Airship Ambassador: Hi Kate, thanks for joining us for this interview.
Kate Heartfield: Very pleased to do so!
AA: You’ve been quite busy over the years as a writer, editor, and board member. Your stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and Podcastle, among others. You’ve been a board member of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and you’ve been an editor for the Ottawa Citizen. Your work has been in a few anthologies, and now The Seven O’Clock Man is part of Clockwork Canada. What is your story about?
KH: It’s a reworking of a figure from Quebec folklore, le bonhomme sept heures. He’s a bogeyman figure. One theory (of many) about the etymology of his name is that it comes from telling kids that if they’re not in bed by seven o’clock, the bonhomme will get them.
AA: Interesting, and a great way to bring that folklore to life. Why choose steampunk as the aesthetic and feel?
KH: Because my story had its genesis with the idea of a bedtime being so rigid as to be terrifying, it led to themes about curfews and other preventive laws, about social order, about the effects of trying to create a society that runs like clockwork. So the aesthetic of steampunk, that juxtaposition of wheels and gears with the messiness of human life, the juxtaposition of autonomy and automation, came naturally. There are also themes of colonial power and racism, and much of the best steampunk tends to examine those themes with a critical lens.
AA: I agree completely. What was the motivation for creating The Seven O’Clock Man?
KH: My grandfather was a francophone from Quebec, so I’ve always wanted to write something about that part of my heritage. As an undergraduate student of political science once upon a time, I read quite a bit about the history of the clash between social/religious order and individual freedom in Quebec, so that province seemed like the place to set a story examining those themes. I also wanted to explore some aspects of Canadian history that we don’t talk about much in this country: slavery, for one. Parts of the story are loosely inspired by the real story of a slave named Angélique who was accused of setting a fire in Montreal. She was tortured and executed in 1734.
AA: What can you share with us about the main character, Jacques?
KH: Jacques is a father, first and foremost. He’s a loving husband. And he’s the clock-winder in the (made-up) town called Lagarenne. Jacques is a Mohawk who was taken by the French governor as a “ward” and brought up in a manner that would later be called “killing the Indian in the child.” I spent some time in the Mohawk nation of Kahnawake when I was in grad school, doing research for my master’s project, and I wanted to honor the incredible history of the Mohawk people in some small way in this story.
AA: There’s plenty of history there, to tell. It would be great to see more of your stories which share that. Are there any objects or things which play a major role in telling the story?
KH: The main device in my story is the Clock that sits in the town square in Lagarenne, and the automata associated with it.
AA: What are some of the interesting and important details within the world of The Seven O’Clock Man?
KH: One aspect I found interesting to write was the attitude of the town toward the Clock-winder, who maintains the brutal social order imposed on Lagarenne. In many ways, it’s similar to the way some societies viewed executioners: as necessary figures, but taboo or despicable. I was trying to join together the way we use mythological figures (the bogeyman, and even Santa or Krampus) to impose order through fear, and the way we ask human beings to do the same.
AA: Without giving spoilers, what interesting things will readers find along the way?
KH: This is a steampunk fantasy story, so there is a layer of magic in the world-building.
AA: How did elements of your own life and experiences play into The Seven O’Clock Man?
KH: I’ve mentioned a few already, but another aspect of this story is the mental illness of one of the characters. For most of my life, I’ve lived with close family members who had mental illness of one kind or another, so the way that Jacques copes with that – and doesn’t always succeed — is in some ways a reflection on my own struggles to be the person that my loved ones need me to be. I suppose the fact that I’m a parent, and always trying to get the balance right between rules and freedom for my own kid – especially when it comes to bedtime! – played a role too.
AA: What kind of back story is there for The Seven O’Clock Man which didn’t make it into the final version?
KH: I mentioned the story of Angélique: Most of that story didn’t make it intact into The Seven O’Clock Man, so I’d encourage readers to look it up if they’re interested.
AA: Are there any plans for a more stories in this world?
KH: Not at the moment, but you never know! I have a feeling there are many secrets in Lagarenne.
AA: I’m definitely hoping for more! When people read The Seven O’Clock Man, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?
KH: Like most writers, I’m interested in posing questions for the reader to ponder. I hope The Seven O’Clock Man succeeds in posing questions about individual autonomy, criminal law, community and scapegoating, all of which are as central to our lives as citizens as they were to the people of 18th century Quebec.
AA: What kind of research, and then balance, went into creating the The Seven O’Clock Man world?
KH: I read far too much about 18th-century clocks. I also read quite a bit about the history of slaves and indigenous “wards” in early Quebec. Most of that is only there as background, but I needed to do the research.
We’ll stop here in our chat with Kate. Join us next time when she talks about elements of The Seven O’Clock Man, the writing process, and working to close the gender gap in opinion writing.
Keep up to date with Kate’s latest news on her website.
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