Steampunk Genesis & The Pillars of Your Private Booklife

Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk. Although he grew up in both the United Sates and Canada he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Richard currently resides in California.

“What’s a novelist anyway but a little god in pajamas?” (Terry Bisson)

Hello! My name is Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. and my first book, Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders, comes out today from 47North. They’ve signed me on to guest blog here for the entire week—oh, lucky you, you little devils—and I would first like to thank Jeff, Jeremy and everyone here at for this wonderful opportunity. As for you –you’ve wandered into BarCon and plunked down next to me, the guy with the glassy eyes peering at you over a fence of empty Stella bottles, so you know the conversation is going to be all about me. Except now you don’t have to wait until I stagger to the bathroom to make your escape—you can click away at any instant and never dent my fragile ego. If you do decide to stay, order a double scotch and nod as I carry on with the story of how this book was conceived, birthed, raised, finished, shopped, edited, finished again and published, all with an eye to the wisdom abounding in the pages of Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife. On Monday we will take a look at things after the book has spent a week on the wooden and digital bookshelves, and what I expect and plan to do in the near future.

Where did the idea for Romulus Buckle begin? Many pieces have long floated in the nether corners of my brain. I had always wanted to explore the dynamics of a crew on a ship of war. Believe it or not, I always knew that I would someday write a book with a zebra-striped humanoid alien in it. In 2006 I had turned from screenwriting to novel writing and my first project was an ambitious trilogy set in World War Two Russia. I researched the story heavily, including a trip to Russia where I visited cities and battlefields including St. Petersburg (Leningrad), Moscow, Volgograd (Stalingrad) and Kursk, and interviewed surviving veterans with an interpreter in a little restaurant in Moscow. It is a massive, sprawling project—I really bit off more than I could chew as a first time novelist—and with the second and third books in first draft form and the first book nearly finished, by mid-2011 I found myself bogged down and foundering, losing my enthusiasm. I made a decision—I would box up the Russia project for six months and write something else, something insanely different. I immediately gravitated towards a wartime adventure. I wanted to write something in the vein of the old Saturday afternoon movie serials, something fun, exciting and larger-than-life, akin to Captain Blood, Casablanca, King Solomon’s Mines, Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

This book was going to be my action-adventure playground, so I immediately drew any and every element I loved into it: science fiction, love in the time of war, exotic and foreign lands, the British Empire, World War Two submarine movies and a hodgepodge of other things that get my motor running. This was my witch’s cauldron of epic tales where I would throw in any and all ingredients and produce a magic story stew. Then, of course, I was stuck. Just where, exactly, could one fit all the parts of this bubbling mess into the frame of one cohesive story? Settings involving an 18th century warship, space vessel and submarine failed me miserably. Then a friend of mine named Kevin Turner introduced me to steampunk and I immediately knew that I had found my world (subgenre) to play in. A steampunk (Victorian/Edwardian inspired) zeppelin crew facing an impending war. A post-apocalyptic, snowbound earth with Martians (they aren’t actually Martians, but nobody knows where the aliens came from so the name just sort of stuck). The story was ready to take off. All I had to do was build it.

As we conclude, I’d like to add my personal take (I am a quote collector, forgive me) on the “Pillars of Your Private Booklife” as outlined by Jeff in Booklife: Curiosity, Receptivity, Passion, Imagination, Discipline and Endurance.

Curiosity: I don’t think anyone lacking curiosity could possibly be, or even want to be, an artist. I dislike the advice to “write what you know.” Sure, your writing must source itself from your own intellectual, emotional and spiritual experiences, but if you don’t carry it any further, if you don’t reach out and grasp the world and suck it back in, then you most likely drive off the cliff into an annoying chasm of narrow-mindedness and navel-gazing. I much prefer the ideas of “write what you don’t know,” “write what you want to know,” and, as expressed by Jeff: “write what interests you.” Research is often one of the most exciting parts of writing for me, even though it is pure drudgery at times. Writing about things and places that I want to learn about make the process one of discovery, excitement and magic. “Life must be lived and curiosity kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

Receptivity: I try to be willing to open up to all things that are not evil, even if they make me uncomfortable. As Jeff mentions, it will hurt. Opening yourself up to the greatness of other people, their loves and courage is exhilarating, but it also means opening yourself up to their endless fears and tragedies and agonies. No wonder so many great artists go mad. But it has to be this way, because so much of our life flows into us from the outside and in order to reflect and express it we must first absorb it. I love the following quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson (he is referring to the human soul, but I think this also applies directly to the fount of human creativity): “Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence…”

Passion: If you ain’t got it, it ain’t gonna work. I don’t think anyone becomes a real writer if they don’t desperately need to—who would put up with all of these struggles, self-doubts and rejections if they could avoid it? “When a man’s willing and eager, God joins in.” (Aeschylus)

Imagination: Fuel it. Fuel it. Fuel it. Shake it up. Battle the traps of intellectual passivity and habit, which are the allies of Steven Pressfield’s misanthropic dark lord of resistance (see below). “What is now proved was only once imagined.” (William Blake)

Discipline: Ach, the tough one for me, like most of us. I go through periods of near perfection in terms of my writing schedule, and then I get tripped up and fall back into my old, familiar, bad habits for a while, which infuriates and frustrates me. The enemy of my momentum is identified by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art as “resistance,” a negative anti-genius shadow which he calls “…the most toxic force on the planet.” We have all felt the grip of resistance, sapping our will to work, providing ample reasons and emergencies to deflect us from our writing desk, and felt powerless in its thrall. I battle resistance with many devices, but perhaps the most powerful is remembering that I can regain control. “Remember then: there is only one time that is important—now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.” (Leo Tolstoy)

Endurance: Since the day I decided to be a writer, I have written. There have been gaps and wasted hours and despairs, but I have always managed to come back to writing. There are boxes and boxes of type-covered paper in my garage that no one will ever read. Yet, with every effort, I believe that I have gained both in my understanding of life and improved my art. “Life can only be understood backwards, but… it must be lived forward.” (Søren Kierkkegaard) Yeah—I kinda hate that one.