Sarah Zama is just beginning as a published writer; she is currently working on a trilogy about the characters whom she introduces in Give in to the Feeling, a novella set in 1920s Chicago. So this book is also one of my Hidden Gems—short but sweet, in this case, and a great way to become acquainted with Sarah’s writing. Moreover, it too offers an inspiring story. You can find out more about Sarah and her books at her website, http://theoldshelter.com.
What drew you to this story, which you describe as fantasy dieselpunk? For starters, what is fantasy dieselpunk?
I’m not surprised that you’re asking. Many readers (and authors) are unaware of this genre.
The easiest way to describe dieselpunk is: it’s like steampunk set in a more recent era, spanning from the late 1910s to the early 1950s. You have the aesthetics and the history of those decades, but with a twist (history gets punked, as we say) so that these stories are not really historicals even when (as in my case) they are very close to history.
Dieselpunk is such a young genre (the word itself was coined only in the 1990s) that not even us dieselpunks agree on what it is exactly. Many dieselpunks think that only Retrofuturism falls into the genre; we speak about stories that have a strong SF element to it (think The Rocketeer or Captain America: The First Avenger, to name a couple of films people might have seen). But some of us consider fantasy elements to be just as good for a dieselpunk story (think Indiana Jones).
I’ve always been drawn to stories with a twist, stories that have a fantasy element in them. I’ve always been drawn to fantasy, actually. I was a Tolkien fan long before Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, and I’ve been a R. E. Howard fan even longer. But I’ve always loved early twentieth-century history too, especially the Deco years, so it was probably in the logic of things that I would end up mixing these two passions of mine.
I honestly discovered the 1920s by chance, but I’ve completely fallen in love with this era, because it has so many similarities with our own time.
You are preparing a trilogy that explores some of the same themes in this novella—and indeed, I often wanted to know more about the characters’ pasts. Which came first: the trilogy or the novella? But more generally, what draws you to the world of ghosts and spirits?
The genesis of these stories is quite funny.
I started out wanting to write a series of novellas or short stories bound by a recurring cast of characters. I wanted to set it in the 1930s, but at the time I knew nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—about that time. So I started planning the series, and at the same time I researched that period.
After a year of research, I shifted from the 1930s to the 1920s for a question of accuracy (couldn’t set a few ideas in the 1930s and still be accurate). I also had written zero words of the actual story. So I decided I needed to test my characters and my ideas, since I felt insecure that I could actually handle the time period. I wrote Give in to the Feeling as a character study, and it was such fun! I was already in love with these characters, but writing them made me love them even more.
So after that I wanted to test the setting a bit more. I outlined a trilogy of novellas which were still set earlier than the original idea, and I enrolled in National Novel Writing Month, which is a yearly challenge to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in the month of November. My plan was to write a detailed synopsis of the entire trilogy of novellas, which I estimated would take some 15,000–20,000 words total, and then write whatever I could of the actual novellas to reach the 50,000 words of the challenge.
Well, it didn’t exactly work like that.
The synopsis of Ghostly Smell Around, the first installment, ended up at 22,000 words. I completed NaNo halfway through the second installment, and at that point I understood my story had plans very different from mine about how it wanted to be told.
I completed the first draft of the trilogy in a couple of years. I revised it completely in a few more. Then I concentrated on the first novel. My plan was (and still is) to try to publish the trilogy traditionally, but I also wanted to try self publishing. So a couple of years ago I went back to Give in to the Feeling, rewrote it completely (because, as you may imagine, I had learned lots of things about these characters in the four years I had spent with them) and published it as an indie novella.
It was a fantastic adventure.
Why the world of spirits? I’ve always been fascinated with spirituality, with ghosts, with the possibility that there might be more than the physical world around us. Maybe because we live in such a materialistic world, I like to explore the possibility that there might be more, a place where what we are (our true soul) is more important of what we have.
Tell us about Susie, the main character. How did she end up in a Chicago speakeasy?
In a very odd way, I’d say.
She’s a Chinese girl and she was sent out to be a mail-order wife, which was quite a common practice in immigrant communities in the first part of the twentieth century. But when she lands in San Francisco, she discovers that her prospective husband has died in the meanwhile and she is taken up by his young associate, which leads Susie to Chicago and sends her life in a much different direction. Simon is an ambitious man who wants to have a rich life. In Prohibition-era America he thinks bootlegging is a viable way to achieve his dream.
The first time I wrote Give in to the Feeling it was really mostly a character study, but the second time I wrote it I wanted it to be Susie’s story. I wanted to see her evolve and become her own woman, as she had the opportunity to be.
The 1920s were an exciting time to be a woman, though not in the way most people think. We often see the 1920s as a liberating time, which it was—to an extent. Flappers did break free from lots of the old bonds, but we should remember that many bonds still stood. We should also remember that most women weren’t flappers in the 1920s. Only young university girls, with money and time on their hands, could afford to be flappers. In spite of this, I do think that most women, especially young ones, aspired to be flappers or at least to be as free as the flappers showed they could be.
This is where the importance of the “flapper movement” (as it is sometimes termed) really lies: not in the achievements, which were limited in time and in some respect in magnitude, but in the breaking through. Its power came from showing a different way, not just to women but to men as well.
To some extent Susie walks the same path, passing through the “freedom” and excitement to show herself the way she wants, and coming in the end to a more profound understanding of what freedom truly is.
And what of Simon? How does he fit into Susie’s life?
Well, if I had to name the character that most evolved from the first version of the story to the published one, it would be Simon. In the first version, he was just the antagonist, but as I revised the novella for publication, I started wondering what drove him. From the beginning I didn’t want him to be a mere villain, but his reasons and his acting certainly became more nuanced and prominent as the story evolved.
I suppose Simon incarnates the danger of ambition not culled by ethics. There’s nothing wrong with what Simon wants, in my opinion, it’s what he’s willing to leave behind to achieve it that is problematic.
Simon is the only character that doesn’t appear in the other stories of this series, and I had a great time exploring him.
Trouble starts when two brothers, Michael and Blood, walk into the bar. Susie and Blood are instantly drawn to each other. What can you tell us about the brothers?
I truly truly love these guys. Readers tell me it’s apparent, but I can’t do anything about it. Blood and Michael were the original idea, the reason why this series of stories exists. In fact, when I originally wrote Give in to the Feeling, I had a hard time keeping it as Susie’s story, because Michael and Blood kept trying to steal the stage.
I consider Ghost Trilogy as Michael’s story, so yes, there is a lot more to learn about him and Blood, their relationship and what caused Michael to flee the reservation. Deciding what to let filter into the novella and what to leave untold was like going through hell!
Michael and Blood are Lakota Ogalala. I’ve always been interested in the Native American cultures and spirituality, and this interest has deepened in the last decade. Still, I was very hesitant to handle Lakota characters because I had no direct contact with that culture (I was less hesitant with Susie because I have friends who are Chinese). I researched the hell out of it, but still I think this would have been a very different story and they would have certainly be very different characters if I hadn’t met someone who today is a dear friend on an online workshop for writers.
She’s Mohawk, actually, not Lakota, but she helped me get into Native American feelings and thinking in a way I could have never achieved on my own. I know it and I need to acknowledge it. And she’s a writer herself (she writes under the name Melinda Kelly), so meeting her was really the very best thing that could happen to me and my story!
The relationship between tradition and modernity and the survival of traditional practices and beliefs in the modern times is something very close to my heart. Native Americans stand in a peculiar position in this regard, and this may be what inspired me to have Lakota characters in my story. Most of my characters are liminal. They stand in the face of a new world (of change) but hesitate to step into it for fear of what that world may take from them. There’s Susie, who’s a Chinese in America; Sinéad, who’s an Irish immigrant; Angelo, who’s a third-generation Italian-American; and a lot of African American characters who live in the time of the Harlem Renaissance. But none of them express that hesitation in front of change and the urge to find a way to cope better than Blood and Michael, in my opinion.
When can we expect to see more of Susie’s story?
Ghostly Smell Around, the first novel in the trilogy, is at the polishing stage, basically ready to go. I’m trying to get it published traditionally, but we know how these things go, so I may end up self-publishing it. Let’s see what happens.
The rest of the trilogy is written, although it stands at a second draft stage.
As I mentioned, Ghost Trilogy is more of Michael’s story, but Susie is important to it. In the trilogy, she’s a very strong character (Michael considers her to be bossy), who has found her balance in her relationship with Blood and is happy to be part of the Red Willow family. And after going though her own ordeal, in the trilogy Susie is a character who always strives to help others find their way in life and be happy.
I’m very proud of her.
Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your answers with me and my readers. Can’t wait for your Ghost Trilogy to appear!