Airship Ambassador: Hi Leanna, thanks for joining us for this interview.
Leanna Renee Hieber: Hi Kevin, thanks so much, I’m truly thrilled to be here.
AA: Readers may know you from your previous work, including Darker Still and the Magic Most Foul trilogy, along with stories in anthologies such as Willful Impropriety, The Mammoth Book of Futuristic Romance, and Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy. Now, while running two series at the same time, Strangely Beautiful, and The Eterna Files, your latest book Eterna and Omega is being published. What are those two series about?
LRH: My books are sweeping, atmospheric Gothic Victorian sagas set in the late 1800s where paranormal things happen to otherwise normal people. My characters are unlikely heroes called forth to fulfill great purposes and destinies. In each of my series, I try to create quirky, unique but relatable characters who are up against dreadful odds but come together as teams, chosen family and a beloved community to fight against malevolent forces.
Strangely Beautiful is a sweeping Gothic romantic fantasy about Victorian spirit patrol (ghostbusters, basically). If Harry Potter and Jane Eyre had a lovechild it would be the Strangely Beautiful series, infused with healthy doses of Greek Mythology, epic spiritual battles and references to lots of Gothic classics.
The Eterna Files series is an X-files meets Penny Dreadful (except mine has a better ending) kind of saga, a darker, grittier tale where two paranormal offices, one in London and one in New York, are pitted against each other by a demonic third party. The Eterna and the Omega offices, respectively, have been tasked by the American and British governments to race for the cure for death. This leads to catastrophe but also to innovation and the teams find a weapon in protective magic and solace in bringing the teams together as the series progresses.
My work is PG-13 in content and all worlds are parallel worlds featuring crossover characters. One doesn’t need to read all the series to appreciate them separately but the effect and care for characters is deeper for readers who dive into the whole Hieberverse.
AA: That’s a lot of intriguing content for readers to sink into. Why choose steampunk as the aesthetic and feel?
LRH: I love how steampunk has such a generous wingspan of 19th century cross-genre imagination. Tor Books, my publisher, uses the term Gaslamp Fantasy for my work instead of Steampunk, only because my characters and worlds utilize fantasy tropes rather than the Victorian science fiction celebrated in Steampunk. Alternate technology infuses steampunk with such innovation, and while my stories don’t feature gadgets or airships, I feel just as passionately about fantastical tropes and paranormal conventions and am glad these fictional cousins are perfectly comfortable under the same parasol.
All of my books are some degree of ghost story. The Victorians were obsessed with the dead, with séances, with an elaborate death culture because for all the 19th century industrial innovations, there was still such a high death rate. It was a time of fierce change, great innovation, historic injustices, widespread colonialization, native genocides and displacements, simultaneous with the birth of civil rights movements, suffrage, new artistic movements, elegant fashion, grit coupled with grandeur on every level. Steampunk and Gaslamp Fantasy allow for authors to focus on certain dramatic and often tempestuous historic aspects while heightening the possibilities of others. I don’t need to invent the strong, forward-minded characters facing down the conflicts of the time period, they were there in history and I love showcasing that kind of sharp, imaginative mind in my work.
Historical Fantasy is a double escape, in my case I taking my readers not only into a ghostly, spectral, gaslit, titillating and tense atmosphere where anything could happen, but also into another time period, one that we often romanticize, but in my case it holds as much danger as it does beauty and my characters do well proceeding with caution. I hope my readers just enjoy the ride.
AA: I like that aspects of your stories, using the historic culture and society at the time as the basis and building from there. Sounds pretty steampunk to me. How do these two series express your vision of steampunk, and what does it add to the existing works in the genre?
LRH: I specifically bring the Gothic experience to the fore, that’s my forte and effervescent passion. Gothic novels specifically focus on psychological perils, Gothic edges and dances the line towards the horror genre without fully falling into it. Think Hitchcock rather than a slasher flick. The Gothic lives at that razor’s edge of beauty and terror and that for me is the most thrilling place to write from. I learned my love of the Gothic from Edgar Allan Poe around the age of 9 and haven’t looked back.
Gaslamp Fantasy has been an emerging subgenre and I’m very honored that Tor, my publisher, calls my first book, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, (now included in the revised edition titled Strangely Beautiful) “a foundation work of Gaslamp Fantasy”.
I believe that the wide, wild, sweeping capacity of the Gothic and Gaslamp Fantasy genres entwined in my work best expresses my interests, aesthetics, spiritual explorations and sense of darkly delicious adventure.
AA: What was the inspiration and motivation for creating this shared world and these stories?
LRH: I’ve been drawn to the Victorian era since childhood, I can only describe my obsession with the era as a sense of a past life; it has remained so strong. I received a BFA in theatre performance from Miami with a focus study in the Victorian era and that’s where the next phase of my life truly began.
Strangely Beautiful came to me in a rush of inspiration at one of the busiest times of my life, when I was a recent college graduate and an intern with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, working 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, living, breathing, exuding Shakespeare. It was an exhausting but very fertile environment. I began with seeing the characters in a sort of vision, I had to know who this timid, incredible, albino woman in Victorian layers was doing in the mysterious school in my mind.
Because writing was always something I’d done, it was second nature to take story notes and I found I was aching to weave my love of the Victorian Gothic into a Fantasy environment, weaving together my favorite aspects of ghosts, mythology, fated love, epic adventure and the compelling dynamics of a quirky team of incredible characters thrust together by destiny. This tale began to consume me and quickly took over my life and heart and eventually diverted my career away from the stage and devoted foremost to the page.
I hadn’t thought about merging my worlds but when Professor Alexi Rychman and Headmistress Rebecca Thompson turned the corner in London during the middle of my young adult series, The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart, and faced my hero, I knew I couldn’t go back. Merging all three worlds in The Eterna Files series has actually been a lot easier than I thought, it was as if I planned it that way. My work tends to work out in that kind of manner, which is why I trust my creative process and my characters to subconsciously always be a few steps ahead of me. The unfolding interweaving of the worlds has been one of my greatest delights in my career.
Let’s pause here in our talk with Leanna. Join us next time when she talks about themes, traits, and scenes.