News Flash!: I’m speaking at two events this coming week. October 1, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. is the new Author Fest to benefit the Albuquerque Museum. October 3, 9:00 a.m. I’m taking part in “Meet the Authors: Exploring the Creative Process” at UNM. Details for both are available on my website.
A Few of Stirling’s Grand Adventures
And now to the interview I promised you last week…
Steve (S.M.) Stirling and I became instant friends pretty much as soon as he and his wife Jan moved to Santa Fe in 1994. His latest novel is Prince of Outcasts, the thirteenth offering in his widely popular “Emberverse” series. He also has just sold a new dieselpunk series which will begin with And Carry a Big Stick.
I’ve lured him out of the spacious book-filled office in which he does his writing to talk about these projects and to answer the perennial question, “Does ‘S.M.’ really stand for ‘Sacher-Masoch?’”
JANE: Well, Steve, I always start interviews with the same question.
In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.
Which sort are you?
STEVE: The first. I’ve had long, colorfully detailed daydreams with plots and characters since I can remember. And I was telling them to my friends when I was six. Possibly earlier.
JANE: Somehow I’m not surprised. You still enjoy telling friends your stories – print just makes it possible for you to tell them to more people.
All right, now for the dangerous question. Why “S.M.”?
STEVE: It was the way I signed checks. When they asked me what name to put on the first book, I said “Oh, go with the way I signed the contract.” Interestingly, I got a lot of fan mail assuming I was a woman; apparently female authors use initials more.
JANE: Yeah, because of the perception that women can’t write hard-hitting stories and that men won’t read books written by women. It’s weird.
You’re Canadian by birth, but as a child you lived in France, Mexico, the U.S., Kenya, and other parts of Africa. What impact do you think this had on your writing and choice of topics?
STEVE: Mexico was more long vacations than living; the others, yes. It gave me a broader range of experiences, I think… seeing dead bodies, for instance.
JANE: Interesting that you don’t consider vacations as “living,” but then you do love your work!
You frequently write alternate history. Even if the stories start out with adventure and exploration, eventually they become tales where vast armies clash. What draws you to this sort of tale?
STEVE: I do like vacations! It was more a matter of what my parents were doing; if it was time off work for them, we were on vacation.
The alternate history is something most people do vis-à-vis their own lives. E.g., why did your parents meet? Mine met at a dance in 1942; my mother came with someone else, who had to leave to stand in line for the men’s room – it was very crowded. My father, who knew the guy she’d come with, walked over to her table and said: “Sam didn’t feel well and he had to leave, but he wanted me to walk you home.” They were married a month later…
And his mother landed in Newfoundland and ended up staying at my grandfather’s hotel because she was emigrating from England to Boston and her ship hit an iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the passengers were rescued and taken to St. John’s, where the Stirlings owned a hotel.
Figure the chances on that one! Alternate History is just the same thing applied globally.
As to the armies, conflict drives story.
JANE: I can see with a family history like that, you’d be preconditioned to write stories strongly driven by the “what if” element. I met your dad and I can absolutely see him poaching his buddy’s date.
STEVE: Old Army saying: “You can trust your buddies with your life, but not a bottle or a girl.”
JANE: For a long-time, you were best known for the popular “Draka” novels, but these days the thirteen-volume “Emberverse” series has eclipsed the Drakas in a big way. What do you think make the Emberverse so appealing?
STEVE: Well, it’s post-apocalyptic and fantasy. People can say “how would I handle that?” and it makes identifying with the characters easier, I think. They’re ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
JANE: I agree. You do a great job in both the Emberverse novels and their counterpart, the three-volume “Nantucket” series (beginning with Island in the Sea of Time), of showing ordinary people winning out against extraordinary challenges.
Can you tell my readers a little about Prince of Outcasts? Is it a book they can read without having read the prior twelve Emberverse novels?
STEVE: It’s a fairly good introduction, I think, but with a long series reading the earlier ones helps. However, the characters who are the main focus in Prince of Outcasts are not the major ones from earlier books, and a bunch are new; also, it mainly takes place in a new area of the Changed world, the islands of the Indonesian archipelago and Australia.
JANE: That sounds like quite a change from North America and relatively small portions of England that have been the setting of most of your other Emberverse novels.
Since I regularly e-chat with your wife, Jan, I happen to know you wrote your other new project, the forthcoming And Carry a Big Stick, in a white hot fury of passionate absorption. Can you tell us a little of what we have coming?
STEVE: That’s an alternate history where President William Taft dies in 1912, and Teddy Roosevelt gets the Republican nomination instead of being forced out of the party to run on the Progressive ticket. Instead the Progressives take over the GOP, Teddy sweeps back into the White House and radical hijinks occur. It was a hoot to write – it’s an interesting period and he’s a fascinating guy. (The only President ever to win a knife-fight with a cougar… no, really.)
It’s mainly a novel of intrigue and Zeppelins and U-boats and a mutant World War One, with a beautiful spy working for Teddy’s “Black Chamber,” sort of a premature CIA. I had a lot of fun writing it.
JANE: From other conversations, I know that the “beautiful spy” in question is female. This leads me to my closing question. For as long as I’ve been reading your books, you’ve included strong female characters of a wide variety of types – even when the historical setting would have enabled you to leave out female characters entirely. What has made this appealing to you?
STEVE: it’s just the way my psyche works, apparently. I’ve always done it and didn’t think there was anything notable about that until other people asked me.
Besides that, I don’t particularly enjoy writing about people who strongly resemble me or reading about middle-aged bobos living in the Southwest, either. That’s boring. As I like to say, if I want to be “reflected,” I just walk into the bathroom, face the sink and turn on the light. Voila! A perfect reflection! Going to fiction to find yourself is to the experience of literature (either writing or reading) as masturbation is to real sex, in my opinion. Plus if you have to go looking, you’ll never find.
JANE: That’s an interesting – indeed, somewhat radical these days – point of view, but it certainly fits perfectly with your work.
Thanks so much for your time… I’ve very much enjoyed this, and I look forward to reading both Prince of Outcasts and Carry a Big Stick.