Beth Cato is the author of The Clockwork Dagger and its sequel, The Clockwork Crown, newly released from Harper Voyager. Recently, she sat down with us at Phoenix Comic-Con to talk about creating colorful worlds, always playing the healer, and how she became the High Priestess of Churromancy.
How did you come to worship in the Taco Church?
[laughs] So much of that is because of the Taco Pope, Kevin Hearne. It is totally his fault. It started out as a series of Twitter jokes, and he had a fan who Photoshopped him with a taco mitre on his head, and it just kind of built up from there. So he was like “hey, let’s do a taco church,” and he started putting it together. He emailed me and said “do you want to be a part of this?” And I was like “sure, why not.”
Soon after that, I was reading the Arizona Republic one day and they mentioned this place called Taco Guild, which is actually in an old church. So I told Kevin “wouldn’t that be cool for a Holy Taco Church meeting?” It ended up that, for Phoenix Comic-Con last year, there were a whole bunch of us—we had this big caravan, we went there, and it was amazing. While we were there, everyone was being goofy and Tweeting pictures and having a good time, and apparently the weekend after that the place was slammed. It really ruins you for other Mexican places. I wish it was closer, but it’s good that it’s not.
On a related note, what brought you to the steampunk genre, as opposed to something more general (or a different niche like cyberpunk)? You’re really into Final Fantasy—was that what did it for you in the beginning?
That was part of it—I mean, I was hipster about it in the beginning. I liked steampunk before it was cool, and before it was called steampunk. My dad raised me on really bad B-movies, like Flash Gordon from the 80s. The cheeseball stuff. And when I was four, I was really horse-obsessed; if anyone in my school knew anything about me, it’s that I was horse-obsessed. That led me into historical fiction, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I just fell in love with it. When I was about to turn 12, I found Final Fantasy—I played Dragon Warrior, I played Final Fantasy, but when Final Fantasy II came out for Super Nintendo, it changed my life. I fell for the fantasy genre. From there, I went into Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms—all the fantasy I could get. And I still love historical fiction and medieval fiction, and steampunk brings all those things together. You can go from Victorian to western up through WWI or even go into dieselpunk, and there’s still the opportunity for the magic to come in there too.
Also, more of the science fiction angle—when I was a baby, literally, my first words were “Mom,” then “Star Wars.” So the science fiction’s there, too.
Octavia [the main character in the Clockwork series] is very heavily influenced by the cleric class in the Final Fantasy games. Did they also play a part in your designs for magic system or the airships in these books?
The magic, definitely. For the airships, I actually tried to build some actual science into that, because I used the Hindenburg as the base model. But the magic definitely was going back to Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest. All those old role-playing games—you have to have your cleric to stay alive. And then going back to FF2, FF4, I wanted to be a white wizard when I grew up when I was 12. After that, it was the high priestess, the cleric—whatever was in the game, whether it was tabletop or computer, it was Beth. Beth was the white wizard, she would save the day. So it was very much a Mary Sue thing, because it was me projecting. Even now if I do some superhero meme—”what superpower do you want to get?” Healer. It was pulling from the video games into my imagination, and then wanting to make it into a feasible skill in a new world. So there are a lot of answers to that. [laughs]
For a lot of people it might seem antithetical to see that healer character in the protagonist’s role—
Sure, because you have someone who’s vulnerable and frail—they’re not the big-muscled warrior. I had to figure out how to balance [her], because I wanted Octavia to be powerful but not a demigod. That’s why in roleplaying games, they’re so vulnerable; they have healing magic, but low hit points, or they can only wear cloth armor, and it’s like tissue paper. They’re limited by the structure of the game. I wanted her to be realistic and relatable and powerful and vulnerable, all at the same time. So it was also about crippling the magic system, having her use herbs, which limits what she can do—and also creates an economic issue because she doesn’t have much money. It was very complicated to make that power and powerlessness all in one character.
I also looked at real battlefield medics as an example, like World War I nurses—the nature of what it is to volunteer to work in trench warfare. What kind of woman does it take to deal with that and confront it on a daily basis? I’ve read thousands of pages of research to go into it. It’s not all stuff I can use, but it’s also the atmosphere.
How did you find the balance in Clockwork Dagger between the fantastical elements and all of your real-world inspiration?
Revision. [both laugh] Lots of revision. The core story stayed the same, but I went through nine months of back-and-forth with my agent and a rewrote that whole book multiple times. Some agents will be red-pen editors, some don’t do that; Rebecca Strauss is a fantastic editor. I’m terrified when I get her edits, because it’ll be 20 pages of this, this, and this—it’s like the stages of grief. She loved it, she saw the potential in it, but I had to rewrite every line of dialogue between Octavia and Alonzo, create Alonzo’s accent; she thought Mrs. Stout wasn’t a vibrant enough character, I had to completely revise how I handled her character; and then it was the magic and the world. It was hard building a fantasy world from scratch! And you don’t see a lot of the geography, but there’s a larger world out there.
There’s a big push in genre fiction of all kinds for more diversity and varied characters. Did you feel pressured to do that or did it come as a natural part of world-building?
I wanted to do that, because I live in a colorful world. I grew up in California, and I moved from there to South Carolina and Washington, so I’ve seen the racial demographics across the country. When I lived in South Carolina, it was really weird to me, because for the first time in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by people speaking Spanish. And no mariachi music. But I was surrounded by more black people than I was used to. And then I went to Washington, and I told my husband—he grew up in New Mexico, and we’re like, “We are weirdly surrounded by lots of white people.” To me, it’s a colorful world, and you don’t see that on the covers of books so much. To me, it’s a no-brainer—there needs to be diversity.
Clockwork Crown has a huge number of characters of color. Throughout most of the first half of the book, the background characters—that’s what they look like. And it’s a subtle thing, it’s not something I dwell on much in the book, but I like that there’s an assumption there that you don’t always have to say what someone’s color is. They are who they are.
You mentioned the Navajo very briefly during one of your panels this year at Phoenix Comic-Con, taking advantage of the helium in their homeland in your upcoming project. Can you elaborate at all on what your next project is going to be, exactly?
I can, because I just signed the contracts last week! My next project is about a geomancer in 1906 San Francisco. And women aren’t supposed to be geomancers—they’re not supposed to inherit that skill—so she’s hiding it. It’s 1906, but it’s an alternate history where the United States ended the Civil War early because they allied with Japan to obliterate the Confederacy using airships. by 1906, they’ve formed the Unified Pacific and they are committing genocide against the Chinese. So it’s like an early WWI on the Pacific side. It’s fantastic and scary, and it’s called Breath of Earth.