Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Interview: Steampowered Globe Editor Maisarah Abu Samah

A while back, I posted the Table of Contents for the Singaporean steampunk anthology, The Steampowered Globe, and I got to chatting to its editor, Maisarah Abu Samah, about putting it together. And I thought ya'll might find it interesting, especially any of you in Asia (and I know some of you are from Asia), to read a very frank interview from Maisarah about the anthology and spec fic generally.

Tell us a little bit about yourself! How did you get interested in steampunk?

I'm one of the current municipal liaisons for Nanowrimo in Singapore and I try to make people see that people in Singapore do write fiction. Which means, I try to invade literary events or make our presence known online since locally, the only fiction we see published most is ghost stories, erotic ones or erotic ghost stories. That and sad woe is me literature. Which wouldn't be bad (they can be well written) but that is all for the fiction published here.

On the subject of steampunk, I got interested in it conventions. There had always been lolitas dressed up at the cosplay conventions I go to but there wasn't that much people in steampunk fashion. Looking at online pics and shops, I feel like you could make up a back story of a character dressed in what or what kind of situation they'd be in. And past the fashion, there's always been anime like Full Metal Alchemist or books like Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate...

What was your working definition of steampunk for this anthology? What steampunk works / media did you look towards to inform your own vision of steampunk for your anthology? 

Pretty much an alternate history of "what would happen if technology advanced way faster than they would in real life for that era" was my definition.

I have a different set of references that don't actually include steampunk works when doing this anthology though, such as historical time travel romances, the Read or Die anime since it had interesting use of technology and was a "modern" alternate history, and the current books that are out this season that even included Terry Prachett's I Shall Wear Midnight. All these stretched my imagination to see what would be possible in steampunk since it would be a genre that would be more saturated in possibilites in technology advancement yet with a culture and timeline that was utterly Victorian or thereabouts anyway.

What is the history of the Happy Smiley Writers Group and Two Trees that led to this collaboration? Who picked the steampunk theme for this anthology?

The HSWG was formed because we were sick of the depressing stuff published on the local shelves. We were still writing after November when Nanowrimo was on and formed this group to edit our novels. Eventually, we wrote new stories in the meantime.

Two Trees is [co-editor and publisher] Rosemary [Lim]'s company and pretty much we published books to be an in your face, "Look people! It's not a freaking erotic ghost story cooking assessment self help autobiography book! We exist! We write genre fiction!". There are writers here with stories that are entertaining and fun to read but they aren't easily published here because it's not commercially viable.

So far though, our battle in the local scene and encouraging budding writers to write what the heck they want seems to be on the rise but good grief, it took a lot of time and our efforts to show that it is possible to do so. The HSWG is quite unapologetic in writing stubbornly on what stories we want to tell even if there are a lot obstacles for us to get published.

The theme for this anthology was picked by Rosemary since we did science fiction for the previous one and really, no one had done a steampunk anthology or steampunk anything published in Singapore before. Also, steampunk fashion, books etc was catching everywhere but Singapore. I wanted other people to get sucked into the genre so more people could gush over it with me.

Was steampunk known to your writers? How is it seen there: as a passing curiousity, or are there signs of a growing fandom for it? If I asked you to compare the Singaporean steampunk "scene" (as it were) to the subcultures in the UK/US/Canada/Brazil, what would you say?

Apparently not much. We did put up a definition and examples of it when we did the submission call and there were some inquiries of "What is steampunk?" Even then, there were people who just submitted regular science fiction stories. The steampunk scene here is growing though, just really slowly. It's nearly non-existent except that you do get to see people decked out in steampunk gear at cosplay conventions since that is the time when most of the subcultures meet together like J-rock fashion, sweet lolita, etc and tempt other people into checking them out since it looks wonderful.

What made editing this anthology different from editing other anthologies you've done?

Ok. Rosemary is the head honcho for this operation. I'm just an interactive media designer so I know how to do the whole layout for prints and everything but I wanted more experience in editing for fiction. Workshops and lessons don't let me learn everything and it's terribly hard to find a publishing house or agency here that will take in an apparentice or well, it just doesn't exist here! (And I'm still trying to find one online.)

Now, I've helped edit the previous book, Happiness at the End of the World or even other stories but I have never foreseen that by just making an anthology of "steampunk" stories meant that a lot of confusion and incredulous decisions. Firstly, we did receive quite a number of stories. On first reading, it was clear that there are those who just shoved technology or just set their characters in a "steampunk era" without really understanding it so that was out.

It was also clear that there were a lot of new writers who submitted it since some of them did not follow the criteria or instructions we specified on the submission page. We were nice though, we still at least read all their stories and for the rejected ones, we wrote comments on what they could improve on. For some of them, you could tell that they just sent in their stories and hoped for the best that we couldn't see that it was self insert stories with very cliched plots.

We didn't have those problems when we had more "widely known" genres and people sent in more original stories.

We managed to shortlist the stories we liked for the anthology and some of them just needed some editing to polish up. There was one however, that after we did comment on which edits to do or what to fix, the writer backed out when it was ninety percent done! That was a first for me, for someone to back out because they were not confident of their story and it was one of the top rated ones when we did a blind rating system of which stories to put in the anthology with the rest of the four members of the HSWG.

Obviously, we finished it all up and managed to produce this book! Fun fact, it took a long time for our library to give us a CIP number for cataloguing because they had to make a new category just for us. So now if you look under steampunk published in Singapore, ours is the first and hopefully not only title in that listing.

What I learned from this was that we do have a lot of writers but they're not confident of their writing or that they have the potential but not just there yet. Hopefully, time and more experience will help that.

You seem to begin with Victorian England as the basis for steampunk, which isn't surprising since that's how the genre began, whether from the canon 70's novels or with the Victorian Science Fiction movies of the 50's. And from the descriptions so far, the stories neither begin nor end there, possibly because most people didn't have a clue what steampunk is. Which rather sounds refreshing, actually, but are there some overarching themes that were very popular among the submissions, and in these stories?

Technically, I only took the Victorian period as the basis of it! I had been thinking more about what was happening everywhere else during that period. Really old Jackie Chan movies (they screen them on TV here) helped too since some of them were in that era. No, not Shanghai Noon or Around the world in 80 days, the ones that he didn't speak in English.

In submissions we received, a lot of them definitely had spirited females. Whether they were scientists, ladies or gun toting ones, they really liked to go against the society set in the story's universe. Maybe it's because we're such rule abiding citizens here. Most of the stories had the main characters going against the government or higher ups to break rules or tricking them into believing that they are doing the norm for their society.

Did any of your writers tackle actual historical events, or explore alternate histories that have clear links to recorded history? Or did your writers explore clearly different historical trajectories?

Hmmm, none that I know of at least. Maybe refering to real historical people like the Empress of China but no actual historical events. The writers wanted to write their own events for this anthology.

Are you satisfied with your current selection in their fulfillment of your expectations for the genre? What could be done better, how could it have been worse? Would you do this genre again?

I'm not disappointed with it is what I can say! I definitely had no idea what sort of submissions we would get since this is the first time we're receiving any for this genre so I'm quite pleased that we did have some stories that have quality and are pretty different from each other. I have no idea how it could be worse, maybe if we didn't plan, got stubborn in the time line to get the writers to edit their pieces then the book wouldn't come to fruition?

Since Two Trees is Rosemary's, I'm not sure if we'd do steampunk again. Not as an anthology at least. Personally, I would do this genre as a full length novel, which I am anyway. The anthologies that Two Trees publish tend to change genres each time. We want to fill the shelves with different sorts of stories. So slowly but surely, we want to show that writers here don't just write those erotic ghost story cooking assessment books even if we have to do it ourselves.

It seems that much of your woes are tied to the lack of genre fiction in general. If this had been a general speculative fiction anthology, do you think you would have had as much problem? Why / Why not?

I think that if this had been a general spec fic anthology, there might be a whole lot more entries but it might not mean a lot of quality. It would mean us reading a lot of eyebrow raising stories and me trying to write variations of comments of pointing out how said stories aren't original or Mary Sues while sifting out the good ones.

Sticking to steampunk seems to be the best since it did filter out in a sense that people who knew what it was and we could see which stories were going to make it quickly.

Still, I think we'd have a different set of problems if we'd gone through the general spec fic route. In general, budding writers here have no freaking idea how to submit stories anywhere. There's an underlying sense of "I've got great marks in English! My story must be awesome!" for some of them. The structure is all fine and dandy but there's a lack of spark or imagination or that bit that makes it addictive to read a story.

For some others, they've really good stories but they're not confident at all to submit them. The only way I know that they've good stories is when I talk to some of them (especially during Nanowrimo) and good grief, it's hard to get good stories published if none of these writers are brave enough to send it in anywhere.

And while we're on that vein, what is the voice of Singaporean spec fic like? (Out here we get mostly Joyce, who is awesome, but one person does not the whole sum of an island population make, no matter how small the island, or how loved she is.) It sounds small and stifled at the moment; do Singaporeans just not like SFF?

Oh Singaporeans do like SFF, you see them reading it in bookstores and libraries. Discussing it online and all that jazz. The problem is more that over here, if you've published any story, people think it's going to be crap even if they aren't reading the blurb of it. In each bookstore or library, there's this section of Singapore published works. Our books will tend to be in that shelf no matter what genre it is since it's Singapore published.

Now imagine at least ten types of thin paper back ghost story books filling half of these shelves in the section. Self help and autobiography books filling a third of this half. The rest is erotica, true crime stories and a whole bunch of literature texts. Then you have genre fiction like us filling up just one small corner of it. Barely filling it up even.

So while everyone else goes to different sections in the store/library to buy or read books like romance, urban fantasy, science fiction, etc, they tend to ignore the Singapore published section unless they really want to read the ghost stories or get a book for their schoolwork. Thus, people think that everyone here just writes that.

Which leads us to the lack of Singaporean spec fic because there's no publishing house here that would generally accept it since the money makers are said ghost stories and... you get the drift. There will always be readers of spec fic here but they'll read anything, anything that isn't published here.

I hope that we can change that mindset eventually. To show that we don't suck and for them to actually pick up the book before dismissing it entirely.

Ah, the challenges of an infant spec fic scene! All the joys of derivatives and Sturgeon's Law and perfectionist anxiety. Do you think there is, in general, a lack of faith towards local talent, as compared to say, a debut Western author? Why do you think that is?

YES, heck yes. It's not even in fiction. It's a Singaporean thing. If it's made here, it mustn't be as awesome as it's made in US/UK/Taiwan/Hong Kong/Indonesia/Japan/etc. A Western author, a new one in the bookshelves have more likelyhood to be picked up than a local one. It's all in the packaging! There must be some reason that the library/bookstore is importing the book all the way from X-country. While local authors are just.. Here. You could bump into them on the street, see them eating at McD's or just being "one of us".

It's a bit like taking things for granted really. Plus, there's a lack of local talent because everyone's more into academics or making money. If you're writer, (even just for fun!) people will still ask why are you writing it. Why aren't you doing something better like your homework or your job. If there's no profit, why do it?

Given your difficulty claiming a local audience, have you turned your sights to international audiences? How do you think The Steampowered Globe will be received internationally? Or at least, in North America / UK, based on what you know of steampunk there?

Hmmm, I think that international audiences will be more intrigued that we exist in the first place. FYI for everyone reading this, Singapore's not part of Malaysia or China and we do speak English. Also we definitely are trying to branch out internationally. The individual writers of the book are also more involved online in submitting or discussing writing there. There's no point in just sticking to a Singaporean audience since we know it's quite limited.

Following from the above question, how would you compare the Steampowered Globe to the current U.S. steampunk anthologies (say, the Steampunk anthologies by the Vandermeers) or novels (Priest, Carriger, Westerfeld)?

Hmmmm, it's different. That sounds obvious but yes. I'm not sure how to describe it but there's this, well. The writers are all Asian and you can tell that there's a different style to it compared to the U.S. steampunk anthologies. It's like comparing manga to comics, both are graphic novels yet they're not similar. It might be obvious to us how the societies or cultures in the stories are like because we're here but maybe it might be different to people in the West since our stories take place all over like in Hong Kong or the straits of Malaya.

Well, wasn't that an interesting interview? Don't forget, you can buy The Steampowered Globe directly from Two Trees.

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