Friday, October 21, 2011

An Interview with Goliath Author Scott Westerfeld!

I LOVE all things steampunk. And I LOVE anything by Scott Westerfeld. So when I laid my hands on Leviathan, the first of his steampunk-inspired, totally amazing series in the fall of 2009, I was smitten. Behemoth came out next, and this fall the conclusion to the series arrived in our little bookstore to much fanfare (mostly from me). Scoot over here to see my review of Goliath to get a feel of what this series is all about.

The good folks at Simon and Schuster Canada set me up with an interview with Scott Westerfeld and his thoughtful answers are reproduced below. It seems much more steampunk to use last names only so Scott is "Mr. Westerfeld", and I will be, um... "Mrs. Sommerfield -Smith" (oh, why not?) So, as they say, tie up your dirigible and stay awhile!

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: You’ve done an amazing job of creating a fascinating alternate WWI history in the Leviathan series. You create some great “what if” scenarios and divisions (Clankers vs. Darwinists, boys vs. girls (!)). In your afterword to Leviathan you mention that “the nature of steampunk is blending future and past” and that your series “is as much about possible futures as alternate pasts.” Could you elaborate on this?

Mr. Westerfeld: Steampunk is about messing with history, Victorian history in particular. It's about bringing a flame-thrower to a tea party, while still wearing an appropriate silk cravat. So it's not just a mix of future and past, but of refinement and mayhem.

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: Why did you decide to give these novels a steampunk aesthetic? Where did you first encounter steampunk?

Mr. Westerfeld: My first steampunk experience was at Disney World. I was about eight years old, and went on the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. Something about a nuclear submarine with a pipe organ and baroque stylings really clicked with me. It's that strange mix of technologies and time periods that make certain people love steampunk.

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: I’ve noticed steampunk appearing more and more in literature, but also movies and television. Neil Gaiman recently wrote an episode of Doctor Who that had a decidedly steampunk feel. Are there any TV shows with a steampunk look/philosophy that have drawn your attention?

Mr. Westerfeld: I think the movie world (and more recently TV) likes the look and feel of steampunk, but doesn't know what to do with its broader themes yet. Steampunk is about rewriting history, in effect, pushing back the constraints that society placed on people because of their gender or beliefs or who their parents were. And there has yet to be a TV version of steampunk that addresses that larger project. I will admit that I grew up with The Wild, Wild West, however, and that I desperately wanted my own personal gizmo-filled train car.

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: In addition to your extremely successful YA series’ you’ve written five science fiction novels for adults. Why did you decide to write for young adults? What are the particular merits of writing for this audience?

Mr. Westerfeld: Teenagers are voracious readers, they send more and better fan mail, and they aren't as limited in their genre choices as adults. But I think the coolest thing about them is how engaged with language they are. At any given moment, more teenagers than adults are studying a foreign language, writing poetry, memorizing song lyrics, and making up slang. Teens are still acquiring language to some extent, and thus they take more joy and interest in the way novels play with words. As a writer who likes to generate slang and other kinds of neologisms, I find them a much more engaged and exciting audience with which to communicate.

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: Keith Thompson’s illustrations in the three novels are stunning. I love it when books are illustrated with black and white illustrations. At any time did you and Keith Thompson work together to come up with a “look” for the illustrations, or were writing and illustrating two separate endeavours?

Mr. Westerfeld: I would send Keith first drafts of three or four chapters at a time, and he would respond very quickly with sketches, so we were bouncing back and forth from the beginning. Often I would rewrite based on his illustrations, because I soon found that he was a better engineer than me, and sometimes a better researcher as well. So at times I would be quite general, "Something's going to chase in them in a couple of chapters. Could you draw something fast?" and then let my writing follow his art.

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: The internet, do you love it or hate it? Does it help or hinder you as a writer? Are there benefits and/or pitfalls to having a presence online while being an active writer?

Mr. Westerfeld: I think being in touch with readers is a great experience. Teens are wonderfully frank about what they like and dislike in my fiction, which is a really great kind of feedback to get. But the best thing about the internet is the way that teens engage each other, forming communities of readers. And these communities spread outward from the books to the wider world, as with the Harry Potter Alliance and its charitable works. A love of books has always been a way for like-minded people to find each other, and the internet has only made that project more vast and wonderful.

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: Your series, Uglies, has a brilliant new sci-fi take on that old (teenage) chestnut: “Be yourself”. In Leviathan, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the British Air Force and must be careful not to let her secret slip. I like the fact that you’ve drawn Deryn as an independent, strong-willed young woman, but she’s also not without insecurities and prejudices. What is so unique about this time in a child’s life when they are coming-of-age, and why is it such a fascinating theme to write (and read!) about?

Mr. Westerfeld: I agree that the theme of teenage fiction is Identity. Young people are still figuring out who they are, after all. (Everyone is, really, but teenagers are better at admitting it.) Because the teenage years are filled with epic firsts—first love, first betrayal, first true loss—it's a tremendously dramatic time to write about.

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: I like the way the adults in this novel, particularly Dr. Nora Barlow, seem to be positive influences on Deryn and Alek. Was this a conscious choice?

Mr. Westerfeld:I think Barlow and Volger have both positive and negative aspects. They provide a lot of good advice to their young charges, but their overall worldview is one of conflict and competition. Deryn and Alek, on the other hand, are learning the importance of working together across lines of ideology and class. So it's up to my younger characters to separate the good from the bad when it comes to their elders' example and counsel.

Mrs. Sommerfield-Smith: And do you categorize, if you could categorize your books at all, as speculative fiction? If so, what are the freedoms of writing in this genre? Are there any limitations? If not, what sets your books outside the categorization of speculative fiction?

Mr. Westerfeld: I'm lucky in writing for young adults, in that my books don't get categorized as much. I've written science fiction, fantasy, contemporary realism, and now steampunk, and yet all my books can sit happily together in the teen section of the bookstore. And that's all us writers can really ask for, that our books be findable! All the rest of it is for the critics to worry about.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Clubbing: *Incarceron* by Catherine Fisher with Bronwyn!

Mandy and her fellow blogger and friend Kiirstin have had a lot of fun "Book Clubbing" on this blog. No, I don't mean violently attacking books with blunt objects (I can already imagine a librarian-led protest rally in response to this), but rather chatting, book-club style, about books they love.

My coworker and friend Bronwyn and I decided to do the latter with the book Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. Bronwyn's read both of the books in the series, Incarceron and Sapphique, so she's supplied me with a little teaser for each:


In a world thousands of years from now, where everyone lives as though it was still the 17th century, there exists an elaborate prison. Incarceron is so vast that it contains more than cells: metal forests, forgotten cities, vast wilderness, and fog-filled never-ending ravines. Instead of stars at night, the prisoners are followed by glowing red dots, the eyes of the prison that follow their every move. Seventeen-year-old Finn has no memory but believes that he was born outside of Incarceron. He finds a crystal key which allows him to communicate with Claudia. She not only lives outside, she is also the daughter of Incarceron's warden. Finn is determined to escape the prison, and Claudia believes she can help him. But they don't realize that there is more to Incarceron than meets the eye. Escape will take their greatest courage and cost more than they know.


Without giving too much away, Finn and Claudia are outside together. Finn has discovered that this other world is not what he had hoped for. He must obey rules of protocol and etiquette. His friends are still stuck in Incarceron and he feels that he has abandoned them. They are searching for a magical glove, rumoured to give them the power to escape and join Finn. As the prison prepares to battle, so to does the Outside. The dynamic ending to this book will take your breath away!


Bronwyn: Hi Erica!

Erica: Hi Bronwyn!

Bronwyn: How are you doing? Did you get a chance to finish Incarceron?

Erica: Yes. Andrew and I were travelling home from Hamilton yesterday night

and I read a couple of chapters by flashlight. Don't worry, I wasn't the one driving! But,

point being, this book is THAT suspenseful. I couldn't wait to get home to read it.

Bronwyn: I felt the same way. I couldn't wait to finish the book and then I couldn't

wait to read the sequel, Sapphique!

Erica: You recommended that I read this book. What attracted you in the first

place? Why did you pick if off the shelf?

Bronwyn: Well first of all the beautiful cover of that key drew me in. I know as

booksellers we aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I do it all the time.

Then I was really drawn in by this unique idea that Catherine Fisher created in her

book, about a kingdom 3000 years in the future that dresses and acts like they

are living in Versailles and has a prison that is a whole other world that is really an

experiment gone wrong.

Bronwyn: I was also fascinated by the amazing array of gadgets that they use

in the kingdom, things like skin wands to not look old.

Erica: I know! The cover totally drew me in too! You know how much I love anything

steampunk. I opened the front cover and there are a whack of awesome quotes:

"...a steampunk tour de force; ...a gripping futuristic fantasy", etc. So the beautiful

cover and the reviews inside really sold me on this book. The setting (3000 years in

the future, but living as if they are in the 17th century) is very steampunk,

and I found this idea fascinating. The idea that the world is controlled by imposing the

ideals of a former era is brilliant.

Erica: And gadgets! The skin wands reminded me of the the work that Cinna

the stylist did on Katniss in The Hunger Games.

Bronwyn: I also found the main characters -- Finn in the jail and Claudia on "earth" –

very well rounded. I found myself cheering for them and also sometimes a little scared

of them or disappointed in the decisions that they made. I like when an author does that,

when their characters are not superheroes or perfect wonder-beings.

Erica: Yeah, I agree. These characters are well constructed. I liked that Fisher uses the

trope of the princess that is betrothed to an odious prince, and yet Claudia is not the

standard damsel in distress.

Erica: I was also really impressed with the way that Fisher developed the Prison as a

CHARACTER in the novel. The idea of a sentient prison reminded me a bit of the computer

(HAL 9000) in the movie 2001. I think it`s such a scary premise: a prison that is all seeing,

all-knowing and that is responsible for the life and death of its inmates.

Bronwyn: Certainly, Claudia is a woman who knows her own mind and is determined to

get her way. I think she was very empowered, especially because she had been mostly raised

by this master tutor who gave her education, ethics, but mostly taught her how to think

and question the world around her. I have not seen 2001, but I am familiar with the premise.

Sometimes I wonder about that, here we are surrounded by gadgets that we depend on.

Are they all-seeing? Anyways that's a bit too Big Brother. But the books are really built on

that Big Brother premise. And even though in Claudia's world they claim that they are "free",

in fact they are not, there are silent eyes and ears listening to the citizens at all times.

In Incarceron it's obvious when these red eyes are following you wherever you go.

Erica: True. Both Claudia and Finn are each imprisoned in their own way. You could even

argue that Finn's imprisonment is less sinister, because it's right out there. Everyone KNOWS

that Big Brother is watching, so to speak. So I`ve been poking around online and I noticed

that the rights to this book have been optioned and a movie is due out in 2013.

Taylor Lautner and Emma Watson are set to star as Finn and Claudia. What do you think

of this?

Bronwyn: OOOOO that sounds amazing! As I was reading both books I was trying to

figure out how it could be made into a movie because both worlds are so complex, especially

the prison. Incarceron just felt it had all of these layers of worlds contained within it. The

metallic forest that Finn and his group walk through to try and escape the prison, really was

so beautiful, I pictured an enchanted world and then all of a sudden the prison lights go on

and you remember that this is really a jail. A strange (and dare I say wondrous) jail?

Erica: I think that they'll definitely make beautiful movies. The setting is so visually rich

and detailed. The cinematographer's going to have a party. OK. So if the Twilight franchise

has Team Jacob and Team Edward, I propose that there will be a Team Finn vs. Team Jared.

Am I alone in having a bit of a crush on Jared? Tall, dark, handsome Sapient/tutor that

he is?

Bronwyn: I think I would probably be on Team Finn... He definitely seems a "rebel with a

cause". But I can see how Jared is a beguiling character. The second book in the series,

at the very end Jared surprises me, and seems to have a very large character shift.

Bronwyn: Are you planning on reading the second book?

Erica: Definitely. I'm hoping maybe my Jared/Claudia fantasy will be realized in

Sapphique? Haa, just kidding. Too pedagogically inappropriate. No spoilers please.

I just Googled Jared/Incareron/fanfic and the author R.J. Anderson has a series of

fanfiction based on Incarceron.

Bronwyn: Interesting. I am not familiar with fanfiction. What is that?

Erica: It's when fans of a novel or a particular character in a novel take that character

and create their own story and publish it online.It's kind of an outlet for fans to expand

on a story or take characters in a different direction. It’s like a DIY way to make your

favourite stories last longer!

Erica: Here's the link for the R. J. Anderson fanfiction:

Monday, October 3, 2011


Goliath is the conclusion to the Young Adult trilogy, Leviathan. I whipped through the first two books in this series, Leviathan and Behemoth, so you can imagine how excited I was when I received an advance copy of Goliath.

The Leviathan trilogy is a steampunk-inspired alternate history of World War I. The series’ main characters are Alek, heir-in hiding to the Austrian throne and son of the murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Princess Sophie, and Deryn Sharp, a young girl from London who dreams of being part of the British Air Service. Deryn sneaks her way in to the service by pretending to be a boy and by calling herself Dylan Sharp. In Westerfeld’s version of WWI, there are two main opposing factions: the Clankers and the Darwinists. The Clankers are countries, such as Germany and Austria-Hungary, that use steam-driven iron machines for warfare. The Darwinists use altered animals as their weaponry. Darwinists countries include Britain, France and Japan.

The three novels follow Alek and Deryn’s adventures aboard the airship Leviathan, a huge vehicle made out of a whale and an intricate ecosystem unto itself. On top of some thrilling combat with huge steampunk iron machines and some daring escapes, lies a budding romance between Alek and Deryn that builds throughout the series. Admittedly, the feelings are a little one-sided in the first two novels. As Deryn is disguised as a boy, admitting her feelings for Alek would be like admitting that her whole existence as a soldier has been a lie.

And if all this still doesn’t sell you on what a thrilling series this is, Keith Thompson’s black and white illustrations throughout the book are fantastically intricate depictions of the huge beasties and clankers. I found myself flipping ahead in each book to look at the next illustration, despite the major spoilers!

Behemoth and the entire Leviathan trilogy will appeal to teenagers and adults alike, especially history buffs and steampunk enthusiasts. A great series for teen boys who are reluctant readers, too.



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