Lolita Suzanne: Hi Kate, welcome to Steamed! Thank you so much for joining us. You’re new young adult novel, The Boneshaker, comes out next month. Is this your first release? Can you share the story of “the Call”, the “email” or how you broke through into publishing?
Kate Milford: Yes, this is my first. I originally moved to NYC to write plays. My friend Julie kind of put me up to writing my first attempt at a book, and helped me figure out how to do it. My second attempt was a short book called Gingerfoot, which became The Boneshaker. As far as the call/email goes, I sent out a ton of query letters (I think about 30). I had about six ask for chapters and three ask for full manuscripts. One of the agencies I queried was Scovil Galen Ghosh—they represent Cory Doctorow and Charles de Lint, and on their website Russell Galen had this absolutely wonderful statement about why he became an agent that I found really inspiring. Ann Behar had just been put in charge of SGG’s juvenile titles, and she emailed back asking for the manuscript. We exchanged a few emails and she asked for some revisions, which I did, and then she invited me to lunch and it wasn’t until the end of the meal when she said something like, “Oh, and by the way, I’d love to offer you representation.” What’s funny is that we had such a nice time chatting that it hadn’t even occurred to me to be at the edge of my seat waiting for her to make the offer. She sold the book almost a year later to Lynne Polvino at Clarion. I think at that point I was pestering my husband to check my email during the day because I couldn’t do it at work (I work full-time managing a shop in SoHo, and at the time I didn’t have a phone with email capabilities), so he got the email first and called me to tell me to call Ann. I got the news secondhand.
LS: At least you got the news from your hubby. That’s quite the story. Can you tell us what The Boneshaker is about?
KM: It’s set in Missouri in 1913 in a crossroads town called Arcane. Shortly after Arcane’s doctor goes to the aid of a nearby town suffering from a flu epidemic, Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show rolls into town, and although everybody’s skeptical at first, the hucksters win the town over pretty quickly. Only a few people get a really bad feeling about Limberleg and his cohorts, and one of them is Natalie Minks, who’s the thirteen year-old daughter of Arcane’s bicycle mechanic. So of course, it falls to Natalie to save the world from a bunch of diabolical snake oil salesmen. That’s the short version; there’s also Old Tom Guyot, who’s kind of a Robert/Tommy Johnson figure who met the Devil at the crossroads and beat him in a head cutting—a musical duel. There’s Jack, a drifter who happens to be passing through town at the same time as the Nostrum Fair for very specific reasons. There’s Simon Coffrett, who rented space to Jake Limberleg for the Fair and lives a mansion in a grove where albatrosses roost and the trees are hung with dozens of wind chimes. There’s a vicious harlequin, a lonely demon, and a mechanical fortune-teller that quotes Edgar Allan Poe. Basically, the book’s a big collection of Weird Stuff I Think Is Cool.
LS: What an amazing, eclectic mix. It sounds terrific. The Boneshaker is “Steampunk” right? What elements in it make it Steampunk?
KM: I think so, but in order not to disappoint anybody who will read “steampunk” and expect an alt-Victorian world in which steam-driven technology plays a big part, let’s say it has a lot of steampunk detailing. Clockwork plays a huge part in the story. Jake Limberleg, the proprietor of the Nostrum Fair, collects automata—in fact, it’s Limberleg’s insistence that certain of his automata are perpetual motion machines that really convinces Natalie that something’s not right. The Paragons of Science, Limberleg’s colleagues, are specialists in Victorian (and earlier) medical technologies: Phrenology, Magnetism, Hydrotherapy, and Amber Therapy. The world of the Nostrum Fair, I think, has a very steampunky feel to it, even if its technology has more to do with clockwork and electricity (the fair’s electrical power, for instance, comes from bicycle-driven generators).
LS: Sounds good to me! So, where did you get the idea for this story?
KM: Well, I did a lot of research into Victorian medicine and psychology for my first attempt at fiction. Then I found an article in the New Yorker on the Jamaica Ginger epidemic of the 1930’s. During Prohibition, patent and proprietary medicines were one of the common ways by which people found drinking liquor, and one of the most popular cheap medicinal tipples was Jamaica Ginger, or jake. There were all kinds of rules intended to keep medicines from being used for drinking, one of which was to regulate the amount of ginger solids used. Without getting too nerdy with the details, in order to adhere to the regulations but still have a palatable product, a chemical plasticizer was used (which happened to be a neurotoxin). There are a ton of blues songs that reference the symptoms that resulted, which were often called jake leg or, in one song, “the old jake limber leg blues.” This, apart from giving me the name of my villain, put me onto patent medicines and from there I started reading about traveling medicine shows. Somewhere in there I read Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Golden Compass, which definitely shaped Limberleg and Natalie. Plus my husband, Nathan, who gets me like nobody else, is constantly sending me links and book recommendations and making comments that start with some variation on, “You know what would be cool for your next Natalie story…” I’m really fortunate that my husband is not a writer.
LS: Thank goodness for creative and understanding husbands. Why Steampunk—what drew you to Steampunk and caused you to incorporate these elements into your story?
KM: I just have always liked old stuff, weird stuff, mechanical stuff. I think, for instance, that old light bulbs and radio tubes are just beautiful, and I keep pretty ones in bud vases. The year I typed the end on my first book manuscript my reward to myself was an antique Underwood typewriter. I actually had never heard of it when I wrote the first draft five years ago or whenever it was, so I wasn’t out to write steampunk, precisely; I certainly didn’t know the conventions, didn’t have any sense of what people would expect from a “steampunk” novel. It was Nathan that brought the term “steampunk” to my attention, and once I realized there was this world of people who liked the same weird stuff I did and wrote about it, I was hooked. Now, of course, I’ve read lots, but clearly I’m not a purist. Then again, I sort of don’t want reading one of my books to feel like reading anybody else’s. The book I’m working on now, for instance, has some fairly insane gadgetry, a sweet pair of goggles, a difference engine inspired by Neal Stephenson and a ship I think would do Jules Verne proud, but it’s set in a contemporary city, it’s about contemporary teens, and there’s precious little steam.
LS: That sounds fun, too. Why did you choose to write for young adults? What age group is this most appropriate for? Will adults enjoy it?
KM: My mom and I decided to submit manuscripts to a children’s book contest. I wanted her to finish working on this story she was writing (Uncle Fenton’s Pearls, which is still one of my favorite books) and start submitting it, and I’d finished that first manuscript I wrote which frankly wasn’t very good and I wanted to see if I could do better. So I wrote the first draft in two weeks in order to make the contest deadline (it wasn’t, you know, good or anything at that point, but I finished it, which was a big deal for me).
Age group—I’m really glad you asked this. The age recommendation on the book is ages 10 and up, which technically makes it upper middle-grade, I guess, but Amazon has it for ages 9-12 for reasons none of those of us involved with the book can figure out, because there’s some pretty scary stuff in there. And yes, I do think adults will enjoy this book a ton. Natalie’s a young protagonist, but she and Jake Limberleg and Tom and the rest are, I think, pretty complex characters and part of a reasonably intricate story. In my humble (but probably biased) opinion, of course.
LS: Tell me about the city of Nagspeake?
KM: Nagspeake was another of Nathan’s brilliant ideas that he was kind enough to let me have. I love cities and small towns, and I love fiction that brings a place to life to the point that it becomes a character. Nathan’s very much a tech geek, and he suggested I amuse myself while waiting for agency responses (this is when I was still querying The Boneshaker) by building myself a city, and his logic was that, online, my city could be as real as any other. So I started building Nagspeake. It’s a coastal city built on the iron bones of an earlier city, the history of which nobody really knows because the city has a long-standing tradition in which the civic archives are burned every 25 years. This makes it particularly interesting to be building the city online—I wonder how long I’ll get away with it before the city government starts getting its back up over the fact that it can’t burn my work up along with everything else.
Nagspeake now exists in a cluster of websites (some more active than others—in the last year I’ve been pretty busy with other things) and occasionally on Twitter. The primary point was to build the city and have a few stories hidden within the content on the websites, but last year I wrote a draft of a book set there that I’m revising right now. That was kind of funny—my husband found out he was going to lose half his salary during the economic freak-out at the beginning of 2009, and I naively thought, I better get moving on a next book so I can save us if Nathan loses his job—because obviously a first-time novelist can just write a book fast and replace half of an information technology salary on like a month’s notice. (By which I mean: what was I thinking?) I’m also working on a cookbook (written by the proprietor of a Nagspeake candy shop and hooch parlor called Magothy Treats) and a collection of short stories. These may very well wind up being things that only entertain me (at least until the current work-in-progress hits the shelves), but just in case, here’s a special post for readers of The Age of Steam.
LS: A cookbook? That sounds like a lot of fun. I think personal writing projects are vital to the mental health of writers. J Do you have any upcoming events/appearances? Anything else in the works?
KM: In terms of appearances, I know for sure I’ll be at BEA on Wednesday, 5/26. I’m still working on my summer schedule after that; as soon as I have specifics I’ll post it on my website. I’m also finishing the book set in Nagspeake, which I presume will be my next release; an older YA set on a forgotten highway across the U.S., and a follow-up to The Boneshaker.
LS: That sounds fabulous, I can’t wait to read The Boneshaker. Thank you so much for stopping by and being part of Steampunkapalooza.
KM: Thanks for having me to visit!
Winning the advance reader copy is easy, just leave a comment, or a question for Kate, below. To earn an extra entry, blog/tweet/post about Kate’s visit and let us know about it. You can also become a member of Kate’s Facebook Group or the Steamed! Facebook group or follow the Steamed blog. Let us know if you joined, or if you’re all ready a member to get your entries. Contest closes Tuesday, April 27th, at 11:59 pm PST and the winner will be announced Thursday, April 29th.
Tuesday, April 27th Emilie P. Bush comes to visit. The creators of the Girl Genius Comic stop by on Thursday, April 29th. Diana Vic from SteamCon visits on friday, April 30th. Lolita Elizabeth and Lolita Marie-Claude will also be giving us updates from the Romantic Times Convention. This is the final week of Steampunkapalooza, but the Lolitas of Steamed have all sorts of things in store in the coming months.