An Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Gail Carriger

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on September 29, 2010 in Interviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , ,

October 2009 saw the publication of Soulless, the first of The Parasol Protectorate Books and Gail Carriger’s debut novel. It was fresh, witty, and comic. It opened up a world populated with elegant vampires, werewolves, steampunk aesthetics and a heroine who had a taste for good tea and parasols. To paraphrase Jane Austen, “No one who had ever seen Alexia Tarabotti in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” Alexia Tarabotti, like Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, is indeed a gothic heroine, and her adventures can be followed in Changeless (March, 2010), Blameless (Sept., 2010), Heartless (July, 2011) and Timeless (2012).

Carriger’s Changeless and Blameless are both New York Times bestsellers. We have asked the author to discuss with us her writing and fascination with steampunk and gothic.

AS: I would like to start first by categorizing your writing. What genre do you think describes best The Parasol Protectorate Books?

GC: Well they are mainly filed under science fiction / fantasy although some stores put them into romance and few have stuck them into horror. I consider my books a mix of steampunk and urban fantasy. I like Carrie Vaughn’s term “urbane fantasy” which nicely incorporates both sub-genres. There’s also the apt “teapunk.” There’s certainly enough tea in my books for that. I like to spoof the original Gothic classics so there is also good dose of comedy in them too – giggling readers are good.

AS: Your website as well as your social appearances reflect your interest in steampunk fashion and literature. Tell me what fascinates you about it?

GC: My Mum is a tea-swilling ex-pat. I was raised on British children’s books (Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Borrowers, The Water Babies, Wind in the Willows) and I spent many a youthful summer in Devon and two years of graduate school in the Midlands. It was this, plus the fashion aesthetic, that first drew me to steampunk – the beauty of 19th century clothing but with a less ridged everyday feel. I adore the Victorian era. I used to make hoopskirts out of my hula-hoops as a child. I also love the makers side of steampunk – technology you can see working, rather than little silver iPods with all their functionality secreted away.

AS: In what way do you think steampunk and gothic intersect?

GC: The Victorian Gothic literature movement saw the birth of science fiction (gothic is nominally responsible for most modern genre fiction: horror, romance, sci-fi/fantasy, western, and mystery). The current steampunk movement is a weird kind of full circle, taking sci-fi back to its roots ~ I love that.

AS: How did you first come to be interested in steampunk? And why do you think steampunk appeals to a much wider audience today? I personally, after reading about Miss Tarabotti, started wearing a steampunk waistcoat watch and undusted old parasols, hats and gloves. It felt that you were creating a fresh kind of woman, a dandyess or quaintrelle.

GC: I came to steampunk first as an aesthetic. I’m a longtime fan of vintage clothing and Goth style; steampunk drew me in as a cheerful melding of the two. Steampunk ties to the green movement, the maker community, historical reenactment societies, and the fashion world. Right now, I believe it has immense escapist appeal. With our economy in chaos, steampunk offers up an alternative lifestyle of sedate civilized behavior.

AS: And that is why my next question is about your main character, Alexia Tarabotti. She seems to have impressed your female readers. Does she represent a certain kind of womanhood, a return to Victorian aesthetics but with all the liberation and possibilities of a contemporary woman?

GC: I like to think it’s her prosaic character and dry wit that appeals. Well, that and her propensity for whacking at evildoers indiscriminately with her parasol. Alexia is a spinster coping with a vast number of embarrassing problems: she has Italian heritage (and looks it), she reads too much, she has no soul, she has accidentally killed a vampire, and she has a large werewolf bothering her as a result. She tends to cope with these problems by either bashing them over the head, or talking at them, with equally disastrous results. But she does so without losing her proper Victorian sensibilities. I think modern audiences enjoy reading about a character who gets what she wants with a forthright attitude but still maintains a sense of propriety.

AS: Why are you interested in vampires? They are especially everywhere today. Soulless came as a breeze of fresh air, very different than Twilight and other similar vampire novels. What is your opinion about these novels?

GC: For one thing, they just fit so well in with the premise of the science of the soul. For another, they are monsters with strong Victorian literature ties. I’ve read a lot of gothic lit over the years. Vampires, werewolves and ghosts in particular strike me as quintessentially Victorian. So I decided to twist it around and explore a world where such supernatural creatures were accepted as part of society – what, then, becomes the monster? As to the second half of your question, I tend to say: I love vampires that sparkle particularly if they are dripping with jewels and looking fabulous.

AS: Which are the gothic or steampunk novels that have influenced your writing?

GC: I like the early gothics: Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, and later, of course, Austen’s lovely parody in Northanger Abby. I can take or leave most of the romantics although I’ll borrow their archetypes and mock them openly on a whim. Many of the Victorian classic gothics annoy me, although I do love Jane Eyre and Poe (particularly Fall of the House of Usher). I tend to prefer to read lighter fare from that time period. Later on, Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray is deliciously creepy, but in the end I would say I’m more influenced by his playbill humor. I suspect this is because I write spoofs and not actual gothic literature. As for steampunk, I do borrow from Wells and Verne but not directly, more for atmosphere than anything else.

AS: Which are the gothic tropes or aesthetics you utilize in your own writing?

GC: I only nominally dabble in the terror/horror side of things, and usually interrupt it with macabre humor whenever possible. I like the mystery and supernatural elements so they are always pretty strong. You’ll see the haunted house/Gothic architecture/castle thing pop up occasionally. Most of the action takes place at night, because of the conceits of the universe, but again I will break a description with comedy and because of Alexia’s snarky take on life things never get too dark. I do borrow character archetypes a lot mostly to turn them into caricatures I can break down later: human eve, evil eve, and innocent eve all pop up and then get messed with. I don’t use a lot of Byronic heroes, so I guess you could say my men are more modern romance archetypes of alpha/beta. Although Lord Akeldama and Biffy together share the role of mocking Byron as he actually was in real life. I also avoid both the arte of the supernatural (magic and the occult) and ideas of angels/demons/devil. I feel the steampunk element takes out these concepts and replaces them with science and pseudo-science, secret societies, and dastardly experiments.

AS: Are there any (gothic) novels you have read recently and would also recommend to your readers?

GC: I always suggest the Cask of Amontillado, which I think of as Poe’s best and cleanest works.

AS: Do you have any other ideas for gothic novels in the future?

GC: If you mean strict gothic, it’s unlikely I’ll ever write that except in parody. But the Parasol Protectorate series continues to dabble in a play with tearing down gothic tropes and, as it is a rich field to explore, I doubt that will change any time soon!

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