Crafting a Steampunk Espionage Thriller: An Interview with Cherie Priest

This month, Tor Books publishes the wonderful Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest, the last of her Clockwork Century novels, which have attracted so much critical acclaim over the last few years. Fiddlehead is a spy-packed standalone story, with a brilliant protagonist in the form of Belle Boyd. This irresistible alternative history adventure features spies, Abraham Lincoln, political machinations and one woman who can save the world from a deadly menace! (Read an excerpt here.)

Basically, it’s glorious, and Cherie has been kind enough to answer a few questions about her historical research, where the idea for Fiddlehead originated and her favourite “steampunk experience.”

1. What was the inspiration for Fiddlehead, the incredible calculating machine that predicts a dire future, in this alternative history?

Well, I wanted to wrap up the American Civil War as a conclusion to the Clockwork Century (or its main arc, anyway) and where better to start than Washington D.C.? As for the titular machine itself, I started wondering what would have happened if a ‘difference engine’ had been thrown into the conflict. Quite the monkey wrench, I should think. Besides, I love a good espionage thriller—and I hadn’t tried to write one yet.

2. Building a steampunk version of events around Lincoln must have been fun to research. Did you uncover any favourite facts which were new to you?

I think the thing that really made me want to drag Lincoln into the fray was probably his relationship with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. In real life, the Pinkertons had served as a private security force for the president—and allegedly, they even foiled one assassination attempt against Lincoln. But then they were replaced with the Secret Service… and in 1865, another assassination effort rather famously succeeded.

In short, I wondered if it would have made any difference if Lincoln had kept them instead of letting the new service assume those responsibilities. Would he still be alive? Would the Pinks have the same kind of political power? What would it mean, if Lincoln had simply left office, rather than being murdered out of it? What influence might he wield?

(This was a particularly interesting question because the Pinks have a very mixed legacy; depending on where you’re from, and how you feel about labor unions, they’re either heroes or scoundrels. It’s a complicated issue, and one that remains somewhat fresh in certain regions—Appalachia and the Deep South in particular. Thus having a Southern woman for a Pinkerton agent offered many interesting opportunities for conflict. Especially if she’s assigned to work for Lincoln himself.)

3. What has been your most exciting steampunk experience and why? Or do you have an idea for a future such experience?

I’ve done a number of steampunk events over the years, all with their respective highlights—but one that really stood out for me was TeslaCon (in Middleton, Wisconsin—USA). It’s kind of like what would happen if the armies of Tesla and Edison duked it out in a dirigible over the ocean, and you’re all invited along for the ride. The host is a man of great showmanship, and he has a mighty crew of dedicated role players to keep the murder-mystery-theater-style immersion thing going. TeslaCon is in its fourth or fifth year now, I think, and they cap the membership… so if you’re interested in participating, you’d better get on board early. Each year has a different theme—and each year, I am led to believe, they manage to top themselves.

4. Steampunk seems a genre rich in secret alternative histories of real events. Do you have any favourite novels that feature secret histories, perhaps putting a supernatural/fantastical or steampunk slant on actual history?

Mostly I stick to the real histories—because they’re a lot weirder than anything anybody could make up. Especially once you start diving into conspiracy theories, or alternate interpretations of major events… there’s some wild schools of thought out there. But I’m always a fan of anything with a ghostly slant.

5. Have you seen any images that either resemble Fiddlehead, or were the inspiration for your creation?

Basically, I was thinking of a bigger, angrier, crazier, more powerful version of this:

Victorian Computer


Fiddlehead is available now in the US and the UK
This article was originally posted 6 November 2013 on

Bella Pagan is a senior commissioning editor, working on out-of-this world SF, fantasy and urban fantasy (plus other subdivisions, factions and associated areas) for Tor UK. On twitter as @BellaPagan.


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