Gail Carriger mashes up urban fantasy, steampunk, and Victorian gothics in her Parasol Protectorate series. She explains what inspired the series, how she arrived at her soulless protagonist, and what's next for her heroine.
Carriger's series follows the adventures of Alexia Tarabotti, a youngish woman living in an alternate Victorian London populated with all manner of supernatural creatures. Werewolves serve in Her Majesty's army; vampires set the fashion trends. Relentlessly down-to-Earth, Alexia is nevertheless an object of great interest in the fang-and-fur set, because she's soulless, and her touch instantly neutralizes supernatural powers. She's neither your average Victorian heroine nor a typical modern slayer, but she's awfully handy with a blunt object. Carrier told us how the character came about and what we can expect from her in her next adventure.
I read on your website that you started out working on a YA book, right?
I started out writing an epic-fantasy-style YA series, back 10 or 12 years ago. I worked on that series for ages and ages, and I sent it out and got a lot of positive feedback. But I didn't get any traction selling it, and looking back on it now, I realize it didn't have that undefinable commercial thing that publishers are looking for. But for years I considered myself a YA author, and I think I use a lot of techniques out of young adult, for pacing and dialogue and other tricks. But yeah, I came out of YA, I suppose you could say.
I see. And how did you get started with this particular series? What made you shift gears?
I took a step back and looked at what editors had bought from me in the past. I'd sold a couple of short stories, and those were all adults' and they were all comedic. So I thought to myself, well, if I want to sell something, I probably have to switch markets. So gave myself a test. I like certain subgenres within science fiction and fantasy, and one of those is urban fantasy and another is steampunk. But I was noticing there wasn't a lot of light-hearted fare, and I wanted some farcical, P.G. Wodehouse steampunk in my life. There also weren't a lot of urban fantasies set in historical periods, which I really love. So what I really wanted to read was a comedic steampunk urban fantasy—but it wasn't there. So I twiddled my thumbs for a little while and waited for someone to write it, and then thought that maybe the world was telling me what to write next.
So you literally started with what you wanted to read.
Basically, yeah. I consider science fiction and fantasy my genre. And I've noticed over the years that there doesn't tend to be a lot of lighthearted, comedic stuff. Of course, there are Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. But there aren't a lot of women writers writing fun, funny science fiction and fantasy with strong, central female heroines, which is what I really enjoy. I wanted my kind of heroine and with some of the newer tropes that have been entering the genre more recently, like steampunk and urban fantasy.
Did you find it difficult to balance the folkloric, urban fantasy elements with the steampunk elements?
Not at all. To me, steampunk and urban fantasy are naturally hinged together. And I think that's because I love the early gothic Victorian literature, and both things spring from that movement. Gothic literature gave birth to a lot of the archetypes that we use. Vampires and werewolves come out of the time period, but so do H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. So to me, because they're all utilizing the same initial literary tropes and archetypes, they mesh really well.
I also imposed certain restrictions on myself when I was world-building this alternate history, and one of them was I wasn't allowed to use magic or the occult. I wanted to have the scientific elements. So if I was going to have a Victorian world where vampires, werewolves, and ghosts did actually exist, the Victorian mind would try to understand them, using the medical science and chemistry and biology and whatever pseudoscience they had. And I think that simple rule kept that balance between the steampunk, which is very scientifically based, and the urban fantasy, which, generally speaking, is not very scientifically based.
And the funny thing is, the more I did research on different aspects of Victorian society, the more it made sense. I'd research something like the British regimental system, and it would look, if you take a step back, exactly like the way wolf packs are set up. The obvious explanation to me is they were using werewolves in their army. Or you look at all these bizarre fashions from the Victorian era, with the cravats and the incredibly pale face and the obsession with parasols and big hats. And if vampires were setting the fashion trends, then obviously all these things would be there. Suddenly what's ridiculous seems perfectly logical.
There all these steampunk and fantastical elements that are just fun to read about. I'm curious—which came first when you were writing, the fun steampunk elements or the plot?
Well, it depends on the book and it depends on which particular incident we're talking about. The first book was pretty light on steampunk, because I thought a romance publisher might pick it up. After I knew they wanted a series from me and that I was going to a science fiction house, I could play with the word-building more. Then the steampunk became more and more a natural part of the world. Sometimes I need to get my character moving, and I'll have to come up with a steampunk thing for her to travel on. Sometimes, I'm researching the time period and some Victorian gadget comes up that could become an element if I just twist it or stick on a steam engine.
It sounds like you do a lot of research. How do you go about it?
At least half my writing time is spent researching. So for every hour I'm actually clicking on the keyboard, I'm spending another hour trying to figure out some tiny detail I need answered.
But I come to it from a complete love of the Victorian era. It's one of my favorite time periods. I participate in San Francisco's Dickens Fair, and when I was a little kid I used to take my hula hoop and turn it into a hoop skirt. But most of my knowledge is in specific areas that interest me, like the fashion or the manners. So I have to do a lot of research on those parts of the time I'm not familiar with. I'll get derailed trying to figure out how fast the trains went, how long it would have taken a steam train to get from Birmingham to Durham.
The fact that the main character is actually soulless—how did you come to that? What inspired that concept?
This had two hooks. First, once I restricted so everything had to be scientifically explained, I really started looking into the mindset of a scientist from the period. A lot of Victorian medical doctors used to think was there would be this balance in the natural world. Next to a poisonous plant will be the cure. In the series, I call this the counterbalance theorem. So if scientists are studying vampires and werewolves, they're going to think there's something that's not necessarily a slayer, but is kind of a ground. So then I started to think, what if vampires aren't soulless? What if, in fact, they have something that's extra, that allows them to survive better than everyone else? What if you have an excess of something and that's what allows you to survive that bite? And what if that excess is impossible to predict and very rare?
So that's the first concept. Then, I started to research the Victorian idea of the soul. And they really did believe it was concrete. Scientists of the time were religious men, and they thought their beliefs could be scientifically explained. Then I ran across this one gentleman who was actually trying to weigh the soul, who would take people near the end of their lives and put them on scales and weigh them before and after death. So I thought the Victorians would probably call this excess soul, and that's where I came up with the idea that vampires and werewolves would have excess soul. Then, with the counterbalance theory, the person who would balance them would have no soul at all.
I didn't want to go with the standard idea of a prophecy or a very special person. I wanted my main character to be unique, but I wanted her power to be more Victorian. It's more that she cancels people out or grounds them. I also love the idea of a heroine whose main skill is that she's just very, very practical and very logical, and her perspective on the world is really what gives her an upper hand. She does have this one strange ability, but really her advantage is its effect on her personality, which makes her very prosaic.
What's next after Changeless? You've sold two more novels set in the same world, right?
Right, I've got 5 total.
Are the main characters coming back? Will we see some overlap?
All 5 of the books are Alexia as the main character. I am 99.9 percent sure I'm going to be stopping this series then. I would love to keep writing in the world, and I do hope and intend to do so. That might be writing about the generations that came before or those that will come after, or it might be an exploration of some of the more popular side characters. I think the world is rich enough for me to keep dabbling in it, but I do want to have a nice, clean arc for these characters.
And finally, in honor of Alexia—what's your favorite accompaniment to tea?
Oh, my goodness, you mean in the whole wide world, if i could just pluck it out of the ether?
Yes, if it could just be quantum faxed to your door right now, what would it be?
Well, I am fortunate enough to live near one of the best Italian pastry places in the world, so, and they have something that's essentially cream puff, made with a special italian cream, and it has kind of a brandy flavoring to it, and they soak a little bit of the pastry in the bottom in some kind of sugary watery rummy, so it's both puffy and crispy, and it's got the cream in the middle but its also got a little bit of a wet, denseness. But generally what i settle on it a little dark chocolate with almonds, and that's how I make it through the second half of any day: A little tea and dark chocolate.