One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Gail Carriger

Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.

I grew up reading and re-reading Verne, Kipling, Stevenson, Doyle, and the not-Victorian mysteries of Agatha Christie while trying to memorize the entirety of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” for reasons I’m still not certain I could articulate.  At the same time, I fancied myself something of an amateur naturalist (though at 10 I probably wouldn’t have used that word) and spent an inordinate amount of time messing around with age-inappropriate powders and vials that resulted in the cigar-box pinning and labeling of many unfortunate insects.  My teen years were draped in velvet, and at 16 I felt that elbow-length black silk evening gloves were appropriate for almost every occasion, including math class.  And I spent too much time thinking about and trying to procure tea, which was not at all easy to come by in my small mountain-ringed Utah town.

In other words, Gail Carriger is in oh so many ways the wheelhouse of my formative years, discovered slightly later, but no less welcome for that.  The world she creates (and it is a world, both on and off the page) is full of dirigibles, social commentary, mechanicals, custard, tea, diabolical secret societies, werewolves, proper manners, perfect curtsies, and treacle tarts, which is to say it’s delightful and immersive and subversive all at once.  If you’re looking for fun and froth, mystery and adventures, parasols and poison, Gail’s world is what you want; if it’s an ongoing and masterful dismantling of the Hero’s Journey, the Parasol Protectorate series is just the thing; if an unusual heroine (“with family and friends,” as Spike bemoans) flying cheese pie, and subtle examinations of race, class, and gender, among other things, sound exciting, you need to meet Sophronia, of the Finishing School series.  Or you might be, like me, waiting for the release of Prudence (The Custard Protocol: Book One) on March 17th because it’s impossible to resist a book wherein “a marauding team of outrageous miscreants in a high tech dirigible [charges] about fixing things, loudly and mainly with tea.”

Please imagine me performing one perfect curtsy here.  Thank you, Gail!

Always Something There to Remind Me

3GailCarrigerCreamPhoto by Robert Andruszko

Please describe your teenage self.

A demanding, arrogant, overachiever nerd-type with an unexpected interest in fashion who was constantly reading or writing. Not all that different from now, frankly. Except perhaps the overachiever part.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

An archaeologist, because I wanted to touch history.

What were your high school years like? 

I actually really enjoyed high school. I met, made, and kept most of my still-dearest friends. I remember laughing… a lot. I wasn’t a depressive kid. I didn’t have an identity crisis. I was proud to be weird, nerdy, and an outsider. I spoke up in class. I had a healthy relationship with food and exercise. I went to my first convention. I learned to sew and took up cosplay. I was the first to drive amongst my group, so I had purpose. I was a scholarship kid at a prep school so I was challenged. I had some fantastic teachers. And if I did need to escape, I just read books.

What were some of your passions during that time?

I remember being obsessed with Monty Python, Tamora Pierce, and dancing. I was on the swim team, but never really a team player. Dressing up and thrifting for unique fashion was very important. This was the 90s, so grunge was in and it was easy to be stylish on the cheap. I got into throwing massive costume parties and my house quickly became one of the primary gathering places (I had the “cool parents,” still do).

Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?

My parents’ divorce was rough, but then I had plenty of role models. Nearly all my friends were also the children of divorced parents; I just came to it later than everyone else. It didn’t really effect how I thought about romance, but it did force me to rethink how I conceived of family. As a result threads of friendship, and the concept of building one’s own family, and the importance of loyalty weave through many of my books. My main characters are never going to be solitary agents against the universe in a hero’s journey kind of way.  In fact, I react strongly against that archetype.

What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?

I was taken under the wing of a series of wonderful teachers and librarians. I think they contributed into making me the author I am today, not just how I write, but how I interact with my readers and my fellow authors. These are MY people and I feel a real sense of responsibility to passing along the mentorship I received as a teen. I also inherited a sense of showmanship. My favorite teachers were also entertainers, thus I believe it’s important to amuse as well as educate. The first makes the second so much more palatable.

What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?

Don’t give up dancing. However, I don’t think the teen me would have listened. I was still a teen, and I thought my body would last forever, fit and healthy.

Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?

Nope. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it any differently.

What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?

The lack of aches and pains.

Every Day I Write the Book

You’re a “real live archeologist” and despite describing fieldwork as “mind-numbingly dull,” you clearly loved your work and converse enthusiastically about “8-12th century Islamic ceramics,” the Etruscans, and Peruvian kilns, among other things. Having participated in excavations all over the world as an expert in your field, I have to ask: any daring adventures, embarrassing stories, or nefarious deeds you’d be willing to share?

There’s a lot of trudging through Italian forests (yes, forests), getting excited over fragments of pottery, being stranded at airports, but really it isn’t at all like Indiana Jones.

blameless changeless PrintSteampunk seems to be both what you write and the inspiration behind your persona, and you look like you’re having a great deal of fun with both. I’m curious, though, whether you ever feel constrained by those boundaries, either in your work or in the expectations of your readers?

You know, I worried about this when I started this madcap switch in careers, but no, I pretty much love it. This may be because I see myself as an artisan not an artist — a distinction made by archaeologists between those who produce art as a hobby and those who produce for a consumer marketplace. I write what I want, yes, but I can tailor what I want to what I think my readers want too. And I don’t think there is anything wrong, or lowly, or base about that. You might call me a workhorse author. I try to make my deadlines and keep to the style readers expect from me. I think it comes back around to how much I value loyalty and the sense of mutual identity I feel with readers.

etiquette curtsieswaistcoats I’m impressed by the clear, consistent, and unusual themes throughout your books, themes that you’ve acknowledged sneak in, like “strong willed women, [the] benefits of practicality, [and] tolerance of alternative lifestyles,” and themes that you deliberately set out to explore like “the idea that in order to succeed a hero/heroine must be strong and independent and act alone.” Despite the appearance of frothy adventure and exuberant absurdity in your work, you explore these themes in some depth–but never overtly; it’s a fine balancing act.  Does walking that tightrope come naturally to you as a writer or are there techniques you use to make sure you’re never didactic or heavy-handed?  Could you talk a little about your influences when it comes to creating characters that are “strong in the way that you or I would be strong”?

I think the characters and underlying themes come pretty naturally to me, it’s the plot and series arcs that require work. While I am actively writing a rough draft, I keep only two things in mind: keep writing and don’t lose the funny. People will forgive a lot if you make them laugh. If you can make someone laugh and also think? That’s magic. For me, there can be no greater achievement. As for influences on characters, my friends have had the biggest impact. I have been so very lucky to be surrounded by a ranging group of pure awesomeness. Not only do they not mind that they trickle into my books, they occasionally dress up as themselves as my characters… its very meta.

prudenceIn an interview some years ago you said you “always try to have strong opinions on frivolous subjects and weak opinions on serious matters,” which keeps you “young and irreverent.” Is this still the case? Would you be willing to share some of your strong (and/or weak) opinions with us?

Did I say that? How very accurate. Yes it is still true. Many of my strong opinions surround food, tea, and clothing. But I can discuss the epistemological state of scientific truths for hours. An example? PJs, sweats, and yoga pants should not be seen in public unless you are a. deathly ill, b. sleepwalking, or c. actually exercising. Lavender, rose, and violet should be kept out of all things food related, and while we are at it keep your darn child off my flipping chocolate! I won’t even start on fruit flavoring in black teas. For the love, why? And I could keep going…

Just Can’t Get Enough

Question from Garth Nix: If you re-read, what is the book you turn to when you are weary with the world, and what do you think it is that about that book that lifts you up again or gives you respite?

It depends on what soul wound I’m feeling. Taming the Forest King by Claudia J. Edwards reminds me of the enduring nature of real love and that it’s OK to take on the responsibility for someone else’s heart. The Daughter of the Empire series by Feist and Wurts reminds me that one requires intelligence to handle responsibility and duty with grace. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is my escape book, it reminds me of nothing to do with my own life, just carries me away. And the Song of the Lioness Quartet is my rock. Tamora Pierce manages to write in such a way as to remind me of who I was, and who I wanted to be then, and that I should keep fighting for the integrity of my ideal identity.

Gail has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Laura Ruby.  Watch for an interview with her coming soon!

Gail Carriger writes to cope with being raised in obscurity by an expatriate Brit and an incurable curmudgeon. She escaped small town life and inadvertently acquired several degrees in higher learning, a fondness for cephalopods, and a chronic tea habit.

Her books are urbane fantasies mixed with steampunk comedies of manners. They have now been published in over a dozen different languages and she received the Prix Julia Verlanger from French readers. Her debut novel, Soulless, won the ALA’s Alex Award and was nominated for the Compton Crook, Campbell, and Locus Awards. All five in the Parasol Protectorate series (including Changeless, Blameless, Heartless, and Timeless) plus manga adaptations Soulless Vol. 1-3 were New York Times Bestsellers.  Curtsies & Conspiracies, the second in her critically acclaimed Finishing School series for young adults, debuted at #5. The first book in the series, Etiquette & Espionage,won the French Elbakin Award for best YA novel in translation. The first book in her new Custard Protocol adult series, Prudence, releases March 17, 2015.

Her other hats (neither pith helmet nor fedora) have included tromping the globe excavating ancient cultures, torturing undergraduates with science, and writing cryptic reviews of YA novels for the Horn Book Guide.

You can find Gail via her website, on Blogspot, Twitter, Goodreads, Tumblr, or Facebook. She also has a ridiculously silly newsletter, The Monthly Chirrup.