This smiling gentleman is a guy who knows more than any one individual has a right to know about steampunk, dieselpunk, atompunk, and a bunch of other punks, too. He is Charles Cornell, author of the Dragonfly series, a dieselpunk look at WWII with a lady principle character. I just gotta love this man! I read Dragonfly Part 1: To Hell and Back, and talked about it here.
I had been reading a couple of steampunk books to get the feel for the genre when I came across this dieselpunk book, and had to ask myself what the kibble was dieselpunk? I had a brief chat or two with with the Boss about this, and thought you, my Gentle Readers, would like to know more about these genres as well, so, well, I camped on his doorstep until he agreed to talk with me about steampunk, dieselpunk, Retrofuturistic Fiction and other stuff fiction-related, as well as where he fits into all this.
MARTI: Charles, I have recently gotten interested in the steampunk genre of fiction. As I understand it, steampunk stories are set in the Victorian era, but incorporate elements of steam power technology. Seems to be lots of gears and cogs and brass and octopuses (octopi?) and goggles and stuff in the illustrations. Would you consider this genre a ‘fabulist’ type of genre?
CHARLES: All genre fiction is based on the concept of the hero’s journey and what lessons the hero learns along the way. Punk fiction is more than just re-telling the same fables dressed up in different gear. Yes, the gears, cogs, brass, etc. are the ‘aesthetics’ of steampunk fiction and to those who follow it, appear to be compulsory elements. But I look at these simply as devices like stage props in a playhouse. If it’s a dark story, the backdrop is black and hung with cobwebs. A Shakespearean farce has characters in frilly exaggerated clothing. Steampunk has octopi. Who knew?
At the very heart of the new punk fiction sub-genres like steampunk and dieselpunk is a concept called ‘retro-futurism’. Retro-futurism differentiates these sub-genres from mainstream fantasy, science fiction or alternative history. Retro-futurism allows the writer to meld various elements of sci-fi and fantasy together, often blended within an alternative set of historical events or set in a different era with different social outlooks.
The Oxford Dictionary defines retro-futurism as the use of a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era. My personal definition of retro-futurism is ‘an expression of creativity that either (1) projects the future as those in a past time period might have seen it or (2) is set in a future world that conveys the vibe of a bygone era’.
Key words here are ‘expression’ and ‘creativity’ because retro-futurism is not confined to just fiction. Steampunk in particular is a whole sub-culture of art, design, fashion and costume play. In the case of steampunk, the bygone era involved is the Victorian through the Edwardian periods. For dieselpunk, it is the 1920s to 1940s. Atompunk is the 1950s and early 60s.
MARTI: You label your book, Dragonfly, a dieselpunk story. So I would assume it has anachronistic diesel elements where they did not historically exist. Is that correct?
CHARLES: Carrying on from the general definition of punk fiction, here is my specific definition of dieselpunk:
‘The retro-futuristic themes and aesthetics reflecting the politics, society, culture and technology from the 1920s to 1940s, expressed in creative form in order to project to others the future as those in this past era might have seen it, or to convey to others how this era’s vibe would look like in a future imaginary world’.
Dieselpunk is not just restricted to novels. There are some fantastic artists out there. I commissioned a digital artist to create the retro-futuristic aircraft in DragonFly. These are some of the elements of the story that did not historically exist but could have been imagined as possible if you were someone in the 1930s or 1940s looking into the future.
Historical ‘what-ifs’ also play a big role in DragonFly to ‘set the stage’ or as I call it ‘re-imagine’ the future through the eyes of someone in the past. In the alternative World War Two of DragonFly, there are many ‘what-ifs’ sprinkled throughout the novel. The biggest ones are: (1) what if women were recruited to be combat pilots?… and (2) what if the technological advances of the Nazis – weapons like jet powered planes and rockets that appeared too late at the end of the real WW2 – had been put to use a lot earlier in the conflict? How would the course of history been altered by either of these changes?
MARTI: Why did you choose dieselpunk over steampunk for the story structure? What draws you to these genres?
CHARLES: In general, I prefer writing dieselpunk over steampunk because I have a greater personal interest in the time period from the 1920s to the 1940s, a period of great social and political change whose after-effects can still be felt today, unlike Victorian attitudes and technology that have been made somewhat obsolete and occupy a more nostalgic niche.
I have a particular interest in the history of the rise of fascism as I think there are many lessons that still apply. George Orwell’s dystopian novel, ‘1984’ is one of my all-time favorites. It’s not to say that a steampunk novel is not already in my idea box, because it is. But my plan is to take some unique spins with the genre. I don’t like following the herd by creating variations to stories that have, by the most part, already been written in other genres. That would just be adding the props without the proper script. I prefer the ‘big bang theory’ approach to make something unique. Stay tuned.
Back to dieselpunk. Perhaps the biggest influence in writing DragonFly was my family’s involvement in WW2. I’m British born and both my father and mother served in the Royal Air Force during the war. I grew up with their stories and reminiscences. My mother was 16 during the Blitz in 1940 and two years later, at the age of 18, joined the Women’s RAF and became a ‘grease monkey’, an aircraft mechanic. She could take apart a Spitfire engine and put it back together again by herself. But women were not allowed in combat roles. So her story inspired me to re-imagine a squadron of female RAF pilots in fantastic aircraft defending Britain from an invasion that in the real history of WW2 never happened.
What else draws me to write dieselpunk? It offers incredible degrees of freedom for a writer’s creativity. The sci-fi elements in DragonFly involve my creations of alternative chemistry and physics (quadra-hydrogen) and there are fantasy elements where I weave the occult, wizards and paranormal events into the plot lines. The opportunity to act as a ‘world-builder’, as if I was actually in that era looking into the future, is very exciting. I can redefine the entire history of World War Two: its technology, its society, its battles and ultimately the outcome. I have some exciting departures planned for the sequel, ‘Spies in Manhattan’ set in a dieselpunk New York.
MARTI: My research (such as it was) suggests that steampunk got its start from Jules Verne. Where did dieselpunk come from? And what would you say would be the defining images for dieselpunk, as the goggles and brass, leather and cogs are for steampunk?
CHARLES: Dieselpunk has its origins in the pulp fiction and comics of the 1930s and 40s. There are some terrific examples of retro-futuristic ‘crime noir’ dieselpunk for example. The defining images here would be the hard-boiled private detective with the requisite fedoras, trench coats, machine guns and gangster lingo, set in a futuristic Gotham of dark alleyways and shady nightclubs. But with androids. Find Bard Constantine’s ‘Troubleshooter’ series on Amazon to sample this kind of retro-crime sci-fi. (www.amazon.com/Troubleshooter-Red-Eyed-Killer-Bard-Constantine-ebook/dp/B00AAQ8K06/)
Art Deco defined this era’s architecture. It was the dawn of the metropolis, of aviation and the Jazz Age, of radio and mass communications. Substitute stainless steel and chrome for brass; add a bit of bakelite, some vacuum tubes and tons of concrete; mix in forests of skyscrapers in big impersonal cities; festoon the sky-high halls with the flags and emblems of totalitarian regimes; shake, and you have the perfect dieselpunk cocktail!
Two iconic movies of this genre, ‘The Rocketeer’ and ‘Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow’ capture this visual aesthetic perfectly.
MARTI: Can I ask you a personal question? (Don’t you love it when people say that — just as if they might not actually ask it.) This whole writer gig. When did it start for you? And do you find it easy, or something you have to work at to get your story down on paper…. or on computer, as it were?
CHARLES; Since I can ever remember, I have had this duality about my interests and my artistic and scientific sides have had this quiet running battle for decades. When I was younger I showed a talent for creative writing but my interest in chemistry moved me towards a degree in metallurgy. After fifteen years pursuing a technical career path in the automotive industry, I left technology behind in favor of general management and completed an MBA with a specialty in Finance. It was during my MBA classes – where I had to write essay style papers for nearly every class – that I re-discovered the creative writing talent that had its roots in my youth. Now I am able to combine all of my experiences and place it on ‘paper’. My first published novel, Tiger Paw draws from my experiences in the business world as an FBI agent hunts an assassin murdering Wall St millionaires.
I started writing seriously in 2003, although I have written as part of my business career for over 35 years. Writing is a craft and every time you write, you learn something new about your voice and improve your technique. I started writing in the thriller and espionage genre but I believe I have now found my niche in science fiction. That’s what attracted me to dieselpunk – an almost free expression creativity to blend elements of science fiction and fantasy together. I enjoy adding touches of the macabre – the supernatural, paranormal and the occult – to my work and that is evident in my thriller, Tiger Paw as well as in my science fiction adventure, DragonFly.
I think an aspiring author needs two things. First is an overriding passion to communicate something of meaning beyond your usual boundaries and to people beyond your immediate circle. Why are you writing? What is the purpose? Second is an appreciation that authorship is a craft and an art form, and that an apprenticeship needs to be served. To master creative writing you need to make a commitment to continuous improvement. There are no short cuts. I’ve been writing seriously for over ten years. I’ve written entire novels that I now classify as my ‘practice’ novels even though I didn’t know they were at the time. Even after ten years, I’m learning new things daily about the craft and about the publishing business. And what I’ve also learned, after taking a few unplanned sabbaticals, is that I simply must write. I cannot stop writing. Something would be missing in my life if I did.
Creating a novel is a process that starts with idea formulation and research, and progresses with an increasing devotion to plain old hard work. Right now, I have six or eight novels in my mental pipeline in four different series in multiple genres. Any one of these I could start writing tomorrow if the fancy took me. In addition, I have five or six short fiction works in mind (up to novella length). I’m thinking up new storylines with new sets of characters every day. So you can imagine that since I’m not yet a full-time author, my biggest problem is time management. My goal is to see all of these in ‘print’. But it may take me the next ten years to do it.
MARTI: Do you want your stories to have any kind of deeper message, or underlying theme? Or are they stories just for the fun of being stories?
CHARLES: I think there’s a difference between a genre writer and a literary writer. A genre writer has to be mindful that on the surface, genre fiction is basically a form of entertainment. If you write thrillers, you have to thrill. If you write sci-fi, you have to world build and be fantastic. If you write romance, you have to titillate, etc. You get the idea. But this can cause many writers to churn out copious volumes of prose under a general formula like a proverbial production line. Some genre authors like James Patterson have so many storylines that he has to hire ghost writers to actually do the hard work. He just acts as an editor of his branded fiction. I’m not made like that. At least I hope it never comes to that. That’s not why I started writing. Although come to think of it, it’s probably very lucrative. Oh, well.
Definitely, I plan to write fiction that entertains. I understand the first rule of genre writing: give the readers what they want. But I like to think of this as just the top layer or the outer skin of the onion. In my fiction, the next layer below this is a layer of information. What can I give the reader that has added value? Can I transport them to faraway places? Confront them with new cultures and ideas? Maybe I can influence them to seek more information beyond my novels or to travel and experience the people and settings for themselves? In my thriller, Tiger Paw for example, I have settings all across the USA from Wyoming to Washington and I explore the meanings of Hinduism and Eastern mysticism in the context of the mind of a serial killer. I did extensive research and used real life locations that suited the plot.
And that leads to the deeper layers in my fiction. The hidden meanings. The over-riding themes. They are definitely tucked behind the veil of entertainment and wrapped in the folds of information. In Tiger Paw, the theme was… how much wealth is enough? At what dire cost, to individuals and to society, will the divide between the 1% and 99% become too wide? What price will someone pay to sell their soul to the Devil? And who will collect?
In DragonFly, I explore the emotions of the turbulent era of the 1940s when a world war engulfed the entire planet in darkness; a time when, for both the military and civilians alike, tomorrow may be your last day, so you’d better make the most of it. I contrast the romantic notions of patriotism with the reality of a war whose outcome was an all-or-nothing struggle for the survival of good versus evil. What did the soldiers feel on D-Day or when they hit the sands of Iwo Jima? What was it like when Paris was liberated and suddenly the victors were the vanquished? These are the meanings I’m trying to capture beneath the surface of my prose. It was a big war. I’ve still got a long way to go to cover this immense ground in my subsequent books in the series.
MARTI: What is your favorite length: story, novella, full-length novel?
CHARLES: Wow, I never really thought about it. I think writing a short story is actually more difficult than you think it should be. In a novel, you have the time to develop the characters and the setting. You can build suspense over chapters, create twists and turns that take you on a different route to the end point. In a short story or even a novella, you have to draw in the reader immediately and establish your protagonist and their personality from the get go, within paragraphs or even the first few sentences, and then propel them on their way without much hesitation. The premise must be engaging. The character’s plight immediately sympathetic. And the goal compelling. So all in all, I guess I prefer the full length novel. It might be a long slog to get everything on ‘paper’ but it’s not a sprint. I feel exhausted just writing this!
MARTI: Can you tell us what you are currently working on?
CHARLES: ‘DragonFly’ is Book One in the series, ‘Missions of the DragonFly Squadron’. Book Two, the sequel, ‘Spies in Manhattan’ is being written now, very different from Book One. Less action, more intrigue, like a sci-fi thriller and a full right turn in the historical timeline of the war, events that throw the lever of my World War Two into another gear entirely. Cities become more ‘punkish’. The politics of war becomes more complicated. Some new top secret technology delays the atomic age and puts a Cold War future on hold indefinitely.
There will also be two series of companion short fiction, ‘DragonFly: Behind Enemy Lines’ and ‘DragonFly: Tales of Magic and Mystery’.
The first of these stories has been published. ‘Die Fabrik/The Factory’ is a sci-fi horror story that is an eye-witness account from inside the Nazis’ Blutskrieger factory. These short stories and novellas will give further insight into the characters and world of DragonFly. I will likely publish two more short stories before the second full novel is out.
I also plan to write a novella which is a break in the war that is set in a time between Books One & Two. It will be in Morocco where Veronica and her best friend, Busbee are on leave. It will be a romantic suspense, kind of my take on ‘Casablanca’ with a dieselpunk twist, shaken not stirred.
I also want to write some short stories to explore the life of the Druid wizard, Affodill. So these would be classed in the fantasy genre. There will be a murder mystery. And more sci-fi horror stories with new characters on the Nazi side. I do have a lot of stuff to write! But it’s all very vivid. I know exactly where I’m going with all this. I feel excited I can explore different genres and facets within my dieselpunk world through the medium of these companion pieces of shorter fiction and novellas.
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See, I told you he is a veritable fount of information. He has a lovely website at www.CharlesACornell.com where you can check out more about his books and even sign up to follow him as he talks about the books and about writing and oh, I don’t know what else. Mowing his grass? He is also on the ubiquitous Facebook at www.Facebook.com/CharlesACornell
Great stuff, and I urge you to give Dragonfly a try. It’s a big wide genre world out there, Dear Ones. Spread yourself around a bit. And here’s a nifty pic of Dragonfly for you. How cool is that!