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I’ve been itching to write a steampunk novel for years. I like the idea, the ethos, behind the sub-genre. I like the idea of writing SF unconstrained by the shackles of science and technology – it can be as way-out and whacky as you can make it – and I like the idea of writing action-adventure.

Last year I pitched a couple of steampunk ideas to my editor Jonathan Oliver at Solaris, which came to nothing. Then Jon asked, “How about something set in India…?” which set me thinking. Over the next couple of weeks, Jani Chatterjee was born. She would be half-Indian, half-English, torn by loyalties to both camps, grieving the loss of her recently deceased father, and pitched into an adventure in which the future of the world is at stake… It would be set in India and Nepal in 1925, when the British Empire rules the world thanks to something they discovered, fifty years earlier, in the foothills of the Himalayas; it would feature evil baddies, aliens from other worlds, strange devices – as well as obligatory airships – much derring-do, seat-of-the-pants adventure, and would be an unashamed romp, while at the same time taking a little time out to address issues like the idea of Empire, racism, and the role of women in society… but above all it would be a thrilling chase through an exotic India. Jani’s assumptions would be challenged along the way: in each book, reality as she assumed it to be would be subverted by things she learns – and the expectations of the reader would, likewise, be subverted by what is revealed.

Jon and the team at Solaris liked the idea, commissioned the novel on the outline, and then I sat down to write it.

892-1First, though, Dominic Harman supplied a fantastic cover – which has struck the aesthetic cords of various people, along the lines of, “Mechanical elephants and steampunk… what’s not to like?” I gave Dominic the brief for the cover before I’d actually written a word. Oddly, the idea that a mechanical elephant might make an arresting image came to me before I realised that an artificial elephant would feature in the story. But, once the idea popped into my head, I had to make room for it.

Then I began Jani, and it whistled out in little over a month. It was one of those happy novels which wrote itself. Jani became a larger than life character, dictated where the novel should go, and I merely followed her. Alfie Littlebody, a secondary character, (A bumbling but well meaning officer in Field Security, opposed to the excesses of the Raj) also took off in ways I’d hardly envisaged when thinking about him before I started the book.

I had more problems with the ‘alien’, and his depiction. In the novel he befriends Jani – or perhaps uses her to his own ends – and persuades her to embark on a death-defying quest across northern India and into Nepal. The alien, Jelch, had to be obviously unhuman, but sufficiently human to pass visually amongst the folk of India. He also had to be of another world, yet understandable to the reader in his motivations and mind-set – always a hard trick to pull off when depicting aliens. Whether he works is down to the reader to decide, but so far the reviews haven’t singled him out as a weak point.

A couple of critics have said that the baddies are too one-dimensional, too evil – and here I hold my hands up. They were meant to be. This is melodrama, where we hiss at the baddies and cheers the goodies. The Russians are irredeemably bad, and Jani good, for the sake of telling a headlong action-adventure-chase tale.

At the end of book one, Jani, Littlebody, and Jani’s Indian friend Anand, are fleeing India bound for London aboard a vast airship – and bound for further adventures that will test their mettle to the limits. They’re being pursued by Russians, Chinese (little do they know it), evil aliens and even the British. The trio hold the future of the world in their hands, and it seems that the whole world is determined to halt their progress.

Their adventures will continue in the second volume of the Multiplicity series, Jani and the Great Pursuit.

All I have to do now is write it.

Here’s a sneak preview of Dominic Harman’s excellent cover.

jani-2 two~

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This interview first appeared on My Bookish Ways.

Jani and the Greater Game sounds amazing! Will you tell us a little more about it and what inspired you to write it?

Jani is set in 1925 – but a 1925 very different from the one in our own history. The reason for this is that the British in India discovered, some fifty years earlier, a fantastical power source in the foothills of the Himalayas (in Nepal, to be precise), which resulted in the British being the major power in the world. (The exact nature of this power source is kept under wraps for most of the book, to be revealed at the denouement: it’s known throughout the story as Annapurnite.) The book is set in India and Nepal, and is an action-adventure-chase novel with characterisation.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Always. That is, ever since reading Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table when I was fifteen. I’d managed never to read a book until then, and the novel was a revelation. I went out and bought all her titles and devoured them one by one. A few months later I discovered SF – Robert Silverberg and H.G. Wells. Not long after that, I decided that I wanted to write science fiction, and began churning out short stories (hundreds before my first acceptance) and short novels (some twenty-odd before I sold my first one, Meridian Days, in 1992). So yes, since the age of fifteen I’ve wanted only one thing: to be a fulltime professional writer.

What made you decide to write a book with a steampunk flavor?

I’ve wanted to do a steampunk novel for a long time, since reading Powers, Blaylock, etc, back in the 80s. I’d sent a couple of steampunky outlines to my editor at Solaris, none of which he jumped at. Then he suggested I think up an idea for a steampunk novel set in India, and a few weeks later Jani was born.

The book takes place in India in 1925. What kind of research did you do for the book? What was one of the most interesting things you learned?

I rarely do research for a book until it’s finished, and then I check to make sure I’ve got the facts and details right. That said, I’ve been reading about India, and the Raj, for decades, after spending a year there in 1984. And all that reading fed into Jani. (One of the most interesting things I found out about the British in India wasn’t actually from a book, but from talking to Indians on the street in 1984. What surprised me, as a left-of-centre liberal with a wariness of all things Imperial, was how many Indians I met who not only praised the British for bringing so many innovations to the subcontinent – the railways and bureaucracy, to name but two – but how many people thought the Raj a good thing and wished it had stayed on. I don’t agree, and I think this is obvious in Jani. The British, with a few exceptions, don’t come over in the novel as that enlightened.)

Tell us more about Janisha Chatterjee and what you enjoyed most about writing her. Why do you think readers will root for her?

Jani is 18, of mixed Indian-British parentage, brought up by her father in India until she was eight, and then packed off to Blighty to be educated. As the novel opens she’s returning to Delhi aboard an airship to be with her dying father. Jani is conflicted, torn between her love of India and her British education, torn between Nationalist leanings and the inculcation of her father who, as a security minister in the Indian government, is pro-British. Early in the novel she is confronted by someone – not of this planet – who throws all her thoughts into chaos. We follow her as she flees to the Himalayas on a mission to save the world, pursued by the British and Russians who will stop at nothing to prevent her progress. I think readers will root for Jani because she’s human and humane, a young woman beset by doubt, but eager always to do the right thing. She’s very moral, but conflicted; not your usual ‘strongman’ hero, but nevertheless brave and resourceful.

You are an author that wears many, many hats! Is it a challenge to write in so many different genres?

Not really. I read widely, in many different genres, and have always written different things. As I mentioned earlier, Agatha Christie kick-started my writing career, and I’ve always had a hankering to write detective novels. A couple of years ago I wrote my first, Murder by the Book, which came out last year; my second – following the same two central characters – Murder at the Chase, is due out this month. I hope to do more, but sales figures will determine this. Within the SF genre, I like to think I write different kinds of novels – space opera, planetary romance, near future SF, something I term Quiet SF, character-based and often romantic. I’ve also written books for children, both SF and mainstream. I like the variety and change of pace offered by writing so many different things. It was great to write the detective novels set in 1955, as I didn’t have to build SF-nal worlds from the ground up – readers knew what London was! Also, I could use simile and metaphor in the novels, which for various reasons are difficult to employ in SF.

What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?

I can recall the very first short story I finished, a bucolic story with a sting in the tail, very much influenced by Roald Dahl. I recall the sense of accomplishment at actually finishing the thing. I still have the tatty ms (written on my old Kovak manual typewriter, all in upper case letters, for some reason.) Needless to say, it never sold – in fact, I never sent it out.

What are a few of your biggest literary influences?

Agatha Christie, for obvious reasons. Roald Dahl, as I read him early on and loved his short stories – with H.G. Wells and Robert Silverberg as other early influences. Moving on, I discovered the novels and stories of a very underrated British SF writer, Michael Coney, whose quiet tone and concern for character I tried to emulate. My Starship Season series of novellas is a tribute to Coney. I also love the work of Rupert Croft-Cooke – I run a website devoted to his work: http://www.croft-cooke.co.uk. He wrote over a hundred and twenty books from 1930 to around 1979, of many kinds, straight novels, crime novels, books on food and wine, gypsies and the circus, Victorian writers, Oscar Wilde and Bosie – as well as a series of twenty-seven wonderful autobiographical books about his life and times and the people he met on his extensive travels.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just started The Time Dissolvers by Jerry Sohl – I like reading forgotten SF writers! – (it’s about a man who wakes up to find that he’s missing eleven years from his life.) Before that I had a binge of reading novels by the contemporary British writer Jonathan Coe. I recently returned from holiday where I read an old Penguin crime novel A Nest of Vipers by Tod Claymore, and the memoir by the amazing Naomi Mitchison, You May Well Ask – quite an eclectic bunch.

What’s next for you?

Later in August, or maybe at the start of September when my daughter goes back to school, I’ll be starting on the next novel, the second volume of the Jani series, Jani and the Great Pursuit. I hope to get a second draft finished before Xmas, when I’ll start on the fourth and final Telemass novella for PS Publishing, which is as yet untitled. (In the next couple of weeks I’ll be rewriting the third Telemass novella, and a long short story about time travel). So I’ve plenty to keep my busy.

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