Aqueous Digital

Interview with ‘steampunk’ author Rod Duncan

As a bit of a departure this week we are privileged to have something of a scoop on the Aqueous Digital blog.

This week we have an interview with the excellent author Rod Duncan who is responsible for the ‘Gas Lit Empire‘ series of books and who was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2014 for the first in this series, ‘The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter’.

I’ve know Rod for many years and having read his recent ‘steampunk’ novels I was struck by how he was able to reinvent a modern day Victorian version of England and make it so real. On that basis I started by asking him about who his writing influences were when he was growing up.

If you had to pick a single influence, which author would you say most compelled you to become a writer?

Douglas Adams – though it is an unfair question, since no single author compelled me to become a writer. But when I was fifteen, I heard the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio and for the first time became aware of authorship. Someone made that, I thought. A single human being came up with all that magic – dreamed it up out of his head. How amazing!

Growing up, which was your favourite book?

I was late in learning to read. I didn’t read much until I was in my late teens. But I did have stories read to me. My father was a big science-fiction fan. He read to me from Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. He also read Sherlock Holmes stories to me. So perhaps it’s no surprise I now write science fiction set in a Victorian-esque world.

Some writers suffer from creative block; what do you do to generate fresh ideas?

Creative block doesn’t come from a lack of fresh ideas. Not for me, anyway. It comes from being overly critical of one’s own work. I see it this way – there are two writer personalities inside each of us. One is the creative genius. The other is the critical editor. They vie with each other for supremacy. If the creative genius is too powerful, you tend to write large amounts of rubbish. If the critical editor is too powerful, you can never get started because nothing seems good enough. We call that writers block. The trick is to get these two writer personalities balanced. Good writing flows when they are in an equal partnership.

Fresh ideas generate spontaneously when you are writing. The more you entertain them, the more readily new ones arrive. But if you are blocked, you’re not writing.

How difficult was it to get your first novel published?

The first novel is something of a myth. Most novelists will have gone through a period of writing things that never got published before they reach the breakout moment. So my ‘first’ novel was actually my fifth. I guess that probably answers the question of how difficult it can be to get published.

What would you say are the key differences between writing for print and writing for the web?

Stand in a bookshop and watch people browsing. You’ll see them glance at the cover and the back blurb before turning to the first page to read. They’re trying to decide whether it will be worth their time and money. If they decide to buy it, there will be a significant commitment.

That interaction with the first few pages of the novel forms a kind of contract between writer and reader. The writer is saying, I will provide you with a book that maintains this style and genre and lives up to this promise. The reader is saying, OK, I’ll commit to this story, intending to stick with it to the end. If it gets slow or confusing for a chapter or two, I may still read on, trusting that I am being prepared for something worth the effort.

When someone reads from the Web, there need be no such contract. If reading a novel is like a marriage, this is a one night stand. If it stops being fun or interesting, all you’ve got to do is click and you’re gone.

Both forms of writing need to be concise. Both need to be as good as they can be. But you can’t easily play the long game with writing on the web. You can’t give the reader a slow build-up, knowing that their intensity of experience will be worth it in the end.

How much has the internet changed the way you write?

The Internet has changed the way I research. If I want some obscure piece of information, I don’t need to plan a trip to the reference library. For example, things like Google’s Ngram viewer allow me to figure out how word usage has changed over the last couple of hundred years – vital for me in writing a Victorian-esque novel.

The Internet also allows readers to get in touch. People even send me messages before they finished reading the novel, to let me know how they’re getting on with it. That brings me a lot of joy and encouragement.

How important is the blog tour in sci fi/fantasy?

Science fiction and fantasy writers are also science-fiction and fantasy readers. We’re privileged to be part of a community. And that community is well networked online. The blog tour – writing a series of guest posts on other people’s blogs – is a natural way of participating in that community. It is part of a conversation that continues in conventions and through social media. Which is a long way of saying that I think the blog tour is very important.

How many articles do you have to write and what sort of response do you get to what you write?

The number of articles can vary widely. To give it a ballpark figure, I’d probably hope to write between ten and thirty posts to come out over a period of a couple of months. Ideally that would form a tight cluster leading up to the publication of a new novel. I’m always hoping that next time I’ll meet that ideal!

As for the response – the only metric I have for that other number of friendships that are forged through the process. I ‘meet’ people that way in the virtual world, stay in contact through social media and hope to meet them face-to-face at conventions.

It may be that I end up selling more novels that way. But if that ever became my primary motivation for writing guest blogs or participating in social media, my readers would surely sense it. I don’t think it would work. For me, it’s all about relationships. That’s why I have a twitter account and a Facebook page. It’s part of the conversation. And so are my novels.

Have a look at my Twitter feed @RodDuncan and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. The Facebook page is here:

Where did the idea come from for the Gas Lit Empire?

The Gas-Lit Empire is an alternate history that began a couple of hundred years ago. I won’t say exactly what caused it – that’s one of the secrets you’ll unravel if you read the books. But the result was a Luddite inspired revolution. With the Luddites in control, science and technology have been artificially held back. Time has passed but the world still looks much as it did in 1900.

The idea for it came originally from the built environment of Leicester, where the story begins. If you walk around the city today and look carefully, you’ll see hints of the Victorians who built it. I remember walking down a backstreet and seeing a place where the road surface had been damaged. A thin skim of asphalt had crumbled away, revealing cobblestones underneath. It was as if the Victorian world and the modern world were both present.

That gave me the seed of the idea. But it was when I ‘discovered’ the protagonist, Elizabeth Barnabus, that the idea turned into this extraordinary adventure story.

In your latest book, what surprises do we have in store for us about Elizabeth Barnabus?

The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter was the first book in the series. That introduced Elizabeth and the strange world of the Gas-Lit Empire. The adventure continued in book two, Unseemly Science. But as readers pick up the story in book three, the Custodian of Marvels, they still don’t know exactly how the Gas-Lit Empire began. Nor does Elizabeth. But through her most dangerous exploit so far, she is about to find out.

How did you feel to be nominated for the Philip K Dick award?

Amazing! It is one of the most prestigious juried awards in science fiction, so to have reached the shortlist was a great honour. I had a wonderful experience going out to Seattle to the award ceremony and reading an extract from the novel in front of the great and the good – including George R.R. Martin. In the end, I didn’t win it. But I don’t feel bad about that, since the very wonderful Meg Elison got it for her novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife.

What is next for you in your writing career?

I’m writing another novel set in the Gas-Lit Empire. I’m keeping the details of that under wraps for the time being. Meanwhile, I continue to work on screenplays in collaboration with other writers. A horror film that I co-wrote is in production. It is called Acid Daemons. You can find out more about it here.

Thanks for that Rod, it was great to chat to you and we wish you all the very best with your latest project.

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