An Interview with JAMES P. BLAYLOCK
|Name: JAMES P. BLAYLOCK
Author of: THE DIGGING LEVIATHAN (1984)
On the web: www.jamespblaylock.com
To celebrate the release of James P. Blaylock’s latest novel, The Aylesford Skull (my review will be available later this week, so do please check back), his publisher, Titan Books, are running a competition to win a Limited Edition copy of the novel. Enjoy the interview with the author, below, and check out details on how to enter the competition at the end.
One of the founding fathers of modern steampunk, James P. Blaylock is the winner of a Philip K. Dick Award and two World Fantasy Awards. Befriended and mentored by Philip K. Dick, James P. Blaylock pioneered the steampunk genre along with his contemporaries, Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. He is distinguished by his unique, humorous style, enthralling characters and vivid real world settings.
I’m delighted to welcome James P. Blaylock along to Reader Dad for a chat. Thanks for the taking the time out, James.
You’re credited, along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, as one of the fathers of modern Steampunk. Tell us a bit about the history of the genre: what was your starting point? What were you trying to achieve?
The three of us were friends (still are) in the 1970s. After we graduated from the university, we were young enough and idle enough to have time to hang around with each other during the day. We were all new writers at the time. I had published my first short story, and Tim and K.W. had sold novels. I was enthusiastically working on an impossible novel, which I’d figure out how to write several years later as The Digging Leviathan. All of us were big on Victorian literature. K.W., who had a degree (I seem to remember) in sociology, had read Henry Mayhew’s brilliant London Labour and the London Poor, and was regaling us with wild accounts of treasures and feral pigs in the London Sewers and that sort of thing. Tim was researching and writing the novel that would become The Drawing of the Dark, and K.W. was writing Morlock Night. Much of this “research” went on at O’Hara’s Pub in downtown Orange, California, where I lived at the time and still do. (I mean I live in Orange, not at O’Hara’s Pub.) K.W. and Tim were living in a bohemian sort of neighborhood in nearby Santa Ana, where Phil Dick was living at the time. I was engaged in an effort to read all of Robert Louis Stevenson and P.G. Wodehouse, and I very badly wanted to spend some time in an earlier era, taking a shot at making slightly arcane language work and writing wacky adventures about backyard scientist/explorers. The result was my short story “The Ape-box Affair,” which was the first of our early Steampunk pieces to see print, only by virtue of its being a story rather than a novel: quicker to write and quicker to publish. None of us had the idea of writing any particular sort of thing at all. It simply seemed right and natural to set a story where the story seemed to want to be set. It was nearly a decade after “The Ape-Box Affair” and Morlock Night were published that K.W. would coin the term Steampunk. Up until then I had no idea that it formed any sort of science fiction subgenre. So I have to say that we weren’t trying to achieve anything much beyond publishing stories and novels. We might as easily have been writing pirate fantasies (which would come later) or vegetarian thrillers. We’d be Piratepunks or Vegetarianpunks now.
Steampunk is still thriving today, both on and off the page. Do you follow the genre much? If so, which authors, in your opinion, are worth following? Who are the people pushing the limits of the genre and keeping it alive?
I watch the Steampunk phenomenon with great pleasure, and I admire the trappings. I have to say, however, that I don’t follow the genre much, except by chance. I recently had the pleasure of reading Ghosts by Gaslight, an anthology of Steampunk/Gaslight stories edited by Nick Gevers and Jack Dann. They managed to pack the anthology with great stories. I wasn’t surprised to see that first rate writers like Gene Wolfe or Lucius Shepard could write first rate Steampunk or Gaslight fantasy as well as anything else they set their hand to. I’m also fond of the publications of the VanderMeers. And Tim Powers’s Hide Me Among the Graves is characteristically brilliant. It’s arguable that Steampunk culture is being kept alive by the growing number of aficionados who dress the part, play the music, talk the talk, and generally live in their version of a Steampunk world. I’m guessing they’re abetted and encouraged by writers like Cherie Priest and Gail Carriger, who create fully conceived and persuasive Steampunk worlds in their fiction. I’m all for keeping it alive.
There was a gap of 17 years between your last Langdon St. Ives novel, and the first of the novellas. The Aylesford Skull is the first full-length St. Ives novel in twenty years. How did you approach your return to the character after such a long time away? Was it difficult to find your way back into his world?
It was in fact easy to find my way back into the world. I was attracted to it in the first place because I’d long been an enthusiastic reader of 18th and 19th Century literature, starting at around 10 years old. That enthusiasm never declined. I have other enthusiasms when it comes to reading, of course, but I’ve always had one foot in the past, looking back as often as I look forward. That being said, most of my novels take place in contemporary California settings, and I wrote a string of them in the late 80s and 90s, taking a couple of years on each. About 12 years ago I developed a program in creative writing at what was then the Orange County High School of the Arts (now more accurately the Orange County School of the Arts) and I stayed on to direct the program and to teach. I was already teaching full time at Chapman University, and the result of all this teaching and directing was less writing. Along the line, however, I read James Norman Hall’s brilliant collection of stories titled Dr. Dogbody’s Leg, and I was reminded of how much I missed writing Steampunk, and I found myself writing “The Ebb Tide” and “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs” for Subterranean Press. I also found a new agent, who leaned on me to write a longer Steampunk novel, and the result of that was The Aylesford Skull. I assume that my agent will keep leaning on me.
On a similar note, what was the driving force behind the return to the character after such a long absence?
The driving force was a complicated mixture of Dr. Dogbody’s Leg, the expectations of a new agent, the compulsion to write more, and the knowledge that if I didn’t write more I’d wake up one morning with the knowledge that I used to be a writer.
What’s next for St. Ives? Can we expect to see more adventures from the Professor in the near future?
His next appearance (as far as I know now) will be in a new publication from Subterranean Press that’s a companion volume to the previous two. Its working title is “The Pagan Goddess,” but that will probably be supplanted by something more… something. There’s also another full-length St. Ives novel in the works, just taking shape in my mind at this point.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
The writers who inclined me toward writing Victorian science fiction included Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Poe. Those writers made colourful, old-fashioned adventure novels particularly appealing to me when I was a boy. But my love of language, of writing, of setting and character can be blamed on Twain, Steinbeck, and Stevenson. Their novels and stories and essays were the driving force, so to speak, of my writing. The die was cast when I was ten years old, and my parents gave me Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer as Christmas presents, just at the time that I had discovered Steinbeck in my mother’s library and read In Dubious Battle and some of the short stories in The Long Valley. I didn’t understand a lot of what I was reading, but I was entirely swept up in the flood of word pictures and strange characters, and I’m still swimming in that river. (Sorry for the wonky metaphor.)
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
If you mean someone else’s book, sure – a hundred or two of them. I wish I had the talent and the information and sensibilities and experiences of any and all of my literary heroes and could write the books they wrote. If you mean a Blaylock book that I’d like to have written, then I’ll say that I wish circumstances had conspired to compel me to write a sequel to The Disappearing Dwarf, which was a sequel to The Elfin Ship. That would have happened if my editors at Del Rey Books, Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey hadn’t passed away. So it goes, however. And if I’d written that imaginary book, then I wouldn’t have written some other book, and who knows what would have come for me. I’m happy to have written what I’ve written, and happy that people are still reading my books more than 35 years after my first story was published.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
I’d tell them not to quit their day jobs, to be ready for the long haul, to read as much as they can read, to write what makes them happy, and to remember that the stuff that goes into their books and stories is most often not the stuff that they learn in school, but the stuff they see in the world around them. Perseverance is worth as much as talent, and work is worth more than all the rest combined. Back when I was first selling stories and trying to sell novels, Tim Powers had a strict rule that he would write a thousand words a day. I bought into his rule, and it made all the difference.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
Pleasure. My business is writing and teaching, and I only teach what I myself like to read. Right now I’ve got several books going: My nightstand book is Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken. My desktop books are The Pickwick Papers and also The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian. (I perpetually read O’Brian.) My vacation book (my wife and I are in Carmel at the moment, looking out over a grove of cypress trees at the ocean) is John D. MacDonald’s The Lonely Silver Rain.
Would you like to see Langdon and company make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
I’d be deliriously happy to see the whole crowd leap onto the screen. I’ll admit, however, that I’m a little behind the times when it comes to actors and directors. I’m happily watching “Downton Abbey” and the first and only season of “Firefly.” If I could fit Gary Busey into the mix I’d do it.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
This is a tough one. Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, India Pale Ale, and we’d talk about heaven knows what, but I’d start with an idea from Dickens – that “Trifles make the sum of life.” I’d ask him what trifles make up the sum of his life, and which of them made up the sum of his books. I hope that makes some kind of sense.
Thank you once again, James, for taking time out to share your thoughts.
This article was posted as part of the Aylesford Skull Swashbuckling Blog Tour celebrating the release of James P. Blaylock’s first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years [The Aylesford Skull, Titan Books, £7.99]. For the opportunity to win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull in a jacketed, signed hardcover with a unique jacket design, just tweet “I would like a limited edition of the Aylesford Skull @TitanBooks #Blaylock”.
Details about The Limited Edition (available Feb 2013)
750 signed and numbered editions:
Jacketed, cloth-bound hardcover with ribbon
Signed by James P. Blaylock
Exclusive foreword by K.W. Jeter and introduction by Tim Powers
26 signed and lettered editions:
As above encased in a custom-made traycase
Be the first to find out when The Aylesford Skull (Limited Edition) is available, by signing up to Titan’s mailing list here: http://www.titanbooks.com/signup.