Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Man behind the Magic: An Interview with James P. Blaylock

This month marks the release of The Aylesford Skull, James P. Blaylock's latest steampunk novel.  Last week, we reviewed the novel, and today, we are thrilled to feature an interview with the author himself, one of the pioneers of the steampunk genre--James P. Blaylock himself!

Jen Miller: This is the first Langdon St. Ives novel in 20 years.  How do you feel that St. Ives has changed since he first appeared?  How has your interest in him as a character changed?

James P. Blaylock: There’s a lot about my writing that has changed since St. Ives first appeared in the mid 1970s, when I was in my twenties.  I’m happy with the writing I did back then, a lot of which was particularly wild and whimsical.  That being said, I was married, but didn’t have children yet, and essentially was still… young, with a youthful exuberance that came out in my writing and elsewhere.  One thing about learning any craft, is that if you keep doing the work, and your enthusiasm for it remains steady, you’ll get better at it (thank goodness).  Now I’ve been married for 40 years and my sons are in their early 30s, and I’ve seen a lot and I’ve learned a lot about the world and about people and about me.  My writing has gotten better, without a doubt, but I’m not the same person that I was when St. Ives first sent Newton the orangutang into space in that early story.  In The Aylesford Skull, St. Ives has to deal with a problem that threatens to destroy London and which perhaps threatens the world as we know it.  But his essential problem is that it particularly threatens his family.  His problems, in other words, are much more serious now, and so the book has a sense of urgency and threat that previous books haven’t really had.  St. Ives has… matured, I guess I’ll say.  If he had not, I would have lost interest in him.

JM: Do you have plans for more Langdon St. Ives stories?  If so, can you give us a preview of what they'll be about?

JPB: I just finished up a short novel for Subterranean Press featuring my usual cast of Steampunk characters.  It’s titled “The Pagan Goddess.”  It’s distinctly more whimsical than The Aylesford Skull, and in fact the plot might strike people as loony, or at least unlikely.  I can’t begin to describe it, and in fact virtually any description would be a spoiler.  It’s in part a seagoing adventure and in part a London story, and there’s plenty of mayhem and murder and suspense, I think, to make a reader happy.  There’s a certain amount of eating in it also, and a man’s head is bitten off, which, I suppose, is part of the eating.  Best not to go on about that.  Currently I’m working up the plot of another Steampunk/St. Ives novel, which I hope to start writing soon.

JM: In other interviews, you've said that you took a break from writing novels because you got caught up in your work as a teacher at both an arts high school in Orange County, as well as Chapman University.  Do you find that your work as a teacher shapes your own fiction?  How?

JPB: One of the cool things about teaching, which I’ve been doing for over 35 years, is that I’ve been able to meet literally thousands of people.  Because I taught heaps of classes in writing personal and creative essays, I’ve read bits and pieces of people’s lives, which was sometimes sad or shocking, but was always fascinating.  If nothing else, teaching writing makes it clear what works and what doesn’t, and it compels you to make it clear to the student writer, and to say how and why.  The knowledge is at least as useful to me as it is to my students.  Also, at the high school, I get to see the progress of student writers over a period of years, and it makes it absolutely clear that writers get better when they read and write.  Talent is only a small part of the equation.  Perseverance is even more vital than talent.  Work is the most vital of all.  I’ve also discovered that happy writers keep writing; unhappy writers do not.  Writers had best write what pleases them.  I always have.  The things that please us change over the years, but then everything changes over the years.  So… yes, teaching has done something to shape my fiction, but in ways that are difficult to make particular.  I love to teach, by the way.

JM: You are frequently credited with being one of the grandfathers of steampunk.  How has the evolution of this genre shaped your own novels?  Are there current authors writing steampunk (or science fiction/fantasy more generally) that you're really interested in?

JPB: I hope nobody mistakes my meaning here, but despite enjoying lots of contemporary Steampunk work, it hasn’t shaped my own work.  I’m happily astonished at Steampunk culture; I love all the trappings.  But my writing has evolved as I’ve evolved, like I said earlier.  I’m resistant to labels, and I’m particularly resistant to any definitions.  When Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter, and I were writing our first Steampunk stories and novels in the mid-70s (10 years before K.W. would invent the word “Steampunk”) we were writing without any definitions or models.  We were making it up.  For better or worse, I need to keep it that way.

JM: Of all the scenes in The Aylesford Skull, I think that the scene where Alice goes fishing might be my favorite because of the way that it provides a wonderful nature-filled contrast to all the skulking about in tunnels and darkened lairs.  Are you a fisherman?  If so, what do you like to catch?

JPB: That might be my favorite scene, too.  More of that and other nature-related scenes will appear in future novels, I think.  I don’t fish any more for a variety of reasons, but I grew up fishing.  When I was a kid, as far back as my memory goes, my father and mother would wake me up on occasional Saturday mornings to fish off local piers and jetties.  I cut up a lot of anchovy, shrimp, and squid back in those days.  We’d vacation in beach cities in order to branch out, and also in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where we’d fish for trout in lakes and streams.  Also, I put in many years assembling sometimes-exotic aquaria, and I constantly haunted southern California tide pools and boat harbors looking for sea creatures for my aquaria.  You can find exceptionally nifty stuff on the sides of boat docks.  So I have an abiding interest in all things having to do with fish, which, by the way, is made clear in “The Pagan Goddess” in some fairly outr√© ways.

JM: Speaking of Alice, I really enjoyed her as a character, and I liked that you brought her back into the narrative late in the novel.  Are there people (either real or fictional) that you had in mind as you crafted her character?

JPB: Many of the wives of my male protagonists have qualities that are characteristic of my own wife, and Alice is no exception.  But it’s almost impossible to point to particular qualities.  Alice is largely invented.  She turned out to be one of my favorite characters in The Aylesford Skull, as she was in my last Subterranean Press book, “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs,” in which she plays a fundamental role.  She’ll likely become even more vital in future St. Ives novels.

JM: And finally, what's up with the elephants?  (I apologize if this is explained in earlier works and I don't remember.)

JPB: The elephant in The Aylesford Skull is, it seems to me at this moment, the only elephant that has ever appeared in my books and stories.  The use of an elephant to draw back the roof of the barn in order to facilitate launching the dirigible is very much the sort of thing that St. Ives would consider.  When I was writing that chapter, and the elephant came into my mind, I thought, “of course, an elephant,” and from that moment the elephant refused to leave.  The future of the elephant is in the hands of the muses.

By Jen Miller and James P. Blaylock

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. 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 the mailing list here: