The Queen of Steampunk Speaks: An Interview with Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest's Fiddlehead

Steampunk experienced a glorious rebirth around 2009, in large part because of the unparalleled commercial and critical success of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, the first installment in her Clockwork Century saga (which also includes Clementine, Dreadnought, Ganymede, The Inexplicables, and the recently released Fiddlehead). A lot has happened to steampunk in the last five years: the first ever steampunk convention (SteamCon) was held in 2009, the term was officially added to the New Oxford American Dictionary in 2010, and, most importantly, hundreds of wildly innovative and entertaining novels have been released.

But what is the state of steampunk going forward?

The Barnes & Noble Book Blog spoke with the Queen of Steampunk herself, Cherie Priest, discussing both the future of the subgenre and the pressures associated with concluding her groundbreaking Clockwork Century series.

Your Clockwork Century  series recently concluded with Fiddlehead. It seems like it would be every writer’s dream to create a series that’s not only significant from a literary perspective but cherished by readers and critics alike. But the external pressures associated with that—from publishers, readers, etc.—must be enormous. Can you expand upon these conflicting emotions regarding the series?

To be sure, I’m sad to wrap up a series that essentially made my career; but it’s been a good run, and with Fiddlehead I tied off the primary arc of what had become a sprawling, transcontinental story. It felt like the right note to end things on, and hey—better to go out with a bang than a protracted whimper.

Besides that, there’s also the simple and dirty matter of money. While Boneshaker (and even Dreadnought) continue to draw an audience, the subsequent books haven’t done as well—which is unfortunately typical in the lifespan of a series. For every Dresden Files or Sookie Stackhouse, there are a thousand more that don’t break the best-seller lists with every new release, and alas, the Clockwork Century ranks among them. The last three novels in particular were well reviewed and well received—and I am forever indebted to all the fine critics and readers who took the time to address them—but for whatever reason, the broader market has been largely unaware of them. In short, it’s become increasingly difficult to convince anyone that I ought to be paid to write them anymore.

That said, I remain proud of my work in the steampunk genre, and honored to have been a participant in this most recent great wave. And there will be one small postscript, before all is said and done—the novella Jacaranda, landing from Subterranean Press either late this year or early next. It’s more of a return to horror/dark fantasy, I confess, but I’m very, very pleased with the way it’s shaping up…and it does feature everyone’s favorite steampunk Texas Ranger.

Aside from the obvious draws of this series—the brilliantly realized alternate history 19th-century America, the cool fusion of history with elements of steampunk, zombie fiction, etc.—the thing I love about these novels is the way in which you feature heroic female protagonists in a realistic manner, challenging gender stereotypes. As a father with young daughters, I’m grateful to you for that.

Well, I’ve been privileged to know a great many badass, courageous, brilliant women (and men, and those otherwise affiliated) from a number of different backgrounds, so I write about them because this is what the world looks like. This is what history looked like. This is what the future will look like, too. It’s lazy and insulting to pretend otherwise.

Agreed. Here’s one out of left field: Seems like every time I bring up your Clockwork Century saga with a hardcore fan, they inevitably say something like “that would make an amazing movie series.” And I concur: extraordinary storylines, unforgettable characters, jaw-dropping action sequences, really something for everyone. And the merchandising opportunities—steampunk goggles, toy dirigibles, action figures, handcrafted weapons and jewelry—I can see the Happy Meal toy gas masks already! Any news on that front?

I suppose you’re asking, in a general way, about the Boneshaker movie option [details on that here]. To be perfectly honest, at this point I’d be surprised to see anything come of it. The project had a lot of steam (wocka wocka) for a while there, and then…just…nothing came of it. I have my suspicions, and I have bits and pieces of gossip—but in the end, basically, things like this fall through all the time. It’s probably no more complicated than that. Am I disappointed? Sure. I just bought a house, and I’d like nothing better than to turn this bad boy into a moon base. But then again, the series is ending and I’m moving on to other projects. Maybe it’s time to let this go. (Mind you, Hollywood is more than welcome to prove me wrong. Moon base, y’all. Moon base.)

Where do you see the state of steampunk today and what’s your prediction for steampunk, say, a decade from now?

Steampunk has been bobbing up and down on a sine curve for the last 70 years, so the highs and lows of the previous decade are to be expected, really. So with that in mind, I think we’re going to see it taper off for a while before it comes back again in force. Nobody likes it when I say that, but there you go.

I’ve long argued that what steampunk needs is a major touchstone—some kind of very public shorthand, which can be used to explain it to Grandma. For example, if Grandma asks you what “goth” is, you can say, “Okay, you know Dracula? It’s kind of like that.” If she wants to know what a science fiction convention is about, the easy reply is, “You know Star Trek, or Star Wars? It’s kind of like that.” Or if you’re dressing up as an elf, you can always point to the Lord of the Rings.

Steampunk hasn’t had this kind of touchstone, and what’s come close needs an asterisk with the disclaimer, “But it doesn’t suck.” Steampunk is kind of like the Wild Wild West movie from a few years ago.* Steampunk is kind of like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie.* And so forth. (Even though I truly enjoyed both of those, it’s difficult to point to either one as a pinnacle of genre achievement.)

Anyway, I do believe it’ll happen—and when it does, steampunk will rise and conquer again, that’s for damn sure. Will it come in the next ten years? I don’t know. I hope so, because it’s a lot of fun and there remains a core of great ideas to be mined.

With the major story arc of Clockwork Century concluded and no new Clockwork novels in the foreseeable future, what’s your current project?

The thing I’m most excited about—and I do mean ridiculously excited—is a novel coming in September through Roc entitled Maplecroft. I’ve been fiddling with the project for several years; in fact, I think I starting drawing up the notes back before Boneshaker was published in 2009. It’s a return to my horror roots, I suppose you could say. There’s a high and a low pitch for it, so I’ll just give you both:

High pitch: Maplecroft is a 19th-century gothic epistolary novel, a love letter to Dracula as filtered through Lovecraft.

Low pitch: It’s Lizzie Borden fighting Cthulhu with an ax.

One day I found myself down a research rabbit hole on the internet, and stumbled across the [Borden] murder trial transcripts…and they made for fascinating reading. The case was much stranger than a nursery rhyme would lead you to believe, and some of the more peculiar details gave me the idea for Maplecroft. I finally sat down and wrote it last year, and Roc took a chance on it. So here it comes! And just to be clear, this is not an alternate history of the trial, or anything so specific as that; this is what happens afterwards. With fish people.

“Lizzie Borden fighting Cthulhu with an ax”—I’m in!

What do you think: does steampunk have a touchstone work, or is it still waiting?

  • Kat McCorbie

    Just FYI, Steam Powered, which took place in Sunnyvale, CA over Halloween weekend in 2008, was the first all steampunk convention. Abney Park played on Saturday night, despite Robert being hit by walking pneumonia. Great fun was had by all that weekend and the better known SteamCon appeared the following year.

  • Stephen Bitsoli

    I always thought steampunk’s touchstone work was “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” or Jules Verne in general. If you require a work from after the time steampunk was named, no, there really isn’t anything that is both good and instantly recognizable by the general public.