Your new book, Iron Sky: Dread Eagle, is described as steampunk, can you explain to our readers what steampunk is?
Steampunk is a blend of historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy. It was invented by a group of writers in the 1980s who were in love with the Victorian age, particularly its machines, and were inspired by the ‘scientific romances’ of Victorian writers such as H G Welles and Jules Verne. Steampunk imagines a different 19th century – one of amazing technology, including airships, robots and computers. But it envisages these things as if the Victorians had invented them, using brass, leather and steam power instead of the steel, plastic and electricity of the 20th century. So if you like the idea of awe-inspiring machines with a bit of Victorian stylishness thrown in, then steampunk is definitely for you.
If you could own any kind of mechanical creation like those in your book, what would it be?
I would love to own Miles, the automaton friend of my heroine, Lady Arabella West. Miles stands for Mobile Independent Logical Englishman Simulacrum. And he is all of those things. Most of all, he is brilliant at thinking clearly in a crisis (and they face lots of those) and offering great advice. He is a little bit pessimistic, but this makes him a good foil for Lady Arabella as she tends to be over-confident. Miles is equipped with a range of useful accessories, which come in handy as the adventure unfolds. I won’t tell you what these are, but here’s a hint: he has a pretty amazing left hand.
You’ve also written a lot of non fiction books – do you have a favourite subject?
My favourite subject his history, which I studied at university. I’ve written loads of history books as well as some historical fiction. I once even wrote a 300-page history of the world – which covered everything from the Stone Age to the present day. The English edition sold over 50,000 copies and was translated into loads of other languages. I also wrote a book called 1001 Hideous History Facts, which was a lot of fun.
Iron Sky is set in the 19th century, is this your favourite period of history?
I do love the 19th century, because it was an age when almost everything seemed possible, and people dared to dream big. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and was rapidly transforming the world. It was an age of terrible poverty and exploitation, but also an age of charitable works and public-spiritedness. The Victorians created beautiful parks and public libraries and free schooling as well as dark, satanic mills. The only other people who transformed the world so dramatically were the ancient Romans, and that’s another era I love.
Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction books?
Good question! I love them both in different ways. With non-fiction I love researching topics and seeking out new nuggets of knowledge and finding interesting and entertaining ways of explaining things. However, if I had to choose between them, I would have to choose fiction as my favourite. Why? Well, there is something so ancient and direct about stories. I love the idea that words can flow straight from my imagination into some readable object like a book or an e-reader to fire the imagination of someone else. Something that scared or amused me when I wrote it will send out little ripples of fear or laughter through the world. That’s an exciting thought! Most of all, I love the unique quality of fiction. I know, when I tell a story, that one has ever told that story or dreamed up those characters before. And if readers become swept away by the story, and the characters become their friends or enemies for a while – there’s no better feeling than that for a writer.
What was your favourite book when you were a child?
My favourite was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I’m reading it to my kids now and they’re loving it. I adore the inventive way he plays around with concepts, so that, for example, words become things you can eat and Doldrums is an actual place you can get stuck in. There are characters like Short Shrift, the extremely short policeman, and the Watch Dog, who has the body of a watch, and the Spelling Bee who is, you guessed it, a bee that likes to spell out words. It’s like Alice in Wonderland meets The Hobbit. I loved it then. I still love it now!
Do you have a special place where you do all your writing?
My study, which is a room in my house. It’s a small room and it’s absolutely crammed full of books. There’s a cork board where I pin up important notes and then forget to take them down. There are important notes I’ve pinned up there dating back to 1996. I’ve no idea if they’re still important or not. I have a window, which looks out onto an ordinary suburban street full of houses with lace curtains over their windows. The lace curtains never move, so I have no idea what goes on behind them, or what sort of people live there, but thinking about such things sometimes helps to get my imaginative juices flowing.
What would be the one piece of advice you’d give your childhood self?
Probably the best piece of advice I could give my childhood self is ‘go for it!’ I was a timid child with little self-belief and not many social skills or friends. My shyness handicapped me when I was younger, and perhaps my lack of self-confidence stopped me from pursuing my dream of becoming a writer until I reached my thirties. On the other hand, shyness did have its advantages, as it meant I spent loads of time on my own dreaming up stories, which I can now tell.
Are there any authors (apart from yourself of course) that you’d recommend to our readers?
Yes. If you like steampunk, I’d definitely recommend you read Nick Cook’s Cloud Riders, and Sharon Gosling’s The Diamond Thief. If you like dystopian fiction, you should try Stewart Ross’s The Soterion Mission. If historical fiction is your bag, I would urge you to try Dan Scott’s Gladiator School series, set in Roman times. And if you simply enjoy beautiful writing and a gripping story, you should look out for Abbie Rushton’s Unspeakable, coming out in 2015. It’s totally brilliant.
Will we be seeing more of Arabella and Miles in the future?
Yes, absolutely! I’m writing Book 2 at the moment, and straight after that I’ll be starting work on Book 3. I’m really loving writing the sequels as the characters already feel alive to me. The sequels should be out in 2015/2016.