This week we are talking with A.J. Hartley, author of Steeplejack.
Airship Ambassador: Hi A.J., thanks for joining us for this interview.
A.J. Hartley: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
AA: Readers may know you from your previous work, including the Darwen Arkwright series, the Will Hawthorne series, and several books on Shakespeare. Now, your latest book is being published. What is Steeplejack about?
AJH: It’s the story of Anglet Sutonga, a steeplejack in a place which looks like an alternate version of Victorian South Africa, as she is drawn into a web of murder and political intrigue, working as a detective/spy and relying on her street smarts and skills as an expert climber of tall buildings.
AA: Why choose steampunk as the aesthetic and feel?
AJH: Well, it is and isn’t steampunk. It’s got that nineteenth century urban feel to it, but it’s also alternate history/fantasy (part of the story revolves around a light-generating mineral, on which the main city’s wealth is founded), and is also more diverse in terms of people, landscape, flora and fauna. It’s very much a hybrid genre form for a hybrid world, and has not just elements of steampunk but also of mystery, thriller and fantasy. It’s the hybridity I chose. The story needed it.
AA: I think that combination works for this story. How does Steeplejack express your vision of steampunk, and what does it add to the existing works in the genre?
AJH: As I say, it’s only partly steampunk, so I’m not sure I’m offering a version of the subgenre as I am respinning it a little, morphing it into other generic forms and worrying less about those hallmarks of the form, and that means not being especially interested in steampunk gadgetry, for instance, weird science or Zeppelins! It’s a more realist take on the genre, I think, not because I dislike more conventional steampunk (particularly its aesthetic, which I really enjoy) but because I’m interested in fantasy which wears its relationship to conventional reality on its sleeve. I’m not looking for total escapism. I’m looking to see the world I know through a distorting lens.
AA: What was the inspiration and motivation for creating Steeplejack?
AJH: Several things. I had been kicking around a more conventionally Victorian mystery idea which would involve the people who worked on the very tall chimneys I remember from my Lancashire childhood (and one I see here in Charlotte as I drive to work) but I was also planning a visit to South Africa and Swaziland, mainly to see animals, and had been mulling a fantasy adventure set there. The two stories collided and intertwined in ways that felt unique and exciting.
AA: Travel broadens the mind? What are the key themes in Steeplejack?
AJH: Belonging, identity, family and sacrifice. It’s a story about how people make themselves through grit and choice and in response to circumstances beyond their control. It’s about carving out your sense of who you are and what you stand for in spite of what the world tells you. But it’s also about the power of class, race and privilege in determining the limits of normal existence.
AA: What can you share with us about the personality traits, motivations, and inner qualities of the main characters, Anglet Sutonga and Josiah Willinghouse?
AJH: Ang has been raised to be tough. She has spent most of her life working with boys in the heart of a city, alienated from her people and the place she was born. She’s an orphan but, at 17, has been living life as an adult for a while. These things have given her a lot of strength, but she’s also been raised to see herself as a second class citizen and she is easily cowed by authority. She’s bright and resourceful. Loyal. Fiercely principled but realistic. She expects very little from the world because she’s used to how she has been treated. Willinghouse is a young politician whose views are shaped by being mixed race in a society which is white ruled, but he’s also wealthy, privileged, even ambitious. He hires Ang without fully understanding how her strength compliments his some of the time, but how their world views and experiences are very different in ways bound to create friction.
AA: How do they change throughout the story, or does the world change around them, instead?
AJH: Both, I think. Ang grows much more confident in her dealings with people and Willinghouse learns a little humility along the way, both they are bent on changing the world, albeit in small, incremental ways, and they have some success there.
AA: Are there any objects or things which play a major role in telling the story?
AJH: The Beacon is the largest piece of luxorite—the light-generating mineral I mentioned before—ever quarried. It’s priceless, doubly so because no one has found any new sources of luxorite in years, and the story hinges on the Beacon’s theft. But more typically steampunky devices are deliberately not part of this world. I wanted to keep it anchored in reality.
AA: What are some of the interesting and important details within the world of Steeplejack??
AJH: Its diversity. The world is divided between three major ethnic groups in ways that complicate the social and political landscape. That is both the background of the main plot and a key element in it.
AA: Readers should find that diversity very interesting as the story develops. Without giving spoilers, what interesting things will readers find along the way?
AJH: Lots of action and adventure! Particularly in high places which is where Ang feels most comfortable and has her best strategic advantage. Also, a complex mystery that will keep readers guessing 🙂
Let’s pause here in our chat with A.J.. Join us for part two when he talks about back story and memorable moments.
You can support A.J. and our community by getting your copy of Steeplejack here.