Interview with Author A.J. Hartley, Part 2

Welcome back for part two in our talk with A.J. Hartley, author of Steeplejack.

Read part one here.


Airship Ambassador: What passage, paragraph, or scene was really memorable to write?

A.J. Hartley: I like this because it presents the world in all its grit and loveliness at the same time. It’s in the first chapter when Ang is working alone on of the tallest factory chimneys in Bar-Slehm:


It had once been beautiful, this bright, hot land rolling down to the sea. In places, it still was—wide and open savannahs where the sveld beasts grazed and the clavtar stalked; towering mountains, their topmost crags lost in cloud; and golden, palm-fringed beaches.

And sky. Great swaths of startling, empty blue where the sun burned high during the day, and night brought only blackness and a dense scattering of stars.

That’s how it had been, and how it still was, not so very far away. But not here. Not in Bar-Selehm. Here were only iron and brick and a thick, pungent smoke that hung in a perpetual shroud over the pale city, shading its ancient domed temples and stately formal buildings. A couple of miles inland, down by the Etembe market, the air was ripe with animal dung, with the mouthwatering aroma of antelope flesh roasted over charcoal braziers, with cardamom, nutmeg, and pepper and, when the wind blew in from the west, with the dry but fertile fragrance of the tall grass that bent in the breeze all the way to the mountains. In the opposite direction was the ocean, the salt air redolent with fish and seaweed and the special tang of the sea. But here there was only smoke. Even all the way up the chimneys, above the city, and at what should have been the perfect vantage on the minarets of Old Town, and on the courts and monuments of the Finance District, I could see little through the brown fog, and though I wore a ragged kerchief over my mouth and nose, I could still taste it. When I spat, the slime was spotted with black flakes.

“If the work doesn’t kill you,” Papa used to say, “the air will.”

I sat on the dizzying top, my legs hooked over the edge, and below me nothing for two hundred feet but the hard stone cobbles that would break a body like a hundred hammers.


AA: That’s very descriptive, and certainly makes it seem like the smoke was the more formidable opponent. Was there any scene-passage-text-etc that you loved but which just didn’t work and had to be cut?

AJH: There was a very dramatic action sequence which got cut because the book was running long and it wasn’t essential to the story. I won’t say more except that it involves an animal pack in an unexpected place, because I was able to retool the section for use in Firebrand.


AA: At least you were able to reuse it elsewhere. What kind of back story is there for Steeplejack which didn’t make it into the final book?

AJH: There’s a lot of world building which I try to only reveal when necessary or when it makes sense that Ang is thinking or talking about it. Because it’s a first person narration, character is all and drives all revealed information. If she’s not thinking about it, it can’t go in. That means I have a swelling “Bible” file on my computer, a document into which I put everything I discover or invent about the world—whether or not it makes it explicitly into the novel—in order to keep it consistent.


AA: I’ve often wondered if writers kept a story bible handy. When people read Steeplejack, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?

AJH: Two related things: that we need to recognize how people’s life circumstances shape who they are and what they can do, and that we can, as individuals with luck and the right opportunities, push beyond those circumstances.


AA: How did elements of your own life and experiences play into Steeplejack?

AJH: Well, as I said, I grew up in Lancashire (the heart of industrialized Victorian England) and travelled to Africa while I was writing the book, but the most personal aspect of the book is probably the way the main character always feels between categories, always struggling to escape what people assume about who she is and what she can do. I don’t feel it in terms of race or gender as she does, because I’m white and male, but I feel it in other ways bound to class and geography and the way my own interests/abilities have frequently made me feel like an outsider.


AA: What was one memorable story while writing this story? Any laugh out loud or cry in the corner moments?

AJH: Cry in the corner might be a bit strong, but the book took a long time to sell—maybe nine months on active submission, I think. People just didn’t quite know what to make of it. I’m kind of used to that because I often write in hybrid forms which editors don’t know how to position (what “shelf” in the store it would appear on), but this one had become very personal to me, so the fact that I got a lot of positive feedback but no actual acceptance (contract) for such a long time was tough.


AA: I can see how that could create some anxious and frsutrating moments. Are there any plans for a sequel or spinoff?

AJH:  Yes, the second (of at least 3) is already done. It’s called Firebrand and will be out summer 2017.


AA: Very good, readers won’t have to wait too long at all. What kind of research and balance went into creating the Steeplejack world?

AJH: I was embedding a thoroughly developed Victorian industrial city in the African “wilderness” so I needed to understand both, and come up with a way they could co-exist. I settled on making the white conquest a couple of hundred years earlier than actually happened so that the city could develop like, say, Manchester in the UK, and that meant that the racial dynamic began to align more with something closer to apartheid era South Africa than the nineteenth century which was my technological frame. And because of what Ang does for a living when the book opens, I did a lot of research into architecture and construction, as well as into the trade of the steeplejack, some of whom were still using these Victorian methods in Lancashire when I was a boy.


AA: How long did it take to write, and rewrite, Steeplejack? What were the deadlines and publishing schedule like for you?

AJH: The book took the best part of a year to write, which is long for me, and went through a number of radical rethinkings. The major editing work I did after the book was acquired by Tor added about five months to that and almost another year for polishing, cover design, pre-release marketing etc. It felt like a long time, and I had already drafted the first version of book 2 by the time book 1 came out.


I’m always surprised how long it takes to release a book, but I guess it can be like a movie with plenty of work still being done after initial filming.

Let’s pause here in our chat with A.J.. Join us for part three when he talks about lessons learned and the writing journey.

Keep up to date with A.J. latest news on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

You can support A.J. and our community by getting your copy of Steeplejack here.

Published in: on September 27, 2016 at 7:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Interview with Author A.J. Hartley

This week we are talking with A.J. Hartley, author of Steeplejack.


Airship Ambassador: Hi A.J., thanks for joining us for this interview.

A.J. Hartley: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.


AA: Readers may know you from your previous work, including the Darwen Arkwright series, the Will Hawthorne series, and several books on Shakespeare. Now, your latest book is being published. What is Steeplejack about?

AJH: It’s the story of Anglet Sutonga, a steeplejack in a place which looks like an alternate version of Victorian South Africa, as she is drawn into a web of murder and political intrigue, working as a detective/spy and relying on her street smarts and skills as an expert climber of tall buildings.


AA: Why choose steampunk as the aesthetic and feel?

AJH: Well, it is and isn’t steampunk. It’s got that nineteenth century urban feel to it, but it’s also alternate history/fantasy (part of the story revolves around a light-generating mineral, on which the main city’s wealth is founded), and is also more diverse in terms of people, landscape, flora and fauna. It’s very much a hybrid genre form for a hybrid world, and has not just elements of steampunk but also of mystery, thriller and fantasy. It’s the hybridity I chose. The story needed it.


AA: I think that combination works for this story. How does Steeplejack express your vision of steampunk, and what does it add to the existing works in the genre?

AJH: As I say, it’s only partly steampunk, so I’m not sure I’m offering a version of the subgenre as I am respinning it a little, morphing it into other generic forms and worrying less about those hallmarks of the form, and that means not being especially interested in steampunk gadgetry, for instance, weird science or Zeppelins! It’s a more realist take on the genre, I think, not because I dislike more conventional steampunk (particularly its aesthetic, which I really enjoy) but because I’m interested in fantasy which wears its relationship to conventional reality on its sleeve. I’m not looking for total escapism. I’m looking to see the world I know through a distorting lens.


AA: What was the inspiration and motivation for creating Steeplejack?

AJH: Several things. I had been kicking around a more conventionally Victorian mystery idea which would involve the people who worked on the very tall chimneys I remember from my Lancashire childhood (and one I see here in Charlotte as I drive to work) but I was also planning a visit to South Africa and Swaziland, mainly to see animals, and had been mulling a fantasy adventure set there. The two stories collided and intertwined in ways that felt unique and exciting.


AA: Travel broadens the mind? What are the key themes in Steeplejack?

AJH: Belonging, identity, family and sacrifice. It’s a story about how people make themselves through grit and choice and in response to circumstances beyond their control. It’s about carving out your sense of who you are and what you stand for in spite of what the world tells you. But it’s also about the power of class, race and privilege in determining the limits of normal existence.


AA: What can you share with us about the personality traits, motivations, and inner qualities of the main characters, Anglet Sutonga and Josiah Willinghouse?

AJH: Ang has been raised to be tough. She has spent most of her life working with boys in the heart of a city, alienated from her people and the place she was born. She’s an orphan but, at 17, has been living life as an adult for a while. These things have given her a lot of strength, but she’s also been raised to see herself as a second class citizen and she is easily cowed by authority. She’s bright and resourceful. Loyal. Fiercely principled but realistic. She expects very little from the world because she’s used to how she has been treated. Willinghouse is a young politician whose views are shaped by being mixed race in a society which is white ruled, but he’s also wealthy, privileged, even ambitious. He hires Ang without fully understanding how her strength compliments his some of the time, but how their world views and experiences are very different in ways bound to create friction.


AA: How do they change throughout the story, or does the world change around them, instead?

AJH: Both, I think. Ang grows much more confident in her dealings with people and Willinghouse learns a little humility along the way, both they are bent on changing the world, albeit in small, incremental ways, and they have some success there.


AA: Are there any objects or things which play a major role in telling the story?

AJH: The Beacon is the largest piece of luxorite—the light-generating mineral I mentioned before—ever quarried. It’s priceless, doubly so because no one has found any new sources of luxorite in years, and the story hinges on the Beacon’s theft. But more typically steampunky devices are deliberately not part of this world. I wanted to keep it anchored in reality.


AA: What are some of the interesting and important details within the world of Steeplejack??

AJH: Its diversity. The world is divided between three major ethnic groups in ways that complicate the social and political landscape. That is both the background of the main plot and a key element in it.


AA: Readers should find that diversity very interesting as the story develops. Without giving spoilers, what interesting things will readers find along the way?

AJH: Lots of action and adventure! Particularly in high places which is where Ang feels most comfortable and has her best strategic advantage. Also, a complex mystery that will keep readers guessing🙂


Let’s pause here in our chat with A.J.. Join us for part two when he talks about back story and memorable moments.

Keep up to date with A.J. latest news on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

You can support A.J. and our community by getting your copy of Steeplejack here.

Published in: on September 26, 2016 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Interview with Author Leanna Renee Hieber, Conclusion

Welcome back to the conclusion in our talk with with Leanna Renee Hieber, author of Strangely Beautiful, The Eterna Files, and the sequel, Eterna and Omega.

Part One can be read here.

Part Two can be read here.

Part Three can be read here.

Part Four can be read here.

Part Five can be read here.


Airship Ambassador: Most of the authors I’ve talked with have some type of day job and that writing is their other job. What has that situation been for you and how has it helped/hindered begin a published writer?

Leanna Renee Hieber: Publishing for me has been so up and down that while it might be nice to call it my only job, I’m a bit too restless and momentum-driven to solely write. I have about 5 rotating freelance jobs, this allows for the flexibility I need to put my book deadlines first and be able to travel at least once a month to a Steampunk, Sci-Fi/Fantasy and/or Book convention to promote my work and the genre. Due to my extensive work on stage, I came away with a lot of theatrical contacts and union memberships that helped me keep my hand in the entertainment industry in some capacity and that’s been really wonderful.

I’ve done background work in television and film, been featured on shows like Boardwalk Empire. I do some stage management / floor director work at a small Manhattan TV studio, I’m a ghost tour guide, I craft jewelry I sell at conventions and on Etsy, I am a guest lecturer, I travel tons for writers groups and institutions like NYU, and my schedule is never ever the same from one week to the next and I’d really never have it any other way.


AA: Looking beyond steampunk, writing and working, what other interests fill your time?

LHR: I’m basically a work-a-holic who can’t sit still or not have at least 3 projects on burners, so I pretty much have found a way to make any of my interests part of one of my jobs. My favorite thing to do is to wander graveyards (I know, how Goth), historic sites and sacred spaces. But that always leads to new story ideas, so that’s a beautiful, cyclical thing.


AA: There’s only so much time in a day – what interests don’t you have time for?

LRH: I really love birds and there was a time in which I wanted to be an ornithologist, so I wish I had more time to take to wildernesses with a pair of binoculars and a field-guide and go birding.


AA: Are there people you consider an inspiration, role model, or other motivating influence?

LRH: Besides the critique partners and collaborators I’ve mentioned, I follow a ton of extremely talented writers on Twitter and every day they say things that inspire and motivate me. Just today I tweeted release-day excitement about my favorite novel of the year, Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal, who I’m honored to call a friend, someone who I always feel makes me a better writer and person by being in her orbit. The list is so long of those I love and admire. In particular for Steampunk audiences, if you don’t know Diana Pho, @writersyndrome and, she is one of the most valuable and important people in the industry and I’m very glad to also call her a colleague and friend, as well as her wife and talented playwright Ashley Rodgers.

One of my best friends from youthful Ohio years is Kelley Hensing, a gifted dark fantasy artist whose work will truly appeal to Steampunk enthusiasts and she’s a vital font of inspiration and camaraderie, check out her work at . If not for the incredible, generous, prolific Isabo Kelly I’d not have found my way to my first resources or contract and she continues to help my career, same with my beloved Alethea Kontis. I’m so grateful the extraordinarily talented N. K. Jemisin is not only writing gorgeous, powerful books but helping Sci-Fi and Fantasy reach a wider audience via the NY Times.

The awesome, artistic and darkly fashion savvy folks of Wormwood and Gall have created clothing and accessory lines for my books and that helps them live in a whole new light and tactile expression, and that’s a wonderful and fruitful business partnership. I am very blessed to know a seemingly endless list of wonderful, diverse, talented, incredible people out there making awesome work and striving for better.


AA: What is the best advice you’ve been given?

LRH: Persevere, don’t compare your path to others, hold to good news and celebration, and never lose the love for the craft, do whatever you can to tend that light. Be good to yourselves and your community. Positive, supportive presences will always lead better and more fruitful artistic lives.


AA: Any final thoughts to share with our readers

LRH: I’m so blessed by the opportunity to share my work and story with you, I’m very active on social media so please follow me, I am most active on Twitter @leannarenee, but I’m also on FB and please join my mailing list at in addition, please check out my Free Reads page there for links to several free reads and audio excerpts, the Eterna Files prequel novella “The Spark” is a great free way to get hooked on my series, and I hope you’ll join me as the action continues presently in Eterna & Omega, now available from Tor Books. Please keep up the beautiful work of being an imaginative and supportive community! I hope to see you all at a convention or event!


Thanks, Leanna, for joining us for this interview and for sharing all of your thoughts.  We look forward to hearing about your next projects!


LRH: Thanks again, so very much!


Keep up to date with Leanna’s latest news on her website and Twitter.

You can support Leanna and our community by getting your copies of Strangely Beautiful, The Eterna Files, and Eterna and Omega today.

Published in: on September 23, 2016 at 8:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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