Foggy London's the spiritual home of steampunk, but M.K. Hobson has set Native Star against Gilded Age America's rise to power—and added magic. We talk to Hobson about American steampunk, mixing history and fantasy, and mass media-inspired magic.
At the novel's opening, local herbalist and witch Emily Edwards is struggling valiantly to support herself and her father with her homey brand of spell-casting, despite the introduction of shiny new "patent magicks" from back East. She's also dealing with New York City know-it-all Dreadnought Stanton, who has come to enlighten the local yokels (meaning Emily) regarding modern magical methods. Unfortunately, her problems multiply when she winds up with a mysterious stone embedded in her palm, necessitating a wild trip across the country with the annoying Mr. Stanton. Chaos and romance both ensue.
The plot is classic road-trip fantasy adventure. But the world-building provides an interesting twist on America's rise as a modern, industrialized power: making warlocks an essential element of the country's industrial development. We talked to Hobson about her attraction to this particular era, her desire to write fantasy's equivalent of Giant, and how her magical system is built on marketing.
There are so many directions you can take steampunk. Why the 1870s and why the American West?
I've really loved steampunk for a long time, ever since Wild Wild West, and it's always been a genre and an era that's fascinated me. But so often it's set in England, and that doesn't really resonate with me, or maybe it just seems a little overdone. So I knew I wanted it set in America, just to avoid that steampunk cliche. Number two, a lot of my favorite books from childhood were set in that era. I've blogged about how much I loved Little House on the Prairie, and there are a bunch of others set in this 19th century American that's very evocative to me.
The last reason is probably the most important from a narrative or thematic standpoint. And that's because that time in American history is so important to who we are as a nation. Everything we've become as an international empire, and how important mass media and marketing have become, really started with the industrial revolution and in the 1870s. After the Civil War, America stopped being a former colony of Great Britain and became an actual power, and everything started there.
And that, from a global, arching perspective, really called to me. I'd really like this to be an ongoing series following this family of characters, like a family saga, throughout history. Kind of like Gore Vidal's historical novels, which have been some of the most influential novels of my adult reading life. It's just fascinating to see the sweep of history, and to see these characters moving through the sweep of history, and I thought the 1870s was the perfect place to start. And that's my very long answer to a short question.
I was actually going to ask you—you've set the novel in this interesting period, and I was going to ask whether you envision watching the changes of the next few decades play out in the world you've created.
Exactly. And the three strains of magic aren't designed to be something new. I sat down and looked at the kinds of magic traditions in the world, and what are the common elements in them. So instead of putting magic into the world, it's more like taking what's already real and just making it more real and adding more structure.
I'd really like to go through on through history, but then the question becomes how far can you break history before you're in Harry Turtledove territory. It gets a little challenging, but I think—or at least I hope—that I'm up to it.
Going back to this idea of the family saga, what attracts you to doing this in speculative fiction, as opposed to writing a Giant or The Thornbirds?
The movie Giant is actually one of my favorites. I love those books, like Gone with the Wind, the huge, sweeping family sagas. And I was going to say I'm attracted to it because you don't see it much in speculative fiction, but you do see some of that in the big, sword-and-sorcery fantasy. I guess I just don't see enough of them, and those are some of the most entertaining books and movies. And adding the speculative fiction element just makes them even better. I don't see why everyone's not doing it!
Your world-building is very complex, juggling three different magical traditions, the mystery about the stone itself, and then the industrial revolution elements. Did you build the world first, or start with the characters?
Well, I knew I wanted it set in mid-Victorian America. And I had some idea of the characters. But I think the characters and the world really evolved together. For example, I knew Stanton had to be a certain kind or strain of warlock, but I didn't know what. So I'd go back to my historical reading and notice there was a lot of mass media coming out of the time, then I'd apply that research to the problem of his kind of magic. I'd have a character need, and that would make me do the research to meet the character need, and that would make the world richer.
It sounds like credomancy is basically marketing. Are you drawing on a magical tradition, or did the notion come from the modern mass media? Did you start from the past or the present?
A little of both. My background is in marketing, and I was a communications major in college, which is probably where I got the idea most strongly. We were always reading deconstructionist theory, and I was exposed to this idea of marketing as shaping how we perceive reality. Then there's the idea that religion comes from the same place as magic. And if you take religion as a kind of magic, its foundation must be faith. And then, there's all the scientific research about the power of positive thinking—how believing in a placebo can make you better, or believing you'll have a good day means you'll have one.
All of those things played into it. I've just always been fascinated by what our belief can do, and what happens when we misuse that.
You've published a number of short stories, and this is your first novel. It seems some people stick with one form or the other, while others switch off. Could you speak about the challenges of each and the differences?
I really do believe some people are naturally novelists and some people are short story writers. For me, when I was in middle school or high school, I started with novels. I've got two or three juvenile novels that are just horrible. But I set aside my natural inclination when I got to college and began writing seriously, because conventional wisdom said to start with short stories and build up to a novel. I practiced and studied the form, and it was a good exercise to learn about getting things happening and structuring in the right beats. I think it's a separate but associated art, and as I worked more at the short stories, I got better at the novels.
I'd say I do prefer the novel form, because it's like a hot bath. You can get into it and soak for a while. But short stories are more like work, because you have to do so much in such a short period of time. It's definitely more challenging to write, but I think that's why it's valuable. It's harder and it makes you work harder and you learn a lot.
Could you hint a bit about what we can expect from the next book, The Hidden Goddess?
I can tell you that Dreadnought Stanton's mother is pretty evil and mean. I think you'd expect she's a piece of work, and we'll get to meet her.
And we get to spend a lot of time in New York, which I tremendously enjoyed. It's one of my favorite cities in the world, and that time period—if I could time travel, and I had plenty of money, I'd go to Gilded Age New York.