Airship Ambassador: Hi Jean-Christophe, it is great to catch up with you again now that your Luminous Chaos book tour is over.
Jean-Christophe Valtat: Hello Kevin. Thanks for your invitation. I’m glad to have chance to take up the conversation we started in Seattle.
AA: Diving right in, what are The Mysteries of New Venice about?
JCV: It’s a more difficult question than it seems, as I sometimes wonder what the hell it’s all about… At a first level, It’s about a city built in the Arctic in the early 1900s, a deliberate utopia that has to be defended against both its harsh surroundings and its constant internal cabals. At another level, it’s about the power of imagination, of fiction, the way it affects reality, be it in love or politics.
AA: Breaking it down a little further, what can you share with us about each story?
JCV: Aurorarama , about a revolution in New Venice, is modeled on turn of the century adventure novels, with all its hallmarks – polar exploration, airships, anarchists, lost race etc…Luminous Chaos, which is both a prequel and sequel, takes place in the Paris of 1895 and is, accordingly, based on French mysteries serials of the time, with its cast of occultists, morphine-addicts, prostitutes, revolutionaries, decadent poets, butcher thugs, fringe-scientists and so on…Suspended Citadels, on which I’m working on, will be more steeped in myths, fairy-tale, or esoteric traditions.
AA: It all sounds intriguing and there are plenty of items for readers to be interested in. What was the motivation for creating Aurorarama? How did the idea come about?
JCV: New Venice was brainstormed with a friend, on a single afternoon, circa 1990. It was originally a movie project, which turned into an unpublished four-handed book in English, Pineapples & Plums. We left it at that, but in 2007, I wrote another one on my own, Lutes & Lobsters, as a birthday present to this friend. I had so much fun doing this that I decided I’ll do try and do another one, for good, this time.
AA: You had some interesting things to say about steampunk in this 2010 post, responding to Charles Stross’ complaint against steampunk at the time. For this book series, why a steampunk world?
JCV: When we first came up with New Venice, we had no inkling that Steampunk even existed. As a matter of fact, the first New Venice book had more of a roaring Twenties / jazz age feel. When I took up the idea again, my literary tastes had somewhat shifted towards the XIXth century and, for that very reason, I was very receptive to the steampunk aesthetic I had been exposed to. So it came as natural choice that the new New Venice would be steampunk, although, now, I’d rather use the word dreampunk to stress the mental, hallucinatory aspect that is typical of series.
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 Aurorarama and Luminous Chaos?
JCV: A lot. As it was created with a friend, there are a lot of private joking going on, for one thing. They are very personal books, involving real people I know, and I constantly use personal anecdotes as a basis. Then of course, world building, as airtight as you want to make it, is still a reflection of your social situation, or of current political issues, so there’s some of that, as well. As to dreams, they are becoming more and more central to the process: they are one of the main themes of the next novel. And it’s a good feeling when your own writing circuits back into your dream and the dream; in its turn, feeds the writing to come.
AA: The books have plenty of multi-layered action, intrigue, and perspectives. What kind of back story is there for both stories which didn’t make it into the final version?
JCV: I use a lot of the material that comes from the two unpublished books, if only to give a sense of historical depth and complexity to the city. Pineapples & Plums was a bit too wild to serve even as a back-story –but there are some elements that have remained, besides a few characters: P& P, the mind-expanding drug that allows the memories of the dead to be charged into their heirs, and the mysterious “Polar Kangaroo” –both central in the book to come. From Lutes & Lobsters, the most prominent character is Helen, a British anthropologist, antiquarian and somewhat magician, who eventually becomes a half-retired sea goddess: she gets a lot of mentions in the first two books and is to play an important part in the third novel of the trilogy.
AA: When people read the series, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?
JCV: I like it when readers say they dreamt about New Venice. It’s one of the effects I am myself dreaming to achieve –to write something immersive that would seamlessly blend with dreams.
AA: New Venice and its inhabitants provide plenty of materials for dreams! What kind of research, and then balance, went into creating the New Venice world?
JCV: A lot of research. I like to have historical, scientifical, technical facts to start from and anchor my imagination. In Luminous Chaos, “Od” power or magnetic crowns, which transmits thoughts from one person to another-were real theories or objects, for instance, and it takes just a little leap to take them into fantasy. Likewise, I wanted my XIXth century Paris to be very accurate, both spatially and historically, because it helps to have a clearer vision of the story. I find it hard to separate research from writing, as a matter of fact, as they constantly feed off each other.
We’ll break here in our chat with Jean-Christophe Valtat.
Next time, he’ll talk about world building, writing and conventions.