Interview with Scott Westerfeld

This week we are talking with Scott Westerfeld, author of Leviathan, Behemoth, and releasing September 20, Goliath.

Airship Ambassador: Hi Scott! With the release of Goliath, you are about to be very busy with a book tour, so, thank you for making the time to join us for this interview.

Scott Westerfeld: Thanks, it’s nice to join you.

AA: As the conclusion to the Leviathan trilogy, or really a trilogy + 1, with the added, large format, all-color book providing a more in-depth view of the world, what is Goliath about?

SW: His Majesty’s Airship Leviathan has left the newly formed Ottoman Republic behind, and is headed across Siberia. Goliath is a bit of a travelogue, spanning the Far East, the stormy Pacific, revolutionary Mexico, and both coasts of the US. On the way, Deryn still has secrets to keep, both the fact that she’s a girl passing as a midshipman and that she’s in love with Aleksander, son of the late Archduke Ferdinand. A new character is added to the airship’s passengers, Nikola Tesla, who has just proven a technology that may end the war. There are also lots of real historical figures, moreso than the previous books.

AA: You’ve previously mentioned that your Uglies trilogy was focused on today’s obsession with plastic surgery, and EXTRAS is all about our obsession with fame. What is the central idea or focus of the Leviathan trilogy?

SW: It’s about how technologies shape our view of the world. Alek is a Clanker, and sees the world as a machine. He’s convinced that he’s predestined to end the war. Deryn, a Darwinist, has an instinctive appreciation to the messiness of life, both in the sense of biology and of a person’s life, and even the chaos of history itself. As a love story, a related theme is that of learning to see things from someone else’s cultural point of view.

AA: Leviathan started as a recreation of “boys’ own adventures” but with female characters. Aside from the obvious adventure and female parts, what other elements are used in creating Goliath?

SW: Having a double alternate history is very key. The Clankers have a fully worked out walking machine culture, complete with clockwork information technologies, and the Darwinists, of course, have Edwardian bio-technology. These two cultures have grown technologically estranged from each other, and are at war now in 1914, and this is reflected in the art. The Clanker illustrations are very boxy and squared off, even a bit clumsy, like a Great War tank, while the Darwinist images have more flowing lines, with their furniture and other design elements drawing from spiral shells and Art Noveau. And, of course, the Ottomans had their own style, a sort of Levantine Clankerism. When we get to Japan, Mexico, and the US, we have whole new sets of style to create.

So it’s really about communicating culture through image. (Goliath has 57 illustrations in it.)

Goliath artwork - Exclusive to Airship Ambassador

AA: There are multiple levels of contrast working in the stories – class, gender, skill sets, technologies – How much of the story’s structure was intentionally planned and what elements emerged as the story developed?

SW: I’m not a huge outliner, but I did realize that class and gender were going to be huge components. Alek’s parents being assassinated not only destroys his personal world, but also the European order of kings and alliances. As such, he finds himself in a post-royalty world at the same time as he befriends Deryn, who’s the first commoner he’s ever really known. And, of course, he’s only just dealt with that when it turns out she’s a girl. But most of this emerges fairly naturally. My protagonists are teenagers, after all, and questioning the way the world is put together is fairly natural for people of that age, even if they aren’t living in “interesting times.”

AA: What kind of back story is there for Goliath which didn’t make it into the final book?

SW: In the world of Leviathan, the United States is Clanker in the north and Darwinist in the south, a division left over from the Civil War. Remember, the Civil War ended only 49 years before 1914, and so was only a decade more distant than Vietnam is to the present day. I was going to make that a bit part of the book, with George Washington Carver being the south’s great biotechnologist, but the story wound up spending more time in revolutionary Mexico (which is more or less Darwinist as well). It was fun having Pancho Villa onscreen, but I was sorry to lose the whole divided US theme.

AA: Are there any plans for further sequels or a spinoff in the same universe?

SW: Just the art book, which is a large-format, full-cover technical manual, with deck plans and stuff. People have approached me about movies and manga, but nothing’s certain yet. And I can’t see myself writing more novels.

AA: When young adults, including my nieces and nephews, read Goliath, what would you like for them to take away from the story and from Alek and Deryn that they could apply to their own lives?

SW: We construct our lives around technologies so much in our culture that it’s easy to forget they aren’t something given to us by nature. The way we use tech and view the world through it is something we create as a society. Hopefully, having two competing and radically different branches of technology in the Leviathan world makes that contingency a bit more obvious.

AA: What kind of research, and then balance, went into creating the world of Goliath?

SW: Keith (Thompson, my illustrator) is a better researcher that me. He probably understands more of the technical side of everything. My research was more about the stories people of that era were telling. The science fiction, the teen adventure tales, and contemporary accounts like Churchill’s My Early Life. It was important for me to understand how people saw the world they lived in, the power arrangements and the changes going on around them.

AA: What have book tours and conventions been like, and the fan reaction?

SW: I’ve always had great experiences with my fans. Teens these days are avid readers and networkers, so bookstore events have been great. But what’s interesting about Leviathan is the reaction in school visits. Even captive audiences react positively once you show them Keith’s work, and it’s a lot more compelling to show a walking WWI tank than to drone on about what neo-Victorian science fiction is. The best-prepared schools have been amazing, with kids dressing in Edwardian clothes and even building cardboard walkers (one eight feet high!).

AA: Steampunk expressions have practically exploded in the last few years – more books, movies, music, fashions, blogs, conventions, — what do you see in it today, and how has your participation and involvement in the steampunk community changed or developed?

SW: I haven’t had enough time to dip into the Steampunk con world, which is too bad. It’s been great to see steampunk’s presence grow at various Comic Cons and Dragon*con, of course, and across the culture in general. I think that without steampunk culture, I never would have thought to make the Leviathan and illustrated series. But the subculture is so relentlessly visual, it made perfect sense.

AA: How will steampunk influence aspects of the world now? Design, perception, expression, individual involvement, etc? What kind of effect might your trilogy have?

SW: I think the big idea that steampunk is fostering is that technology has a history. Consumerism is all about throwing out the old, and expunging it from our memories as quickly as possibly, so having a subculture that values older technologies is really important. It makes people aware of how life is affected by tech, and how certain choices in tech change the shape of human life. That’s a lot better than just wallowing in the latest gadgets.

AA: Every author I’ve talked with has a different journey to seeing their works in print. What was your publishing experience like? How was it having to explain what steampunk actually was for Leviathan?

SW: I went to my publisher with Keith’s illustrations in hand (indeed, printed out in giant format) so that made everything much easier. Luckily, The Dangerous Book for Boys was selling millions of copies at the time, so I pitched Leviathan as half that and half His Dark Materials. One does what one has to.

AA: For the aspiring writer, what lessons have you learned about having an agent and editor, their feedback, and your writing?

SW: Having an agent is key.

AA: If you weren’t writing novels, what else would you be doing now?

SW: Designing games. In fact, that’s what I am doing as I think about what novels to write.

AA: What do you do to keep a balance between writing, tours, and the rest of your life?

SW: At the moment, I’m taking a year off from writing. So that’s one answer. The other is, mostly I don’t achieve much balance. This has led to various health meltdowns, including shingles.

AA: You are married to the Hugo-nominated writer Justine Larbalestier. When the two of you, with or without other writers, compare notes, have constructive critique reviews, and brainstorm new ideas, how do you challenge each other to make riskier choices?

SW: I read my work aloud to Justine as I write, which is a great way to check your sentences and to get early feedback. (No one can complain about your semi-colons if you’re reading to them out loud, so they have to give you general notes.) She likes to predict what’s going to happen next (as readers do) and quite often has more interesting and challenging predictions than what I had planned. So I steal them.

AA: How is New York City, US and Sydney, Australia, for writing? Does location, and traveling between the two, matter for resources, access, publicity, etc

SW: The most important result of traveling is simply being dislocated; seeing the world set up in different ways reminds you of all the choices you can make in world-building. Sydney is a much more Victorian city than New York, from its Hyde park down to the serifs on the street signs (New York is aggressively Helvetica, of course). The Botanical Gardens in Sydney feel (to me) like a British colony on Venus in 1899, full of giant, unfamiliar ferns and Victorian fountains. That’s all been very helpful in creating Leviathan.

AA: Do people outside the regular reading, steampunk, and convention communities recognize you for Goliath? What kind of reactions have you received?

SW: I’ve been loving all the cosplay. In fact, the YA Best of Show at Dragon*Con this week was won by a Dr. Barlow costume, which featured a very detailed bee theme. (Nora Barlow is Darwin’s grand-daughter, and she quotes his writing on bees in the books.) And having an illustrated book has increased the amount and quality of my fan art by several orders of magnitude.

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

SW: Food, which is the one technology that almost all societies possess at a high level, and women’s pro basketball, which is a relatively new sporting culture, and is both global and under the radar for most people. I also like cricket, which is still working out the conflicts and tensions of the British Empire.

AA: It has been great chatting with you today. Are there any final thoughts to share with our readers?

SW: The illustrated novel died out in the 1920s, but before then almost all prose, whether for children or adults, used pictures for storytelling. A Jane Austen or H.G. Wells novel, a Sherlock Holmes or Mark Twain story in a magazine, all of these were illustrated until a century ago. But then the advent of the camera destroyed the illustration industry, putting the people who drew for newspapers and catalogs out of work, and thus depriving publishing of a valuable resource. This changed the way we tell stories, a technological shift that has barely been noted in literary studies. So it’s been fascinating for me to travel an alternate timeline, one in which novels are still illustrated. (Indeed, one in which novels have 50-plus images instead of the handful in the olden days.) I hope that part of the experience is one that transfers to the readers of the Leviathan series.

Thanks, Scott!

Goliath will be released September 20, and several lucky cities will be visited by Scott on his book tour. His schedule is here and the dates are also listed on the Airship Ambassador Events page.

In the meantime, follow Scott and his news on his website.

There are also trailers, talks and videos which can be seen on AATV, The Steampunk Channel

Leviathan trailer

Scott talks about being on an airship

Scott talks with Alan Cumming about the Behemoth audio book

SFBC interview with Diana Pho


Published in: on September 18, 2011 at 8:01 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What is this large format, all-color book you speak of?

    • Yeah, what is it and when can we get it, Scott-La?

  2. […] Community, including Ay-leen the Peacemaker, Nick Valentino, Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris, and Scott Westerfeld, among many […]

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