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Interview with Emilie P. Bush: Self-published Steampunk Author

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While vacationing in Portland a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a talk about Steampunk given by recently self-published author, Emilie P. Bush. Her first novel, Chenda and the Airship Brofman published for all eReaders, on SmashWords and in traditional print, had the distinction of being a semi-finalist for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award beating out 97.5% of the other 10,000 entries. She recently published her follow up novel, The Gospel According to Verdu, through the same channels. Emilie is also the curator of Coal City Steam, a site about all things Steampunk, of course, and can be contacted there. If any artists are interested in Steampunk, pay attention. She’d like to work with an illustrator to do a graphic novel of her first book, as you’ll see below.
I had a chance to correspond with her over email regarding her experiences writing and publishing her first two novels.

Let’s start at the beginning. Why Steampunk? What attracted you to it?

It’s rather funny, as I didn’t know I was writing a Steampunk novel until I was done. I love encountering people at their first Steampunk event, and they say something like, “Well I just had all these clothes in my closet! I have been buying these vests and skirts and leg-o-mutton sleeve blouses for years, and didn’t have any place to wear them… UNTIL NOW!” It was kind of like that. I was attracted to the adventure and the various gender and social roles of a rather conservative period. I wanted to play with those for a while. 

I had been writing and reading in a broadcast journalism world for a LONG time, and when I “retired”, I kept having this irrational fear that if I didn’t write a novel I would die a horrible death or some nonsense. When I launched into the first draft of Chenda – it was like a compulsion. It just flowed out.  The basic structure was there in my head – the place that my characters needed to be in the end of the tale – and then I just set them free to get there. Everything I wrote needed to ultimately support that final place, but I did let them resolve some issues for themselves – like the competition between Verdu and Fenimore. Until I got to the end, I wasn’t entirely sure how that was going to resolve, but the characters decided it all for me. Which is kind of cool.

Are there any Steampunk (or non-Steampunk) authors in particular that influenced you?

Yes – well specific characters in specific books. Ironically – most of my favorite women characters are written by men. Alexander McCall Smith’s African detectives and Terry Pratchett’s witches to name a few. Pratchett’s novel Small Gods really stuck with me, and influenced how I view and deal with my gods. I loved The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by sports reporter / novelist Mitch Albom , for the way it simply tells a pleasant, hopeful, redemptive story that involves heaven, but is not religion centric, but rather central to the ordeal that the character is working through. In other words, it’s not about the gods, it’s about the way that the character interacts with and understand and even negotiates with the influences of his own faith. Does that make me a Humanist? Hmmm…  

You opted to publish the novel as an eBook on Amazon. What drove that decision and how was your experience?

I published the paper novel first.  After ALL that tedious work and taking myself to school to undertake that monster job, I said to myself eh, I guess I will put it on Kindle for a couple of bucks. Anything I make on it – well that is just gravy. Little did I know I would sell 10 times the number of books on Kindle than I do from Amazon paper sales. Shocking, ain’t it? I know.  Part of that e-success is that the price of the paper book is 5 times that of the e-book ($15 – for a 6×9 trade paperback v. $3 for the e-book.) However, the dollars that come to me for each sale aren’t that much different.  It’s not rocket surgery figuring out that the e-book is more profitable, less work and less hassle for the Indy writer.  BUT, I still think that paper books are important.

During your presentation in Portland you mentioned three typical female stereotypes in Steampunk lit. What are they and how does your hero break that mold?

The Clockwork Hooker, the Dowdy Librarian and the Girl in His Clothes. I have read a lot of Steampunk that doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Williams criteria of a book or movie containing (1) at least two female characters (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man. The Clockwork Hooker is common – where the female character is only there to be sexy or to be used by a man. The other common type is the Dowdy Librarian, a woman who is there to give exposition, wisdom and guidance to the hero, but can’t or won’t take part in the adventure. Rarely will these characters make it to the end of the story, as they are discarded or killed along the way. Ick. The third group is the Girl in His Clothes, where a young woman tried to make it in (usually) a military situation by pretending to be a man. That type bothers me on two levels; first, it’s overdone, and secondly, I hate the message that is sends to 21st Century girls – One has to deny most of who they are to either escape their circumstances or to achieve their dreams / love / freedom. It’s less than playing with gender roles, at least in my opinion. It’s part of this trend in film, TV and literature in recent years that tried to make a woman a hero by basically telling the story of a man with breasts. Again, I say ICK.

Chenda and Candice are my heroes, and Chenda starts out as a rather empty person. A bit shallow and a spectator in her own life. The death of her husband – a much older man who took care of her for years as she grew up, is murdered. She meets a lot of people on her journey, but is really stronger than she first appears. I like to say it’s feminist Steampunk, but people often say to me, “Well, the men in the story save her. A lot.” But the truth of it is – she saves her own life first. She has the strength to kill, but she is totally a woman, and goes about things in a way that is true to a woman’s nature. She tolerates a great deal of abuse before she rises to a fight, and when she does finally get to the point of kill or be killed, she fights like a woman: dirty and with lethal intent. She makes decisions that protect those near her, and also dares to take a big risk to become a complete person.

Candice is a tiny but strong geologist, with a maternal instinct when it comes to Chenda. She has a woman’s temperament: she is tough in some areas and vulnerable in others, she remembers loves from long ago and is fickle enough to be tempted by a new romance, she’s set in her ways but eager to go to new places and see new things, she travels despite her airsickness. Neither are perfect heroes, but they complement each other well. 

Did you learn any lessons from publishing your first book that influenced your second?

 Yes. I’m good enough to do this writing thing. When you put yourself out there with a novel that you produce yourself – you start to wonder if you are a fraud, a loser or delusional. But the response has been so good, by people who are in NO way related to my mother. As sales grew every month, and the reviews slowly rolled in, I got confident in my writing and my characters. That did two things: it kept me writing, and gave me a little money to re-invest in my second book. I hired a good editor, and that made my second novel better than I could have dreamed. I also learned a lot about making the inside of the book look good.  You may not think so, but there is a real art to laying out the format of a book. It is not my favorite thing, but I can do it. The more you do it, the better the result.

But, to be honest – it is SO much easier to put together an e-book. I can format that in a day, whereas it take weeks to fiddle with the layout for a paper book (for me at least). BUT – I always force myself to get that book done first.  It’s important still when one wants to be taken seriously as an author that a paper book be made. Unless you are J.K. Rowling. Then you can make the rules any way you want. Got to get me that deal….

Previously, in Portland, you also mentioned a graphic novel idea you are exploring. Can you tell us more about that?

I think Chenda would make a FINE graphic novel, but as of yet, I have no illustrator. Why?  Do you know someone who loves the tale and wants to take it on? I’d be interested in talking about it…

Anything else in the pipeline that you’d like to share?

I have two things cookin’: I have started a new novel – not a Steampunk one – that has been chapping its pages on my back burner since before I started on Verdu.  It’s not going very quickly as I am very busy with the Summer Launch tour for the new book. I will get back to it soon. BUT, I am tickled by a bit of fan art that came to me, and I liked the artist so well, that I am working on some text – a Steampunk bedtime story – that will be illustrated by this new friend. I can say no more about that for now as we are in the planning stages at the moment, so it’s all rather soft. 

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