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Interview with Steampunk Legend Author James P. Blaylock

James P. Blaylock is the author of innumerable books, among them the St. Ives books, set in a steampunk version of Victorian England, the The Balumnia Trilogy, set in a fantasy universe, the Christian Trilogy, which uses Christian mythology in a modern world, the Ghost trilogy—also set in the modern world–and numerous standalone books. He, K.W. Jeter, and Tim Powers are credited as the creators of steampunk. Recently, a number of his early steampunk books have been re-released by Titan books, and this year marked his returned to the genre with The Aylesford Skull.

Here, he takes the time to talk writing, reading, teaching, and octopus-keeping with the Geek Girl Project.

Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview! I’ve had a marvelous time reading the St. Ives books!

GGP At the end of The Aylesford Skull St. Ives is quite ready to settle down peacefully with his wife, children, and pet elephant. Is he going to be able retire? Is he even the sort of person who really does retire?

The Aylesford_Skull coverBlaylock St. Ives doesn’t have the constitution to remain idle, and also, his enemies have the terrible habit of appearing at inconvenient times and causing him trouble.  At the time of the Aylesford Skull debacle, St. Ives and his wife Alice had recently inherited their farm from Alice’s aunt, had moved in wholesale, and had become hop farmers.  St. Ives has other properties in England, and could quite easily live an idyllic life, pottering around the acreage, writing learned papers, and going into London now and again for meetings of the Royal Society (although his dealings with the Royal Society often add to his troubles).  Some months after the Aylesford Skull debacle, however, his self-imposed idleness begins to wear on him, and he sets out on a sea voyage in his wealthy friend Gilbert Frobisher’s steam yacht, which leads to an adventure so strange and unlikely that I can’t begin to relate it here.  I’ll reveal that St. Ives survives, however, and returns to Aylesford, his wanderlust sated, only to…  Retirement’s not in him, I’m afraid.  His sea voyage with Hasbro, Jack Owlesby, and the Frobishers is the subject of “The Adventure of the Ring of Stones,” which will be published by Subterranean Press later this year.

GGPI’ve seen your St. Ives books referred to both as the St. Ives series and as the Narbondo series. It’s obvious how I think of them, but how do you think of them? Who do you give a starring role, or do you have another series title all together in mind?

Blaylock I haven’t given much thought to a series title.  If I had to choose, it would probably be “The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives” or some such thing.  St. Ives will always have the starring role.  Dr Narbondo is the great nemesis of St. Ives, and he’s very inclined to step out of the shadows in order to stir up trouble, as we see in The Aylesford Skull, but he sometimes is off on other business while St. Ives goes about his own business unhindered (at least by Narbondo).  At the time of “The Adventure of the Ring of Stones,” for example, Narbondo is… engaged elsewhere… due to reasons that would be clear to anyone who has read The Aylesford Skull.  There have been other St. Ives adventures that did not involve Narbondo.  That being said, Narbondo has had an adventure or two that did not involve St. Ives, but which were made possible when Narbondo contrived to borrow St. Ives’s time machine at the end of Lord Kelvin’s Machine, allowing him to figure into the doings of my novels The Digging Leviathan and Zeuglodon many years later.  He might be standing on my own front lawn right now, for all I know, although my dog Pippi isn’t barking, so I suppose I’m safe.

GGP What has you excited about the limited edition of The Aylesford Skull?

BlaylocLimited Edition Aylesford Skull Coverk I’m a big fan of cool looking books, and this one qualifies in that regard.  I’m happy with the invention of the e-reader for a number of reasons, but give me a real book any time, and, all things being equal, give me a hardbound book with a wonderful cover – the sort of thing that was quite common a century ago, when books were books, but which is unfortunately less common today.  Also, the limited edition contains pieces written by K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, which make me quite happy.  They brings back memories of our hanging out together, writing our first Steampunk pieces 40 years ago.

GGP Steampunk is normally seen as Victorian-based, but are there any other particularly popular eras or worlds where you’ve seen it used? Do you have a preference for any given time-period?

Blaylock It makes me a little nervous to admit that I don’t read much Steampunk, with the exception of books written by Tim or K.W.  Year before last I was a judge for the World Fantasy Award, and I read some Steampunk and Gaslight fiction (very happily, it turned out), but my own work was inspired by Verne and Wells and Stevenson and Conan Doyle, and it’s those writers (along with Dickens and other Victorians) that I keep returning to.  I see no reason, however, that Steampunk stories shouldn’t take place anywhere in the world.  The idea of writing early California Steampunk has seemed like a good idea to me from time to time.  I can picture it in my mind, and I like what I see, and one of these days I might get around to writing it.

GGP You have written multiple series over the years. What draws you back to a series?

Blaylock I’m drawn back to a series as long as I’m happily compelled to write more books in the series, as is true with the St. Ives novels.  I look forward to writing more of them.  In fact I’m writing one currently.  They’re a great deal of fun to write, and I hope that translates into fun for the reader.  If it happened that they were no longer fun to write, I’d be afraid that would translate the same way – not fun for the reader – and if that happened I’d write something else.  Although reviewers lump my books into categories, the only other series that I undertook to write started with my first novel, The Elfin Ship, which I followed up with The Disappearing Dwarf, both of them published by Del Rey Books.  I had it in mind to write another sequel – three novels in all – but Lester del Rey suggested I write a prequel instead, which turned out to be a book titled The Stone Giant.  When Judy Lynn and Lester Del Rey both passed away very soon after I had turned in the book, The Stone Giant had to look for a new publisher, and was eventually published by Ace Books, who had by then published The Digging Leviathan and Homunculus.  Partly because it took so long for The Stone Giant to appear (and for a couple of other reasons) I never did write that sequel.  There came a time, as the years passed, when I realized I never would – that I had misplaced some of the sensibilities I had when I was younger.  It seemed like a bad idea to try to fake them.  The St. Ives stories and novels, on the other hand, were written on and off over the entire course of my publishing career.  There were gaps between them, but there was never a decade during which I didn’t write them.  Because of that, St. Ives developed as a character as I developed as a writer (and as a person).  St. Ives and that whole crowd of characters are still very much alive in my imagination, now more than at any time in the past.

GGP The setting forms a major part of many of your novels. In general, which comes first–the place, the people, or the plot?

homunculusBlaylock I’ve always been fond of a Charles Fort quote: “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”  With few exceptions, for me the beginning is the setting; everything else follows.  I find that I can’t begin to write unless I can visualize the place, and that the place I visualize for chapter one occupies the same world as chapter six or chapter sixteen.  I seem to write in order to create an effect, so to speak, and that effect is largely visual, both at its origins and in the finished novel.  I tend to ask, “What will my character do, given that he or she is the kind of person who lives in this place and under these circumstances?”  I find myself picturing deserted beaches, rainy meadows, old suburban neighborhoods, etc., with my character out and about, trying to accomplish some thing – the thing they must accomplish (which defines the plot) being part of the entire cast or effect of the novel.  It’s bad business, to my mind, to try to isolate elements of a book as if they could be separated from the whole.  Literature, perhaps, has to be taught that way in school, but that’s not the way writers write.  Character can’t be separated from plot, because the development of character has everything to do with motivation, which has everything to do with plot and with other characters and with the tone and atmosphere of the novel, which largely come out of setting, and so forth.  Some time back I realized that my interest in getting the place right, thereby generating the effect that I wanted, had everything to do with the books I grew up reading.  I either inherited my inclinations to write this way from Steinbeck and Conan Doyle and Stevenson and others, or else I was genetically inclined to want to read those very atmospheric writers and hence to become one.  I don’t mean to compare myself with literary giants, only to say that this is a chicken and egg problem.  I’m quite sure that I was compelled to write the way I do, but I’m not sure where the compulsion came from.

GGP What first drew you to Victorian England as a setting?

Blaylock My love for Victorian novels, which tend to be very rich, sometimes gaudy, came largely from my immense attraction to them when I was a student.  When I got out of college I spent more time bingeing on them (never stopped, actually) happily reading Dickens and Stevenson.  The more I read, the more I was attracted to the era, which was hugely colorful in both positive and negative ways – great spectacle and great suffering both.  When I was first starting to publish stories, and had landed “The Ape-box Affair” at Unearth magazine, K.W. Jeter suggested I read Henry Mayhew’s London Labor and the London Poor, which I did, thereby immersing myself in London street life, to my vast pleasure.  That pretty much sealed my fate, and, in part, led to my writing Homunculus.

GGP What keeps you coming back to Orange County as a setting?

Blaylock I’ve lived in Orange County almost all my life, and I love the place, although admittedly “the place” is a construct in my mind that’s a mashup of the 60 years of the Orange County I’ve known, with an additional helping of the Orange County that my father grew up in, which he told me about or that I saw in old photos.  The bad news (to my mind) is that much of what was most colorful and interesting about Orange County has largely passed away, and has been replaced by a shopping mall culture that’s simply flat and uninteresting.  (Last time I was in London I was shocked that the same thing was happening there, that it seemed to be full of Kentucky Fried Chicken stores and MacDonald’s and Discount Shoe Warehouse.  I was glad to have seen it in the 1970s, when there was less of that.)  There’s a book by Ian Sinclair titled, London – City of Disappearances, that I read recently – a book about London passing away piecemeal, the sad fate of everything, unfortunately.  Orange County is also a place of disappearances.  I don’t like to consider how much of what was wonderful and beautiful about it has gone.  My books are often slightly unstuck in time.  The Rainy Season bounces back and forth in time, for example, and has an old-fashioned feeling to it despite it’s being largely contemporary.  The Huntington Beach of Winter Tides is a mixup of the run-down but immensely colorful Huntington Beach of my youth and the overbuilt and largely faceless place it is today.  The one thing in that book that hasn’t changed is the beach.  The early morning beach today is the same place as the early morning beach in 1962, and my happiness that the earth abides (or at least some of it does) is also made evident in the novel.  In other words, I’m drawn to Orange County settings because I’m familiar with them, and because I’ve been around long enough to understand the magic in them.

GGP How did you get started teaching? Why both at the college and university level? What were the rewards of teaching for so many years?

Blaylock I majored in literature at the university because it seemed like a good idea.  I liked to read and write, so it was a natural.  (My love of the ocean persuaded me to start out with the idea of becoming a marine biologist.  I wanted to be Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row – an old fashioned naturalist of some sort.  But math and science threatened to beat me up, so, weeping with regret, I shifted to English, spending a lot of my spare time maintaining aquariums.)  When I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to do.  My wife and I moved briefly to northern California, where I built cabinets out of found materials as we watched our bank account dwindle.  We moved back to Orange County, and I started working as a carpenter, and applied to teach at a local community college, where I was hired.  For a time I carpentered in the daytime and on weekends and taught a class or two in the evening.  One thing led to another and now I’ve been teaching for 36 years.  These days I’m a professor at Chapman University, where I teach creative writing and also direct the creative writing programs.  I’m also the director of the Creative Writing Conservatory at the Orange County School of the Arts, a program I put together 13 years ago and where Tim Powers (who helped design the program) is Master Teacher.  There’s ten faculty members in the conservatory – all writer/teachers – and around 160 incredibly talented students.  The rewards have everything to do with those talented students (both at the high school and at the university).  The downside is that I’m swamped with school-related work, so swamped that I’m stepping down as director of the conservatory at the high school in order to write the novels that I’ve promised to write.  My last administrative decision was to designate myself Writer in Residence for the next school year (Tim already having the title Master Teacher) so that I can hang on a while longer teaching the odd class.  I’ve obviously been fortunate when it comes to teaching, the value of which (as is also true for the writer) comes out of the work.  Writing can be a lonesome business, but teaching is not, so I’ve really had the best of both worlds.

GGP What do you read?

Blaylock I’m a fan of crime novels – James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Dick Francis, John D. MacDonald, Tony Hillerman.  I reread my old favorites – Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Dickens.  I’m an immense fan of Patrick O’Brian, who seems to me to be one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.  When I’m writing I read heaps of research books, or at least look into them.

Lord Kelvin's MachineGGP How do you start writing each day? Is there a favorite place you have? Favorite music?

Blaylock I have a small study in my house.  It’s a little bit Harry Potteresque, since it’s built partly under the stairs.  It’s crammed with books and memorabilia.  There’s an easy chair (often occupied by Pippi, the family dog) and there’s a stereo that I never play, because I can’t both work and listen to music, and can’t begin to understand how other writers can, although many are dedicated to it.  My musical tastes are eclectic and usually out of date, although my sons try to upgrade my hip factor by compelling me to listen to things more current.

GGP What are you currently working on?

Blaylock I’m currently writing a novel that takes up where The Aylesford Skull left off.  It’s not a sequel, really – more like further adventures, some elements of which were already spinning into being when the coal dust settled in the final chapter of The Aylesford Skull.  I’m also messing with a sequel to my novel Zeuglodon, the working title of which is King Solomon’s Ring.  I’m quite happy with it, and I can imagine that in the coming months the two books will vie for my time.

GGP What is one question you wish you had been asked and what is the answer?

Blaylock No one has ever asked whether I’ve had an octopus as a pet.  In fact I have.  One October many, many years ago, when summer was over and the weather was cooling off, I set up an aquarium full of southern California tidepool and shallow water creatures – a sea hare that ate hibiscus blossoms, small tidepool sculpin, anenomes, crabs, a nudibranch or two: a sea lemon and a dialula, to be precise.  I netted a small octopus for the tank, maybe three inches long, and gave him an abalone shell as a cave.  He (she?) was a voracious eater, preferring hermit crabs above all other food.  All of this meant that I spent long hours at the beach filling big glass bottles with ocean water and scavenging hermit crabs at low tide.  I’d dump a dozen small crabs in front of the cave mouth, and quicker than you’d think possible the octopus would leap out at them, snaring as many as he could snare.  Later on there’d be a neat pile of empty shells on the sand.  Very sad, in its way, if you were a crab, but memorable.  I was very fond of that octopus.  When summer appeared and the days grew warmer, I dismantled the tank.  The glass by then was dotted with tiny tube worms and barnacles, all growing happily.  I knew, however, that unless I went to the trouble and expense of refrigerating the water the creatures would soon get overheated and die.  I loaded the creatures into buckets and spent day driving from Long Beach to La Jolla putting them back where I’d found them.  I’m happy to say that I never lost a creature unless they were victims of the food chain.  (It turned out that both octopi and sea hares are happy and enthusiastic cannibals.)  And that’s my octopus adventure.  Thanks for asking.

Cheers!  Jim Blaylock

Links of interest:
James P Blaylock’s official site
Titan’s Page for the Limited Edition Aylesford Skull
Titan’s other Blaylock Books.
The Orange County School of the Arts.
Chapman University
James Blaylock books on Amazon.


One Comment

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