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BC: Hello Oisín. Could you tell us a bit about you, your career path and how you work as a writer? Are there some specific aspects to being a writer in Ireland and the UK? How might it be different to working as a writer in France?
Oisín: I work full-time as a writer, but I was still working part-time as an illustrator for more than two years after I got my first couple of books published. There are advantages and disadvantages to working in Ireland. It’s a much smaller market than France or the UK. To make a living, you have to sell into other markets, but it’s difficult to get out and promote your work constantly when your biggest audience is in another country. On the plus side, there is a great culture in Ireland of children’s writers doing visits to schools and libraries, which isn’t really an option if you’re trying to sell a book to the mainstream (adult) market. It does mean you have to become a bit of a children’s entertainer, but being able to push my children’s books in events has helped create a market for my novels among older readers.
BC: How did you come to write this saga? How did you create and develop your characters? Browsing the first volume of Ancient Appetites, I found numerous references to Irish history, which seems full of fury, poverty, misery and a very violent class war. How essential was it for you to show the flip-side of the coin of Victorian society?
Oisín: This story grew out of an idea that was originally going to take place in a completely alternative world. But as it developed, I realized it would suit the Victorian Age perfectly, and I wanted to create a story that had that contrast between the dark, gritty harshness of a gothic horror and the delicate manners and wordplay of an Oscar Wilde or Jane Austen novel. Once I’d devised the setting, the conflict between rich and poor, rural and industrial, fantasy and reality and imperial versus nationalist all became essential elements in the story. Once I’d settled on the steampunk background, I decided I wanted to set it in Ireland. That gave it a unique character, I think – there are no stories like this in an Irish setting. It was a violent and dramatic time in Ireland, partly because of the revolutionary groups, but also because of the industrial revolution. I wanted the story to be dark and challenging, but imaginative and funny too.
The characters came from all of that – some developed a certain way because they had jobs to do, others were added for a bit of colour. It’s only when you throw them into the mix, and try to send them along a plotline, that you see how they react and develop real flesh.
BC: One thing that puzzled and delighted me at the same time was the nature of the hero and his family: proud, temperamental, violent, contemptuous ; they come across as spoiled children, forced to face the consequences of their acts and to think about the character of their family. As I read, I felt that the the real heroes of the story were the anonymous ones, the servants (such as Francis). Is this how you saw it?
Oisín: I think that the main characters among the Wildensterns had to wake up to certain realities through the events in the story, and it was these realizations – and their consciences – that separate them from the predators in the family. Nate has to start thinking responsibly about others, Daisy has to defy her husband and his family for her principles, and both – along with Berto and Tatty – have to do a bit of growing up. The same can’t be said for the servants, who deal with the nitty-gritty of life every day, and are not protected from it by the protective coccoon of wealth. From a certain point of view, the ‘heroes’ have to start seeing an unfiltered version of life, as the servants do, to survive and succeed.
BC: While we’re on the subject of the family, please tell us more about this idea of the transmission of power that you describe, which seems very codified and Victorian. It implies that someone seeking power must kill the person who has it. How did you come up with this idea?
Oisín: The Rules of Ascension basically encourage the qualities of ambition, cunning, ruthlessness and initiative – the qualities most valued by the Wildensterns. To summarize: every Wildenstern man has a position in the family business. If he wants to improve his position, he can kill one of the men who holds a superior position. The rules dictate the conditions under which this must be achieved: It has to be done in a ‘civilized fashion’ – you have to do it yourself, it can’t be witnessed by the public at large. The family have to be able to concoct a story that will hide the murder from the authorities. If you succeed in this, you can move up a rank. You can’t murder those who are younger or inferior to you unless it’s in self-defence. And you’re not supposed to kill servants if you can help it, as good servants are hard to find. It means that all of the family are trained in the arts of assassination, and how to defend themselves, which makes family life quite colourful.
For me, this act of killing those who stand in your way is a kind of business or human relationship taken to an absolute predatory extreme. Murderous ambition. It was the contrast I wanted between the delicate manners of civilization and the worst human urges.
BC: The family has a strange relationship with gold, which regenerates their health. Might this have been inspired by Uncle Scrooge? It also implies that nanomachines might be an element in the story?
The gold has the effect of accelerating the healing process – the Wildensterns have supernatural health – though this has more to do with their obsession with gold, rather than their metabolisms. Any regular reader of science fiction will spot the suggestion of nanotechnology from early on in the first book. This process is refined and defined more in the second and third books.
BC: Is the confrontation between the family from the past and the one from the present there to show how little the Wildenstern family has evolved, and how God was replaced by money?
Oisín: Yes, in a way – though I think God has always been used by those who seek it as a means of attaining more money and power. The conflict here was between those who originally established the nature of this family, whose desires and violence are less restrained, and those who have exercised a system of control over that violence, but only as a means of increasing their power many times over.
BC: Your living and “intelligent” machines, give the impression that they have developed instinct rather than pure intelligence. Though they resist training, they could be seen as a symbol of the industrial era. With regard to these engimals, which evidently even puzzled Darwin; will we soon learn more about this technology? It seems to have been created by a very advanced civilization in order to execute specific tasks. Rather than portraying and advanced scientific civilization, you opted for machines gone feral. Was it funnier this way? Will we be introduced to new surprising machines in the second volume?
Oisín: There are new engimals brought in over both of the following stories. These started off as an idea that I came up with just for the fun of it. These machines that hail from a civilization that has been dead for thousands of years, a civilization of which there is no other trace. Each engimal is unique, and cannot breed, so some people see them as created by God, while others as proof of that civilization’s existence. I just liked the idea of machines – many of which we might recognize from life today – running wild in a Victorian world. It has been thousands of years since they were domestic devices, so they’ve changed, gone feral. Struggling to maintain control of our machines is something I think we can all relate to: growling at our computer, arguing with our car, trying to tug our vacuum cleaner free as it gets caught in things around the room. Add in that Victorian reserve, and it gets even more comical. But the engimals also offer a key to unlocking the secrets of the Wildensterns’ supernatural health, and far greater reservoirs of power.
BC: What can you tell us about this second volume? Will characters continue to evolve, to blunder, in order to make the story interesting? The Wildenstern manor was a character in itself: will there be new landscapes, new characters? Will we know more about the family’s powers?
Oisín: ‘Féroces’ describes the next dramatic series of events in the lives of the main characters. It is a sequel, but can be read as a stand-alone story. Yes, the characters change (some drastically) and we learn more of the family’s secrets, its culture of suppressing dissent and rebellion, and we also meet a secret society that offers miraculous cures to injury and disease, but at a murderous price. And yes, we learn more about the source of the family’s powers, and raise serious questions about its future.
BC: The third volume will presumably bring the trilogy full circle. Do you think you will return to this universe or do you wish to do something entirely different?
Oisín: I’ve written a couple of other books since finishing ‘Merciless Reason’ (we don’t have a French title yet), both crime novels, though one is contemporary, with a supernatural twist, and the other is set in the near-future in surveillance society. I have done a short story about the Wildensterns in English, which is available free to download from my website. I’ve really enjoyed working on these stories, so yes, I could definitely see myself coming back to do more with the characters.
BC: Just to finish up; what do the words “alternate history” and “steampunk” mean for you.
Oisín: For me, ‘alternate history’ is a chance to mess with history, to twist it and change it to create new stories in real and established settings. Many sci-fi and fantasy writers use historical detail to give realism to their contrived worlds – this is going a step further (or back, whichever way you look at it). Some people insist that the definition of alternate history demands you keep it real, apart from introducing some key change that alters the direction of history, but I’d be more flexible than that. I often think that historical novels are fantasy stories for people who claim they don’t like fantasy. Alternate history is the bridge we can use to draw them over into our territory.
Steampunk is a word I associate with the Victorian Age, but to be honest, I consider any story that sets a story in the past (or a primitive, apocalyptic future), but emphasizes or exaggerates that technology or the setting, while giving the characters a civil manner is steampunk. For me, it’s the type of science fiction Jules Verne or HG Wells wrote. Not electronic or digital, but mechanical and chemical. It’s nostalgic science fiction.