Gail Carriger’s name is frequently appended by less formal titles
than those claimed by her Victorian characters. She’s been aptly described as Gail Carriger: New York Times bestselling author in PR material and, among speculative fiction fans, her name is commonly associated with Steampunk, Teapunk, Mannerspunk and a number of other subgenre descriptors that try (and fail) to put her work into a single category. Aside from the various handles ascribed to Carriger as the popular contemporary writer behind the Parasol Protectorate series, she can also claim Masters degrees in both Archaeology and Anthropology, two disciplines that make her uniquely qualified to refashion a bygone era, telling new and fantastic stories about manners, machines, and empire making in the bargain. Her next book, Etiquette and Espionage, will be out in February.
LN: I wanted to ask you about the intersection of your academic work and your novels. You mentioned in a previous interview that your archeological work informs your fiction writing— how does that work in the books?
GC: I came to steampunk via the aesthetic movement rather than the literary movement— to me that movement is very object oriented. That really interested me as an archeologist because, obviously, all archeology is object oriented; it’s all about extrapolating culture from physical items.
LN: Alexia is something of an outsider figure as your protagonist— I wanted to ask you about feminism in your books because I see her, if not a feminist figure, maybe a proto-feminist figure. Obviously you're working in an anachronistic genre and that’s what’s so playful and great about it. Can you talk about how that works for you?
GC: Writers are always approached and asked to talk about if they have a message or political underpinning or things like that and I think most of us, certain qualities of our ethical feelings are going to enter our writing whether we like it or not. I as a reader really prefer strong main female characters. Those are also coincidentally the sort of characters and personalities I’m really attracted to in history.
I love women in history books who have seized power. I find that idea very enthralling. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily wrote Alexia as a feminist or, as my take on the new woman which is kind of the early feminist figure in Victoriana, but she certainly has a very modern perception on her world, which is still quite Victorian. I kind of get around that by making her this strange, supernatural creature who has an entire lack of creativity essentially, and so her view on the world is as an outsider but it is also very practical.
Alexia looks at any situation she’s stuck in and has sort of an oddball very logical reaction to it that most people would react really emotionally or whatever and she -- I have the allowance because of the way I built her character of being able to pop out on making her a fainting Victorian female because I built her this way.
Frankly, one of the reasons I did that was because I really like to write funny and I really want to entertain my readers and giving Alexia that point of view makes her have a very humorous outlook.
Yes, part of it is because I want to have a strong, vital, modern woman although in the Victorian setting, but part of it is that I just want her to be funny. It’s a little bit of one and a little bit of another.
LN: Do you think ultimately it matters how conscious choices like that are?
GC: That’s a very good question. I do consider myself a feminist although Alexia has her times where she’s self-conscious because she’s showing her ankles or something. She still imparts quite a quirky creature of her own time period.
Personally as a reader I don’t enjoy books that don’t have that going for them as characters so I really don’t like books where women are in a very passive role so I chose not to read them.
I’m pretty sure most of the time those writers are not in fact making conscious choices when they put women in those roles. I just don’t buy the books and I think that’s the best move you can make as a consumer if you are a reader is just don’t buy them.
LN: As a trained archeologist would assume that chronology is very important, but by contrast, you’ve intentionally chosen an anachronistic genre to work in.
GC: I actually approach history different from a lot of alternate history writers. A lot of writers who write in the alternate history genre will pick a major battle, for example Waterloo, and make it go the other way.
I really like to look at history as it was and take some of the mysteries that we don’t know a lot about or have struggled to explain and re-explain them in a new way.
It’s that way because I looked at earlier times in say British history for example, and decided that King Henry broke with the church of England, which he did do, but he didn’t do it because he wanted to get a divorce or for any other political reason. He did it because he wanted to integrate the supernatural element into his government.
So suddenly he has this secret shadow counsel of supernatural advisors and they are the ones who spearhead the expansion of the British Empire. So these crazy things about the Victorians, like why they are obsessed with a very pale complexion, that’s because they happen to have vampires in the aristocracy. Or how did this tiny island conquer an empire on which the sun never set? That’s because in my world they happen to have werewolves fighting in the front lines of their armies.
I took what is and just twisted it and re-explained it and had fun with it. I think that is also kind of an archeological approach. I do spend a lot of time researching and trying to get my London as accurate as possible before I tinker with it.
LN: Were you generally a fan, or particularly interested in Victorian novels?
GC: Yes, absolutely. My books are meant to be fun, light, entertainment regardless of everything else but if we do have any kind of background in Victorian literature, particularly the gothics, each one of the five books in my first series is actually a parody of a different kind of gothic literature and that’s because I really enjoy it.
I must be one of the last humans standing who really loves gothic literature. For me it’s specifically sort of the romantic. It’s the same ways of literature that spawned the first fantasy and science fiction novels for western audience as well. I feel this romantic love of these old gothic romances because I feel like the genre of steampunk ties almost directly back to them so there’s this lovely full circle that’s going on.
I’ve always read and loved gothic lit; ever since I took a class in high school on the subject and so I use it a lot. I have a mad love affair with BBC Costume Dramas, as well. It was kind of inevitable that I slid easily into the steampunk genre.
LN: I suppose this would be an afterthought but do you see the stories you're telling having potential in other mediums?
GC: The first two books have been turned into graphic novels, manga version. The second one just came out. It’s really excited. I feel like I’m really lucky enough to be one of those writers who isn’t precious about her work. I feel like my contribution is to write the books so if you want to read my vision then that’s what you do. The graphic novels, for example, are an artist’s reinterpretation of my work and that is her version. The characters don’t look the way I imagined them. A lot of the clothing is really good. It’s manga so they all look very young and have big eyes and tiny noses and stuff like that. But I love it and I love seeing someone else’s version of my work. I think that’s really exciting.
LN: If anything, that just speaks well of the novel as a form because look at the scope that you're able to create.
GC: Yes, it does. The written word is cheap by comparison. My imagination as a writer can be completely limitless. The most recent book I’m working on right now I get to go to India and imagine what a steampunk Bombay would look like and that’s super exciting. I’m having so much fun throwing in Ganesh and all of these great animal gods in steampunk forms running around.
LN: How much does travel inform your writing?
GC: I switched one creative career for another. Strangely enough as I left archeology I thought I’m not going to get to travel as much and I’m traveling more as a writer. It’s way more limited now. It used to be I would go and spend two, three, four months in an area and now I’m just out there a couple days.
It definitely does and in very strange ways. I’ll dig up some sort of detail or bit of information about a place that’s going to enter the book later, or for example, I really like to write about stuff that I’m quite familiar with, especially cities and settings.
A lot of the places that Alexia travels to in some of the later Parasol Protectorate books are places that I’ve visited because I know what they look like and I can go and research what they used to be like in the Victorian time and then sort of extrapolate; the tellers and the sounds and the noises of places that you can’t really latch onto in research.
I’ve never been to India and I’m writing about that in the current book. Fortunately, for me, I found a young lady to beta read through those sections so I don’t get anything completely wrong.
LN: Is it harder to create a protagonist, than say a more secondary character?
GC: I tend to steal shamelessly from my friends as well as myself. I think every character you write has some part of you in them but I certainly put my friends in my books quite a bit to the point where sometimes they sneak in and I haven’t realized it. Someone will come up to me and say, “What is Paul doing in your book?”
I’ll say, “Paul is not in my book.” They will say, “Yes, he is. He just has a different hair color.”
I tend to write main characters that I have a lot of myself in them because it’s easy. I don’t want to give myself too much of a challenge.
LN: I think you’ve bitten off plenty.
GC: Yes, I spend enough time researching settings and gadgets and creating all sorts of other things that I think the characters are for me as a writer already the easiest thing. My books, if you're going to disparate them of anything they’re character-driven. So that has to be the most comfortable component for me. I have to just live and breathe these characters.
I’m unlikely, for example, to ever write a straight male protagonist and I’m unlikely to ever write an antihero because I think I would find it too challenging to live in that person’s head and I would be uncomfortable with the constant feeling that I was getting things wrong.
LN: You have two Master’s. You’ve written quite a body of academic writing as well just naturally in that process. Do you think you got your “10,000 hours” writing academic prose first? Clearly you have both now but which came first and do they play off of each other at all?
GC: I think I do. I wrote fiction starting when I was eight years old. I’ve always written fiction. When I was writing non-fiction some of the points in time was when I was most prolific. When I was doing my first Master’s degree that was when I wrote two and a half novels the same time as writing a Master’s thesis.
Partly that was just because that was a way to use the other side of my brain and I found it really relaxing and partly is that it just seems to be the busier I get the more efficient I am. Now that I’m a full-time writer I’m a master of wasting time.
I have maybe four unpublished novels and copious unfinished works as well as a lot of short stories. They’re all fiction, as well as a few Master’s theses and a couple of academic articles.
I don’t know if I have the 10,000 under my belt but I certainly had a pretty high word count by the time Soulless was accepted. Some of this was kind of a dare that I gave to myself because a lot of the stuff I was writing people weren’t showing any interest in. The only thing I could sell was alternate history funny so I finally thought let’s see if I can write a whole book that’s alternate history and funny. That’s pretty much the origin of it.
LN: We don’t necessarily get to pick our own strengths.
GC: Yes, that’s so true, and if I could have picked I would not have picked comedy because it’s really hard to write.
LN: Was there ever a point, to use a cartoon image of one, voice on one shoulder saying academic career and another saying fiction?
GC: It’s probably one of the hardest decisions of my whole life. I had a total meltdown, career switch choice thrust upon me for medical reasons.
I just picked up my second Master’s degree and I was just about to start on my PhD thesis and I got diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disorder. It’s a little bit like repetitive stress or carpal tunnel, and the doctors said, “You don’t get to do this anymore. You either write your PhD or you write fiction and you don’t get to do one all day and then go home and do the other all day. Your body just can’t do it.” My body was just saying, “No, we are meant to be tromping the grasslands and being physical all day long. Standing around moving your fingers is not the right type of work.”
Right about the same time I discovered I really wasn’t comfortable teaching as an academic. I really loved archeology, I still love archeology, I would still go back in the field if I could carve out a couple months every year, but I was discovering that teaching goes hand in hand pretty much if you want to be a working academic. I just wasn’t really happy with that.
I discovered that and I was faced with this decision of whether to continue and keep getting my PhD or not and right around the same time I got a book offer, Soulless sold. I was basically faced with this: What do I do? Do I make a career change?
I was very lucky in my partner; he was at the time able to support me. He said, “Just take a year off and see if this writing thing works for a while.”
I miss archeology, but I don’t regret my choice. I miss the actual physical excavating and going out there but apart from that I don’t miss the academic side of it. I miss the conversations that you have with other experts in your field— that language that is all technology. I miss that kind of immersion in language. To a certain extent I get that when I’m talking to other writers in the green room at conventions now.
is the Executive Editor of Know Journal.