You’ve heard what we’ve had to say about Ef Deal, author of Esprit de Corpse, which is currently funding as a part of our eSpec Books Fantastic Novels campaign, now let the lady introduce herself as she shares insight into her process and the development of Esprit de Corpse.
eSpec Books interviews Ef Deal, author of Esprit de Corpse, a paranormal steampunk novel set in France.
eSB: Esprit de Corpse is quite an interesting foray into steampunk. Unlike the bulk of what is out there, this takes place almost exclusively in France. What inspired you to branch out from the typical British Victorian setting?
ED: It was Jules Verne, a French author, who created the kind of science fiction that steampunk “punks,” with grandiose visions, outlandish machinery, and a bit of handwavium. My time in France, mostly in the Loire region—where Leonardo da Vinci brought science into the everyday life of French royalty—made me wonder about the role French scientists played in bringing about the Industrial Revolution. I found that France was far ahead of Great Britain in a number of scientific explorations.
eSB: What challenges did you face hitting the tropes of steampunk in your chosen setting and time?
ED: The foundational elements of steampunk—the airship and the submersible boat—were developed in France, as were the most successful experiments in electricity and engineering at the time. France was also ahead of Great Britain when it came to developing a national, standardized railroad system. So, it wasn’t difficult to envision a steampunk 1843 using just the scientific advancements of the period. The conceit of the book is that Jacqueline Duval is a brilliant engineer who discovers futuristic applications of her contemporary science, but she doesn’t share her knowledge. So, for example, her clockwork machinery employs the discoveries of Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, because Ada and Jacqueline are friends, and while Charles Babbage buried Ada’s work, Jacqueline applies it and is able to develop autonomous automata, what I call autonomatons.
eSB: How much did research play into your story? Did it touch more on historic points, or did you also sprinkle in historic figures? If so, what do they add in the way of easter eggs or deeper relevance?
ED: I majored in French with a focus on 19th-century literature, so I had a love of that first half of the century and wanted to set my work there. Science was booming, and the artists of the day were rock stars. I did two years of research as I sketched the plot, looking at Thalberg, Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Sax, Sand, Baudelaire, Hugo, Dumas pere and fils, Delacroix, and so many other major players of the period. Delacroix had written in his journal that his journey on the brand-new Paris-Orléans railway was “a blessing to my arthritic bones.” I knew I had to start the novel right there. Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxhorns like the flugel and the saxophone, operated out of Paris and his biography mentioned that he took on side jobs, so I had to have him supply Jacqueline with her materials. I read Scenes of Bohemian Life, the novel that formed the basis for the opera La Boheme, and I knew I had to make Angélique a wild bohemienne. Notes on Sigismond Thalberg said he often took ingenues along on tour to keep husbands occupied because he was so wildly popular with the wives; that’s when Angélique became a piano virtuosa in my mind. Meanwhile, Michael Faraday was making huge advances in electricity and the Brunels were launching giant ships and building underwater tunnels. 1843 was a great year for all of these people, and they do populate the series.
eSB: While your book is firmly steampunk, you also work in elements of the paranormal. What challenges did you face integrating the two?
ED: I grew up in a haunted house, and my current house was haunted when we moved in, so I don’t see the paranormal as anything “para.” Many of the châteaux I’ve visited are also haunted, so ghosts had to play a role in my series. I like the fact that Jacqueline is focused on science and logic, while her twin is somehow able to become a wolf at will against all science or logic. The juxtaposition, I think, creates a tension between the two, and in a way helps Jacqueline break out of her narrow view.
eSB: While Esprit de Corpse utilizes many familiar elements found in both steampunk and paranormal fiction, what in your opinion makes your work stand out as distinct and unique?
ED: Working with the more primitive science of 1843 rather than the unbridled scientific schemes of the turn of the century set up a lot of limitations, but the spark of my work is that I don’t use handwavium or balonium or unobtainium to fudge the science. I stick to the science of the day and follow its logical path—just a little farther down the road than anyone of the day had done. For example, while the Paris-Orléans railroad was being built, Jacqueline built her own little rail coach small enough that it is its own locomotive. Also, she employs the punch cards that the Jacquard mills developed to automate their looms to operate her machinery; combined with Ada King’s programming formulae, Jacqueline creates artificial intelligence.
But more significantly, Esprit de Corpse is, at its heart, about two sisters finally coming of age, each growing from their traumatic experiences and reuniting after five years of a strained relationship. It shows a portrait of women in 19th-century France that you won’t find in British novels of the same time period, such as the Brontë sisters’ works. While it is a romance, there’s no swooning. Jacqueline is the avatar of the nascent Industrial Revolution in a country where revolutions are as recurring a plague as locusts.
eSB: A notable element of your novel is the theme of music. How much did you draw on your own personal experience and love of performance?
ED: I love performing music well. Music has an ineffable quality (no pun intended) that challenges me, as a writer, to express in words, which of course is a paradox. When I play or sing my part perfectly, passionately, and in sync with my section, my whole body becomes part of the music itself, as if the vibrations I produce are intensified by the vibrations the whole ensemble produces, creating this snow-globe of sound. It’s magical.
I love Chopin, so early on I had to bring him and his biography into the series. As I mention in the novel, Chopin embellished devices Thalberg first developed and put them to much more effective use. I knew I wanted Chopin to be a part of Angélique’s human nature, keeping her grounded in passion and delicacy, whereas her wolf persona is selfish and self-indulgent.
My husband Jack and I once visited Paris on June 21, a national holiday of music in France. Music was everywhere, in the cafes, in the bar-tabacs, outside museums, sometimes three or four bands in a row on the street. All of Paris was music.
Finally, Jack is a consummate flugelhorn player, having won national awards and performed with a national championship band. He practices daily, and daily I am serenaded by the most incredible sound on Earth. That love had to go into the novel.
eSB: By its very nature, steampunk is a subset of alternate history. Are there any ‘historic’ elements of your story that you reshaped to serve the plot, and if so, what and why?
ED: Absolutely! As I mentioned, Eugene Delacroix riding the brand-new Paris-Orléans railway gave me the setting of 1843. Charles Baudelaire was the same age as my twins, but he lived a dissolute life at the time and had not yet made his name as a poet. So, I have him blubbing about the dead crow he saw in the road, an image that became his poem “A Carcass.” Later in the novel, Angélique scolds him for turning all his lovers into skeletons or vampires in his poetry, and while his love may bloom, the blooms turn to flowers of evil, which is the title of his magnum opus, the conceit being that Jacqueline and Angélique create the circumstances that later become history. The historical backdrop of the Auspicious Incident and Russia controlling part of the Ottoman Empire is the foundation of the plot, and while Moldovarabia isn’t exactly Moldavia, it might as well be, given that when Moldavia was annexed, many boyars tried to lead rebellion after rebellion for freedom, just as Count Draganov is trying to do.
eSB: This is quite a fun romp for the reader, but what part of the story was the most fun for you to write? And, of course, why?
ED: While doing my research, I found a journal about nitrous oxide parties and some of the wild behavior exhibited by folks indulging in the laughing gas. It describes the uncontrollable hilarity and frenzied running about as well as the synesthesia experienced by the party-goers, one of whom said, “I felt like the sound of a harp.” As soon as I read it, I saw Jacqueline—staid, logical, self-controlled Jacqueline—under the influence. I had a ball writing that scene!
eSB: While Esprit de Corpse has a clear resolution, the way is clearly left open for more adventures. Without too many spoilers, where are the sisters off to next?
ED: The King of the French Louis-Philippe was constantly threatened with assassination, so he decides to take refuge at Château Bellesfées just as Jacqueline plans a huge party with “tout Paris,” and a vampire descends upon the gathering.
eSB: What is one thing you would share that would surprise your readers?
ED: I worked in youth ministry for 40 years with the United Methodist Church.
eSB: What are some of your other works readers can look for?
ED: Most of my works have been short pieces online that have vanished by now, although I think my F&SF publication “Czesko” is available on a pirate site. I have a story “From the Bridge” coming out in Brigid’s Gate’s Dangerous Waters anthology, and “Passing Thoughts” coming out in Conspiracies and Cryptids Volume I.
eSB: What projects of your own do you have coming up?
ED: In between stories of Jacqueline and Angélique, I’ve been working on a fantasy series about a minstrel-mage, Gwynna Lionshadow, who teams up with a priest to search for relics of her long-lost father.
eSB: How can readers find out more about you?
ED: My blog is https://efdeal.blogspot.com/ and my website is https://www.efdeal.net/
Ef Deal is a new voice in the genre of speculative steampunk with her debut novel, Esprit de Corpse, but she is not new to publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in various magazines and ezines over the years. Her short story “Czesko,” published in the March 2006 F&SF, was given honorable mention in Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, which gave both her and Gardner great delight. They laughed and laughed and sipped Scotch (not cognac, alas) over the last line.
Despite her preoccupation with old-school drum and bugle corps ~ playing, composing, arranging, and teaching ~ Ef Deal can usually be found at the keyboard of her computer rather than her piano. She is Assistant Fiction Editor at Abyss & Apex magazine and edits videos for the YouTube channel Strong Women ~ Strange Worlds Quick Reads.
Esprit de Corpse from eSpec Books is the first of a series featuring the brilliant 19th-century sisters, the Twins of Bellesfées Jacqueline and Angélique. Hard science blends with the paranormal as they challenge the supernatural invasion of France in 1843.
When she’s not lost in her imagination, Ef Deal can be found in historic Haddonfield, NJ, in a once-haunted Victorian with her husband and two chows. She is an associate member of SFWA and an affiliate member of HWA.
Follow Ef Deal on social media: Facebook – Twitter – Goodreads – Blog