Hi, Jo here interviewing my friend Emma Jane Holloway on A Study in Silks.
Jo: Emma Jane, first a bit about you. I'll quote your bio. "Ever since childhood, Emma Jane Holloway refused to accept that history was nothing but facts prisoned behind the closed door of time. Why waste a perfectly good playground coloring within the timelines? Accordingly, her novels are filled with whimsical impossibilities and the occasional eye-blinking impertinence—but always in the service of grand adventure."
You've certainly created a grand adventure here, Emma Jane. It has royalty, balls, magical machines, cunning devices, a murder mystery, and Steam Barons. Yes, it's steampunk, and it's great fun to read, especially with two potential heroes for the wonderful Evelina, one from her humble past, and the other from her new life in high society. Many of the Wench readers won't be familiar with steampunk. Can you give us a brief introduction to it?
Emma Jane: Steampunk is a subgenre of fantasy, but it can have a lot of different elements mixed in—romance (of course!), magic, mystery or science fiction. It’s an exciting genre because there is so much flexibility to let the imagination run.
Here are the main things to know about steampunk stories:
Generally it is set in the Victorian era, but that’s not always the case.
Technology has evolved in new and different ways (such as bizarre steam-powered contraptions, or clockwork monsters, or armies of automatons)
Frequently there are themes of social justice (hence the punk).
The tone can vary from comic to apocalyptic, depending on the author. It’s a good idea to read an excerpt to see if you like his or her style.
My Baskerville Affair trilogy is set in Sherlock Holmes’s London and, yes, Sherlock and Dr. Watson appear as secondary characters. There is magic in my world, too.
Jo: I would describe A Study in Silks as a Steampunk thriller with romantic elements. I thought it worked brilliantly, but did you meet any resistance?
Emma Jane: My series sits at a crossroads between mystery, fantasy, and romance. It uses multiple points of view, which is familiar to fantasy readers but less so with mystery or romance. Most enjoyed the mash-up, but those who normally stick to only one kind of book had some adjusting to do.
Those who like lots of adventure will have a good time. The series has love stories and monsters and explosions and balls and party dresses and a handsome pirate with a talking dirigible. It’s all good.
Jo: It is indeed. Here's a bit from the excerpt on your web page.
Her fingers lingered on the casket for a moment, caressing her brass and steel creation almost tenderly. Most nights, she retreated to the attic to work in private after the rest of Hilliard House had retired. This was the one place, the one time, she enjoyed the absolute freedom to indulge her talents. No one else came up here, especially not this late.
And yet, she heard the creak of the door at the bottom of the attic stairs, then a footfall. Someone was coming. Odd, because the household had retired early—His Lordship had declared himself and his lady in need of a quiet night in. Therefore, no one dared to so much as rustle a candy wrapper tonight.
So who was up and about? Apprehension prickled along her arms. In the privacy of her own mind, Evelina Cooper gave a very improper curse.
There were any number of reasons why a young lady, gently reared by a respectable grandmamma, did not want to be caught hiding in the attic in the dead of night. First would be the inevitable assumption that she was meeting a lover. Why was it that no one imagined a young lady might have more weighty interests?
Second, whatever trouble she got into would automatically rebound on her best friend, Imogen Roth. Hilliard House belonged to her schoolmate’s high-and-mighty father, Lord Bancroft, and Evelina was a guest for the Season at Imogen’s request. If she were caught doing anything even mildly scandalous, Lord B was more likely to mount both their heads on his study wall than to listen to excuses.
And an unladylike fascination with mechanics was enough to cause comment. It was time to vanish, thoroughly and quickly.
Jo: Evelina's conventional life includes gentlemen. Tell us more about them.
Emma Jane: At the beginning of the series, Evelina is staying with her friend’s family in the posh Mayfair neighborhood of London. It’s their first Season on the marriage mart. Evelina admires Tobias Roth, her best friend’s brother, and she still has feelings for her childhood sweetheart, Nick. Nick is a dashing performer from the circus and Tobias is the clever, creative heir to a title and estate.
Jo: A love triangle?
Emma Jane: I wouldn’t call this a love triangle as much as a moment when Evelina’s past and future hang in the balance. By the end of Silks, everything is completely altered, and all three characters change radically as the series progresses. The real difference between a ballroom crush and enduring love become abundantly clear. Does Evelina have a happy ending? Yes, but it’s nothing like what she expects at the start of her adventure!
Jo: The intro to A Study in Silks is great. "Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, is poised to enjoy her first Season in London Society. But there’s a murderer to deal with—not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer, and a talking mouse." Add ruthless Steam Barons and political plots and it's an enthralling brew.
Emma Jane: Thank you!
Jo: Without too much in the way of spoilers, can you lay out the main problems roiling in the alternate-Victorian London you've created?
Emma Jane: Most of my London’s conflicts stem from the Steam Barons. They’re a bunch of industrialists who have bought up monopolies of coal, steam, railways, ports, manufacturing, and so on. Basically, they want to control anything that produces power and won’t allow any competition. They squeeze all the money they can out of rich and poor alike for everything from clean water to luxury goods.
Jo: And they're not squeamish about how they squeeze!
Emma Jane: Not at all. Their dominance has two main consequences: The barons are growing more powerful than the aristocracy, and they want more and more political control. Also, they have outlawed magic mostly because it’s a power source they can’t buy or sell. Magic users are killed or sent for experimentation at Her Majesty’s Laboratories.
Jo: I found that the scariest part, as the threat hangs over Evelina.
Emma Jane: What the Steam Barons really want is a way to make machines run on magic, but everyone thinks that’s impossible. Oh, except for Evelina, who knows how—but that’s a deep, dark secret.
Jo: This is very much a heroine-centered novel, and Evelina is taking on powerful opponents who'll stop at nothing, as you illustrate in some scenes. What inspired you to create her, and how did she develop. Was she whole when you started, or did she surprise you along the way? (Here's a picture of Emma Jane in Steampunk style. Love the corset effect!)
Emma Jane: Evelina first appeared in a sketch I wrote for a YA story featuring her uncle, Sherlock Holmes. Originally, I wanted to write a Holmes story from the viewpoint of a teenaged girl—I thought that would be an interesting battle of wills. It never really went anywhere, so I put that story away and went on to other things. When I started writing A Study in Silks, which has a grown-up version of Evelina, she was a lot more complex. I think the short story never worked because she needed a larger canvas.
Jo: She's a great character because of her complexity. She could be called kick-ass, but she's still interested in silken gowns and dashing men, and she's very intelligent.
Emma Jane: Thanks. She's caught between social classes. Her mother was a Holmes and gentry, but her father’s origins were with the circus. He also had hereditary magical abilities, and she got those as well as the Holmes intelligence. She wants to go to university—ladies’ colleges were just starting around this time—but she isn’t getting much support from her family.
Evelina didn’t surprise me as much as some of the other characters. The one who takes the cake in that department is Tobias, who is one of her love interests. He remains a pivotal character through the series and changes—and matures—the most of any of the cast. My heart broke for him sometimes.
Jo: Yes, at first he can seem your standard handsome, rakish society gentleman, but we soon see so much more to him. That's where the many viewpoints work to make the book stronger, in my opinion.
Emma Jane: Thanks.
Jo: I don't want to imply that the novel is portentous because it's a rip-roaring read, but I saw reflections of the 21st century, when massive corporations can be in power struggles with governments, with some ordinary people hurt in the fight. Would you agree?
Emma Jane: Definitely. I actually got the idea for the Steam Barons from an old Victorian map that divided up London among the power companies of the day. I found it just before the Occupy movement hit the news and it was easy to make the connection between the past and present. We’re still facing the same forces.
But, lest we get too gloomy, Evelina’s era (the late 1880s) saw a lot of interest in political and social reform, including strides in universal education, prison reform, and the prevention of cruelty to animals. All that strife produced some positive things, too.
Jo: Thanks, Emma Jane. The great thing about the Baskerville Affair is that all three books, A Study in Silks, A Study in Darkness, and A Study in Ashes are available now, so once we start, there's no stopping us.
Emma Jane is giving away one book from the series (ebook or autographed print copy) to a commenter who answers one of the following questions:
What is your favorite thing about the Victorian era?
What is your favorite thing about steampunk? Or, if you've never read any, what about this story intrigues you enough to try?
What is your favorite thing about Sherlock Holmes?
You can read more about Emma Jane on her web site and watch a great video trailer there. I love the design of this website, by the way. It feels so steampunk, even to the click buttons. She also has free Baskerville Affair stories for you here and excerpts here.