Interview with Lisa England / Aurelia

This week we are talking with Lisa England, the creator of Aurelia: Edge of Darkness.


Airship Ambassador: Hi Lisa, thanks for time out of your busy schedule for Aurelia to talk with us about this great project.

Lisa England: No, thank you! I really appreciate the chance to share this fun collaborative story.


AA: There are a few articles about Aurelia out there, even the Huffington Post reposted one of them for an added boost.  There’s also the show’s official blog to follow. I came away from those with many terms to describe Aurelia, but how do you describe it, both the story and the storytelling platform, for other people?

LE: Thanks for making a distinction between the story and the show! The story, in my mind, is the overarching “thing.” The show is a subset of that story—one part of it.


I describe the story as “a steampunk fantasy that follows an inventor-king who must abandon his culture’s failing technology in search of a greater power—one that can save their whole world from collapse.” (I call it a steampunk fantasy to distinguish our story from a scientifically-driven “pure” steampunk tale that probably shares more in common with science fiction than fantasy.) The first installment of that story is Rise of the Tiger, my 48-episode web serial that’s available online. Future serials (or books) will continue that story to its conclusion.


The show is an “interactive web drama that follows the citizens of a self-sustaining, steam-powered city, as they battle an energy crisis that could wipe their civilization out forever.” That city is Aurelia, the home of the saga’s inventor-king hero, Jude. At the time of the show, Jude has been cast out of the city after failing to solve the energy crisis, and the citizens are on their own to save themselves. So the show falls between the end of Book 1 and the beginning of Book 2.


AA: You’ve called this ‘co-created storytelling,’ and it’s like a web series, but without a script, and actors who are both audience and participants, and live action role play (LARP) with a bit of delayed response. How did you even come across and get involved in this new type of storytelling, which was described in one article as a crowd-sourced fantasy story? How can one even crowd-source a single story?

LE: Well, every story is composed of main plots and subplots. I write the main plot for Aurelia and drive that plot forward through weekly calls to action. The actors’ stories serve as the subplots—although lately the subplots have taken preeminence in the story, and I’m excited about that, too!

I first had contact with this type of storytelling when a friend joined the long-running Beckinfield web show run by the tech start-up Theatrics. My friend’s enthusiasm made an impression on me, but it wasn’t until Theatrics opened up their public platform for beta testers that I really got involved. A friend in Los Angeles thought my web serial Rise of the Tiger (the origin of Aurelia) was a perfect match and suggested I sign up for updates.


To my surprise, a month later, the Theatrics team reached out and asked me if I were interested in running a show based on Rise as part of the beta test group. I said yes—and from there they began to coach me into how this type of story works. It took awhile to wrap my head around it all, though!


AA: What was the appeal of Beckinfield that attracted you, drew you in, and inspired you to use the Theatrics video storytelling platform for Aurelia?

LE: In my day job, I’m a storyteller and strategist for a digital marketing agency. Through my work there, I realized that today’s audience member loves a chance to be involved. Brands all over the world successfully engage their audiences with fascinating and fun interactive experiences—and I began to think about my web serial as a brand, and what might happen if an audience could get involved in the story world and become a character. This bothered me for several months while I was finishing the serial. Of course the dedicated readers (most of whom prefer text-based stories, naturally) looked forward to the twice-weekly installments, but I knew I was only engaging them one way. I began searching for that two-way experience. Theatrics was literally an answer to prayer in that regard.


AA: How does the Theatrics platform actually work for creating and telling a story?

LE:  Theatrics provides a “shell” that showrunners like me must fill. Each show runner creates a story that casts the actors as a group protagonist, so any kind of group environment (a sanitarium, a cruise ship, a research team, a town, etc.) is the perfect start for a story. Showrunners then fill the platform with info about the story world and calls to action (plot points that ask the actors to get involved). Then, they invite actors to sign up for a free account. That account allows each actor to post photos, blog-style written entries, and videos as often as they would like. Each week, actors react to the week’s call to action and/or update their individual character’s story using those three tools. Of course, video is the most popular.


Here are several particularly clever actor videos:

An Artifact Down Below

A True Introduction

Unexpected Gift

Another Shadow in the Making


AA: Back to Aurelia, what was your motivation in creating the whole project?

LE:  The original web serial had been a passion project of mine for five years, and it has gone through many different forms. Taking it into the digital space for AURELIA, my primary motivation was connection. I wanted to connect with serial readers and a brand new audience by offering them a role in the story development process. I guess you could say I was looking for relationship.


AA: With Rise of the Tiger, still available to online readers, as the creative origin, what was the process of Aurelia essentially spinning off and becoming a world and a story in its own right?

LE: Well, if truth be told, I was planning to spend my summer revising Rise of the Tiger and then releasing an interactive digital edition, which would be a lead-up to the launch of the next serial in the saga. But life had other plans!

Instead, I treated the spin-off process as part of my serial revisions; one thing I knew from my serial version of Rise was that I wanted to take readers even more in-depth into the unique world of Aurelia, the city. So all the things I had to go deeper into, for the show, will greatly help me when I finally get back to revising the serial. Things like actual culinary items, details of government, what parts of the city look like that weren’t featured prominently in the serial, how much money is worth, etc.


Theatrics required me to produce some in-depth documents that pitched a show concept, developed the world more deeply, and outlined a plan for creating artistic assets (backdrops, character designs, etc.) that would bring Aurelia to life. All that has helped me immensely with my creative process. Then I had to decide how to distribute that information on the show site, who was going to create all the artistic assets, etc.


AA: What steampunk elements have you, and now the other audience-actors, brought into the story to create this world and make it engaging to the steampunk community?

LE: Well, Aurelia is a weird mash-up of Steampunk and fantasy, set entirely inside a Babel-like city that’s trapped in a toxic wasteland. So . . . you won’t find an alternate British empire or locomotives or airships or anything like that. Steam powers the world, and there’s a lot of industrial-era technology or futuristic technology (like borgs and fully-functional mechanical animals) that, in the steampunk tradition, work on Victorian mechanics and steam. Fashion is also influenced by steampunk, as are weaponry. Actors of course have brought in their own ideas and in some case have invented new types of machines or creatures that their storylines require. Those who steampunk cosplay also have a great outlet for showing off their outfits and accessories through video. Other actors who LARP or cosplay in more fantasy settings have found the world flexible enough for their costuming, too. Which is exactly how I hoped it would be: fantastical enough for the medieval crowd but steamy enough for the steampunks. J I’m always trying to find ways to bring different genres together.



We’ll break here in talking with Lisa about the world of Aurelia: Edge of Darkness

Next time, Lisa talks about inspiration, maps, and getting involved.

Keep up with the stories until then!


Published in: on August 25, 2013 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Interview with Richard Preston, Jr, Part 2

Welcome back to the conclusion of our interview with Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., author of Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders, the first book of The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin.

Read part one here.


AA: Continuing our conversation, everyone seems to have a different journey to seeing their works in print.  What was your publishing experience like?

RP: Well, I have over a decade of screenwriting stories about Hollywood agents and pitching scripts to studios, and many years of pounding doors and pavement with no success in the A-list department, but my book publishing experience was a lighting strike.  Once I wrote the first book in my Romulus Buckle series, I was prepared to query agents starting with the big dogs and working my way down.

REPreston Author photo 1

I have an old friend named Julie Kenner who is an extremely successful writer and she offered to open a few doors to agents for me, agents who she thought might be interested in my steampunk story.  Two of the three agents passed, but the third, Adrienne Lombardo, made me an offer of representation.  She was a brand new agent at Trident Media Group, which is a large Madison Avenue agency, and I became one of her first clients.  She submitted the manuscript to her top half-dozen publisher choices in January of 2012 and one of them, Amazon’s new sci-fi imprint called 47North, made a 2-book deal offer in March.


It all happened very fast.  So far I have had a great experience with the editors and author team at 47North.  Adrienne has since moved on to other things but I still consider her a friend.  My new agent at Trident is Alyssa Eisner-Henkin and she has been attentive and great as well.


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

RP: I had several Hollywood film agents and my experiences varied from good to terrible.  I would say that you want to find an agent who is determined to become a real ally, someone who is invested in the long-term development and advancement of your career as an artist rather than somebody who just wants to fire out your work and see what might stick.  That is difficult in the beginning because you are thrilled to be signed by any legitimate agent willing to bring you on.


And make sure you get involved with a real, legitimate agent—check their credentials and verify them if they are small operations—there are a lot of pretenders out there who will waste your time and even get you into legal trouble.  You should never have to pay a real agent or a real publisher a single penny.


Anyway, due to my film experience I am used to having my work dissected and rehashed in rooms full of producers, actors and directors because a screenplay is not a finished thing and a movie is truly made by committee with the director in the lead (this experience wasn’t as bad as it sounds—most of the time there was plenty of support and praise for my work as well).  I developed a thick skin regarding being ‘edited’ and learned never to take those suggestions personally.


With my books I have been lucky enough to have highly intelligent people with great respect for my stories working with me: Adrienne and Alyssa as my agents, Alex Carr as my editor and Jeff VanderMeer as my development editor.  How Alex managed to hook Jeff VanderMeer in as my development editor I shall never know, but I am grateful to him for it.  Jeff has an amazing capacity to measure the balance of a story, an insane respect for the author (he, of course, is a highly accomplished author himself) and a great sense of humor which softens the edges of his knife.


I have learned a lot from all of these people and improved my craft as a writer because of them.  If they are good at what they do then their ideas and suggestions are always designed to help make your project better—being too insecure to deeply consider what they offer only hurts you in the end.  Have good people around you (I was lucky that way), respect their feedback and weigh it seriously.


AA: If you weren’t an author, what else would you be doing now?

RP: Well, most authors have day jobs.  I am a dad and I work in broadcasting.  I know you are asking what I would be doing instead of writing and I don’t know—I have always loved writing.  I always thought being a tour guide in Europe would be fun.

HI Res book cover_

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

RP: I try to compartmentalize the writing, to write for a minimum of two hours in the morning where I can become completely lost in it in the early hours before my children wake up.  I used to be a night owl and I enjoyed writing very late but as I have gotten older I have gravitated to the morning routine.  I am a big believer in the idea that your subconscious chews on all sorts of ideas and problems during the night so getting into writing mode right after waking up allows you to tap into that source while it’s fresh, while your brain is still partly stuck in the dream state which evaporates as the worries and stresses of the day beat you up.


AA: Do you talk much with other writers and other artists to compare notes, have constructive critique reviews, and brainstorm new ideas?

RP: No.  I think my years of screenwriting experience at the committee table taught me that I am truly built to be a solo act.  I loved the brainstorming of partnerships but now I want to tell my stories all my way, all inside my personal vision, and that was a big reason why I moved to novels.  If I fail at novel writing I want to go down swinging my own sword.  I do have family members who read my later drafts but right now I have no interest in creating stories in a group of more than one.


And just to add, the developmental edit process is very much a brainstorming and a partnership because you are dealing with big-picture issues such as structure, pacing and overall story and character arcs, generally, so there is plenty of discussion, idea-bouncing and critique at that stage.


AA: How have you and your work grown and changed over time?

RP: I think (I hope) that I take big leaps forward in my craft with every book I write.  I believe that I am a much clearer and cleaner writer now than I was five or even two years ago, and that I am less concerned with any personal ‘style.’  I have learned a great deal working with Jeff VanderMeer, such as making sure I keep a POV character more present and richly involved in every scene.


AA: Writer’s block happens to everyone and can be rather frustrating.  What is your solution to overcoming it.

RP: I don’t really believe in writer’s block, or maybe just the word ‘block.’  I think we suffer from personal distraction or laziness in those instances, which I suppose is a form of blockage, or more specifically the negative anti-creative force identified as ‘resistance’ by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art.  I try to turn out a chunk of work every time I write, even if I know it is all garbage, because then I have turned the problem over to my far more capable subconscious which will find a way to do it right later on down the road.  For anyone suffering from issues involving the writer’s life and getting writing work done, I would highly recommend both Pressfield’s The War of Art and Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife.


AA: Most of the authors I’ve talked with have some type of day job and that writing is their other job.  What has that situation been for you and how has it helped/hindered being a published writer?

RP: I have a day job in broadcasting and I am Mr. Mom for many hours a day as well.  Sometimes I feel hindered by it but that is always the result of my failure to take advantage of the time I do have to write than from a lack of opportunities.  Jeff VanderMeer breaks your day/week/year down for you in Booklife (he held a day job for most of his writing career as well) and when you apply the paradigm to your own life you can see that you have ample time and opportunities to write if you commit yourself to the schedule and discipline it requires.


Most writers, even the greatest ones sitting alone in their Paris apartments with a bottle of wine and a poodle, do not write anywhere near all day.  They write for a few hours and then leave it, allowing the subconscious to work on the problems until the next day’s pass.  But they are also consistent, disciplined and ruthlessly protective of their writing time.  I believe that if a part-time writer is able to apply these same rules then they can achieve something close to a full-time writing life.  I have both succeeded and failed at achieving this, but I keep on trying.


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

RP: The book has not been out a month yet and no one, steampunk or not, has ever recognized me.  The book gets reviews and reactions ranging from raves to ‘mehs’ to all out pans.  I guess that is the fate of all art.


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

RP: Being a dad, mostly.  I don’t watch television much any more, though I will spend time on XBOX – very bad.  I am a huge history buff and I am very slowly chipping away at a Master’s degree in that subject.  And I am aghast that I have never seen an episode of Game of Thrones.


AA: What other fandoms are you part of in some way (as a fan or other participation)?

RP:  I was a massive science fiction geek in the 70’s, long before it was fashionable like it is now.  I sort of straddled the world of jock and geek—I was the only assistant captain of the high school hockey team in the D&D club.  I cut my teeth on Verne, Wells, Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury and I saw Star Wars 36 times during its first theater run.  I am a huge fan of Star Trek, Star Trek:TNG and the first three Star Wars movies.  I am also an Indiana Jones fanboy, though the 4th movie really disappointed.

20,000 Leagues Movie Poster

AA: That’s really great to be the combination of jock and geek, and a good role model for others with similar interest, showing that they need not be polar opposites. How do those interests influence your work?

RP:  If you read my Romulus Buckle series I think you can easily see the influence of Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as the fun old C.S. Forester and Rudyard Kipling stories and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, which is best known for Master and Commander.  I wanted to write a fun, swashbuckling adventure series about a crew on a (air)ship of war, and I took from all of these examples I love and more to help build the skeletons of my characters and stories.


AA: Any final thoughts to share with our readers?

RP: Just to say that this is an exciting time for steampunk.  It seems to be growing by leaps and bounds and the open-form nature of the subgenre welcomes people and allows them to approach it from almost any angle (hence the many splinter “punks’ such as diesel, clock and alchemy).  I am thrilled to be a tiny part of that.


Thanks, Richard, for the interview! We’re looking forward to the sequel and hearing more about the rest of the series.


While we are waiting for Engines of War, please keep up with Richard on his website.

And don’t forget, there’s a book giveaway opportunity. Login with your Facebook account or our email address.

Don’t miss out! The giveaway ends this week!

Published in: on August 11, 2013 at 10:23 am  Leave a Comment  
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Interview with Richard Preston, Jr.

This week we are talking with Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., author of Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders, the first book of The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin.


Airship Ambassador: Hi Richard, thanks for joining us to chat about your new book.

Richard Preston: This is great.  Thanks so much for having me here on Airship Ambassador.  You were one of the first people I met on Twitter when I began exploring steampunk and you were a lot of help.


AA: Thank you! I’m always happy to help as I can. For the readers who haven’t yet read the cover blurb yet, what is your book about?

RP: The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin is a high-action adventure series about a war zeppelin crew in a post-apocalyptic snow world.  The first book follows a daring rescue mission that Captain Buckle and his crew must undertake in order to save their leader, Balthazar Crankshaft, from the clutches of the nefarious and powerful Founders clan.


AA: What was the motivation for creating Romulus Buckle?

RP:  I’ve been working on a historical fiction trilogy for a long time and it is huge—set in Russia during World War Two—and I needed to take a break.  I had always wanted to write a Saturday afternoon matinee kind of adventure novel, something in the vein of The Adventures of Robin Hood and Indiana Jones, with a larger-than-life, swashbuckling hero.


I knew I wanted it to be about a crew on a ship of war and I also wanted it to include zebra-striped aliens and strong female characters.  The steampunk subgenre provided me with the perfect environment to world-build, to construct the kind of story I wanted to tell.


AA: With the story and background in place, how did elements of your own life make their way into Romulus Buckle?

RP: My first instinct is to reply that is difficult to pinpoint any direct Romulus Buckle connections to my life because this is such a far-fetched, fantastical world.  That said, there are a number of links and parallels.  I am an aviation enthusiast and I am having a lot of fun learning and writing about airships.  Several chapters within the first two books are based on vivid dreams I’ve had or memorable experiences from my childhood.  You can say that there is a lot of the man I would like to be in the character of Romulus Buckle because I have always wanted to be Captain Nemo and Indiana Jones.


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

RP: A ton.  In fact, very little of the back story is revealed in Book 1 or Book 2—it starts to spill out in Book 3 however.  When I was preparing the first manuscript for submission I had an experienced writer friend named Julie Kenner read it and she suggested that I cut away almost all of the back story I had supplied early in the book—about ten chapters (the chapters in the book are very short)—and get to the story.


I immediately knew she was right.  I think I edited out about seven chapters.  And still one of the main complaints about the book is that it starts out too slowly.  I was hoping to get readers invested in the series and the adventure early and then build-in the back story during natural pauses in later books.

HI Res book cover

AA: It’s good to hear that more of the background will come out as the series progresses. This book is the first of a trilogy.  What can you share about the next book, Romulus Buckle and the Engines of War, which is due out on November 19th, 2013?

RP: Actually it is a series of probably 8 books, though at times I wish I had set out to write a trilogy!  Engines of War is a mix of wild adventure and political maneuvering as the clans of the Snow World desperately form tenuous alliances in the face of an impending Founders invasion.


This second book covers much more territory than the first book and is broader in scope: it opens up more of the Snow World than City of the Founders did, mainly because City of the Founders involves an urgent rescue mission and so we are hermetically sealed aboard the zeppelin or in an underground prison for most of the story.


Also, a flying kraken attacks an airship in Engines of War, to be fought off with axes.  It is a heartfelt homage to the Nautilus crew’s battle with the poulps (the creatures are often identified as ‘giant squid’ but they are actually poulps, as Professor Pierre Arronax correctly identifies them in the novel) in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.


AA: As people read Romulus Buckle, what would you like them for them to take away from the story and the character that they could apply to their own lives?

RP: I hope they would take away the same kind of feelings one leaves the theatre with after watching Master and Commander or Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I hope there is an enthusiasm at experiencing a high-adventure tale well-told and an appreciation for human courage and resilience in the face of peril and adversity.  In the end, I hope it is just fun.


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

RP: I researched everything I could: hydrogen, zeppelins, aerial navigation, steam engines, locomotives, muzzle-loading cannons and muskets, Victorian clothing and culture, ballroom dances, and so on.  I tried to be as authoritative as I could with the science so I knew exactly when I was crossing the line—leaving the realm of reality for the realm of fantasy—and could then carry the sense of that authority with me so the reader would feel comfortable coming along.  The reader’s suspension of disbelief is an absolute necessity my steampunk world with its talking automatons and its spectacular, cannon-loaded hydrogen airships that in reality would never get off of the ground.


AA: What are some memorable fan reactions to Romulus Buckle which you’ve heard about?

RP: The book hasn’t been out a full month yet, so I haven’t run into too many people outside of my friends and family who have read it.  I tend to shy away from reading reviews.  This seems to be the kind of book that people either love or hate.  My wife brings the good ones to my attention, but if you give great weight to good reviews then you are bound to give equal weight to the bad ones; I try to be as neutral about the whole thing as I can.  People do love Eamon O’Donoghue’s cover art.


I’ve had friends tell me that they were excited about a certain sequence or they were worried about a character in a dangerous situation—that is nice because it means they were invested in the story.  A number of readers on Twitter have mentioned that they loved the book and that is always encouraging.  One reviewer in the United Kingdom described City of the Founders something like “good old thud and blunder” and I really liked that.


AA: People continue to hear about Romulus Buckle every day.  How are those new readers finding you—conventions, website, word of mouth, etc?

RP: I am lucky enough to have 47North (Amazon’s science fiction imprint) as my publisher, so my exposure has been wide for a new, unknown author.  My agent was happy that my series landed there because of how many ways Amazon can advertise a book to readers on their website.  My team at 47North has been great and I have had excerpts published on and book giveaways sponsored on TOR and on Goodreads.  47North also runs advertising and email campaigns on Amazon, on the Kindle and beyond.


My book debuted at #1 in the US Kindle Store science fiction/steampunk category and has wobbled between #1 and #7 since.  Amazon UK selected City of the Founders as a Top 100 Kindle selection for the month of July and it has held the #1 position in the UK Kindle Store science fiction/steampunk category for almost the entire month.  This kind of exposure is amazing.  Personally, I have tried to keep up my end by doing a lot of web interviews and guest blogs, including sites like Clarkesworld and Booklifenow—and now Airship Ambassador!


I have some pieces on Writer’s Digest and SF Signal coming up (hopefully) and I am looking at submitting some essay pieces to the magazine-format sites.  I also try to maintain my personal blog at regularly and keep it interesting.  I attended Comic Con SD this year—my first convention as a steampunk author.  It was a great experience.  I worked it guerilla-style because 47North did not have a booth (they’ll have one at Comic Con NY) so I tried hard to meet as many steampunks as I could, accosting steampunk panelists like Jaymee Goh (Silver Goggles), Anina Bennett (Boilerplate) and Robin Blackburn (League of S.T.E.A.M.) to say hello and sometimes hand them my book, and they were all very nice and encouraging.


I made some contacts at Gaslight Gathering and CONDOR but the League of S.T.E.A.M. members were very busy and difficult to pin down for a chat when I visited the booth, though both Robin Blackburn and Andrew Fogel were accessible and kind when I could catch them for a moment.  I had a backpack full of signed books on each day and wandered the floor handing them out to people in steampunk costumes.


It surely was not a very efficient method of self-promotion but I hope some of the new contacts I made will turn into friends and readers down the line.  And I really want to be on the League of S.T.E.A.M. podcast and drink odd beer or funky cider while talking steampunk so if any of them owe you a favor, Kevin, please get me in (laughs)!

REPreston Author photo 1

AA: (Laughs) I’ll see what I can do! What kind of buzz has Romulus Buckle generated?

RP: At this point I honestly don’t know.  It has done very well in its kindle category on Amazon US and UK and gotten a rave review from Booklist, but the kindle world and the Amazon world are so out-of-body in cyberspace and I have no sense of what “buzz” might exist yet.  The Goodreads book giveaway did have a very good response, so that is encouraging.



We’ll break here in our chat with Richard.

In the conclusion, he’ll talk further about his writing experience and progress.

Until then, there’s a book giveaway opportunity. Login with your Facebook account or our email address.

Don’t miss out! The giveaway ends this week!


Also, keep up with his latest news on his website.

Published in: on August 4, 2013 at 1:45 pm  Comments (13)  
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