It is a rare privilege and an honor that one of today’s rising stars of YA literature, Kate Milford, author of The Boneshaker, has agreed to do an interview with me discussing her novel, some of her inspirations, and her life and philosophy in general.
The Boneshaker is about thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks and her love of machinery and mechanical devices. It’s about her life in the strange, small town of Arcane, Missouri, the peculiar characters who live there, about what happens to the town when the mysterious and evil Dr. Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Machine Show arrives in her town, and the inhabitants come down with a terrible illness called “gingerfoot.”
And now, without any further ado, let’s get on with the questions!
Douglas R. Cobb: First off, Kate, I’ll ask you the obligatory question: “Which authors have been the biggest influence on your writing, and which are some you’ve read within the past year or so and could recommend to our readers?”
Kate Milford: For this book, probably the two biggest were The Golden Compass,which definitely influenced the writing of Natalie (Lyra Silvertongue is such a wonderful heroine), and—which will probably come as no surprise—Something Wicked This Way Comes. Other than that, Einstein/Picasso by Arthur I. Miller, The Duino Elegies by Rainier Maria Rilke, and “The Palm at the End of the Mind” by Wallace Stevens also played a part in building certain aspects of Arcane and the people in it. I also read a lot of city fiction, like the Ambergrisbooks by Jeff VanderMeer and the Bas Lagbooks by China Mieville. I love books in which the cities are characters.
In terms of great books I’ve read recently, I loved, loved, loved The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Susanne Collins, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, and the Mortal Instrumentsbooks by Cassandra Clare (although I haven’t read the third one yet). I recently read Liar by Justine Larbalestier which was OMG fantastic, with one of the best unreliable narrators I have ever read. It gave me serious book envy. Also When You Reach Meby Rebecca Stead (so beautiful), Neal Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Jeri Smith-Ready’s Shade… and right now I’m halfway through Bruiserby Neal Shusterman—we were both part of a panel yesterday at Books of Wonder with Scott Mebus (whose Gods of Manhattan I’m really looking forward to) and I started Bruiseron the train home and have been hard-pressed to put it down. Ooooh, and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which is available free online at http://catherynnemvalente.com. The title’s a mouthful and it’s a pain in the neck to carry around a printout (I think it’s being released in bound form next year) but the story is just absolutely beautiful and gave me another case of total book envy.
Boneshaker is set in the small town of Arcane, Missouri. You write about the town Natalie Minks and the other characters live in very realistically, and make it come alive for your readers. Have you ever lived in a small town, yourself? If so, were, and what was its population size?
I grew up in Riva, Maryland, just outside of Annapolis. Looking up population size…according to its 2000 census info, it’s currently home to just under 4000 souls and has a total area of 2.9 square miles. It’s nothing like Arcane, but it’s pretty small. Arcane wound up in Missouri because that’s where my husband’s from; he grew up in Raymore, which is just outside Kansas City. (His school was called Ray-Pec, because it was shared by two towns, Raymore and Peculiar. That’s right. Peculiar, Missouri. So you can see why I figured nobody’d bat an eye if I called Natalie’s town “Arcane.”)
Your main character, Natalie Minks, is in love with machinery, intricate mechanisms, and automatons (well, “automata”). I’m guessing that you may share this love with Natalie, as your website is called Clockwork Foundry. How old were you when you first got your love for mechanical devices, and why do you think you’re fascinated by them?
I got that love from the men in my life—my grandfathers, my dad, my husband and his dad. I grew up surrounded by men who were tinkerers—my dad fixed old tvs as a hobby, and then old radios. One of the last times I went home to visit, Dad gave me a bin of old radio tubes, which I keep in vases. My husband (then my fiancé) used to work repairing motion picture cameras, and when he realized how much I loved mechanical things, he started bringing me home ZipLoc bags of leftover camera parts. I think the reason I love mechanical things is that for one thing, they’re just pretty. I like the intricacy of them. I like the look of industrial metals, of brass and steel—and iron, especially wrought iron, the more twisted and weird the better, but that’s kind of a different fixation for a different story. I like the look of oxidized metal—I love patina and wear and brassing. So there’s that—I just like how they look. I think it’s also an appreciation of older technologies—I’d also rather play around with a secondhand film camera than a digital one, for example. Plus I was raised in a family of retired antique dealers, pack rats, and thrift store and yard sale aficionados. I like old stuff with personality, stuff that looks like it’s probably got a story to it.
Natalie’s bike, a rare Chesterlane Eidolon, is a “boneshaker,” of a bicycle, and it’s where you get the title of your novel from. Could you please tell our readers a brief description of what this bike is like, and also did you ever own a bike that was a “boneshaker”?
Natalie’s Chesterlane is a transitional bicycle, something that shares characteristics of early velocipedes and later “safety” bicycles. The early velocipedes were the actual “boneshakers,” which got their nicknames because they shook the rider pretty viciously—when you pedaled, you were turning the front wheel directly, and there were no shocks or anything to insulate you from the roughness of the road. The true boneshakers were from the mid 1800’s. After that, you had the high-wheelers, or penny-farthings (they were also called “ordinary” bicycles)—those are the ones with the giant front wheels and little rear wheels. Between the 1880’s and the turn of the century, bicycles started to look more like the ones we’re familiar with. They were called “safety” bicycles, and they had all kinds of weird engineering that was supposed to make them easier, safer, more comfortable to ride. Natalie’s bicycle is described as having all kinds of springs on it that were meant to act like shocks—that was inspired by a safety bicycle called the Whippet. It really wasn’t until after the safety bicycles that women and kids started riding bicycles regularly.
As for me, no, I never had any kind of weird bicycle. I kind of got obsessed with them during the writing of this book, but they definitely fall into the category of mechanical things I think are absolutely beautiful.
Ted Minks, Natalie’s father, restored the bicycle for her, and they also worked together on an automaton, a flyer (airplane), they called the “Wilbur,” after one of the Wright Brothers who passed away the previous year. It’s one of your plot elements that shows the bond and love Natalie and her father have for each other, that they both are into machinery and automatons. Did you ever work on projects like the “Wilbur” with your own father?
Yes, I did. When I was little, I had a chemistry set we used to work on together, and a circuit board you could use to do little electrical projects with. And I have memories of sitting on a rolled up piece of carpeting in our basement at my parents’ previous house, listening to the Orioles on the radio while my dad worked on something or other at his workbench. I think that was 1983—the year the Orioles won the World Series—which would’ve made me seven years old. Also, I thought dad’s workshop was really cool—my grandfathers’ workshops, too. I just never knew what I was going to find.
Arcane is a colorful & strange town filled with more than its share of colorful & strange people. I liked reading about all of them, but two in particular (besides the ones in Natalie’s family) that I liked reading about are Simon Coffret and Old Tom Guyot. They both are kind of magical or mystical characters, and both play a major role in the plot. Coffret lives in the town’s only mansion, handed down to him through the generations. He and Tom both are far older than they appear to be. Coffret’s sin is that he failed to act, to prevent people from dying, though he gives a couple of stories about this to Natalie. Who knows which, if either, are real? He also seems to think he’s actually dead. Is he? The novel doesn’t really answer this question, and leaves it for the reader to decide.
Old Tom Guyot is a black man who has a hand-made guitar, and he plays it possibly better than any other person alive. He’s been a slave and a Civil War soldier. The Devil and he met at the crossroads of the town and had a contest about which of them could play the guitar better, judged by spirits.
Would you say that Simon Coffret is an angel who made the wrong decision? Next, a couple of questions about Tom–What does a demon who steals tires off of vehicles (the left tires) have to do with Tom? What does Tom Win when he beats the Devil? What would have happened if he’d lost the bet?
I am secretly sitting at my computer here, grinning and rubbing my hands together like some kind of evil maniac. Simon Coffrett is one of my favorite people, and since I have two more books planned to follow this one, I’m going to respectfully decline to tell you why Argonault, the phrenologist, claims that Simon thinks he’s dead or who and what Simon is. I don’t want to spoil anything with my opinions on the matter.
As for Tom—I feel really badly that he had to battle the Devil. He really didn’t want anything but the Devil to leave him alone, so that’s what he was playing for. The stakes of the bet were: if Tom won, he would get to walk away with his life and a favor from the Devil, no strings attached. If he lost, the Devil would take his hands as down-payment against his soul. My thinking there was that, for one thing, Tom’s guitar was so much like his soul that for the Devil to take his hands would be the same as taking his music, and his connection to his own identity. For another thing, although not every act is done by hands and fingers, hands and fingers still work well as symbols for what a person does in life. So for the Devil to take a person’s hands means more than just taking a part of their body. Does that make sense?
Oh, and the demon who pulls off wheels is the creature who was sent to convince Tom to hurry up and invoke his favor—and since Tom never had a use for the Devil’s favor, that demon got stuck in Arcane.
Who is Doctor Jake Limberlegs and why did you decide to make him a somewhat sympathetic character? Did you name him after the disease called Jake Leg?
Yes, I did! Doctor Jake Limberleg is the head of Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show, which, while attempting to pass through Arcane, loses a wheel thanks to the bored demon mentioned above and has to stop in town for a few days.
Back in the 1930’s during Prohibition, lots of people drank patent medicines in place of liquor, because medicines contained so much alcohol. There was one variety, Jamaica Ginger, that was very popular because it actually tasted pretty good. Unfortunately, in order to get around Prohibition regulations, some kinds of Jamaica Ginger contained a chemical plasticizer that was used to keep the ginger sediment in suspension in the mixture without making the stuff taste horrible. Unfortunately, that plasticizer turned out to be a neurotoxin, and there was an epidemic of absolutely terrible symptoms that arose from the stuff before it was identified as the cause. A number of blues musicians of the time referenced it in their music. It was called Jake Leg, the Gingerfoot, and (my favorite) the Old Jake Limberleg Blues. That’s how Jake Limberleg got his name.
What is the Old Village, and what happened to it?
The Old Village is the ghost town at the crossroads outside Arcane. It was abandoned a couple generations before our story begins, and Natalie’s hometown of Arcane is the new incarnation of the town, which grew up just a little ways down the road from where the Old Village was. When the story opens, Natalie knows some of the details thanks to an old diary that was passed down through her family, but nobody in Arcane really knows what really caused the citizens to leave.
I mention HBO’s “Carnavale” and “The Wizard of Oz” as shows that have carnival sorts of characters in them and which possibly might have influenced you as you were writing The Boneshaker. Were either of them in your mind as you came up with the character of Dr. Jake Limberlegs?
Kate Milford: I absolutely loved Carnivale, but The Boneshaker (which was then called Gingerfoot) was already making the rounds by the time I saw it—but by then I was thinking continuations, and I will tell you that at the moment, the second Arcane book opens with a dust storm. Another story in that vein that I found afterwards was Dust,by Arthur Slade, which by the way is very, very cool. There are so many really fascinating types of traveling shows and carnivals that toured, and so many people who chose or were forced into nomadic lifestyles, and that way of life just isn’t part of the worldview of the average person today. I find it fascinating. But I think the person who most influenced Jake Limberleg was Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes—although I think if you read both books, they’re very, very different men.
A minor character, but one I liked a lot, is the automaton that looks like a clown, or harlequin, which you’ve named Quinn. Did you get her name from the fact that she’s a harlequin, or were you maybe influenced by the Batman character, Harley Quinn?
It’s interesting that you identified Quinn as a female! I’m pretty sure I was very careful not to use any male or female pronouns in describing Quinn. That’s not to say Quinn couldn’t be female—I just didn’t specify. But if it is a girl, that would make Quinn and Phemonoe the only two females in the Medicine Show…which would be very, very interesting. And yes, I chose the name because it was a shortening of “harlequin”—I’m actually not up on Batman characters, but now I’m going to have to look Harley Quinn up.
As I was reading The Boneshaker, I kept feeling that it could be made into a great movie or television program. Are there any plans so far for this to happen? If so, great; if not, I hope someone does, because it could really lend itself to a cinematic treatment.
I hope so, too. At the moment, the film rights are still out there in the world, waiting to be snapped up by somebody brilliant.
I guess one problem with having written an excellent debut novel like The Boneshaker (if it could be called a problem) is that it might be difficult to top it with your next one. But, you’re a very good writer, and I’m very interested to read whatever you might come up with next.? Do you have any ideas about the subject of your next novel, yet? Have you possibly started working on one, already, or are you still pretty busy with things like book signings and publicity for The Boneshaker?
Life has definitely gotten a lot busier since The Boneshakercame out, but I’m working like crazy to finish revising my next book, which doesn’t have a final title yet. It’s set in a contemporary city called Nagspeake (which you can explore a bit at http://nagspeake.com). In Nagspeake, there’s a form of iron that’s basically self-aware, that moves and changes, but nobody in the city really knows what Old Iron is or why it moves. The main character is a girl named Charlotte, who inadvertently stumbles on the answer when she discovers that there’s an entire city hidden underground, below the one she grew up in. I’m also working on the continuation of Natalie’s story. If you think about the final scene of The Boneshaker, you can figure out what the bigger story planned for Arcane is. So if you want to know what happens to Natalie and Arcane, everybody, buy lots of books so I can sell the next two parts. I’m serious. Do it!
That’s all for now, folks, to paraphrase my favorite cartoon pig, Porky! I’d like to once again thank Kate Milford for kindly agreeing to do this interview with me, and I and the entire staff wish you, Kate, much more success in the future!