Beth Cato falls into the category of author who doesn’t just sit in the lonely garret turning out works to delight her readers. She’s highly supportive of other authors, both at her blog and in person, especially at Steampunk-related events. Even in our brief talk, I quickly gained the impression that she’s somebody who has been inspired, and wants to pass that inspiration on.
Cato writes in a variety of genres, and her latest title has been rightly described as a cross between Dr. Quinn and Dreadnought (with a healthy dose of Agatha Christie in the mix).
Beth, the request for this interview dropped into my email inbox the day after some Steampunk jewellery I’d ordered dropped through my letterbox. So I have to ask, what grabs you about the world of Steampunk?
Oh, now I want to see this new jewellery of yours! Steampunk grabs me because it crosses over with other genres and creates something fresh and fun. I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder at age eight and fell hard for historical fiction, and then as a teenager I was deeply into fantasy. I blend together epic fantasy and an Edwardian-inspired world for my Clockwork Dagger series, but I also add in mystery and romance. The first book, THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER, came about because I wanted to do a Steampunk take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
The jewellery included a flying kraken brooch, which I wear for school governor meetings. I know you also go all out and dress up in Steampunk style sometimes. What’s the worst aspect of that, apart from the uncomfortable corsetry?
Well, I live near Phoenix, Arizona. It’s awfully hot here most of the year. My Steampunk attire tends to be more on the modest side, which means high boots, long skirt, long petticoats, and the corset over a blouse. If I wear that for any length of time, even in air conditioning, I soon understand why women used to swoon.
You clearly attend a number of book events and other conventions. Is it always as an author? What surprising differences do you find between attending as an author or a reader?
I still attend some events as a reader; I love to support friends who are holding book signings, readings, or panels. My first book only came out in September, so I’m still quite new to sitting on the other side of the room at conventions. I have attended Phoenix Comicon as both a fan and a panellist. Being on both sides makes me more patient, as I understand what it’s like to be in the crowd, nervous about meeting an author. I am also in awe of the powers that come with a guest badge. Phoenix Comicon is a massive event—Saturdays can pull in more than thirty thousand people—and going to the dealer room can mean a more than twenty minute trek just to get downstairs. My badge enabled me to use the back hallways. It was still a long trek, but a much more pleasant one without the crush of humanity. I felt like I’d been endowed with superpowers.
The first thing that struck me as I read the book was the extraordinary world you’ve constructed for this series. Can you tell us some more about it?
The Clockwork Dagger series is set on a secondary world, so one that is not Earth. I based it heavily on World War I and the aftermath. That’s not simply in the etiquette, clothing, and Steampunk-boosted technology, but is also embodied in the gritty mood. My central setting of Caskentia has dealt with fifty years of intermittent warfare. The male population has been decimated, and starvation and disease are widespread. My heroine, Octavia, is gifted with profound healing powers. She hears all injuries and ailments in the form of song, and can diagnose and treat people accordingly. However, she’s so sensitive that cities and crowds are agonizing. She’s tortured by intimate knowledge of how so many people are dying.
World building, as opposed to setting a story in a place we all recognize, is a real art. Can you give some tips for aspiring authors who are seeking to do the same thing as effectively?
World building is tricky. In a way, I made things easier for myself because I’m not confined to Earth’s history, and if you are familiar with World War I, you know what a confusing political snarl that was! However, building a setting from scratch brings its own obstacles. I still did a lot of research on The Great War, especially the subject of battlefield medicine; don’t be afraid of research. Magic is a good excuse for some things, but there still needs to be a basis in fact. I also created a continent that is inspired by the western side of Washington state. This enabled me to create familiar and realistic topography and weather. I incorporated details such as the tulips Octavia misses from her academy’s farm, which are a parallel to the famous tulips of Skagit Valley.
Readers have particular expectations in certain genres. What expectations have you encountered in Steampunk? And have any readers told you off for not living up to them?
There’s always that risk when you do a fresh take on familiar tropes. I haven’t had anyone tell me off directly, but I know some reviews have said it’s not a hardcore Steampunk series. That’s a fair assessment. The signature Steampunk technology is certainly there—airships and Frankenstein-like biological creations—but my books also draw heavily from epic fantasy. Imagine if a setting like Westeros in Game of Thrones experienced the industrial revolution. Science is the future, but magic still lingers. I also base my world on the Edwardian era rather than the typical Victorian of Steampunk, but I’m not the first to do that. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy rewrote World War I in a fantastic way.
Do those expectations include the wonderfully rich language you use?
Absolutely! That’s all part of the voice and mood, and it’s incredibly fun to write. I don’t take it as far as a period novel, but I love to weave in words like “flibbertigibbet,” “nesh,” and “swaddy.” One of my main characters has a formal accent that sets him apart, as well.
The advice: “Write whatever you want.” Who gave that to you and how does it play out in your career?
That advice came from two of my school teachers—a married couple. Mrs. Quist taught me in both fourth and fifth grade. I wrote prolifically during our creative writing sessions in class, much to the chagrin of my classmates. However, a number of them still remember my stories more than twenty-five years later. Mr. Quist oversaw the development of the school newspaper in seventh and eighth grade. I became one of the co-editors, and under his tutelage wrote everything from a Super Nintendo gaming column to an all-fiction tabloid edition of the paper.
Their advice had a profound impact on me. I have never limited myself to one type or length of fiction. I’ve had nonfiction stories in more than a dozen Chicken Soup for the Soul books, professionally published stories ranging from science fiction to Steampunk to urban fantasy, and published almost a hundred poems. That’s why I dedicated my new book, THE CLOCKWORK CROWN, to Mr. and Mrs. Quist. This is especially important to me because Mr. Quist passed away a few years ago; I needed to acknowledge my debt and gratitude.
Beth Cato is the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat.
To learn more about Beth, please visit her website.