WELCOME TO WRITER WEDNESDAY! This is our first Writer Wednesday Q&A blog of 2012! And what better way to kick off the new year with some cool steampunk sci fi historical literary fiction by genius writer LEV AC ROSEN? Today’s blog features a fantastic Q&A with debut novelist LEV AC ROSEN, whose first book, ALL MEN OF GENIUS (Tor 2011), is out in bookstores now. (His website: http://www.levacrosen.com/)
We also are excited to host a fun signed book contest with Lev AC Rosen. Please comment at the end of this blog or email me (paula at paulayoo dot com) to be included in a drawing where one winner will be chosen at random. The winner will receive a personally autographed edition of ALL MEN OF GENIUS by Lev himself! The winner will be announced in a blog posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012.
Lev AC Rosen is also speaking on Monday January 30, 2012 at the Mid-Manhattan Library at 6:30 PM (455 Fifth Ave. New York, NY, first floor corner room). If you’re in the area, please RSVP at http://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2012/01/30/author-reading-signing-lev-ac-rosen
ALL MEN OF GENIUS (Tor ’11) is a fantastical blend of historical fiction and “steampunk” sci fi with some Shakespearean elements tossed in as well by this Sarah Lawrence MFA-trained author. The book’s plot is described as: “Inspired by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, All Men of Genius takes place in a Victorian London familiar but fantastical, where mad science makes the impossible possible. Violet Adams wants to attend Illyria College, a widely renowned school for the most brilliant up-and-coming scientific minds, founded by the late Duke Illyria, the greatest scientist of the Victorian Age. The school is run by his son, Ernest, who has held to his father’s policy that the small, exclusive college remain male-only. Violet sees her opportunity when her father departs for America. She disguises herself as her twin brother, Ashton, and gains entry. But keeping the secret of her sex won’t be easy, not with her friend Jack’s constant habit of pulling pranks, and especially not when the duke’s young ward, Cecily, starts to develop feelings for Violet’s alter ego, “Ashton.” Not to mention blackmail, mysterious killer automata, the way Violet’s pulse quickens whenever Ernest speaks to her, and a deadly legacy left by Ernest’s father. She soon realizes that it’s not just keeping her secret until the end of the year she has to worry about: it’s surviving that long.”
(Keep reading after the jump for our Q&A with LEV AC ROSEN. And don’t forget to comment on this blog or email me to be included in our signed book contest giveaway drawing, too!)
Q&A With “ALL MEN OF GENIUS” (Tor 2011) AUTHOR LEV AC ROSEN
— Q: You studied Creative Writing and English at Oberlin. What made you decide to then attend Sarah Lawrence for an MFA in creative writing?
A: I wanted to continue writing. I wanted to be surrounded by people who talked about writing and were working on their own things, and were seriously pursuing this. And grad school was exactly that – it was one of the best experiences of my life. Essentially you’re doing what you love to do and are surrounded by people who are doing the same, and you all want to help each other be the best you can. As for why Sarah Lawrence, I didn’t want to leave NYC, and Sarah Lawrence has the best program in the area, in my opinion – it’s extremely personal and focuses on you as a writer. Other programs I got into require you to pay extra to meet with a professor outside of class. At SLC, you have to meet with your professors outside of class to discuss your writing – it’s required for every workshop. I think that says a lot about the program.
— Q: I noticed you studied with Joan Silber. Isn’t she awesome? She was my thesis advisor at Warren Wilson’s MFA program. What did you two work on together? What advice did you learn from her?
A: Joan is amazing. I was working on this weird novel about a girl who works at a Jewish Publishing house, and essentially spends her days reading holocaust memoirs, and how that gets to her, psychologically, until she finds a memoir she thinks is by her grandmother – whom she had always believed to be Christian. It was supposed to be funny, and weird, and I hope Joan got that.
— Q: What other instructors inspired you as a writer?
A: My undergraduate advisor, Dan Chaon. He’s just amazing. He ran his classes with this combination of humor and honesty that just brought out the best in my writing. I hope I can be as good a professor as he is one day. And his writing is equally amazing. I don’t know if you’ve read Await Your Reply, but it is this fantastic, dark, exciting novel, that plays with genre, but is incredibly fresh.
— Q: Your first novel involves my favorite Oscar Wilde play, The Importance of Being Ernest (I played the role of Aunt Augusta in my high school drama club!) and one of my favorite Shakespeare plays Twelfth Night. How did those works inspire the plot behind ALL MEN OF GENIUS? Were there any authors or books from the “steampunk” historical era that also inspired you?
A: Well, in terms of the plot of All Men, it most closely follows 12th Night, with the girl dressed as a boy story, but the Wilde actually influences the plot more than most people realize. Both plays center around mistaken identity, and in fact, the nature of identity, and I think All Men does that, too. So while the overarching plot is 12th Night, the smaller plots – the love affairs, the switching of personas, and some others I can’t talk about without spoiling it – are actually more from Earnest. They overlap, obviously – Cecily’s falling in love with Violet who she thinks is Ashton is right out of 12th Night, but the nature of Cecily’s character is taken from Cecily in Earnest. And a lot of the sort of “inside jokes” are from Earnest. Like the perambulator, and the entire character of Professor Bunburry. Actually, Professor Bracknell – whose name comes from Aunt Augusta – is one of the characters who I thought I was being really clever with, but is a joke that has fallen flat in many regards. In the play, Augusta is, essentially, a bully, but a hilarious one (pretty much the star of the show), quizzing Jack on his money and relations, and so forth. She also has one of the most famous lines in English drama: “A handbag?” known for the many, varied ways it is performed. So I absolutely decided it was time to give that line to a man, just to give it even more variance, but I also thought it would be funny to take this elegant bully character who is filled with questions and make her into a crude, swearing bully, who is constantly giving tests. And yet, lots of people ask me why I didn’t steal more of Augusta’s lines. I’m still pleased with Bracknell, though. He makes me laugh, anyway.
As for other inspirations: plenty. I actively cite Jeckyll&Hyde, Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein (a film, not a Victorian work, but I cite it nonetheless), and countless other classical sci-fi works in the book – some very obviously, such as Professor Curio’s condition – and some more subtly, such as Fiona’s hairstyle during the end of the year faire. I really wanted to pay homage to classic science fiction.
— Q: ALL MEN OF GENIUS has a “steampunk” edge to it… this has become very popular in today’s pop culture. Were you always interested in steampunk? What drew you to this genre? (Also – are you a history buff? How much about science did you know before writing this book – did you have a lot of research to do as well?)
A: Steampunk is one of those things I’ve loved the aesthetic of before it had a name. And I blame that on video games. Airships, gears, etc, I love it all, and I’d always wanted to do something with that vibe. I started working on All Men before most of the more modern steampunk stuff came out, before it became popular. So, it’s sort of a happy accident that it’s become so popular now.
As for being a history buff… not so much. Except Victorian history. And even then, I’m much more attracted to the people in history, the smaller, weirder stories, than I am to what you’d find in a text book. So yes, sometimes I do have to do a lot of research, but it’s the kind where you’re looking up something weird and small (was the phrase “okay” used in the Victorian era? It was!), and you find something else small and weird. I love that stuff. And I’ve always loved Victorian literature, which, of course, has a lot of history to it. My mom is a Victorianist as well – she was president of the Thomas Hardy Society for a while. So perhaps I was raised knowing a lot, as well. But what really gives me pleasure are including tiny historical details, or lesser known figures, like Matthias Forney, who shows up in the book for a while, but few people know who he was. There was a deleted scene where I had a joke about how Santa used to wear green and white, and had only recently started wearing red and white. Stuff like that. I’m still sad that got cut.
— Q: Having attended an MFA program as well, I noticed a clear “war” between those students who considered themselves “literary” writers who turned up their noses at “commercial” or “genre” writing. “Plot” was considered a four-letter word! Given your love of genre elements, was that ever a problem for you as an MFA candidate? Clearly your writing style is very sophisticated and literary, but your sense of storytelling and voice is also very engaging. I was just curious to hear what it must have been like to be in an MFA program with non-traditional MFA type literary interests. (And if it wasn’t a problem – well, that’s awesome! Does that mean MFA programs and attitudes have changed since 2002, when I graduated?)
A: Sarah Lawrence wasn’t really like that, although in fairness, I didn’t work on anything this genre’d in grad school. My stuff then was more ‘magical realism’ but no one took issue with it at all. I know that this sort of war is always simmering in the background, but I think it’s fading. Dan Chaon used to recommend genre novels all the time, and Oberlin had me back for a reading. My old professors at SLC have been nothing but supportive, and keep saying they’re going to have me back for a reading, soon as they can figure out their calendar.
When I realized this was going to be my first published novel, I confess, I did have some concerns that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I tried to publish some more literary stuff. But authors are doing crossover all the time now. The lines are really fading. Which is great. I’m with Wilde on this one: there’s only good art or bad art. The other divisions are meaningless.
— Q: The tone and writing style of ALL MEN OF GENIUS crosses many genres – a blend of sci fi, fantasy, steampunk, historical – and it’s also very literary, thanks to your prestigious MFA training. Given today’s increasingly competitive (and shrinking) book industry, was it hard for your agent to market this book? Or did its original voice help your book stand out from all the other manuscripts competing for publication?
A: This is more a question for my agent… let me see if I can get her to say anything. She says: “Your elevator pitch made it stand out: inspired by both Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.” So there ya go. Steal openly and shamelessly from the best, and people will notice you. It also helps that my agent is amazing.
— Q: ALL MEN OF GENIUS takes place in Victorian London where society was at a crossroads between old world traditions and new discoveries in science and technology. As a 21st-century writer, what drew you to this point in history? Did you see any parallels between Violet Adams’ world and your world?
A: Well, as I said, I’ve always loved Victorian literature, was practically raised on it. And I’ve always loved steampunk. I think a large part of the appeal for me, and for many people, is that for the Victorians, science was still like magic. Because this revolution was underway and science was progressing, visibly, every day, it seemed like science could do anything. It filled people with a sense of wonder. And I think that’s what I wanted to get back to. Today we’re still progressing, scientifically, at high speeds, but its less visible. Oh, my computer is working several times faster, or my phone plays movies faster – because we’re so used to that, so inundated with it, it’s just not as amazing as it should be. For the Victorians – or at least, my imagination of the Victorians – everything was a new discovery and everything was fascinating.
— Q: All novels are highly personal, no matter what the genre. For you, what spoke to your heart when you created the character of Violet Adams (and her alter ego Ashton)? Were there any themes or issues you wanted to explore through her character and situation? How do you relate to her? Is there a little bit of Lev AC Rosen in Violet/Ashton and/or the other characters in the book?
A: I’m in every character in my book. I believe every author is in every character in their book, even the villains (especially the villains). Or else, it’s probably just not a very good book. To get your characters to feel human, you have to know them as well as you know yourself, you have to be them. So they’re all me. Even Volio. As for themes I wanted to explore: gender. I love talking about gender in the Victorian era because it’s just so fascinating. Women were making these huge strides in so many areas and were being held back in so many others. I had a professor in college who told me I had to stop writing all my papers on gender: and this was in a class entitled “Victorian Sexualities.”
– Q: Any fun details or interesting roadblocks about the road to your first book’s publication?
A: It took a while to sell. My editor is constantly overworked because she is the most dedicated, amazing editor out there, and does everything she can to make her writers feel special and amazing. But that leaves her less time for reading. So it took her nearly a year to make an offer. But it was worth it. I knew I wanted her as an editor from the get-go. She’s edited so many amazing books.
— A: Finally, you’ve recently had a lot of people ask if ALL MEN OF GENIUS is a YA novel. Although Violet is a young adult, your book is clearly an adult novel. But there are some appealing YA elements that could appeal to mature teen readers. You’ve stated on your website that this is NOT a YA novel, but I was wondering … would you ever be interested in writing a YA novel, given how you captured such a young person’s point of view and voice?
Q: All Men actually made a “best YA of the year list” somewhere. At this point, I’ve given up on trying to make it known that it is not intended as YA. It’s not. I think the cover, though lovely, doesn’t help in that regard. But, in all honesty, my big fear was people going into the novel thinking it was YA, and seeing all the sex and bad language and getting extremely offended. And that happened, and I survived. So I’m over it. Though I haven’t gotten any nasty letters yet. That’ll probably be a sad day for me.
I think with young adults, some books are appropriate for some people, but not for others. This book has plenty of swearing, and some frank discussions of sex, as well as some depictions thereof. If you think your teenager can handle that, then they’ll love it. If you don’t want your teenager reading it, then don’t give it to them. It’s that simple. The characters in this book are seventeen, and turn eighteen during the book. I think that summer between high school and college would be a great time to read it. It makes a fabulous graduation gift!
Writing YA? Well… I have been brewing something up lately. We’ll see where I go with it. But I don’t want to talk too much more about it. But yes, yes, I think about writing YA.
– Q: Where is the best place for you to write?
A: I have an office in my apartment. Best thing that ever happened to me. My writing output tripled since I got it. Although, since the book came out, I spend so much time googling myself and reading reviews and freaking out that that went down again. But I think I’m nearing the end of my crazy-period. Although I’ve been told there really is no end.
– Q: What was the most unusual job you ever had?
A: Phone Psychic. I had a fake accent and called myself Winter. Seriously. I did it like twice, found the whole thing massively depressing (it was mostly older people calling so they had someone to talk to) and stopped. In my defense, I actually do do tarot card readings. I’m not a con-artist or anything. But yeah, charging for readings the cards is weird and made me feel icky. So now I do it for free, or sometimes for charity.
– Q: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A: Architect, if I were any good at math and physics. I just like the idea of building homes. Maybe an interior decorator. Which is also building homes.
– Q: Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.
A: What my middle initials stand for. And I’m still not telling.
– Q: If you could give one piece of writing advice for aspiring writers, what would it be?
A: I think it was Dan Chaon who told me that being a published writer isn’t about being a good writer. It’s about being able to handle rejection over and over and over again and keep going. Best bit of advice I ever got.
— Q: Can you tell us about your next projects?
A: There’s a lot. I just finished the rough draft of a noir – very different, very dark – and people have been asking me about a sequel, which I have some ideas about. Plus the aforementioned YA I want to start, and my agent is looking for a publisher for some of my more literary books now. So yeah, a lot. I might be in over my head. Most writers are.
Many thanks again to Lev AC Rosen for taking time to answer our many questions! Lev will be speaking on Monday January 30, 2012 at 6:30 PM at Mid-Manhattan Library in New York. To RSVP, go here: http://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2012/01/30/author-reading-signing-lev-ac-rosen
BOOK CONTEST REMINDER: Please comment on this blog and/or email me (paula at paulayoo dot com) to be included in our signed book contest drawing! The winner will be chosen at random and announced in a future blog on Wednesday January 25, 2012.
And stay tuned for next week’s MUSIC MONDAY blog on Monday January 16th about my next gig with my King Crimson tribute band THE GREAT DECEIVERS. Until then, as always, remember… HAPPY WRITING! WRITE LIKE YOU MEAN IT! 🙂