Exclusive: James P. Blaylock Discusses The Aylesford Skull
AMANDA DYAR: During your earlier years, you was mentored by one of the all-time great science fiction novelists, Philip K. Dick. What were some of the most important lessons you learned during this time, and what did it allow you to incorporate into you future novels, including The Aylesford Skull?
JAMES P. BLAYLOCK: It’s often suggested that I (along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter), were mentored by Phil Dick. Actually, there wasn’t much mentoring going on. We talked about what we were reading, of course, but rarely about what we were writing. We chatted about cats, growing up, rock music, stereo equipment, cars, food, wine, politics, and a heap of other subjects, but I can remember only one instance when he gave me writerly advice: when he told me that the title of the book I was writing was the worst title he’d ever heard. He was pretty much correct. Also, when I sent my first novel, The Elfin Ship, to Del Rey books, he (and Tim) recommended it to Judy-Lynn del Rey. Excerpts from Phil’s exceptionally cool letter are still appearing on the covers of my books. That being said, I’m aware of having learned a great deal from reading his books. He had a natural ability to make a scene both tragic and funny at the same time, with neither of those things reducing the value of the other. Both seem right; both seem authentic. It’s my idea (not that it’s original with me) that there’s something profoundly true going on there. I was also literarily affected by the interesting notion in his books that the future, even on Mars or Alpha Centauri, would have its roots in the world as we know it today. The characters that people his stories and novels are immediately recognizable. (I like that phrase: “characters that people.”)
They’re employed fixing radios and are having arguments with their spouses, and they get angry at the talking door that won’t open unless they put a nickel in a slot. A character’s air car has a bad carburetor, and the rent money is overdue. He sets out to solve his small problems and runs into Elijah scrounging in a Dumpster. Phil’s books are full of frustrated hopes and simple dreams. I’m happy with all of that, and I find that it’s characteristic of some of my own work. It’s true that I was happy with it before I met Phil or read his books, but there was something essentially convincing about Phil that cemented such things. I hope that makes sense. Does any of that apply to The Aylesford Skull? Sure. Phil died thirty years ago, however, and his influences on me as a person and as a writer are not easily recognizable these days.
AMANDA: It's been two decades since we've seen a steampunk themed novel out of you, despite you widely being considered one of the founding fathers of the genre. What was the determining factor that brought you back for The Aylesford Skull, and how did it feel to get back to your roots when creating the upcoming release?
JAMES: This one is easy to answer. I always enjoyed writing Steampunk. My second published story, “The Ape-box Affair,” was a Steampunk story. I wrote the stuff for many years before K. W. Jeter coined the term in 1988, and for some years thereafter. My novel The Last Coin, published in the late 80s, reminded me how much I had enjoyed writing The Digging Leviathan several years earlier, a book which was set in the southern California world I grew up in. I was compelled/inspired to write more books set in California, and so I drifted away from writing Steampunk. Fifteen years later, my brother-in-law gave me a collection of short stories titled Dr. Dogbody’s Leg, by James Norman Hall, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame.
The stories were set during the Napoleonic wars, all of them starting out with a group of seafaring types sitting around a table in a comfortable inn, listening to Dr. Dogbody tell stories. I was crazy for the book, and still am, and I realized that I missed writing Steampunk. I wrote a novella – “The Ebb Tide” – which opened at an inn of my own inventing, and sold it to Subterranean Press. I followed that with another novella of the same sort – “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs” – and then was convinced by my agent to write a longer Steampunk novel – The Aylesford Skull – which he sold to Titan Books. Just yesterday I finished a third companion novella – “The Pagan God” –and recently I wrote a Gaslamp fantasy for Ellen Datlow’s Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells. Somehow I’ve become a Steampunk writer again, and I’ll no doubt go on writing it until I run out of steam. Sorry.
AMANDA: The Aylesford Skull marks the return of one of your most infamous characters, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. Why is Narbondo a character you choose to keep coming back to time and time again, and when do you think his tale will reach its epic conclusion?
JAMES: I’m a fan of evil geniuses, and so I manufactured one of my own. Evil geniuses have their ugly fingers in all sorts of pies, so to speak, which makes them particularly useful antagonists. If one tires of the character, one can always pitch him off the cliff at Reichenbach Falls. The thing about Narbondo, however, is that he’s central to the doings in The Digging Leviathan in his way, so there’s evidence that he time traveled to the future. I can’t pitch him off Reichenbach falls, then, although I could have him climb aboard a time machine and simply leave town, never to return. We’ll see how the future treats him. In The Aylesford Skull, elements of his past are revealed. He’s fleshed out a great deal, and grows as a character. So he’s still in the process of becoming rather than declining. Probably he’ll be around for a while.
AMANDA: Fans won't be able to get their hands on The Aylesford Skull until January 2013, but we'd like you to tell us why fans won't want to pass up on this new novel. What will fans enjoy most about the upcoming release, why should newcomers give your series a chance and what was the most rewarding part of creating The Aylesford Skull?
JAMES: This one is tough. I’ll say quite honestly that to my mind it’s the best Steampunk story I’ve ever written in a number of different ways: in terms of the characters, the plot, and the writing itself. Newcomers to my writing should start with The Aylesford Skull. If they like it, I believe that they’ll like the others. If they don’t like it, then… The most rewarding part of writing the book was in the creation of the characters. I got caught up in the lives of the minor characters as well as the major characters, and I put the same amount of effort into all of them. I find that my best characters become in some way authentic to me. There’s a great drawing of Charles Dickens dozing at his writing desk, dreaming of his characters, who are swirling around his head. I wish I had the skill that Dickens had (as do most writers) but I’ll say that I’ve created a few characters who didn’t pass away when my books fell out of print – characters who are living on today in their imagined world. If they knocked on the front door, I’d know at a glance just who they were. I’d invite them in for a cup of coffee. I came up with a few of those when I wrote The Aylesford Skull. I don’t want to be too specific about this, however. I’m happy with the book for a number of reasons, and I suggest that all your readers buy thirty or forty copies, just to be on the safe side.
Please visit the official The Aylesford Skull page on the Titan Books website to learn more.
It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer is at home in Aylesford with his family. However a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay, the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives. When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race into London in pursuit…