We are at it again! Kicking off the year with a brand-new campaign: Full Steam Ahead!
While we are not the first to explore the realm of dieselpunk, it is fair to say there isn’t a lot out there. And I can say with full confidence no one else has gone in this direction! Grease Monkeys: The Heart and Soul of Dieselpunk takes a look at the mechanics that keep the tech running and even mod it out beyond its original capabilities, striving for efficiency and peak performance or just keeping things going.
The other two books funding through the campaign are Grimm Machinations – the sequel to Gaslight & Grimm, bringing you even more steampunk faerie tales; and A Cast of Crows, a Poe-inspired steampunk collection created in conjunction with the Tell-Tale Steampunk Festival.
Over the course of the campaign, we will be featuring these spotlights so you can get to know our authors—and the projects—better.
eSpec Books interviews David Lee Summers, contributor to Grease Monkeys: The Heart and Soul of Dieselpunk, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and John L. French, Grimm Machinations, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Greg Schauer, AND Forgotten Lore Volume One: A Cast of Crows, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail.
Grease Monkey Questions
eSB: Grease Monkeys is a collection of dieselpunk stories, a genre that doesn’t seem to get as much attention as its older sibling, steampunk. What challenges did you face transitioning from one to the other? What did you find similar, and what was different?
DLS: In some ways, setting a story in the 1930s was a little easier than setting it during the Victorian era because this was the period when my parents grew up in New Mexico. I could draw on their stories of the time period to get the look of things and the mannerisms of the people. It was also a little more challenging in that it was so close to a reality I knew that I had to work a little harder to give it an alternate historical take. In this case, I did what I do with steampunk, I looked for roads not traveled. What if airships had been common for a long time? What if characters like Bonnie and Clyde tried for a new start out west?
eSB: Did you base your story on your own previous literary setting or did you embrace the dieselpunk connection? Or hey, did you do both?
DLS: In this case, the story was inspired a little by my grandfather, who was a rail car foreman in Silver City, New Mexico during the story’s era. In real life, he realized that when diesel locomotives broke down, they most often needed the electrical generator replaced or they needed the traction motors replaced, so he designed and built a car that would carry both to the scene of a locomotive that was broken down. There was also a real dilemma among the narrow-gauge railroads of Colorado about how they could keep serving remote mining towns while steam locomotives were aging out of service. I used that setting and then gave the railroad workers some stiff competition to motivate them to find a solution.
eSB: What is your favorite dieselpunk fiction? What is your favorite dieselpunk movie? Share with us why.
DLS: My favorite dieselpunk fiction is A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark. I love the setting in an early twentieth-century Cairo that’s throwing off a century of colonialism and trying to find its own path, plus Clark gives us a terrific set of characters and a dandy mystery. For movie, I’d probably have to point to Hiyao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky. As with all of Miyazaki’s work, it’s visually stunning, but those stunning visuals are supported by a solid plot about two orphans trying to learn the truth behind the titular castle and a great supporting cast. Captain Dola has to be one of the greatest screen pirates of all time!
eSB: Is this your first time writing for a themed anthology? If so, how did you find the experience? If not, what draws you to them?
DLS: I have written for several themed anthologies including Straight Outta Tombstone for Baen Books and both Gaslight & Grimm and After Punk for eSpec Books. What draws me to themed anthologies is the opportunity to bring my experience and my interests to the theme and then see where they lead me. I really love it when I can explore the theme with characters I’ve written about before, as I did with the character of Professor Maravilla for my story “Dreams of Flight” appearing in A Cast of Crows. The good professor is a character in my Clockwork Legion series, which begins in the novel Owl Dance. In the series, Professor Maravilla is something of an enigma. My new story allowed me to use the professor as a point of view character and reveal more about his background and his motivation for doing the things he does throughout the book series. Even if I’m starting with a new set of characters, the theme still helps me shape a story and highlight elements of the story I might not have considered before.
Grimm Machinations Questions
eSB: Grimm Machinations is not the first steampunk faerie tale collection to come along. It isn’t even the first one by this press. What makes it unique?
DLS: What made Grimm Machinations unique to me was the requirement to create a faerie tale with either a maker, some element of political machination, or both. I’ve spent enough time as a fan of faerie tales over the years to know both elements appear frequently, but retellings have tended to deemphasize those elements. Faerie tales were intended to prepare people for life, to know the dangers ahead both personally and in a larger sense, so I really like exploring those elements. Adding the steampunk element makes the emphasis on those elements feel natural.
eSB: As an author, what drew you to participate in a collection of faerie tale-inspired steampunk?
DLS: As someone who first delved into the faerie tales of the Brothers Grimm in my university German literature courses and whose first professional sale was a steampunk retelling of Moby-Dick, which appeared in a 2001 issue of Realms of Fantasy Magazine, I’ve always seen steampunk as a great lens through which to view classic stories. I own a collection of the Grimm Faerie Tales in German, which includes notes by the Brothers Grimm. As it turns out, they didn’t write the faerie tales that bear their name, they just collected them, but the notes discuss regional variations and elements of the stories they chose not to include in the final tales for one reason or another. I enjoy going back to those notes and seeing how omitted elements bring new insights to the classic stories. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was a story I translated for my university class, but when I read the notes, I realized the story has a whole political dimension that’s easy to miss if all you’ve seen is Walt Disney’s classic movie. I really wanted to revisit “Snow White” and explore the political side more. I also wanted to explore why exactly Snow White is so hard to kill in the original story. After all, in the original story, the wicked queen makes three separate attempts on Snow White’s life, appears to succeed each time, but ultimately fails. Setting the story in a steampunk world allowed me to come up with a new answer to that question. Plus, it allowed me to bring a whole new dimension to the mirror on the wall!
eSB: Did you base your story in Grimm Machinations on your own previous literary setting or did you embrace the faerie connection? Or hey, did you do both?
DLS: For Grimm Machinations, I thoroughly embraced the faerie tale setting and then gave it a steampunk makeover. I started with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but instead of a small anonymous kingdom, I set it in an industrial city-state where automata and airships are commonplace. Those slight changes then allowed me to tweak the idea of the mirror on the wall and enhance the role the seven dwarfs play in the story. As it turns out, I went to a mining college, so when I think of “miners,” I don’t just think of the guys who do the backbreaking work but the engineers who figure out where to dig and how to get the ore out of the ground. When you start looking at the seven dwarfs that way, they start to have a lot more potential to drive the story in ways you don’t always see!
eSB: What was your favorite aspect of this project, and does it inspire you to continue writing with the characters you created or in the same universe?
DLS: My favorite aspect of this project was reimaging many of the traditional characters from Snow White while keeping them recognizable. The original fairy tale has some odd elements, including hints that Snow White may not be an ordinary human but a witch with powers comparable to her stepmother’s. I really enjoyed exploring that aspect of the tale and pushing the boundaries. What’s more, the traditional version of “Snow White” ends with a very clearly defined and mostly happy ending. That is, Snow White marries the Handsome Prince, and the Wicked Queen has been dealt with. I think one of my favorite elements of this retelling is that while it has a satisfying and comprehensive conclusion, there’s actually room for an in-depth sequel. I really want to know what happens to my version of Snow White after this version, and the political machinations that allowed for the story’s ending could have unexpected ramifications.
A Cast of Crows Questions
eSB: A Cast of Crows is unique in that it is a key part of the upcoming Tell-Tall Steampunk Festival, a first-year event kicking off with a Poe theme. What challenges did this present when choosing what to write?
DLS: Literally, the invitation to this anthology and the event popped up on my phone while I was camping at the Grand Canyon. Edgar Allan Poe was almost literally the furthest thing from my mind so just getting my mind rolling toward Poe-inspired storytelling was a challenge. However, ravens are all over the place at the Grand Canyon, and they fly right up to you and take a strong interest in your activities. What’s more, my daughter, who is a geology major at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, wanted to find a less-populated trail in the canyon. One of the trails the rangers recommended was the Grandview Trail, which used to be used by miners in the canyon in the nineteenth century. Within about twenty-four hours, the idea of a steampunk story set at the canyon involving ravens came to mind. I had recently re-read Poe’s “The Mysterious Case of M. Valdemar” and one of the raven names suggested was “The Great Winged Valdemar.” Poe’s story is about supernaturally and mysteriously extending life through mesmerism. I realized the character from my works who would have reason to be at the Grand Canyon also had baggage that made that theme appropriate. So, once the pieces started falling into place, the story came together very quickly for me.
eSB: Did you base your story on your own previous literary setting or did you embrace the Poe connection? Or hey, did you do both?
DLS: For my story in A Cast of Crows, I both embraced the Poe connection and used my own previous literary setting. My novel Owl Dance is set in the wild west and tells the story of a former sheriff, Ramon Morales, and a healer, Fatemeh Karimi, who have struck out to find their place in the world just as the Russians prepare to invade the United States. In an early chapter, they encounter Professor Maravilla using a clockwork wolf to study wildlife. In a later chapter, they find him in the Grand Canyon with a prototype flying machine. My story bridges the gap in Professor Maravilla’s story. The Poe connection comes from Maravilla being an admirer of Poe and being a man who has suffered great loss. He is drawn to Poe’s themes and knows the stories well.
eSB: Are there any interesting details that you incorporated in your story to harken to the historic aspect of the genre? Are you the kind of ’punk who reveals in the period-appropriate technobabble, or do you dig deep into the research to include period-accurate touches?
DLS: As I say, I actually was at the Grand Canyon when the idea for this story came to me, so in a way, I literally walked in the steps of my characters and spoke to the ravens of the Canyon to write this story. I also picked up a copy of John Wesley Powell’s The Grand Canyon Expedition to learn more about what the Canyon was like in the days before it became a popular National Park. I read the whole thing while drafting the story. His non-fiction account provided the tools geologists of the period would have on an expedition, plus he helped me see the canyon through the eyes of a nineteenth-century explorer.
David Lee Summers Questions
eSB: What is it about steampunk that you like most as an author? And what do you like about it as a reader, (presuming the answer isn’t the same)?
DLS: In a very real way, I’ve been a steampunk my whole life. I grew up with stories of my dad and grandfather working for the railroad in the days steam power gave way to diesel. My first job as a professional astronomer in 1987 was taking glass-plate photographs of variable stars through a nineteenth-century telescope with a hand-wound clock drive on Nantucket Island. After experiences like that, it’s easy to see the world and stories through a steampunk lens. What’s more, the Victorianesque trappings of steampunk make it easy to look at comparatively recent history and tell stories of roads not traveled. In reality, geologists explored the Grand Canyon for its mineral wealth. What if a practical means to get that wealth out of the canyon presented itself? You can also update settings and give the readers new insights. In “Snow White” you see the Wicked Queen from a new perspective when you imagine her commanding a wealthy and powerful industrial City-state and not simply being jealous and vain. I like making these explorations of roads not traveled and looking at things from a new perspective, both as a reader and a writer.
eSB: What other events are you doing this year—steampunk or otherwise?
DLS: I am scheduled to be at Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona from March 9-12. After that, I’ll be at Tell-Tale Steampunk in Baltimore, Maryland from April 1-2. Then I’ll be at El Paso Comic Con in West Texas from April 21-23.
eSB: What is one thing you would share that would surprise your readers?
DLS: In addition to my background in astronomy and writing, I’ve also worked as an actor. I appeared in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries back in the 1980s and, more recently, I had a small part in the award-winning indie movie The Revenge of Zoe, which also features author Timothy Zahn. The movie’s available to watch for free at TubiTV.com. I even have a listing at IMBD.
eSB: What are some of your other works readers can look for?
DLS: My steampunk novels are the Clockwork Legion series: Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, The Brazen Shark, and Owl Riders. Breaking the Code is a novella that imagines a skinwalker preventing Marines from recruiting Navajo code talkers at the beginning of World War II. My Space Pirates’ Legacy series imagines a band of space pirates and their heirs who find themselves embroiled in a galaxy-spanning mystery. Those novels are Firebrandt’s Legacy, The Pirates of Sufiro, Children of the Old Stars, and Heirs of the New Earth. A prequel to this series, The Solar Sea, tells the story of humanity’s first voyage across the solar system in a solar sail spacecraft. My Scarlet Order Vampire series tells the story of a group of vampire mercenaries who ultimately must fight an evil greater than themselves. Those novels are Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires and Vampires of the Scarlet Order. I took inspiration from my work in astronomy and told a horror story using an observatory as the haunted house in The Astronomer’s Crypt. Of course, you can find even more good stuff on my website.
eSB: What projects of your own do you have coming up?
DLS: I’m currently working on a third Scarlet Order vampire novel called Ordeal of the Scarlet Order. I’m currently about two-thirds of the way through and have been having fun exploring the depths of New Orleans vampire lore for this novel.
David Lee Summers became a steampunk in 1987 when he used a nineteenth-century telescope on Nantucket to examine the evolution of distant pulsating stars. Since that time, he has published a dozen novels and numerous short stories and poems spanning a wide range of the imagination. Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, The Brazen Shark, and Owl Riders comprise the Clockwork Legion steampunk series. His other novels include The Astronomer’s Crypt, Vampires of the Scarlet Order, and Firebrandt’s Legacy. His latest novella is a World War II-era cryptid tale called Breaking the Code.
David’s short stories have appeared in such magazines and anthologies as Realms of Fantasy, Cemetery Dance, Straight Outta Tombstone, Gaslight & Grimm, and After Punk. He’s been twice nominated for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award.
In addition to writing, David has edited the science fiction anthologies: A Kepler’s Dozen, Kepler’s Cowboys, and Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales. When not working with the written word, David operates telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Learn more about David at http://www.davidleesummers.com.
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