Interview with Michelle Black – Part 1

We are talking this time with author Michelle Black, who has written five novels of historical fiction set in Victorian America. I first met Michelle at Steamcon II. Though her previous novels are not in the Steampunk genre she likes to think of them as “steampunk-adjacent,” given their time period and frequent detours into the occult.  After we talked a bit about her books, her blog, and her gorgeous Victorian style home in Colorado, we had a wonderful time talking before, during and after the convention.

Airship Ambassador: Michelle, it is so great to talk with you again. It was very enjoyable to spend time with you at Steamcon II. What drew you to an interest in Steampunk?

Michelle Black: It may sound odd, given my career as a novelist, but I did not first become interested in Steampunk through its literature. I was introduced to it as an aesthetic style through the work of Jake Von Slatt and others who were designing Victorian reinterpretations of modern devices. One look at a Victorian styled computer and I was hooked. When I learned that Steampunk was an entire movement, my reaction was: There are other people out there just like me?! Eureka! <laughing>

My interest in all things Victorian goes way back. All my novels are set during the Victorian era, but not in England. All take place in what I call the Victorian West. The most recent titles are Victorian mystery novels, though I am currently thinking about my first Steampunk novel.

AA: An Uncommon Enemy and The Second Glass of Absinthe are set in Victorian America and the West. How and when did your interest in Victorian America start? Why has it been the setting for your books?

MB: Well, I think probably I will blame it on being a child of the sixties.  Growing up then, there were still a huge number of Westerns on TV.  So that was my early introduction to the American West and the Victorian era, via Westerns. But it was frustrating.  Those old westerns were always very male centric. Women were portrayed as either the hardworking farm wife or the floozy in the saloon. Not very exciting role models for a young girl growing up.

I wanted to see more real women in the Victorian West. As a matter of fact, as I started writing in the nineties, a new writers group was formed called Women Writing the West.  It is still an active group covering all genres–contemporary writing, historical writing, romance novels, and mystery novels. Now I’m hoping some Steampunk writers will join, too. I might be the first one in the group, but I hope I’m not alone!  The only unifying theme is women writing about women in the West.

I think most Americans have a distorted idea of their own history in the West.  They imagine all western settlers living on homesteads and ranches, but the cities were very sophisticated. And there was a lot of wealth in those mining towns. Cities like Leadville Colorado, had a grand opera house.  That’s a lot of culture.  How many cities today with a population of only 5,000 have an opera house? These people had a lot more sophistication than we give them credit for.  And obviously women were part of this sophistication; they were bringing the culture to the West.

While researching a character in The Second Glass of Absinthe, I became interested Victorian spiritualism. I always had an interest in the occult and soon learned that Victorian women exercised remarkable power in the world of spiritualism. For some reason, men who believed in spiritualism would take women seriously in that realm even though they didn’t give them any credence in other areas. Barbara Goldsmith advanced this theory in “Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull .”

I couldn’t let this go and knew I wanted to start writing about Victoria Woodhull, who became the protagonist of my new novel, Séance in Sepia, which will be published in October.

In an unexpected twist, I learned that I had a family connection to the world of spiritualism.  I found out that my father’s stepmother came from a family of spiritualists.  This probably occurred in the early part of the twentieth century. I don’t think she was active in this “Church of Spiritualism” as an adult, because I never heard about it when she was alive.

AA: You’ve done some interesting historical research and sources for your books. Would you tell us more about what you found in newspapers of the time, letters and such?

MB: Yes, I love doing the research. I think that’s probably why I love writing historical novels, which literally gives me the “excuse” to do the research. I get so many ideas from the bizarre things you read about in the old newspapers. You just couldn’t make the stuff up. <laugh> It’s really bizarre. It was just kind of a journey. It’s really fascinating to learn so many different things along the way, whether it’s about absinthe and that whole culture or anything else.  In the historical background to An Uncommon Enemy, the US government was having PR problems following the Battle of the Washita. They had spin doctors basically trying to smooth things. It seems like a modern story, but it was going on in 1868.

AA: One of the results of your writing has been publishing a Cheyenne language course developed by a linguist on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. How did that develop?

MB: While researching the Cheyenne Indians for An Uncommon Enemy, I wanted to salt in a few words of the Cheyenne language, but could not find any resource material. There were very few language courses, or dictionaries, on any Native languages, except maybe Navaho.

I finally made contact on the Internet with a linguist on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, of Lame Deer, Montana.  He had put together a course called Let’s Talk Cheyenne and was self-publishing it at the local Kinkos. It was a basic language course–a booklet and two cassettes. The recordings were made by a tribal elder, the late Ted Rising Sun, (video). He devoted the latter part of his life to preserving the Cheyenne language.

If you have heard the story of the Northern Cheyenne exodus, led by Chief Dull Knife, (perhaps from reading the classic Cheyenne Autumn, by Mari Sandoz, or even my own, Solomon Spring), it was interesting to note that Ted was the grandson of Dull Knife.

I owned a bookstore at the time and I knew a lot about the book distribution business. I contacted the linguist and offered to publish Let’s Talk Cheyenne for him, to widen the distribution possibilities so that schools or libraries, as well as individuals, could order it easily. The project was very successful, so much so that in four years, it outgrew the resources of my small press and I turned the project over to Jeffery Norton, a large language publisher in the East.

We’ll take a break in our interview with Michelle Black.

Join us next time when Michelle talks about historical research and absinthe.

Until then, visit Michelle’s website for more information.

Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 2

Part 3


Published in: on May 29, 2011 at 9:32 am  Comments (4)  
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Interview with Nick Valentino – Part 3

Welcome back for the conclusion of our interview with Nick Valentino, author of Thomas Riley and Engine 316.

Part one can be read here.

Part two can be read here.

Airship Ambassador: In talking with a number of authors, the path and process to getting that first book published can be quite varied from agent/no agent, writing for a decade/published immediately. What was your experience?

Nick Valentino: What happened was that I originally wrote horror novels and I was shopping these around. It took two years to write them and I was sending them all around. I didn’t really know what to do, and in the meantime, I wrote Thomas Riley. I went to Dragon Con and kind of got inspired. I came out with my first draft in the first four months and I thought I’d bring it along everywhere I go. On a whim, I picked Southern California Writers Conference and at their conference you can pick agents and editors to critique your first 10 pages. I did a bunch for the horror novels and one for Thomas Riley. That was it. Most of the ones for the horror novels, they didn’t even show up, or they didn’t get it or something ridiculous. The one person who saw Thomas Riley said, “If the rest of this doesn’t suck, I want it.”

I think part of it was that I had the cover art, at least to some degree, but I could show it and the cover artwork shows exactly what the book is about. You know about the airship, the people, the goggles. Even if you don’t know steampunk, you get the feel for Thomas Riley. It was the first person who saw it and it was kind of like winning a game show. You hear about those writers conferences where someone gets picked up and paraded around. It’s like “Hey, keep coming back because these people got picked up, too.”

It was really strange. I wrote Thomas Riley for a niche audience and thought this will be my fun book because steampunk wasn’t that big. It was just something that I thought was cool and I thought it was cool for a long time I didn’t know there was a name for it. I thought it was more like Hayao Miyazaki stuff, or anime, and that kind of thing. I kind of dug that even since I was little. That’s why I got into it. I thought, “I’m going to write a steampunk book. Maybe I can get someone to publish it and it’ll just be for them, because I like that.” I had no idea that a year later there’d be conferences dedicated to it. It just didn’t exist then. There wasn’t even one. It was just science fiction conventions and that’s where people would show up. The whole journey was a kooky, crazy thing and no one else saw Thomas Riley. Although, the only other one I mailed it to was TOR.

AA: It might seem like a basic question, but why do you write?

NV: Originally I played in a band and I was the singer or screamer or whatever, I wrote tons of lyrics. I have books and books. I must have 100,000 words of lyrics. It’s insane. I played in a band since I was 14 and easily had 10 to 12 hard-core years touring all the time. That’s essentially how I started writing. It was poetry to a point. When that started getting really tough on me and being around people you might not want to be around, because there’s so much drama involved with all these people, I just made the conscious decision to stop. I thought that I was already writing and I wanted to write real stories. I wanted to do this by myself, so I just quit, saying “I’m going to write a book,” and I just stopped playing. Part of it was that it was going to be just me and I didn’t have to rely on three or four other people. There weren’t going to be the problems with everything that goes along with that kind of intimate partnership. There’s a lot of stuff that comes up, traveling with these guys in a van and stuff comes up. I just wanted to do it by myself.

Why do I write? Because I have to have a creative outlet and I have to be doing something. If I don’t have that, I’m going to go crazy. If I’m not playing music or if that becomes too painful then I’m going to do something by myself. I had a blast doing that and I need to be able to do something. I’m really phasey with other things in my life. Like I’ll do stencil art, or something, just for short periods of time but this is my main creative outlet.

AA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you probably be doing instead? How would your life be different?

NV: If I wasn’t writing, or if I hadn’t gotten swayed towards music, I was pretty darn good at baseball, so I probably would have gone in that direction. I was recruited in high school to play shortstop but I just got obsessed with music and so I just quit. It was bad. My parents didn’t like that at all, they were not pleased. So, probably something in sports.

AA: Another released story of yours is Engine 316 in the steampunk anthology Dreams of Steam, by Kerlak Publishing. What is that story about and how did you come to be involved in the project?

NV:  When I travel, I meet tons of awesome people and I meet all types of different writers. If they are steampunk, then I definitely meet them. From every small town to every big city, you are always building relationships with these people and they are 99% amazing people. I have connections with Atlanta and Memphis and going to cons there, and by being involved in steampunk culture and meeting people, I was approached to do the story by the editor. She said they were doing this anthology, by Kerlak Publishing, a small publisher out of Memphis, and it would be fun, I could buy books to take to cons and such. I was the first one accepted. Essentially, I wanted to do something fun and different. There’s my favorite bar and I thought I’d do a Western. I had never done one and thought, “Here we go.”

I did a lot of research on outlaws in the West and found out about the Rube Burrows gang. They were Texas farmers who fell on hard times and wound up robbing trains. They essentially didn’t have anything crazy about them other than they got caught in Nashville right next to my favorite bar. I completely steampunked them out. Like their horses have braces on their legs that make them go as fast as the train so they can catch up with them really easy, and they have grappling hook weapons so that they can fly off the horses. It is a really strict retelling of the thing except for that I added the Twilight Zone twist where the Pinkerton Agency is in there. And actually, the Pinkerton agency was after them and came to Nashville and found tem. But I made them a kind of world police, time traveling group who are tracking the gang down and actually take them to the future. That’s it and that’s their fate – they get caught and it’s over.

They know there is something really insane inside the train. Something that’s mind blowing that will further their careers as train robbers. It turns out to be a World War II-ish tank that could not have existed in 1887. They don’t really know how to drive it and they don’t really know how to do anything with it so they’re hitting things and busting the train car with it. Their inability to drive it and then the Pinkerton agency ends up messing them up.

Thanks, Nick, for joining us and sharing your stories! It’s been great getting to know you better.

Coming up, Nick’s story, Ten Thousand Years, a Japanese steampunk story, will be featured in Echelon Press’ anthology Her Majesty’s Mysterious Conveyance.

For more information, check out Nick’s website.

Published in: on May 22, 2011 at 9:36 am  Comments (2)  
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Interview with Nick Valentino – Part 2

Welcome back for the second part of our interview with Nick Valentino, author of Thomas Riley and Engine 316.

Part one can be read here.

Airship Ambassador: Welcome back, Nick. Living in Nashville keeps you on the road a fair bit for promotions, conventions and signings. What efforts do you take to keep a balance among writing, seemingly weekly reading/signing promotions, and other aspects of your life, and also remain healthy?

Nick Valentino: There’s not a lot of balance and it’s easy to get swept up in it because you’re tired and you’re hungry and you been on your feet all day, wearing combat boots, and you’re just beat. There was a good stretch where I’d go back to the hotel room and just write, or try to, but I want to have dinner because I haven’t eaten all day and it’s tough. It is really hard to be healthy on the road and really hard to do anything that’s not business. There are times when I’ve only eaten twice at a convention because I’m in work mode, whether it’s panels or selling or sitting at a table, you always have to be engaging. I get tunnel vision and just talk to every one. I don’t have a good balance is my answer. I’m not healthy on the road, and writing-wise, that’s definitely affected it because I don’t have time and then I’m beat and just want to get home and there’s only so many hours to get home. I’m just now at a point where I can sit down and start this back up, promoting Thomas Riley.

AA: The big focus for you right now, of course, is promotion of your first book, Thomas Riley, about two weapons designers who need some help to fix a bit of alchemy gone wrong. What can you tell us about Thomas and his assistant, Cynthia Basset?

NV: In Thomas Riley, they are both weapons designers for the country of West Canvia, which is another name for the Netherlands. As people, they are kind of lab rats. She’s more the grease monkey and he is more of the nerdy kind of guy. In Thomas Riley, they get thrown into the front lines of the war they have been making weapons for ever since they could probably tinker. They are forced to do an alchemic process which sucks out the soul of a dying woman and they’re not sure how it’s going to turn out, they just know that it’s bad and will probably end up bad. It actually gets thrust into Cynthia, who develops multiple personalities because of it. The lady actually talks through her at certain points when there is some kind of head trauma.

What they have to do is go find the only guy they know who can undo the process and he is a weapons maker for the enemy country. They try to get there via the normal government ships but it has problems. They wind up having to join the ship of sky pirates and try to get through that way. In doing so, they develop relationships with those pirates and they realize that these guys aren’t as bad as they thought.

They’re lab rats so they have no idea of what a lot of the outside world is like aside from they make weapons to kill people. They get to fire their own weapons for once aside from testing and are really excited about that. There’s a lot of nerdiness that goes around, and banter back and forth about how things perform but they never killed anyone so they’re forced to do things they’ve never done, even though they make those weapons. From there, they cross enemy lines get into a lot of trouble.

AA: One of the cultural and behavioral differences between our world and that of Thomas Riley is the role of women and their opportunities. Since I’m often sharing, or pushing, the steampunk stories on my nieces and nephews, what are some aspects of those characters as role models that they can look to and adopt into their own lives?

NV: The big thing for me when writing steampunk is that I wanted to erase racism and erase sexism, so I did. It just doesn’t exist in the world at all and I think that’s awesome because I was able to take the female characters and make them super important, to make them something that really could never happen in the Victorian era. There’s not even a mention of “hey, there’s a woman. You can’t fly the ship.” Most of them, or all of them, are captains and lieutenants or are other authority figures and that’s a big deal for me. I just thought it was cool. It’s like I fallen in love with some of the characters and I get really obsessed with these people for a while and then I go on to somebody else. That was just a big thing for me. I completely fell in love with Cynthia. She almost takes center stage but she shares being the protagonist with Thomas to a point.

It’s kind of weird because I don’t know if any of them are role models. She has a soul in her which speaks through her and is kind of mean, and what she has to do to keep it quiet is that she drinks. Some of those things she does are not all that great. I was on a young adult panel talking about the limitations of young adult books and I was thinking “She drinks a lot in that book,” but I haven’t heard any complaints about that.

They are kind of our swept away on this journey, in this adventure so I don’t think they are great role models. They aren’t bad people but I think they are just kind of taken away in the situation. They just deal with things as I would, maybe. Even some of the other female characters, like the pirates, are all pretty surly people. I don’t know if role model is really right. They are not super squeaky clean heroes. There’s nothing in it like “I can’t believe you gave this to me.” They are brave to a point and they are growing as people since they are lab rats who don’t know anything about the world their learning firsthand so I guess that is putting a positive spin on it.

AA: What items of 19th century life, culture, and behavior have been included in the story to make this world seem more real to the reader? What are some things from real history that you consciously changed?

NV: The first book is more of an introduction. It is more character based than history based. There are some tidbits of history through throughout. I was actually a history major but I didn’t put a lot in because I’m making up my own world. It’s a real world but I didn’t stick a lot of real history in this one because I wanted to play with it. I even name the countries different names and that’s something I fooled with explaining and even mentioned in the short story. I didn’t want it to be fantasy but completely alternate history. I went in that direction and there are not a lot of real world things. There’s Seychelles Island, which is their pirate port. It’s not like “oh, there’s Darwin,” and there are not any characters yet that I’m excited to keep. I have my cast and I like playing with the world as I want to. I kind of like to shift things around as I want to on my own. I plan on the second one to have a couple more touches of that.

AA: What has been the feedback and fan reaction that you see first hand? What are some of the memorable experiences you’ve had interacting with your readers? Fans who stayed up all night to read?

NV: Yeah, that was awesome! Stuff like that, every reaction has been super good. Not everything is super positive, especially online like “You’ve ruined my day!” But for the most part, it’s been really good. Pretty much every person I meet is pretty stoked. I have met people who come and know me that I don’t know and I could be in any city and I wonder how do you even know me? That actually happened in Memphis where she bought a book and came in to the vendor’s hall when it opened the next day. I was there at the table and she came in all beat up looking and said “I read the whole thing. I stayed up all night.” She looked rough but it was awesome and I gave her a hug. I was like “no way!” That was in the first two months that the book was out, so that was a really big deal for me.

You get little tidbits like that. I’m at the point where I’m getting presents where people bring me little things. It’s the coolest when I get pictures from little kids and it’s pretty awesome to put them right on my fridge. So, the reception has been awesome and everyone has been super good to me. I’ve met the best people. I guess before I started traveling, I really didn’t know much about con life. I went to Dragon Con and San Diego Comic Con but that was about it. Now I’m getting to interact with these people every week. Everyone is so awesome. The very first con I ever did was a little con in Memphis called Shadow Con, and they were all SCA people, so they had these Edwardian battles and live this medieval lifestyle to a point, at least on weekends. They were so cool and so accepting and this last January, they invited me back as their guest of honor. It was really a big deal to me as my first ever con and I was all nervous. I didn’t know what I was going to say to people; it was the first time I sold my book by myself. Every con has its own special thing and you never know what it is, so you get different cool little experiences at every one of these.

We’ll break here and when we conclude in the next post, Nick will share with us his path to getting published and what’s coming up next for him. Until then, read more information at Nick’s website.


Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 1

Part 3


Published in: on May 15, 2011 at 7:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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