Magic, Mayhem, and Steampunk: An Interview with Julia Verne St. John

Transference EngineI’m delighted to have Julia Verne St. John as my special guest. She’s the author of The Transference Engine, a steampunk novel of magic and machines set in an alternate 1830s London, just out from DAW Books. Here’s the skinny on the book:

Madame Magdala has reinvented herself many times, trying to escape Lord Byron’s revenge. She destroyed the Transference Engine Byron hoped to use to transfer his soul into a more perfect body and perpetuate his life eternally. A fanatical cult of necromancers continues Byron’s mission to force Magdala and Byron’s only legitimate child–Ada Lovelace–to rebuild the machine and bring Byron back.

Magdala now bills herself as the bastard daughter of a Gypsy King. She runs a fashionable London coffee salon and reading room while living a flamboyant lifestyle at the edge of polite society. Behind the scenes, she and Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, use the massive library stored at the Bookview Cafe to track political and mercantile activity around the world. They watch to make certain the cult of necromancy surrounding Lord Byron, the poet king who worshipped death, cannot bring him back to life.

On the eve of Queen Victoria’s coronation in June of 1838, rumors of an assassination attempt abound. Both the Bow Street Runners and Magdala’sarmy of guttersnipe spies seek to discover the plot and the plotters. Who is behind the mysterious black hot air balloon that shoots searing light from a hidden cannon, and who or what is the target? And who is kidnapping young girls from all walks of life?

Desperately, Magdala and her allies follow the clues, certain that someone is building a new Transference Engine. But is it to bring back the dead or destroy the living?
Deborah J. Ross:What was your inspiration for The Transference Engine?
BVC-TheShadowConspiracy-133x200-1Julia Verne St. John:  The character of Madame Magdala sprang from The Shadow Conspiracy anthology published by Book View Café. As co-editor I was in on the brainstorming for the shared-world anthology. The moment we decided to insert the Bookview Café as headquarters for the spy network seeking out evidence of a conspiracy to insert life-like automata into places of power with Lord Byron jumping from human body to automaton leading the way, I knew that I had to write the story of the woman in the corner reading the tea leaves. She ended up re-inventing herself as I wrote. She does that periodically.

DJR: How did you research The Transference Engine?
JVSJ:  Like most of my historicals, I started with a biography of a prominent person in the period, in this case Queen Victoria. There was a lot of tension and family conspiracies to keep her off the throne, or to accept a full regency. She’d been raised very much in isolation and was virtually unknown to both the people and the government that an assassination attempt at her coronation seemed inevitable. From there I read up on Ada Lovelace and her mother, the Reform Act of 1834, and the development of the Leyden jar, a primitive battery. Spot research on costumes, carriages, the working principles of steam engines and clockwork devices. I start with generalities and move to specifics and let the plot dictate where to search.


DJR: Is British history a special interest of yours? What drew you to this time period?

JVSJ: I’ve always been fascinated by history. I remember reading and re-reading “Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada” in the fifth grade. I could almost recite the whole book verbatim. I lived in Virginia during adolescence and was force fed the American Civil War. As an adult I discovered lace-making and fine textiles which led me to costume history and from thence into Victoriana. Madame Magdala and her outré wardrobe seemed a natural. One fascination leads to another and another.

DJR: Steampunk is very popular now. What do you think is its appeal?
JVSJ:  Steampunk started as a movement among costumers and took on a life of its own. There is a romance—in the grand Shadow Conspiracy IIIliterary tradition not bodice rippers—with elegant costumes that flow into the craftsmanship of steam engines, weapons, and furniture. The gilt and decoration are a seamless part of functionality. And since this is alternate history, the women don’t have to stay home and flutter their fans waiting for the men to return from their adventures. The woman can scythe their way through jungles, fly dirigibles, and fix the bloody engines, all while wearing a smart costume and a corset. The corset has become an essential accessory. The stays can become weapons and tools, the garment itself is protection from unwanted advances, and support for a tired back after hacking a path through the wilderness. Equality, elegance, and adventure. What more can you ask for.

DJR: You mentioned The Shadow Conspiracy anthology as an inspiration for The Transference Engine. Have we seen the last of Lord Byron and his fanatic followers? Are there other stories set in this world, for those of us who can’t get enough?

JVSJ: The Shadow Conspiracy is now up to three volumes, the latest set during the American Civil War. In this volume we tweaked the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, adding sentient or ensouled automata to the slaves that are freed. The standard period for Steampunk is loosely from Victoria’s coronation in 1838 to the beginning of World War I, when the internal combustion engine comes into its own and steam begins to fade out. That’s a lot of history. Expand the time period to include British colonial territories and the mythology of native peoples and the wealth of stories increases exponentially. As long as readers want more and writers are willing to provide the stories, I’ll keep editing those anthologies or writing more about Madame Magdala.

DJR:Madame Magdala has such a complex relationship with the dashing but dangerous Sir Andrew Fitzandrew. Do you think their love can survive the mistrust raised between them?
JVSJ:I don’t think their relationship will survive as is. But I think they can rebuild it from the ground up. It will be hard and probably take two or three more books to find a new and stronger trust between them.

DJR:What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
JVSJ:  I find the actual typing of the story the biggest challenge. My mind is running so fast my fingers can’t keep up. Often times, I have jumped ahead two or three scenes and end up typing dialog in the wrong place, action in rooms we haven’t entered yet, working with characters I haven’t introduced yet. Thankfully we have word processors and it’s relatively simple to cut and paste, insert the right scene and setting. My rough drafts tend to be short, incomplete, out of order and ugly. Subsequent drafts straighten out the mess.

DJR: How do you approach writing a novel?  Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
JVSJ:  Probably a hybrid. I have to do some prewriting. Usually I sell on a synopsis and three chapters. A synopsis needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. This is a good way to find out if a premise does make a story. It doesn’t always happen. I’d rather find this out at the synopsis level than half way through the book. Unlike some authors I need to know the ending so I have something to work toward. The synopsis is a skeleton of a story rather than a complete outline. The fun part is filling in the flesh and texture. Sometimes I have to discard the synopsis entirely half way through a book. This results in a flurry of phone calls to agent and editor who have been working behind the scenes on marketing and such based upon the original synopsis. But after thirty + books I’ve learned to make the synopsis better and workable

DJR: What else have you written?

JVSJ: As Julia Verne St. John I have written only The Transference Engine. As Irene Radford, we can start with the 4 series of The Dragon Nimbus and then move on to my big five book series of Merlin’s Descendants, and two paranormal romances Thistle Down and Chicory Up. And there are also 2 small press cozy mysteries Lacing up for Murder and Plowed Under. As P. R. Frost there are 4 books in the Tess Noncoiré contemporary fantasies. And lastly as C.F. Bentley I have 3 books out in the Confederated Star Systems series, Harmony, Enigma, and Mourner. And not quite lastly, Phyllis Ames wrote a contemporary fantasy about shape shifters in Frozen in Amber. There’s more to come as well.

DJR:  What’s next for you? Will we see more Madame Magdala adventures?
JVSJ:  My next book is a contemporary fantasy about a suburban sorceress.


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