible, so I’ll read a space opera, for example, when I’m writing steampunk or hard sci-fi, or epic or something, because I don’t want my voice to be colored in any way. I’m a pretty voracious reader, so I’ll read anything in genre. I squick easily, so I don’t read a lot of horror, and I will sully out and read romance if it’s well written.
Q: Do your read nonfiction too?
A: Mostly what I’m reading when I’m writing is actually nonfiction because I do want my voice to be colored by Victorian stuff. I read a lot of primary sources and secondary sources on the Victorian Era. I’m also passionate about research, so I love it, so I’ll read something like Victorian House which is basically someone’s PHD thesis which they turned into a book. You know, like a chapter before bed, and it’s a chapter on how the parlor was set up, but I’m delighted by it!
Q: Do you find it different writing a novel for adults versus one geared towards teenagers?
A: I do. And I really dislike the idea that you would be talking down to a teen audience, but I do think that different ages have different ways of looking at the world. When I’m writing my Young Adult series, I really try to remember what it was like when I was in high school and what, not necessarily the sort of journey to adulthood is, but at least for me, high school was all about becoming more empathic. Most kids are essentially, for survival reasons, selfish, and so those years, the high school years, are when you are learning how to think about the world and how to think about other people and forming your close friendship bonds and all those different things. All of my best friends are from high school that color my world with characters, and I’m just stealing from my friends. That’s really important to me. The other thing I love about Young Adult is how tight it usually is. It’s usually much sharper and more focused in the way it’s written and its use of vocabulary, and I really like that cuz it’s a good pace to read at. I like to work with rules and restrictions. The idea of writing something as tidy as possible really appeals to me.
Q: Did your upbringing influence the Finishing School or Prudence series?
A: Of course! Every author puts bits of themselves bits of their world, bits of their friends, in my case a lot of my friends, into their books. Alexia (Parasol Protectorate protagonist) is kinda my mom, but she’s a bit of me as well. Sophronia (Finishing School protagonist) is definitely kind of me in high school. I’m a writer, so I was much less gregarious, much more introverted when I was in high school, and a real observer of human nature. I would literally climb trees and watch people and make notes. Sophronia’s kind of that right there. Prudence (Custard Protocol protagonist) is, for me, I’m thinking about when I started to lose the introverted-ness in college and leave my safety net behind, and so I literally put her into motion and sent her away from her family in sort of the manner that was kind of like going away for college for me, but she’s also the side of my personality that gets really excited about stuff and gets into trouble, because I’m like, “What do you mean we shouldn’t run around and go swimming in somebody else’s pool?!?” At 3 o’clock in the morning. “Let’s go!” She’s that facet of my personality.
A: Oh my goodness! I can not remember that but at some point somebody had a wicker chicken basket thing that they had turned into a reticule for one of my crazy costume events, and it must have sort of percolated my subconscious because it just happened and it’s a throw away line in the first book and then it became the little gif, and there was exploding wicker chicken all over the internet, and it’s actually super significant in the final book. I brought the wicker chicken back!!! Because why not? Because who doesn’t want an exploding wicker chicken?
Q: Your website says you used to teach. What did you teach?
A: I taught college level archeology in my previous profession. I was a TA and then a lecturer, and I left before I finished my Ph.D, and technically speaking, I can’t be called faculty except that my professor got a grant and I was the only person in the area who is an expert in this particular field and so they pulled me back in after I’d officially left the program in order to teach a senior seminar, so they had to make me faculty. So I get to call myself faculty! It was actually great. All of the reasons I left teaching and academia were not present when I went back and did that seminar, so it was really sort of a charming way to revisit my previous career and leave with a much better taste in my mouth than I had previously.
Q: Does your background in archeology help with writing Victorian Era novels?
A: Yeah, I think so because I use that skill set when I’m researching, for example. But also, it sort of enters the books in weird and unusual ways. From a practical standpoint, all of the places that they tend to visit and the archeological sites are places I’ve gone or sites that are mine. But the other side is you’ll notice that I use objects to define character a lot, so Ivy is sort of defined by her hats, and Alexia by her parasol, and Prudence by the ladybug, and I think that’s partly because I’ve been trained my whole life to look at culture from an object perspective. I also use objects for foreshadowing, and I’m very focused on objects and things and food and style…
Q: How did you decide you wanted to be a writer after your archeology career?
A: Well, I always wanted to be a writer, and I always wanted to be an archeologist. I never waffled. That part of Alexia, I’ve been that person since I was a child, like super stubborn. My two childhood memories are running up the garden path carrying a bone that was kind of rotten from the compost pile, like a very recently eaten chopped bone, that I decided was a dinosaur bone, of course. And then another memory of my mother reading me The Lord of the Rings out loud and me telling her that the ending was clearly incorrect, and then rewriting it for her out loud. I always wrote fiction even as I was working on my Masters degrees and my Ph.D and stuff. I just always wrote. I grew up in an artist commune so I was like, “You don’t make money off of writing.” because all of my parent’s friends were poets and starving. So I thought, “Ooh! Archeology! A very lucrative course!” I’m a very practical person, and so I didn’t make the switch to full time author until I had six months living expenses, and four contracts ready to go, and everything. I had all of my ducks in a row, and then I was like, “Okay. We’ll try this author thing for a while.” I left my department in really friendly terms and they were like, “Your desk is here any time you want to come back!” I got a safety net, which very few of us freelancers get.
Q: Do you think any of your previous novels will ever be published?
A: I don’t know. I mean, there’s that “million words to make an author” and I think that almost every full time author has many previous books that are in the trunk. There are some of them that maybe could be reworked, but now in hindsight, I can go back and understand why they weren’t good and didn’t sell. Most of them would take more work than I currently have time for.
Q: If you knew your editor would green light any project, what would you want to do?
A: That’s a really hard question! I’m fortunate enough now to really be able to write whatever I want to write, and throw my weight around a little bit. I think you’re going to see some of the Prudence books go in places maybe you weren’t ready for, because of that. If I could clear the slate and just write anything I want, I actually have a couple of romance novella length stuff that I really want to write. And then I just got woken up by a new Young Adult book which in the middle of the night, it was like, “AAH! Write us!!” and I was like, “I don’t wanna write you!” So maybe that one, but I’m not as much of an, “Ooh! Shiny!” author as some authors are, (a lot of authors describe themselves as “Ooh! Shiny” in terms of that whatever you’re working on, you don’t want to work on, and there’s always something else you’d rather be writing instead). I don’t have that happen very often. I have a love/hate relationship with whatever I’m writing, it’s my process, but I’m usually pretty happy to be writing it or I wouldn’t be writing it. I suspect that translates to the books because I am a comedy author and so you can sort of tell if I’m not having a good time, I think. I’ve always assumed so, the perceptive reader could. It’s more a question of not necessarily that as of there were more of me and I just had more time to write, what would I be writing because I really want to write the second Crudrat book, which is my sci-fi series, and there are all these little novellas, and I’d love to do a serialized Alessandro series, which is a bunch of little vignettes of his life, Alexia’s father, because I had to write so much of it down. I think he’d be a really fun character to write because he’s kind of Georgian/Regency, and then he’s kind of an antihero because he was sort of a problem child for most of his life, until he met a certain young werewolf. It’s more a fact of there’s so much stuff I wanted to write and I just have to be strict with myself and say this comes first and then get everything lined up. So hopefully I’ll get to write it all. Eventually. Before I die.
Q: Have you had any experiences dealing with sexism within the steampunk and/or literary community?
A: I know many people have. I have not personally. I grew up in fandom as a cosplayer and a fangirl and everything that that entails, and it was always my safe space. When a lot of this stuff started coming out, I was actually really kind of surprised, but I realized that as I’ve gotten older I’ve sort of defensively surrounded myself by particularly male fellow authors who I really trust. You’ll often find me at the bar with the same crew at conventions and stuff, so I think that maybe was a self-defensive maneuver, but if it was, I wasn’t conscious of it.
Q: Do you consider yourself a feminist? How do you define feminism?
A: Yes. Oh yeah. I’m an author, so for me, feminism is kind of actively approaching what I would call the feminine myth rather than the hero’s journey, or the heroine’s journey. Which are ideas of strength and connections and friendships and family solidarity, and you’ll notice this in most of my books, I’m really turned off by the idea of one person against the universe, which is a very common hero’s journey thing. Literally the hero has to be isolated and then pitted against the world on his own, and I just don’t like it, and so sometimes my characters are on their own, but they’re always at their weakest when they’re on their own, and they need to form connections and find people to help them and that’s not a weakness, and it really frustrates me that so often in society it’s perceived as a weakness. Because I think our strength as human beings is in the people who we love and the people who love us. I’m really intent on promoting that. And to me, that’s kind of a feminist agenda. To define it (feminism) in a single term, I think that’s a semantic struggle that almost all feminists work with. I guess I’m a feminist because I would like to see women better represented in the world and in our own society.
Needless to say, Ms. Carriger blew me away with her humor, her brilliant vocabulary, and her intelligence, on top of her amazing writing skills. She was polite and kind to her fans, and she’s a feminist. If you didn’t have the utmost respect for her before reading this interview, I hope you do now.