Before I was a writer, I was (and still am) a total reading geek and one of my favorite things to do after reading a book is to look up the author and try to discover how the book came together, what contributed to it’s development, the core inspiration, what is true and what is purely made up—and generally just roll around in the world of the book a little longer. This time I got to do something even better! Interview the author directly! So without further ado, heeeeere’s Kate!
Have you always been fascinated by bicycles and clockwork? When did this interest begin, and was it the seed that started the book?
I grew up surrounded by people who loved antiques and old things—old dolls and radio tubes, old woodworking tools—and I definitely inherited that. I wasn’t really fascinated by bicycles in particular until I started working on this book. The clockwork fixation-I always thought clocks were wonderful. My grandparents’ house had about ten grandmother and grandfather clocks in it (they had been antique dealers at one point) and I always loved them. The year I wrote The Boneshaker, though, I found a book of automata from a museum in Grenoble at the Strand bookstore. It’s in French, and I can’t read any of it, so it’s just creepy old pictures and incomprehensible text. That was the specific inspiration for Limberleg’s collection.
If not, what was the seed that started this book? There are so many fascinating elements and threads and bits and pieces of history and Americana!
The immediate thing was that my mom and I decided to enter a children’s book contest, and I didn’t have a book to enter. I needed something to break me out of a rut I was in with a project I was having a hard time with, so I decided to try and write something in time for the deadline (which at the time was two weeks away). For some reason, a bunch of things that had just been sort of kicking around in the back of my head just came together: the book of automata, a documentary my husband and I had watched on Horatio Nelson Jackson’s drive across the country in a Winton automobile in 1903, some research I’d done on antiquated medical technologies. And then, of course, I’d just read Something Wicked This Way Comes (more accurately, I listened to it on tape on my commute). And that first draft came together in just under two weeks.
As a research geek, I get all goose-bumply thinking about all the lovely research you got to do for this book! Traveling medicine shows, Americana, bicycles, automatons. Can you tell us a little about that research? How it all came together or did it lead to any unexpected surprises?
The first draft took very little research of its own; for one thing, it incorporated a lot of work I’d already done, and for another, there just wasn’t time. But no matter how much research I do, I always have to go back and do more once I know where the story’s going. So then I started hunting up books on medicine shows (mostly on eBay; a lot of them had gone out of print) and fleshing out the details of the Nostrum Fair (or maybe the eBay addiction I was nursing at the time started the whole thing and I’m just remembering it all backwards). So much changed in the revisions—Jack and Miranda and Simon turned up, for one thing, so I also had to go back and start researching the Jack tales—and as for Simon…well, there were Rilke and Coleridge to do some reading into, just to name two things that won’t give anything away. Then the title change caused some story changes—Natalie’s bicycle, which had been part of the story the entire time, suddenly had to merit the whole thing being named after it, which required changing it from a prop to a character of its own, in a way. That took an entirely new line of research. Prior to that, the bicycle was just a bicycle that for some reason Natalie couldn’t ride. Actually, it took two rounds of extra research: the title change happened after my editor had asked me to find the reason Natalie couldn’t ride it, which lead to the extra research into older bicycles, which lead to the new title, which lead to even more research.
American fantasy is a bit of a rare bird. Can you talk a bit about some the the mythological elements you pulled into The Boneshaker? Jack tales, devil at the crossroads. What other myths might be in there that I didn’t recognize on first reading?
Everybody knows some variation on the devil at the crossroads myth, which occurs in lots of cultures. The idea of the headcutting, the musical duel, usually gets associated with the Devil via blues musician Tommy Johnson, who actively cultivated the rumor that he’d sold his soul for his guitar skills, or Robert Johnson (no relation), who was recording a little bit later (in the 30’s rather than the 20’s) and helped build himself a devil association, strengthened by songs like Cross Road Blues, Hellhound on My Trail, and Me and the Devil Blues. Both men lived as itinerant players, but while Tommy played into the forties (he died in 1956), Robert died at 27 under circumstances that have led some to theorize strychnine-laced whiskey—although I don’t think anybody knows for sure, which added to his legend. But of course, they aren’t the only ones to have supposedly traded with the devil for skills.
Tommy Johnson, by the way, contributed at least one song to the collection of blues music that references the dangerous effects of Jamaica Ginger extract (the inspiration for Limberleg’s Ginger Angelica Bitters): Alcohol and Jake Blues, which contains a line that goes: I drink so much of jake, till it done give me the limber leg.
The Jack tales are a collection of oral folktales that include escapades where Jack takes on corrupt kings, selfish farmers, and, of course, lots and lots of big, ugly, generally stupid giants—and once or twice, the Devil. He sort of exemplifies the simple country fellow who, through various means that very occasionally include hard work and honesty but more often include trickery and good-natured laziness, wins out over the larger forces against him. Sometimes he’s sympathetic; sometimes he’s only marginally less obnoxious than the enemy he bests. He’s a character who changes to fit the enemy—everybody told Jack stories, so he’s different each time he shows up. You’re always rooting for him…but sometimes by a fairly narrow margin. He’s a fascinating character, and there are people who’ve made careers out of collecting Jack tales from storytellers and analyzing them. I’m no kind of expert, but I love the idea of a character that’s so much a part of the culture of oral folktales that he changes depending on who the teller is and what the story needs, while still remaining always recognizably Jack.
And yes, there is at least one other biggie in there, although it isn’t American. But maybe we’d better let that one go without my bringing it up, because it seems to be sneaking past people every once in a while, which I kind of like.
Where did the idea for The Paragons and the Harlequin come from? They were wonderfully creepy!
I needed specialists for the Nostrum Fair, and I had done all this research into Victorian medicine. And then in the books I’d gotten on medicine shows and hucksters, there were all of these great references to even older treatments and theories, and to all these weird practitioners who were extolling their virtues. Snake oil salesmen, yes, but also medical men who were developing theories they really believed in. I really had to make decisions about which ones to use and which to leave out, because they were all fascinating. Fletcherizing, for instance: a technique put forth by Horace Fletcher, “the Great Masticator,” who believed food and liquids needed to be chewed thirty-something times before swallowing. And that wasn’t remotely the weirdest guy or the weirdest theory I ran into.
The Paragons started to take on their individual characters once I put them in a room with Jake Limberleg, and even more once I started putting Jack into the room with them, too. The Paragons, to me, are sort of defined by how they antagonize everybody. They’re there to do a job, and they work for Limberleg—nominally, at least—but they’re unknown factors in many ways, even to him. I approached them with the idea that nothing was out of bounds where they were concerned.
The Amazing Quinn showed up because I thought the medicine show needed a clown because they often had something similar for entertainment value; on the other hand, though, it didn’t really make sense for this particular medicine show to care that much for appearances. If they were going to have a clown, it had to be something that served a purpose. Quinn was so much fun to write, too. Especially at the end. J By that point I was just pulling out all the stops to make it as terrifying as I possibly could.
I loved all your characters—they were all mutli-dimensional and so well developed! What parts of you—if any—did you put in the characters in The Boneshaker?
I’m not sure really how much of me there is in there, but there’s lots of my family in there. My mom writes children’s stories, as I mentioned. My dad and both grandfathers (as well as my father-in-law) are all very much like Natalie’s father in that they’re guys who like to build things, fix things up, take things apart and put them back together. They all have or had workshops that Ted Minks would’ve been very comfortable in. My family on both sides is passionate about tradition, passing stories down, passing heirlooms down. And my family has always been close. I know a lot of stories depart from a point where the parents are taken out of the equation or something—but I wanted Natalie’s family there, because…well, I don’t know why that was important to me, except for the fact that I think even in a good family, a close family where everyone loves each other, things can go very wrong, and that doesn’t mean the family isn’t good, close, or loving.
Oh, but Natalie’s mother’s clumsiness and distractibility? That’s me. That’s all me.
I truly love the depth and nuance you gave your your villain. Can you tell us a little about how he came to be?
He got his name from two of the names for the effects of Jamaica Ginger poisoning: Jake and the Limber Leg. Just like the Paragons, though, he really started to turn real from being in the room with the Paragons and Jack; while Limberleg and the Paragons are all five bad guys, they’re different kinds of bad from each other. And without going into specifics, when we learn Limberleg’s past we learn that he doesn’t believe that he’s the villain of his own story, of course. I don’t write elaborate histories for my characters, and figuring out Limberleg’s origins was one of the coolest surprises of the process of writing this book.
What is your writing process like? It seems as if you would have had to have charts and tables and a road map to weave as many elements and plot threads in there like you did—and so effectively! What’s your secret?
I don’t entirely know what my process is yet! There was a lot of rewriting involved in this book, taking it from one hundred fifty pages up to three hundred eighty-something, and I didn’t try to do it all at once. I think what I did was more like layering; I’d make one change and try to track it through, then go back and add the next and track it through, making whatever changes I needed to to make sure that layer worked with the last. I use big quad-ruled notebooks to keep track of things, but they’re very disorganized; there are some pages of lists, some pages with lots of insane arrows all over the place, some pages that are just notes about a particular character. There have been a couple of roadmaps—literal ones, to make sure I was consistent in how I described Arcane. Also, I have a very bloodthirsty critique group that helped whip it into shape. This book takes a fairly complex route through the story it tells, I guess, and if any of those turns and detours didn’t lead where they needed to, I’d have four or five out of five critique-ers sending me files of chapters so mangled and mutilated by redlines and highlighting that I’d have to take a couple Advil just to get through the comments. They don’t give me much leeway. If the story makes sense at all, it’s because they were yelling at me the whole time.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? What has your path to publication been like?
I’ve known at least since the first grade, but I went from wanting to write books to wanting to write plays to wanting to write screenplays to finding my way back to fiction. Once I realized that I might’ve finally found the right medium for me, I did all the pain-in-the-neck stuff: wrote query letters, found an agent, revised and revised and revised. The Boneshaker took almost a year to sell. Now I’m trying to manage the work of working as a writer: the promotional stuff for this book, finishing the next, planning the one after that. The hardest thing for me now is that I get very nervous socially, so having to talk about myself and the book makes me very paranoid. Hopefully I’ll get over that eventually.
What is your desert island book? What books have been most influential to you as a developing writer?
I couldn’t possibly pick a desert island book. I’m too addicted to buying books and owning them. Maybe Ulysses, or some big intimidating Faulkner title, because maybe then I’d actually finish them. I’d like to finish Ulysses one day. I feel like it’ll stop taunting me from my shelf then. As far as influential books, the big ones that influenced The Boneshaker were Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Golden Compass (the latter mainly because Lyra was such a wonderful, fierce and powerful girl). I also think Thomas Pynchon has snuck into my subconscious. I write obnoxiously long sentences that I think are funny and brilliant but that make everyone else crazy. The abovementioned crit group is working hard to try and cure me of this, though. I’m working on it, I swear.
In the same envelope with the ARC you sent me, I also received a field notebook and a postcard. Would you care to explain that a little bit?
I’m glad you asked! One of the projects I’m working on is a story set on a forgotten highway, because I love small towns and long roads and roadside attractions and that kind of thing. I desperately want to be the kind of person who can talk to anybody, who can walk into a dive and sit at the bar and get into a conversation with the stranger next to me. Thing is, I’m not. I’m way too socially awkward and nervous. I’m working on it, but in the meantime, this is my way of getting people to talk to me without my awkwardness bollocksing it up. It’s called the Postcards from the Odd Trails Project, and basically the idea is that each notebook is meant to be passed along from person to person, filling up with whatever people want to add to make a page their own until it’s ready to come home. There’s a mailing address inside, and I reimburse the sender’s postage when they return the notebooks to me. Some I’ve been mailing out with copies of the book; others I carry with me in case I meet particularly interesting people or stop by an interesting place where I think a notebook might be found by interesting folks. We’ll see what turns up. Hopefully something…anyway, I look at it as research for the forgotten highway novel.
Thanks so much for letting me pick your brain, Kate!