Monday, November 5, 2012

Jordan Stratford: Mechanicals

Jordan Stratford Mechanicals Cover Art by Aly Fell

*We're doing something different around here today and have an actual interview for you!

Mechanicals Interview with Steampunk Revue

Jordan Stratford is a West Coast author with the top-funded steampunk project on kickstarter to date: the Middle Grade series Wollstonecraft featuring Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley as girl detectives in 1826.

Today he's answering questions about his Crimean War adventure, Mechanicals, available at Amazon.

Can you tell us a little about Mechanicals?

It's a really fun, old-fashioned adventure story: a steampunk take on the Crimean War. Imagine the Charge of the Light Brigade with giant robots and demon-cultists. And a secret society trying to keep a lid on things that go bump in the night, along with the first airship crossing of the Pacific, which is really a gun-running operation.

The book is a kind of pastiche of the "Boys' Own Adventure" style colonial propaganda / revisionist history popular at the turn of the last century. Except that ninety percent of the book and its characters are entirely and accurately historical. We meet George Merryweather who used leeches to predict storms, and Tolstoy and Florence Nightingale, Emperor Norton, Samuel Colt, Lord Cardigan, Madame Blavatsky, and the Fox sisters who kicked of the Spiritualism craze of the 19th century. Lots of nods to history buffs, all in a "ripping yarn" style.

Is it Young Adult?

I've sometimes called it that only to broaden the audience of the book. It's totally appropriate for teenage readers, but so too are any adventure stories set in that world. It's YA if Haggard is YA, or if Kipling is YA, so far as content goes. Can you enjoy its at fourteen? Sure. Can you enjoy it at sixty-four? Of course. There's an interesting conversation within steampunk as a genre regarding the extent to which the YA label applies or doesn't.

What are the mechanicals in the title?

It's a double meaning. It refers to the eighteen-foot-tall walking steam locomotives – machine-gun-toting steam-mecha, which make up the "new" face of British cavalry, particularly the Eleventh Hussars in the story. But the term also applies to the most basic of actors, living props really, in early theatre. They're on the stage and roughly going through the motions. So it's about the characters themselves, none of whom signed up for the war, but who do what they can in the circumstances in which they find themselves. They're not the architects of their actions any more than are the robots they run around in.

With you as a 21st century author, how did you cope with the 19th century roles of race and gender in the book?

I think the "punk" in steampunk means subverting the representation of 19th century values and bias and playing with it for the purposes of storytelling. I think we can play with the optimism and naiveté of the period without glossing over the cost of colonialism. Punk is after all about the appropriation of status symbols for and by the underclass – so the genre gives you lots of room without idolizing the era or reverting to historical myopia.

The steampunk frame of reference is to take something apart and recombine it so that it's yours, or your ideal of that thing. We can do that with history, with historical imposition of roles upon race and gender. I tried to keep things both contemporaneous and respectful, while acknowledging there have always been outliers. Adventurers aren't expected to dress for dinner, necessarily, and mad scientists are, well, mad.

Certainly one of the heroines, a sixteen year old daughter of Greek merchants who finds herself plucked from the streets of London, confronts and exploits the expectations of Victorian womanhood. One of the minor characters is referred to as a "Negro porter", and I went out to my network to test this word, which is the most respectful self-identifier of the period. The book is set decades before "coloured" or "person of colour" was a term at all, and Dr. King referred to himself as a Negro. But I was very careful to gauge the opinions of members of cultures depicted, and I did this by asking and listening. My "out" is that all my major characters are utterly pragmatic – it's not that they don't have their prejudices and biases, but they just don't have time to make any allowances for them. My protagonist, an "accidentally immortal" Anglican priest has tremendous respect for Arab culture and history, for example.

Let's talk more about the story.

As per the serials of the period I'm imitating, there are three parallel stories which converge, and the POV changes chapter by chapter to tell each story. The first is that of an Anglican priest who's a demon-hunter, and fears that the coming war will unearth things that are best left alone. He's accompanied by his sixteen-year-old protégée who's really living outside the bubble she thought was her fate for the first time. Ahead of the army, they're looking to keep certain alchemical secrets from falling into the wrong hands.

The second arc is that of a young reporter who accompanies Samuel Colt on the first tempestuous airship crossing between Russian America and Siberia, in order to run thousands of rifles to the Tsar for the war. The third story is that of a reluctant cavalry officer, who's named after my great grandfather who actually was an officer in the newly-mechanized Hussars. It really tells the hurry-up-and-wait aspect of warfare, of the devastating impact of cholera on the allied forces, and how the age of mechanization changed the culture of war forever. The Crimea really was the first mechanical conflict and served as a kind of lethal laboratory for the technology which was so cruelly inflicted on the United States during the Civil War.

What kind of research did you do to prepare for the book?

It's amazing to live in a time when if you need to see a certain weapon, or uniform, or train or coin or 3D terrain map it's all available to you instantly. I put myself in every scene and ran through my senses – what would this room smell like, sound like? What is every surface made of and how did it get in the room? So there's a whole layer of set-dec that goes into each page. And certainly while I've accelerated the technology, the underpinnings are all there. Electricity, submarines, engine-driven airships, machine-guns – all of these existed well before the outbreak of the Crimean War. I've simply played "what if" and tried to keep the convergence of the tech as realistic as possible while remaining true to the military history. Not saying I didn't cheat when necessary–I had to put the railway into Bulgaria about 20 years ahead of history, for example. But ninety percent of it is as accurate as I could make it, drawing from primary sources.

Why did you choose to self-publish?

It was a simple enough business decision for this title. I have a background in all the components of publishing: marketing, design, layout, and I've worked at practically every control-surface of the industry. So while I had (greatly appreciated) small-press offers for this book, it was easier for me to get it directly to readers via kindle. I just see self-publishing as one tool in the drawer among many, and certainly my other books will continue to reside at their respective presses. My Wollstonecraft series, for instance, has interest from Big 6 (Big 5 now, I suppose) publishers to take it global, and can do more for those books than I can do on my own.

Self-publishing has been framed as the first choice for authors, and I wouldn't recommend it in that context, honestly. It's far better to work with small presses, work with different editors, and keep your product quality high. But once you have the contacts for PR, for book and cover design, for editors you respect and trust, at that point you are a small press and have all the workload that entails. Most authors don't want to do all that, they just want to write, in which case self-publishing isn't necessarily the best route. That being said, it's a perfectly legitimate strategy should all the components align. Half of all e-books are read on laptops, and it's interesting that most e-books are read by people who don't have e-readers. And at $2.99 it's cheaper than Starbucks. I make the same royalty as I would with a larger publisher, but the price point to the reader is much, much lower.

Can we expect a sequel to Mechanicals?

Yes, sometime next year. I've committed to writing more Wollstonecraft books before I can return to the world of Mechanicals, but there are some plot points I want to resolve. The villain in the story is very much in the background, and I only drop hints as to who he is, so I want to give him some more time in the spotlight. A secondary theme of Mechanicals is about playing your part and how ultimately powerless that makes you, and the next book will be about what happens when playing your part is no longer possible, and powerlessness is not an option. The characters get a taste of that in the first book, but I really want to turn up the heat in that regard, and I have the perfect setting for it, so I can't wait.

For the month of November, be sure to take advantage of the introductory price at Amazon.

Jordan Stratford has been pronounced clinically dead, and was briefly mistakenly wanted by INTERPOL for international industrial espionage. He is an ordained priest, has won numerous sword fights, jaywalked across the streets of Paris, San Franciso, and Sao Paolo, and was once shot by a stray rubber bullet in a London riot. He lives on a tiny windswept Pacific island populated predominantly by realtors and carnivorous gulls.

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