Welcome back for Part 3 of our interview with Gail Carriger, author of Parasol Protectorate series – Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, and Heartless which was released June 28. Timeless is due out in 2012.
Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 can be found here.
Airship Ambassador: You were a practicing and professional archaeologist when not writing. How has your archaeological experience and skills been influential or manifest in your writing to bring your various world’s history to life? What are some of the things you bring into your stories so that the reader actually feels that they’re there? And it’s not just, “Ok, I’m in a room and it’s got Victorian stuff.”
Gail Carriger: That’s an awesome question because I approach this as an archaeologist. This is a deviation, but I’m going to tell you the story anyway. One of the last places that I excavated was in the highlands of Peru where they eat guinea pigs and they ate guinea pigs forever. One of the things that we’re only recently finding out about this is that we’d been exploring some of the storage facilities that the Inca housed their grains in during the last battles against Colonialists.
And it turns out they have these great long columns, kind of like a hypocaust heating-system from the classical era underneath their floors in these big stone buildings. For ages people thought it was aeration so that the grain stored on top wouldn’t mold. It turns out, of course, that they’re guinea pig pens because guinea pigs were another food source, and so you kept them with all the rest of the food, right? However, if you go and excavate in Peru end up in a lab, like I did, with a pen full of guinea pigs, you learn that they make this noise when there’s a bunch of them together, a hundred plus. They go “blup-baroo” constantly, and it’s just there — in the background.Walk through the barrios in Peru and there’s the noise of the guinea pigs because everyone has them – this warbling noise. And I just love the idea that if you visited one of these Inca palaces with these storage facilities underneath, that literally, the building would’ve warbled. Visit the great halls of the Incas, and the floor was going “blup-baroo.”
So it’s those details about history that can really color a world when you’re researching and when you’re writing. I try to do things like cook Victorian meals, so I know what they tasted like. I visit Victorian buildings to understand the smell. Or wet wolf. Or steam engines. What did they smell like? Other little details, are just intrinsic knowledge — like how they would put up really heavy curtains, tons and tons of curtains, to protect the furniture and complexion (but which, of course, explains everything if you’re a vampire).
Knowing a detail like like the quality of Victorian window dressing and then correlating it back can be part of the joy of writing. I color my world with a lot of fashion and food and things that interest me. I just figure it’ll interest other people. Because I’m an archaeologist, for me culture is defined by objects, and so, you’ll find my characters are defined by their objects too. Alexia’s parasol is very important to her because it’s a weapon but also it’s representative of her personality.
AA: Along those lines of culture, people really, defined by the details, Professor Lyall has his glasses.
GC: Yeah, and his defining characteristics of glassicals. He also has spectacles that he wears to read and of course he doesn’t need them because he’s an immortal but he affects them. He has a waistcoat of plenty, which you know, if you need something, Professor Lyall will probably have it in his waistcoat.
AA: And Lord Maccon?
GC: Well Lord Maccon is defined by being naked most of the time. Gotta have it. I haven’t put him in a kilt yet, but that would be nice. He’s defined by sort of the Scottish, scruffiness, which is both a characteristic of being a werewolf and the way that Victorians saw Scotsmen – terribly barbaric, those northerners! It’s hard to tell with Lord Maccon whether his behavior and appearance is a result of his werewolfness or his ethnicity. He also has hearty appetites.
He doesn’t really have an object. He struggles with objects,. You’ve all met men like this, I suspect, who just have a hard time with clothing and getting it right. Big guys who lose track of their feet. Never put a rug down in the vicinity of a six-foot-plus man who can’t tie a cravat – that’s all I’m saying. The rug will be screwed up into a ball in the corner of the room within five minutes. Lord Maccon is that kind of man.
AA: Initially, I found your book when I was looking for books recommended to me based on my Neil Gaiman purchases and it made me wonder what kind of authors you’re into, and what you read recently that has made an impression on you?
GC: Alright, what am I into? Well I’ve told you already that I’m a Mercedes Lackey fan. My first love, true love as a reader, was Tamora Pierce. The Song of the Lioness quartet basically changed my life. I’ve always loved women kicking ass – that’s what I write, that’s what I like to read. Because of that series I met my best friend, who has been my beta reader for my whole writing career. She still betas my work and because of her, I met all my other friends and they’re all in these books. It’s all Tamora Pierce’s fault.
I like Tanya Huff’s Valor series as well — I’m not as into her fantasy but I love her hard-core military sci-fi. I have a sort of a passion for co-authored works as well like Doyle and McDonald’s Mage War series. I enjoy a good space opera. I’m trying to picture my bookshelf in my head. So far as the Parasol Protectorate books are concerned, I read a lot of PG Woodhouse, Gerald Durrell – I love comedic authors. There’s Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, and Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affiare–which I think is a seminal work of brilliance. If you haven’t read it, you have to read it. But I did notice that comedy writers tend to be men, and there’s a certain quality to male writing where you tend to have masculine characters doing hero’s journey stuff. I do think that some of the popularity of my books has to do with the fact that it’s comedy from a female perspective. That said, I am borrowing a lot from Woodhouse in particular because I think he’s brilliant.
As for books I’ve read recently, I read M.K. Hobson’s Native Star which I enjoyed. It’s not as funny as I wanted – I really go for light fare whenever possible, but I thought the second half in particular was an excellent romp, and there’s a very Alexia-ish character that comes waltzing in, in a deus ex machina kind of way, at the end. I’m given books to blurb these days, so what I want to read and what I can read and what I have time to read has to be curtailed if I’ve made a promise. This is one of the things that happens when you’re writing, as in any industry, you ask for favors as you’re climbing to become a professional author, and then people cash them in when you have a name. That’s perfectly fair, and that’s the way the world works. Some favors have been cashed in. Those are the books on my stack right now.
AA: Your “day job” is working as a practicing archaeologist with a focus on ceramics. Before Star Wars came along and shifted my interests to space, I wanted to be an archaeologist to look for dinosaurs and then Egyptian pyramids. How did that interest first begin for you? How does that play into your writing and research and details you have to look for when you’re out on a dig?
GC: Well, as I’ve alluded to already, objects are very important in my world-building. But being an academic has helped in other arenas — I never miss a deadline, for example, which makes my publishing house pretty happy. But that is twenty odd years of dissertations breathing down my neck–”You don’t miss your deadlines.” I have developed strict researching habits and writing habits as the result of having to have constant deadlines and master’s proposals and grading and grant deadlines and so forth. I think that’s helped me with the professional side of writing.
I’m very Alexia-like and pragmatic in my approach to writing. I’m not very artistic about it. I’m not a discovery writer. I like to have an outline just like I would for academic essays. I like to have everything in place and just so. For me, the fun is in character dialogue and fun chase scenes and food descriptions. That’s where the joy is. I don’t have a problem already knowing the ending, I never have. The fun is in figuring out how to get there. It’s like archaeology: I know the ending, I have the objects in front of me, and what I have to do is explain how they got there and the people that made them. For me, writing is a little bit like that.
AA: How did the first dig come about?
GC: Way back?
AA: Way back. Well, way back just like several years.
GC: Oh no no. Way back. ’96 was my first excavation — it was Etruscan and is also the site described in Blameless. Alexia goes on an Etruscan picnic, which, by the way, the Victorians did do. They had these tomb picnics where they’d go out to an Etruscan site and crack a tomb, and have Scotch eggs and tea and look at the things that they just destroyed and dug up. Marvelous fun.
My first excavation was in Northern Italy in Etruria. I’d always wanted to be an archaeologist. I always wrote, but I always thought archaeology is what I’m going to do; writing is going to be my side hobby. Archaeology is very, very, very dull when you’re actually physically in the field digging things and sifting them all day long. I was fortunate enough, or unfortunate, to slice my finger open, half way through that first excavation. It was great because suddenly I couldn’t be put to work in the dirt anymore because it would get infected, so I got to do laser surveys of the surrounding landscape, charging through the jungle and figuring out where other sites were, and then I got moved into the field laboratory.
The cool thing about the field lab is that you get all the cool finds, you clean them, and then you get to do stuff with them, you’re not just digging, you actually get to examine them closely and catalog them. I’m a potter as well, that’s my artistic outlet, so I could ID ceramics really, really quickly. I knew that sherd was wheel-thrown, or that one hand-built, that is a handle. No one had to teach me. It became my arena pretty quickly, they asked me back as a lab supervisor the following year. So I became a field lab archaeologist. Which means I still go to the field, but most of the time I go because there’s something that I have an expertise in that someone needs me to take a look at.
AA: You haven’t been able to go on a dig in almost three years. Any plans for next year?
GC: Unfortunately it’s unlikely. I have three books coming out next year, a tour and two books due. Also the site in Peru was flooded out last year, so we don’t know what the condition is. There is a slight chance of going back for a month or so, but it is unlikely.
GC: I know, shoot.
AA: When you get a chance to go on a dig, are you expecting somebody to come along and say, “Oh! You’re Gail Carriger, and I have your book right here. If I can have your signature….”
GC: No…. The Spanish version is out but I don’t think it’s down in Peru, and I don’t think they’re huge steampunk fans. Also I look completely different in the field. You cannot be classy and well dressed in archaeology.
AA: So you won’t look like Alexia, and you might not look like Laura Croft.
GC: No, no. It’s in the Peruvian highlands, so I’m wearing turtle neck sweaters and jeans and hiking boots. You know, we shouldn’t talk about it. It’s embarrassing. Luckily, there’s no photographic evidence of what I look like in the field.
This is the end of Part 3.
Join us next time for the conclusion when Gail will share with us some of her writing process and some choice comments about Lord Akeldama.
Until then, read more from Gail on her website.
Get your copy of Gail’s books here:
Also, Gail will be the guest of honor at FenCon, September 23-25 in Dallas. The theme for the con is “Southern Steam,” and will have a number of steampunk-related events, including a Victorian tea, an outrageous hat contest (inspired by Ivy in Gail’s books), and panels on Victorian and steampunk attire.
Click here to read the rest of the interview