In those days, K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and I were all writing things that would come to be called steampunk ten years later when K.W. would coin the term, thereby turning a happenstance into a movement. None of us had any idea we'd go on writing it. My most recent steampunk effort, a novel titled Beneath London, came out last week from Titan Books. That makes 35 years, off and on, of writing steampunk. I'm finding it more fun today than ever. Despite all those years of writing it, I'd never try to tell anyone how to go about it. Writers figure these things out for themselves. Here's how I came to do it and why I'm still at it.
I started reading 19th and early 20th century science fiction when I was ten years old. I owe that to my mother, who hauled my sister and me down to the library every Tuesday afternoon so that we could look for likely books. She had the idea that I'd enjoy reading Verne, Wells, and Conan Doyle, and she was correct on all counts. My sister persuaded me to read the seafaring books of Howard Pease. If readers find seaworthy elements in my own books, that's where it started, at the Stanton Free Library: the books that I read when I was young turned out to have had a monumental effect on what I would come to write years later. I wonder if that's true for all writers. I bet it's true for my favorite writers.
By the time I graduated from the university (along with Tim and K.W.) I had developed a taste for 19th century literature, but especially Dickens's novels, John Ruskin's essays, and Tennyson's poetry. I loved the sound of the language when it came out of their particular pens. I realized that I could open a copy of David Copperfield or Great Expectations or one of Ruskin's lectures to a random page and unfailingly find a paragraph that would be worth reading for it's own sake, disconnected from the whole – a paragraph that would make me wish I could write like that. I wondered how they did what they did (and the same for the rest of my hero writers, Twain and Steinbeck and Conan Doyle among them). I knew that I wanted to do it too. It was equally true that I wanted to write stories that sounded like no one else on earth, stories that conjured an atmosphere – an "effect," to use Poe's term – which meant learning how to string words together in ways that worked, something that seemed to be as much magic as anything else.
When I was 25, I set out to read all of Robert Louis Stevenson and P. G. Wodehouse for the same reason, something that had more to do with language and atmosphere than with other elements of their novels and stories. In the best sense of the word, I was infected by language. If you've read Wodehouse and Stevenson, and you someday run across a copy of Unearth Number 6 in a dusty old bookstore, and you read "The Ape-box Affair," you'll see what I mean. The word "derivative" might come into your mind. Stevenson once said that he learned to write by "playing the sedulous ape." Me too, in more ways than one. Fortunately, the more I wrote, the more I began sounding like me rather than like Stevenson or Wodehouse or whomever I was sedulously aping. I'm not sure at what point I became my own writer and was no longer a species of ape, but I know that I would not have become that writer if it had not been for the books I read. "One measures a circle," Charles Fort tells us, "beginning anywhere."