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.
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