published Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Celebrated steampunk author returns to city after six-year absence

Author Cherie Priest has just released her latest novel, "The Inexplicables."
Author Cherie Priest has just released her latest novel, "The Inexplicables."
Photo by Tim Barber.
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    "Boneshaker," the first of five books in Priest's "Clockwork Century" series, was published in 2009.

STEAMPUNK 101

Steampunk is a genre of alternate history fiction set in either imaginary worlds or alternate versions of real-world locations during a period roughly paralleling the reign of the United Kingdom's Queen Victoria (1837-1901). The social mores also reflect those of the period -- colonialism, imperial expansion, class warfare.

Characters in steampunk traditionally wear clothing from the same period -- waist coats, dusters, top hats, corsets, etc. The technology tends to echo that in stories by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, featuring 19th century interpretations of modern devices, such as clockwork robots, steam-powered and coal-powered vehicles, airships (zeppelins or dirigibles) and the use of rudimentary electricity.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

• 2005: "Four and Twenty Blackbirds"

• 2006: "Wings to the Kingdom"

• 2007: "Not Flesh Nor Feathers"

• 2007: "Dreadful Skin"

• 2008: "Fathom"

• 2009: "Those Who Went Remain There Still"

• 2009: "Boneshaker"

• 2010: "Clementine"

• 2010: "Dreadnought"

• 2011: "Fort Freak" [with George R.R. Martin and The Wild Cards Consortium]

• 2011: "Bloodshot"

• 2011: "Hellbent"

• 2011: "Ganymede"

• 2012: "The Inexplicables"

• 2013: "Fiddlehead"

When she started writing "Boneshaker" in 2008, Cherie Priest was afraid that her most promising novel might also be her last.

While working on her alternate history tale set in a 19th-century Seattle overrun by zombies, Priest, a graduate of both Southern Adventist University and UTC, says she was all but convinced it would be the final novel with her real name on the cover.

Despite critics' positive response to her previous book, "Fathom," it was a commercial catastrophe. If "Boneshaker" followed suit, Priest says she planned to wipe her literary slate clean by adopting a pseudonym.

"I could have sold more copies of ['Fathom'] out of a trench coat in the park," says Priest, who left Chattanooga for Seattle in 2006 and returned to the Scenic City earlier this year.

"I was in a death spiral," she continues. "'Boneshaker' was kind of a Hail Mary pass in a number of ways."

Touchdown.

By the end of its first month, "Boneshaker" was in its third printing. It was nominated for the 2010 Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, the trifecta of science fiction literary prizes.

"It was the triple crown," says the 37-year-old Priest, sitting in Pasha Coffee and Tea in St. Elmo, a tinge of bemusement in her voice.

"I only won the Locus, but still, it was phenomenal. It was huge for me."

Now in its 12th printing, "Boneshaker" has been translated into nine languages, and the movie rights have been bought by Cross Creek Pictures, which made "Black Swan," and British horror movie house Hammer Films; a script has been finished but the actual filming hasn't begun.

"Boneshaker," and the four other books in Priest's "Clockwork Century" series, are steampunk, a genre of fiction that blends history -- which has been seriously tweaked -- with 19th century science fiction elements, a la Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Prior to "Boneshaker," most stories within the genre were set in Victorian England, and Priest's use of an American setting helped the novel stand out.

As a result of the novel's success, The Seattle Times dubbed Priest the "high priestess of steampunk." She has further buttressed her right to that title through the four subsequent releases in Clockwork Century, an alternate history of America in which the Civil War has continued for decades and has altered the entire social, political and economic landscape of the U.S. In this world, zeppelins float through the skies, carrying passengers, weapons and cargo, huge mechanical weapons shaped vaguely like men are used by both sides in the war and zombies are cropping up in places other than Seattle.

Her most recent novel, "The Inexplicables," was released Nov. 13 and is set yet again in the graveyard of her zombie-riddled Seattle.

FAR AWAY HOME

In the back room of Pasha, Priest leans forward on a lowered couch. The coffee drink in front of her is a rare divergence from her allegiance to tea, its sugar-laden contents a substitute for the breakfast she hasn't eaten.

Her dark brown hair is a striking contrast to the vivid azure hue she maintained for years and only recently gave up because, as she puts it, the cost to maintain it was more than her monthly student loan payment. She speaks quickly and confidently in a conspiratorial tone and laughs easily with a breathy chuckle that rolls right into the next sentence.

Born in Tampa, Fla., Priest spent much of her childhood bouncing around the country, at first because of her father, who was in the Army, and later, while living with her grandfather, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who moved from church to church almost as often as her father changed bases.

Her interest in storytelling bloomed at age 3, when she says her mother vividly recalls her stomping around the house sharing made-up, nonsensical stories with whomever would pay attention.

Growing up, Priest's access to books was filtered through her mother, who considered the only acceptable reading material to be Christian fiction or literature, which "basically meant if the author was dead," Priest says, laughing.

Sensing a potential loophole in this policy and knowing his daughter's love of mystery and spooky stories, Priest's father threw her a literary lifesaver in the form of anthologies by Edgar Allen Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes. She says the sparse, eerie brutality of Victorian gothic writing appealed to her and laid the groundwork for her first novels.

In 1994, Priest enrolled at Southern Adventist in Collegedale, where she received a degree in English. She later earned a master's degree in rhetoric from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Her first published work, her seventh attempt at a novel, was "Four and Twenty Blackbirds," a gloomy Southern gothic tale set in Chattanooga and written while she was enrolled at UTC. The first edition was picked up by a small publishing house in Georgia in 2003 and was republished in 2005 by Tor Books, her current publisher. Priest penned two sequels to the novel, "Wings to the Kingdom" and "Not Flesh Nor Feathers," both of which also were set in Chattanooga.

Liz Gorinsky has been Priest's editor at Tor since she purchased the rights to "Four and Twenty Blackbirds." Even early into her career, Priest's potential was palpable, Gorinsky says.

"When you start out in this business they tell you that you have to be really sure when you decide to pick up a project because publishing relationships can last for years," Gorinsky says in an email. "I've been working with Cherie Priest since I dug her first novel out of the slush pile in 2003 ... and as we approach our ninth year together, I can hardly imagine an author I'd want to spend the next decade with than Cherie."

In 2006, midway through writing "Not Flesh Nor Feathers," Priest and her husband, Aric Annear, left Chattanooga to move to Seattle, where Annear took a job managing the electronics website for Amazon.

Originally, she said she intended to set "Boneshaker" in a fictionalized setting, but after falling in love with Seattle's "crazy pants" history and becoming embroiled in an online discussion with proponents of the traditional definition of steampunk, she decided to change her plans.

CRITICAL REACTION

"Intelligent, exceptionally well written and showcasing a phenomenal strong female protagonist who embodies the complexities inherent in motherhood, this yarn is a must-read for the discerning steampunk fan."

— Publisher's Weekly on "Boneshaker"

"Priest's haunting lyricism and graceful narrative are complemented by the solemn, cynical thematic undercurrents with a tangible gravity and depth. This is arguably her most ambitious — and accomplished — work to date."

— Publisher's Weekly on "her first book, Fathom"

"Whether you've been on the fence about the whole steampunk movement or have known about it a while, priest's writing style makes it easy to slip into the clockwork world."

— The Seattle Post-Intelligencer on "Ganymede"

" 'Dreadnought' is tough but entertaining, another solid entry in a well-constructed series."

— The San Francisco Chronicle

"The more I learned about Seattle, the more I wanted to use it," Priest says. "I thought, 'This is too good to let it go to waste. I'm going to co-op some of these people and some of their wild history.' I wanted to prove that I could do fun American steampunk."

Priest's writing often is lauded for the vividness of her settings and such detail cannot be attained, she says, without knowing a location intimately before setting a story there.

As a result, setting becomes almost a character unto itself in Priest's novels, says Mary Robinette Kowal, a former Chattanoogan and Nebula Award-winning author who met Priest in Oregon and now lives in Chicago.

"There is nothing cookie cutter about anything she does," Kowal says. "Cherie's characters always feel like they have a history and that history is always tied to the place they grew up."

GOOD BONES

By the time she began writing "Boneshaker," Priest says the genre of steampunk had been "simmering in pop culture for decades," but most considered England the only appropriate setting for the genre. That definition was too narrow, she says.

"That's a fantastic place to set steampunk, but it's not the only place," Priest says.

The decision to bring steampunk across the pond not only ensured her real name would remain on the cover of her future novels but also helped changed the face of steampunk, says Robby Hilliard, 47, the literary programming director for Con Nooga, a local fandom convention.

"'Boneshaker,' at the time, was the biggest steampunk novel up to that point," Hilliard says.

By tweaking the past, Priest says steampunk stories provide a means for marginalized groups to stake their claim on history. Her sympathy for those who have been neglected by the history books dates back to grade school when a teacher explained that women weren't featured in her Texas history textbook because they were present but "weren't doing anything very interesting or important."

"That turned me into an angry 9-year-old feminist with an agenda," she says, laughing.

Giving a voice to the voiceless has always been a defining characteristic of Priest's work and has resulted in diverse characters such as a valiant slave-turned-airship-gunrunner and a cross-dressing ninja.

"We're all worth talking about, and steampunk says that's we're all worth playing with, too," she says "That's the appeal of steampunk to me: Everyone else finding their way back in."

Priest's latest novel, "The Inexplicables," was her final love letter to Seattle, which she left in May to move back to Chattanooga.

She came back to be closer to family and to move to a place where she and her husband could "live like kings," she says, as opposed to the expense of remaining near Seattle. The success of her books had finally reached the point that she could fulfill her lifelong dream of owning a Victorian home, and the house she and her husband bought in one of the city's historic neighborhoods is the best of both worlds, she explains.

The home, which she has named Rosebury Haunt, cost as much as the down payment on a mediocre condo in Seattle, she says.

"I kept telling everyone I would be a daffy little Southern broad with flower baskets hanging on the front porch and wind chimes and a porch swing and all that," she says. "I have made that happen."

The final book in her Clockwork Century series, "Fiddlehead," is already finished and expected out next fall. She hints that Chattanooga will feature prominently in the novel thanks to a Union-supported outpost of the Underground Railroad, which she says will operate out of a church in St. Elmo.

Her next project, she says, will be a cross-genre hybrid she has decided to call "steam-gothic." The novel, which is set in New England, will tell a story from multiple characters' perspectives through such things as an epistolary style -- a story told through documents, diaries, letters and newspaper clippings -- in homage to the approach used in classic horror novels such as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Bram Stoker's "Dracula."

"I'm doing steampunk, but I come out of a horror tradition," she says. "[The epistolary style] is very interesting and fun to me and something I haven't done before."

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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