(Originally aired 2018/06/09 - listen here)
Heather Rose Jones: This month, the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is delighted to be talking with Lise MacTague. Lise has been taking something of a tour through various speculative fiction genres, starting with a romantic space-opera adventure trilogy, then diving into shapeshifters, and now taking on Victorian-era steampunk in her novel Demon in the Machine. Welcome, Lise!
Lise MacTague: Thank you for having me.
H: Maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about your new novel.
L: Oh, yeah. Demon in the Machine is out on June 15, published by Bella Books, and it is—as you said—it’s a Victorian-era steampunk, but it has some paranormal thrown in for good measure, and there is also a mystery to be solved.
L: It features Briar, who is a half-demon archivist passing as human in the employ of an earl, and she crosses paths with Isabella Castel, viscount’s daughter. And Isabella has been supplementing her family’s failing fortunes with a little bit of cat burgling.
H: That sounds fun.
L: Mm hm. So, they have to join forces to discover what the heck is going on with this new—this new line, I suppose you would say, of horseless carriages, that Briar is convinced are evil.
H: Okay. So, steampunk is a genre; it brings in a lot of different relationships to real-world history. How do you see your story relating to, like, the actual Industrial Revolution and the setting? What are your points of departure from the real world?
L: Well, I mean, the biggest point of departure is probably the demon aspect of things.
H: Yeah, I can see that.
L: So, in my version of steampunk, steam isn’t enough. The technological advances that’ve happened are too much for pure technology to have done by itself, so it is supplemented through magic, most of the time of the demonic variety because that is the easiest to use. So, all of these things that just wouldn’t be possible with the actual technology of the day are because they have this sort of extra boost of magic.
H: Mm hm.
L: On the downside, you know, I mean—these people are literally making deals with the devil in order for their technological marvels to exist. So, then I get to start looking at, sort of, what are the ramifications of those particular sets of decisions.
H: So, this may be getting a little bit deep or something, but is that meant to be a metaphor for the bargain with the devil that society made in terms of industrializing and bringing in productivity in exchange for pollution and all sorts of labor issues and whatnot, or am I just—am I overanalyzing this?
L: A bit of a metaphor. I mean, part of it was just me looking at other steampunk things and going, there’s just no way you could do that with a steam engine. And then, yeah, part of it is what do you give up in order to do these things. You know, as a society. But in this particular case we’re looking at one individual and what he has given up to realize his particular hopes and dreams by literally making a deal with the devil. And that’s our antagonist, known mostly as The Inventor, dun dun dun.
H: So, is history a general or specific interest of yours, or something that you sort of came into sideways through genre fiction?
L: Oh goodness, when I was in ninth grade, I was convinced I was going to become a medieval historian.
H: Oh, cool.
L: And then I took my first Latin class and bombed it embarrassingly, and decided that maybe I’d go into art instead. But I’d always had a particular affection for the Middle Ages, and I’ve always enjoyed history as a topic and as a subject in school, and so this is a way I get to learn a little bit myself and get to play in those different eras without having to go and take more Latin classes.
H: So, have you followed up on your interest in medieval history, just for your own enjoyment?
L: Very superficially.
H: Uh huh.
L: At some point I will write a high fantasy novel, and I’ll have to take a deeper dive back into that—but I mean, that was something I was really into when I was in high school, and I’ve forgotten so much. My mom is actually—has a PhD in medieval history, and so part of it is also that I don’t know that I’d be able to do her justice.
H: Ah. So, was that part of your original inspiration, of the interest, was your mother?
L: It was actually The Hobbit.
L: She gave that to me when I was in the third grade. And then I spent the next—I finished The Hobbit in about, you know, three hours, and then I asked her for more and she gave me her copy of The Lord of the Rings, which took me the next three days to read. And then I was hooked, and so I read Ivanhoe, some of the older classics, and found them incredibly dense, and then I found more fantasy and then I found historical fantasy. And I spent a lot of time reading my mom’s historical romances on the sly when I was in high school, so that was fun.
H: I always found that historical romances were a great way to pick up the broad outlines of history.
L: Yeah, and to get a feeling for the settings. I think that Demon in the Machine actually has a lot to answer for, as far as those historical romances of my mom’s that I read.
H: So, I hear a rumor that you’ve been known to do some steampunk cosplay.
L: Ah, not steampunk cosplay just yet. I’ve done some—well, I build video game props, and so right now I’m right in the middle of dystopian, sort of post-apocalyptic stuff. But I’m always on the lookout for more. I can definitely see steampunk. It works with sort of the grungy aesthetic of what I’m currently dealing with but is slightly more elegant, if that makes sense.
H: Okay. I may have blended things together in my mind because I knew you were doing some cosplay stuff.
L: Yeah. Well, and I’m as genre-agnostic with my cosplay as I am with my writing, so—it’ll probably show up at some point. Plus, you know, you get to play with gears, and readouts, and dials, and—how much fun is that!
H: Yeah, if I had gotten into steampunk, I would be even more sad than I am that I did not pillage the warehouse that—of the lab that I worked in back in the, oh, mid ’80s. I had a job out at the naval bioscience lab in Oakland, and they had shelves and shelves and shelves of old scientific instruments in gorgeous cherrywood boxes with brass fittings, and I kept looking at them and thinking to myself, “Oh gosh, the aesthetic is so wonderful, and—” But, of course, you know, it all belonged to navy—naval supply stuff, and I don’t even know whether it would’ve been possible to, like, take some home with me. But I loved the idea that functional things can be beautiful.
L: Yes. Yeah, I definitely hear you on that one. My wife gets a little perturbed with me when—if I pick up, like, screws and bolts and other things off the ground because I’m going to use them for something later, and they’re pre-weathered, and so she gives me some side-eye when I bend down and pick up a random bolt, and then.... But you know, I can tell her—but she can’t talk because she’s the one who likes to cruise the curbs when it’s move-out time for the local college to see if there’s any furniture we can snag, you know. My junk-collecting is of a much smaller variety than hers, is all I have to say in my defense.
H: Uh huh. So, do you have any particular influences in steampunk? Any authors or works that really inspired you to give the genre a try.
L: Yeah, I think we can mostly blame Gail Carriger for this particular foray. I really enjoyed her Parasol Protectorate series, and the idea that you could take steampunk and marry sort of paranormal aspects with it and just have a whole boatload of fun was really appealing to me. Also, that whole sort of fantasy of manners aspect of things that comes into it, which is kind of fun, and was a much-needed departure from my last book, which had gotten quite dark, and I just needed a palate cleanser for my brain and to do something that felt a little fluffier. So, yeah, that’s how Demon in the Machine came about.
H: How do you envision your queer characters in this story fitting into this period in the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution? Was that something that you looked into in particular, or did you just sort of play it by ear?
L: I more played it by ear. You know, that’s definitely a disadvantage to writing a story featuring queer characters, when you’re basing it on a historical period, unlike my space opera, when I could do whatever the heck I wanted because no one could tell me that’s wrong, or my paranormal, which is set in modern day, so I’m quite versed in how queer people are seen and treated. I had to do a little bit more of a balancing act, and I have to admit I mostly avoided the issue. Not completely, but mostly, the two characters keep their relationship on the down low. It’s not something that they advertise. Though, Isabella does admit to having had previous dalliances with other women, but those are not something that she ever, ever advertised. And Briar does have a run-in with Isabella’s mother where her mother basically says, don’t do anything that will affect Isabella’s marriage potential.
L: Uh huh. And, which kind of freaks Briar out because she hadn’t really thought of that, and knew that she‘s interested in Isabella and things had progressed quite a bit at that stage. But, you know, Isabella was a character—is a character who has no particular interest in marriage. You know, she’s in the midst of her first Season, and it’s mostly so that she can case the buildings—the houses and the jewels of other people in high society, not because she’s out there looking for a husband.
H: Are there any other aspects to how you’ve developed the story, or background research or anything you’d like to talk about?
L: I did spend a fair amount of time looking into the history of demons and how they’re dealt with in mythology, mostly because I wanted to create sort of hierarchies of hell, but not use the terms that everybody’s heard over and over again—
H: Uh huh.
L: So, I spent a lot of time doing that. I spent a lot of time researching the history of steam-powered vehicles—
H: Uh huh.
L: —for my horseless carriage, and actually, I discovered half of the way through my editing process that shoot, that was the only steampunk tech I’ve actually really dealt with, mostly because it’s the—it’s the focus of the mystery and what’s going here, but there are all these other things that I was like, shoot, I completely forgot about that. There’s a zeppelin that shows up later on, and I realized that oh yes, steam engines are kind of a thing, we should probably put in some locomotives. Most of my research was around sort of the technological and the mythological aspects, though I did spend a few days trying to get a handle on British nobility and who’s called what, and what their titles are, and why don’t the titles necessarily match the last names of the people who have them, and when do you use the one and not the other—
H: Yes, fortunately there’s some really good online resources for people who write in that field all the time.
L: Yes, and I am so thankful for that. I’m also thankful for the fact that Wikipedia has a stupid amount of information on minor noble families going back quite a ways, and I was trawling through there to, you know, to pick a noble house for—well, both for Isabella to belong to but also for Briar’s employer, the earl. And I chose the Earl of Hardwick because, by the time my novel takes place, that noble line is defunct, and so I could bring it ahead and wouldn’t have to worry about any actual sort of historical intersections.
L: But there was an unanticipated historical intersection, in that in my real job, I’m an archivist for the state of North Carolina, and I was working with some finding aids that they have at my job, North Carolina subject materials that are in foreign collections, including papers from the Earl of Hardwick.
H: Uh huh.
L: And it was really disconcerting to come across that mention totally out of the context that I’d created for it, and to see it in its original context, back in, like, the 1780s, 1790s.
H: I think one of the most fun things about writing in historical contexts is that synchronicity, that you’ll be researching one thing and you’ll stumble across something and suddenly it’s like, wow, I can use this!
L: Mm hm. If only I’d had—if only it hadn’t been a year since I’d submitted that manuscript to Bella and wasn’t, you know, ankle deep into my new manuscript, I might’ve been actually able to use those letters! It was just a really fun intersection that happened, you know, literally across my desk at work.
H: So, are there any other current projects you’re working on that you’d like to tell listeners about?—like, maybe, your own podcast?
L: That is an ongoing current project, yes. Andi Marquette and I do a biweekly podcast. Biweekly, that’s the right—that’s every two weeks? Yes, I always have to think—biweekly, not semiweekly. We’re doing a biweekly podcast called Lez Geek Out, where she and I take a look at sort of our favorite things going on in pop culture and then talk about them in a bit of a queer feminist bent. And I really enjoy that. That’s Lez Geek Out at thelesbiantalkshow.com. The most recent thing we did was Killjoys, which is a sci-fi TV series, but we’ve touched on—we do talk shows, movies, games, other people’s podcasts, graphic novels, web comics. Almost everything except for books—though we occasionally break that rule for ourselves.
H: Yes, sort of if people are listening to this show by the subscription, then they already know about yours, because we’re on the same channel.
H: How about any forthcoming book projects?
L: Right. Well, aside from Demon in the Machine, which is out next month, I have been working on a sequel to my paranormal, Five Moons Rising, and I’m into draft 1.5, since the first draft had some issues and I had to throw it out and start over again. I don’t want to talk about that. But it has an actual title, which is Hunter’s Descent, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get it out next year. Aside from that, I’m working on a couple of short stories, one in the same universe as my space opera, and then, yeah, we’ll see what else comes up.
H: Okay. And how about if people want to find you online, through social media or websites—where would they find you?
L: Sure. I am on Twitter, @lisemactague. I’m on Facebook, under—just under my name. I have a website, lisemactague.com, and if you want to do some really deep dives, you can find me on Goodreads, which is usually good for getting on my giveaway list when I have a book coming out. And yeah, that’s about it.
H: I’ll put links to all of those in the show notes so that people can find you easily. So, thank you for joining us, Lise.
L: Thank you for having me.
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Lise MacTague Online