An Interview with Brooke Johnson! (Part 1 of 2)

Brooke Johnson writes fantastic alternate history stories rich with likable characters. I can’t stress how rare and valuable a skill that is. Popular entertainment is full to brimming with jerks but I like Brooke’s characters right out of the gate. I want to spend time with them. The very first events of the very first scene of Johnson’s Le Theatre Mecanique – the simple spilling and cleaning up of a box of spare parts – could have been written in all sorts of negative ways: shaming, embarrassing, awkward, discouraging, enraging. Anyone could have written a mindless, dispiriting scene of two strangers, one the subject and the other the object of a scold or a shout. Instead she shows us characters who have a basic politeness and care for one another as human beings. That got my attention right away. I definitely encourage others to read Brooke’s work.

Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Brooke on the occasion of publishing Perishables. This year I asked if I could return the favor. Here’s the first part of our conversation; the second half is scheduled to post on Thursday of this week. In the second half we’ll discuss more about the meaning of “Victorian ideology” and Brooke’s incredible gift for engagement via social media.

Can you give us a quick run-down of your novels and genres? Do you have a set limit or goal of the number or types of stories you expect to write in the course of your Chroniker City series?

I currently have two published books, The Clockwork Giant and Le Theatre Mecanique, both alternate history stories set in the fictional location of Chroniker City in the early 1880s.

The Clockwork Giant: When Petra Wade meets Guild engineer Emmerich Goss, she finally has a chance to prove her worth as an engineer, but as their automaton project nears completion, Petra discovers a sinister conspiracy within the Guild. Their automaton is only the beginning.

Le Theatre Mecanique: When Le Theatre Mecanique holds open auditions for their next play, Solomon Wade decides to give his dreams a chance, but his lack of talent lands him a custodial position instead. He’s determined to improve his acting skills, but when his younger sister’s illness develops into pneumonia, abandoning his dreams of theater may be the only way to save her.

The Clockwork Giant is what I would consider hard steampunk, very focused on the science aspect of the genre, whereas Le Theatre Mecanique is more of a straight alternate history piece in the same world.

For the Chroniker City series, I plan on writing two more full-length novels following Petra, the heroine of The Clockwork Giant, on her journey to become a Guild engineer. The second book, The Guild Conspiracy, is currently underway, and the third book, The Chroniker Legacy is in the planning stages. There may be other stories within Chroniker City that beg to be told, so who knows how many books end up in the series? The idea forLe Theatre Mecanique came to me, and I had to write it. I’m sure there are other characters living in the city that need their stories told as well.

When did you start writing? What made you pick up the pen or sit down at the keyboard?

I think I always enjoyed writing stories, ever since I was old enough to write coherent sentences, but I didn’t really get serious about it until about eighth grade. A few years previously, my aunt had bought me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but I hadn’t read it, because at the time, I thought wizards and magic and all that weird fantasy fluff was stupid. How things change. Eventually, I did read it, and I was so enamored by Hogwarts and the world J.K. Rowling had created, I wanted to do the same. I wanted to create a world someone else would love just as much. So I wrote and wrote and wrote, and it was derivative garbage, but I had found a driving passion for telling stories, something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. After that, I made it my goal to learn as much as I could about writing so that one day I could write a story that resonated with readers as much as Harry Potter resonated with me, and while my first published book ended up being steampunk, not fantasy, I think I’ve come close to creating such a world.

One of my best friends is very engaged in the costuming/cosplay side of steampunk and speculative fiction. She’s commented that some participants in that genre of work perceive a lot of stratification within it: steampunk vs. dieselpunk vs. clockpunk and so on. Do you perceive the same thing? If so, where would you say your work is at home in that?

There is definitely some division within the steampunk genre. I used to be a huge proponent of labeling every slight deviance into a new subgenre, believing that one form of steampunk was superior to another. When I wrote The Clockwork Giant, it was in response to all the paranormal steampunk fantasy I had seen. In my mind, that wasn’t true steampunk. True steampunk focused on the science of the Victorian age, the engineers, the scientists, the mechanics, not corsets and goggles slapped onto werewolves and vampires.

So, I wrote The Clockwork Giant with science in mind, and while I succeeded in writing a purely science-based story, I began to realize that my definition of steampunk wasn’t The Definition, and that my story, while still within the steampunk genre, had deviated into one of the subgenres—clockpunk—but even then, it wasn’t totally clockpunk. There’s steam engines and combustion engines and electricity too. The strict labels I had applied to other works of steampunk had turned on me. I couldn’t fit my story into any proper, predefined steampunk genre, even though I set out to write The Steampunk Novel.

I think this says a lot about the genre. Steampunk is a weird conglomeration of anachronistic retro-futurism, alternate histories, paranormal creatures, dystopian futures, and distant worlds, all lumped together with Victorian ideology and science. I’ve come to view it as an organic thing. Steampunk will always be changing, always shifting into something new. The moment you try to define it, it’s going to change, and I think that’s fantastic.

This is a more mechanical question that interests me as a writer: do you do a lot of preplanning and outlining or are you a fellow “pantser”?

I’m a plotter by necessity. Tell me to write a story without an outline, and you’ll get a rambling narrative with no focus that comes to a sudden, unsatisfying end. Before The Clockwork Giant, I had finished one fantasy novel and started three or four others. None of them were planned the slightest bit before writing, and they all sucked. When I got the idea for The Clockwork Giant, I wanted to write a good book, and I knew from experience that pantsing a novel would leave me with a garbled mess of a draft that would need several months of rewrites and editing before being even somewhat readable. I wanted to avoid all that back end work this time around, so I committed myself to drafting a plot beforehand. It seemed to have worked.

Now, I spend a few weeks brainstorming, researching anything I might need to know, and finally drafting up an outline, before I ever write a word. In the future, I might go back to pantsing for a project. Knowing what I do now about plots and writing in general, I might be able to write something readable.

Favorite novel and/or writer, and why?

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I didn’t read this book until I was in college, but it literally changed the way I looked at the world, and it changed the way I looked at books. The way Jones weaves the stories of Howl and Sophie and the Wicked Witch of the Waste is awe-inspiring, and as I read, her words opened my eyes to what stories could really do. She made me realize the legitimacy of children’s fiction, that writing could be fun and silly but at the same time, deeply emotional. Good books didn’t have to be serious epics about saving the world from certain doom. Diana Wynne Jones became my favorite author in 429 pages, not just because she’s a genius storyteller, but because she reawakened the little girl who had grew up way too quickly and stopped believing in happily ever afters. I wish I could have met her before she died. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get a coherent word out, but I would have loved to have shaken her hand and told her how much I adored her and her stories.

Thanks again to Brooke for being so generous with her time! Part 2 will post on Thursday night! -MGW

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