“Steampunk is a style that’s still searching for myths – the archetypes and icons and tropes by which it will be defined. For example, if you see a book cover and there’s an elf and a dwarf and an axe, you know that’s a fantasy book. If you see a black cover with red letters and fangs on the front, okay, that’s a horror novel. There are these pop-culture shortcuts that we immediately recognize. The airship and the goggles are just trappings. When you’re trying to explain science fiction to someone, you can say ‘You know the Matrix? Kind of like that.’ Or fantasy, ‘You know the Lord of the Rings? Kind of like that.’ Steampunk doesn’t have that shorthand yet. It doesn’t have the characters. The old stuff, The Time Machine and other science fiction from 150 years ago, that was different. That was just straightforward SF for the time. Now we’re embracing ‘retro SF,’ telling different stories and coming at different things from that angle.

“I’m going to try to make a world where the trappings of steampunk as we understand them are symptomatic of the world, and not just gears glued on a top hat. If there are going to be goggles, then I would like there to be a reason for them. If there are going to be dirigibles, well, why? How does this work? Four or five years ago, I was poking around on this forum where there were a whole bunch of British teenagers were going on about, ‘Oh, these American steampunks, bless their hearts. They’re trying so hard, but obviously real steampunk only happens in Victorian Britain.’ Going on about all their class struggles and exploration, and blah, blah, blah. I thought, wait, we had all those issues in America too. And, to grossly over-generalize, there’s seems to be a West Coast/East Coast thing going on as well, where the East Coast tends toward High Tea Victoriana, and West Coast tends to be more Wild West and pioneer. I spent a lot of time in Texas when I was a kid, and I understand the cowboys and the Wild West. I plug into that better than I do High Tea.

“All of these notions collided with the idea that I was going to have a world with all this advanced Victorian tech. There had to be a reason for it. It can’t just spring from Zeus’s forehead. There are two things that drive technology above all else: pornography and war. That’s where the money is. So, all right. In the 19th century in America we had a Civil War, and if you start poking around in the old patent databases from late in the war, 1864 or ’65, you find all these incredible machines that people proposed. I spent so much time in the Southeast, where alt-Civil War-history theorizing is a regional pastime. You can’t get away from it. So I was looking around at these old patent databases and found this amazing, crazy, great steampunk stuff. They basically wanted the Union or the Confederacy to give them war dollars so they could produce these inventions – tanks and crawling machines and elaborate guns. But it didn’t happen because they ran out of war. So, fine. We’ll start there. What if they didn’t run out of war – what if it kept going? Let’s give it a full generation, 20 more years….

“It seems to me that steampunk needs a myth; it needs characters. When I was a young Goth, there was a perception that it was a bunch of white teenagers. Steampunk is different from that. There are people from all different backgrounds and of all different ages. I wanted a lot of different kinds of characters, so there would be inroads for many different kinds of people, for everyone who wants to come play in this sandbox.

“For Boneshaker in particular, the angle I tend to come at in terms of world building is the angle of money – what is the economy? Because when you figure out what the industry is, you figure out what kind of jobs people have, what kind of characters are drawn to those jobs. If you have a river city, that implies all of these trade and travel things; if you have a port city, or a farming community, it implies other things. Start with the money.”

“I have a couple of urban fantasy books coming out from Bantam; I actually get to be funny in those. I’ve done horror and dark stuff for so long, I wanted to do something a little lighter. (Though it still managed to get kind of dark.) I think writing humor is actually the same thing as writing horror, because both humor and horror have one dividing line between them, and that is context. You see a guy hit another guy with a hammer: is that humor? Is it Marx Brothers or is it Stephen King? Both effects depend on the element of surprise. You laugh when you’re surprised. You scream when you’re surprised. They’re very close. It’s the same creative process. Which is why it doesn’t surprise me at all that Stephen King is funny, or that Dave Barry can write some very dark stuff. It’s the same thing in your head; it comes from the same place.”