Interview with James Blaylock April 27th, 2015 by Allison Schmitendorf, Jaime Govier, and Jon Snyder. (After the interview, if you want to learn more about James Blaylock, click here.)
I attended Cal State Fullerton from 1968 to 1974, when I graduated with my M.A. in English – a fairly wild time to be a university student: hippies, yippies, freaks, anti-war protests, etc. I started off with the idea of majoring in biology and then eventually marine biology, entirely because I was beach addict and a tropical fish hobbyist. Then I discovered that I’d have to take math; it wasn’t enough to be a beach bum. Switched to psychology for no good reason, then added English and ended up with a double major, although my heart was in literature – one of the few majors in which, if you could write well enough, you could pull down A grades for reading good books and then making things up. I’ve been teaching for almost 40 years now – the same length of time that I’ve been publishing – and have become a variety of literary creature. I’d do it all over again in a cold moment, and I’m happy with the things I’ve made up.
What drew you to Science Fiction?
When I was growing up, my mother took my sister and I to the Stanton Free Library fairly regularly. We’d wander through the stacks looking for something likely – for me it was almost any book with a dark binding and embossed lettering (gold and red were promising) and a cool frontispiece illustration. A tip from my mother led me to H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and so during that period in my life when I was most susceptible to the magic of books, I was infected with strange, alien or undersea landscapes, backyard scientists, and highly colorful notions of science that were products of a past age. That was science fiction as far as I knew until I took Willis McNelly’s science fiction class at Fullerton. Suddenly I was reading Dune and Childhood’s End and other works of contemporary science fiction and wondering how I had missed them. I binged on science fiction and fantasy for years after that. It turned out, however, that it was the earlier books that had the largest influence on my writing and my imagination.
You, Tim Powers, and K.W. Jeter founded the concept of Steampunk and were all friends here at CSUF. How did you meet? How would you describe your relationship?
I met Tim Powers through a mutual friend who had the idea we’d get along. It turned out we did. I was in graduate school and had just gotten married. My wife Viki and I were living in Placentia, where Tim was working in a pizza parlor. We became good friends pretty quickly, despite living in different worlds in many ways. I had a job working construction demolition and cleanup, and I surfed as often as I could. Books were the common thread, however. Both of us were writing at the time and were mailing the result off to editors. I was having no success publishing anything (and wouldn’t for another 6 years) but Tim had landed a couple of poems in fantasy magazines. He collected rare fantasy and sf books of the sort that had always attracted me. Both of us were writing strange, lunatic novels. Tim coerced me into coming to meetings of the Fullerton Poetry Society. The faculty sponsor was Dorothea Kenny (who had recently given me a C on a paper, along with the comment that I apparently thought I was funny, but that I should save my humor for creative writing). It was there that I met K.W. Jeter. By the time Viki and I moved to downtown Orange (after a year living in Humboldt County) Tim and K.W. were living in Santa Ana, and we hung out together regularly until K.W. moved away. Tim and I remained close, and we see K.W. from time to time, taking up where we left off.
What inspired Steampunk? How did it originate and grow from an idea to a reality?
I was attracted to Victorian literature at the university, especially fiction and essays. Tim was widely read in that regard also (and in just about every other regard). K.W., who had studied sociology but was also phenomenally widely read, was a fan of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, a sprawling sort of verbal picture of 19th century London and loaded with useful writerly information. I was reading Dickens at the time and working my way through pretty much all of Robert Louis Stevenson and (on Tim’s advice) reading all of the P.G. Wodehouse I could find. We spent a certain amount of time at O’Hara’s Pub in Orange talking about our writing and reading. K.W. was writing an H.G. Wells inspired novel titled Morlock Night that would be published by Daw Books, and Tim was researching the book that Del Rey would publish as The Drawing of the Dark. I was trying my hand at writing short stories, and had recently sold a story to Unearth magazine titled “Red Planet” about a boy riding a bus through the Midwest who might or might not be going to Mars. I launched a new story titled “The Ape-box Affair” about a Victorian backyard scientist named Langdon St. Ives (the name stolen from the Stevenson novel St. Ives), who launches a spacecraft piloted by an orang-utan. The ship crashes into the duck pond in St. James Park, London, and the ape escapes into the city and causes a great deal of havoc. The style of the piece was informed, so to speak, by Wodehouse. I sold it to Unearth for forty dollars, and it became the first published steampunk piece. K.W.’s novel came out a short time later, as did (later yet) Tim’s Anubis Gates, K.W.’s Infernal Devices, and my novel Homunculus. It was nearly a decade after the publication of “The Ape-box Affair” that K.W. would coin the term steampunk as a sort of joke, cyberpunk being all the rage at the time. To my mind, “movements” become just that when they’re named, and it seems to me that although our early books and stories came to define steampunk, K.W.’s spur-of-the-moment naming of the thing brought it into focus.
Do you believe that your location here in California–CSUF, Orange County, SoCal–was an influence on Steampunk’s creation? Similarly, can you describe why this state plays such a central role in so many of your stories (Digging Leviathan, Night Relics, etc.)?
Orange County didn’t influence our Victorian stories in any way that I can see, although, as I said previously, what we studied at Cal State Fullerton certainly did. I was born and raised in southern California, as was my father, and I hiked and camped in local mountains and deserts and spent way too much time on southern California beaches. It’s a simple fact that I came to know the place uncommonly well, and that it had (and still has) a sort of luminous aura in my mind. Places very often inspire my writing. When a character comes into my mind, I envision that character moving around in a particular setting. And so setting comes to define or influence many elements of the stories and novels: it’s inseparable from plot and character and atmosphere. I’m a southern California creature, I suppose, and so are many of my books. Also, my understanding of California comes entirely from experience, whereas my understanding of Victorian London is a product of reading and research. My third novel, The Digging Leviathan is set in Glendale and Eagle Rock largely because I worked construction jobs out there and because my friend Roy Squires, a rare book dealer whom I’d met through Tim Powers, had an old Spanish style house on Kenneth Road in Glendale. I don’t know how many trips we made out to Squires’s house over the years, but The Digging Leviathan accurately portrays that house and the people who gathered there (at least in my mind). The sensibilities of Jim Hastings, the young co-protagonist of the book, is pretty much me as a fourteen year-old under the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s hollow earth novels. It’s not steampunk (since it’s set in the late 50s or early 60s) but it certainly has steampunk sensibilities.
Steampunk has been described as a counterculture, hence the “punk” part of the name. How would you describe what exactly puts the “punk” in Steampunk?
Frankly, I don’t know what “punk” means in that regard. Like I said, the term was K.W.’s quick-witted alteration of the term cyberpunk. My own steampunk characters tend to function outside the law very often, and they sometimes unwittingly cause havoc and uproar (although always in a good cause) but that’s about it. It could be that the “punk” characteristics of steampunk were leaned on more heavily by later generations of steampunk writers. I try not to pay too much attention to what other writers do with the genre.
Much of science fiction literature looks into our potential future. You did something new with Steampunk by looking, instead, at our potential past. What was the appeal?
The Victorian settings appealed to me in a number of ways. As the 20th century got going, science knew absolutely that there were no “canals” on Mars, that there were no lost cities in the jungles, that the Earth wasn’t hollow, that dinosaurs were extinct and not merely in hiding, that a greenhouse full of tropical plants wouldn’t provide adequate oxygen for space travelers, and that Atlantis was imaginary. In 1875 there still might easily have been uncharted “mysterious” islands harboring enormous crabs and deep-sea divers wearing helmets fabricated from giant conch shells. By 1975 there were no uncharted islands or jungles left in the world, and Mars was pretty much just made of dirt. I was attracted to the imaginary worlds of Verne and Wells and Burroughs, and also of Dickens’s London, which has largely passed away. Part of the attraction is the wild color of those places; part of it is nostalgia. I like to hang out there in my mind, and, as a writer, I sometimes try to convey the experience in my stories.
The Victorian Era seems a great setting for science and punk fiction as it’s the last time our society confronted such a dramatic shift in its basic technological and social infrastructure. Science fiction itself was born out of this time period. Was this the appeal of setting Steampunk in this time? Or was there something more?
Certainly the upheaval of society and culture during that period of time – the old world fading away and the new world ascending – was part of the appeal. I like to keep one foot in the old world. My California novels work that same way: the settings are almost always a mix of the new and the old. My novel Winter Tides, set in Huntington Beach, was written after downtown Huntington Beach was upscaled and modernized, but much of the setting is reminiscent of the Huntington Beach of the 50s, 60s and 70s when I was growing up – mom and pop stores, old bars and cafes, the Coast Highway as it used to be in mid-century. Fantasy stories work best, I think, when they take place in a somewhat out-of-time era and place. The result, I hope, captures the magic and the atmosphere of the place in an authentic but slightly timeless way.
How much has Steampunk shifted and grown away from your initial brainchild?
I don’t read much contemporary steampunk (unless it’s written by Tim or K.W.) Much of what I have read or looked at seems to get a lot of mileage out of gadgets and wackiness and elaborate descriptions of clothing, none of which are entirely my thing, although much of it is very cool. When my last steampunk novel came out – The Aylesford Skull – one reviewer wrote that she was surprised to find that I took steampunk seriously. The review was a good one, but I was baffled by that comment.
As a teacher of composition and creative writing for almost forty years, do you have any suggestions or comments for future teachers of these subjects?
I’ve got a heap of comments for future teachers of writing and literature. I’ll be brief, however. When I started teaching in 1976, my Department Chair at Fullerton Community College warned me that 90 percent of my students would come into the class with a twelve-year hatred of English. I was surprised by this, although my reaction was a little naïve. I had a lifelong love of books and essays and writing, however. Why the hell, I wondered, was the subject so widely despised? After nearly forty years of teaching I’m convinced that the problem is partly or largely in the teaching. So… all you potential teachers out there: As is true of surfing or playing the piano or walking in the woods or dancing, reading and writing don’t need any excuse. We don’t do these things because they’re “important”; we do them because they’re wonderful things to do. I’ve often worked hard to circumvent the system, which promotes teaching to the test. Remember that current notions of teaching pedagogy are flushed out of the world with a fire hose every few years, but that what’s valuable in the books you love and in the act of writing will remain constant. Don’t pretend that it’s vital that every student be a reader, or that the “analysis” of a work of literature is the true end of reading. Try to get to the heart of what fires you up about reading and writing. If you can infect your students with some of your enthusiasm, you’ve done your job. Just this morning I read an article about an entire school full of kids who boycotted state testing, and it gave me a certain hope. I bet there’s a lot of readers among them. (And of course every subject cannot be taught in the same way. If you’re setting up to be a doctor or accountant, or to teach doctoring or accounting or some such nuts and bolts thing, then my notions about teaching aren’t of much value to you.)
Do you have any suggestions for budding authors?
As for budding authors, read a lot and write a lot and keep doing it. Write because you write, not because you must be published. Mail your stuff out to editors when you’re inclined to, however, because willing editors and the audience that they can find for you will help to keep you writing. Write what you like to read, and read widely. Remember that you’re in it for the long haul. I mailed out stories for years before I sold one. It took me ten years to sell a novel. Since then I’ve published 25 books. That ten years of rejection was necessary for me to figure things out. My first attempts at writing a novel – those chapters that I was reading in 1973 at the Poetry Society – later turned into The Digging Leviathan, which I wrote in 1983. Nothing you write is a waste of time. The more you write the better you get. The point of a walk in the woods is to walk in the woods, not to get out of the woods as quick as possible and go home again.
Is your octopus still alive?
In fact my octopus is very much alive. It put in an appearance in my last novel.
(Here’s the link again to More on James Blaylock!)