This week we are talking with Ekaterina (Kathy) Sedia, author of The Alchemy of Stone and Heart of Iron, among many other novels, anthologies and writings. I first met Kathy at the Nova Albion convention in March 2011, and thoroughly enjoyed her company and conversation during the weekend. It’s a shame we live on opposite coasts, because I would love to talk with her more at all the other steampunk conventions.
Airship Ambassador: Hi Kathy, thanks for taking time out of your teaching and writing schedules to join us for a chat over some virtual tea.
Ekaterina Sedia: My pleasure, Kevin – a very real one, although the tea is sadly virtual. I really need to stock up on the stuff!
AA: The Alchemy of Stone was about feminism, free will, class struggle, and religion, and The House of Discarded Dreams isa place where forgotten dreams fester and take on a life of their own. Heart of Iron released this past summer and I really enjoyed the creative descriptions and imagery while reading it. For those people who haven’t read it yet, what is it about?
ES: Ostensibly, it is about alternate history in which Russia and China (well, the Taipings) allied against Britain and the Ottoman Empire – and the plot involves our heroine, Sasha Trubetskaya, trying to forge this alliance with help from her indomitable aunt, some suspiciously politically acute fur traders, heretical hussars, and some well-known legendary characters, against meddling and resistance from the British Secret Service led by Dame Florence Nightingale. But I guess people will enjoy the book most if they don’t expect a heart-stopping adventure but rather meditation on nature of heroism, national identity, strength, and the role of embarrassment in world history. It’s a very geeky little book, so be warned! I even wrote a historical compendium for it – and you can find it here:
AA: What was the motivation for writing Heart of Iron?
ES: I already spent the advance! Joking aside, I wanted to write alternate history dealing with a place other than the US or Western Europe, and I wanted to address concerns different from the ones Western-focused alternate history explore. Here, we are not looking at manifest destiny, but rather at two countries in the grip of dramatic change (the Taiping Rebellion in China, the dramatic reformism following the success of the Decembrist Revolt in Russia), and at people who are trying to control the chaos around them out of the sense of self-preservation, not necessarily heroics. And as in all my books, I was interested in the themes of oppression and people living under oppressive rules – and still doing their best.
AA: Authors often talk about how elements of their own lives, the reality and the dreams, make their way into their stories. How did this play into Heart of Iron?
ES: I am acutely interested in issues of discrimination and justice, so of course that tends to make it in. In addition, Aunt Eugenia is probably my ideal self were I born a century or two earlier. She is pretty much the person I only aspire to be.
AA: What kind of back story is there for Heart of Iron which didn’t make it into the final book?
ES: Well, the whole thoroughly researched and thought out bit about the inheritance laws for women is only hinted at. Thankfully, all the backstory is now in the historical compendium I mentioned earlier. And there are always some obscure references that make it into any book – for example, the scene with a piano-playing automaton is a nod to the player piano-playing serf from the film An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, based on some Chekhov’s work, deals with issues of serf liberation. I rewrote the scene with an automaton, since in my book the technology is very much taking the place of manual labor.
AA: The descriptions of people, places, and things really grabbed my attention and often I felt like I was in the scene, drinking hot tea from a samovar, trying to settle into a new living space at school, or feeling the trepidation and excitement of a new adventure. What experiences did you draw on to write those?
ES: I love food and tea, so as one of the beta readers noticed, my writing tends to get really emotional around those things. As for other experiences – I’m afraid to say, I make things up much more frequently then remember them. I have a terrible memory for real life events, but a vivid imagination. I am always suspicious of my versions of past events (and the very nature of reality).
AA: You drew on some of your professors for characters in your other stories. Were there real world inspirations for the characters in Heart of Iron?
ES: Not in any real sense. I rarely base characters on real people except in the most general way. It is much easier to imagine someone with a combination of traits I want than to look for a real person having those characteristics and then risk a libel lawsuit, you know?
AA: If Heart of Iron were a movie, do you have people in mind already to play various characters? Certain people came to mind for several of them.
ES: Not really! I know a lot of writers mentally cast their books, but I never do. I have no visual image for any of them, really. Well, maybe Ren Quan for Chiang Tse? And Mia Wasikowska would have to be Sasha, because as far as I know, she is the only young Hollywood actress authorized to play “kind of plain”.
AA: Sasha Trubetskaya is at the advent of great change in her country. Are there any plans for a sequel with her or a spin-off in the same world?
ES: I wrote a synopsis for a sequel, but I honestly doubt I’ll ever write it. As you probably noticed, I tend to write stand-alones because as a reader I don’t like series too much, and can’t imagine writing them. Maybe a few years down the line.
AA: Heart of Iron has a bit of a coming of age storyline with Sasha. When I get my young nieces and nephews to read Heart of Iron, what would you like for them to take away from the story and Sasha that they could apply to their own lives?
ES: You won’t always be in control of your circumstances, and things will happen that you wish didn’t. What makes a person strong is to keep going and to remain true to yourself, even when things aren’t going your way.
AA: What kind of research of the three empires, and events like the Taiping Rebellion and Opium Wars, went into creating the Heart of Iron world?
ES: Lots. Along with historical sources and the internet, I read quite a few books. Most important were probably Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son and Arthur Waley’s The Opium War through Chinese Eyes. The latter was especially heartbreaking, and I think Sasha got a bit of my hero-worship for Commissioner Lin – a Chinese official charged with stopping Opium epidemic in China, right before the First Opium War. Much of it never made it into the book, but the sense of deep injustice done by the British remained, I think, and bleeds through in quite a few places. And Spence’s book is a remarkably thorough account of the life of Hong Xiquan, the founder of Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, that certainly pushed me to research Christian heterodoxies, Chinese ethnic groups, and a whole lot of other things. I really recommend these books – even though both are written by white men, they are thoroughly documented and contain a wealth of primary sources.
AA: Your fantasy novel, The Secret History of Moscow, made use of actual Russian folktales. What elements did you include so readers could feel the Heart of Iron history?
Who was the British Secretary at war during the actual Crimean War. I also referenced real historical events with their different outcomes – success of both the Decembrist revolt and the Taiping Rebellion would’ve created quite a different world.
Her books are available here:
Paper Cities (editor)
Running with the Pack (editor)
Bewere the Night (editor)
Bloody Fabulous (editor; upcoming)
Wilful Impropriety (editor; upcoming)
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