Interview with Sarah Zama
I met Sarah Zama during last year’s A to Z Challenge. Her blog immediately stood out with her posts about the Roaring Twenties and all that the period entailed–Prohibition, flappers, speakeasies, the birth of jazz. I learned a lot from her during that challenge, not the least of which was an introduction to the dieselpunk genre. I had honestly never heard of it before. So, when she approached me about participating in the blog tour for her upcoming novella–Give in to the Feeling–I felt like it would be an excellent opportunity to learn more about dieselpunk. I mean, I can’t be the only one that doesn’t know anything about it, right? Right? So, I interviewed her about it. It was a lot of fun, and Sarah gave a lot of great insight. So, if you’re like me and don’t know anything about dieselpunk, hopefully you’ll enjoy this interview as much as I did.
SS: Hi, Sarah! Tell us a little bit about your story. What’s it about?
SZ: My story is set in Chicago in 1924. Susie is a Chinese immigrant that has lived in America for two years, living a carefree life, going after flapper fashion. Feeling she has a far freer life she could ever had in China, and her lover, Simon (who’s a Chinese immigrant as well) appears to be quite fine with it.
Susie dances every night in Simon’s speakeasy, and one night she meets Blood. They are immediately attracted to each other, but Susie tries to keep loyal to Simon, and Blood never presses his desire on her. Still, Simon becomes jealous and harsher on Susie, showing a colour she had never imagined was there.
The comparison between what Simon asks off her and how, and what Bloods asks off her and how, pushes Susie to look beyond the surface. And that’s where she discovers there might be more in Simon and Blood’s confrontation. They are not simply fighting over her love, but over her life and even her soul too.
I don’t normally write romance, but this definitely turned out as a romance in spite of myself. But I tried to keep Susie’s evolution into self-esteem and self-reliance forefront, and the speculative element firmly planted into the plot and the evolution of characters.
I hope it worked.
So, what is dieselpunk, and what drew you to the genre?
The easier way to define dieselpunk – and one on which most agree – is as a speculative genre with settings heavily inspired by what we call the ‘diesel era’. Diesel era roughly stretches from the very last years of 1910s (often including WWI) and the very early years of 1950s. The world where it happens may be our historical world, or a fictional world inspired by that period.
But, being such a new genre (Dieselpunk didn’t even exist as such ten years ago, even if stories with dieselpunk elements had already been told), there is still much debate on the definition.
As I mentioned in my article about dieselpunk, some authors simply define it as Steampunk with internal-combustion machinery rather than steam machinery. Which is a definition that I personally find unsatisfying in the extreme.
Other define Dieselpunk as a place where technology that we know and use today happens in the past, in the way it might have looked like ‘back then’ and with explanations that make sense in that contest.
May say: looking at the future with the eye of a past time. SF of the future as seen from the past. This is why it’s called Retro-futurism, and it is a satisfying definition… if Retro-futurism is indeed what you write. Granted, most dieselpunk stories – especially the most popular – are SF. Captain America the First Avenger, Rocketeer, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow all fall into this category.
But Dieselpunk offers more diverse stories. Most fans define Indiana Jones stories as Dieselpunk, but it certainly isn’t Retro-futurism.
Personally, I adhere to Larry Amyett’s definition of Dieselpunk: a genre with a diesel element (that is the setting in the diesel era) and a punk element. Some define the ‘punk’ element as the speculative part of the story. Larry defines it as a ‘subversive’ element in the story, where subversive means anything that questions the status quo. So it isn’t necessarily a fantasy element (although it very often is), but anything that question our vision of that particular world. You look at a very recognizable historical period as it was, but with the eye, the understanding and the sensibility of a modern beholder.
In the case of Retro-futurism, you look at a world that we know, because it looks like our history, but where technology we’re familiar with but didn’t exsist back then is actually present. And of course, the introduction of technology ‘alien’ to that time period makes things going wild.
In the case of softer Dieselpunk, like Indiana Jones, you have fantasy elements that mess up the actual historical setting. Fantasy, as it is always the case, sheds new light on the reality as we know it often by means of symbolism. That, in my opinion, is how fantasy ‘punks up’ history, and how it works in Dieselpunk too.
What drew me to Dieselpunk? Well, what draws reader to any genre? I think it’s simply personal preferences. I’ve always had a fascination with the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, and I’ve always been a fantasy fan. I suppose it was destiny 😉
In fact, when I read about Dieselpunk some three of four years ago, I was immediately hooked before I even understood what t was.
My goodness, I wrote a lot! Well, feel free to keep what you find more interesting and leave the rest. Much of what I wrote in the dieselpunk section is available on my article about it on my blog, for example, so you might want to refer to that and keep only the essential here.
I’m keeping it all! Because I think it’s quite interesting.
You mentioned to me that some people writing in the genre might not even understand it. Maybe we can discuss that.
I actually think this is quite common in genre fiction. There are writers who are hard core fans too, and they understand the genre quite well, because they adhere to it not just on the surface, but from the inside, at a level of inner mechanisms and potentials.
Then there are authors who write in the genre for a number of different reasons, and they don’t even care to look that deep. Once they know the tropes and the usual plotline and whatever else a reader expects from the genre, they are fine. Sometimes they write great stories too, but they don’t really care to get deep into what the genre can offer on a more insightful level.
I suspect this is what gives genre fiction its bad reputation and why people (and even writers) sometimes think genre fiction is easier to write 😉
I’ve been a fantasy fan all my life and I think the same is true for fantasy. A lot of writers (and quite a lot of fans) think that if there are dragons, and elves, and magic, then it must be fantasy.
Tolkien himself actually thought this was not the case. He said that it is not enough that the magic is there, it should be part of that world at such an intimate level that that world, those characters and that story wouldn’t be possible if magic didn’t exist. I suspect many writers don’t even care to understand the difference.
That’s really interesting, actually. Both the definitions of fantasy and dieselpunk.
Happy you’ve found it interesting.
I think that as authors, we should be aware of what our genre means to us. We can’t always articulate why we prefer that genre, but I think we should at least try to define its potentialities and which of them we’d like to exploit.
I wasn’t familiar with Tolkien’s definition of fantasy.
If you haven’t read On Fairy Stories, by all means read it! That should be any speculative writer’s bible, as far as I’m concerned.
As a fantasy writer, I find myself comparing it to what I’ve written. In my novels, for example, I think the magic can sometimes be understated, and there are no dragons or elves or anything like that. And yet magic is a foundation. If it didn’t exist, the stories could never happen, so I guess I get a pass maybe.
I think that’s what Tolkien meant. It’s something that has less to do with the appearance of the story and more to to with its heart, its essence.
The definition of retro-futurism really helps put things into focus. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m a fan of the Fallout games, which are described as “futuristic retro”– being set in a time similar to 1950s America, yet actually takes place in the future with technology that never existed then. And now that I’m thinking about it, the T.V show Gotham also seems to fall into this category. It’s pretty fun crawling out from under my rock from time to time to see what the world has gotten up to in the meanwhile.
I wasn’t aware of the game, though the term ‘Dieselpunk’ was first used by game designer Lewis Pollak to describe his game Children of the Sun. Nobody seems to know why he used the term ‘diesel’ to describe the setting, but there it is 😉
Indeed Gotham is considered Dieselpunk and has many fans in the community.
There are various “punk” genres floating around out there, from Steampunk like you mentioned, and Dieselpunk, and I’ve even heard of Solarpunk and Mythpunk, and Wikipedia shows up a whole bunch of other -punks I’ve never heard of. But I do remember reading somewhere that it’s the subversive element to these stories that makes it “punk”. So I’m wondering what is the subversive element in your story? Or is that entering spoiler territory and we’ll have to read it to find out?
I see a new -punk genre every time a watch online. To be honest, I think people invent these genres all the time because the suffix -punk is cool 😉
I’ve also heard of MedievalPunk and one would wonder what the hell is that, since I’d simply define it fantasy. But you know, calling MedievalPunk sound cooler.
Ok, I don’t want to sound polemic. But your question did make me think about it. I do tend to consider -punk genre only stories that are set in a modern time, that means, a time where technology has an important place. So I’d say post Industrial Revolution. And not just for the setting. There must be a subvertive element to it and the ‘subvertive’ often refers to society (which is a reason why super heroes are so popular in Dieselpunk). You depict a society which adheres (more or less faithfully) to our history, a time that, though near enough, it’s also far enough to present differences with our current way of feeling and thinking. But you look at that time and that setting with a modern mindset, which is what normally causes the story to exist.
I’ll make you and example from my story, but it is indeed spoilery, so I’d prefer if you didn’t use it. But since we’re chatting… [And here Sarah tells me awesome things about her story, but that I’ve left out at her request to avoid spoilers. I’m still planning on reading it though, because it sounds really intriguing. — Sara]
I’m also finding myself thinking a lot about what *is* a subversive element anyway? I’m guessing it could be something simple like cellphones in a 20s-like setting (correct me if I’m wrong here). But I’m wondering if historical inaccuracy could also be such an element? As in real-world events not happening or maybe happening differently. Or perhaps even a completely fictional world with a setting similar to the early 20th century. Would you still consider these kinds of stories dieselpunk?
Well, we’re probably entering personal perception territory here, but personally, I don’t think a cell-phone in the 1920s would automatically make for a dieselpunk story (as much as a dragon doesn’t automatically make for a fantasy story).
This is also the reason why, although fantasy is often the punk element in all -punk genres, it doesn’t automatically make for a -punk story. For example, I think that most fantasy stories aren’t -punk stories. Fantasy worlds are often interpretation of our past, a pre-modern past. They may be inspired by medieval times anywhere in the world, but those worlds are presented as real, complete and autonomous (as it should be). Often, they don’t even take into consideration our world, they just exist on their own, even when they are heavily historically inspired.
This is the main difference in my opinion. -punk genres do take our world into consideration. They are historically inspired, but it’s understood that everything we see recalls something we do know and take as comparison.
I hope I don’t sounds too confusing, but actually I had never thought this out before 😉
I read a book by Rosalba Campra a while back where she theorised that fantasy only exists when our world and a speculative world touch or even clash. If there’s only the fantasy world and it is a complete, independent world, then those stories are to be considered realistic. I don’t completely agree with her, but I find her idea quite intriguing, especially if coupled with Tolkien’s, who didn’t say anything very different. He too advocated that the fantasy world should have the intimate essence of reality in order to be believable… though he also thought that if there is magic, that’s a fantasy world.
I think here’s where I see the essence of -punk genres: they need the world as we know it and the world as we have created to clash. A -punk world isn’t autonomous, because it needs our own ‘modern and realistic’ view of it to decipher its essence.
You can’t have retro-futurism if you’re not aware what the past really looked like, because if you don’t have this notion, and if that notion doesn’t come into play, then you just have a fantasy world.
It’s probably best if we stop here. This is one of those things that I find highly interesting, but wonder if others might be like, “it’s genre, who cares?”.
So we are nerds. Who cares? 😉
I’m enjoying this conversation a lot too, because it’s forcing me to think out things that are under the surface even for me. Things I might have considered in my subconscious, but never really thought out. I do think, as I mentioned, that what makes our ideas clear enhances the effectiveness of our storytelling. You know all those fantasy world where words have power? That’s no fantasy concept. I am convinced that words really have power. When you know a word and what it means, when you learn the concept that defines that word to the point that you can use that concept by yourself and in your own way… well, that’s power in my opinion. Definitely is for a storyteller.
Definitely. Thank you so much, Sarah!
Bookseller in Verona (Italy), Sarah Zama has always lived surrounded by books. Always a fantasy reader and writer, she’s recently found her home in the dieselpunk community. Her first book, Give in to the Feeling, comes out in 2016.