Interview with Steampunk Writer/Editor Brandon Black

brandon blackCairo By Gaslight is the second anthology of steampunk poetry and fiction brought to you by Louisiana-based writer Brandon Black. Ofeibea Loveless talked to Black about his steamy origins, setting expectations for multicultural steampunk stories and the importance of feedback.

Loveless: Tell us about yourself.
Black: I’m a SBM, age 47, Libra. I’m looking for an educated, thoughtful, compassionate and conversive woman of manners who’s curvy, not too skinny — what can I say, I like a woman with a little meat on her bones — and is into fantasy, science fiction and anime.

Loveless: Uh, that sounds like the beginnings of a dating profile!
Black: Sorry. I’m an African-American fantasy and science fiction author living in New Orleans. I’ve got a bachelor’s in military and political journalism — UNO [University of New Orleans] had a program back in the day that let you create a major and I was terrible with foreign languages, a requirement of the English degree. So I met with an advisor and we built the military and political journalism major by replacing the English major’s foreign language classes with poli-sci and journalism ones. At the time, it was just a stepping stone because I knew I wanted to go to grad school and major in creative writing but over the years, it’s been much cooler to say I have a degree in military and political journalism than to say I have one in English. I also have a master’s of Fine Arts in creative writing (screenwriting). I’ve always been in love with ideas. That’s what drew me into fantasy and science fiction. Wondering. Asking “what if?” Sitting with my dad watching Doctor Who on PBS. Happy times.

Loveless: How/when did you start writing?
Black: Oh, I’ve no idea. I made little stories even as a kid. I learned to read from reading comic books. My uncles living at my grandparents’ place had this huge cardboard box under one of their beds filled to the brim with Golden Age comic books. The elementary school I first went to as a child skipped me out of kindergarten and into first grade because I could already read and when I got to first grade, they had me reading with the second graders. “See Jane Run” never did anything for me. I wanted to get back to the Legion of Super Heroes.

Loveless: What was the first thing you wrote?
Black: I really can’t remember. All I can remember is writing some sort of space opera and a character named “Aquania.” That’s all I remember of my earliest writing. I remember it because my grandmother remarked what a beautiful name it was.

Loveless: How did you get into steampunk? What drew you to it as a writer?
Black: I was looking for something different, some way to set myself apart. I had lost my job in Mobile and moved back to New Orleans and was looking for work and it occurred to me to get back into writing. I had the free time and my job search hadn’t exactly been fruitful so I decided to make a go of it as a professional writer. IBM had just released word about this supercomputer project that predicted that steampunk was going to be a major cultural force in years to come. And I’ve always thought that if you really want to be successful in a venture, you need to get in on the ground floor. With this projected Steampunk Renaissance some years off in the future, I decided to lay the groundwork then by beginning to write steampunk stories.

As for what draws me to steampunk as a writer, I would have to say it’s infinite versatility. Time and again, I had heard the horror story of this or that author who wanted to stretch their legs as it were, write in a genre they hadn’t, tell stories they weren’t used to and that fans sometimes rebelled — rebelled to the point of giving books they hadn’t read single stars on Amazon.com to try and drive their favorite author back to the genre they preferred. I’ve heard of authors who have two or more pen names, one for each genre they write in. But with steampunk, I can write anything. I can write a love story as a steampunk romance. I can write a steampunk action adventure. I can write a steampunk mystery or a steampunk war story or steampunk erotica. I’ve very fond of “Songs of the Divine Pulsation,” the steampunk erotica piece I included in New Orleans By Gaslight. The reactions of the people in my writing circle were most entertaining.

Loveless: What’s your favorite story in Cairo by Gaslight?
Black: Jay Wilburn’s “Grain.” An army of women being used as the instrument of the Pope to negotiate a grain shipment treaty from Egypt to Europe like in the days of the Roman Empire — fascinating stuff. And such great writing. After Jay’s story, I would say, my own “Camryn Bey and the Yeti from Mars.” I had SO much fun writing that story and creating its villain — Doctor Eliphas Fiendishness! My third favorite story would probably be Garrett Piglia’s “Days of End Conquest.” How can you not love a steampunk kaiju story!? I gave a panel on editing at CONtraflow that was largely me relating informative matter but fairly dry material and how every eye in the room lit up when I mentioned we’d published a steampunk kaiju story!

Loveless: Cairo By Gaslight is described as “Egyptian-themed steampunk.” As the anthology’s editor, how did you work with your authors to avoid stereotyping characters?
Black: I’m split between two answers for that one, and both of them are true. In a way, I didn’t work with the authors at all to avoid stereotyping characters in Cairo By Gaslight. The other answer is we all hashed that out with the previous work, New Orleans By Gaslight. I made it quite clear in the writers’ guidelines for New Orleans By Gaslight that there would be no racist caricatures, no religious intolerance, and that if people wanted to make use of Voodoo or other non-Christian religions, they would have to do their homework and strive toward authenticity. I also made it clear that there wasn’t going to be any praising of slavery or the Confederacy. I had a couple of authors ask me directly if I was banning Confederate protagonists and I told them no. I love Jonah Hex. He’s one of my favorite characters. I wish he’d stop wearing that damned uniform even if he did fight on their side but he is who he is. I can live with complex characters being on both sides of a struggle. What I refused to consider was any “Songs of the South” silliness.

Likewise, I did make it clear in the writers’ guidelines for Cairo By Gaslight that there would be no tolerance for any of that “aliens built the Pyramids” nonsense. I think I made myself clear that we would avoid Orientalism without using the word. (There was an UNO student who objected to the entire project in a manner I would regard as passive aggressive. I had posted the link to the call for submissions for Cairo By Gaslight to a Facebook page for UNO creative writers and someone had linked as a reply to it, the definition of Orientalism. I responded to the post indicating that it was not our intention to use the setting of Cairo to demean its people or present them as benefiting from the “White Man’s Burden” or some such.) I’ve always invited anyone who thinks that we are going to print stories of that nature to submit the exact opposite. David Ducorbier submitted “Arms R.A.C.E.” for New Orleans By Gaslight — in which the Zulus are fighting for their freedom against conquering Brits seeking to expand their empire and mine South Africa to recover a powerful newly discovered element — was and is a very well received story because it’s a steampunk tale where the British are the bad guys and that’s so rare in steampunk. Hearing that so many people liked the world he presented is what inspired David to begin work on a full novel depicting that world.

Loveless: What kind of reception have you gotten for Cairo By Gaslight?
Black: Quiet but favorable. Black Tome Books exists to draw attention to emerging authors, mostly from New Orleans, although we’ve had stories in all the way from Great Britain. I’ve always felt that to get anywhere, we would have to take chances and experiment. New Orleans By Gaslight did very well in part because well, we live in New Orleans and the local press were keen to pick up the story. Cairo By Gaslight hasn’t garnered as much attention, I’m afraid. But experiments are fruitful so long as something valuable is learned and I and the authors have learned a lot. Cairo By Gaslight is a better anthology than New Orleans By Gaslight. I don’t have any hesitation in saying that. Those who have picked up both books and read them both would agree with me, I’m sure. The temptation is to do a New Orleans By Gaslight 2 and I don’t want to do that. I want us to constantly be moving forward, to constantly try new things. We won’t draw attention to our authors by playing it safe or rehashing what we’ve done before. That we’ll leave to others. We’ll continue to rove the world in this anthology series, examining new cultures and new locales. We have a commitment to experimental writing and to poetry and that helps set us apart. Several of the authors from New Orleans By Gaslight submitted work for Cairo By Gaslight and I expect that they’ll submit work for our next steampunk anthology as well. We’re building the road to the future together.

Loveless: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Black:
Yes. I’d like them to contact me, by Facebook, in the comments section of my blog at brandonblackonline.com, using the contact form on my “About” page at the same web location and talking face to face with me at a convention. Feedback is essential. We experiment. We try new things and see what sticks, but hearing from fans and reviewers what they did or didn’t like about an anthology is about the most useful thing there is.

Ofeibea Loveless, co-founder of the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance, is a writer/editor who focuses on multicultural aspects of steampunk.


 

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