Fri
Oct 30 2009 6:10pm

An Interview with Scott Westerfeld on Barking Spiders, Steampunk, and All Things Leviathan

As both a continuation of a conversation bestselling author Scott Westerfeld and I had by the river in San Antonio, as well as a complimentary follow up to Irene Gallo’s interviews with Scott and artist Keith Thompson, I’ve asked Scott a few questions, while he’s on tour, about his latest novel Leviathan, from the creation of the book to his thoughts on things steampunk.

Joe Monti: Would you call your latest novel, Leviathan, steampunk? It’s technically “late” in a strict historical timeline and there’s a lack of the brass effect, replaced instead by steel and diesel, but it feels like steampunk. Hell, what would you call steampunk, Scott? Speaking specifically from a literary point of view and not the post-goth cultural perspective, I see steampunk as a genre name that includes a range of diversity, but basically branches out to two forms. There’s Steampunk Fantasy like Blaylock’s Homunculus and Power’s The Anubis Gates, Di Filippo’s The Steampunk Trilogy, Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Priest’s Boneshaker. Then there’s Steampunk Science Fiction, which really starts with Verne, and is what everyone generally thinks of when they label a work as steampunk. Modern examples have to start with Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, but continue on with Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Of course all of that is arguable, and yet its all steampunk to me.

Scott Westerfeld: I think Keith Thompson, my illustrator, puts it best when he says that WWI is the last gasp of steampunk. The war saw a wild spurt of crazy inventions—tanks and planes and airships that look very rococo to us. At the same time, the war ended a lot of the romance of the industrial age. When the term “machine gun” enters common parlance, the word “machine” becomes much more sinister.

So in a way, Leviathan is about a steampunk world that is about to change radically. If the Clankers win, their machine-building culture will presumably dominate, and maybe evolve into something close to our present day. If the Darwinists win, though, something genuinely weird will emerge. In either case, though, the horrors of the war itself will make people start to question both suites of technology.

JM: Tell me a bit about the specifics of your world building as there is a great dichotomy going on between the biological based Darwnists and the wholly plausible Clankers, which are just a version of post-industrial revolution possibilities. Did they come about simultaneously as the natural foil to each other, because the novel reads as if the Darwinists came first and then the Clankers as a natural response to what was going on at the time.

SW: One of my characters, Dr. Nora Darwin Barlow, thinks that the Clankers were influenced by the Darwinists. According to her, Victorian biotech has leaked over into the Germanic machines, which is why they have legs and such. Of course, Prince Alek is less than convinced by this, if only because he’s rarely seen machines work any other way. I prefer Barlow’s interpretation, of course, because it makes my world a bit more conceptually unified than it probably is. 

In book two, Behemoth, the airship travels on to the Ottoman Empire, which creates its walkers in the shapes of animals. Perhaps we’ll find some answers there.

JM: That romantic design you allude to in the industrial fabrications from this era is a large part of the appeal to this literature as well. Sure, you see it in other aspects later on too, like the fabulous fins on cars in the 1950s, but largely, now, if you build something it’s strictly functional. And that element of design is integral to creating a good work of steampunk because it is so alien to us, now, that it’s seen as art. So where did your design influences start? I know this book has been on the back burner for a few years, when steampunk was rather dormant in literature, but prevalent in anime, so did the anime use of steampunk designs and settings get you thinking in certain ways, like the Clanker mecha?

SW: I wouldn’t say design has become strictly functional. A lot of cars these days look downright comic book to me, and the info-gadgets with which late industrial people spend the most time—phones, music players, etc.—are blobjects. Because they have basically no moving parts, they are encased in plastic. You can learn nothing about them by inspecting their shapes. Compare that to a steam engine, where you can SEE how it works, even feeling the heat with your hand if need be.

Certainly, anime is a great source of steampunk imagery, but Keith has his own rather Victorian style. I was never more than a few chapters ahead of him, so his drawings were a big influence on my writing. In fact, I wound up rewriting almost every illustrated scene on the basis of his work. That feedback wound up being a lot more important than any other steampunk sources.

JM: That’s wonderful that you and Keith were able to work so well together, feeding off each other’s imagination—that’s rare and now that you say it, is quite evident in the book as the art and text fit so well, illuminating each other.

I’m also interested in your research and use of historical facts. I met a teacher who was using Leviathan to get her class interested in certain aspects of WWI, so they’ve been using Keith’s wonderful endpaper maps as a focal point, and a discussion starter, on the actual history of the start of the war, and how your divergence helps to illuminate the truth. They’re also “cursing” like barking lunatics in class, obviously using the slang you use in the book, an aspect of your writing you’ve become well known for.

So, where did your research on the day to day, like Dylan’s use of English slang and curse words start? And more importantly, at what point did you feel comfortable mashing up historical facts and your world, as it’s been worked in so well that it all, particularly the ramifications on the mundane, feels rather natural. Was it during the writing itself, or at a certain point in the research? For example, I’m thinking of a scene about halfway through when Alek’s in a small village and trying to understand the peasant world around him, and it’s almost unfathomable to him at a basic level. Yet that pastoral life is still influenced by the Clanker culture, and so doesn’t appear as an anachronism to the reader.

SW: I found a great book called Slang Through the Ages by Jonathon Green. It’s basically a thesaurus of historical slang, and had lots of great old uses. Actually, Deryn’s catchphrase “barking spiders” wasn’t a curse per se, it was a Victorian euphemism for farting. But I liked the sound of it a lot, and it had a certain Darwinist flair, so I changed it to an all-purpose exclamation.

Of the two viewpoint characters, Alek is much more a fish-out-of-water, so he gets to explicate things. As a pampered aristocrat, he doesn’t know his own culture very well, and the Darwinist creatures are utter abominations to him. This flips a bit in Book 2, where the action moves to a Clanker country, and Deryn is more likely to be looking at things and wondering about/expositing them.

As far as WHEN I felt comfortable messing with history, the answer is: pretty much from the start. I went into this project knowing what I wanted play with—biology, airships, walking machines—and certain historical figures like Franz Ferdinand’s children and Charles Darwin’s granddaughter.

JM: Onto a last reference, you mentioned that Behemoth will be the title of the next book, and in a recent Publishers Weekly article discussed Leviathan as a pre-apocalyptic work. Are these all clues to what’s brewing as the trilogy unfolds, perhaps expanding the horrors of WWI?

SW: Vague but medium-size spoilers follow: In Behemoth, the second book in the trilogy, our heroes actually leave Europe and head to the Ottoman Empire, and in the third book they go a lot farther. Part of this was about leaving the well-known horrors of trench warfare behind, but also I wanted to show more of this alternate world. The two competing technologies have also been adapted by Islam, Japan, and the U.S., all of which will ultimately participate in the Great War, and all of which have put their own spin on Clanker and Darwinist science and aesthetics.

As the war and the series go on, the history books are left further behind. My characters begin to change outcomes, in other words. I’m not sure yet how the military conflict ends, but the Great War in Leviathan may well be less apocalyptic than in our world.


A former bookseller and children’s book buyer, Joe Monti is now a literary agent at Barry Goldblatt Literary. And he conducted this while wearing goggles and dreaming of owning a Jake von Slatt creation.

3 comments
Jaymee Goh
1. Jha
Oooh. That Clankers vs. Darwinists theme sounds right up my alley! I shall have to pick this up. Thanks for posting this!!
Tiffany Schmidt
3. Tiffany Schmidt
My sixth graders are captivated by Leviathan! They come in each day armed with research they've voluntarily done the night before, impatient to tell the class about aspects of the book that are historical versus the parts that are invented.

They also started morning announcements over the PA system with: "Barking spiders! Is it Monday already?"...

Great interview, Joe! Looking forward to Behemoth, Scott!
Tiffany Schmidt
4. Nick Stevens
I just ordered this book from ebay and can't wait to get it. It's for my 12 year old son who's suddenly into steampunk but the article peaked my interest and I shall read it first before handing it over to sticky fingers.

Tiffany, this is really reading material in school? that's so cool.

My son and I seemingly have a new hobby to share together every six months as his moods change. Last year we built a 1976 Chevy Nova muscle car which led to building a website about muscle cars (auto nationals, hope the link is ok to share) which I fear may turn into building a mechanized machine after reading you book. Can't wait to read it!

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