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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With James P. Blaylock
    by Darrell Schweitzer

James P. Blaylock is certainly one of the pioneers of Steampunk. Whether he invented it or not is under discussion in this interview. He was in any case born in 1950 and is noted for decidedly strange, often humorous novels such as The Elfin Ship, The Stone Giant, The Digging Leviathan, Lord Kelvin's Engine, Zeuglodon, The Last Coin, The Paper Grail, All the Bells on Earth, Knights of the Cornerstone, etc. He won the World Fantasy Award for the story "Paper Dragons" in 1986 and "Thirteen Phantasms" in 1997.

SCHWEITZER: So, did you and Tim Powers invent Steampunk? Did you have any conscious awareness of doing so, or was it just something in the air?

BLAYLOCK: This is a complicated question, as are all questions of origin, I suppose. Certainly K.W. Jeter has to be included with Tim Powers and I when it comes to inventing Steampunk. K.W. was a great instigator in those days, and it was K.W. who suggested to Powers and I that we read Henry Mayhew's brilliant London Labor and the London Poor, a book that functioned in its way as much of the inspiration for my novel Homunculus. That being said, many SF readers could point out that Michael Moorcock and Keith Roberts and possibly other writers had already written books that today would be regarded as Steampunk.

When I wrote my first Steampunk stories I hadn't read those books and didn't know they existed. I had spent some time in front of the television watching The Wild Wild West, which I very much enjoyed, but I didn't at all associate it with what I was writing at the time. It was a western, after all, and not at all the world I wanted to inhabit as a writer, which was 19th century Europe, primarily England. Not all influences are conscious, however, and certainly The Wild Wild West appealed to me for Steampunkish reasons that I didn't bother to define at the time, partly because Steampunk as such didn't exist. I'd been infected with a regard for 19th century science, language, and trappings by reading Verne and Wells and Conan Doyle as a kid, and later on by dredging myself in Stevenson. I was bowled over when I was around eleven years old, give or take, and first saw The Fabulous Baron Munchausen and The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. Those films are quintessential Steampunk, and for me were monumental influences.

When I wrote "The Ape-box Affair" (my first Steampunk story, although K.W. wouldn't coin the term "Steampunk" for another 10 years), I was bingeing on both Stevenson and P.G. Wodehouse, and was caught up in the language and atmosphere of those bygone days -- a literary bent I'd been on for the past several years at the university, where I'd read as much 18th and 19th century literature as I could get my hands on, as did Tim. In short, I was primed to write Steampunk, and so were Tim and K.W., and we found ourselves hanging out together in Orange and Santa Ana in the 1970s, talking about our own writing, recommending books to each other, etc., and what came out of it was this early crop of stories and novels by the three of us, all with what came to be regarded as Steampunk sensibilities.

Because of those publications, the three of us came to be regarded as the progenitors of Steampunk: we didn't regard ourselves as such until Steampunk had caught on, so to speak, and was developing the characteristics of the phenomenon that it became. I was amused when the term came into existence, but my understanding of it as a phenomenon (nice word) was clarified in the very early 90s, when I was invited to attend a Steampunk conference put on by the University of Bologna's Department of Utopian and Dystopian Studies, one day of which was dedicated to my work. Certainly they're a scholarly crowd, and certainly they considered the three of us to have invented the thing; I make it a point never to argue with scholars from high-toned universities. So . . . did we "invent" Steampunk? Something like that, although certainly we were standing on the shoulders of giants, whether we were aware of it or not.

SCHWEITZER: How did you feel when it came back in recent years, having transformed itself into a social phenomenon and generated a second wave of literature?

BLAYLOCK: I was quite happy when it blew up, so to speak, in recent years. I had written my last Steampunk novel in the early 90s, and had no idea of writing anything more in that vein (nor any idea of not writing more). Some few years back I read a nifty collection of stories by James Norman Hall, titled Doctor Dogbody's Leg, which reminded me of how much fun I'd had writing Steampunk. I asked Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press whether he was interested in my writing a series of lengthy Steampunk novellas (or short novels) and he said that he was. I set out to write what became The Ebb Tide. The inspiration for the book had little or nothing to do with the growing phenomenon of contemporary Steampunk; it had everything to do with my reading Doctor Dogbody's Leg. So my second wave of Steampunk stories was coincidental with the cultural phenomenon, and I'll write the stuff when the craze has faded, given that I haven't lost my taste for it.

Given that I first fell for the stuff as a ten-year-old when I checked Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea out of the Stanton Free Library, the charm of the literature in one form or another has lasted me over fifty years. I doubt I'll abandon it any time soon. Even so, I'm happy to be suddenly living in a world in which editors actively want to buy Steampunk stories. I had more fun writing The Aylesford Skull, my most recent Steampunk novel, than I had writing anything else in recent memory, or so it seems to me now. I've got a new publisher for it -- Titan Books -- which is hearteningly enthusiastic about the novel and about Steampunk in general. So -- speaking of the phenomenon that is Steampunk -- it makes me quite happy. I love the whole idea of it. Despite the proliferation of Steampunk junk, the best of it is literally wonderful. If I stepped out of the house this morning and discovered that the general population was dressed in morning coats and beaver hats and crinoline, I'd have a wide smile on my face (although I'd still be wearing jeans and a flannel shirt; it was a gaudy era, and I'm not a gaudy kind of guy).

SCHWEITZER: Hmm. I am reminded of something S.P. Somtow told me once about academic music conferences. If you, the creator, are faced with a panel of academic experts who regard you as the originator of what they study, then they will believe anything you tell them. Did you ever feel the temptation to, ah, elaborate a little bit in the presence of those high-toned scholars?

BLAYLOCK: I might in fact have been guilty of that once or twice. One of the things that recommends literature as a university degree is that you can make crap up, and then find "textual evidence" to "prove" your assertions, thus assuring your A grade. If you're good with words, you can avoid real work (until you run into a professor who sees through it, which, luckily, happened to me).

As for the conference in Italy, however, I couldn't afford to attend, despite my Italian publisher, Mondadori, offering to set up a soiree, signing, etc. We didn't have much money in those days, and there was no way I was going to Europe without Viki, my wife. The university offered something like 8 million, trillion lire as travel money, which turned out to be about sixty dollars and a few odd cents. I turned down invitations to conferences at the University of Volgograd and at Trinity College, Dublin, for the same reason. I was teaching at Chapman University at the time, but there was no travel/conference money for adjunct professors. Seems like a mistake to me now not to have gone, but at the time it was flat out impossible. Anyway, as regards the conference in Bologna, I was asked to talk about Steampunk as revisionist history, and I actually set out to write a paper. It seemed fun -- potentially hilarious -- that a guy who had grown up in Anaheim, California, and spent most of his time at the beach, whose idea of London was almost entirely cribbed from Dickens and Conan Doyle and was essentially twice-removed imagination, and whose idea of science was largely a product of Verne and Wells, had "revised" history in some regard. I wondered how a serious academic study of that strange business was in any regard sensible. Academic scholarship is often an inscrutable business.

SCHWEITZER: You might superficially conclude that Steampunk is the next Goth, only they dress better. But more seriously, what do you think is the appeal of fantasizing about the late 19th century and its technology? Why does this resonate so widely just now?

BLAYLOCK: I suspect that the trappings of the 19th century resonate today because the world is literally being buried in throwaway products that are ugly and virtually useless to begin with and which are designed to fall apart and are outmoded before they go on the market. Because I'm attracted to conspiracy theories (the nuttier the better) I'm wary of buying into those theories, but it seems to me that there's a plot afoot.

When my family was in Singapore a few years back, we all bought watches from a vendor on the street for three bucks apiece, which happened to be less than it cost for a Tiger beer in most bars. All four of the watches were stone dead within five days. Mine died on the flight home. Sherlock Holmes's pocket watch was made of sturdier stuff. A carpenter's square from the 19th century was built to last several lifetimes and was decorated with carvings of goblins and with polished brass inlay. (I'm imagining the goblins.) I'm a fan of the Arts and Crafts Movement influence on everyday things in those days, an influence that lingered well into the 20th century before dying out and leaving us with cheaply made plastic trash and high fructose corn syrup. Sorry to get carried away there. Personally, I'm attracted to the 19th century partly because science was still largely imaginary. Lost worlds, prehistoric monsters, Barsoomian-type rays, and a whole plethora of cool things were a dirigible ride away. (So were slavery and disease and abominable human cruelty, of course, but whereas the lost worlds have disappeared, slavery, disease, and cruelty have not.)

SCHWEITZER: Have you ever been to a Steampunk World's Fair or an event like that? What did you make of it?

BLAYLOCK: I've attended several Steampunk conferences over the past few years, although never the Steampunk World's Fair. (Is there such a thing?) I found myself to be one of the very few people among the sometimes thousands of attendees who wasn't dressed up in Victorian fashion. I'm far too introverted to wear a costume of any sort. I was quite happy, however, that everyone around me was wearing fabulous clothing. I loved the whole business -- robot dogs, automobiles that looked like immense snails, steam driven bicycles, clockwork gizmos. When I received the "It's All Your Fault" Airship Award at Steamcon in Seattle, I found it to be a strangely moving thing, even though it was one-third my fault at best, and, clearly, I owed that one-third to a host of books and people that influenced my writing, not the least of whom was my mother, who first hauled me down to the library when I was ten years old and steered me toward Jules Verne; and Viki, who during the early years of our marriage was off earning the weekly paycheck while I was hanging out in O'Hara's Pub in Orange with Tim and K.W. "working." I'm happy that something interesting came from all that beer and popcorn and wild talk.

SCHWEITZER: Well wasn't the 1950s just as much an era of ugly (often downright hideous) manufactured goods and planned obsolescence also? But there was no Steampunk then. It may be because they still believed (albeit nervously) in a bright future in those days. You know, a helicopter in every garage and vacations on the Moon. That vision is now just as much pure fantasy as Barsoom or The Moon Pool. I wonder, more seriously, if the popularity of Steampunk right now isn't a matter of a retreat from the future. We're no longer taking it seriously. We turn away to gaudy fantasies of what-wasn't rather than what-might-be. Your thoughts?

BLAYLOCK: You're right, I think. I love the line in Death of a Salesman, when Willy Loman laments modern notions of whipped cheese. In many ways it was a Cheese Whiz world back then, and much more so today, even though we're all aware of the evils of processed food and planned obsolescence (which seems to me to be a plague). (Isn't Cheese Whiz similar to Peeps and Twinkies in that it never goes bad? Survivalists probably have crates of the stuff. A new cell phone is obsolete when you buy it, but Cheese Whiz is never obsolete in any regard. Makes you think . . . maybe.)

I remember being an enormous fan of the House of the Future when Disneyland opened in the 1950s (and equally a fan of Captain Nemo's submarine). I watched the Jetsons on TV. Orange County, California, in those days was still full of orange groves, and on a typical afternoon, when I got home from school, I'd grab a book, ride my bike to the end of the street (where I'd let it lie -- no chain and lock necessary), walk a hundred yards into the orange grove, climb a tree, and read for a couple of hours in utter tranquility. That seems very much like a dream now. I had no idea that some of the best things in my world were rapidly passing away, and so it seemed quite possible that the future would be fairly cool. A few years later, of course, there were no orange groves left (although there's a "demonstration grove" near where I live now. It's near the freeway, so the trees are feeble and dying. They produce an occasional orange, though, which no one picks and eats.) Even then, however, I saw a vast gulf between that moving sidewalk, hover car future and the world that I lived in, which, orange groves aside, looked a lot more like The Outsiders than The Jetsons. There turns out to be plenty in the world to retreat from, I suppose. Raymond Chandler pointed out that everything we read, we read to escape. I was as likely to escape into In Dubious Battle as into Mysterious Island, but I did plenty of escaping into books and still do today. I'm a fan of what was as well as what wasn't.

SCHWEITZER: Aren't labels tricky things anyway? I've seen you labeled an "American magic realist." Does that actually mean anything other than you don't have a Spanish name?

BLAYLOCK: I first saw that label attached to me a couple of years after my novel The Digging Leviathan came out, specifically in reference to the Roycroft Squires character coming past on a flying bicycle. Roycroft Squires was based on my pal Roy Squires, an L.A. rare book dealer. I changed his first name to Roycroft in the novel because of my interest in Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters, who wore enormous bowties. All of this seemed funny to me. That it seemed like magic realism to someone else seemed doubly funny. Bill Gibson told me that when he'd asked for the book at a Vancouver bookstore, the proprietor had given him a strange look and asked, "Do you know if it's supposed to be funny?" I found that funny, too. When it comes to academia and literary critics, I have the habit of agreeing with anything they say about a book or about me as a writer as long as it makes me sound erudite. "Magic realism" is an okay term in that regard, so I'll claim that it's true. Recently a reviewer referred to me as a post-modern writer -- something having to do with Steampunk and dystopia, I think. That's another term that's okay in academic circles, and so I'll claim it, too. Perhaps I'll have hats embroidered. I've never cared for labels. Forgive me for dumping one more literary allusion into this, but it was Samuel Johnson who wrote, ". . . theory shall have little influence on practice." I seem to recall that he was writing about ghosts at the time, but I'll say that theory has never had the least influence on my writing. It's deadly, I think, for writers to take any label seriously.

SCHWEITZER: I've got a theory about literary theories, which is that when an actual practitioner of the art of fiction (not a critic or academic) comes up with a theory, it is self-descriptive and retrospective. Some writers, from Poe onward -- everybody from Lovecraft to Hemingway -- have written, sometimes at length, on the Theory of Fiction. But this tells us more about them than about fiction, actually. Lovecraft's description tells us a great deal about how he did it, but very little about how Hemingway did it, and vice versa. So do you think you could generalize a little about how you do it?

BLAYLOCK: I'm happy to chat about it. Your last sentence reminds me a little of the Tom Waits song "Big in Japan," (which, of course, is meaningless unless you've heard the song.) I'll have to assume that I'm doing what I think I'm doing when I write, and I'll admit that I often get interesting effects when I'm not consciously trying to get those effects. I'll say for openers that I teach a grad class at the university titled "Techniques of Fiction," which is something like the "Theories of Fiction" class that I took as a student 40 years ago. I've always thought that there was a misleading element to any discussion of literary techniques, in that (as you pointed out) "techniques" are something we examine and categorize after the fact. No writer I've ever talked to sits down at the desk thinking about techniques. It could be that Hemingway (since you've mentioned him) knew from the start that he wanted to write a story, say, in the objective point of view. When he wrote about the craft, he chatted about the usefulness of the objective point of view, about its . . . objectivity, and about how the objective narrator doesn't seem to manipulate characters. There's a more truthful outcome, or so he said. That's nonsense to my mind. Hemingway carefully chose every word that went into his stories and phrased his sentences in such a way as to manipulate the reader into believing in the objectivity of the narrative. Despite claims of objectivity, in fact everything in such a story is manipulation and contrivance, meant to give the appearance of objectivity: there's nothing at all objective about the result. So-called techniques are an attempt at the rationalization of things that are in fact closer to alchemy or magic. (Sorry for all that. I've been on sabbatical for eight months, and I find myself lured more and more often into this sort of thinking. Feel free to edit any of this. I'm quite possibly in a verbose mood.)

So . . . to answer your question, I begin to think that I might have a story to tell when a character and setting (the one as important as the other) swim into view in my mind. If I also can hear the voice, literarily speaking, of the main character, then I'm moderately certain that I have a story to tell. I begin to imagine scenes that might occur given this character, with his particular way of seeing things, in this particular setting. These initial, imagined scenes suggest other scenes and other characters. When I can picture a dozen or fifteen scenes, then I can fairly effortlessly develop the rudiments of a plot, which I can use to sell the novel to a publisher, sketching the whole thing out by synopsizing the vital scenes. At that point I pitch the plot synopsis into the drawer and I don't look at it again.

The best stuff in a book or story, without exception, comes to me while I'm writing. I've found that I have to let the book develop organically (jargon alert) from that point on. These beginnings take several months, perhaps more if research is involved, and are characteristically a sort of schizophrenic conversation with my computer screen. I type in potentially useful ideas or questions, one thing leading to another. Fairly often I immediately accuse myself of stupidities, say abusive things to myself, etc. There comes a point in this dialogue when the shape and color and tone of the novel has become clear to me, when the characters seem to have become real in some sense, and I'm compelled to write the first scenes as such. I'll inevitably false start if it's too early. I revise as I write, editing yesterday's work first. By the time I'm finished with a novel I've quite likely revised or rewritten the first chapters 25 or 30 times, and I've discarded early suppositions because I've come up with better stuff. When I sent in the finished manuscript of The Digging Leviathan, which I sold as a hollow earth novel, I got a call from Susan Allison, my editor at Ace. She liked the book well enough, but she complained that I'd promised the hollow earth, and yet my characters had never gotten out of Glendale.

SCHWEITZER: Regarding Magic Realism, there is an indelicate quote which I will have to clean up a little before I can repeat it in the august pages of Orson Scott Card's magazine. I paraphrase Gardner Dozois. Suppose there is a voice in a part of the human anatomy whence voices do not customarily issue. If it is caused by aliens, that's science fiction. If it is caused by demonic possession, that is fantasy. If no one cares, that's magic realism.

Gardner's version was funnier, but I think the distinction is valid. That is, if "magic realism" actually means anything, it represents the attitudes of non-scientific, non-skeptical cultures, in which what we would call "the supernatural" is taken for granted as part of daily life. It is the extreme polar opposite of the Lovecraft approach, in which hard-headed skeptics with a firm grounding in science go mad at some violation of natural law. Magic realism is basically saying there are no natural laws. Can this be a valid and deliberate approach to fantasy? Can it be something which somebody outside of the original South American context can deliberately assume for purposes of a story?

BLAYLOCK: Gardner's definition seems to hit the nail on the head. (I have it on good authority that Gardner was once on a panel at a convention where he was asked a question regarding what constituted science fiction. I don't know whether the question came from the moderator or an audience member. Supposedly part of his answer suggested that one might write SF like Blaylock: "Is that a dinosaur in the bushes or a trick of shadow?" And leave it there, the reference to the dinosaur being enough to qualify the story as science fiction. Gardner is an insightful guy.) I have very little science in me. There was a time in my youth when I was a monumental tropical fish enthusiast, and could remember the genus and species of hundreds of freshwater aquarium fish, especially if they were bizarre. I'll never forget that the purple striped gudgeon is in fact mogurnda mogurnda mogurnda. That's as close to "science" as I've ever gotten. When I've had an opportunity, I've happily put a gudgeon or a leaf fish or a Surinam toad into a story, thereby infusing it with scientific . . . validity. When I was in physics class in high school, I confused mass with volume. My teacher explained to us that an astronaut hurtling through space would increase in mass as he approached the speed of light. I immediately pictured an enormously fat astronaut shoe-horned into his ship, bulging out through the portholes, a sort of giant balloon man, dangerously overinflating. I innocently mentioned this during the class discussion, thereby striking the teacher speechless and then moderately angry. It seemed apparent to him that I was making fun of him and of physics in general, something that I deny (unless I'm around scientific types, in which case I insist that I was only fooling). In fact I was entirely innocent, which made it clear that I had no chance of writing science fiction, and so I fell naturally into writing fantasy. The Digging Leviathan featured a mechanical mole built of a vacuum cleaner and parts purchased at a Sprouse Reitz dimestore. Ace Books put an SF logo on it, explaining to me that if a book had a machine in it, it was science fiction by default. Homunculus was science fiction because it involved vivisection and an animated skeleton (or so I suppose).

All that being said, I'm going to have to be careful with this question in order not to sound like a lunatic, although it occurs to me that it's too late for that. The truth is, I'm no rationalist or materialist or anything of that nature. I'm happy to believe in ghosts and in the paranormal, although in an eccentric and (in a literal sense) unpopular way. I wrote a story titled "The Other Side," about a character who is confounded by evidently paranormal experiences - small, inexplicable, irrational, useless things. That was the only story I've ever written that was virtually entirely autobiographical. There's a long record of very convincing plesiosaur sightings in the open ocean and in deepwater lakes, well up into the 20th century. Science has no truck with such nonsense, but I'm happy with it. Science had no regard for giant squids until a batch of them showed up one day, although mariners had for a thousand years reported seeing enormous sucker marks on whale carcasses. One day, maybe tomorrow, a plesiosaur will appear in Los Angeles Harbor, and science will take it on the chin once again. If Gardner's definition of magic realism is correct, then I'm one of those non-scientific, non-skeptical types that dwells on the fringe of the cultural norm. I'm not sure that one has to have come from South America or some other exotic place to qualify in that regard. In fact, I find southern California quite moderately exotic from time to time. (I've also read and reread Charles Fort.) The term "magical realism" has a highly intelligent ring to it, which makes it appeal to me. "That Blaylock is apparently crazy!" "Not at all, he's a Magical Realist."

SCHWEITZER: What are your writing methods like? Are you an outliner? Someone who starts from an image, or a word? You will recall how Tolkien one day jotted down "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" with no idea what that meant, and all else followed. Are you like that, or are you one of these writers who wants to know where he is going first?

BLAYLOCK: I'm an outliner, although not as ferociously as some writers I know. I'm generally prodded into thinking through a novel by a combination of setting and character, both being vitally interesting to me. I carry on a schizophrenic conversation with my computer for a period of several months, during which time the plot swims into focus and begins to reveal itself as a series of scenes. When I've got enough of them in my mind, I try to write an eight or ten page double-spaced outline, which I use to hustle the book to a publisher. Meanwhile I start in on the writing process, at which point I put the outline into the drawer. I rarely look at it again, because the nature of the beast is fixed in my mind. The best stuff, without fail, is suggested to me during the writing process itself, and very quickly the outline seems to be flat and uninteresting, hence my diminishing interest in it.

That's my method. One last thing: my first novel, The Elfin Ship, was pure shooting-from-the-hip. Lester del Rey agreed to buy it after telling me that it had a completely senseless, crappy, stupid plot, but that he'd send me a contract if I would throw away the second half of the novel and send him a plot synopsis that would work. There followed two or three pages of information informing me (not always kindly) about the nature of plots in general. My experience with Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey was like one of those Scared Straight programs where enormous tattooed felons scream at fifteen year olds. Without them, however, I'd probably have become a beach bum.

SCHWEITZER: So, what are you working on these days?

BLAYLOCK: At the moment I'm in between books -- plotting out two new ones, actually. I've just finished thinking through a sequel to my recently published novel Zeuglodon, and I've got some notions for a new Steampunk novel swirling around in my mind. I'm waiting for it to stop swirling and stand still, so that I can see what it actually looks like. Two weeks ago I mailed in the manuscript of a short Steampunk novel to Subterranean Press -- a novel titled The Pagan Goddess, which will be published as a companion volume to The Ebb Tide and The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs (ideally with J.K. Potter illustrations). Not long ago I got a new agent -- John Berlyne of the Zeno Agency, London -- who's a real taskmaster, and he's got the strange notion that I must write more. I plan to be cooperative in that regard.

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Jim.

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