#61 Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories — A Roundtable Interview, Part 2

Note: This is part 2 of our roundtable interview with several contributors to Steam-Powered. Read part 1 here.


Do you have any previous experience writing LGBTQQ fiction?

Sara: I was actually approached for this anthology specifically because I already had a series that centered on lesbians in a Steampunk setting. Previous to the Penemue Trilogy being put out by the Apex Book Company (THE CONVENT OF THE PURE, THE LABYRINTH OF THE DEAD, and the forthcoming THE TOWER OF THE FORGOTTEN), I had not yet delved into creating LGBT-centered stories. But having grown up in the Bay Area, the gay community was always a big part of my life and I had been wanting to get a chance to tell some of those stories.

Amal: I’ve never before been part of an anthology or project that was explicitly labelled LBGT, but I am bisexual, and a lot of my work carries that subtext. The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written spontaneously to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey, is certainly brimming with it; I enjoy writing gender-ambiguous first-person narrators, as well, to observe and play with reader assumptions and self-projections as that narration encounters explicitly male or female characters.

Mike: Not a jot. (I suppose, as a straight, white male a year over 40, you could call me the odd man out here, heh.) As an editor, I’ve selected pieces with LBGT elements, and as a poet, I’ve touched lightly on those themes, but I’ve never delved into them in my own fiction. Doing so without any previous practice involved putting my whole-hearted trust in Jo. I’ll admit her invitation came as a surprise — a welcome surprise — and her confidence in me ultimately encouraged me to pull out every stop. I’d call it a very liberating exercise.

Matt: I have written characters with ambiguous sexual orientation, but nothing as overt as in the story in Steam-Powered.

Shira: Pretty much everything I write. I’m genderqueer and pansexual, and most of my friends are one or more variety of LGBTQ, so the relationships I write tend to be queer and often also polyamorous, because that’s what comes most naturally to me.

Teresa: I’ve written primarily lesbian erotica and speculative fiction for anthologies and novels. As a writer, I love soaking the reader in sensual experiences that reveal private, irrational truths. As a reader, I’m often frustrated with stories that grant me access to every other arena but slam shut the door to the bedroom. After all, how much of who we are is expressed through sex and desire? My hope is that, one day, erotica will no longer be segregated as a genre, so the final public/private literary boundary will vanish.

Shweta: A little. My story “Nira and I” (in Strange Horizons, March 2009) is primarily about a same-sex couple, and I have another one out on submission that I’d classify as LGBT fiction. Beyond that, I’m not sure; I’ve written other characters who aren’t straight, but their stories focus on other aspects of their lives.

I also hesitate to claim experience with LGBT fiction when I have, at best, managed only the “LGB” part of that! I’ve been *pondering* a story featuring a trans character for, um, a while; but between health issues, working on my cis privilege enough to do so without Fail, lack of externally-imposed deadlines, and a major setting transplant, I haven’t actually written it yet.

What was the greatest challenge in writing this particular story?

Sara: The challenge was to create a world of three-dimensional characters that were not defined by their sexuality, but that were people whole and entire in addition to also being gay. Every time I went to write a story “about lesbians,” it flopped. So I gave up writing about lesbians and did what I had done about the Penemue trilogy, I wrote a story about amazing people in a unique setting that just so happened to be lesbians.

I realized it was a lot easier when I stopped trying and just wrote compelling characters having adventures and then it all fell into place and I was able to put together a story I am very proud of!

Amal: Beginning it. Once I had the idea in hand, I found myself completely devastated by the prospect of rewriting Damascus, being two years removed from my last, brief experience of it. I found myself struggling to remember the shape and slope of certain streets, the names of areas I’d visited, and felt profoundly unworthy of trying to represent something that meant so much to me. Claire Cooney helped me work through that, by getting me to write a key scene for her, on the spot, immediately, and managed to tease the rest from me in fits and bursts. Shweta Narayan helped an immense deal as well, always demanding new words from me, and helping me to feel like I wasn’t making too bad a mess of it.

Mike: Wow, where to start. When I said pull out all the stops, I wasn’t kidding. First, the writing itself. For all three of the *Clockwork Phoenix* books, I created playful introductions that almost read like stories, that are written in poetic language and make use of surreal clockpunk imagery. “Sleepless, Burning Life” is a complete novelette written in that purple-prosed style, to the point of deliberate parody.

Second, the dysfunctional divine trinity at the heart of the story: these women are not very good for each other, to say the least. I rationalized that no one familiar with my work would expect me to cough up a portrayal of a healthy, loving relationship, but I’m grateful that Jo allowed me to push that envelope.

Third, intimately entwined with the second, the explicitly erotic bent of the story. The pivotal image my evil muse first provided to show me how this story should proceed was as explicit as you get. But Jo gave me the go-ahead to get, um, steamy, and assures me the results aren’t the exact opposite of my intent, which was one of my biggest worries.

Matt: Because I hadn’t written LGBT fiction before, and being a hetero man writing for a lesbian anthology, I was very nervous at how my story would be received! And I realized that, though I was raised Jewish and live in New York, I knew very little about the Yiddish culture of the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. I also wanted to make sure I honored the Gujarati culture while highlighting the severe injustices perpetrated on them by the British Empire at the time. So there was a lot of research involved. But mostly, I wanted the romantic relationship between the characters to be believable, and that was my biggest concern.

Shira: Just getting around to it! I was even busier than usual this summer and fall. Also, as I said before, Rivka herself didn’t show up immediately, and I tend to write from the character and not from the idea, if that makes sense. But once I found her, the story came out in one piece pretty much right away.

Teresa: The most difficult part of this story was limiting the sex! Despite how erotic content is often dismissed as distraction or sensationalism, sex is usually vital to telling my character’s story. Steam-Powered was not primarily an erotica project, but steampunk is a highly-textured aesthetic with its more organic and less industrial world. There was so much opportunity to expand the sensuality, especially with an impulsive character like Alice who experienced herself most fully through sensuality and sexual power.

Shweta: Making it comprehensible — both the non-Euroentric perspective and the nested structure of Doom. I don’t think I could have managed it at all without in-depth feedback from several people. Delia Sherman’s extensive critique and Emily Jiang’s sounding-board prowess were especially lifesaving, as were Jo’s edits-for-clarity.

A major part of the difficulty was including the emotional arc between the main characters properly; it took multiple edits to create a cross- cultural romance that (hopefully!) doesn’t read as mutual exoticization.

Where do you see steampunk fiction going?

Sara: Anywhere it wants! But really we have so many facets of Steampunk from a more strictly alternate history view to worlds with zombies and magic. I love the variety of Steampunk, I love all that it offers both to readers and to us authors. So many worlds to pay in. And while the mainstream will likely move on (it always does), I think this foray has opened up a lot more vistas for readers and that we are really just scratching the surface of this incarnation of the genre.

Amal: Boldly off in all directions, I hope! It’s at an interesting point, right now, where I see it more discussed than written, but I think that’s largely because the discussions are excellent, thought-provoking, and necessarily raise the stakes of the writing.

Mike: I have to confess here to being a bit of a cynic. Steampunk is a popular commercial trend at the moment, and so I imagine you’ll see many subtle and not so subtle variations on those Victorian themes over the next few years until it’s run into the ground. Sparkly blood-drinking airships!

On the other hand, you’ll also see talented writers tackling the topic from all sorts of unexplored angles and turning the tropes of the sub-genre on their heads. Kind of like in this book!

Matt: It’s very problematic to romanticize a period of history that treated women as second-class citizens and subjugated people of color. So I think that some of the reimagining of those periods as something other than what they were offers a lot of exciting possibilities. And why does steampunk always have to be Victorian? I think we’ll see steampunk move out of the period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and we’ll see stories taking place far in the future or in the past. Fads come and go, but I think steampunk has legs, as they say. I foresee it being around for a long time.

Shira: Hopefully, onward. How does steampunk technology shape the Edwardian era, the Belle Epoque? How far can we extrapolate? I’d like to see the movement keep moving, keep innovating. And I’d like to see it from the street level. If we’re going to call it punk, let’s be punk.

Teresa: Steampunk is going everywhere, from plot-focused romps to political fantasies to studied social explorations. Steampunk has a grand future. Visually, it’s intriguing with its stylized organo-metallic aesthetic. Technology without industrialization, science acting like a religion, and culture battling conscience offer the writer complex cultures and deep human drama.

Shweta: Right now I’m seeing a heartening upsurge in Steampunk that earns its punk, that deconstructs the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, ableist, Eurocentric/colonialist narratives of the 19th century (and the 21st). That’s the steampunk whose conversations I’m interested in and whose stories I’m looking forward to (and falling on now with delight).

My oracular powers not extend to the whole genre, but I *hope* that, eventually, the fact of a multifaceted world soaks into its every gear and corset.

***

Editor Interview with JoSelle Vanderhooft

A dramaturg and something of a lapsed playwright, JoSelle Vanderhooft now works as a freelance journalist, poet and fiction writer. Her work has appeared or will soon appear in print and online in such venues as Aofie’s Kiss, Byzarium, Cabinet des Fées, Jabberwocky, Not One of Us, MYTHIC, Mythic Delirium, Reflections Edge, Star*Line and several others. She has also published seven poetry books.

Her first novel The Tale of the Miller’s Daughter was released from Papaveria Press in June, 2006 and her second and third, Owl Skin, and Ebenezer, a retelling of A Christmas Carol, are forthcoming from Papaveria and Drollerie Press, respectively . She edited the Torquere Press anthology of lesbian fairytales Sleeping Beauty, Indeed (reissued in 2009 by Lethe Press) and (with Catherine Lundoff) Hellebore & Rue, an anthology of stories about lesbian magic users (Drollerie Press, 2010). Bitten By Moonlight, an anthology of lesbian werewolf stories, will be released from Zumaya Books in 2011.

What gave you the idea behind this anthology?

Steampunk is a genre I’ve enjoyed for years. I discovered the comics Girl Genius (by Phil and Kaja Foglio) and Steampunk (yes, that was really it’s name) by Chris Bachalo and Joe Kelly while living in New York City in the summer of 2001 and was blown away by their intelligence, their world-building and their ideas. Upon returning to Utah, I read The Difference Engine for a university class and that hooked me completely.

Since that time, I wanted to write something related to steampunk, but not much emerged despite several attempts. After editing my first anthology in 2004 (Sleeping Beauty, Indeed, a collection of lesbian fairy tales), the fun I had with that book combined with steampunk’s rising popularity made me think, “Hey, why not pitch an anthology of queer steampunk tales!” Torquere, who put out Sleeping Beauty, Indeed originally, loved the idea and—well, there you go.

The concept for the book changed a lot, though, since I signed the contract. I did not initially envision it as a collection that strived to be deliberately multi-cultural and inclusive of characters with disabilities and from the lower/working class. When RaceFail 2009 came along, however, that all changed. The discussion made me think and re-think many of my assumptions, conscious and unconscious, about race and class and the way that so many points of view are mis- or underrepresented. As I read the discussions and other posts about race and SF/F, I realized that, as an editor, I was in a position to look and ask for the kinds of stories a lot of readers wanted to see.

Steampunk romance is on the rise. Why do you think the two genres mesh so well together?

I think the most obvious reason is economic, actually! While the recession has been hitting the publishing industry—and, well, just about every other industry—pretty hard, romance is actually turning a profit. But I don’t mean and don’t wish to say, “people are just doing it for the money!” (That would be both wrong and ludicrous.) I think the two appear together frequently because romance is so often about fancy: the excitement of falling in love, of fantasizing about a physically and/or emotionally attractive person; the passion and emotion of it all. Steampunk, to me, is often also about fancy and longing. For example, even when it’s engaging with colonialism or racism, as so many of Steam-Powered’s stories do, it is frequently in the surroundings of fantastic, imaginative technology, in detailed, awe-inspiring worlds where anything seems possible. If that isn’t a great background upon which to project the most intimate longings of the heart, I don’t know what is!

Do you see steampunk’s 19th-century literary roots in how people write steampunk fiction today? Or do you think steampunk as a subgenre is drawing inspiration from more modern genres and forms?

I think I see it as the latter. On the one hand, I can’t think of a lot of steampunk authors who I would call direct descendants of, say, Jules Verne, though certainly echoes of his work are out there (Teresa Wymore’s “Under the Dome” owes much to The Island of Doctor Moreau, for example). On the other hand, most of the ones with whose work I am familiar don’t seem interested—at least directly so—in punking 19th Century literature as much as they are interested in playing with its tropes and our understanding of those tropes—such as corsetry and women’s response to it.

But steampunk is growing so rapidly that I really think today’s work has in general moved beyond Verne and other 19th Century writers into noir, horror, and romance, which is an older genre, yes, but certainly has grown a lot since the 1700s. And I think this is very exciting because it doesn’t confine steampunk to endless Verne reiterations, or even to airships and gears.

Your contributors come from a wide range of sci-fi writers in the community that are both familiar with and new to LGBTQQ fiction. How did you select this diverse group of writers to contribute?

I think the anthology was diverse in terms of writers’ experience because I set out for it to be that way. I deliberately took on very new authors like Tara Sommers, steampunk veterans like Shweta Narayan, and people who told me they didn’t really care for steampunk at all like Shira Lipkin because I wanted the book to be as varied as possible, especially in its treatment of the huge landscape that steampunk is. I also set out wanting to get a mix of straight and queer voices, not only to give queer writers a venue for their work, but straight writers a challenge to write from a perspective that they had not lived.

Now that you’ve finished a steampunk anthology focusing on lesbian relationships, will a gay steampunk collection be in the works for the future?

What a great idea! Though I can’t say that I’ve contemplated one. While there will be a second Steam-Powered (which is so far slated for release in September of this year), it is also going to focus on lesbian-identified characters. But I suppose time will tell. One thing that I’ve been saying for years is that I love my fellow LGBTQ people and I want to edit and write the best stories possible for them, so I’m definitely not ruling out the idea of such a volume—though I might feel more comfortable if I could co-edit it with a queer man.

Other than on Torquere’s website, where else can readers find Steam-Powered?

The book can be ordered from Amazon and signed copies are always available from me! Just shoot me an email through my website and I’ll set you up.

***

Thanks to all the authors & JoSelle for offering your time & thoughts about this anthology. Steam-Powered is on sale now; you can order it here.

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13 Comments

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