Richard recently finished the promotional touring for Song of the Slums, wearing his steampunk hat and playing his steampunk guitar – now he’s back home in Figtree south of Sydney under the Illawarra escarpment. He resigned as a uni lecturer fifteen years ago and has since had seventeen novels published by Allen & Unwin, Penguin, Scholastic and Pan Macmillan. His last three novels, Worldshaker,Liberator and Song of the Slums, also sold overseas in a big way (France, Germany, UK, Simon & Schuster in the US) and he’s now collected some French awards to add to his six Aurealises and the A. Bertram Chandler Award.
His author website is at www.richardharland.net. Check out his huge free guide for spec fic writers at www.writingtips.com.au
What drew you to writing steampunk/gaslight fantasy books? Do you plan to continue writing in this genre for the foreseeable future?
I always wanted to write steampunk, only I just didn’t know it! There are steampunk elements in the Ferren trilogy, especially the imaginary old-fashioned machinery of the Humen Camp and Humen army, and also the Victorian settings and characters in The Vicar of Morbing Vyle and The Black Crusade. Not to mention the fantastical travelling machine called the Mobilator! But I never thought of it as steampunk, even though steampunk had already been through its first wave by the 90s, which is when I wrote those books. But the wave passed me by, perhaps because it looked like a very small and not very serious sub-branch of SF at the time. Steampunk for me was always very serious!
My first full-on steampunk book was Worldshaker, which really is about as steampunky as you can get. But it started out from a totally different source, the gothic world of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Gormenghast. Also, I suppose, the novels of Charles Dickens, which I was forced to read when I was too young to like them … but probably something of that memory remained. My original dream for Worldshakerinvolved creating dark gothic atmospheres, but once I’d transferred those atmospheres from a vast castle (Peake’s Gormenghast) or vast city (Dickens’ London) to a vast mobile metal juggernaut, the steampunk side of my imagination took off. (I say ‘dream’ deliberately because Worldshaker did begin with two dreams.)
As for the appeal of Steam Age machinery, well, it’s just so beautiful – a dark, ugly form of beauty, of course! I think that’s why filmmakers and game-makers are drawn to steampunk, because old-fashioned machinery is just so rich in visual possibilities … and richer than rich when you let yourself fantasize what might have existed (but never actually did). I think I must have a strong visual imagination – at least readers are always pointing to the film-like qualities of my books – and steampunk really gets my imagination going!
It’s still the gothic atmospheres – and accompanying darkly grotesque characters – that most draw me to steampunk. My latest novel, Song of the Slums, is gothic cum Victoriana rather than full-on steampunk – or it’s the special category of steampunk that American publishers call ‘gaslight romance’. Less emphasis on imaginary Steam Age hardware, more emphasis on emotions, characters and relationships.
But Song of the Slums still needs its setting in Steam Age society. The very premise of the novel – what would happen if rock ‘n roll was invented 100 years before Elvis Presley? – depends on it. The outraged reactions of the 1950s are multiplied a thousandfold in the Victorian period! What I love about using an alternate history setting is the way I can make everything so much more intense!
Similarly with the political situation – in Worldshaker and Liberator no less than Song of the Slums. The beauty of a fantasy version of the 19th century is that it comes after the French Revolution as well as after the Industrial Revolution – so you can bring in politics in the modern sense as well as machines. But exciting politics, not the bland, poll-driven politics we have nowadays. There were extreme cruelties and injustices in 19th century society, and the politics of change and revolution reflected a time when people lived and died for their beliefs. I think of it as raw, desperate power-struggle – and that kind of power-struggle drives the narrative in all three of my steampunk/gaslight fantasies, where the cruelties and injustices go way beyond even the reality of the 19th century.
(Do you plan to continue writing in this genre for the foreseeable future?)
Er, no! I seem to have a problem sitting still – I keep wanting to shift on to other things. I’ve jumped around between different genres and sub-genres of SF, fantasy and horror for my whole career so far – not a wise career move, but I can’t help it. So I can’t think of even steampunk as a final destination. I have another jump or two I still have to make!
Your last several books have been for younger audiences. What do you find particularly appealing about writing for teens and children, compared with writing for adults?
It’s not something I set out to do. From the time when I approached publishers with Ferren and the Angel, I discovered that it was easier to sell a book if it was YA rather than adult, so ever since I’ve looked to make books YA if they don’t need to contain adult elements. In the actual writing, I’ve always followed what the story wants without thinking too much of a target audience. I suppose it helps that I’ve wanted to use young protagonists, which is probably the most important criterion for a YA book these days – there isn’t much that’s absolutely ruled out in terms of content!
Nowadays, post-Potter, YA might not be so much easier to get published than adult, but it’s where I’ve built more of a reputation, so it’s still easier for me. With my children’s novels, I wrote them because publishers approached me – in those cases, I had to cast around for stories that wouldn’t run off into ‘unsuitable’ material even if I let the story go where it wanted.
Song of the Slums is interesting because it has a kind of mini-sequel in the story, “The Kiss of Reba Maul”, published just recently in the Kisses by Clockworkanthology. In the novel, the relationship between Astor and Verrol has plenty of romantic and sexual tension, but not too much to burst out beyond the YA category (nearly but not quite!). In “The Kiss of Reba Maul”, the connection between Reba and Verrol is a whole lot darker and more twisted, and I don’t know that it would make sense to the average YA-age reader. So far as I’m concerned, it’s a continuation of the same story, but it steps over the boundary into adult.
I’ll say something about writing YA fantasy, though – it’s a great test for any author. With YA, you can’t get away with a meandering story or slacknesses in the narrative. Adults can be persuaded to keep reading even when they’re not enthralled – out of duty, perhaps, or a belief that this book is good for them. With a YA readership, if you can’t hold their attention, the book gets tossed. It’s a challenge!
What are you currently working on? What can readers expect to see from you next?
My next book will probably come out under a pseudonym – I mean, a real pseudonym that’s meant to stay that way. So all I can tell you is that it’s spec fic, and it’s adult rather than YA.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
Ah, bad moment to ask. A couple of years ago, I was reading almost nothing but Australian spec fic, but this last year I’ve been trying to catch up on novels from everywhere else. I’ve kept reading short stories, though, starting with anthologies I’m in myself (well, hey, I get those sent to me anyway), and I’ve really enjoyed and admired stories in Dreaming of Djinn, Anywhere But Earth, Dimension 6 and Strange Bedfellows (Canadian). Also Cat Spark’s collection The Bride Price and Joanne Anderton’s The Bone Chime Song & Other Stories.
As regards actual novels, well, Rob Hood’s Fragments of a Broken Land – I read it in manuscript form many years ago, so I was really interested to see the changes it had gone through for the published version. Yeah, even better, Rob! I also read Kate Forsythe’s The Wild Child, which was excellent – though it belongs in the historical romance category rather than fantasy.
I’m looking forward to reading Rjurik Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky.
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
I haven’t changed the way I work. It’s taken me so long to develop a routine that carries me the whole way through a novel – nothing’s going to make me change now! But the publishing world is changing, that’s for sure, and I can’t picture what it’ll be like in five years time. I’ve never written with a view to marketing, so I just have to hope that what I want to write continues to be marketable.