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Interview: Jay Lake by Ernest Lilley & Colleen Cahill
Review by Ernest Lilley *Interview  ISBN/ITEM#: INTJayLake
Date: August 2008

Links: Review: Escapement / Review: Mainspring /

Ever since I played with my grandfather's mainspring powered movie camera, I've had a thing for windup mechanisms as power sources, so it's natural for me to think that Jay Lake's clockpunk universe is great fun. But besides any fetish of mine, his work is absolutely brilliant. Earth girded by a massive gear that spins it in time with a cosmic clock with a massive clockspring at the center straddles fantasy and science fiction, but what genre is belongs to is much less important than how it captivates the reader's imagination. Clever-punk is what it is, and we wanted to know more about the clever lad behind it. So, here's some back and forth between Ern, Colleen Cahill (who reviews Escapement this issue), and Jay.

SFRevu: What's Escapement about, and where does it fall with relationship to Mainspring?

Jay Lake: Escapement returns to the clockwork world of Mainspring two years after the first book. It follows three narratives: Emily Childress and Threadgill al-Wazir, two characters who were minor characters in the first book, plus the primary story about Paolina Barthes, a naive genius on a caliber with Newton. The plot revolves around an arms race between late Victorian England and Imperial China to make a way across the Wall, each seeking advantage over the other. Paolina invents a fantastic machine called a gleam, or stemwinder, which she can use to do what the powers of the world only dream about. As they say, trouble ensues.

SFRevu: You take lots of bits of history and do more of a mash-up, rather than an alternate history. This makes for some interesting pieces drawn together, such as the failed Loggers Rebellion being lead by Generals Lincoln and Lee. Do you do much historic research or is just capturing the parts of the past you like?

Jay: I've got a pretty good liberal arts education, but unless the historical mash-up is core to the story, I tend to cherry pick the bits I like. The past is so full of surprises.

And you're absolutely right about Mainspring and Escapement being mash-ups rather than alternate histories. The world is inherently improbable from the beginning. I've only borrowed the familiar dialectic of nineteenth century Imperialism for fun. If you look carefully at the world, it far more resembles the Cold War than the Great Game.

Some of those decisions are technical/historical, some of them are creative, but most of them are simply because I thought it sounded cool.

SFRevu: When Paolina meets Brass and they decide to travel together, in the back of my mind I heard "follow the yellow brick road"; was that on purpose or was it just me?

Jay: Hah! I wish I was that smart. I didn't figure it out myself at all. A reader pointed it out recently in a blog post, and I went, "duh." I'm telling you, the writer is the last to know.

SFRevu: What made you think of Clockpunk as a theme?

Jay: More or less by accident, truth be told. I liked the idea of the mechanistic universe made literal, and have explored this trope of Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophy in short fiction. I'd first encountered it in Roger Zelazny's Jack of Shadows, and some of the images of that book have been with me since I was in grade school. It all came together one day more or less by accident. I'd like to claim some variety of authorial wisdom, but that would be disingenuous of me, I am afraid.

Mainspring is the first time I've encountered Clockpunk, but I've often wondered if the invention of the escapement mechanism (which gives clocks their tick) wasn't one of the most important advances in technology, as it allowed time to be broken up into discrete quanta...and poof! The next thing you know, Newton's inventing calculus. The only thing wrong with my theory is the dates, as it was first found in Europe in the mid 1200's and Newton's work was some four centuries later.

Well, and clockmaking is almost as old as civilization. (I did a lot of research on clocks and timekeeping when first developing this literary universe.) All agricultural societies require calendars, and the moon's phases provide a very clear model which is still reflected in our seven-day weeks and not-quite-28-day months.

It's not a great leap from daykeeping to to timekeeping, especially if your crops or weather add significance to any unit more granular than day-or-night. As for quantizing time, anyone who watches the night sky can arrive at that idea. Long before mechanisms, we had night candles, water clocks, fire clocks and many other forms of measurement which divided the times between dusk and dawn, especially.

SFRevu: So, how did you come up with Clockpunk, and what's the significance of it?

Jay: The term "clockpunk" was given to me after the fact by a fan of Mainspring, though I think it comes from GURPS. Wikipedia cites me as a clockpunk source in their article on the subject.

I didn't really conceive of Mainspring as either clockpunk or steampunk when I wrote it. I was just following my own sense of what felt cool to me. By the time I wrote Escapement, I was very aware of the critical and fan reception, so, frankly, it's a bit more played up in the second book. For example, in the paintings that al-Wazir sees inside the halls of Admiralty; and in pretty much everything the half-mad Dr. Ottweil does.

SFRevu: We enjoyed the heck out of Mainspring, but I had the feeling that writing at the novel length was painful for you, since it tends to burn through settings at a fairly rapid pace. Is it my imagination, or is this a consequence of being more comfortable writing in short story form.

Jay: Mmm, I don't see it that way. On the other hand, the writer is often the last to know. Remember, I love setting. It was probably the first thing I was good at as a pre-published writer. Mainspring and Escapement are both road novels, in the sense that the characters and story are extremely peripatetic. Contrast with my novels Rocket Science or Trial of Flowers, each of which takes place almost entirely within a single setting.

Being a short story writer has certainly been a huge influence on my approach to novels, but over the last year or so, I've found the flow is going the other direction. Writing novels has changed the way I think about short stories.

SFRevu: We know from your Locus 2006 interview that you grew up all over the world, starting out in Taiwan and West Africa, two very dissimilar cultures (or so I imagine). What do you think that experience gives you that people exposed to a monoculture didn't get, and how does it show up in your writing?

Jay: Everything, everywhere. If you talk to a lot of writers, you begin to realize that many of us grew up in some form of isolation. That might psychological, medical, social; I know writers whose parents moved them in and out of schools every year or more often, or military kids, state department brats like myself, people raised on back-to-the-land communes or in strict religious environments. Like a pearl in an oyster, when a child turns inwards, sometimes a writer grows.

I was turned inward, in the sense of being at a new school in a new place almost every year, but the world was my canvas. This is why my sense of setting is so strong -- my experiences were fed with a fire-hose from the very beginning. There was never any same-ness in my life.

Likewise the acculturation of anyone raised outside their birth-society will be very different from their home-raised peers. Americans tend to view themselves as the default version of what people, societies and lifestyles should encompass. Our nation's political and economic power reinforces that very transparently. I think everyone should spend a year or two abroad. It wouldn't just affect our literature, it would affect our politics and even the foundations of our culture.

In my case, it gave me a very strong sense of empathy with the Other. And the Other makes for interesting fiction.

SFRevu: As long as we're talking origin stories, we really like to ask what sort of books or media you read as a child. Was there any book that turned a light on in your head and made you want to read everything, or write something? What kind of access to books and media did you have growing up?

Jay: I never had television, rarely had movies. I was a child in the 1960s and 1970s, before VCRs/DVDs, and before satellite broadcast was common. But I always, always, had books. Often very outdated books, so my reading background in genre resembles that of a fan born in 1950s far more than it does of other fans or writers born as I was in 1964. On the other hand, I've never seen all the episodes of the original Star Trek, or M*A*S*H. (I've never seen a minute of Buffy, either, but that's because I turned the TV off in 1994.)

So I read Lord of the Rings and Dhalgren in fifth grade. Andre Norton, Heinlein, Asimov, you name it. It was Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun that turned me from a reader into a writer, though, read at age 20.

SFRevu: Could you tell us a stirring story about the first story you got published?

Jay: I'm not sure it's very stirring, but ok. I was workshopping with the Wordos down in the Eugene at the time. (200 mile round trip every Tuesday.) Bruce Holland Rogers came to a meeting and asked for submissions to Bones of the World. I wrote a novelette for him which he did not buy, but it turned up on the Hugo ballot in 2004, "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night." The story he did buy, "The Courtesy of Guests" has been reprinted about a dozen times in five languages.

Ok, maybe that's stirring.

SFRevu: What's your relationship with Wheatland Press, whom, I'm ashamed to say, I hadn't been familiar with before looking you up. Are you still editor of Polyphony, what's your role and what's the anthology like.

Jay: Polyphony 6 was my last editing project for Wheatland. Publisher Deborah Layne has always been the lead editor, but my novel career has really slowed down my ability to make consistent anthology editing conventions, so Forrest Aguirre is now her co-editor. Wheatland still publishes some of my collections, most recently The Rivers Knowns Its Own, which is Pacific Northwest themed genre fiction.

SFRevu: Though I think we can guess from the folks who Polyphony and Wheatland press publishes, who's in your current cadres of authors?

Jay: My cadre? I got no cadre. I'm always very taken with Jeff Ford, Jeff VanderMeer. Ken Scholes is coming on brilliantly. Kathy Sedia as well. I've recently been impressed with Ted Kosmatka.

SFRevu: Why Steampunk, Clockpunk, and any other retropunk? Why don't kids want to read about a good old fashioned future anymore? And can any flavor of punk beat off fantasy, and what's that all about?

Jay: Punk is cool. Come on, admit it. Even us fogies (I just turned 44) can see it. More to the point, n-punk is generally an aesthetic, not a movement, in my opinion. There's still the bones of fantasy and science fiction under that glittering, clanky skin. n-punk won't beat fantasy, it's already joined fantasy.

SFRevu: Do you follow any media SF, or are you strictly a written words kind of guy? If yes, what, if not, why not?

Jay: Pretty much strictly written words, except for occasional forays to the cinema. Every now and then I am moved to watch DVDs of a show, like Firefly or Battlestar Galactica. But that's kind of stepping out for me.

As for the "why not", I figured out years ago that television sucks my brain out. If I don't watch it, I'm far more productive. I figured I'd rather have a writing career than watch Simpsons reruns.

SFRevu: Do you write for fun, to scratch an itch, or to put out a message? And if so, what would it be?

Jay: Oh, for fun. And now the itch is extremely well developed. I loathe message-based writing. It tends to make for crappy fiction. Do I have messages? Absolutely. Am I weaving them into my text with intent. No way in hell. I'm a raving liberal, a secular humanist, and have an absolute belief in personal responsibility. Sometimes I write against type, sometimes I write towards it, most of the time I just write whatever the heck I want.

SFRevu: Sartorial splendor. Dave Hartwell may sport loud ties at cons, but even among fans, your trademark Hawaiian shirts stand out pretty well. Are they a collection, an obsession, or just a means of identification? (Let me know if you find any with rockets on them as I've always wanted one.

Jay: Kind of all three. I realized years ago that there were a lot of badly dressed fat guys in black t-shirts at conventions. I figured it wouldn't hurt to stand out a little. I seem to have succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings, and I'm still not sure how. Perhaps it's my willingness to wear pretty much anything in a shirt fabric.

And yes, I'll watch for rockets.

SFRevu: What's your day job, and would you give it up if you could? Do you wear Hawaiian shirts to work?

Jay: I'm a product manager for an automated messaging services company. I can tell you more about international SMS than one human being should have to know, for example. It's a lot of fun, I am paid well, and they think it's a hoot that I have a writing career. Given that science fiction doesn't come with paid vacations or health insurance, I imagine I'll be working for the foreseeable future. Good thing I like what I do.

And no, the aloha shirts are strictly for Cons (and other fun times). That's how I know I am Being a Writer -- when I put one on.

SFRevu: So, what else should I be asking? Feel fee to monologue on whatever really matters to you.

Jay: Monologue? Me? I never have that much to say, I'm just sure of it. Really, these were great questions. You didn't ask me about next books, though. Madness of Flowers is coming out from Night Shade Books at the end of this year. Strange as this may seem, it's a sequel to Trial of Flowers. Tor will be publishing Green next year, which is not in continuity with the clockpunk books, but rather a whole new narrative effort on my part, a book about a girl sold into slavery across an ocean who is raised to be both a courtesan and an assassin.

I've really enjoyed this. Thank you very much for asking me to participate.

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