Riffle Backstory: Q&A with "The Steampunk Trilogy" author Paul di Filippo
Paul di Filippo's three steampunk novellas--Victoria, Hottentots, and Walt and Emily--are being released in one complete volume, The Steampunk Trilogy. See what di Filippo has to say on creating steampunk technology, how to balance research in your novel, and how he likes to relax.
Describe your writing process—are you an outliner, or a pantser?
I was never an anal-obsessive outliner, but in my youth I used to commit the sin to some minor degree and more frequently. Now, however, I subscribe to the famous metaphor that writing a story is like driving down a dark country road: your headlights (i.e., your current knowledge of the story) reveal the first hundred yards of road. And with every foot you advance (sentence you write) a little more of the road is revealed.
However, having said that, I must affirm that with novels, it's good to know, say, that you've got thirteen chapters and you have to hit some certain plot-points in each, however vaguely they may stand out in your mind.
I also believe that the sheer act of writing will reveal good stuff to you that you could never have anticipated or planned at the outline stage.
The steampunk subgenre is known for its fantastical technology. How did you go about creating the science and engineering in the three novellas?
I have zero scientific training. Oh, wait, I took “Introduction to Astronomy” in my freshman year at college! But for the past thirty years I have been assiduously reading such journals as New Scientist, Scientific American and Discover, as well as scores of popular science books by such folks as Brian Greene, et al... So I have a solid layperson's grasp of current science. History is also essential prep work—how science and technology began and evolved.
With all this under my belt, I simply begin to tweak what was and what is into what might have been. Try to discover the odd paths and dead ends of science (such as “Nrays”) and imagine what might have happened if they triumphed.
How did you approach the world building in these novellas?
You have to do a fair amount of research into the Victorian Era—or whatever period you are going to employ—and then select the best and most salient tidbits. You can't let the research rule you or overwhelm the story. This is the famous flaw described in the Austinbased Turkey City Writers Workshop as “I suffered for my research, and now the reader will too!” So I read some general histories first, then biographies of any real-life characters I want to include. Biographies, when they are good, are as fascinating as novels, and you pick up a lot of general cultural stuff along the way.
During your writing, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you or turned out different than you expected it to?
Well, a little spoiler: in my novella Walt and Emily, when they journey to the afterlife, I was totally surprised they met 20th-century poet Allen Ginsberg there. That was not foreseen, he just popped up! “How can this be happening?” I thought. “These three poets are separated by a century of time.” Then I realized that time has no meaning in the afterlife, it's all one big eternity. And so I could get some cultural resonance among people who never could have met in reality.
Is there a character in these novellas that you think you’d get along with better than all the others (or would maybe want to hang out with)?
Of course I want to hang out with Nails McGroaty, manservant to inventor Cosmo Cowperthwait in Victoria. He's a louche badass who knows how to take care of himself and have fun. Plus intensely loyal and capable. You could really have some fine adventures with ol' Nails. You might even survive them to boast about it.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve learned while researching the stories in The Steampunk Trilogy?
That a street urchin broke into Buckingham Palace and lived there for months, eluding pursuers. Imagine some runaway living in the interstices of the White House today.
What authors inspire you?
The list is impossibly long! When I look at my shelves and pick out the books from my teen years, I see incredible amounts of Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Brian Aldiss, Clifford Simak, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard. Then, in my college years, I started idolizing Nabokov and Faulkner and Pynchon. Today, I get jazzed by folks such as Neal Stephenson and Hannu Rajaniemi. They are North Stars to aim by, even if I never arrive there.
People would be surprised to know that...
I like to bodysurf. My Dad taught me when I was a kid, and it's my main activity at the beach—waves cooperating. I can stay in the water for three or four hours, and it feels like five minutes. The ultimate anti-headspace past-time.
What is that one book that has been on your "to-read" list for a long time but you still haven't gotten around to reading?
The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley. I've read a lot of books by this forgotten bestselling writer, and The Haunted Bookshop is supposed to be his best. Maybe that's why I keep putting it off.
What’s your favorite method of procrastination?
Doing the laundry, checking for snail mail, watering the garden and going grocery shopping.
What books do you still enjoy rereading/would you recommend to your readers?
I reread two by Heinlein recently: Double Star and The Door Into Summer. Man, that guy had some chops! I've been through Gravity's Rainbow three times now, and it's still genius. The Bible for the twentieth century and beyond.
The Steampunk Trilogy
Collected Poems 1947-1997 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
Elric: The Stealer of Souls (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Vol. 1)
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Works of Andre Norton (12 books)
Supertoys Last All Summer Long: And Other Stories of Future Time
The Third Golden Age of Science Fiction MEGAPACK TM: Poul Anderson
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: The inspiration for the films Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049
The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard
Light in August
The Crying of Lot 49 (Perennial Fiction Library)
The Causal Angel (Jean le Flambeur)
The Haunted Bookshop
The Door into Summer
Gravity's Rainbow (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
King James Bible (KJV)