Nov 3, 2011

He Blinded Me With Science: An Interview with Peter A. Smalley

I sat down with Peter over a couple pints of Mac and Jack in the historic and eye candilicious Charlie’s Bar and Grill in lovely downtown Seattle. I couldn’t have picked a more perfect setting for conversations about Steampunk fiction if I’d tried – and if you’re ever in the Puget Sound, you really have to swing by. (I’d also like to point out that even though this blog has not been sponsored by the lovely people at Charlie’s, I would totally not be opposed to singing praises on your behalf. Just saying.)
We’re both dressed casually, quite taken with the idea of discussing the wheres and whyfores of the contemporary publishing industry, right here in plain sight. Oh, if only the other patrons knew!
The drinks are about halfway gone when we decide to make the interview a formality. 

Ren: So tell me, Peter – how’d this all get started for you, this whole writing aspect? Did you always want to be a writer?

Peter: Does anyone really decide to be a writer?  I think, more often, it's merely the choice of whether or not to actually write down the stories and characters that are already cluttering up one's head.  The tales are already there; developing the craft and letting others into your mental sandbox is a step of tremendous vulnerability requiring an equal amount of self-confidence.  I've always been a writer.  It's only been in the last few years that I began taking the steps that would lead to sharing my writing with others.

Ren: Well spoken, sir. So that was the first big dream, then? (Peter shakes his head, a mischievous smile peeking through his graying beard) No? Well, what was the first big wish?

Peter: A chemist, circa third grade.

Ren: (blinks) Wow, really? Like mad scientist chemist?

Peter: (I can tell he’s humoring me, here, because we both know my joke isn’t that funny. This is what friendship is all about.) I make sure the food you buy in the store won’t make you sick.

Ren: Okay, I officially promise to never tease you about being a chemist ever again. So, chemistry aside, what opened up the realms of writerdom to you? Was there a moment you decided, “yes, this is what I’m going to also do.”

Peter: The first time I read The Hobbit to myself (age 6).

Ren: Very good pull! That one always made a better impact on me than Tolkien’s other books. I read them later, sure, but the Hobbit? I do love me some clever riddles. Were there other books that dropped you in the deep end of the pool?

Peter:  I was a voracious reader for most of my youth, but I really cut my teeth on epic fantasy: Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Katherine Kurtz, Ursula LeGuin, Steven Brust, Glen Cook, and Neal Stephenson. [The most recent one I’ve read is] Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" series of books is a fantastic character study in a rich scifi setting.  Highly recommended.  Also, go read anything you can get your hands on by Dan Abnett.  

Ren: *sighs deeply* I’ll add them to my kindle. (also, Amazon, just saying, if you’re looking for some casual product placement, I’m totally your man) Assuming you get more time to read, what’s next on your list?

Peter: I’m currently reading Antigone's Fall by R.K. MacPherson.  He writes with grit and an eye for detail that brings his setting a sharp-edged realism, but it is the mile-wide flaws in his characters that make the story truly gripping.

Ren: Excellent! I’m sure my readers will love the extra plugs there, but now let’s talk about your own books. Tell me about "The Burning Times" and "Grimme." What inspired the concept, and what made you want to write it? Give my readers your personal background on the story, and what it is about these books that made you so passionate about them?

Peter: After a crossroads of a conversation with Holly Black at a convention in 2008, I determined that I needed to write a Young Adult Fantasy novel incorporating both traditional myths and fairy tales with an element of "punk" - be that Steampunk or, to coin a term, Fairypunk.  The punk part of that neologism challenged me to re-imagine some of Western literature's roots in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, building in a streak of social tension - and even revolution - often implied in the tradition of Western literature.  That led in turn to a speculative fiction take on how history might have been different if Rome had fallen not to internal strife and aggressive Germanic tribes, but to a plague of dragons, and it all spiraled out after that imaginative lightning-strike.  The part that really fascinates me is the application of real-world conflicts - say, the genocides in Croatia, Rwanda and the Sudan - to a mythic setting like the Corolarian Kingdoms.  In that setting I can explore them in a way that not only allows young adult readers to understand their tragedy, but also the impact they can have on later generations.  It is important to me to communicate the idea that our world is interconnected, and everything has the potential to affect everything else.  Grimme takes that idea and personalizes it.  I'm very happy with the results.

The Burning Times was actually written after the manuscript for Grimme was complete and in revision.  I wanted a shorter piece to introduce some of the historical aspects of both the main characters and the age of conflict whose repercussions would come home to roost later in Grimme.  Interestingly, I have had a number of readers ask for more stories from the time period of The Burning Times, and I plan at least one more full-length work to satisfy those demands.

Ren: Who's your favorite character? What inspires you to write him or her? 

Peter: I love all my characters, especially the villains (villains need love too!) and, surprisingly, the bit-part characters who exist for only a few paragraphs before fading back into the tapestry of the novel.  When it comes to the main characters it really is a very close call, but Maximilien is probably my favorite (as opposed to my favorite to write - that would be Marja).  Maximilien is the bridge character for the piece, combining elements of opposing camps to become a conduit between them.  He is a wonderful blend of ingenuity, determination, sensitivity, and possibility.  I also think of him as the quieter of the two brothers, which makes him the natural one to feel sympathetic towards.

Ren: True, the over-the-top ones almost write themselves, but I completely agree that it’s the quiet ones that always get to you. So, going forward, any more books planned in the Europas Cycle? If so, can we have a teaser?

Peter: Of course!  I foresee at least two sequels to Grimme and one more full-length work set in the time period of The Burning Times.  As a teaser, imagine what might happen when Maximilien and Sora attempt to navigate the political jungle of the fractured city-states Adriatica and Tyrrhenia in search of clues to the whereabouts of Baron von Grimme, while Victor, Marja and Jonas investigate the unexplained disappearance of an entire village of good Gothic folk.  What could these two threads, separated by half a continent, have to do with each other?  Find out in the next volume of The Europas Cycle!

Ren: Oh, that’s just mean. But I did ask for a teaser, so I guess it serves me right - - I’m really looking forward to the next book! And speaking of the next book, those of us who got to see you at the recent Steamcon 3 got to see your latest project, 20,001. What led to the 20,001 Steampunk Odyssey anthology? Any more anthologies planned?

Peter: It actually began quite simply.  Kindling Press wanted to begin highlighting great new writing talent and to publish a volume of short works.  I was, and am, utterly in love with Steampunk - which, as you know, has had a co-evolution with self-publishing that is far from coincidental.  We looked at the literature and the state of the genre and decided the stars were right for a volume springing from the Jules Verne work Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  It was the theme of this year's Steamcon, which would also be a good release date.  What could be better?  As it turned out, an extra month or two would have made for a less crazy editing pace, but the eight short stories and two novellas that make up 20,001 turned out extremely well, and we're very proud of its success - as well as our own success in finding and highlighting some great new writers in the genre.  And yes, we are already planning our next anthology!  This time, we're leaving ourselves a bit more time, both for submissions and for editing, but our goal remains finding and highlighting great new authors while providing cutting-edge fiction to readers at a very modest price.

 Ren: Which leads me right to my next question. What with all the buzz these days about people shifting to self-publishing, epublishing and indie presses, what's the history behind Kindling Press? Who is working with you on that? What are your next plans?

Peter: Jason Vanhee and I founded Kindling Press in the late Spring of 2011 as a way to create an ebook imprint that readers could come to identify not just with us, but with quality writing.  It's amazing to think it's already done so much in such a short time!  Jason is a wonderful writer and a really stellar editor - by which I mean he pulls absolutely no punches when he sees something that could be better in plot, character or style.  He also has great awareness of the fiction market, and ties to bookstores and printing facilities that have been critical for us.  With my contacts and strengths in marketing and SEO - not to mention some rudimentary website expertise - we complement each others strengths and have managed to get this sometimes ungainly epublishing / writer's collective off the ground and into the air!  We're still growing fast, but we are both writers first and foremost so the growth of Kindling Press is slower than it might otherwise be while we pursue our individual writing as well.  We plan to add several more writers to the collective going forward, however, and this should help us maintain our growth while allowing more time for personal writing pursuits.  Future directions include our next anthology - look for a call for submissions soon! - and appearances at Northwest science fiction / writing conventions such as Orycon, Rustycon, Norwescon, and more yet to be announced.

Ren: Okay, unfortunately, my time's coming to an end, just like my pint. I’ve got time for just one last question, then: Who’d win in a fight – the Six Million Dollar Man or the Fall Guy?

Peter: Ummm… MacGuyver.

Ren: Oooooh. Good one. Thanks for the beer and the time, sir - - and best of luck going forward!

Peter A. Smalley can be hunted down and tracked for his pelt, but would kindly appreciate it if you all would stop doing that, as he’s only got the one. More specifically, you should track down his books through the Kindling Press website, and support your indie authors. Seriously. Go now.