Welcome back for part two in our talk with A.J. Hartley, author of Steeplejack.
Read part one here.
Airship Ambassador: What passage, paragraph, or scene was really memorable to write?
A.J. Hartley: I like this because it presents the world in all its grit and loveliness at the same time. It’s in the first chapter when Ang is working alone on of the tallest factory chimneys in Bar-Slehm:
It had once been beautiful, this bright, hot land rolling down to the sea. In places, it still was—wide and open savannahs where the sveld beasts grazed and the clavtar stalked; towering mountains, their topmost crags lost in cloud; and golden, palm-fringed beaches.
And sky. Great swaths of startling, empty blue where the sun burned high during the day, and night brought only blackness and a dense scattering of stars.
That’s how it had been, and how it still was, not so very far away. But not here. Not in Bar-Selehm. Here were only iron and brick and a thick, pungent smoke that hung in a perpetual shroud over the pale city, shading its ancient domed temples and stately formal buildings. A couple of miles inland, down by the Etembe market, the air was ripe with animal dung, with the mouthwatering aroma of antelope flesh roasted over charcoal braziers, with cardamom, nutmeg, and pepper and, when the wind blew in from the west, with the dry but fertile fragrance of the tall grass that bent in the breeze all the way to the mountains. In the opposite direction was the ocean, the salt air redolent with fish and seaweed and the special tang of the sea. But here there was only smoke. Even all the way up the chimneys, above the city, and at what should have been the perfect vantage on the minarets of Old Town, and on the courts and monuments of the Finance District, I could see little through the brown fog, and though I wore a ragged kerchief over my mouth and nose, I could still taste it. When I spat, the slime was spotted with black flakes.
“If the work doesn’t kill you,” Papa used to say, “the air will.”
I sat on the dizzying top, my legs hooked over the edge, and below me nothing for two hundred feet but the hard stone cobbles that would break a body like a hundred hammers.
AA: That’s very descriptive, and certainly makes it seem like the smoke was the more formidable opponent. Was there any scene-passage-text-etc that you loved but which just didn’t work and had to be cut?
AJH: There was a very dramatic action sequence which got cut because the book was running long and it wasn’t essential to the story. I won’t say more except that it involves an animal pack in an unexpected place, because I was able to retool the section for use in Firebrand.
AA: At least you were able to reuse it elsewhere. What kind of back story is there for Steeplejack which didn’t make it into the final book?
AJH: There’s a lot of world building which I try to only reveal when necessary or when it makes sense that Ang is thinking or talking about it. Because it’s a first person narration, character is all and drives all revealed information. If she’s not thinking about it, it can’t go in. That means I have a swelling “Bible” file on my computer, a document into which I put everything I discover or invent about the world—whether or not it makes it explicitly into the novel—in order to keep it consistent.
AA: I’ve often wondered if writers kept a story bible handy. When people read Steeplejack, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters that they could apply to their own lives?
AJH: Two related things: that we need to recognize how people’s life circumstances shape who they are and what they can do, and that we can, as individuals with luck and the right opportunities, push beyond those circumstances.
AA: How did elements of your own life and experiences play into Steeplejack?
AJH: Well, as I said, I grew up in Lancashire (the heart of industrialized Victorian England) and travelled to Africa while I was writing the book, but the most personal aspect of the book is probably the way the main character always feels between categories, always struggling to escape what people assume about who she is and what she can do. I don’t feel it in terms of race or gender as she does, because I’m white and male, but I feel it in other ways bound to class and geography and the way my own interests/abilities have frequently made me feel like an outsider.
AA: What was one memorable story while writing this story? Any laugh out loud or cry in the corner moments?
AJH: Cry in the corner might be a bit strong, but the book took a long time to sell—maybe nine months on active submission, I think. People just didn’t quite know what to make of it. I’m kind of used to that because I often write in hybrid forms which editors don’t know how to position (what “shelf” in the store it would appear on), but this one had become very personal to me, so the fact that I got a lot of positive feedback but no actual acceptance (contract) for such a long time was tough.
AA: I can see how that could create some anxious and frsutrating moments. Are there any plans for a sequel or spinoff?
AJH: Yes, the second (of at least 3) is already done. It’s called Firebrand and will be out summer 2017.
AA: Very good, readers won’t have to wait too long at all. What kind of research and balance went into creating the Steeplejack world?
AJH: I was embedding a thoroughly developed Victorian industrial city in the African “wilderness” so I needed to understand both, and come up with a way they could co-exist. I settled on making the white conquest a couple of hundred years earlier than actually happened so that the city could develop like, say, Manchester in the UK, and that meant that the racial dynamic began to align more with something closer to apartheid era South Africa than the nineteenth century which was my technological frame. And because of what Ang does for a living when the book opens, I did a lot of research into architecture and construction, as well as into the trade of the steeplejack, some of whom were still using these Victorian methods in Lancashire when I was a boy.
AA: How long did it take to write, and rewrite, Steeplejack? What were the deadlines and publishing schedule like for you?
AJH: The book took the best part of a year to write, which is long for me, and went through a number of radical rethinkings. The major editing work I did after the book was acquired by Tor added about five months to that and almost another year for polishing, cover design, pre-release marketing etc. It felt like a long time, and I had already drafted the first version of book 2 by the time book 1 came out.
I’m always surprised how long it takes to release a book, but I guess it can be like a movie with plenty of work still being done after initial filming.
Let’s pause here in our chat with A.J.. Join us for part three when he talks about lessons learned and the writing journey.
You can support A.J. and our community by getting your copy of Steeplejack here.