I admit, I kick the old adage in the face when it comes to book covers: I don’t hesitate to judge and judge fiercely. That being said, if a book cover intrigues me, I will pounce on it like a kitten goes to capnip. When the book-world blogosphere was reeling over the whitewashing Liar controversy, which was then followed by the Magic Under Glass fiasco – instances where the main protagonist of color was portrayed as white and light-haired – Orbit did a cover launch for THE GASLIGHT DOGS featuring this lovely example of Covers Done Awesome:
But it would be months until I got get my hands on the physical book, and was quite pleased when I finally did. Karin Lowachee’s publishing career began when she was won a first novel contest judged by Tim Powers (yes, fellow steampunks, *that* Tim Powers, author of The Anubis Gates) and had her book WARCHILD published in 2002. WARCHILD was the first of a trilogy that continued with BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD, and both WARCHILD and BURNDIVE were nominated as finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award.
But enough singing of praises for her previous work. THE GASLIGHT DOGS, a fantasy set on the wild borderlands of the frozen North where, in the epic words of the back cover: “an ancient nomadic tribe faces a new enemy – an empire fueled by technology and war.” Sjenn, a young spiritwalker from the Aniw tribe, is taken prisoner for murder by the Victorian-esque Ciracusans settlers and meets Captain Jarrett, a brash soldier with daddy issues and a terrible gift. The two of them and the steadfast Whishishian native guide Keeley must work together to master a deadly power or else everyone – both colonialist and native – will suffer dire consequences.
I devoured this book in two days after getting it, and was able to get in touch with Karin for an interview about writing THE GASLIGHT DOGS.
According to your website bio, you were born in Guyana, grew up in Canada and had experience working in the Arctic. How much do you think your international experiences influence your writing?
I moved from Guyana when I was rather young, though I do have pretty stark memories from there regardless. My main life experience has been in Southern Canada and I think that has influenced me more than anything else, because this area is very multicultural. Even if I’m not wholly conscious of how that affects my writing, I think it’s given me a perspective that maybe some other people who grew up in other countries might not have quite so embedded. I did not grow up thinking it was strange or remarkable to meet 9 different cultures just walking down the street, to have friends of different cultures from literally around the world, to hear different languages in my neighborhoods, to eat different foods and to smell different kinds of dishes cooking in my friends’ homes. Canada, especially this area of it, is very fortunate to have both blended and distinct cultures all around and I reckon I’ve breathed that into my writing in one way or another – where race isn’t something I feel I need to comment on in paragraphs all the time, where my characters accept different languages and the different way people look without making it exceptional. I’m speaking of my SF series, naturally. To me true acceptance of people and cultures comes when you feel no need to always point it out as if it’s exceptional (as in, to be excepted) or new. I have friends of all different races and cultures, and I feel no need to bring it to light when we’re together. We all just accept these aspects of one another, we love and appreciate it as inherent, we’re not too precious about it either, and we get on with it. I think without thinking too much about it, that attitude has been in my WARCHILD universe books.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing THE GASLIGHT DOGS? How do you feel it differentiates from your previous books?
It took me awhile to find the voice(s) for it, like one or two drafts of the first 20 pages, and I am not the kind of writer that can continue writing until I’ve nailed the voice. Having distinct voices for each of my books, that best suit the books/characters, is important to me. I understand that my authorial style will bleed through no matter what, but I want the upper layers to be distinctly fitting for the story and characters I’m writing. I sort of expected a couple false starts with THE GASLIGHT DOGS because all of the books have behaved differently in writing. They are all their own beasts. I was conscious of wanting a different voice for this book and I wanted to push myself stylistically and structurally, without making a mess. I still wanted the narrative to be fairly straightforward. The main difference between this and my previous books is I have a female point-of-view protagonist and her point-of-view might not be as readily accessible as Jarrett’s, because culturally she’s a bit unknown to the reader. So that was a fun challenge.
The cover of THE GASLIGHT DOGS screamed multicultural steampunk to me: that touch of Victorian signaled by the lamppost, but that lamppost’s light shedding upon a completely non-Eurocentric culture. Reading it, I got the feeling that the book’s a bit of steampunk, a bit of Weird West, and bit of gaslamp fantasy. Have you ever considered your book falling under the umbrella of steampunk lit?
I love the cover, I just want to say that, and I haven’t met anyone who didn’t think it was amazing, so my many thanks to Orbit and Sam Weber, the artist, for that. As for if I considered my book falling under the umbrella of steampunk lit? No. I don’t categorize to myself when I form an idea, and to be honest, I’m not intimately familiar with the steampunk genre or any of its affiliates – though I am getting into it more! I approached this book as a kind of story I hadn’t quite seen, but with the understanding that perhaps it’s because I hadn’t looked deep enough. That was fine; I still wanted to tell it. I thought I could bring a small unique perspective with the exploration of an Arctic culture based on the one I had been able to interact with. I wanted to include other milieus that I find fun and interesting (19th century city and 19th century frontier), to throw them all together and see what can come from the conflict. It wasn’t until after talking to my editor I realized that maybe I was right, that this would be a little different and would hopefully intrigue readers as something new.
Your book also showed the gritty, complicated aspect of two cultures meeting. You subvert the trope that we see too often in sci-fi/fantasy stories: where one person (usually white and male) is accepted into another nation/tribe/planet of blue people, masters their culture’s ways and then uses his newfound skills to save his adopted people. Captain Jarrett, on the other hand, is far from playing the savior to any native tribe or even his own people. Was subverting that trope something you had in mind while writing, or did it come about through the writing process?
First, I have to laugh at the Avatar reference. So many people in our genre have lambasted it but I had no problem with James Cameron’s blue people and I like to think I’m not uneducated about the ‘issue’ he put to 3D. But that’s for another conversation. Regardless, I understand that trope, but I didn’t go into THE GASLIGHT DOGS with a subverting agenda and I still don’t have any subverting agenda because the Story to me comes before Statements. I wanted to make Jarrett a unique individual, to make his conflict with Sjenn and his father be individual to him, and while I was developing his story through the three planned novels, he became what he became. I don’t like approaching my work wanting to Make Big Statements. I want to tell stories that mean something to me, that grow organically, and hopefully come to mean something to others who might read it. Was I influenced by history? Of course I was. The complications that arise from two disparate cultures meeting (or two disparate personalities meeting) have been some sort of theme in all of my books thus far, and I suppose that’s because I’m not finished examining the facets of that. If there’s any sort of agenda in my writing, it’s in my desire to keep picking at things that interest me while throwing my characters into the fray.
Maybe at the back of my mind I was working with the idea that there wasn’t going to be any easy ‘saviors’ in the book, but that applies equally to Sjenn as to Jarrett. She is pretty specifically out of her depth for most of the novel and doesn’t quite know how to navigate this weird Southern culture or their people. She’s unsure and struggling just as much as Jarrett is, though she does have a specific sense of responsibility to take care of her people as a spiritwalker, which Jarrett clearly doesn’t have. I like to think both of them have an inner strength, both of them make and will make good and bad choices that have good and bad consequences, though they might not appear so black and white in the moment. Those are issues that I wanted to highlight in the book and what I have planned in the future books.
I read in the bonus interview in the back of the book (a great plus for any author, by the way) about how your inspiration in imaging fictional First Nation cultures is based in part on your experiences working and living with the Inuit tribe. I’m curious about any direct real-life parallels about discrimination you chose to incorporate in your writing. In particular, a friend pointed out to me that the word “abo,” the broad term used in the book to describe First Nation peoples is also actually an old pejorative word used in Australia against the Aboriginal peoples. Was this word use intentional? Have you received any criticism for it?
I should clarify that I didn’t live with the Inuit up North. I worked with some fantastic people and was fortunate enough to be let in a little to their culture, but I lived in a basic apartment in what many would recognize as a small town on the edges of Hudson Bay. I would say I lived ‘among’ but not ‘with’…which might seem semantically anal, but I think it’s a distinction worth making, lest I misrepresent myself.
The real life parallels…I’m unsure if you mean in culture or character. There are some clear parallels in the culture of the Aniw and the Inuit, but there are marked differences as well, which I discuss briefly in the interview at the back of the novel. The Aniw are nomadic, tribal, live in snowhouses in the winter and tents in the summer, and other such things that are inspired by the Inuit culture, but the whole Dog ancestry spirituality is my own imagination. I never copy people – my characters are completely my creation, even if small characteristics or real life people that I know influence them.
As for the term ‘abo’, admittedly my study of the Aboriginals of Australia isn’t what I wish it was (yet), and while I’m certain I’ve heard that term somewhere in my studies or through film, it didn’t embed enough for it to be conscious. I simply wanted a word the Ciracusans would call the Nation peoples of their world as a broad term. If it holds pejorative undertones to those who might read it, I suppose that’s fitting for the Ciracusan point of view too, but I definitely didn’t mean to use it insensitively and to insult the Australian Aboriginals. To the Ciracusans it’s just a common word, since they have to call the aboriginal peoples something and it’s become so pervasive they no longer think it an insult (sort of like how some people still use the word Eskimo, which is wrong). But it’s certainly not the word Keeley would call himself, and I had that in mind regardless. Nobody has lobbed criticism my way about it, but I’m sure that’s just a matter of time if they don’t realize the word’s being used from the Ciracusan point-of-view, and if Sjenn uses it in her narrative it’s because she learned it from a Ciracusan point-of-view. The book’s in third person, but it’s a tight third person, so the world is specifically being seen through either Jarrett’s or Sjenn’s eyes.
What would be your best advice in world-building, especially when inspired by other cultures outside the ones you were raised in?
Be as thorough as you can, responsible, and sensitive about the cultures you intend to incorporate or be inspired by. But that can be said of writing anybody or anything, and should be said of writing in general. Be aware as much as you can and go about your creation with respect. Past that, one hopes that readers understand that you’re not writing a clinical study, encyclopedia, or non-fiction memoir. Or even historical fiction, as such. If the implicit question here is about the issue of appropriation of voice, I think as long as writers are conscious and decent in their intentions, we should be able to investigate and write, or how else are we going to try to understand one another? Understanding doesn’t come by holding people at bay, sticking up a sign that says “INSERT CULTURE HERE” ONLY, or refusing to educate one’s self. We should all want to try to understand what other people go through by reading about them, talking to them, and trying to see ourselves through their eyes – which to me is essentially what incorporating other cultures (or the opposite gender) is for a writer.
I am very specific in saying that I’m not Inuit, so I recognize that I have to be respectful to the culture while acknowledging that I’m taking creative license because this is a fantasy novel and I like to use my imagination. I can hope that people who might read my book and are totally ignorant of Inuit culture might be intrigued enough to go research on their own and find out what it’s really like, and not be so lazy that they’d assume this fantasy novel is an accurate depiction of the real world culture. But it’s not my job to appease the lazy people who might encounter my book and not want to connect the dots or take some responsibility for their own knowledge or lack thereof. If an Inuit friend or stranger came up to me and accused me of mistreating or misrepresenting their culture, I would take that to heart and want to converse with them about exactly why they think that, because it’s certainly not my intention and I’ve given Sjenn’s culture a lot of thought. If anyone else wants to accuse me of something but aren’t Inuit themselves, I would consider that a little myopic. I think where writing different cultures is concerned, you have to just do your best with the best of intentions, be conscious, and research. And recognize you might not please everybody. But I would hope that a writer doesn’t do what they do because they believe they can please everybody.
I also think that beyond culture and race or even gender, human beings come from the same place emotionally and finding that commonality regardless of culture or gender is a great place to find yourself in as a human being. I am writing about struggle and identity and relationships and concepts of compassion, and a million other personal things – these are human issues and everyone should have a right to explore those ideas in order to make themselves more self-aware as a contributing human being on this planet. I don’t write simply to tell a story and I definitely don’t do it to get my name out there, to get accolades or any of that temporal stuff. Writing to me is communication between myself and any readers, and communication with myself. Writing and self-awareness and personal development are all tied together for me, and inform one another; to be creative is to be human and to be human is to be creative. If you have that general belief when you go forward to write, and be influenced by and open to other cultures and other people, then you’re starting off on the right foot.
Thank you again, Karin, for your time and your wonderful answers. So, everyone, run to your nearest bookstore (or click on that bookmarked link to Amazon…I know you have it) and check out THE GASLIGHT DOGS. You can also reach Karin through her website http://www.karinlowachee.com.
ETA: There is also a lovely review of THE GASLIGHT DOGS on Tor.com by Jaymee Goh.