Richard E. Preston, Jr. has been thrilling fans of swashbuckling steampunk for several years now with his series The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. Being a huge fan of the series, I am honored to have this gifted storyteller drop by Bookwraiths today.
Hi, Mr. Preston, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions!
I’d like to thank you for inviting me here on Bookwraiths and I’m ready and raring to go!
Who is your favorite speculative fiction author– besides yourself, of course?
Wow—favorite speculative fiction author? There are too many to narrow it down to one. Currently I’m in awe of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy and I just finished Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingson, which is a brilliant book—I’m looking forward to anything else those two writers produce.
The book which made you want to be a writer? Why?
If I had to pick one book from my childhood/teen years I’d have to say Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and that includes the Disney movie. It simply captured my imagination in a way that never let go, not even to this day, and probably why I adore science fiction.
A favorite fantasy author of mine was quoted as saying people write about what they think is cool. Is that true with Romulus Buckle for you?
Umm, how many ways can I say “Yes! Yes! Yes!” For me, Romulus Buckle is an adventurer in the stylings of Indiana Jones, Horatio Hornblower and Captain Kirk, all of which are very cool to me. As a little insider note, the gagool monsters in Luminiferous Aether take their name from the awful witch named Gagool in the Victorian era adventure classic King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard.
How long was the idea for this series percolating in your mind before you actually put it down onto paper?
Not as long as many others, actually. I had wanted to do a story about a crew on a ship of war for a while, but I hadn’t found a situation which matched the environment I wanted to use. I knew it would be science fiction and I wanted a zebra-striped alien female officer, but I had trouble orienting it in a setting. Making it regular sci-fi on a space ship didn’t thrill me, and since I wanted female officers of the swashbuckling type I couldn’t use a historic setting unless I went with pirates. A friend of mine introduced me to steampunk and the light went off in my head—a zeppelin crew in a post-apocalyptic, steam powered world—and I was off to the races.
How do you feel about people always shoving novels into specific niches instead of realizing a story may have aspects of many different genres?
It sucks to a degree, but in reality the advertisers have to market it and so I understand. Word-of-mouth is how authors really hold and expand a loyal audience, I think, and that is a far more nuanced form of PR that can allow for muddied-up genres.
I’ve made the comparison between Romulus Buckle and James T. Kirk, the Pneumatic Zeppelin and the Enterprise. Did the famous Star Trek serve as any sort of inspiration for our swashbuckling zeppelin captain and his beloved ship?
Yes. I was a Star Trek nut as a kid and I still am. Although I didn’t do it intentionally, I think my instincts to create the crew were certainly influenced by all the hours of my life I spent watching and thinking about the original show. It is impossible to say that there aren’t parallels between Kirk/Romulus Buckle, Spock/Max, Ivan/Scotty and more.
Obviously, the adventures of the Pneumatic Zeppelin occur in a unique and imaginative world. While you’ve given glimpses of the past apocalyptic events which created this place, do you have any plans to focus a storyline more directly onto that past?
Actually there was a lot more about that backstory—the Martian invasion of Earth and the human rebellion which resulted in the Martians laying waste to the planet—in the first book, but I was advised (properly so, I think) to excise it and get on with the story at hand. I plan to leak more backstory about those events in later books—I haven’t run into the characters I need who are in the position to provide it—but they’re coming. As for writing something set in the rebellion itself, that might be a spot for a supporting short story or novella.
Lots of interesting supporting characters surround Romulus; any plans to focus the spotlight more on them as the series continues?
Oh, yes. Some characters you’ve seen little or next to nothing of will rise to very prominent roles later on.
As a zeppelin lover, I’ve thought the cover art for the books have been amazing. How did you feel the first time you saw the covers?
I was blown away. Eamon O’Donoghue was the cover artist for all three books and I love them. My original editor at 47North, Alex Carr, chose Eamon because his style fit the subject, and I couldn’t agree more. Eamon’s magnificent, adventure-screaming images have probably sold more of my books than my scribbles inside, and I’m okay with that. Eamon will illustrate every book in the series if I have any say in it at all.
Future plans for the series?
I had a delay on Book 3, but I plan to publish one novel in the Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin series every year, hopefully every December. I had originally decided that the series would be seven books, but now it stands at twelve. Obviously, I have no idea how many. The next book is tentatively titled Romulus Buckle and the Guns of the Babylon.
Mark Lawrence posted a blog article a few months ago hypothesizing that you could determine the U.S. sales of a novel by multiplying its Goodreads’ ratings by 7.7. Would this mathematical formula hold true for the Romulus Buckle series?
I honestly have no idea. Goodreads tends to be a meaner place for author rankings than Amazon and elsewhere—myself and other authors have trolls giving our books one-star ratings months before they are published, even months before they are even completely written. Reader reviews tend to be for readers, not authors. As an artist with a typically fragile artist ego, I don’t go to Amazon and Goodreads to read reviews because I have no desire to give the trolls an audience. My wife does, and passes the good ones on to me. And by ‘good’ ones, I do include poor reviews—I’m ready to read a bad review from a reader who paid for the book and was honestly disappointed by it—but there’s no reason for me to see the insulting garbage, so I don’t.
I know you are a HUGE Game of Thrones aficionado, so how has George R.R. Martin’s epic affected your own story telling style?
Yes, I am, and I am also a weekly contributor to the Winter Is Coming Fansided site. I wouldn’t have said that I’ve been directly influenced by A Song of Ice and Fire and the TV show, but when I found my Atlantean characters in Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether chopping a senator’s head off and tossing it into a cauldron of bloodthirsty eels, I thought I might have to reconsider that lol. I do have some high fantasy ideas on the potential novel backburner, and if/when I do turn to them I will have to consider how George R.R. Martin has influenced the fantasy genre (and all genres) and how that will most certainly effect my storytelling choices to a degree.
Have you felt any pressure to be more active on social media to promote your book? And if so, how do you feel about adding that to your other tasks as an author?
I never wanted to appear on Twitter and Facebook at the beginning but my agent(s) considers it mandatory these days because readers are now used to having more contact with authors. I hated it at the beginning, but I fell into the addiction and I have a lot of fun on social media now. Yes, there is the usual book-pimping, but I try hard to support other authors and causes I consider worthy. I have contact with a lot of kind readers who enjoy my books and that is always a thrill. And it works both ways: I mentioned above how much I loved the new Not Dark Yet novel by Berit Ellingsen—I finished reading it last night and today I was able to have a conversation with her, the author, about it on Facebook. That is freaking awesome. As for social media being an extra task I have to say that it is, and I might be better off without it as a writer, but if I keep it under control and ‘go dark’ when I’m locked down in intense writing periods, I think I can limit the time wasting. Xbox is more of a challenge for me in that department, anyway.
Conventions: love them or skip them?
Conventions are great but the big ones like Comic Con San Diego wear me out quickly because of the constant flow of packed bodies. I don’t attend many conventions outside of SDCC and the occasional Comikaze, but this year I’ll be at AnomalyCon in Denver, which is smaller and more steampunk/speculative fiction oriented. I’ll be a guest on a number of panels there, and also manning a book signing booth.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring authors – besides writing as much as possible?
That is always such a hard question because all artists work and motivate so differently. All I can say is the clichéd stuff because it’s true. If you are a writer then write every day and make that time sacred. Read all you can because reading teaches you how to write. When you reach a book chapter, passage, sentence which captivates you, mark it and come back after you finish the book and take it apart to try to figure out why. There is something magic in that architecture and you can learn it. Treasure the authors who speak to your soul and read everything they have ever written, and try to read their work chronologically because then it just gets better and better (unless it’s Hemingway, who lost it near the end.) Re-read favorite books—there are three books I read at least once every two years: The English Patient, The Razor’s Edge and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (as mentioned previously above.) Why? Because they fuel me somewhere deep down in my soul. When writing, start in the middle of your story, not where you think the beginning is, and be cruel to yourself about it because you usually have to write some chapters before you realize where the true beginning is—I had to dump the first 200-odd pages of work I did for a current manuscript where a main character fights in the Spanish Civil War when I realized that her true story didn’t begin until she reached Russia a year later—and that hurt—and I’m still not sure I cut away enough of the beginning.
About the author:
Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. grew up in the United States and Canada but he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, met the sheep on Hadrian’s Wall, eaten at the first McDonalds in Moscow, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders, Romulus Buckle & the Engines of War and Romulus Buckle & the Luminiferous Aether are the first three installments in his steampunk series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. His short story, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” is a prequel set in the same steampunk universe. The Purple Scarab is the first book in his new League of the Sphinx YA adventure series which he writes as R.E. Preston. He currently resides in California.