1st June 2019
The Saturday Interview: Laurel Anne Hill
Hi - thanks for your time. Could you please introduce yourself and your novel ‘The Engine Woman’s Light’?
My classic self-introduction is: I’m Laurel Anne Hill, author and former underground storage tank operator. This intro has become part of my brand. It’s true, triggers some laughs, and sounds one heck of a lot more relatable than “author and former environmental health and safety specialist.” I’ve written two award-winning novels, most recently, “The Engine Woman’s Light” published by Sand Hill Review Press. My published short stories and nonfiction pieces total over forty. I’m a speaker, writing contest judge, and anthology editor.
“The Engine Woman’s Light” shows the gritty, spirits-meet-steampunk heroic journey of a young woman of color—Juanita—in an alternate nineteenth century California. Juanita’s ancestors assign her a task: saving the lives of California’s thrown away people. Torn from her sheltered community of spiritualists, Juanita must face the violence-filled empire of the nefarious Mendoza family. Will her determination, integrity and faith provide enough inner strength for her to cope and survive?
What was your original inspiration for it?
A dream I had in the early 1990s provided my initial inspiration for “The Engine Woman’s Light.” In that dream, an elderly woman condemned to euthanasia escaped from a death train, an abandoned infant girl in her arms. She walked at night toward a distant light and safety.
The resulting short story I created never worked, even though the voice of the old woman spoke to me inside of my head. Subplots burdened the story’s structure, failing to address the destiny of the rescued child. I had a novel on my hands, a book that would take me twenty years to complete.
Wow! Twenty years! What made you motivated to keep coming back to it?
My characters wanted their stories told and never let me forget that fact for long. Even the trains in “The Engine Woman’s Light” complained when I set the manuscript aside. Plus I’d invested so much time and toil in the project, with David (my husband) supporting my seemingly endless efforts. For example, when my mom passed away, I rewrote the chapter where Juanita’s mother dies. I cried and cried, breathing new life into those written words. And every time David and I rode in the engine cab of yet another steam locomotive, the sheer thrill of our shared experience enticed me to return to my manuscript. The book contains part of my soul.
One huge inspiration was finding my Mexican great-grandmother’s papers in the California Historical Society and having them translated into English. Hipolita Orendain de Medina was a brave woman, her life filled with mixed joys and sorrows. Few fragments of her personal writings remain. Great-Grandma would have wanted me to finish “The Engine Woman’s Light.”
And, of course, I knew David wanted to see “The Engine Woman’s Light” published before he died. I read the published book to him during his final weeks of life. Talk about “just in time” delivery!
What attracted you to writing steampunk?
First of all, steampunk is just plain cool in so many ways. It’s got goggles, gears and gadgets. Advanced technology without planned obsolescence. Machines I can look at and actually figure out how they work, without first getting a degree in electronic engineering. Steampunk can depict story worlds that real history passed by. Much of steampunk, however, focuses on the Victorian era, a period that saw its share of poverty and social injustice. Thus steampunk offers an excellent backdrop for complex characters, issues real people face today, and the challenge of balancing truth and sensitivity.
Do you think that people enjoy steampunk because it explores the hypotheticals of a simpler age, both in terms of technology and society?
Steampunk is a concept, a passion, a retrofuturistic alternative way, an art form. Steampunk molds to fit many different shapes of the human mind and human creativity.
The heart of steampunk rebels against our own times, but also against the negative aspects of the Victorian age. Yes, steampunk emphasizes craft over mass production and planned obsolescence. Individualism over the corporation. Yes, steampunk emphasizes advanced technology that does not require advanced degrees to understand, technical advances that real history bypassed until the age of electricity. Yet history has sharp edges. A lot was wrong with societies and environmental conditions in Victorian times. Such problems were captured well in the early steampunk novels such as “The Anubis Gates” (Tim Powers), “Homunculus” (James Blaylock), and “The Difference Engine” (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling). Many steampunk authors continue to weave dark societal and/or environmental elements into the fabric of their stories. Examples include Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker,” Felix Gilman’s “The Half-Made World,” and my own novel, “The Engine Woman’s Light.”
‘The Engine Woman’s Light’ has won multiple awards from a wide range of organisations. What quality does it have, do you think, that they recognise?
“The Engine Woman’s Light” has a diverse cast of well-developed characters, none of them all good or all evil. Even my protagonist, Juanita, has flaws. I wrote as close to the point-of-view characters as I could, to immerse readers in my dark and imaginative story world and grab their interest. I tried my best to create original characters rather than stereotypes, characters who do things and take action. And to include relevant situations for them to face. Story drives my genre novel, but not at the expense of a strong character component.
What do you feel lies at the heart of a successful speculative fiction story?
The ability to suspend the reader’s disbelief. To make readers feel a story could happen even if it contains man-eating pickle jars.
How do you achieve this effect in your novel?
To suspend disbelief, a magician on stage diverts the attention of the audience away from wires, mirrors and the structure of boxes used to saw his assistant in half. The writer needs to distract, dazzle and misdirect his/her audience so that the splendid and unbelievable things happening don’t hamper the reader’s ability to enjoy the story. In other words, the writer needs to plug or hide the holes in the plot by drawing the audience’s attention away from them.
I have a scene in “The Engine Woman’s Light,” where characters hear the whistle of an approaching train. The laws of physics for that terrain would dictate no more than a certain amount of time could pass between hearing the whistle and the train’s arrival. I needed more time before the train showed up. Thus, I kept the story tension high to distract readers familiar with sound physics.
What inspires you to write?
My characters have much to do with my inspiration. If I don’t write, they’re not happy. They let me know it. Sensory experiences also help a lot with inspiration: Listening to music, taking a long walk, smelling the aroma of my favorite foods cooking (especially homemade sourdough bread), standing by the ocean and watching surf pound rocks.
Do you believe in writer’s block? Opinion so far in this interview series has been split.
I’m sure some people experience writer’s block. Humans are complex, after all. Day-to-day life can interfere with fundamental drives, such as those to eat or seek sexual intimacy. Why not the ability to write, as well? I don’t experience writer’s block. Give me time to write and I’ll do it, even if it’s only happening inside of my head.
Did you plan out the entire book before you started or did it evolve as you went?
“The Engine Woman’s Light” evolved as I wrote and rewrote—as I learned how to write a novel. We progressed together.
Do you have a favourite author?
I don’t have one favorite author, but I love the works of several in particular: Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Graham Joyce, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Did these authors inspire you to write or is it something that you’ve always wanted to do?
I started writing stories before I could read. My older sister would write down my words for me using a pencil and an ordinary paper tablet, leaving room for me to add pictures cut from comic books and magazines. She would record her own stories, too. This was a sisterly activity. None of those stories remain: hers or mine. Based on the quality of my first published piece of fiction when I was eleven, it’s probably just as well.
If people would like to interact with you online and discuss your story, what’s the best way to do that?
Those interested should contact me via my website: http://laurelannehill.com/contact/.
Thanks again for your time. Laurel Anne Hill's novel, 'The Engine Woman's Light' can be purchased through Amazon.