Monday, 28 January 2013

James P. Blaylock Interview and Giveaway

James P. Blaylock is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Steampunk, as well as being the winner of a Philip K. Dick award and two World Fantasy Awards. The Aylesford Skull is his first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years! You can read my review of the book here.

James kindly agreed to stop by and answer some questions about his writing and his latest exciting book.

(There are also two chances to WIN A COPY of The Aylesford Skull, one of which is a limited edition signed hardcover, so be sure to check that out at the bottom of this post!)


Hi James! How does it feel to be called a ‘father of Steampunk’?

It makes me feel quite nice actually, although if I’m in fact the father (or grandfather, according to Locus magazine) then I share the honor with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter. We were all writing Steampunkish stories and novels and hanging out together in the 1970s. I had the distinction, such as it was, to publish a Steampunk short story, and not long after that K.W. published his novel Morlock Night. K.W. also coined the word “Steampunk,” although not until 10 years later, when it had taken on the trappings of a subgenre. By that time the three of us had published a number of Steampunk novels and short stories. We were all influenced, of course, by other writers and by each other. Questions of origin are always murky. I’m happy to think that the rise of Steampunk culture, so to speak, was due to the three of us. What would have happened, I wonder, if we had been busy writing books about hedgehogs. Hedgepunk?

What is it that attracted you to Victorian England? What made it an interesting setting to write about?

I was and am attracted to Victorian England for two reasons. The first is that the era was wildly colorful; it produced amazing art, furniture, fashion, and a thousand and one other cool-to-look at and read about things. It was a very rich period, culturally speaking, (and was also a gritty, impoverished, cruel, and enormously fascinating era in other ways). It arguably produced the greatest literature of any literary period anywhere in the world, which is the second thing that attracted me to it. When I was ten years old, I read Verne and Wells for the colorful, adventurous elements of their books. I was big on illustrations of finny submarines and archaic looking rockets built by backyard explorer-scientists wearing beaver hats. Later, when I read Dickens and Tennyson and Ruskin, I developed a love of the language, while increasing my attraction to the nifty stuff of the period. I’ve never lost any of that, I’m happy to say, and so I take the same pleasure in writing about the era today. I’m going to bet that Steampunk readers and writers and artists and costumers would say something very similar. I’m not at all surprised at Steampunk’s broad appeal.

One of the things I really liked about the book were the little eccentric, supernatural details, like the skull lamps, the corpse candles, the pagan graveyard buried deep under London, etc. Are any of these actual myths or stories from Victorian times, or did you invent them? What gave you the ideas for them?

Although I invented the incidents of the novel, many of the elements that you mention I simply found doing casual reading or while doing research: the corpse candles, for instance, the subterranean graveyards, the old smugglers inn hidden in the marsh below Egypt Bay, etc. The skull lamps were a product of my fascination with Japanese magic mirrors. I thought a lot about how to turn the interesting but innocent magic mirrors into something more sinister, and what came of that were the skull lamps. Thinking all of this through led me to articles on early photography and coal dust explosions and a plethora of other things. That’s the problem (or perhaps pleasure) of writing stories that requires research, one thing inevitably leads to another. There’s virtually no limit to the things you can discover, although there’s an absolute limit to the things you can actually use in your book.

I thought all your heroes seemed like very real people, each with their own little quirks. Do you ever see yourself in any of your characters?

All of my protagonists are constructed of pieces of me, so to speak, although ultimately they resemble me in over-the-top ways. Their eccentricities are inflated examples of my own eccentricities, and their weaknesses and enthusiasms are exaggerations (usually). I don’t engage in adventurous behavior, so I’m thankfully not called upon to be heroic, or to shoot people or to be shot. All that being said, in some sense I always write about what I know, and my characters are often very much related to people I’ve known or that I know, including myself. I’m fond of the quirks and oddities that differentiate us from everyone else, but I’m not fond of sword wielding heroes who have no reason to sometimes be unhappy with themselves. (Lots of weird negative constructions in that sentence, not to mention the split infinitive. Hope it makes sense.)

So I’m assuming the character Arthur Doyle is the Arthur Conan Doyle. Why did you decide to include him in the story?

Arthur Conan Doyle
He is indeed Arthur Conan Doyle. On a whim I bought a biography of Conan Doyle, which I was reading at about the same time that I was reading about early photography. Conan Doyle (merely Doyle back then) was an avid amateur photographer, and the more I read about him, the more interesting he seemed to be, for reasons that had nothing to do with his Sherlock Holmes stories. At the time The Aylesford Skull takes place, Doyle would have been about the same age as Jack Owlesby, who is a character in all of my Langdon St. Ives books and stories, and in fact narrates many of them, in which case he functions as my Watson, in his small way. Doyle was just starting to write and publish short pieces, as was the fictional Jack Owlesby. It seemed right and natural that Doyle should be a character in the book, as long as he remained a peripheral character. I had the idea that if he became cumbersome, I’d simply cut him out. That didn’t happen. More on the Conan Doyle influence below.

Who are your biggest writing influences or favourite authors?

My favorite authors are most often also my biggest influences. When I was ten years old I started reading books from my mother’s library, and at that same time I began to receive books as gifts at Christmas and on birthdays from relatives who weren’t themselves readers. This deluge of books was a plot, in other words, fomented by my mother.

One of the earliest books I remember reading was The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I had no idea who Conan Doyle was, or Sherlock Holmes, or that Holmes had anyplace to return from. I loved the foggy mystery of the stories, however, and it didn’t matter a bit that I couldn’t understand parts of them. (I was also trying to read Walter Scott; “The Adventure of the Empty House” was a cinch compared to Ivanhoe. At the same time, I found half a dozen Steinbeck novels and story collections among her books and read them. I was particularly fond of In Dubious Battle, which was a weird thing given my age. I read it three or four times. I was so smitten by the language and settings that I launched endless copycat Salinas Valley stories that went nowhere. My uncle and aunt gave me the collected short stories of Mark Twain at about the same time my parents gave me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. My enthusiasm for books was pretty much solidified by that time, so my mother hauled my sister and I down to the local library once a week after school, and over the next couple of years I read through Verne and Wells and Burroughs and the seafaring novels of a writer named Howard Pease.

By the time I was thirteen I had read virtually all of the books that would become the most influential to me as a writer, and my brain was so full of Victorian and Edwardian science fiction stories that I was virtually condemned to write what became Steampunk. The biggest influence on my writing, however, were the stories and novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, which I read in my early twenties. At that same time Tim Powers gave me some P.G. Wodehouse to read, and it was this weird mixture of Stevenson and Wodehouse that inspired “The Ape-box Affair,” my first Steampunk story. My novel Homunculus was heavily influenced by Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights and by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Wind in the Willows (along with Huckleberry Finn) inspired The Elfin Ship, my first novel.

What do you think of where Steampunk has gone in the years since you first started writing it? Is there anything you particularly love or dislike about the Steampunk craze?

Steampunk Jewellery (sodacrush)
I’m completely in favor of Steampunk going anywhere and everywhere. I recently heard that people are writing Steampunk porn, and that seems a little bit sketchy, not to mention cumbersome, but I’m amazed and elated to see Steampunk leaking into fashion and architecture and film, etc. One nice result is that the market for Steampunk books is more solid than ever (although I’ll continue to write the stuff whether or not there’s a market for it. Better a good market than a bad, certainly.) There’s not much about the Steampunk craze that I dislike, except for those things that I dislike about all crazes, especially the production of derivative, unimaginative, bandwagon, shoddy things that fly under any suddenly fashionable banner.

Are there any more Langdon St. Ives books to come? What’s next for you?

There’s a Langdon St. Ives book in the works, in fact, The Pagan Goddess, a companion volume to two previously published short novels, The Ebb Tide and The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs. At the moment there’s yet another St. Ives novel whirling around in my mind. Ideally it’ll quit whirling sometime soon so that I can see it clearly enough to get started writing it. I’m also quite happy with my novel Zeuglodon, the True Adventures of Kathleen Perkins, Cryptozoologist, which came out a few months ago. I’m currently working on a sequel to that one, and having so much fun with it that I’m contemplating writing more of them. Who knows how many?

Thanks, Jim.

Thank you for stopping by James!

(Is it just me, or does anyone else kind of want Hedgepunk to be a thing?)



This Giveaway is now closed. Congrats to Katrina Day-Reilly, who won a copy of The Aylesford Skull!

I’m giving away a paperback copy of The Aylesford Skull to one lucky winner. Just fill out the rafflecopter form below and good luck! Giveaway open worldwide. 

Thanks to Titan Books for providing this giveaway copy!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Never heard of this series before. Sounds pretty cool :) Will try my luck to win a copy eheh xD

    I love the Steampunk fashion... it's very antique but at the same is very modern. Hard to explain :S I haven't read that many steampunk books but when I do is the ladies fashion that I normally pay more attention to :P

    Thank you for the interview and for the giveaway ^_^

    XX Ner

  2. I know exactly what you mean - I love Steampunk jewellery in particular - I think it's that blend of Victorian old-fashioned beauty and elegance with touches of modernity and practicality... just a gorgeous combination! :-)

    Good luck with the giveaway!

  3. Thanks for the awesome giveaway. One of the things that I like about steampunk is the style. It walks the line between bad ass and feminine, which is so unique and cool. This is my first look at this author, so a big thanks for the intro.

    1. Oh that's a really interesting way to look at it, and describes it so well! :-D Best of luck with the giveaway!

  4. Congrats on your first giveaway! Loved the interview very informative and I was most fascinated by the skull lamps. Creepy and cool at the same time and having famous characters in it is awesome as well. I would very much like to check out a book by the father of steampunk! For your giveaway you can include your own twitter message in the rafflecopter you want people to tweet and include you link and twitter handle. Hope that helps. If you need anything shoot me a message and I will be glad to help.

    1. Thanks Heidi, you are so kind and that's really helpful! :-D Learned a fair bit from doing this giveaway, and looking forward to running another one already!

      The skull lamps are a great idea - creepy but weirdly beautiful, but also functional. Definitely very Victorian! Good luck with the giveaway :-)

  5. I would want a device that stops time around me, so i could read for periods of time without guilt or consequence!

    1. Oh my gosh, yes, great idea! I would LOVE that! :-D I think it would look like a cross between an ornate stopwatch and Hermione's time-turner.

      Best of luck with the giveaway!

  6. I'm still really new to the whole steampunk genre but I am definitely falling in love with what I have read :)

    --Octavia of Read. Sleep. Repeat.

    1. Yay! Steampunk is awesome. :-) Best of luck with the giveaway!