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.
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 TOR.com 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 richardellisprestonjr.com 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)!
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.
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Also, keep up with his latest news on his website.