Steven and I go way back to when we were both in the Untitled Writer's Group together. He's a great writer and a wonderful friend and it's a particular pleasure to welcome him to the blog today.
Steven has a new book out and it sounds terrific, so, Steven, without further ado, tell us about THE DOOMSDAY VAULT.
We're in London, 1867. Alice Michaels is the daughter of a down-and-out baron. She and her father are social outcasts because the rest of her family died of the clockwork plague. It was years ago and she doesn't have the disease, but polite society won't touch her now anyway. In desperation, Alice's father wrangles her an invitation to one last high-society ball in the hope she can break back into the right crowd. She does meet a rather nice young man, but on the way home, she's attacked by zombies, and--
Wait--clockwork plague? Zombies?
Yeah. About a hundred years ago, a new plague tore through the world. It eats the brain and the body, causing oozing sores and dementia. Out of that, you get zombies. Everyone calls it the clockwork plague because for maybe one victim in a hundred thousand, the plague makes the brain come together instead of fly apart, and the victim becomes absolutely brilliant--but only for a short time. For a few months they invent like crazy--automatons, coal-driven computers, clockwork animals--then go completely insane and die.
We call them clockworkers, to be polite. Clockwork plague. At any rate, Alice runs into an underground police force called the Third Ward. They . . . harvest clockworkers and their inventions for the good of the British Empire. And they want Alice to work for them.
Meanwhile, a young man named Gavin Ennock, who is seventeen, works as a cabin boy on an American airship. En route to England, the ship is captured by pirates. Gavin eventually escapes into the mean streets of London, but his only other skill is playing the fiddle, and he's in dire straits. No money, no shelter, no job, and winter is coming. He has undeveloped talents, though, and he eventually comes to the Third Ward's attention. Trouble is, the Third Ward has a number of secrets, ones that can topple empires. Alice and Gavin are in more trouble than they know.
How did you get started writing steampunk?
I'd read quite a lot of steampunk, and then was invited to submit to a steampunk anthology called THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY at Book View Café. I wrote a novella called "The Soul Jar," and it was so much fun, I had to do more. At first I thought about writing more in the same universe as "The Soul Jar," but that was fraught with legal complications--SHADOW is a shared-universe anthology--so I created my own world. I was glad I did. THE SHADOW CONSPIRACY is still available, incidentally, at http://www.bookviewcafe.com
Where did THE DOOMSDAY VAULT come from?
That annoying DHX noise. You know, that electronic sound they used to play at the beginning of movies? My son is autistic and that noise causes him active pain--autists process sensory information differently than neuro-typical people. I started researching sound as a result and learned that the DHX noise is based on something called a Shepard tone. It's the auditory equivalent of a barber's pole, which has no beginning and no end. More reading turned up the relationship between the Shepard tone, the square root of two, and a tritone, which is sometimes called the Devil's Interval because it's so ugly. The tritone is a paradox--its vibration rate is based on the square root of two, an irrational number. Irrational numbers can't quite exist, but they do. I wondered if that paradox caused the pain for my son. His autism gives him perfect pitch, you see, and he's hyper-aware of the impossibility in a Shepard tone.
And then the book started to come together. I created Gavin, a young man with perfect pitch (but who isn't autistic) and a group of mad scientists who can't bear the sound of a tritone. I created Alice, a woman who wants back into a society she dislikes--another paradox. The story went from there.
You often explore non-traditional relationships in your fiction. Your Silent Empire series, for example, revolves around a gay male couple. Is that true for THE DOOMSDAY VAULT, too?
I can't seem to work with traditional relationships. (laughs) It's true, yes. Alice is in her twenties, and she meets Gavin when he's only seventeen. They fall for each other pretty hard.
A younger man with an older woman.
Yep. It's another paradox, actually. I ran into controversy with this even before the book was published. My editor said she wanted to buy the book but felt Gavin was too young for Alice. My writers group criticized this aspect of the book for the same reason, claiming it was too squicky for a twenty-something woman to get into a relationship with a seventeen-year-old guy. I pointed out that in the Victorian era, no one would have said a word if Gavin were in his twenties and Alice were seventeen. Why should there be a problem for modern readers with the reverse? Aren't we all for equality? This inequality, of course, causes conflict in Alice and Gavin's relationship, since the Victorians would have objected to the relationship, too.
In order to placate my editor, I did have Gavin turn eighteen soon after he and Alice meet, and a year passes in the book, so he's actually nineteen some time into their relationship, but some of my beta readers still protested. Interesting, isn't it?
What do you do when you aren't writing?
My day job is teaching high school English. And I've recently become a single dad. Between the day job and three sons, I'm pretty busy. I ride my bike and play City of Heroes, the on-line video game, when I have a little free time.
What's up next?
I just turned in the final version of THE IMPOSSIBLE CUBE, the second Clockwork Empire book. It's due out in May, 2012. Now I'm working on THE DRAGON MEN, the third book. Watch for them!
Thank you, Steven Harper.
Steven Harper usually lives at http://www.theclockworkempire.com and http://spiziks.livejournal.com . His steampunk novel THE DOOMSDAY VAULT, first in the Clockwork Empire series, hit the stores in print and electronic format November 1.