Fantasy evokes a lot of emotions from me. Giggling usually isn’t one of them. But I giggled through much of Soulless, the first book in The Parasol Protectorate by the peerless Gail Carriger. After being properly introduced, Ms. Carriger politely assented to being interviewed for the benefit of our dear readers. The transcript of that conversation follows. Ms. Carriger has also generously donated a signed copy of Soulless (reviewed by me) to be donated to a lucky reader, so leave a comment or question for her and you may be the lucky winner!
Ruth: Usually when talking about new authors, I can compare them to other authors that are well known. Your work can be described as “What would happen if P.G. Wodehouse and Jane Austen decided to write urban fantasy together.” What was the inspiration for that unusual combination?
Ms. Carriger: I love Wodehouse and I love Austen, and the Victorian era falls in the middle time-wise and suits steampunk, so it just kind of happened organically. It’s what I wanted to read, but couldn’t find, so I figured I better write it. I still can’t believe others wanted to read it also. To me, that’s the unusual part.
Ruth: I found the difference between the vampire and werewolf societies in Soulless quite interesting. Were they based on historical civilizations?
Ms. Carriger: The werewolves are based on wolf pack dynamics mixed with the British Regimental system of the day (which aren’t so very different if you look into it closely). The vampires are based on wasp hive dynamics mixed in with some early Renaissance ideas on espionage and politicking.
Ruth: You have werewolves and vampires as an established part of British upper-crust society. In your version of the history of British Empire, are any of the big names from the past supernatural? I think Henry VIII as werewolf might explain a few things.
Ms. Carriger: I don’t think King Henry was a werewolf (though he’d make a very good one) but the supernatural was the real reason for his break with the Catholic Church. I (so far) have kept away from any really big historical names. But in the third book, Blameless, there are 2 more minor names that students of history may get rather excited about, one from Roman times and one from Elizabethan. The vampires pretty much ran the Roman Empire so I’d cast a jaundiced eye at those trixie Caesars.
Ruth: The whole vampire v. werewolf dynamic in urban fantasy is almost overplayed. Beyond the historical setting, what sets your take on the supernatural apart from everything out there?
Ms. Carriger: There’s no magic. None at all. Instead, Victorian scientists are struggling to understand vampires, werewolves, and ghosts using the scientific standards of the day. This results in steampunk gadgets and crazy theories centered about the existence of the soul. In addition, Soulless is very lighthearted in its approach to the supernatural, some might even say silly (e.g. newly minted vampires suffer from fang-lisp). Also the werewolves wear opera glasses and the vampires are gay – well not all of them, but still… did I mention silly?
Ms. Carriger: No, which may be a fatal flaw. I’ve actually been called to task for a particularly ridiculous scene in the second book. So I just made the character in question drunk.
Ruth: Octopodes play an important, yet unexplained role in Soulless. You have promised elsewhere that all will eventually be explained about the mysterious presence of the cephalopods in the books. Did you choose them because of a personal fascination with the animal, or is it strictly professional?
Ms. Carriger: Oh, it stems from a totally unprofessional obsession with invertebrates in general and octopodes in particular. I love how smart, and cute, and squishy, and tasty they are. They are everything good rolled together in eight-armed glory. When I write it is more a matter of making sure the story has a place for an octopus, than making the octopus fit into the book.
Ruth: Have you ever been fishing for octopus? What’s your favorite way to eat them?
Ms. Carriger: I’ve never fished for octopuses. One of my professors used to wax poetical about his Greek fishing village and how they whack dead octopuses against the streets to tenderize them and hang them out on clotheslines. “You know you’re in Greece,” he used to say, “When you wake up to the sound of an octopus being slapped of a morning.” Coincidentally, my favorite way to eat them is Greek style – grilled with lemon, olive oil, and fresh oregano. Heaven.
Ruth: You have the next two books in The Parasol Protectorate coming out this year. What are your plans after that?
Ms. Carriger: Funnily enough, my agent asked me that same question recently. As a result of some discussion and thought, I now have two secret projects in the works, and one additional not so secret project that’s for my own amusement – the history of Alexia’s scandalous father. I’ve also got two shorts on my plate: a non-fiction steampunk piece and a paranormal romance story. 2010 is going to be a busy year.
Ruth: Those are a lot of different writing projects. How do you keep them straight? Do you outline everything in advance or just jump right in to the story and see where it takes you?
Ms. Carriger: Militant outliner. Sometimes a story will start without me. As in, I’ll wake up, sit at the computer, and just start typing. Then I have to force myself to stop and bang out an outline or neither of us have any idea where we are going. I don’t like to ramble – except in interviews (apparently). As to keeping the projects distinct from each other, that can get difficult. Usually, I pick something for the week and try to just work on that, but other projects may crowd in and want to be worked on instead. It can get very discombobulating.
Ruth: Do you ever have characters who just won’t go along with the outline? What do you do in those circumstances?
Ms. Carriger: All the time. I pretty much just let them do what they want, they usually know what is happening better than I do. Sometimes I have to cut them out later, but usually it has some sort of plot twist relevance near the end. I love it when that happens.
Ruth: Can you give us any clues as to what Alexia might be up to in the next two novels?
Ms. Carriger: Well, there are werewolves in kilts in the second book, and Italians in nightgowns in the third.
Ruth: How involved were you in the creation of the Alexia paper doll website? I haven’t had that much fun since playing with Barbies in grade school. I think I may have actually squealed when I realized you could change her hair by clicking on it.
Ms. Carriger: Did you see her hair falls down when you put on her nightgown? And you can change her facial expressions too! It was Orbit‘s idea but they brought me in on it early on. Every outfit, background, and clothing option comes from Soulless. I prepared a full on dossier with images and other information for the lovely woman who designed it. You can download the dossier, if you like, from my website. It’s in the DVD extras section, under People, Places, & Plot.
Ruth: Do you have a favorite BBC miniseries? Something you watch when you need inspiration?
Ms. Carriger: I would say Cranford is my favorite, although I can watch both the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice (long version) and their North & South over and over and over again. Regency House Party is also brilliant.
Ruth: Assuming you could meld time and books, do you think Alexia and Elizabeth Bennett would have been friends?
Ms. Carriger: You know I think they might. Difficult to tell; I imagine Alexia is rather forward and hard to get along with.
Ruth: You have quite an extensive DVD extras section on your website, and your blog is a wealth of interesting and amusing information. Do you feel maintaining a web presence affects the work you do as an author, and if so, how?
Ms. Carriger: Currently, it seems monumentally detrimental. I blame Twitter. But mostly I think it’s been positive. People have been really kind about interviewing me and reviewing Soulless. I do feel like it’s part of my job. I’d say I spend half my day online, at least.
Ruth: You’ve coined the term “bustlepunk” to describe your work. How successful have you been in getting bustlepunk recognized as a sub-genre?
Ms. Carriger: Oh, that wasn’t me, that was M.K. Hobson. I like the term, and I’m all over accepting it, but I do think bustlepunk falls under the larger umbrella (or should I say parasol?) of steampunk, and until steampunk really becomes a well-known genre it seems needlessly complicated to subdivide it further. In addition, Soulless already labors under so many different labels, it seems a tad silly to add yet another to the mix.
Ruth: Are there other writers doing steampunk or bustlepunk right now that you particularly enjoy or recommend?
Ms. Carriger: Sadly, I am the victim of WBD (writer book deprivation) – I rarely have time to read anymore because I have to write. When I do read, I try to keep to books outside my genre, so as not to be influenced unduly. However, I have heard some great steampunk short stories. I caught J. Daniel Sawyer‘s “Cold Duty” recently, and loved it.
Ruth: What is it about steampunk that attracts you as a genre as a writer? Are there conventions of the sub-genre that you don’t like or want to subvert in some manner?
Ms. Carriger: I like the future as the Victorian’s saw it, full of manners, proper dress, organization, and ridiculous gadgets. It’s a world very open to the bizarre, and one that happily mixes science with the supernatural. The 1800s spawned gothic literature, which, in turn, spawned romance, horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, so there is a wonderful circularity to writing steampunk now-a-days.
Certainly I’m subversive. Steampunk sometimes forgets how outlandish, colorful, and absurd the Victorians were, and how optimistic their ideas of progress and world domination. There are very few of us writing light-hearted fancy dress steampunk, and I’m really hoping that changes. The more ridiculousness the better!
Ruth: How much research goes in to writing in a historical setting like this?
Ms. Carriger: A whole lot. I spend at least half of my writing time doing research. Which I to say, if I wrote in a contemporary setting, I would write 2x as fast. But I do love the research and learning new things, my head is now full of exciting facts like the difference between a hassock, a tuffet, and a pouff.
Ruth: Okay, so what is the difference between a hassock, a tuffet, and a pouff?
Ms. Carriger: They are all basically the same thing: a footrest or stool that is covered and padded. In Victorian times the following distinction was drawn: a hassock is more likely to have feet and be square, a tuffet is usually round with feet like a covered stool, and a pouff is round with no feet.
Ruth: Do you end up collecting a lot of historical odds and ends in your research? I have a mental image of your home looking like a cross between the Smithsonian’s costume collection and a mad gnome’s workshop.
Ms. Carriger: Actually, I am so sorry to debunk that charming notion. And while I have some nice vintage jewelry, a few costumes, and some old books, I actually prefer to live in a very modern environment, all clean lines and neutral colors with modern art and no clutter. You’d never guess would you? However, I have quite the collection of octopus jewelry. It began years ago and only escalated after the publication of Soulless.
Ruth: There’s a significant amount of romance flowing throughout your stories. What’s the difference between writing an action scene and writing a sex scene?
Ms. Carriger: The action scene is about a billion times easier to write. I love action and dialogue, embarrass myself when writing nookie.
Ruth: Some authors are very down to business, and others have certain routines they must follow. Do you have a specific ritual to writing? A favorite pen, a specific chair, a tiara?
Ms. Carriger: Yes, very ritualistic. I have wrist supports I strap on, and a little egg timer I use (20 minutes) so it’s a bit like some kind of armored marathon. Then I reward myself with tea and sometimes chocolate.
Ruth: Writing in a British setting, I imagine you must be quite an expert on teas. Do you have a preferred tea? Bag or loose leaf? Pot or by the cup?
Ms. Carriger: Oh, just a tea dilettante, I assure you. But I do have a keen interest in the proper execution of the perfect cuppa. (Warming the pot, milk first, tea cozy a moral imperative, etc.) I do have a preferred tea, but it’s hard to find, it is Twinings English Breakfast Gold Label (black box), and it has to be imported from England. It’s mild in flavor but very strong in punch. Method of distribution depends on the company. For myself a bag and mug will do, and I usually default to a daily tea like PG Tips, rather than the Gold Label. For casual visitors its the good tea in a proper pot, but bagged. For formal occasions, and my mum, it’s loose leaf in a pot and some kind of biscuit – the whole ritual. However, and I am unswerving in this, you must, must, must use whole milk.
Ruth: Milk chocolate or dark? And do you prefer things in your chocolate or do you like it unadulterated?
Ms. Carriger: Dark chocolate with red wine or milk chocolate full of lots of stuff. Bits of toffee, coffee beans, mint, raisins, nuts, you name it, I like my chocolate with serious personality.
Ruth: If you could write in any other author’s world, would you? And which world would you choose?
Ms. Carriger: Probably not. Although, I wouldn’t entirely rule it out. There are some worlds that I wouldn’t mind playing in from a seriously farcical direction. But the owner of the world would have to be open to their creation begin made fun of. A friend of mine runs the The Metamor City Podcast and I keep threatening to write something ridiculous about were-beavers for him.
Ruth: Finally, besides eating your cat, what is your zombie plan?
Ms. Carriger: Well, I have this vague idea of escaping to Alcatraz island, depending on whether the zombies can travel under water or not. Otherwise, I plan to head out to the coast to some obscure fishing village: isolated, ready food source, and one can always take to the ocean if necessary.
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