Airship Ambassador: Hi Karin, thanks for joining us for this interview.
Karin Lowachee: You’re welcome, thank you for asking me.
AA: Steampunk readers may know you before now as the author of The Gaslight Dogs and being featured in The Steampunk Bible. Others will know of your works such as Warchild and Cagebird, and your short stories in the anthologies After the Fall, The Bestiary, and War Stories: Now you have a short story in Clockwork Canada. What is Gold Mountain about?
KL: Gold Mountain is basically about a widow named Jules, who meets a Chinese hermit in the mountains of southern British Columbia, during the time of the gold rush and the building of the railroad. Her husband died on the mountain but she has no proof, so she goes searching. What she finds instead is a man who draws power from the very nature that killed her husband.
AA: What was the inspiration for writing Gold Mountain?
KL: My ancestors, like Lin in the story, left China for a better life in the “west.” Instead of settling in Australia or North America, mine went to South America. But the story, regardless of where they might have landed, is similar. I wanted to explore that. I was also inspired by research into the Shaolin and their dedication and connection to healing and nature. Instead of an “ironclad” steampunk story, so to speak, I wanted to explore the effects of industrialization and colonialism on nature and people, through the character of Lin.
AA: Those are connections worth exploring. How did you express your vision of steampunk in this story?
KL: I think I answered that a bit in the previous question, but I knew that I wanted to go a little sideways with it. I believe the genre of steampunk – like any genre – can allow for the pushing of boundaries. I could’ve written a straightforward story about the building of the railroad or the gold rush, but that wasn’t what interested me. I was more interested in the human cost – but not just in events or numbers. I wanted a more subtle hand about it, so taking two people that live on the outside and putting them together – one is hiding and one is searching – was my way of peeling back those obvious layers.
Lin’s power isn’t drawn from steam or anything man-made. He is the antithesis of the era, someone who recognizes and reveres the intrinsic power of nature. The fact he had to work around iron, and helped build the railroad, and consequently contributed to the deaths of his own people and the destruction of the source of his power is what drives him into voluntary exile. By contrast, Jules is a woman who survives in the towns that have built up around these industries. Yet her husband was associated with nature (like Lin) – someone who lived in the wild. Her leaving the safety of the town in search of her husband is her return to nature – going away from the direction of that era. But in the end it is futile for both Lin and Jules.
AA: That’s something everyone can apply to their own lives, too – like the two sides of a coin, everything we do has a net cost or benefit, and makes us stronger or takes away our energies. What can you share with us about the main characters, Jules and Lin?
KL: I knew I wanted to write survivors. Women in that era, especially frontier women, truly had to fight. The more I read about the Chinese experience in Western Canada, the more I felt a connection to that part of my ancestry. My ancestors emigrated from China around the same time, from around the same regions, likely for the same reasons. I think of the bravery it took to both live on the frontier and leave your country behind, even if Jules or Lin wouldn’t think of it in those terms. Both require diving into the unknown. I wanted there to be strength in both Jules and Lin, but not in a bombastic way. I believe people like them who actually lived in that time were incredibly strong in spirit. That’s the part of that era that I’m interested in, as opposed to the sort of coddled, technological Western society we live in now.
AA: I have often thought that most people can’t relate to what it like to leave everything behind, and why, and move somewhere new, different, and unknown. People are sometimes too distanced from their ancestors who immigrated to other countries, some have never moved away from their home town. For everyone, it’s worth asking, even rhetorically, what would cause you to leave and move away from everything you know and love when you didn’t want to? What kind of terrible choices must a person face and decide upon just to survive? What are some of the interesting and important details within the world of Gold Mountain??
KL: “For everything built, something must be destroyed” is a line in the story. And even if it wasn’t conscious in the writing of it, that’s sort of the “thesis” of the piece. Steampunk as a genre tends to celebrate invention and industry and creativity as it relates to what human beings can build, and I looked at it from a different angle. Even if I don’t say it outright, Lin’s power is his qi. There’s a fantastical quality to it because to modern science, anything that’s not grounded in hard science is fantastical. The conflict between ancient wisdom and modern progress is where I wanted to live in the story. The details around Lin – the Chinese experience – was culled from research, some of which came from oral history. In Canadian history classes, when I was growing up, we didn’t really cover the Chinese experience other than passing mention about how they helped build the railroad. Maybe that’s changed now with more awareness.
AA: Without giving spoilers, what interesting things will readers find along the way?
KL: I probably spoilered quite a bit above. I know the story isn’t conventionally steampunk, so I hope readers will be a little challenged and maybe start to look at the era a little differently. The story takes place entirely in nature. Lin doesn’t own a gun. There are no cool gadgets involved.
AA: You were born in Guyana, grew up in Canada, and worked in the Arctic. How did those experiences and other elements of your own life and experiences play into Gold Mountain?
KL: I spoke to that a little earlier, with regard to my ancestry. Also, I’ve experienced extreme cold weather. That part of the story was easy to write! But also, I have a great love for this country. When I think about Canada, I think about vast open spaces. Our history is complicated and controversial. As a Canadian – especially one that wasn’t born Canadian – it’s important to me to understand my history.
AA: It’s a good thing to learn and understand our histories, personal and cultural. What kind of back story is there for Gold Mountain which didn’t make it into the final version?
KL: I put most of Lin’s back story in there; the fact he and his father were leaving poverty wasn’t said outright but it’s there. Like so many, they were hoping to make enough money to send back to their family in China, but that didn’t end up happening. For Jules, I imagined her leaving a bad family situation in another town, somewhere more South, and making a life for herself in one of the tent cities. She lived day to day with very little security until she met Sam, her husband. Who was a man that treated her with respect, and there was real love. Between them there was a partnership. So of course I had to take that away from her.
AA: Are there any more stories in mind for Jules or Lin?
KL: Not at the moment but I never say never. I tend to think like a novel writer even for my short stories.
We’ll break here in our chat with Karin. Join us next time when she talks about research and her publishing experiences.
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