Today’s guest is an active blogger and writer with his first novel, Phantom Hearts, currently on submission. I don’t generally invite yet-to-be published writers for interviews but Phantom Heart has such an excellent premise I just had to know more.
Please give Michael a warm welcome!
Can you tell us a bit about your novel?
Oh, but of course! Sometimes I feel like I breathe this stuff, lol.
Phantom Hearts is a steampunk fantasy adventure set in an entirely other world. Hannah, a seventeen-year-old slave, battles her way across a continent engulfed in the first modern war in search of the outlawed magic to bring Jason, her forbidden love, back from the grave. Aided only by a brutal murderer, an unpredictable teenager addicted to Wild Magic, and a carnie who leads an underground railroad for slaves, she must wrestle with the growing weight of her own destiny — or risk losing Jason forever.
The world is not unlike a steampunk World War One, but with outlawed magic, rogue spies, steampunk carnivals, and clockwork animals. Hannah unlocks her own magical heritage, the ability — or curse — to live other’s emotions. And of course, there’s a dangerous soldier who seeks to destroy Hannah, bargaining with Ghouls to invade Hannah’s dreams and torture her nights.
I love the world you’ve built here, especially the nature of magic and how it interacts with other parts of the world. I particularly like the way you’ve made Hannah’s magic a double edged sword–it comes with more serious drawbacks than many forms of magic I’ve seen.
What part of the story came to you first?
I’m always daydreaming. I come up with the small scenes, emotional moments, or interesting bits of the world and keep them in a journal. Once I have enough of the isolated pieces, I start to ask questions: How can this lead to that? What if this were turned on its head? A plot emerges.
This particular book started with the idea of a world that was entering the modern era, but in a steampunk way. Old magic was being forgotten — even outlawed. The first scenes that made me think I have to write this book were of a young girl who’d never had any power, never done anything crazy, going all out in a desperate gamble for the one she loves. One scene in particular was a magic battle that happens on an airship. She’s flexing her “magical muscles” for the first time, and is terrible at it. She’s almost killed. Only her sheer determination helps her escape.
Your novel takes place in another world. How closely is this world based on the Victorian time period usually associated with steampunk?
Actually, my book is closer to an Edwardian (1901-1910) and First World War era. There’s a lot of almost electro-punk or eddison-punk. It’s really a world in transition, moving away from the grime and chaos of clockwork and steam and into the sterile and dangerous world of electricity and total war. It’s also all but forgotten its soul — magic. That said, there is a lot of the Victorian feel, just a tad darker.
How did you first discover the world of steampunk?
Hard to say. Probably The Castle in the Sky when I was a kid, though I didn’t know what to call it (and it may not be traditional steampunk). I started falling in love with steampunk through comic conventions and books like Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I instantly loved the idea of a world where not everything is uniform. In our world, all the phones look the same — efficient, sleek, simple. I was drawn to the idea that everything can be kind of a jumble, unique, and hand-made. I also adored the on-the-surface optimism in so much steampunk, but in a way that can really contrast with true human problems like class hierarchy and the role of technology.
We’ve actually had a few different authors reference Miyazaki films as their first exposure to steampunk, mostly Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s totally thrilling because these are some of my all time favorite movies and I love seeing how many lives they’ve touched.
What do you think is the most interesting thing about steampunk?
The sheer creativity and the community! I love the fact that steampunk is expanding beyond just Victorian england. We’re seeing multicultural steampunk, Egyptian steampunk, and so many others. And the people. Steampunks are just fun people — creative, kind, and not ashamed to be weird. I’ve always felt that way. It is awesome to find a group that you can really be yourself with.
And of course, the possibility of imagination in my stories. That’s really what it’s all about for me.
I’m also really excited to see steampunk expanding and exploring all different parts of the world. And the creativity of the people in the community seriously can’t be applauded enough.
Your world obviously has a few different types of magic including the addictive Wild Magic. How did you come up with these different systems?
Well, the world actually has one kind of magic system, but it’s pretty complex. Phantom Hearts is just the first in a collection of related, but not dependent books, set on the planet of Anadell. The goal is to ask the question: How would an entire world’s history have evolved if magic was just another part of life? So, the collection explores a 5000 year chunk of history. The Phantom Hearts series is just one part of that. It’s not unlike Brandon Sanderson’s idea of the Cosmere.
So the magic on Anadell actually comes from Anasear (the dream world or spiritual realm, sort of). Magic flows through emotion, and not just human emotion. Many animals have evolved basic instinctual use of magic. The Wild Magic you asked about is what happens when people just use raw emotion to channel Anasear’s magic — it’s incredibly powerful, but also a raw adrenaline shot. Addictive and destructive. Treatus Magic is a complex system of spells and charms that are meant to try and control that River of Magic (without a lot of success). And, of course, there are Phantoms, the creatures who live in Anasear. Thousands of kinds of Phantoms (Ghouls, Wraiths, Ghosts) can be bound to a person’s will to do incredible kinds of magic, but at a cost.
I love the idea that magic has a cost, a pain. So I started with that idea and just started asking questions, filling in the blanks. There a LOT more to it, but you’ll just have to read the books!
I’m also a big fan of magic having a cost, though the costs in my worlds are usually pretty straight forward–human sacrifices, years off your life, insanity, that kind of thing.
You’ve done a degree in Educational Psychology. How has this studying informed your knowledge of character creation?
A lot, actually. My specific focus was on Individual Difference, which allowed me to really investigate how different people see the world. The research is all centered around how the context of a person’s if (biological, cultural, personal history, etc.) impacts how they see the world, how they make decisions, and ultimately, how they learn. I applied these same basic methods to my characters. It helped me create richer backstories and clearer expressions.
I once had the opportunity to interview Robert J. Sawyer and one of the questions I asked him was “If you could start over, knowing you were going to be a successful author, what would you have studied”. I’ll never forget his response: “Psychology, because what else is character but psychology?” Ever since then I’ve spent a lot of time researching psychology online and it’s definitely helped me build epic characters.
I also have a Masters in Anthropology, which has probably been even more helpful. I’ve studied cultures from around the world and across time, paying special attention to their folklore, myths, and stories. This gives me a lot more to draw on when building a new world. One of my favorite writing concepts is that “there are no new ideas, only new mixtures of ideas.” That knowledge gives me a bigger ingredient list to mix. I can also see how one aspect of a culture (maybe history) can affect another aspect (say, language) in really detailed ways.
Together, they let me create fleshed-out experiences. I can make a consistent context (world, language, myths) for my character and figure out how all of that would shape their perceptions and behaviors.
If anyone’s interested in that, I blog about it a lot at chrismichaelsauthor.com.
Sounds like a fascinating blog! I will definitely check it out.
What can people read while they’re waiting for your novel to come out?
Well, I have Phantom Hearts and a YA contemporary fantasy-thriller, Allyson Darke, out there playing the “let’s find an agent and publisher game.” I’m polishing a couple others, too. But, it could be a while before any of these are on shelves. (If you’re an agent or editor who wants to chat about it, email me through the website 🙂 )
In the meantime, I’m doing a couple serial stories on my blog at http://chrismichaelsauthor.com/sagas. Look at A Wolf of Steam and Fire. It’s a kinda prequel to Phantom Hearts, and I have another set in that same world that’ll be running next. Both are steampunk-fantasies, high action, and totally free.
I also blog and tweet about topics like writing, mixed-media stories, interactive stories, storytelling innovation, steampunk, and educational storytelling. You can follow me @chrismichaels84 or find the blog at http://chrismichaelsauthor.com.
Really awesome chatting with you!
Michael Wilson has earned graduate degrees in Anthropology and Educational Psychology, both focusing on narrative identity and storytelling. He has presented about steampunk at comic conventions, and maintain a blog dedicated to mixed-media, interactive storytelling and educational storytelling research at www.ChrisMichaelsAuthor.com. When not dreaming up worlds or wordsmithing, he is tinkering in code or gadgets, climbing trees, or spending time with his wife, who is also an author.
Have more questions about Phantom Heart? Want to recommend another author/artist for an interview? Post your thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments section below!