Whatchamacallit Reviews: How did you come up with the idea for the Leviathan trilogy?
Scott Westerfeld: I've always thought that an alternate history with Charles Darwin as a sort of hero-scientist would be quite fun. Then I noticed that the title of his famous book, Origins of Species, sounded a bit like a "how-to manual," and I said, "What if Darwin had discovered DNA?" Victorians loved biology, after all. They filled curio cabinets with seashells and pinned insects, so a world shaped by Victorian bio-engineering seemed like a wonderful place to visit.
Obviously, not every culture would go along with bio-engineering, just as many people resist the ideas of evolution. So I added the Clankers, who have embraced the machine even more than our own culture. They have walking tanks and lightning cannon, all sort of mad-scientist stuff.
As the World War I setting came into focus, I realized that a collision between metal and flesh would make a perfect analogy for that war. Those first tanks and other machines of war look almost comical to us now, but to the first soldiers to encounter them on the battlefield, they must have seemed like monsters. Steampunk was a way to reinvigorate that horror, while at the same time playing with ideas about how technologies change the way we see the world.
WR: What did you do to prepare and research for this series, did you travel to any of the locations?
SW: I went to the small city in Germany where they still make Zeppelins, and took a ride on an actual airship. Unlike an airplane, which travels miles high and more than half the speed of sound, we were about a thousand feet up and only going forty miles an hour. In other words, the same flight characteristics as an eagle. It was gorgeous, the closest thing to being a bird I could imagine, and the Alps being close by didn't hurt.
For Behemoth, I went to Istanbul and took lots of photos for my artist to use, and tried to get the feel for the city. The main result of my visit, however, was that there wound up being a lot more food in the book. Istanbul is a great culinary city, with everything from high-end restaurants to street vendors having great food.
WR: How was it working with Keith Thompson?
SW: I write the scenes first, and then Keith sketches the machines and creatures, always changing certain things. And because he's a better "engineer" than I am, his creations generally make more sense than mine did. After I see his sketches, I rewrite the text to match his work, and sometimes things bounce back and forth a few times. Of course, his images stick around to inspire me for the rest of the series, so the feedback loop gets richer and richer.
WR: Of all the miraculous creatures and machines in the series thus far which one would you want to have in real life?
SW: I've always wanted an airship, and that hasn't changed. When the Graf Zeppelin was flying around the world for the first time anyone had, it was a daring and at time dangerous adventure, but they still had caviar, champagne, and a piano aboard. Seriously, if you're going to risk your life, that's the way to do it.
WR: I heard from a conference I went to that while working on Extra you realized you were writing from the wrong perspective and started over in the book after having written 1600 words. Did you experience any such situations while writing Leviathan or Behemoth? And would you ever consider writing any short stories or other novels from any of the other characters perspective?
SW: It was actually 16,000 words, or about 60 pages, a month wasted. Nothing that big ever went wrong with the Leviathan series. I did start a short story set in the same world about a year earlier, which was intended for an airship anthology. I never finished it, but it gave my the groundwork for Leviathan.
WR: I’ve heard you mention in an interview that the first million words any writer writes are complete crap. What were some of the books you wrote before you were first published?
SW: One terrible book set on a starship, but it was really a giant role-playing game. Bad Twilight Zone mixed with D&D, I suppose.
WR: You were recently in an anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns can you tell us a little about your story in it?
SW: It's set a few years after the zombie apocalypse, and is about the generational conflicts between adults and teenagers. The adults are traumatized by fighting to survive the early days, while the teens were quite young during the outbreak, and are much less psychologically damaged. In fact, they're getting a bit bored of hiding behind fences, and want to go out into the world.
WR: What other advice would you give to young writers?
SW: Write at the same time every day, and in the same place if possible. The more a habit and ritual writing becomes, the more your brain will accept that NOW is the time to write, and will stop fighting you.
WR: What’s been the hardest book for you to write of your different series? Why?
SW: The Leviathan series is definitely harder than anything else. With a historical, you think you know everything about a period, and then a character is getting dressed, and you realize you don't know if zippers were around in 1914. And if they were, did anyone in the Ottoman Empire use them?
WR: Where and when can Austin fans come meet you and hear more about your series?
2:30 – 3:15PM
The Sanctuary at First United Methodist Church
1201 Lavaca Street
Austin, TX 78701