When I logged into Skype to interview upcoming indie-Steampunk author Rebecca Diem I had no idea that we’d talk for an hour and a half. Fresh off of her appearance and FanExpo Canada the week before — where she sold over 100 copies of her Steampunk series The Tales of the Captain Duke — Rebecca and I chatted about history, steampunk, subversion, and more.
A native of Chatswood Ontario, Diem published the first installment of her The Tales of the Captain Duke series, The Stowaway Debutante in August 2014. She followed it up with From Haven to Hell this summer. The Stowaway Debutante follows a girl called Clara as she stows away on an airship in her ballgown. When the ship is attacked by pirates, Clara stops them from making a disastrous mistake, and then buys a commission on their ship.
Drawn to steampunk because of it’s possibilities, Diem said she likes “getting to mess around with our history, taking these very known elements [of history or society] and turning them on their head.” Of course, Steampunk traditionally draws a lot on Victorian literature and the Victorian era. When I mentioned that a lot my dislike of Victorian literature stems from how morally black and white it can be, Diem agreed, saying that “with steampunk, you can go back and add in that complexity.”
Which shows in how she’s built her world. The basic premise of her society is that Airship technology happened due to an accidental royal decree which inadvertently granted gender equality over a century before it happened in our time. The resulting influx of women into universities and the workforce ended up creating a new airship technology.
Of course, change doesn’t come easily and twenty years later the characters in Diem’s books are still struggling for equality. But this is where Diem’s work diverges from a lot of the other books I’ve read with similar themes. While studying Political Science and Women’s Studies in University, Diem realized that “the stories we tell ourselves about the past century don’t always reflect the reality of how it was.”
Realizing that the proclamation for gender equality would affect women of different classes differently, Diem is really keen on showing that:
“One of the really important things for me is to approach the tales of the Captain Due from an intersectional lens, so you have someone like Nessa [the working-class first-mate] who can break free of societal restraints more easily…[but] it’s going to be a bit more difficult for Clara [the debutante] to break away [due to class privileges and social strictures].”
Diem is also skeptical of traditional narratives about Victorian England, asking why, if we can insert airships, why can’t we put a new take on gender equality or colonialism alongside that? “I liked the idea of showing the process…the messy parts of trying to carve out a place in society for women, for women of colour, of airships…disrupting the historical narrative…steampunk really allows me to do that.”
With writing, Diem finds she can “smooth some of those edges over in history.” This allows her to imagine so many opportunities that didn’t exist in our history. With four books in the series so far, Diem plans to move the setting to a Steampunk version of Toronto after book four is complete. With that will come the introduction of First Nations characters, and she’s also planning a side novel for Captain Marie Bucannan, aka, the Black Widow. A woman of colour (and a pirate) who controls the international shipping routes and thus has a major position of power in British society.
Since Steampunk is set mostly in the Victorian era, Diem finds it’s “just far back enough that we can play around with it, but it’s still close.” So Diem gets to play with characters who are “still kinda trapped by these [societal] boundaries, but [those boundaries] are in the process of being dismantled.”
It’s that dismantling and subversion that really appeals to me about Diem’s work. Talking to her really makes the themes and point of her books clear; she’s re-writing history so that she can re-imagine a better future for all of us. With a few added adventures along the way.
If fun, smart steampunk adventures appeal to you, you should check out Diem’s books on Amazon: The Stowaway Debutante, and From Haven to Hell.
You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and she’ll be appearing at the Grand Canadian Steampunk Exhibition September 25-27.
And stay tuned for the second part of the interview where we talk about writing inspiration, indie publishing, how to make sure your characters end up in healthy relationships, and more!
//Photos courtesy of Rebecca Diem.