MRP: Welcome to the Writer’s Lair, Bruce! Since the steampunk genre is still fairly new, why don’t you start off by telling us a little about how you came to be interested in it? What made you want to write in this genre?
BH: I enjoy science fiction and I enjoy history. Steampunk is an intriguing marriage of these two subjects. Most of my prior stories were either fantasy or science fiction, set in a fictional world I created. I had a story that I wrote with a scene in a place similar to Bath, England, and reading about the spas and watering places of Europe made me think that the time immediately prior to World War I would be a great setting for a story.
MRP: As far as the steampunk genre is concerned, you chose a very unique setting for your story. How did you decide on that location and premise?
BH: I wanted to get away from using a fantasy world and set my story in the real world. Most steampunk is set in London during the Victorian age. I had not heard of a steampunk novel set in Germany and I decided I would write one. This gave me the opportunity to portray German opinions through Fritz von Lassberg, and thereby give the reader a fresh perspective.
MRP: I did find it very interesting to see Fritz’s opinions and thought processes through Sybil’s eyes, since we don’t often get to look at those specific ideas through a lens that lacks post-war “twenty-twenty hindsight,” as it were.
Interweaving fictional plots with historical facts can be extremely challenging for a writer, and your story is tied to some pretty significant historical events. What did you find most challenging about it, and how did you handle those challenges?
BH: This was actually much more fun than work. Once I picked out a time and place, I could read about many things that I had not heard of before. One of the points of Dante’s Paradiso is that heaven is a place where you learn things. I couldn’t agree more. I learned about the apparition at Knock, Ireland; the history of Meersburg Castle; the battle of Bagamoyo; what Lord Tennyson wore when he went walking on the Downs; what performances Richard Wagner put on when he opened Bayreuth. It was great fun. The more I studied about the time and place, the more ideas I had for my story.
MRP: I was very appreciative of the attitude that your heroine, Sybil, had towards traditional clothing. Even though I have no problem with a girl wearing pants (provided it is with the permission of her husband or father) I get very tired of reading about heroines’ longings to “rebel” or “buck the system” to wear pants, and their complaining about dresses being so impractical. And yet Sybil has no problem doing anything—even hiking or mountain climbing—in a dress, which I found very refreshing. Tell us a little bit about your thought processes behind that.
BH: A great example of a Victorian woman not in the least held back by the encumbrance of her dress would be Mary Kingsley, who climbed Mount Cameroon in 1895 while wearing extensive skirts. This is a 13,760 foot mountain that had only been climbed a couple times before. She was the first woman to ascend it, and she did it by a new route. She went in the company of a crew of strong natives. It poured rain the entire time. The natives all became exhausted and dropped out. She finished the ascent alone, an absolutely amazing feat by a fearless woman. Another time her skirts and petticoats saved her from death, when she fell into a trap set for leopards. It was a large pit with sharpened ebony spikes at the bottom. But, due to her Victorian excess of clothing, she escaped what would have been certain death. Even in our modern times, Sandra Weber wrote a book about Mount Marcy, the highest mountain in the Adirondacks, indicating that she likes to climb it in a long skirt down to her ankles, just as the Victorians did. My hat is off to her. Most people have a hard enough time hiking in shorts. Women used to be called the weaker sex, but I don’t think Mary Kingsley was weaker than anybody.
MRP: I shouldn’t say so!
Perpetual Motion isn’t like most stories, that simply say “Here’s how it is and this is what happened”. It truly invites the reader into the thought processes of the characters and puts him or her into a position where they have to try to figure it out on their own. The questions raised and the scenarios laid out are such that we really have to think about them—just reading the story isn’t enough. What inspired you to write the story this way, and how did you go about making it work without bogging down the plot?
BH: One aspect of writing in the first person is that the story is framed by what the character sees and hears. Just as the narrator has to try to make sense of competing claims and explanations, the reader also has to puzzle things out along with her. It is a shared journey.
I am more a reader of travel and exploration than of fiction. One thing that I don’t like about fiction is that many writers go on and on about what the character is thinking. This goes against my grain. Wouldn’t it be more creative to let you infer what the character is thinking by what she says and how she acts? In the case of Sybil Hardenbergh, I conceive of her as being far too modest to spend pages and pages telling you what she thinks. It would go against her character and how she looks at life. Instead, I tried to imagine how she would tell her story to a close friend. She would feel free to confide about some things, but still she would maintain a large degree of modesty and reticence. This becomes especially tricky when she falls in love. Of course she has obsessive thoughts about her beloved, but she is too shy to spend pages and pages telling you about this. You mostly have to infer it from what she says and what she does.
MRP: You explore a lot of hypothetical moral and ethical dilemmas in Perpetual Motion, especially when it comes to issues related to time travel and historical events connected to Christianity. What can you tell us about that?
BH: I’m very glad you asked that question. The moral and ethical dilemmas drive the story. It is not just theoretical; it is a matter of who dies and who lives. War is a very grim and dark presence. I present these dilemmas, but I don’t actually resolve any of them. It is up to the reader to decide what is right and what is moral. Let me give an example. In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James wrote a ghost story. He intended it to be a ghost story and he himself believed in the literary existence of ghosts. However, a skeptic could read the story and believe that the ghosts where just a delusion of the crazy narrator. That would be a perfectly coherent reading and the skeptic would still enjoy the story just the same as a believer in ghosts would. When I became an Episcopalian in 1983, I wrote a poem about an alchemist in which I used alchemy as a symbol for the spiritual world. I wanted the reader to decide for himself if alchemy were true or bogus. In Perpetual Motion, I presented a number of perspectives from the devout Protestant Hardenbergh family to the young aristocratic scientist Fritz to the iconoclastic mad genius Erasmus Gegenwart. I could totally empathize with the strong religious faith that Antoinette Hardenbergh has and this helped me draw her as a character. On the other hand, I wanted the reader to enjoy the book regardless of whether or not he shares the beliefs of one character or another. Yes, there are a number of very serious religious and ethical issues raised, but they are all subservient to the story and I am not trying to dictate how the reader may react to these conflicts.
MRP: There were several aspects of the story that were never really “nailed down,” leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions. Is there a sequel in the works?
BH: Since this is a coming of age story, I ended it when Sybil showed by her words and actions that she has actually matured from a very impressionable and bewildered youngster into a decisive and brave young woman. For me, that was the end of this cycle. In order to provide a more complete picture, I could have carried this story through new adventures and even as far as Sybil’s death. After all, it is not just Sybil’s story, it is the saga of her family. I think a sequel would be very much in order and I have had some people urge me to write one. What writer could resist that? Even apart from a sequel, I think it would be fun to write a story about Sybil’s father Otto, how he met Antoinette and how he decided to travel 2000 years into the past. But first I want to finish a different story I am working on, a piece of literary fiction. When I started going to a writer’s group in my home town of Newfane, I told them that I would keep writing stories until one of them got published. Now that that has happened, I think I will keep writing stories as long as readers tell me they enjoy them.
MRP: Well, in that case, allow me to join the ranks of those readers! There is precious little originality in the literary world these days, but what I’ve seen of your work is most definitely new and intriguing. Keep it up!
Also, thanks so much for taking the time to share with us about your work and your ideas as a writer. It’s always great to get a peek inside the mind of a fellow author.
You can check out Bruce's book, Perpetual Motion, for yourself here: