Airship Ambassador: Hi Kate, thanks for joining us for this interview.
Kate Story: My pleasure!
AA: Readers may know you for your first novel, Blasted, which received a Sunburst Award honourable mention for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, or your second novel, Wrecked Upon This Shore. You also have quite a bit of work published in Carbide Tipped Pens, Gods, Memes, and Monsters, Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, and in Exile Editions’ Playground of Lost Toys. Now Equus is in Clockwork Canada. What is this story about?
KS: The story is set during the first railway survey in Newfoundland, in the 1870s, which Sir Sandford Fleming undertook. (The Newfoundland government did not, in the end, follow his proposed south coast route, but I still found the setting of this first survey very potent material.) The story is about Fleming’s relationship, personal and physical, to Empire, really.
On the one hand he embodies the very best of Empire – he had tremendous energy, goodwill, and belief in technology; he was brilliant, and also apparently very charming; he worked tremendously hard; he stood to gain a lot from the expansion of the British Empire in Canada and Newfoundland.
But on the other hand, he suffered at the point in his career from something that might be a nervous breakdown, brought on by overwork and political machinations. He had led the expansion of the Canadian railway through the Rockies, and worked very hard on it, only to lose the commission to a government desire to have a private company own the project. There’s a bit of a personal mystery about Fleming there. I wanted the story to show how even those at the heart of Empire still pay a price for “progress.”
AA: Why choose steampunk as the aesthetic and feel?
KS: Well, that was really about the anthology itself. Dominik Parisien (a brilliant writer and editor) sent out a call for submissions for a Canadian steampunk collection, and pointed the way to the kind of steampunk he was most interested in seeing. To be honest, it was the first steampunk story I’ve ever written.
AA: Everyone has to start somewhere, LOL. What was the motivation for creating Equus?
KS: The anthology; I wanted to be included in this collection. And as a writer, I’ve learned that I work best when I am working toward a goal. I like restrictions, assignments, deadlines. This was a real challenge for me. I’d never even really read any steampunk, let alone written in the genre, and I knew next to nothing about Sir Sandford Fleming. And I know next to nothing about surveying. There was a lot of research to do before I even started writing.
AA: What can you share with us about the main characters, Sandford Fleming and Equus?
KS: Sandford Fleming is a real person. I’m a-gonna quote Wikipedia at you now because they’re better at synopsis than I am:
Sir Sandford Fleming, KCMG (January 7, 1827 – July 22, 1915) was a Canadian engineer and inventor. Born and raised in Scotland, he emigrated to colonial Canada at the age of 18. He proposed worldwide standard time zones, designed Canada’s first postage stamp, left a huge body of surveying and map making, engineered much of the Intercolonial Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway, and was a founding member of the Royal Society of Canada and founder of the Royal Canadian Institute, a science organization in Toronto.
So yeah, he did a hell of a lot over one lifetime. I am a Newfoundlander but live in Peterborough, Ontario, where Fleming lived for a time. We have a college here named after him that we all call “Sir Sandbox.” I thought he’d be a stuffy Victorian; what I discovered is he is actually a very compelling person. I mean, I’d love to sit down and have a beer or five with Sandford Fleming.
I was aided and abetted by my partner Ryan Kerr, who has written commissioned theatre works about Fleming; Ryan also has the stamp Fleming designed actually tattooed on his arm. When Ryan told me Fleming had surveyed the Newfoundland railroad, I almost swooned. WHEN THE HELL DID THIS MAN HAVE TIME TO GO TO NEWFOUNDLAND AND DO THAT?? I wondered.
He was truly a remarkable man. He was on good terms with almost everyone, including the Indigenous peoples with whom he worked. He came from a middle-class family in Scotland and did all these incredible things. He believed in the “brotherhood of the knife and fork” – meaning, he liked to meet over food and drink. A man after my own heart.
Equus is a concept, really. The train, the railroad, changed the speed of our lives from a walking pace, or a horse-drawn carriage pace, to something on another scale altogether. It altered not only our perception of space but also of time. And it’s no accident that Fleming was involved not only in building railroads, but also invented standard time. It’s hard now to imagine how we’d get anything done without standard time, but he came up with the concept and had to fight hard to get it accepted. Hard to believe but true. Equus represents what we lost or left behind: being present, being in real time. And also it represents on some level the live but buried indigenaety inside Fleming as a Scottish person, colonized and conquered by the English.
AA: That’s plenty of really interesting history about Sanford. Are there any objects or things which play a major role in telling the story?
KS: I invented a steampunk Theodolite. A theodolite is a key device for surveying. I wondered if a steam powered theodolite might not have changed the course of history somewhat – it could have speeded up the surveying process, and also represented technological superiority. That superiority might have changed the relationship between the US and the British Empire. If you look at a map of Canada, you see this big northward chunk that gets taken out of New Brunswick – most of Maine, really.
I’ll tell you, if you are taking the bus or driving through New Brunswick, you really feel that lump; it adds many miles to the trip and added many miles to that stretch of railroad Fleming surveyed. There were lots of surveying errors in those days, and disputes over territory – we were still in the recent aftermath of the War of 1812. And Canada lost that territory. I speculated that a fancy Theodolite might have made a key difference, changed the balance of power between the US and the colonial government of what became Canada.
Wow, we already need to pause in our chat with Kate, Join us next time when she talks about elements of the Equus world and the writing process for this story.
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