Although many may recognize her name from the whirlwind success of her Clockwork Century novel Boneshaker, Cherie Priest is no starry–eyed newcomer to the world of publishing. A Nebula and Hugo Award nominee, as well as winner of the 2010 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, Ms. Priest has published over a dozen novels and novellas, and a good clutch of short fiction of which Apex Magazine has more than once been lucky enough to host within its pages. She is the author of the Southern Gothic–style novel Four and Twenty Blackbirds, the first of three novels in the Eden Moore Series, as well as the urban fantasy Cheshire Red Reports Series, among many others, most notably the novels which comprise the Clockwork Century, which are pure American Steampunk at its finest.
This issue of Apex Magazine includes Ms. Priest’s short story, “Reluctance,” and she has generously offered up some of her time to discuss this story as well as odd historical facts, steampunk fashion, MA programs, blogging, and much more.
APEX MAGAZINE: “Reluctance” is a wonderful slice of the Clockwork Century world you created in Boneshaker and have continued in Dreadnaught, Clementine, Ganymede, and The Inexplicables. What was the spark that inspired you to write a short story set in that world?
CHERIE PRIEST: I wanted to write a traditional zombie story, and I wanted to write a story about what happens to child soldiers after a war. These two things collided, and off I went…
(I was doing some research on the subject re: the American Civil War, and very young Confederate soldiers in particular. Boys as young as thirteen are fairly well documented, and some claimed to have been younger.)
AM: The semi–hopeful but somewhat nebulous ending of “Reluctance” doesn’t explicitly state that Walter gets away, though of course I suspect the reader will hope he does. Why did you decide to end the story at this point?
CP: Oh, I think it’s fairly clear that he gets away, at least from this particular run–in with the undead. Maybe next time, he won’t be so lucky, eh? I ended the story there, because that’s where the conflict ends — when he goes from the verge of doom to relative safety, that’s all.
AM: Walter is a wonderful living, breathing character, from the detail of his mechanical prosthetic leg, to his charming tendency to smoke where he really probably shouldn’t (given all the hydrogen around); how did you decide on him as the lead character for this story? And, the natural follow up to that: any possible chance that we might see a cameo of him again in other Clockwork Century stories?
CP: I needed a character who was impulsive, who’d shoot first and ask questions later. He needed to be young, but to have some battle experience, too — not too grizzled, but not naive, either. Walter kind of gelled around those things, and I liked making him just a tiny bit haunted, too.
You never know, he might turn up again. I have a habit of doing that kind of thing…
AM: Most people are familiar with the time period of your Clockwork Century books, but those aren’t the only spec fic books you’ve written which touch on the Civil War era. Your first series, following Eden Moore, also touches on that period. When did you first become interested in the Civil War era?
CP: I’m from the southeast. (Gulf Coast mostly, and more recently, Tennessee.) Chatter about the Civil War — and alternate theories thereof — is a regional past time down here. Especially in the southern border states, like where I am now, every place is a battlefield. You can’t swing a stick without hitting a historic marker, detailing who died here back in the 1860s during which particular confrontation.
So I say all that to say this: when you live here, or you spend any time here, it’s hard to ignore it. Like the old Palmolive commercial: You’re soaking in it.
AM: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that research is one of your hobbies, and you certainly did a lot of research for Boneshaker, but also for your Eden Moore series. In your forays into history, is there any particular strange, weird, or wonderful real–fact that you’ve come across that still stick in your mind as especially fascinating?
CP: Real life is a lot weirder than anything I could make up, and I use real life historical figures and events all the time for that very reason. I think the one that gets the most play (from the Eden books) is my use of the Moccasin Bend mental health facility. It’s the state repository for the criminally insane, built on an ancient Cherokee burial ground. BECAUSE OF COURSE IT IS.
AM: Your blog on your website is one of my favorite author sites to follow, mainly for the specific details you provided on word count and the day’s writing progress, but also for the often humorous and tantalizing way you describe your works–in–progress. Who wouldn’t be interested in the story behind today’s blog post: “Shit has hit the fan in a number of ways, and it’s about to get worse. What does it mean when you don’t hold your breath under water… but you don’t drown, either?” How did you decide on writing this kind of blog?
CP: I shamelessly ripped off Elizabeth Bear, who has (had?) a habit of posting these kinds of metrics. Also, it gives me content on days when I feel like nothing has gone on but writing work, and I have nothing at all to say. Besides, it keeps me honest, and keeps my momentum up.
AM: You also run a secondary blog specifically for the Clockwork Century books and stories. What made you decide to split that site apart from your day–to–day website? What does having that secondary site allow you to do, as an author and promoter, that a combined site might not?
CP: I’ve been pretty crappy about keeping the other site up, now that you mention it. I need to fix that before the next book comes out. But as for why I split them out — it’s a boring answer: I just wanted a place to direct people with their frequently asked questions. The Clockwork books are my biggest sellers, but I *do* work on other things from time to time, so I guess the franchise just got big enough that it seemed to require its own space.
AM: You’ve always written novels, but “Reluctance” shows you’ve got a knack for short fiction, too. What made you decide to foray into short fiction, and how did you manage the transition from writing novels and novellas to short stories? Was it easier or more difficult than you expected?
CP: Thanks, I appreciate it — but to be honest, I don’t write very much short fiction at all… because I feel it’s not my strong suit, and in general, I’d rather write long form. I wrote “Reluctance” because I was invited into an awesome anthology. Most of my short fiction has come about this way, via an invite from someone who I can’t say “no” to.
AM: There are rumblings everywhere on the internet that you’ve written for video games in the past (possibly with EA Games), though in previous interviews, you’ve had to be rather cagey about details, due to the in–progress nature of the work in which you were involved. What video games have you worked on (if you can say) and do you have any plans or hopes to write for video games again?
CP: I worked for EA in 2011, as a contributing writer on Dead Space 3. Since I’m listed in the credits as such, I have to assume I’m free to chat about it; but that’s pretty much all I’m prepared to say on the subject. I haven’t played the game and have no intention of doing so; therefore, I don’t know how much of my material they did — or did not — use, when all was said and done.
I remain grateful for the opportunity and I valued the experience, but I’m not interested in writing for EA again.
AM: You have a BA in English from Southern Adventist University and an MA in composition/rhetoric from the University of Tennessee. Many authors debate whether or not to attend a graduate writing or English degree program. What is your perspective on this? Do you feel that having your Masters in composition/rhetoric has helped your career as a novelist?
CP: I went straight for the M.A., right out of college, because I owed mid–five–figures in student loan debt and I couldn’t get a job. It wasn’t any planned campaign to break into professional writing, I promise — and really, there’s not much to be done with that degree except teach Freshman Comp. Which I did. And it… um… wasn’t for me. For that matter, academia by and large wasn’t for me — and I think if I’d stayed in any longer, I would’ve burned so many calories on it that I might never have written books at all.
So I guess if you want to be a writer and you’re thinking about an advanced degree to further (or jump–start) your career, my personal advice would be to skip it. Go get a degree in something else, if you’re really hell–bent for academic leather — go get eyeballs deep in something that will fuel your stories down the road, that’s what I say.
Besides, advanced writing programs do not typically (maybe ever?) offer courses on the actual *business* of writing, which is a shame, considering how many people go into these things hoping to earn a living on the other side.
But I don’t know. My experience is not your experience. Your mileage may vary.
(To be clear, I got a lot out of the UTC program: I made some great friends and had some wonderful teachers, and I don’t regret it for a moment.)
AM: You’ve got quite a wardrobe of steampunk fashions (I’ve heard rumors of a great number of hats, among other things): what is your favorite piece of steampunk–wear and why?
CP: Big fluffy skirts. I have an assortment of them, and sometimes I layer them up for good swooshing measure. I like the swish when I walk. I like the way you can hardly see my feet, and it looks like I’m gliding. I’ve always been a small person, and I enjoy taking up the extra space.
AM: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the next few months/years?
CP: This fall will see another big installment in the Clockwork Century books, Fiddlehead — via Tor in November; and I also have a short story in the Wild Cards universe heading up to Tor.com one of these days soon (wish I could be more precise, sorry, I don’t know). But mostly this year is devoted to writing, because *next* year I’ll have Maplecroft — via Ace, next winter; and another, shorter Clockwork Century project — Jacaranda — from Subterranean Press. Then in 2015, a young adult project from Scholastic called I Am Princess X.
So there’s a lot on the docket — and it all has to be written before March of next year. Wee!
AM: Thank you so much for lending us your time and for sharing “Reluctance” with us. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I’m sure our readers will, too!
CP: Thanks for having me on board! Go, Apex, go!