Edition 4: Interview with Jay Lake
We had the opportunity to get to know Jay Lake a bit better, and we really appreciate him taking the time to chat to us. We talk about steampunk, writing and his brave battle with cancer. SY
Interview by Sophie Yorkston
SQ: Jay, you have written many steampunk stories and several of your novels are based on a clockwork world you created. What would you say are the strengths of this genre and why do you enjoy writing it?
JL: The great strength of steampunk as a genre is that it is hugely entertaining, and likewise it is nearly purely entertainment. Steampunk isn’t on a mission, doesn’t have a manifesto, and in my opinion doesn’t really even qualify as a literary movement in any deep sense. It’s a style, or a skin. So where cyberpunk, for example, was infused with cultural critique, and the New Wave was infused with political critique, steampunk is just messing around for the sheer joy of the thing. That’s precisely why I love writing it.
To be clear, there are writers working on steampunk who are seeking deeper meanings and messages. Nisi Shawl talks about the romanticization of colonialist oppression and exploitation as being inherent in the genre in its most usual presentation. Steampunk certainly glosses over deep race, class and gender issues in its deeply nostalgic treatment of the nineteenth century. One can find examples of the genre that address all these issues. The mainstream of steampunk literature may develop in that direction over time.
But right now? To the rails, men! Those flying devils are attacking again!
SQ: For people who are just getting involved with the world of steampunk, what makes a story steampunk? Are there any examples, outside of your own work, that you would recommend?
JL: Steampunk follows the Potter Stewart test for pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. That being said, steampunk certainly has stock tropes. None of these are mandatory in and of themselves, but you’ll see many if not most of them in the vast majority of steampunk fiction. For example:
Steam powered technology (almost without exception in deep violation of the laws of physics)
Victorian culture and society (either directly or in a thinly disguised fictional reflection)
Airships (often anachronistically)
Individual inventors/makers as heroes
Clockwork or other mechanical marvels
I would recommend Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker to anyone just dipping into steampunk. Also, Gail Carriger’s Soulless.
SQ: What is the most common mistake writers make with the steampunk genre, in your opinion?
JL: I’m not sure there are common mistakes. It’s not like there’s a Steampunk Council out there issuing formal requirements to qualify for status in the genre. Per my opinion that steampunk is a style or a skin, the mistakes I do see in steampunk stories and novels are more errors-of-craft in the writing that errors-of-style in the genre.
This is a hard question to answer with any formal rigor because of the frequent ahistoricalism of steampunk, as well as the almost de riguer casual disregard for the actual issues involved in power-to-weight ratios and thermal management of steam technology. Those are baked in as features, rather than bugs, and they open a much larger umbrella for both deliberate playful creativity and simple unintended writer error.
SQ: Your other works encompass many of the genres/subgenres of speculative fiction. Which is your favorite to write and why?
JL: That’s hard to say, but I suspect I’d settle on New Weird as my favorite. My books Trial of Flowers and Madness of Flowers fall in this category, as does a small percentage of my short fiction output. The sheer, wall-eyed bug fuckery of the language and plots in New Weird really brings me great joy.
SQ: I understand that your work started mostly in short stories. What steps did you take to transition your work to novels, and can you offer advice on how that led to acquiring your agent and publication deals?
JL: Hah! Another unanswerable question. I didn’t really take conscious steps to transition my work to novels so much as I developed my skills and confidence as a writer until the process of writing novels shifted from being scary to being appealing. Then I wrote novels. Eventually I wrote good novels.
As for acquiring my agent, it happened completely by accident. I was sitting in the bar at a convention when a writer friend dropped by with her agent, and introduced us socially. The conversation went well, we got along like a house on fire, and eventually entered a business relationship which has been successful and prosperous for us both. This is not a reproducible path for other writers, except likewise by accident, so I have no particular advice here except to write good books and spend time getting to know people in the field.
I realize that for the Australian writing community, access to the US and UK where the majority of significant book deals take place can be very difficult. However, in this era of blogging and Facebook and online community, you can still forge good connections with people you may see very rarely.
SQ: In my research I have seen some curious negative critiques of Green, including your choice of words for the dedication. Many of the criticisms seem to focus on Green’s sexuality and the way the novel was divided quite tangibly, into three parts. Can we ask why you set the novel out this way, and why these are strengths of your story, rather than detractors? (If you wish to share any more observations about the whole trilogy, please do so.)
JL: First of all, to be clear, I never respond directly to reviews. Not even to those reviews that contain gross errors of fact. There’s no percentage for the writer in doing so. I will almost always link from my blog to reviews I find of my work, even negative ones, because I consider reader reaction to be valuable. Even if someone didn’t like my book, if they felt enough passion to take the trouble to talk about that, I reached them in some fashion.
Likewise, I have a profound philosophical conviction that the story belongs to the reader. Unless I’m prepared to come over to your house and explain myself while you’re reading my book, I cannot and do not have anything to say about how you respond to it. The review represents a documentation of the reader’s interaction with the text. Everything I can possibly say is already there in their hands.
This is a helpful attitude for me to have, as it keeps me from being upset by negative reviews.
To the specifics of your question:
I am baffled by a few people’s negative reactions to the dedication. Many aspects of Green’s character and experience are drawn directly from my daughter’s life as a foreign adoptee taken from the land of her birth and raised by people of another culture. Her emotions about that are very powerful, the bedrock of her character, and I reflected those in Green. That some people chose to read the dedication as referring to what they saw as objectionable plot elements in the book strikes me as a willful misreading, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Green is the only book of mine, and indeed, the only book I’ve ever heard of, where reviewing the story included comments on the dedication.
As for the sexuality, to my recollection there aren’t any explicit sex scenes in the story. There are a fair number of references to sexuality, both on Green’s part and on the part of some the characters around her, but from my perspective, they fall firmly in context of the story. I can’t really comment on why people responded to that the way they did except to opine that my intentions for those aspects of the book do not align at all with that reader response. As the text is the objective touchpoint between my intentions and those response, I must assume that the failing is mine in crafting that text.
As for criticism of the novel being divided into three parts, I’m not sure I’ve run across that one myself. I will refer anyone complaining about that aspect of the book to the concept of the three-act structure which is almost utterly pervasive in Western literature, as well as plays and films, and even in the microstructure of many jokes and tall tales.
SQ: Your fight with cancer has been a very public fight. Is there an ethos and/or philosophy that you subscribe to that motivates you to carry it out this way?
JL: As I write this, I am only beginning to cope with the news of the diagnosis of a fourth round of cancer, which I received a few days previously. This is not a terminal diagnosis, but the persistent recurrence every 12-15 months puts me on a very short life expectancy with vanishing hope for a reversal or cure. At this point, I don’t expect to live more than a few years longer, and I do expect to spend much of that time being quite ill.
There is nothing good about this experience. Cancer is not a teacher, it does not bring great gifts of the spirit. It is a thief and a murderer, tearing out hearts and shredding bodies and souls.
My motivation in being very public with my cancer fight is quite simple. I want to make something good out of this tsunami-sized ration of shit which has been ladled out to me. That good comes from providing information about the disease, not from a health education perspective (though that occurs incidentally as I write and blog about my experiences), but rather from seeking to illuminate the mental and emotional and social processes of cancer for people who might need to care for a friend or loved ones, and for patients who might need help in finding the words to express themselves and explain their own experiences.
In other words, I want to be an example that might help improve other people’s cancer journeys.
SQ: It seems to me that cancer affects you so profoundly, it must, to some extent, influence your artistic point of view. Has cancer changed the way you write, the way you are artistically driven?
JL: Yes. It makes me more serious, more aware of certain kinds of stakes. I haven’t written very much fiction explicitly about cancer, not compared to my total output otherwise, but it’s made me reflective of the things I’m writing and what they say.
With the new diagnosis, I am now being forced to prioritize future projects, take some things off the table I probably won’t live long enough to write, find collaborators for other projects, and consider which projects I want to focus my energy and creativity upon.
My drive now is to do what I can for myself, my family and my readers.
SQ: Your childhood involved a lot of travel. How do you think that influences your writing?
JL: Oh, profoundly. I doubt I’d be writing science fiction and fantasy today if not for my childhood experiences. I was born in Taiwan, and spent most of my childhood living in West Africa and Southeast Asia. That gave me a profound sense of the Other, both as an observer and as a primary internal experience. It also gave me a profound sense of place, of setting, of sensory detail, that has carried forward in much of my writing over the years.
SQ: You spend a lot of time speaking to other authors and fans. Why is this important to you?
JL: Because so many authors and fans spent time speaking to me when I was aspiring to publication. I cannot ever pay them back. I can pay forward, and hopefully in some small part help inspire another generation of writers. No one writes alone, not if they’re writing in a genre tradition. I want to see those new voices. So I do what I can to open doors for them.
SQ: Hawaiian shirts seem to be a favorite of yours. What started the admiration?
JL: On my best day, I’m a badly dressed fat guy. Hawaiian shirts are great way to own that and make it fun. Plus at a lot of conventions (horror and steampunk, for example), being dressed aloha makes me very easy to spot in a crowd.
I really appreciate both the publication opportunity and the interview. Thank you.