With a week away now in sight at the end of the month, I’m stockpiling holiday reading. One book I’m very much looking forward to is Gaie Sebold’s ‘Shanghai Sparrow’. I really enjoyed her Babylon Steel books – an entertaining and intelligently different take on epic fantasy. So it’s going to be fascinating to see what she does with the themes and ideas of Steampunk and I’ve invited her to share some thoughts on the book here. Over to Gaie.
When I started writing Shanghai Sparrow, the first book in the Gears of Empire series, I knew I wanted to write about the grimy, smelly, exploitative underside of the Victorian period. This may have been at least partly in response to a certain writer’s remark about Steampunk being ‘fascism for nice people,’ which, as a longstanding Leftie, I regarded as…well, more of a challenge than anything.
So my heroine, while originally from the most respectable of backgrounds, ends up surviving on the streets of London under the kind of circumstances that inspired Thomas Barnardo to set up his children’s homes. Evvie, however, did not meet Thomas Barnardo. She met Ma Pether, a woman who runs a group of female pickpockets, fraudsters and breakers-and-enterers.
I wasn’t expecting Ma. She created herself on the page, striding in, pipe asmoke, fidgeting dangerously with explosive mechanisms and creating bizarre aphorisms. She turned out to be a lot of fun to write. Almost too much fun – it was difficult to stop her taking over every chapter in which she appeared.
The same could be said to apply to the villainous Bartholomew Simms – though unlike Ma, he can’t really be said to have any redeeming features. At all. A thoroughly nasty, dangerous, sly, violent and brutal man – but with a certain style and turn of phrase that makes me look forward to writing him.
And then there’s Evvie herself – who occasionally aims for respectability but just isn’t terribly good at it. She’s too good at being bad, too good at fraud, deception, and thievery.
But she is the heroine. She has moral boundaries and dilemmas, she has struggles with her conscience. Just not always, perhaps, the same ones that most of us might have when faced with whether or not to nick something or rip someone off.
Yet she’s most fun to write, in some ways, when she’s just enjoying being good at what she does best – being a trickster and a thief.
And therein lies the question. Why are villains such fun to write? What is the appeal of going outside the moral boundaries within which I live quite happily most of the time in the real world?
I’m talking about my own personal moral boundaries, of course, which while they are going to overlap with many people’s are not always going to be identical. But I don’t steal, or commit fraud, or act violently to others. I don’t, as a general rule, want to. I fear the consequences, yes, but also, I don’t want to be a con-artist, a fraudster, a murderer. In real terms these are people who damage lives or end them, and I don’t want to do that.
And yet, on the page … it’s so damn much fun writing people who don’t have those boundaries. People who say those things, and do those things, and (sometimes) get away with it. But the point isn’t necessarily whether they get away with it in the long run – the fun part is that they get to say it and do it right now, right there, before our very eyes!
Some of it, certainly, is a form of wish fulfilment. I’d sometimes like to treat the law like the ass it occasionally, indisputably is. I’d often like to be able to turn the tables on our Lords and Masters, who rip off whole societies, whole countries, by outdoing them at their own game of fraud, deception and theft, but with a fraction of the resources and ten times the wits.
I might not want to murder, but I would like to be that bold, that scary, that tough. Especially when the vicious and violent of the world are making me feel threatened, I’d like, for once, to be the one who has conversations fall silent and glasses slip from trembling fingers when I enter the room, to be able to quell would-be opponents with a glance, to have my reputation go before me as someone not to be messed with.
I’d like the power that comes with going outside the legal and moral boundaries. But since I’m not going to do that, I have to find another way. And until the world becomes a place where (all questions of hard work and persistence aside), being nice and obedient and lawful is the best way for a woman to get respect, I guess I’ll keep on living vicariously through my villains, and enjoying every moment of it.
Gaie Sebold was born some time ago, and is gradually acquiring a fine antique patina. She has written several novels, a number of short stories, and has been known to perform poetry. Her debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); the sequel, Dangerous Gifts, came out in 2013. Shanghai Sparrow, a steampunk fantasy, came out in 2014 and the sequel, Sparrow Falling, in 2016. Her jobs have ranged from till-extension to bottle-washer and theatre-tour-manager to charity administrator. She lives with writer David Gullen and a paranoid cat in leafy suburbia, runs writing workshops, grows vegetables, and cooks a pretty good borscht.
Her website is www.gaiesebold.com and you can find her on twitter @GaieSebold.