Monday, June 7, 2010

World Building with Gail Carriger

by Raelene Gorlinsky

If you read my January post about my two favorite books of 2009, you may recall that one of them was Soulless by Gail Carriger. And one of the reasons was because of its unique world and wonderful world building. Well, Gail has agreed to talk a bit about how she created this steampunk series and designed the world. So in Gail's own words--

How did you come up with the idea for this series?

The simple fact is: this was what I wanted to read. I enjoy urban fantasy but am not wild about a modern setting. I like steampunk but it tends to be a little too dark and riddled with technobabble for me. So I thought I might just combine the two, and then shake it up with a jot more romance and a whole lot of comedy. Then I started thinking about what kind of world could accommodate all these different elements. I'm familiar with the Victorian era and I find it a rich source of amusement in and of itself. Those ridiculous fashions and that obsession with etiquette seem the perfect time period to drop in vampires (dictating such things) and werewolves (chaffing against them) not to mention steam technology. It seemed to me that what comedy I couldn't supply with plot and character, an alternate Victorian London could provide just by being itself.

So where did you go from there?

After deciding on a setting, I started idly toying with the idea of how a person would become undead. After all, if vampires and werewolves are bouncing about, what's to keep them from turning everyone? There must be biological procreative controls in place. Taking into account what I knew of Victorian scientific theory, I hypothesized that an excess soul found in only a few people might account for bite-survival rates. This led me to investigate the measuring of the soul – which an American scientist actually tried to do in the late 1800s. This, in turn, led to the idea that if some people had too much soul there should be others who had too little, or none at all. And these people could act as nullifiers to supernatural abilities. Thus Alexia was born.

You have some interesting theories about the Victorian society.

I've long been troubled by certain quirks of history that seem never adequately explained. The most confusing of these is how one tiny island with abysmal taste in food, excellent taste in beverages, and a penchant for poofy dresses suddenly managed to take over most of the known world? How did one tiny island manage to conquer an empire upon which the sun never set? I decided that the only possible answer was that England openly accepted supernatural creatures, and put them to good use, while other countries continued persecution. This led me to postulate that King Henry's breach with the Church was over open acceptance of vampires and werewolves into society (the divorce thing was just a front). This gave Great Britain a leg up dealing with messy little situations like winning major foreign battles or establishing an efficient bureaucracy or convincing the world cricket is a good idea. Suddenly, everything made sense: cravats cover bite marks, the British regimental system is clearly based on werewolf pack dynamics, and pale complexions are in vogue because everyone wants to look like the trend-setting vampires.

And how did the steampunk element fit in?

It seems to me that, if supernatural creatures were running around Victorian London, scientists of the day would be trying to understand them, dissect them, fight them, and avoid them. I didn't want magic in my world, but 19th century science is almost as effective. This, in turn, would lead to new and strange advancements in science and medicine. In the world of the Parasol Protectorate, simply put, urban fantasy tropes have steampunk consequences.

I try to stay as accurate to 1873 England as possible. Changes leak in as either alternate explanations for reality, or alternate inventions to deal with the non-reality I've injected. There are still hansoms roaming London but dirigibles, for example, have risen to prominence as an alternate mode of long distance transport because vampires and werewolves cannot use them. Alternative guns have evolved utilizing silver and wood bullets. And, of course, the supernatural creatures themselves take a keen interest in promoting new technology and have the funds to do so. You could say that my steampunk is the result of the supernatural intrusion into the Victorian world. I think the path to world consistency for me was in letting my Victorians behave like Victorians, and react to my supernatural elements as they probably would have, by coming up with wild theories and tests and gadgets.

And so Alexia, where'd she come from?

Suddenly, I've got steampunk gadgets trying to weigh people's souls, and scientists theorizing that it is through a rare inclination towards excess soul that some survive supernatural metamorphosis. And that, rather long-windedly, is how Alexia was born. For if some people have an over-abundance of soul, there must also exist an antidote, a person with no soul at all.

What made you settle on vampires, werewolves and ghosts?

For one thing, they just fit so well with the premise of the science of the soul. For another, they are all monsters with strong Victorian literature ties. I've read a lot of gothic lit over the years. Those three monsters in particular strike me as quintessentially Victorian. So I decided to twist it around and explore a world where such supernatural creatures were accepted as part of society – what, then, becomes the monster?

New York Times Bestselling author Gail Carriger began writing in order to cope with being raised in obscurity by an expatriate Brit and an incurable curmudgeon. She escaped small town life and inadvertently acquired several degrees in Higher Learning. Ms. Carriger then traveled the historic cities of Europe, subsisting entirely on biscuits secreted in her handbag. She now resides in the Colonies, surrounded by fantastic shoes, where she insists on tea imported directly from London. She is fond of teeny tiny hats and tropical fruit. The Parasol Protectorate books are: Soulless (Oct. 2009), Changeless (March 2010), Blameless (September 2010), Heartless (2011), and Timeless (2012).


Adele Dubois said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your interview. Your books sound terrific. Very unique. I loved reading the P.G. Wodehouse series, and since your books are dubbed "P.G. Wodehouse meets Jane Austen" I'm sure I'll enjoy them.

Best of luck for your continued success.

--Adele Dubois

Samantha Kane said...

I just finished Soulless and loved it! Very unique, with just the right blend of world-building and humor. I agree that most urban fantasies and steampunks are too dark, at least for me. I can't wait to read the next one in the series.

World-building is a step-by-step process. You start with a foundation, in your case Victorian England, and then build your world brick-by-brick on that foundation, one level logically leading to another. It worked beautifully for you in Soulless. Congratulations on the popularity of the series. :-)

Jory Strong said...

Raelene sold me on Soulless at Romanticon last year with her enthusiasm, and thanks to Amazon and Kindle, I downloaded and read it on my way back from Ohio. Loved it. Very creative and fun.

Shelley Munro said...

I loved Soulless and have the next book on my pile to read. I enjoyed reading how you came up with the idea for your series. I must say it was good to have some comedy instead of the usual darkness that seems to abound.