Airship Ambassador: Hi Peter, thanks for joining us for this interview.
Peter Bunzl: Hi Kevin, it’s a pleasure to be here, I’m looking forward to answering your questions.
AA: Readers may know you from your previous work, including animation work on Bafta Award winner The Secret Show, and Enchanted Life, which you also directed and produced, and Crow Feathers, which won the Best Animation Award at Wimbledon International Shorts Film Festival. There’s also a story in Tales from the Blue Room: An Anthology of New Short Fiction. Now, your latest book is being published. What is Cogheart about?
PB: Cogheart is a fantastical steampunk adventure novel for children, filled with murder, mayhem and mystery…
Lily’s life is in mortal peril. Her father is missing and now silver-eyed men stalk her through the shadows. What could they want from her?
With her friends – Robert, the clockmaker’s son, and Malkin, her mechanical fox – Lily is plunged into a murky and menacing world. Too soon Lily realizes that those she holds dear may be the very ones to break her heart…
AA: There’s a lot going on in that description, with several items to draw in readers to learn what happens next. Why choose steampunk as the aesthetic and feel?
PB: Cogheart is set in a steampunk world where rich people travel by airship and steam-car, and have mechanical servants and pets. Originally, I wanted to write a story about clockwork automatons that wasn’t historical fiction. Instead of a Regency setting I wanted automatons to have moved on to a Victorian world, becoming clockwork mechanical robots that were almost human. I read some steampunk and decided that would be the perfect genre for my story. Then, when I realized there could be airship battles and swashbuckling sky-piracy, I was sold!
AA: Haha, airships are a great selling point! How does Cogheart express your vision of steampunk, and what does it add to the existing works in the genre?
PB: I must admit, I hadn’t read masses of steampunk when I started Cogheart. The books I had read were mostly for children, because that’s what I’m writing. I love His Dark Materials, Mortal Engines, Leviathan, UnLondon, Neverwhere – some of those are more a mix of genres. I prefer stories that crossover – so there’s a smattering of steampunk and a smattering of something else.
Of the adult books I read, I enjoyed The Diamond Age and Windup Girl. I don’t like too much technology talk, I prefer that to be backgrounded as it would be in real life, so the story is about the characters and their emotional journey as much as it’s about the world. I would say that was the most important thing to me in writing Cogheart – how emotionally invested the characters are in their adventure.
AA: That makes the characters more interesting, too, and often that helps readers become more emotionally invested as well. You’ve previously said that Living Dolls by Gaby Wood, which is a history of the complex clockwork Regency and Victorian automatons, provided the initial spark of an idea for Cogheart?
PB: Yes, it’s an intriguing book about automatons like Vaucanson’s Duck and sideshow artists like The Doll Family, it also takes on early cinema with George Melies. I think it was the inspiration for the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It’s filled with memorable stories and is as much about the legends behind its subjects as the truths.
AA: Those automatons are all incredible and quite a testament to what artists and engineers could create at the time. Working by sunlight or lamp light, hand tools, and with plenty of creativity and patience, they accomplished something simply amazing with clockwork mechanics. What was the inspiration for creating Cogheart?
PB: It was the inventors of those clockwork automatons and their desire to create artificial life – or even an illusion of that life – that idea chimed with me as a writer and animator – someone who’s primary goal is to make people believe in imaginary characters and impossible adventures with all their heart. I have words and images to do that, but the clockmakers who made those robots only had their primitive machinery to create life, and so never got close to achieving their goals. But it was the fictions around those Frankenstein-ish stories that helped me envisage the world of Cogheart – where mechanical people and human beings live side by side.
AA: What are the key themes in Cogheart?
PB: The key themes are the ones those ideas brought up. Things like: What makes us human, and could that spark of life ever exist in a machine? What does it mean to be alive? But also – because Lily lost her mother when she was very young, and she’s searching for her father who’s missing – it’s a story about family and how their love and legacy shapes who you are.
AA: What can you share with us about the main characters, Lily, Robert, and Malkin the fox?
PB: Lily is brave, passionate and self-empowered, but she’s fighting against a Victorian society that wants to restrict her and box her in. Some of her bravado and self confidence masks a fear that she’s lost her father and he might be gone forever, but she tries hard to not let that show on the outside.
Robert is thoughtful, a bit of a daydreamer, a bit anxious, clumsy with his father’s clockwork, but more skilled than he gives himself credit for. He’s also somewhat shy and reticent about going on an adventure, but he has a lot to deal with in the course of the story.
Malkin is Lily’s pet mechanical fox, given to her by her father, a famous inventor. He’s a cantankerous know-it-all with real fox-y instincts, but he’s also the possessor of an oversize ego, much larger than his tiny frame.
AA: How do they change throughout the story, or does the world change around them, instead?
PB: Lily discovers she quick-witted and clever, and as good at solving mysteries as any grown up, she also learns to trust her heart over her head. Robert overcomes his fears and, in helping Lily and her family, discovers a bravery he never knew he had. Malkin doesn’t change much throughout the story, he bites a few more people at the end that he did at the beginning!
We’ll break here in chatting with Peter. Join us next time when he talks about details of the story.
You can support Peter and our community by getting your copy of Cogheart here.