Whisper Merlot is a remarkable young woman, even as far as steampunks go, because she doesn’t just dress up, or create steampunk accessories, or attend cons. Whisper actually lives in an RV, travelling from place to place bringing steampunk into other people’s lives. Along with her crew, the Penny Dreadfuls, she helps organize events to bring steampunk to the forefront of people’s consciousness, and strives to make steampunk spaces as comfortable as possible for attendants.
Recently, I decided to get to know Miss Merlot better, and an interesting exchange occurred which I thought I would share with you all. She lives a steampunk’d life, Miss Merlot, and how!
Jha: I guess we’ll have to start off with a generic, innocuous question: How did you get into steampunk?
Whisper Merlot: I first heard the term “steampunk” years back but didn’t think too much on it. When someone later threw it at me again, I asked what steampunk was implying for him. After he explained, I explored steampunk on my own. Like so many others have told me since, once I started looking into steampunk I realized I had always loved what steampunk is; I simply hadn’t had a name for it. But for about two years, my love of steampunk was only a little bit of extra fantasy in my writing, and accepting that I was always going to like movies like Waterworld or Wild Wild West.
Finally, I brought steampunk the table into my gaming worlds. This brought steampunk to my friends. From there, things sky-rocketed. With my friends also interested and doing their own research, suddenly it wasn’t just me having a little bit of steampunk stuff in my life. No, I had a whole group of people involved, doing their own research, and bringing that back to the rest of us to bounce off from there.
I started adjusting my style to better reflect my interests, and found it a surprisingly positive influence. The simple act of wearing articles of clothing to work that I felt better in just made everything much less stressful; I was able to start focusing on what was important to me and let the rest go. Which I guess is a weird thing, that just that simple change of how I looked at things had such a huge impact on me.
But I guess, too, that’s why I ended up full time in this steampunk life. ^_^
And that, my dear Jha, is how I got into steampunk.
Jha: That’s really cool! I came to steampunk similarly myself (but through a literary method). I’m very intrigued by your comment about feeling more comfortable in the steampunk style. I’m assuming you mean sartorial choices?
Whisper Merlot: Not necessarily just clothing, actually. I incorporated steampunk into my apartment as well. Plus, “style” for me was also a lifestyle. My steampunk has a lot of positive, future-looking attitudes to it, and the DIY movement gets picked up there as well. I felt a lot better upcycling old tights into arm coverings, fixing battered chairs I might otherwise throw out, and even growing a garden on my apartment’s tiny deck. These things are not what people view as steampunk, but being in that style and mindset, I wanted to know more about how my world worked, and how I could do things myself. I felt more positive all over.
Jha: How did you begin to incorporate these items of clothing into your wardrobe? How did [those awfully normal] people react to your new fashion?
Whisper Merlot: I started with little things. Some of my sprocket earrings, a compass necklace, wristcuffs I’d knitted. I incorporated my vests into my day wear; pulled out browns and greens over grays and purples. I enjoy wearing skirts, so I’d do stockings and garters, or bloomers underneath — something no one else might ever know about but me! ^_~
Then came the day I said, “Screw it, I’m going full steampunk.” I don’t know why, but I really love my goggles. They’re antiques, but I don’t treat them too much like that. And I’ve had to fix them on more than one occasion when the fur unraveled or the strap snapped. When I wore the goggles to work, with an otherwise semi-normal outfit (brown corduroy pants, brown vest, and long-sleeved olive shirt; pretty normal, right?), suddenly my customers were happy to see me. Happy to talk to me. To ask about my goggles, my necklace, my earrings. I even had two of them know what steampunk was, and a few people asked where they could get similar goggles.
So, normal people reacted VERY well. Better than I had expected. In fact, people were nicer to me, more likely to engage me in conversation during their busy and stressful Christmas season.
Jha: Do you feel if there’s a specific reason why people respond positively to the steampunk style? I’ve read around on how steampunk is friendlier to look at than, say, goth. Would you agree with this?
Whisper Merlot: Oh, steampunk most certainly is a more visually friendly look. When I was in high school, I didn’t consider myself a goth, but I found out my classmates did just because of what I wore. People in the mainstream, they don’t take too kindly to gothic outfits. But as soon as you start wearing steampunky or Neo-Victorian outfits, they want to talk to you, ask about things, or tell you about their own interactions with other steampunks.
Every time my crew would go out to lunch during a convention, we would get looks sure. But we’d also have people approach us and ask what was going on, if we were re-enactors or filming something. Steampunk, for them, was inviting. It also was cool to hear from some people that they had no idea a convention was going on, and that because they talked with us, they were going to go. ^_^
Actually, one of the first conventions I was a guest at with The Penny Dreadfuls, an older woman in the audience stood up at the end of our panel. We had opened the floor to questions and comments. She mentioned to us that steampunk is very familiar and comfortable to her. A lot of what we wear, it looks so much like pictures of her parents or grandparents that she might find up in the attic. So, visual steampunk is something people can get behind as it is a lot of bringing back older styles with a twist!
And even as the “punk” part is still a big portion of things for me, it doesn’t mean “Be a jackass to people and damn The Man!” If I want people to change, grow, be open to my culture, I need to approach them from a place they feel safe and invited into.
Jha: So onto the tactless money question — is it cheap to be a steampunk? Or expensive?
Whisper Merlot: Not terribly. I don’t typically have a lot of spending cash hanging around. So, I had a lot of things already in my closet that I ganked into my steampunk wardrobe. Other than that, I shopped a lot at Salvation Army, Goodwill, and other thrift stores. If you’re not afraid to mod things yourself and have or are willing to learn the skills, it can be very easy and very inexpensive. In my entire wardrobe, the two most expensive things I purchased were the WWI ski goggles and an aviator helm (which Alan has since kidnapped from me.) Other than that, most things were under $10 each and often under $5; plus I make most of my jewelry!
Jha: That sounds really awesome how you weaved the DIY into the rest of your life! Tell us more about this steampunk mindset, about how people might not view it as steampunk—how do you qualify it as steampunk? It sounds very different from the lifestyle aesthetic of brassing out everything in favour of something more hands-on. Is there more to the mindset of a steampunk than just dressing steamy? (I feel there is, as you may know, but I would love to hear your thoughts on that!)
Whisper Merlot: Mine is probably not the most popular opinion… but I run into a lot of people who enjoy steampunk. Many of them are steampunk hobbyists, steampunk enthusiasts, or outright steampunks. But then there are people who try to suck the fun out by turning a blind eye to the many different faces of steampunk, and then talking loudly about how my or your steampunk is not really steampunk.
This is not, in my opinion, a steampunk attitude.
The culture of steampunk may never be solidly pinned down. And as soon as you say “That’s not steampunk” or “Steampunks don’t do that” you remove yourself from the steampunk mindset. It just makes no sense to limit steampunk. If you want to make your life post-apocalyptic Weird West steampunk and hang out with Neo-Vics, deiselpunks, and atomicpunks; who’s more steampunk? None of you, I hope.
I understand that my kind of steampunk is so all-inclusive, that the people who are exclusive will not want to be part of it. Essentially, making it exclusively all-inclusive. ^_~
For me, the steampunk mindset is about following the adventure whatever it may be. I am more true to myself and my goals, weirdly. Going to cons, doing panels, making a comic, dressing up, dressing down, making an alter-ego, throwing parties, watching movies, reading books, organizing photoshoots, ditching the creature comforts, jumping into a van, and bringing steampunk wherever I can go. Over time, my steampunk has become less about what props and costumes I’m showing off, and more about helping other people find this subculture so that they can start enjoying it too.
That is one of the most awesome things I have encountered with steampunk: the people you really will want to talk to, they are the ones who are WILLING to talk to you. You say, “I love that piece! What did you use? How did you make it?” and a steampunk is the one who is going to get excited that you asked and tell you all about it. Steampunks seem to really enjoy sharing knowledge with others and helping educate people, so that more interesting and inventive projects will come out of it.
Jha: Sounds like your life has been really interesting! You spend your life on the road, swan around—New England, is it?—bringing the steampunk lifestyle to others. What panels have you hosted / are hosting soon?
Whisper Merlot: A lot of people lately have been saying I’m one of the most interesting people they’ve met and it makes me go, “You need to get out more!” ^_^
But yes! I’ve been living on the road since February after I was let go from my job when the holiday season ended. My lease was up in January. I had had zero luck finding a second job, so there was no way I was going to find a full time job fast enough to cover a new apartment.
So Cap and I decided we’d drive around. We didn’t end up on the road together until April, but I was on my own February 1st, couch-hopping at friends’ places all over New England. For the most part, we take jobs at fairs and conventions in this area, but lately we’re working with Jeff Mach (of WickedFaire.com) down in New Jersey. Which is where our Steampunk World’s Fair is being held, not too far outside of New York City!
On the panels front, we host at anime, scifi, pop culture, and gaming cons. Up-coming this fall, we’re bringing panels on “what is steampunk?”, DIY-ing your props and costumes, steampunk in the media/mainstream, and steampunk as a culture along with a steampunk photo shoot to BakuretsuCon, Another Anime Con, and likely to New England Fan Experience if everything falls into place. The General looks like he is heading to Anime USA in Virginia, to promote the Dreadfuls and Steampunk World’s Fair. At Baku, since it is happening on Halloween weekend, we’re also hosting a Halloween dance, a movie night, and painting the staff to look like zombies! ^_^
We’re discussing adding more panels and events to what we offer, but… that’s a bit up in the air. We like to do events that will draw people into steampunk and let them have fun with it, so we want to make sure we keep doing that.
(Random side note: I am always amazed at how, when I do something for the Dreadfuls, I watch as other crews follow my lead. It’s flattering, but it makes me go “Noooo! I worked so hard to get that just right and make sure no one else was doing it!” lol And around New England, The Dreadfuls are like the grand-daddy of most of the crews here. We either directly inspired the majority of the crews, or can trace their inspiration to a crew we inspired. Most of them don’t realize, and it is hilarious. ^_^)
Jha: Now for that Big Question! Do tell us about the Steampunk World’s Fair! (e.g. How did you fall in with Jeff Mach? Who’re some notables coming out? OMG Steampunk Rock Opera?!)
Whisper Merlot: Hooray! Steampunk World’s Fair! I am so unbelievably excited for this.
Okay, so, Jeff Mach. What can I possibly say that will express what a truly amazing person he is? He works his ass off all year to put on epic-proportion events, mostly for subcultures which really need these places to pull together and feel like a family. Jeff is so motivated and dedicated, up to all hours making sure everyone will have the best time possible. It blows my mind!
Cap and I first met Jeff last April at Nexus Faire, the first event we went to on our official roaming. Jeff invited us to come work Midsummer Magick Faire in the summer, where we did decorating and some street performance. He then invited us to do the same for Wicked Faire next February.
And then the steampunk fell into place.
We mentioned how we were trying to start an event up in New England. We were tossing around a two-day camping event: “A Dreadful Affair,” a place for steampunks to socialize, have fun, show off, and network. We wanted to get something for New England steampunks, since nothing has been held up here, and often times I’ve heard my friends and fans complain about feeling cut-off from the “fun stuff” because they couldn’t get to Atlanta, San Diego, or Seattle.
Turns out, Jeff had been talking with Evelyn Kreite (Steampunk Tales Magazine) and Josh Marks (formerly of the former SalonCon) about a steampunk event. And one day the beginning of August, Jeff calls me from the Radisson, saying, “How would you like to do a steampunk event in New Jersey?” He had just checked out the space and the hotel really wanted to work with us.
It wasn’t New England, but come on! It was a chance to not only work with Jeff again, but to work with him on something we are passionate about. Plus, it’s not entirely out of reach of our New England base. Of COURSE we were in!
So after another con, the three of us and our Professor hacked out a lot of the details. And before we knew it, Steampunk World’s Fair was actually being green lit.
It’s still surreal for me. A year ago I was attending cons and doing panels on a random steampunk crew with a couple people following us. Now, sure I’m not living anywhere stable or holding down a real job, but the Penny Dreadfuls’ army of Dreadites is growing and I’m working on this run-away steampunk event.
I’m not the height of steampunk fashion, or a gorgeous face you can drape said fashion on; I don’t invent anything amazing or even put forth essays or articles. I’m not who you would look at and immediately say, “There’s someone who is taking steampunk places!” But people are coming from all over the world for an event I’m planning, and we’ve only been announced since September 2nd. My only regret is that we don’t have a ginormous budget to get all the performers and artists we want, who have been contacting us from overseas or around the country. Still, I am unbelievably grateful to be doing what I’m doing.
All right, enough sappy stuff, time for the nitty-gritty.
The Steampunk World’s Fair is going to be held at the Radisson of Piscataway, NJ on May 14th-16th, 2010. It will be three glorious days, a never-ending steampunk party!
Professor Elemental, whom people will know from his pith-hop video “Cup of Brown Joy”, is making his debut United States appearance for the event. He is coming over from the UK and is a wonderful and hilarious guy. We also have Black Tape for a Blue Girl, a dark cabaret group; Madame Ximon, a dancer and head of steampunk gaming event TempleCon; Thomas S. Brown, the artist for New England steam-goth webcomic “Hopeless, Maine”; Opera singer Katie Kat; Veronique Chevalier, coming in from California to sing and amuse us. And of course lit-master G.D. Falksen. Isabella Drive, the steampunk rock band, is working us into their busy schedule, too.
We have more artists, musicians, and performers in the wings finalizing their appearance. And as the event gets closer, I’m sure I’ll be able to announce some other big scene names, but right now a lot of them aren’t planning that far in advanced! ^_^
We have a lot of well-known steampunks telling us they will be in attendance, hosting discussions and debates, workshops and demonstrations. There will be the original steampunk film festival, the Cabaret (with open bar!), a Murder Mystery Dinner (with buffet!). We have tea parties, Nerf gun/sword duels, pool parties, pirate sing-a-longs, an absinthe den, several LARPs and gaming rooms, the Mad Science Fair, the Chrononaut’s Jubilee Ball, a DJ’d dance. We have an art show, fashion show, parades, and it looks like a gent to take and develop olde tyme photos on the spot! Weird Tales is hosting a library with steampunk lit and steampunk listening stations. We have the vendor’s Bazaar all along the first floor hotel rooms. And yes, perhaps the first Steampunk Rock Opera, but I have to keep my lips sealed on that one for now!
We’re still accepting vendor apps for the Bazaar. And we still have room for a few more musicians and performers. You can check out www.steampunkworldsfair.com for more info on that!
Jeff pointed out recently that the hotel is not huge, and that the rooms WILL sell out far in advance of the event, so people should really book things now if they want to be in the main hotel. I know we are already looking into an overflow hotel just up the street, so everyone who wants to come will be able to.
I love this hotel, it’s beautiful and their staff is so helpful. Things have been so positive working with Jeff and all the rest of the crew on this. I am just giddy about bringing the Steampunk World’s Fair to this community.
Well, that about wraps the interview! Somehow, besides all that, Whisper Merlot and her captain are working on a comic, based on the wild adventures of the S.S. Icarus crew. I believe we can expect great things of them as steampunk progresses towards becoming even bigger. If Whisper Merlot’s vision of exclusive inclusivity holds, steampunk’s gonna get pretty big, especially with folks like her at the helm.
Jha wishes she could dress half as awesomely as Whisper. Her lack of sartorial creativity ensures she never will.