Saturday, December 17, 2011

Author Interview - Michel Vaillancourt of The Sauder Diaries

I cast my mind back to almost a year ago, when I reviewed a piece of addictive serial steampunk fiction, entitled The Sauder Diaries, that was being written and delivered episodically on Scribd, by Michel Vaillancourt.  

Now, just 11 months later, I am delighted to announce that The Sauder Diaries: By Any Other Name, by Michel Vaillancourt, has not only been accepted for publication by Trestle Press, but is being released in ebook format on Monday, December 19th (paper book to follow early in 2012).  (Amended July 2012:  After the fiasco with the original thieving publisher, the book is now published by Avenger Press Services and has finally been released for Kindle and in trade paperback on Needless to say, well, I'm excited, as this was an engaging piece of airship pirate steampunk fiction.
In preparation for the release of his debut novel on Monday, I decided to interview Michel Vaillancourt.  (Proper full novel review to follow, once I've had the pleasure of the reading the whole thing all of a piece.)  Please find below our interview, held late at night, from West Coast to East, Friday December 16. 

Hi Michel, thanks for agreeing to this interview regarding your about-to-released Sauder Diaries.

It's my pleasure.  I'm really enjoying this whole new world of being interviewed as an author.

Let's get right to it.

Sure thing!

First of all, to start, how would you summarize the Sauder Diaries (sans spoilers)?

It's a Steampunk-themed pirate adventure romance.  The core story is about a young man who breaks out of the shell of his own making and realizes there is a bigger world around him.

The main character, Hans Sauder, is on his way to university on an airship when he gets shanghaied by infamous pirates.  He eventually winds up traveling with the pirates all over Europe and beyond as part of the crew.

His life gets complicated when the woman in charge of the gunner-marines decides she's attracted to him.  Things get even more complicated when the ship he is on undertakes a dangerous mission into the territory of the Russian Empire.

What made you pick this moment in history (well, in alternate history) for your novel?

Really, I was reverse engineering a justification for airship piracy.  How does airship piracy work?  You can't have it without the economics to support it.  There is no point in stealing something unless you can sell it or trade it.  So who are they selling it to?  What made air travel more practical than land travel such as trains?

I needed a point in time that represented a major war in Europe that pre-dated the "core" of the Victorian Era.  For airship piracy to work, Europe had to be in a condition that meant that railroads and canals were unusable.  So, the Russian War, aka the Crimean War, was the event in history I was looking for.  From there, I started working forward in time to choose my year and date.

And why pirates?

The full explanation is on my blog, Split Horizons.  The short version is that I was listening to Abney Park's "Airship Pirates", and one line made me think, what sort of lunatic swings on a leather thong at 15000 feet in the air?"  And I wanted to answer the question, "who are the sort of people that live in a world where airship pirates are possible?"  

Originally, the Sauder Diaries was released as episodic fiction, on Scribd, as each portion was written.  In an ideal world, where any form of published work is available (and will of course provide a living), which is your preference ... releasing a solid novel, or the Victorian style of serial fiction, released chapter by chapter, as Dickens etc did?

Absolutely serial fiction.  In fact, if the fans would go for it, I'd love to release the second book that way.  Every week, release another chapter on a subscription arrangement or something.

However, I know authors who have tried this route and in this world, no one wants to buy at a buck a chapter. 

The Sauder Diaries contains some very strong, very independent female characters.  Was this a deliberate choice on your part, and why?

Absolutely.  One of the most iconic moments in the adventures of the Victorian Era is Henry Morton Stanley’s popular quotation, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”.  In the real world, that question could not have been delivered by a woman of the era.  But what about a world where it could?  What an interesting place that would be!

One of the things that the Victorian Era served as was a kind of watershed for the
Suffrage Movement.  To me, to be true to "Steampunk" as I see it, you pretty much need a female lead or supporting character to be ahead of the curve;  already be out there, doing the sort of things that the women of the time rallying in the streets could only dream about.

I also have a pet peeve about what I call the "Dry Ice Heroine" ... "Strong and frosty, strong and frosty, whoops here comes the hero / hunk, she melts."  I refuse to write that character, unless she's clearly a plot device.

And your female characters don't do that?

Absolutely not.  They may have moments of vulnerability, they might get scared or worried, but when the chips are down, they're as dependable as the men they work and live alongside.

What makes them different?

They're all women living in a men's world, and they've earned their equality, and they'll be damned if they'll be treated any different.  They work as hard, they fight as hard, they risk as hard.

What was the process, or motivation, that embarked you on your voyage to write the Diaries?

It's a complex answer.  Mostly, it was a goal-driven process for me;  I had never done this sort of a project before.  I had done short stories and serial fan-fic, but never a novel.  So, it was a matter of setting a goal -- write a chapter and publish it -- and then do it.  Rinse and repeat.  Then I had a novel.  So, set the next set of goals:  Get a Facebook community page.  Get a publisher.  Get the book out there.  Get people talking about it.  Start working on the next book.  One goal at time, achieve it, celebrate it, and aim for the next thing.

Has writing a novel been in your head for a while?  Or was this a new idea that just overtook you?
It is actually something I had wanted to do since my late teens or early 20's. I just had not found the right combination of life circumstances and story to have it happen.

Is there a character in The Sauder Diaries you have had more trouble writing than others?  If so, what was the challenge or difficulty?

The two female lead characters, Arrieta and Annika.  I'm not a woman, and so I can't claim to really understand what they think and what they hold important.  So, I did research;  I'm a lucky fella that knows a lot of attractive professional women that are also good friends.  They were willing to answer questions about how they thought and what they felt.  So, in a certain way, Arrieta is one group of women I know, and Annika is another.

Alternately, was there a character who came to you particularly easily?  If so, in what way?

Michael O'Raedy, known as Captain Blackheart.  He was the easiest to write, as I've known a lot of captains, and people in the real world who work in leadership and command. I've gotten to talk with them and learn about what they do, what they handle, and what they don't show.

Is there anything in The Sauder Diaries that surprised even you, when writing it?

Two things.  The first was the good Doctor Koblinski. He was supposed to be essentially a one scene character who was irrelevant to the long-term plot. The fans, however, were enamored with him and insisted he had to stick around.  I had tremendous feedback at the release of Chapter One that everyone loved his wit and clear common-sense.  So, the Doctor is around to stay.

They second thing that surprised me was how often I cried writing my first book.  I found that when I was writing the Sauder Diaries, I intentionally went places with my writing I'd never gone before, in terms of inspiring big emotion in the reader.  There are parts that I can't read aloud without choking up.  Both Book 1 and the in-progress Book 2.

Is there any little tidbit, which I'm not covering with the questions I've asked so far, that you'd like to share with us about the novel, or your process?  This is your opportunity to answer a question you want to answer, that you haven't been asked yet.

Don't tell me this isn't Steampunk.  It might not be your Steampunk, but that's okay.  This is my take on Steampunk.  It is what I see the fans and advocates at Cons, concerts and meets talking about as cool.  This is a book for Steampunks, written by a new member of the Steampunk movement.

As well, I'd like to stay that to me, the word Steampunk is composed of two words:  "Steam" and "Punk". 

"Steam" is the temporal reference marker;  the Age of Steam which firmly brackets the Victorian Era.  There is so much factual and pop-cultural imagery in that period that it is astonishing.  On land, at sea, and in the air,  History was happening and the world was changing like never before.

"Punk" is the conceptualization of social ideologies that are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views.  It's about freedom, it's about walking counter-class or caste, it's about doing things that would scandalize the "main stream culture" of the day.

So, that's part of what this story is about.  Underneath the pirates, airships and clockworks is a story with themes that take at least passing looks at the social norms of the day.  The treatment of servants, class-based poverty, the perception of women as objects or property, and Calvanist morals...  there is a lot to run at angles to here.

On a slightly off-book bent ... Steampunk:  what draws you to it?  And do you think it has to have a nailed down definition ?

Something I heard Phil Foglio say at Steamcon was that "Steampunk fiction is about when technology can save humanity.  It isn't the problem, it is the solution."

I agree with that.  Steampunk fiction is, to me at least, inherently hopeful.  It is about people doing incredibly cool things at a point in time when when no one knew what the boundaries were and they seemed to be on the brink of revolutionizing the world.  Everything was within the realm of possibility; everything was within reach.  The right man (or woman) with the right perseverance and the right science at the right place could change the world for the better.  That's pretty empowering.

In "The Sauder Diaries", being a pirate is as much about freedom as anything else. It is an inherently hopeful act; taking ownership of their own futures by their own actions and associations.  Maybe it isn't very nice, but I'll leave that for the moralists.  The pirates in this world are inherently the rebels and underdogs.  They are living outside the physical, social and moral walls of the setting. 

So you're more on the Jules Verne "optimist" camp of Victorian science fiction, then H.G. Wells "pessimist" camp (note for readers, the opposites are excellently described here.

That's one way of looking at it, yes.  

To me the best way to define Steampunk is by inclusion.  I prefer to be inclusive; it's all Steampunk, unless we all agree that it isn't.

Oh man, that's probably going to produce comment.   Yay!  I love it when the conversation gets exciting.

Thank you very much, Michel, for taking the time out late tonight for this interview, and congratulations on your debut novel!  I very much look forward to having it in my hot little hands, and even more to reading future work from you.

Dec 20/12 UPDATE:  If you're keen to get your hands on this book (and I do highly recommend it!) the ebook is now available for purchase online at Amazon's Kindle store here.

Feb 2/12 UPDATE:  Due to reprehensible actions on behalf of the small publisher, Trestle Press (stealing artwork from multiple sources and artists without permission, and presenting them to the authors as legitimate), Michel Vaillancourt, along with numerous other authors, has had to remove his book from sale at present.  You can see his blog entry on this situation here.

July 2012 UPDATE:  After the above fiasco, the book is happily now available again!  Published by Avenger Press Services and available on for Kindle and in trade paperback.