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A Conversation with Alex Keller

Alex Keller’s debut novel Haywired has been getting a lot of attention in the Bee’s corner of the blogosphere lately.  Subtitled 'A Steampunk Fairy Tale', it takes place in a sort of Brothers Grimm world in which the magic has been replaced by Weird Science.  To mark its official publication day Philip Reeve talks to Alex about fantasy, steampunk, and the ideas behind his book...

PR:  So, what is Haywired?
AK:  Haywired is my first attempt at writing a proper story. I spent time working out exactly the sort of things I really enjoy when reading, and tried to put them all together in this book. I wanted to create strong, engaging, and realistic characters in a world that felt both fantastical and very real at the same time.
PR:  The world of Haywired, with its warring nation states, feels vaguely European, vaguely 19th Century.  What inspired that setting?  As the geography expands in the sequels will Pallenway and Galleesha turn out to be part of Europe, or is it a complete fantasy planet?  
AK:  The world in which Haywired is set is a complete fantasy world. I wanted it to have my own world with it's own politics, history, etc. If I had set it on Earth I could only really write it as an alternative history, (which I'm not a big fan of), or as a decaying future, (which has been done already). Making a whole new world meant I wasn't limited by anything other than the world's own internal logic. If felt like a challenge to create it from scratch, and I think I had more fun doing it this way was well. 
With regard to the European Nineteenth Century feel, this was very much what I was aiming for. I see the Nineteenth Century as a really interesting period in history. It was a terrible time in many respects, but it was also chaotic and exciting and a huge amount of change was occurring. However, Haywired isn't set in the 19th Century on Earth, so I could add things that would never have existed then. Also, while this is not really made obvious, the world of Haywired is also slightly reflective of the Greek World after the death of Alexander, and the 16th Century of  the Hapsburg family. I basically took the bits of Earth history I find interesting and combined them into a world that I could tell stories in. 
Geographically, Pallenway and Galleesha are very similar to England and France (the name of the Capital of Galleesha is very similar to the earliest name of Paris). Politically, I'd say the warring nations reflects pretty much most of European history, however, a major element of the history of Pallenway and Galleesha is that these countries are the fractured remains of an empire, and here, as mentioned before, I had the death of Alexander in my head. I liked the idea of a world that's trying to find itself after the old order has collapsed. 
PR:  Though it has to be said that very little of this history is actually mentioned in Haywired.  Indeed, you seem to have kept the description and background detail to a bare minimum. Was that a deliberate decision?   
AK: Yes and no. Earlier versions of the book had much more about the history of the characters and the world they are in. A scene where Ludwig visits Mrs Pewsnitt and she tells him about the events that led to his grandfather's death was taken out, and also scenes that look at Sir Notsworth's relationship with Mandrake, etc. However, my editor thought is best to keep the story more direct, at least for the first book. Since it's really aimed at ten year olds and slightly older, this probably was for the best. Also, it gives me more content to include in later books. 

The Steam Man of the Prairies -
none more steampunk...
PR:  What do you reckon to this ‘Steampunk’ lark, then?

AK: For me it was the best means through which I could bring together the elements of fantasy and science fiction I enjoy, but avoiding some of the issues that can arise in both genres. I like fantasy for example, but I find the vast majority of the genre a bit dull; like everyone is writing JRR Tolkien fan fiction rather than coming up with ideas of their own.  
PR: I've not read much 'high' fantasy.  I loved Tolkien and Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander when I was a child, but they were enough; when I wanted fantasy I just re-read them. Most of the fantasy I see reviewed these days sounds more like Fritz Leiber than Tolkien - lots of grimy, sprawling cities with Thieves' Guilds and Catacombs and things.  

AK: I 've heard that city-based fantasy stories are big these days. I'm not dismissing all fantasy by any means, and like quite a lot of it, but another issue that can arise with high fantasy especially is the worlds can feel very static. Authors seem to write the history of their worlds and, while big events may have happened, technology hasn't progressed or politics changed or anything of that ilk for thousands of years. This seems a bit daft to me. Also I'm not a big fan of magic in stories. There's something too easy about it. I'm not saying it's done badly all the time, but if you use magic in a story anything is possible. A character is never really in danger because they can wave a wand and materialise somewhere else. To be fair, there are a number of writers who have written magic well (Pratchett and Eddings immediately spring to mind), but I think a story can lose a lot of tension when you include magic.  I guess what I'm getting at is that steampunk offers an alternative means of creating fantasy worlds that aren't steeped in knights and dragons and magic. 
PR:  I think that's what drew me to it originally too, although these days I'm starting to think that steampunk actually offers a far more limited set of possibilities.  Airships, automata, a Looming War between the Great European Powers... it's a hall of mirrors! Though to be fair I guess all genre fiction relies to some extent on recycled imagery and cliches, and the pleasure of reading it is watching a good author rearrange the familiar furniture in their own way.  Also, the fantasy we were talking about is just one subgenre; there are plenty of good writers ploughing their own little furrows and turning out wildly original work (I'm thinking of people like Neil Gaiman, MT Anderson and the superb Margo Lanagan).  But I do know what you mean about magic in stories. I've always found it impossible to write about magical goings-on myself, although of course there are lots of books and films where it's used wonderfully well.  And if we're honest, waving a magic wand isn't the only way to get characters out of trouble; anyone who's ever watched Dr Who or Star Trek knows that sci-fi has its own set of get-out-of-jail-free cards - you just re-route the tachyon modulators through the photonic plasma manifold and Bob's your uncle...
AK: That's true. If technology is sufficiently advanced in sci-fi, it can have the same effect. I think that's why I like science fiction books where the technology is flawed and humanity is still rather fragile.
PR: Speaking of which, what would you say are your big influences? 
AK: While I wrote Haywired, I had two books next to me pretty much all the time. The first was The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. I love Terry Pratchett, and I think this is his best children's novel. It funny and dark and moving all at once. The second was Mortal Engines. It's a brilliantly fun and exciting adventure, and the moving cities are fantastic creations. Whenever I got stuck, I would pick up one of these and read. I'd then compare what I had written and change it whenever it didn't match up. I'm not saying I succeeded it copying the styles of these books, but they did help improve my own writing. 

PR (Blushing modestly): I read an interview where you described an earlier version of the story, about a descendant of mad inventors living in the present day, who still does a bit of mad inventing to keep up the family tradition.  I thought that sounded great!  Is there any chance that you'll go back to it?  
AK: I liked that idea too, although I thought that it seems a bit too ordinary, with kids going off to rescue their parents and so forth. I might have a stab at it sometime but improve the story.
PR:  I just thought the set-up sounded nice; I imagine a perfectly ordinary suburban house with a huge Frankenstein laboratory in the loft or the spare room.  And the idea of the father doing all these mad experiments just out of a vague sense of duty...   I do think you should keep it on the back burner.  You never know when these ideas are going to come in handy!   I know there's a sequel, Rewired, in the works.  Do you have plans for further books after that?

AK:  I've got ideas for another two books in the Haywired series after Rewired. However, whether they see the light of day is another matter. Hopefully Haywired will be popular enough to carry on!   I've also got ideas for a few books that wouldn't be related to Haywired. There's one especially that I'm hoping to get finished by the summer and I think it could be really good. I'm still only working on the storyline at the moment though.

Haywired is available from all the usual places, including this one.


Anonymous said...

Delivery estimate: 8 Sep 2010 - 10 Sep 2010
Dispatch estimate for these items: 3 Sep 2010
1 "Haywired" Alex Keller; Paperback; £5.99

philip reeve said...

What, you can't wait ten days? Walk to a bookshop then. You young whippersnappers, you don't know you're born.

Alex Keller said...

To be fair, I think about 3 shops in the entire UK are stocking it, so ordering online might prove a more successful means of getting it.

Alex Keller said...

@odontomachus - Thanks for ordering it by the way!

Anonymous said...

What is this "bookshop" of which you speak?

Philip Reeve said...

Amazon's dispatch and delivery estimates tend to be worse case scenarios anyway, presumably so they can say 'nuffin to do wiv us, guv'nor' when the Royal Mail drag their heels. I usually get most orders within 2-3 days, which isn't bad for free delivery to the middle of nowhere.

kamran said...

Alex keller came to grand avenue primary and nusery schoool

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