Monday, March 1, 2010

An Interview with Emilie Bush

Emilie Bush 's self-published first novel, Chenda and the Airship Brofman, sits at an impressive 100,000 words. Its cover is simple, and deceptive as to its contents, which is an epic, an adventure - it is only the outline of a handsomely-dressed woman.

The first three chapters of Chenda and the Airship Brofman can be found at Coal City Steam, Emilie Bush's official site - both in podcast and in PDF format. I think it's the first time I ever sat down to an audiobook and found myself actually understanding what's going on - from what one can hear of the first three chapters, Stuff Moves Quickly! The podcasts are recited by Emilie Bush herself.

This interview was long in coming, and reviews have been coming in, but Madame Emilie has been over the moon with the reception. (There was also a better draft of this introduction, which I lost somehow.) I have yet to lay my hands on a copy, but I shall have to, because, as you will see in the following interview, Chenda and the Airship Brofman is unabashedly Feminist Steampunk. As steampunk comes into its own, with its own representatives in heavy literature to light reading, it'll be interesting to see how time treats Chenda, or how Chenda stands her ground.

So tell us a bit of the background of your novel: what made you write Chenda and the Airship Brofman?

I've been writing since I was 19 - for the news. I'd been hosting a news magazine and doing daily reporting for years, and then I quit to have a baby... then another one. So, with a 1-and 3-year old underfoot, I realized I needed to write a novel or die a horrible death. Well, it felt like that. Then came the insomnia and a few months holed-up in the basement churning out chapters. In the end, I had a 95-thousand word mess of a first draft about a depressed girl who, in the course of the book, takes a leap of faith, loses everything, finds true friendship, figures out who she is and what she has to offer the world.  So, it's not the same as my own third-of-life crisis, but it rhymes. (Man, if this is my mid-life crisis - I'm wasting my time planning for retirement...)

You open the story with two characters: Chenda and Candice. Could you talk a bit about them?

Well, I'm sure it won't take a rocket surgeon to figure out that the story revolves around Chenda - she's young, she's newly widowed, and may be the most sheltered girl in the world. Chenda and Candice have something in common - Chenda's late husband. Candice and Edison were an item 20-years earlier - a university romance that got cut short by the war. Candice and Chenda are thrown together by Edison's last request - and it's a doozy.  Through the story Chenda and Candice council one another, and help the other to move on to the next phases of their life. 

Candice is a Geologist - and in some respects she is based on my older sister (just a bit). My sis is a biology teacher, and I have about 100 pictures of her - hunched over some bug or turtle - grinning for all she's worth. Heavens - don't eat shellfish with her -- she'll ruin your meal pointing out bits of anatomy. Candice is the much the same: wild about science, sees it everywhere, and getting her to shut up is the trick. 

So your sister inspired Candice; what about Chenda? What are the pros and cons of writing such a sheltered character?

Chenda - she's a tiny bit me, a tiny bit various members of my family and people I've seen on the street.  This girl is like so many of us in life: a blank slate.  Candice says in the book that it's unreasonable to ask a 17-year old what they want to do with the rest of their lives - which is what we ask high school Juniors and Seniors to do as they pick colleges and majors. Their little brains are still forming. They aren't who they are yet. Chenda is a bit more distilled that that. She's even older and has never even been asked what she wants to do with her life.  In one scene she tries to judge the character of Captain Endicott, and she realizes she's totally incapable. By the end of the story - she's got ideas and opinions. That was kind of fun, making her go from vanilla to New York Super Fudge Chunk with sprinkles. The hard part was making anyone care about a blank slate. A tricky place to start. 

You've called Chenda and the Airship Brofman "Feminist Steampunk". Did any steampunk and feminist writers influence your work in the writing of Chenda?

Women in Steampunk Literature generally come in two forms: dowdies and sex toy.  The first group are librarians or mystics -- sometimes women hidden as men. The characters are generally second to a stronger male character, or are actually trying to pass as men because almost all women in these worlds are servile. As for the latter, well, take your pick: Hookers, clockwork hookers, sexy angles / supernatural / non-human furry belly warmers. 

Strangely - the influences I can trace most to the feminist leanings aren't Steampunk and aren't women: Alexander McCall Smith's #1 Ladies Detective Agency series (where the women solve little mysteries - but ones that are personal and feminine) and Terry Pratchett - especially the books set in the Ramtops - Wee Free Men - Hat Full of Sky - Wintersmith - I love his witches. These characters do things because they need to be done - not for the character's own sake, but because it's the right thing to do for their community, or a friend, or just because it's the right thing to do.  Chenda sees a lot of suffering in her journey. When she comes into her own, she has hard decisions to make about what's right and what's wrong with the world around her -- and what she has the power to do about it.  

(I've recently read Hunt's "The Court of the Air" - I really like Mother Loade. Too bad the strongest, most interesting female character gets splashed across the snow. I'd have liked more of her...)

(Ah, as they usually do.) What constitutes a feminist story to you?

A feminist story is one where women use the gifts god gave them to get done what needs doing. It's not necessarily about being equal to a man, or besting a man, but about being the best woman one can be. I think that the best feminist stories are about women with dignity, practicality, who are comfortable with their own brains and bodies, who bend rather than back down and who believe that getting ahead as a woman has nothing to do with keeping other women down.  Candice's name means "Mother". Why would I call a woman with no children mother? Because she is a mother figure to so many that come through her university - a real unconditional support to Chenda - like a mother. 

Listening to the podcasts of the first three chapters, your book has already passed the Bechdel-Wallace Test! Do you feel there is a dearth of good female characters, written for women, in literature?

No. There are plenty of great female characters, enough to rise to the top and keep me interested. 

Who is the intended target audience for this book? And no, you can't give me something generic like "anybody who loves a good book" ^_~

Foremost - people like me. Women - young adult to middle aged and onward. Folks who like a good escape when they read. It's not heavy philosophy, and it's not fluff either. It's a good adventure.

There are two countries focused in the book: The Republic and the Tugrulian Empire. What inspired these countries?

The Republic is a US / UK kind of place - a place that's proper, cultured and proud. The Tugrulian Empire is a bit of my adventures in the world: West Africa, Eastern Europe and my observations of of the Middle East and India.
What was the writing process like? Did you have a plan, outline? Or did you write by the seat of your pants?

Fevered at times. Usually in the dark of night. I had a plan insofar as I knew my destination. I knew where my character ultimately needed to go, and the evolution of her nature. Some of the plot I let float.  For example - the romantic triangle surrounding Chenda - who was going to "win" the girl? I let the characters work that out for themselves.  

What aspects of steampunk do you enjoy most, literature-wise?

The irrepressible belief that there's nothing that a brilliant mind can't do.  So much Steampunk literature dreams big with inventions, theology and adventure. It suites my personality (I spent the afternoon with my 4-year old daughter changing out the kitchen sink faucet. I am woman - hear me roar! She held the flashlight and learned the words "Chanel Lock Pliers"). I believe there is nothing I can't do - IF I find the will to try. It's a good mesh with the can do spirit of Steam. I'm reading Jay Lake's Mainspring and am enjoying the internal struggle of the main character as he explores his faith and his relative morality. The struggles in Steampunk are delicious - Sometimes physical - sometimes internal - always life and death. Big stakes. 

Do you get out and steampunk too?

Are you asking if I get my freak on with the goggles and bustle? I have. I like the swish and rustle of many layers. At recent Sci-Fi Cons, I've seen a dozen Harry Dresdens, a gaggle of Bella Swans and bountiful handfulls of Storm Troopers. But the Steampunks are each unique. The personas are not borrowed; they are homegrown. The freshness of each Steamer's costume and accessories thrill me. Why forge a well known masterpieces when one can create anew. 

Now that the book is finished, what will you be doing next?

I am working on two books at the moment - a follow up to Chenda called (at the moment) The Gospel according to Verdu, and a modern mythological fantasy called "Cryptid." It's the story about a girl who cheeses off a Greek God, who curses her. Now shesees all the "imaginary" creatures who live in New York City.  It's a hoot!

Chenda and the Airship Brofman is available at in both Kindle and paperback formats.

1 comment:

  1. I love this: "The irrepressible belief that there's nothing that a brilliant mind can't do."

    and this:

    "A feminist story is one where women use the gifts god gave them to get done what needs doing.... I think that the best feminist stories are about women with dignity, practicality, who are comfortable with their own brains and bodies, who bend rather than back down and who believe that getting ahead as a woman has nothing to do with keeping other women down."

    Here's to more feminist steampunk novels!