Texas Week: Interview with Tor editor Liz Gorinsky

While Hugo nominated Liz Gorinsky is actually a Manhattan native, her participation on the panel last Sunday in Austin, Texas deemed it appropriate to run her raw interview from which portions were used in The Steampunk Bible proper. Ms. Gorinsky has worked with some of the most prominent speculative fiction authors writing today, including Steampunk scribes Cherie Priest and George Mann. Below, the lovely Ms. Gorinsky discusses editing and trends of Steampunk literature.

SPB: What is your personal definition of Steampunk?

LG: I’m going to crib from myself and steal the definition I used for the introduction to Tor.com’s Steampunk Month: “There’s no simple definition that works for everyone—at our staff meeting the other day, we wound up reverting to that old saw about pornography—but I usually start off with something along the lines of ‘a Victorian-influenced speculative fiction subgenre set in a world where steam power is still in common use; and the aesthetic derived thereof.’”

SPB: How long have you been involved/interested in Steampunk?

LG: I guess I’ve been officially involved in Steampunk since I acquired my first Steampunk book in, let’s see, early 2008. But I’ve been a fan of the aesthetic for much longer. Long before I’d ever heard the word “Steampunk” I fell in love with the Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Mark Caro film The City of Lost Children, which is still one of my favorite manifestations of the Steampunk look. The first time I remember consuming anything that knowingly used the term was Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo’s early-aughts comic book Steampunk, which was both visual crack for a teenager who grew up on Bachalo’s Death comics, and one of the earliest mainstream attempts to encapsulate something that—before that point—could barely be considered a cult fandom, or even a cohesive aesthetic.

SPB: What differences do you see between now and when you started?

LG: Obviously the genre has been around for decades, and has slowly gained popularity since the mid-nineties, but I think the thing that took Steampunk to the next level was the article about it in the New York Times Style section in May 2008. I always feel silly saying this, because the Style section rarely covers anything until it’s washed up, but that was the crucial piece of media that made it possible to walk into a meeting at a corporate publisher and explain why the sales staff had to pay attention to this wacky subgenre. Since then, everything has exploded: exponentially more people have heard of Steampunk, there are many more gatherings of fans, and there’s actually a few viable media properties we can point at to explain why we think there’s an audience for this stuff.

SPB: Who are your favorite Steampunk figures and why? Who has had the most influence upon you?

LG: This is a very biased answer, but it would be an editor’s greatest dream if all her authors were half as able to explain Steampunk simply to newbies and discuss it intelligently with old hats, willing to make public appearances, and genuinely enthusiastic about the period and the material as Cherie Priest is. She knows how to looking the part, too. But most Steampunk fans know about Cherie by now, so I’d like to mention one of the unheralded heroes of the field: Evelyn Kriete, who has tirelessly volunteered her counsel and connections to the Steamfashion LJ community, Tor.com’s Steampunk Month, and various conventions and parties and press outlets for years now. She’s one of the first people I’d point out to anyone who has any doubt that Steampunk is a community in its own right.

SPB: What is it about Steampunk that is so appealing to you personally and to others as a whole?

LG: I’m one of the folks who subscribes to the notion that I didn’t find Steampunk, it found me. So many elements of the genre are things I’ve liked forever—the fashion, the gadgetry, the use of high-flown prose to add literary merit even to action sequences—that Steampunk just happened to combine into one package. After I had more exposure to the literature and the community, I got excited by the extent to which it’s a pro-history, science-positive genre with a reverence for physical technologies, and all the ways it ties into education, material conservation, and the maker culture.

Alas, I’d be loathe to attempt to make a claim about what “others as a whole” see in Steampunk, since I’ve encountered as many different reasons to care about the movement as there are people involved in it.

SPB: As an editor, do you see Steampunk becoming part of the writer’s tool box for a story? What I mean is–are some stories better illustrated by a Steampunk world, and why?

LG: I’m not sure I believe that anything can successfully be made into a Steampunk book just by adding brass or goggles or setting it in the Victorian era instead of the Renaissance. By and large, the Steampunk narratives I enjoy are fairly holistic examples of the genre. In other words, you can’t take the Steampunk elements out of a novel to make it a “normal” story any more than you can bolt Steampunk elements onto some other kind of book to make it Steampunk, so the toolbox metaphor doesn’t really apply. That said, there are some narratives that mesh better with elements of the genre than others, which I suspect is why so many Steampunk books also function as action or detective stories.

SPB: What are the challenges of editing Steampunk work [as opposed to any other type of fantasy and sci-fi]?

LG: Most of the things you need to keep in mind when editing Steampunk are the same sorts of considerations that come into play with works of alternate history, like making sure it’s plausible—or at least internally consistent—that the world could have progressed from some known divergence point to wherever it stands at the start of the story. It’s also pretty important that the historical heft of the piece be right, which means keeping an eye on the fashion and vocabulary, and flagging any period details that feel out of place. The tricky thing is that it sometimes doesn’t matter whether an element can be factually traced back to the right period: if it feels so modern that a contemporary reader might start wondering if people really used that phrase back then and get thrown out of the story…then it’s got to go.

SPB: When acquiring Steampunk work, what do you look for?

LG: This answer is not very helpful to writers, but the best Steampunk books really just feel right. I’m sure it helps to have the right period, prose style, characters, tropes, fashion, and technology, but I’ve certainly encountered books that had all of those elements but were missing some crucial animating spirit. I’m trying to find books that won’t trigger that reaction for me or any other Steampunk readers out there.

SPB: How do you think Steampunk literature has evolved?

LG: To be honest, I think Steampunk is only just starting to evolve into whatever it’s going to become. The scattered list of titles between the mid-80s and the early aughts usually just attempted to play into the genre (or inadvertently did so) rather than push it forward, and by the end of that span I think most Steampunk books still fit firmly in the straight-laced high-Victorian-plus-advanced-steam-tech arena. I think that if we were traveling along a bell curve charting the progression of the genre, we’d only be about one-fourth of the way along it by now.

SPB
: What is the future of Steampunk, what would you like to see happen within it that has not yet occurred [this can be in general, or lit specific if you like]?

LG: This answer pairs well with the previous question, in that I think the literature is finally starting to evolve, and will continue to do so, and I’m excited to see where this maturation process takes it. I think—and hope—that the area it most expands into will be covering populations that are thus far insufficiently represented. I want to see Steampunk books set in countries other than Britain and America; that feature protagonists of different races, classes, ages, sexualities, and abilities ; alternate histories where the divergence examines variances in the timelines of social change; and explorations of other ideas that take advantage of Steampunk’s potential as a progressive literature. And in the movement as a whole, I’m excited to see Steampunk continue to increase its prominence as a teaching tool and its role as a viral carrier of the notion that it’s incredibly cool to be able to make and modify and repair your own clothing, technology, and environment—not just for people on the bleeding edge, but for everyone.

“Texas Week: Interview with Tor editor Liz Gorinsky” was published in Uncategorized.

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