I had the opportunity to interview Ben Winters, author of such mashup novels from Quirk such as Android Karenina and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.
Q&A with Author Ben Winters
Lolita Suzanne: Hi Ben! Thank you so much for agreeing to visit us.
Ben Winters: Oh, my pleasure! Thanks for having me!
LS: So, Ben, have you always wanted to be a writer?
BW: Oh, sure, although my original ambitions were mostly geared writing for performance. I was always in bands, writing lyrics, and after college I spent some time doing mostly mediocre standup comedy; eventually I ended up as a journalist, and spent half a decade or so writing for the theater. These days my primary focus is on fiction.
LS: How did you get into writing mash-ups? What are the unique challenges to this particular genre that you wouldn’t find in say…urban fantasy?
BW: I got into mash-ups by the most wonderful serendipity imaginable. I was living in Philadelphia for one year, about four years ago, for reasons having to do with my wife’s career. Our little apartment in Old City, on Church Street, was across the street from a small publisher called Quirk Books.
I pitched one thing they didn’t take; edited a book for them that never got published, and finally ended up writing a bunch of the Worst Case Scenario Survival Guide books for them. So when Quirk needed a writer to follow up on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, they brought me in to do Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. It was such a blast to write, I was delighted when they were interested in having me do another.
LS: But Steampunk Tolstoy? Really? How did you come up with that? They seem to be worlds apart. What came first–the Steampunk or the Tolstoy?
BW: Actually, Tolstoy is more steampunk than you might think. At least, his work is obsessed with the ways the new technologies of his time were changing the landscape of society. Interestingly, at one point in Anna Karenina, Anna refers to her cold, uncaring husband as “a machine.” So all I did was amplify an existing theme of the book: how technology is this powerful, violent force, which can make our lives vastly easier and/or destroy us all.
LS: Are you a Steampunk fan? A Tolstoy fan? What research did you have to do in writing this book?
BW: Oh, I’ve always loved Tolstoy. I first read Anna as well as War and Peace while in college. My favorite is a smaller book, one of his first, called Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. It’s one of those books where you read it and feel like everything he’s describing — about growing up, about family, and first love, all of it — he somehow got into your head and plucked out directly.
Before this project, i was familiar with steampunk more as an sartorial/design concept, rather than as a literary genre, but I’ve now had ample opportunity to study and appreciate the whole incredible culture. I went to the Steampunk World’s Fair to do a reading, and I was just blown away by the range of imagination on display, from the gleefully silly to the grim and dark. I’m a big fan of speculative fiction in general — the idea of tugging on one strand of history and seeing how the tapestry is altered.
LS: How long did it take you to write Android Karenina?
BW: Oh, about a year. Including months of — sorry, this was actually your last question — reading: reading and re-reading the original text a lot, but also immersing myself in great sci-fi, everything from Isaac Asimov to Philip K. Dick to Iain Banks to Battlestar Galactica.
LS: Can you tell me about how (and why) you conceived the “Iron Laws of Robot Behavior?” I have to say those made me very happy. 🙂 Did you come up with them before you wrote the story? Or did they emerge as you crafted it?
BW: Hmmm — I think they emerged as I was writing. The Iron Laws are obviously an homage to Asimov, who was (like Tolstoy!) deeply interested in the relationship between man and technology.
I was interested, as legions of sci-fi writers have been before me, in the question of how we can create super-intelligent, human-like machines, without running the risk of rebellion. With all the corollary questions such as, How do we treat them humanely? How much responsibility can we give them? What does it do to our own “humanness” to rely on human-like machines? And etc.
LS: So…how much has Asimov influenced you? What other authors do you admire? What sort of books do you read?
BW: Allow me to be totally obnoxious and answer with a link; I did this blog post for Quirk about my influences in writing the book
LS: Can you tell us what’s next? Cyberpunk Dickens perhaps?
BW: Well, I know Quirk has plans to continue the series, but I’m taking a breather from mash-up land. My next book is a young adult novel about a punk-rock Band and a Chorus teacher.
LS: Congrats on the YA book. It’s always nice to have other young adult writers on.
BW: And for the record, I wouldn’t mash-up Charles Dickens with a ten foot masher-upper stick. His work is already so heightened in so many ways, it would be foolhardy to add a new, over-the-top concept to it.
LS: Hmmm….I keep having visions of Fagin and his thieves with green mohawks, motorcycles, and bionic limbs….
Thank you so much for visiting Steamed!, Ben. We appreciate you taking the time to visit us.
BW: Happy to be here! Please let your readers know how much I’ve enjoyed getting to play in the steampunk universe.