Steampunk Interview with Philippa Ballantine

With the recent New Zealand release of The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising by SpecFicNZ member Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, we asked Liz Gatens (librarian, writer, and steampunk fan extraordinaire) to pick Pip’s brain about all things steampunkish.

We hope you enjoy the interview, and be sure to get yourself a shiny new copy of Phoenix Rising.

LIZ: I love the cover of Phoenix Rising, but within its pages things get even more interesting. Two agents of the very clandestine Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences  – an enterprising, outrageous field agent and a buttoned up Librarian (sorry, Archivist) – are forced to work together to solve the forgotten case of vanishing Londoners. Cue the gadgets, explosions, and evil societies in a romp across the world to the dark and deadly streets of Victorian London.

So Pip, pour yourself a pot of tea and prepare to answer my seven questions, one for each of the Ministry Seven (no spoiler there, dear readers).

The first question everyone will ask after reading this book is “just how much fun did you have writing it, and did anyone get arrested?” This will quickly be followed by “when is the sequel coming out? (Harper Collins – respect!)

PIP: This book was a whole lot of fun to write. Probably too much really. No one got arrested, but Tee and I had some somewhat stern words to each other from time to time. I simply kept the editing poking stick handy at all times.

We had so much fun doing this, we decided to do it all again. Of Cogs and Corsets: the second Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel is just this moment handed into Harper Voyager. I can’t say too much about it of course (the Ministry would be rather upset if I did) but I can reveal that it is related to a certain Mrs. Kate Sheppard and her trip to London. Yes, steampunk suffragettes.

LIZ: You’ve clearly done your research for the period – Victorian London. I really admired the light touch you used bringing the past to life, such as paying the hansom cab driver through a hole in the roof of the carriage. It would have been easy to over-write these details, make them dusty and historical. How tight a rein did you (and Tee) give yourself, and how hard was it not to get carried away with the historical facts and information?

PIP: When writing anything with historical touches in it is always a hard question about when to include too much detail. It is very tempting when you know so much to dump it all on the reader to show…well how much research you have done. I like to include details like the hansom cab door when they matter to the action. And then I like to add little details just as a sprinkling to embroider the scene a fraction. Sensory descriptions in particular add to the flavour of the scene without overwhelming the reader.

Apart from that, it is the things that you don’t show that you keep in mind, just to help keep you grounded as a writer in the world.

LIZ: Where can I get a bullet proof corset? Okay, that’s not a real question!  Gadgets rule steampunk, and rightly so. You’ve got everything from wireless telegraphic trackers to airships to analytical engines (and much, much more, but that would spoil the plot). You’ve also got the typical frustrations of the age – fumbling with gas lanterns, guns that need reloading etc. How did you decide where to draw the line, to keep the balance between a romping good story and satisfying the gadget addiction of steampunkers?

PIP: Again, for me it is a case of less is more. You want to explain what this gadget does, and then a sketch of how it does it. The reader needs to be able to see the gadget in their mind, but not be overwhelmed by the details. (Though there are some people that love to work out how things would work—they’re called engineers).

Steampunk excels in its gadgets, and for me they should be intergral to the story and also FUN!

LIZ: After the growing attraction despite their obvious differences, and a considerable number of near misses (not all in the name of Queen and Country!), Books learns to appreciate the earthy yet cultured resilience of Colonial Braun, and she manages to knock some of the upper-class crust out of him. A lot of fun, light-hearted moments come from them, ahem, rubbing each other up the wrong way. So, are you going to tease us forever, or will they finally get together as more than partners?

PIP: Ah HA! The request for spoilers! Well, there is another book coming out. I can say this, Eliza and Wellington are coming to appreciate each other in all sorts of ways. She’s an attractive lady (even if she does like things that go BOOM!) and he’s a nice looking sort (even if he’s stuck away in the Archives). However some of the things Eliza has taunted Wellington with may come back to haunt her later.

LIZ: Braun being a kiwi was both unexpected and delightful. She is fiercely proud of her homeland and people. This obviously gave you scope to refer to New Zealand history and culture (Kiwi readers will get a kick out of some character names!), remind the world exactly who gave the vote to women first, and throw in some affectionate digs at our Australian cousins. Did you consider an international readership while you were writing, and were you asked to tone down or explain any of your references?

PIP: Nope. I pretty much wrote Eliza as I wanted her to be. She’s a kiwi, so naturally there are plenty of Australian/New Zealand jokes and interactions. Bruce and Eliza are colleagues and they would kill to protect on another, but they still get their jabs in on each other. It was lovely how Harper Voyager never said a word about changing Eliza. They let me get away with all sorts of colloqualisms and putting lots of kiwisms in there. We even got to spell things the way I am used to—even in the American editions!

LIZ: Victorian England was an age of great contradictions. Technological and societal leaps all came from the backdrop of workhouses and a gaping class divide. You’ve shown this without lampooning the era. Was it a conscious decision to not over-romanticise history, to acknowledge the dirt and death?

PIP: Phoenix Rising was meant to be a fun adventure story—but we also wanted to make sure it was rooted in history. And history wasn’t all pretty corsets and teaparties. To give the reader the complete picture we really need to cover all aspects of the society. With the Ministry Seven, and a scene at the factory we touch on what happens to those without money or position. In the sequel Of Cogs and Corsets we delve more into the role of women in Victorian society—especially those fighting for the vote. Yes indeed…steampunk suffragettes!

LIZ: What question would you most love to be asked about your writing and this book? You may allude to dialogue, and the excellent way Braun’s Colonialisms cut through the stuffiness of Victorian speech patterns to leaven the tone for modern readers. You may also refer to the mechanics of co-authoring the book with Tee Morris, and if this resulted in hysterics, acute competitiveness, hilarity and stunned mullet syndrome. In the interests of staying true to the Seven I can’t ask these questions! But do you and Tee Morris really talk like that with each other?

PIP: Yes! I remember one review where they said something like ‘in my mind I imagine Pip and Tee talking like that’—and truthfully that’s how we do. I nearly busted out in giggles when I read that. Writing the dialogue was consequently the most fun and easiest part of doing the book. Even when we had to talk over Skype, the banter kept flying. So if there is a bit of Wellingotn and Eliza in Tee and I, it is to be found in how they talk to each other.

Philippa Ballantine
Fantasy author and podcaster

Co-author (with Tee Morris) of Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Phoenix Rising– a steampunk adventure from Harper Voyager coming in May 2011
Author of Geist, and Spectyr (coming June 2011) from Ace Books.

Email: pip@pjballantine.com
Website: www.pjballantine.com
Twitter: philippajane
Facebook: Group page

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