Titan Books has re-released Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine alongside a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull by James Blaylock. We recently chatted with the author about what fans can expect from these new re-releases as well as why horror fans should pick them up!
AMANDA DYAR: Before we begin, you are often credited with being one of the founders of modern Steampunk. Tell us how this all started for you and what were your initial goals when it happened?
JAMES BLAYLOCK: Steampunk didn’t become Steampunk until ten years after Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter, and I began writing our first stories and novels set in historic periods. K.W. was writing Morlock Night, which was published by Daw books, and I was writing “The Ape-box Affair,” which was published by Unearth magazine, and also a story titled “The Hole in Space,” which I sold to Starwind magazine, which unfortunately died before the story appeared. Tim was working on the novel that would become The Drawing of the Dark, which was followed by The Anubis Gates. The three of us had recently graduated from the university and had read more than our share of 18th and 19th century literature. All of us had grown up reading Verne, Wells, Stevenson, and Conan Doyle. We were naturally inclined to write science fiction and fantasy set in the past. By the late 1980s, when K.W. coined the term “Steampunk,” we had had collectively published a number of steam-driven novels and stories set in Victorian London, and other writers were writing their own. Bruce Sterling and William Gibson would publish The Difference Engine a couple of years later in 1990. So (to answer the question) we had no goals at all when we wrote our early Steampunk works aside from virtually every writer’s goal, which was to publish stories and novels. It was strange to discover that they had added up to a sub-genre of their own, and even stranger to watch the whole thing grow into what it is today.
AMANDA: Titan Books is set to release a special limited edition version of The Aylesford Skull. What all does the new special limited edition include and why should fans pick it up?
JAMES: I have to admit that I haven’t seen the thing yet, although I’ve seen pictures of its very cool cover and interior design, and I’ve read the introduction and afterword, written by Tim and K.W. To my mind, and in my heart, so to speak, it’s a bound memory of my earliest days as a publishing writer, when I had the time and inclination to spend long afternoons hanging around with Tim and K.W., plotting stories and talking about feral pigs in the London Sewers and whatever other vital things – another bowl of popcorn to go with this pitcher of beer – were going on in our lives in those days. But perhaps that reveals why I’m particularly anxious to hold the book in my hands.
AMANDA: How much research went into constructing The Aylesford Skull?
JAMES: A heap of research went into it. I read widely when I was developing the plot – books and articles on 19th century photography, coal dust explosions, Japanese magic mirrors, the history of various neighborhoods in London, farming in Kent, the Thames and Kentish marshes, and so forth. Once I started to write, I discovered that the research hadn’t come to an end. Alice St. Ives required some research when she decided to go fishing, what sort of fishing she would do, what the fishing tackle would consist of, etc. That lead to reading about taxidermy, poisons, hops growing, and a bunch of other things that I needed to understand simply to provide details for my characters’ day-to-day lives. It always turns out that a writer can use only a very small percentage of the stuff learned in research, which from the perspective of a reader adds up to odds and ends. It can take months to gather those odds and ends. Also, I made an effort to get the language of the story “right,” which meant, among other things, that I tried to avoid anachronisms and Americanisms and to use language that rang true for the era. So I found myself perpetually turning to a number of dictionaries both to find words and phrases to include and also to exclude. All of that slows the writing down – I was happy to write a thousand words a day – but it’s also immensely interesting. It’s too bad that my sieve-like mind refuses to retain most of what I learn.
JAMES: Inspirations are hard to pin down. I wrote some Steampunk short stories in the 1970s, but my first novel, The Elfin Ship, which I began writing in 1978, was inspired by what I was reading or rereading at the time, which included The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, Huckleberry Finn, Three Men in a Boat, and other atmospheric, often whimsical novels. After I wrote The Digging Leviathan in 1983, it came into my mind that I was ready to write a full-length Steampunk novel (I was very fond of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the time, and also of Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights) and that I should write the novel that I might have written if I were working a hundred years in the past. Homunculus was the result. Shortly after that I wrote a novella titled “Lord Kelvin’s Machine,” which was published in Asimov’s. Several years (and several novels) later, it occurred to me to write a sequel to “Lord Kelvin’s Machine,” but far too many years had passed for Asimov’s to want to publish that sequel. It seemed to me then that the sequel still didn’t complete the story I had started years earlier, which led to my writing a third section and coming up with a novel length manuscript that provided my protagonist Langdon St. Ives with a wife and family, and also with the time machine that Dr. Narbondo (having transformed himself into Dr. Frosticos after being frozen solid and thawed back out) would need to travel to the future where he would have the opportunity to plague the characters in The Digging Leviathan and Zeuglodon. So Lord Kelvin’s Machine was the result of a number of inspirations separated sometimes by years.
AMANDA: Homunculus is packed full of classic Steampunk imagery, but it also has creepy horror elements such as flying ships piloted by skeletons and evil villains. What else can you tell us that would drive the avid horror fan to go and pick up a copy of Homunculus?
JAMES: It has zombies in it, for one thing, many years before zombies would catch on. (I’m assuming that avid horror fans like a good zombie now and then.) Sections of the novel are quite dark – grave robberies, heads lopped off with pruning sheers, severed hands playing a piano, corpses brought back to life (not zombie corpses) etc. Also, I believe that horror fans will find it a very… different sort of book. If they do pick it up, I hope they enjoy it.
AMANDA: I am a huge fan of books and movies that involve time travel. For either to be entertaining to the reader, then the rules of time travel have to be made clear. How did you go about doing this in Lord Kelvin’s Machine and how tricky was this type of book to write?
JAMES: I tend to prefer anything having rules, especially implausible things like time travel, so I drew the predictable time graph, paying attention to my characters’ comings and goings. Langdon St. Ives had to travel to the future as well as to the past, and I wanted him to meet himself somewhere along the line, both for the sake of humor and because I wanted to mess with the idea that one might not be particularly happy with oneself when meeting, so to speak, for the first time. I find it unsettling to see myself in a mirror unless I’m prepared for it; heaven help me if I actually ran into myself in the street. Also, there were troubles that St. Ives could solve via time travel, or just as easily worsen. I’m an immense fan of Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates, which has a plot dependent on a time travel conundrum and which required more complicated plotting than I wanted to do. St. Ives’s time traveling was an efficient way to solve the problems of the plot and to have some fun. Even so, it was difficult to keep it all straight. I remember calling Tim now and then and saying something like, “Okay, St. Ives has to fly back to 1852, but he left his pocket watch in a pub in Limehouse in 1876 and he needs to retrieve it, but is anxious to avoid being seen by himself, who is outside on the pavement looking for his hat…” In other words, there would inevitably come points of confusion, and then I was happy to have expert advice.
AMANDA: What is your fondest memory during the time that you were writing these three books (The Aylesford Skull, Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine)?
JAMES: This is a tough one. I wrote Lord Kelvin’s Machine nearly 30 years ago, and so most of my fondest memories have to do with what my sons were doing at the time and with friends that I knew back then who have passed away or who I rarely see any more. (Don’t mean to get maudlin here.) So I’m going to say that I was seriously happy when I realized that I very much wanted to write The Aylesford Skull nearly twenty years after I finished Lord Kelvin’s Machine – that writing more Steampunk was in fact fun. When the book was finished, it occurred to me that it had come out pretty well, which made me anxious to write more of the stuff. It’s nice to have been writing and publishing for 35 years, only to discover that I very much want to keep writing and publishing.
AMANDA: Your stories are often cleverly constructed within worlds pack full
of fantasy elements. What draws you to this type of worlds in your writing?
JAMES: This is going to sound a little goofy, but it seems as if I’ve always believed that the world was a fairly fantastic place, not only because I’ve had some tolerably strange experiences in my life, but because I see a lot of color and magic in the everyday world. I’ve come to think that it’s difficult for me to keep fantasy elements out of my writing. I’m fairly sure that this accounts for me being attracted to the kinds of books I’ve always been attracted to, which no doubt helped to turn me into the writer I am today. There’s a book that I grew up with that had belonged to my mother, titled The Brownies and the Goblins, written and illustrated by N.M. Banta, in which a group of brownies and goblins go on a travel excursion to the moon in a wooden, open air omnibus thing. They fall in with the Man in the Moon, who is very nearly blind from watching the sun instead of watching the stars. Our heroes give him a pair of fairy spectacles, which fit him despite his enormous head, and he’s so overjoyed that he makes a solemn promise to visit Earth some day carrying a vast treasure that he’ll give away to poor people. He sends them off with pockets full of diamonds. It’s a good bet that I was genially infected by that story, and especially by the illustrations of flying machines, magic spectacles, and heaps of treasure on the moon. In other words, my attraction to the fantastic is a cosmic conspiracy abetted by my mother, who followed up The Brownies and the Goblins with books by Verne and Wells and Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs. By the time I was fourteen-years-old, the die was cast.
AMANDA: Can you tell us about what other projects you have lined up next or
currently working on?
JAMES: I recently finished a short Steampunk novel that will be published by Subterranean Press later this year. It’s titled The Adventure of the Ring of Stones. It’s a slightly… eccentric book. I’m working on a sequel to my novel Zeuglodon, and also on another Steampunk novel in the vein of The Aylesford Skull. I’ve got enough writing projects on my mind currently to keep me off the streets for the next five years.
AMANDA: What advice do you have to writers who are trying to get their first book published and trying to make it in the Steampunk/fantasy/horror genre?
JAMES: I do have some advice. It’s really vital that writers write what they love to read, and in order to figure that out, writers need to have read widely. If they’re not reading fantasy, horror, or science fiction that was written 80 or 100 or 150 years ago, then they’re not reading widely. Another equally important thing is that hopeful writers write a lot. We all get better at what we do when we do more of it. Don’t wait for inspiration, that, as they say, is a fool’s game. I’m wildly happy to say that you’ll be a better writer at fifty than you are at 15 or 25 or 35 if you keep at it and avoid being hit by meteors. Finally, nobody should attempt to write Steampunk or any other variety of book unless they’ve read a lot of it, and not just currently published books, either, but the books that inspired Steampunk writers. I often read pieces by mixed up reviewers or in articles about Steampunk that insist that Verne and Wells were “Steampunks.” Verne and Wells were the literary giants on whose shoulders the rest of us Steampunk writers are endeavoring to stand upon. I want everyone to read as many of my books as they can get their hands on, but it’s more vital that they read books that were actually written during the age of steam. Doing so will increase the odds that a writer will write a book or a story that’s worth publishing, which brings me to my last bit of advice. Writing well enough to publish takes a long time. If you want it now, so to speak, you’re in for a massively frustrating time of it. Write because you love to write and are compelled to write. If that’s not enough, then I’ll guarantee you there are easier ways to make a living.
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