Do you have roots in the steampunk genre?
When I first conceived of the world of Ancient Appetites, steampunk was only starting to come to the fore in Ireland and the UK – you might see people in costume at cons and the odd model or prop popping up. There were certainly stories out there, like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The City of Lost Children, The Difference Engine, Mortal Engines, Perdido Street Station, and the like, but I wasn’t specifically seeking the stuff out, or even aiming to write a steampunk story. For the first book, I was more influenced by the original source material, Jules Verne and, to a lesser extent, HG Wells. Bram Stoker might have contributed some style pointers too. It was as much about nostalgic sci-fi as anything else, as well as a blend of Dickens and the Addams family.
What inspired you to start these novels?
It started with the idea of money having a direct influence on your health, almost in the same way that vampires can use blood to recover from injuries. Then I imagined a family where children were raised as predators of business, but also with the skills of assassins, where the culture of the family was to weed out the weak. The original plan was of a full-on fantasy world, filled with bizarre features, but the more I thought it out, the more I realized I wanted more down-to-earth elements to ground it, to act as solid foundations for the sci-fi/fantasy. And the nineteenth century, with its contrasts between rich and poor, between civility and violence, between rock-bottom rural living and the growth of factories, all lent themselves well to the gothic world I wanted to weave my story into. I decided to set it in Ireland, because I’m Irish, and it was a very dramatic time for the country, which could add to the drama. This, in turn, led to a lot of other material coming into the story. I also made a very deliberate decision that this hugely wealthy and powerful Wildenstern family would be Irish (though of Norman origin), rather than British. I didn’t want to be an Irish writer using the British as villains. I then created a corporation, much like the East India company, one of the earliest multinationals, that the clan would use to control much of the trade with America, giving them an international reach. The engimals, the living machines, came in as a physical manifestation of the same ‘magic’, or advanced technology that will later explain the Wildensterns’ healing abilities. It was also a chance to have a laugh, making up machines that we might recognize now, but would be unknown in nineteenth century Ireland. For example, Nate and Gerald catch a wild motorcycle in the opening chapter.
How much of it is historically accurate?
In this version of Ireland, the south is a bit more industrialized than it would have been (the British supported more industry in the north), and the facts around the Wildenstern family, including their huge home and their business with the states, are all fictional. The same goes for anything to do with the engimals, the living machines. But I kept the historical details of the setting as accurate as possible – that was important to me; I wanted to portray those elements as faithfully as I could.
It suggests dark, conspiratorial societies. Could you tell us a little about them?
Wherever my stories feature people in power, there is some kind of conspiracy – it’s the core theme in my thriller, Strangled Silence – simply because that is the nature of struggles for power. In the Wildenstern family, it’s not just political, it’s personal, because your position in the family business is dictated by your rank in the clan, they allow for assassination of an older male member of the family in order to advance your position – though you have to do it in a ‘civilised’ way, according to the Rules of Ascension. It is their means of honing predatory instincts that will then serve them well in the all-important battleground of business, so scheming and conspiracy are a family tradition. They are just one family with these traditions; there are others around the world, but they are one of the most dominant clans. In the second book, The Wisdom of Dead Men, there is also a Freemason-like, religious secret society that shows a different side of the power-plays that are going on among the rich and influential.
Steampunk generally sways away from the dystopian values of cyberpunk (lower class protagonist fighting hierarchy) are you comfortable with this novel fitting in with typical steampunk outlooks?
In the case of the Wildensterns, it’s more a case of the hierarchy trying to reform itself from within, but there are lower class characters who play key roles throughout the books (particularly Francie in the first book and Cathal in the second two), and the Wildensterns are very much seen as the villains of the piece (some being far worse than others), because of their abuse of their wealth and power. Nate, despite his rather lofty attitude, is developing a sense of justice, Daisy is a keen social reformer and Berto regularly protests against the inhumanity of his family’s behaviour. The extreme poverty suffered by the vast majority of Irish people in this period is used as a regular contrast to the excesses of the family. I exaggerated the lives of the rich in the story for effect, but I didn’t have to do this for the lives of the poor – those extremes are entirely realistic.
I certainly don’t know of any other steampunk novels based in Ireland and this intrigues me. Are you aware of any other Ireland based steampunk authors?
Actually, my favourite Eoin Colfer book is Airman, also set in Ireland, though he’s much better known for Artemis Fowl and others. There is a rich vein of science fiction and fantasy in Ireland, much of it using historical settings, but I don’t think there’s anyone who’s particularly known for writing steampunk. I’ll probably think of someone – or get an irate email from a genre fan – after this interview has been posted!
How long have you been writing?
All my life, but I’ve been published as an illustrator since before I left school in 1990, I had my first books published in 2003 and have pretty much been making a full-time living from it since 2005 or so.
Is the Wildenstern Saga your first step into steampunk?
Yes, though it’s likely it won’t be my last. There’s so much that’s fun about writing this kind of stuff.
Do you find it easy to dream up the machines and gadgetry that steampunks like to use and give preposterous names to?
Are you kidding? That’s the one of the best bits! In my case, almost all the contrived machines and gadgets are ancient, living creatures, so not only do I get to come up with names, functions and descriptions, they get to have personalities too. Apart from helping provide some light relief, it was also a chance to let rip with my imagination – which, for me, is what writing is all about.
The Wisdom of the Dead Men is available to purchase on Amazon for £6.99 on paperback.