Airship Ambassador: Hi Pip and Tee, thanks for making the time to share with us in this interview.
Pip Ballantine: It’s a pleasure, Ambassador.
Tee Morris: We’ve been looking forward to talking to you.
AA: Phoenix Rising was just released in April from Harper Voyager. Could you share some of the story details with us?
PB: It’s the tale of a female secret Agent from the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences who gets demoted (after a few explosive incidents) to the Archives. Here she meets Wellington Thornhill Books who appears to be her exact opposite. He does everything according to regulation and enjoys being the Archivist. She loves breaking the rules and can’t stand paperwork. However she uncovers a mysterious unsolved case which her previous partner ended up confined to Bedlam, and before Wellington knows it, he is tagging along to help her solve it. It’s a romp through all levels of London society packed with action and adventure.
AA: I enjoyed the take on “brains and brawn” with the character names, Books and Braun, and it sets up an immediate image of what the characters might be like. What were some of the intentional character elements you included? Were there some unexpected additions or changes over time?
TM: Whenever you have characters as dynamic as these two, you want to have a nice baseline to build on, and then when you go back and review your draft, the refinement begins. For example, I wanted Eliza to be sexy and edgy, but not necessarily jumping into bed or reveling in sexuality like James Bond (to whom she is often compared to). The more we worked with Eliza, the more we came to realize that Eliza is still sexy and edgy, and she uses both to get what she wants, but she’s not using sex to obtain her mission goals. She’s got a softer side, and she’s not quite hopping into the sack with every dashing rogue that crosses her. Same with Wellington. He’s prim and proper, sure; but he is also a bit of a rebel in his tinker work, creating unauthorized field equipment for himself and Eliza. His penchant for gadgetry does lend himself to a streak of vanity. This all may sound like the ingredients for a truly unlikable character; but as the story progresses, we get other aspects of Wellington that shows he is doing everything he can not to fall to trappings his father set for him. This is why I enjoy writing so much — starting simply, and then adding on to the layer cake.
AA: When I get my young nieces and nephews to read Phoenix Rising, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?
PB: I guess from Eliza you could take the fact that you should never give up, no matter what the circumstances. From Wellington you could learn that sometimes you have to go outside your comfort zone, and once you do you can discover all sorts of amazing things about the world and yourself.
AA: What kind of research, and then balance, went into creating the Phoenix Rising world?
TM: We started with the basics of late Victorian history. We wanted to make certain that we have, at the very least, the era right. Then, when bringing in the steampunk technology, we needed to bring in the pros and the cons of these devices. For example, the lavish steampunk artillery you see at conventions — yeah, they look pretty, but there’s got be a give and take. So with Katherina, Eliza’s gun seen in the opening, was limited into how many rounds it could hold. There were also a few frailties with Wellington’s auralscope. Making the devices operational, but also giving them limitations, was a balance we strove for in the book.
AA: Michelle Black, author of A Second Glass of Absinthe, has talked about the difference between knowing history and feeling history. What elements did you include so readers could feel the Phoenix Rising history?
PB: To me, history comes alive when you can access it through sensations. To imagine the smells, the sights and sounds of an era is to immerse yourself in it. When you walk the streets of London with Eliza and Wellington, we hope you smell the grubby urchins, feel the dirt under your fingertips, and hear the call of the streetsellers. Such things are the embroidery on a story that make up an all encompassing experience.
AA: What kind of back story is there for Phoenix Rising which didn’t make it into the final book?
TM: Funny you should ask about that, as we are currently exploring the Ministry’s back story in a podcast anthology called Tales from the Archives. We reached out to several authors, some who were steampunk but never podcast and some who were podcasters but had never written steampunk, and we asked them to come up with cases that took place before the events of Phoenix Rising. The end result has been steampunk short stories set in South America, Africa, and New Zealand. We meet Wellington Books’ predecessor. We find out what brings Eliza from Aotearoa to old Blighty. And my own contribution will be the founding of the Ministry itself. So, yeah, our back story is there, available as a podcast either on iTunes or on our blog’s RSS feed.
AA: What is coming up next for Books and Braun?
PB: In the sequel Of Cogs & Corsets, Eliza and Wellington get caught up in the goings on of the suffrage movement and the mysterious disappearance of some of its members. Many of the secondary characters people enjoyed will return. We also get a bit more of a glimpse into our agents past and what drives them.
AA: The trailer for Phoenix Rising is entertaining to watch and looks like it would have been fun to produce? What went into creating it?
TM: When you are on a budget, as we were, and you want to make a book trailer. (Or, to be quite frank, a GOOD book trailer) you have to think smart. You want it to look professional without getting in over your head financially. I knew what I could afford, but a good amount of planning went into this 2-minute video.
The first challenge was where do I shoot it? I started scouting locations, and as I live around a lot of American Civil War battlefields, I was keeping options open; but it was a weekend in Staunton, Virginia that gave me a lot of potentially beautiful places to shoot. The next question is what would I be shooting? Since we didn’t have the resources (this time) to shoot scenes from the book, we aimed to capture the mood of the book. I kept things simple, even down to the comic moment at the end. Nothing seen in the trailer happens in Phoenix Rising, but the trailer is everything Phoenix Rising is. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you keep it simple.
Perhaps the biggest advantage for us was the editing process. As I am a video podcaster, have the Final Cut Suite to tap into, and LOVE working video production, the only cost to us was time. I applied quite a few tricks and effects only available with Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack, and Motion. And then I taught myself a few new tricks with this project. As much hard work went into it, it was a real delight to put together. We managed to do a screening of the trailer in HD on a 42” flat-screen monitor at Balticon, and the audience (even people who had seen it before) were digging it.
Will we do another one? I think so, yes. This time, with more resources and time to plan.
AA: Beyond Books and Braun, there are other Agents of The Ministry. Who are they and what are their roles??
PB: The Ministry is populated with men and women from all over the British Empire. There are regional offices of the ministry in all those countries, but the first two books of the Ministry are set in England. In the Head Office the Agents act as investigating officers and also as liaisons to their home governments.
It has been fun fleshing out the other Agents in the Ministry, and in the sequel some of them get to come to the fore. Agent Campbell is from Australia and is a delight to write. I have a lot of fun with the competitive sibling relationship New Zealanders have with Australian. He’s dashing, arrogant and more than a bit of a rogue. In Of Cogs & Corsets we also get to meet Agent Brandon Hill, who is Canadian, and just a little bit mad, but also perfectly adorable.
We’ve been adding many of the agents’ bios to our website http://www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/agents/
AA: What are some memorable fan reactions to Phoenix Rising which you’ve heard about so far?
TM: When people tell us they are reminded of John Steed and Emma Peel of The Avengers, I smile. I smile wide. I wanted The Ministry Of Peculiar Occurrences series to have that feel. Steed was always a hero of mine and I wanted to capture that lightening in a bottle.
A real pick-me-up was when, on Goodreads, The Guild’s Felicia Day gave us a four-star review (which means we have to aim high for the elusive fifth star). What was funnier still was I had just finished watching The Guild for the first time. It was a real treat getting her reaction to our book, and knowing we entertained her for a few hours.
Perhaps the most curious reaction though, from Felicia and many other readers, has been to the hellfire club. Not giving away any spoilers, but when we introduce the Phoenix Society, we provide a rather “risqué” look at polite society’s indulgences. We actually dialed it back a few notches, but when we hear people say “They didn’t do THAT in Victorian England…” Pip and I are at a loss. The research was done, and then truth is out there. The Victorians — they were a randy lot.
AA: People continue to hear about Phoenix Rising every day. How are those new readers finding you – conventions, website, word of mouth, etc?
PB: Hopefully it is all of the above. We have been hitting everywhere we can, because the worst thing for a new novel is people not knowing it is out there. Conventions are a lot of fun because you not only get to meet readers, but also fellow writers. Online is absolutely necessary place to be, and the book bloggers are very powerful. With the rise of social media, people can find out what their friends are enjoying and try it themselves.
AA: This is your first collaboration together for a novel, although you’ve done some podcasting together before. How did it come about?
TM: I was gun-shy at first about collaborating with Pip as a previous collaboration I was involved with went south and to this day I still don’t have a clear reason as to why it happened. I didn’t want to jeopardize my (then) friendship with Pip, but she convinced me that we would “do it right.” First, it wasn’t going to be a novel we’d collaborate on. Initially we were planning to have Phoenix Rising be a “podcast for pay.” The two of us were going to introduce Books, Braun, and the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences as I had just started on a novel that was based around Doctor Sound, who he was, and what the Ministry did on a daily basis. I was all set to proceed with it until someone affiliated with Pip’s agent got wind of the property and asked “When can we see it?” One agent’s contract later, I was signed on and we started writing. A lot. Quickly.
AA: What was the actual collaboration process? Did you each have specific areas or roles, or was there a lot of overlap?
PB: It started off with Tee writing from Wellington’s Point of View, and me writing Eliza. However things began to change as we added in side plots and worked on editing. We edited each others portions and we wrote the interludes together. So as we went along the style of Ministry became a distinct thing.
AA: How did the idea Phoenix Rising actually come up?
TM: The genesis of the Phoenix Society (from where Phoenix Rising came from) is based on a lot of things. At its core is the philosophy of Henry Havelock Ellis. Ellis was a British physician, psychologist, writer, and reformist who studied human sexuality, credited with introducing the notions of narcissism and autoeroticism. Then you have hellfire clubs that Wikipedia describes in a nutshell as “… rumored to be the meeting places of ‘persons of quality’ who wished to take part in immoral acts, and the members were often very involved in politics. Neither the activities nor membership of the club are easy to ascertain.” We took these elements and created the Phoenix Society, and with a bit of history tempering, we came up with Wellington and Eliza’s first case.
AA: As the idea developed, what were some other literary, art or musical influences?
TM: The biggest influence any kind of period-accurate art had on Phoenix Rising is with the opera scene. We wrote dialogue and timed certain moments in that scene with Verdi’s treatment of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, and that was a riot to write. I’m surprised Pip didn’t get a bit burned out by the music, but setting a bit of intrigue to the opera was good fun. We read a portion of that scene to the Balticon Tea Party crowd, and I think it sold a few books.
AA: Tee, you’ve previously written a number of instructional books, such as Podcasting for Dummies, and fiction such as Legacy of Morevi. Pip, you’ve written Geist and the upcoming Spectyr. For both of you, how different was writing Phoenix Rising?
PB: For me the Ministry books are about fun and having a rollicking good time. My series that started with Geist, is much darker and with the element of magic thrown in quite different. People have called it creepy and intense. And while there are creepy moments in Phoenix Rising, it is more about the adventure, the snarky banter and the gadgets.
TM: The biggest difference for me was returning to fiction and taking the research and making it an element in the story rather than the focus of the title. I had not worked on any long form fiction in years, and Phoenix Rising was a long-overdue homecoming for me. I had missed writing fiction. Another big leap from me is that now I was a bit more accessible with Harper Voyager than with Dragon Moon Press. Dragon Moon was very good to me, but Harper Voyager has been a huge step forward. I’m now looking at what my next step will be.
We’ll conclude our interview with Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris in the next post.
Until then, check out the website for more information,
And watch this trailer for Phoenix Rising
Click here to read the rest of the interview