“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their…well, Inspirations and Influences. The cool thing is that the writers are given free reign so they can go wild and write about anything they want. It can be about their new book, series or about their career as a whole.
We are proud to bring you today a guest post by Scott Westerfeld, author of both Adult and YA books, including the Uglies Trilogy which Thea read and reviewed here. The first book in his new series, Leviathan, was published last year and Ana barking LOVED IT. And to celebrate the upcoming release of the awesome second book Behemoth ( which Ana reviewed today), we invited the author to talk about writing it.
Please give a warm welcome to Scott Westerfeld!
The Leviathan series was inspired by the crumbling “boy’s own adventures” in my parents’ book collection. These books had lots of derring-do and panache, but lacked even a glimpse of a strong female character. So what I’m doing is half homage and half correction, which is a nice combination to work with. You get to be both nostalgic and forward-looking.
It took me about sixty pages to realize what was missing from my version of these old adventure books, however, and that was illustration. A hundred years ago pretty much all novels, whether for kids or adults, had pictures. So I hired Keith Thompson to do a set of old-fashioned images for the trilogy. Then a weird thing happened: these illustrations turned into an even biggest inspiration than my original source material. Here’s what I mean . . .
Keith started with portraits of the two main characters, Alek and Deryn, who are from two different cultures. Alek is Austrian and a Clanker (a machine-user), while Deryn is English and a Darwinist, (In my world Darwin discovered DNA in the 1860s, and created all sort of Victorian biotechnologies: message lizards, living airships, etc.) Rather brilliantly, Keith decided to create frames for these portraits that reflected the cultures.
As you can see, Alek’s frame is made of mechanical parts, fan blades and gears. Deryn’s is made of organic shapes, like seashells. As an aristocrat, Alek is painted, whereas middle-class Deryn is a black and white photograph. With his first illustration, Keith had already begun to establish that the characters came from two different worlds.
Keith carried these distinctions through all fifty illustrations in Leviathan. The tools, clothing, even the furniture of the two cultures reflect two completely different aesthetics. Darwinist stuff has curved lines and smooth edges. Clanker stuff is boxy, as ungainly as a Great War “land dreadnought.” Compare the rear of Alek fighting a fire atop his Clanker Stormwalker with the captain of His Majesty’s Airship Leviathan sitting at his Darwinist-style desk:
Of course, with Keith setting the bar so high, I had to bring those distinctions to life on the page as well. I decided to give the two characters two different linguistic styles as well.
Those of you who’ve read the Uglies series know that I like a bit of slang. Deryn speaks in an alternate-world Glaswegian dialect. It’s tough and tomboyish, because she’s a girl pretending to be a boy to serve in the Royal Air Navy. Alek the aristocrat is grammatically correct, even a bit stiff, though he gets to use a few bites of Clanker slang. Alek uses the word “mind” a lot; Deryn just says “brain” or “head.” (Those Darwinists are very matter of fact about physiology.) Alek generally refers people by title (“Mr.”, “Dr.”, “Captain”), even when he’s only thinking about them, whereas Deryn has internal nicknames for people. (She refers to Dr. Barlow as “the lady boffin,” for example.) I tried to do with words what Keith did with his picture frames, created two styles that are in conflict with each other, just as the Clankers and Darwinists are in conflict in the Great War.
Of course, you can never just divide the world in two. Reality is much more convoluted than that. So in book two of the series, Behemoth, our heroes travel to Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans are Clankers, but they build their machines in the shapes of animals. So Keith created a third aesthetic, a sort of Levantine Clankerism, mechanistic and yet as curvaceous as a minaret. Behold, the sultan’s airyacht:
Whenever Keith makes art like this, it makes me want to ramp up the lushness of my prose. Istanbul is at a cross-road of many cultures, of course, and was divided into lots of neighborhoods and languages (moreso in 1914 than now). So as the characters explore the city, I let my usually spare adjectives and sentence length get a bit more Byzantine, so to speak. To support what’s going on in the art and prose, the settings are a bit more luxuriant than the cabins of an airship or a steam-powered walker—busy libraries, crowded marketplaces, and palaces.
All of these maneuvers were obvious in retrospect. Different characters and setting should demand different kinds of words. But something about seeing the characters and places rendered as images made it crystal clear what the language of Leviathan had to do.
I guess this is merely part and parcel of the old saying, “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” But it’s a reminder that we writers should look while we work. History, places, people—all of our subjects have a visual dimension that can serve as inspiration, if we just remember to use our eyes.
About the author: Scott Westerfeld is the author of books for adults and for teens, including the bestselling YA series, Uglies. Behemoth is the second book in the Leviathan trilogy. He divides his time between Sydney and New York. Visit www.scottwesterfeld.com to read Scott’s blog and follow his writing career.
Thank you, Scott, for the awesome post!
We have two copies of Behemoth to give away, courtesy of S&S UK. The contest is open to EVERYONE and will run until Saturday, October 2nd, 11:59PM (PST). To enter, leave a comment here. We will randomly select the winner and will announce it on Sunday in our weekly Smugglers’ Stash. ONE entry per person please. Good luck!