Friday, February 7, 2014

Diversity in Our Writing Projects: Spire City

Up next is our good friend, Mr. Daniel Ausema and his series, Spire City.

Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets, but there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.

The first four episodes of season 1: Infected are available from Musa Publishing, with a new episode coming out every three weeks, through August, 2014. Season 2 will follow, and I'm currently writing the rough draft for a proposed season 3. For more information, you can visit

Your work in progress is titled Spire City. What was your biggest inspiration for this story series?

Hmm, it was almost six years ago that I began dreaming of this series, and there were so many different sources of inspiration. I guess the main thing that drove the story from the beginning was that central concept of the infection. Here is a deliberate attack on the city's powerless. A lab-created disease that most of the people in the city ignore, and if it's brought to their attention, they react violently. Its effects are tragic, but because the disease is often very slow but not always, it leaves its victims with an unknown span of time to come to grips with it, and each of the central characters reacts to it in different ways. At one point Chels calls it a death sentence with an uncertain expiration date. I find that resonant in many ways.

You’re building quite a reputation for developing these uncanny settings, particularly these cities that resemble something from a dream. Tell us about “Spire City” itself. Where did some of your ideas for this place come from?

When I was a child, the nearest public museum had a section called “Gaslight Village,” which recreated a small section of what the city looked like in the 1880s. I enjoyed the animal dioramas and other things in the museum, but that was my favorite part, and it definitely influenced how I pictured Spire City.

But, that was a very small city as such things go back in the 1880s. Spire City also draws from a couple of visits I made to Barcelona when I was studying down the coast from there. I loved the architecture of Barcelona and would have gladly spent more time exploring its streets. Of course it's much different today than it was a hundred-plus years ago, so I looked at photos of what it was like then. And I added in many things from other Victorian-era cities as I learned about them here and there.

Other things came purely from my imagination. The beetle-drawn carriages are a nod to Kafka and various other works, and just fit what I think of as cool. The singers on the spires are a mark of the city's cruelty. Both of those first appeared in a loosely related short story and then got incorporated into the other ideas I had for this serial project because they seemed to fit thematically.

You seem to often feature people who would typically be described as outcasts. Your protagonist and other featured people with her are beggars, urchins, prostitutes, immigrants, the unemployed, and members of the lowest caste. Why have you now chosen and so often choose to tell their stories?

Yes. Call it a reaction to all the high fantasy I read growing up, but I have no interest in writing about kings and princes and the powerful in society. I'm much more interested in the people scrambling to get by and those who find some sort of success without being the child or descendent of anyone famous. And in steampunk, specifically, a lot of works focus on the high society of tea and fancy soirees, and...that just doesn't interest me as much. Certainly I've read some great stories that involve such things, but as a writer I'm not interested. There are philosophical/religious/political-type implications there, which I'll let my biographers someday tease out Wink

But it must have been around the time I was doing the first draft of the first season that Catherynne Valente, one of my favorite writers, posted something lamenting the way steampunk too often forgot the punk part of its name. Now I'm too young to have any strong feelings about the original punk movement, and I was too oblivious growing up to pay much attention to the punk-influenced strains of alternative music at the time, but the themes she teased out of it rising from the powerless and suspicious of authority, that fits well with Spire City. I was already writing the story, so it wasn't an inspiration as much as an affirmation that what I was doing had a place in the world of steampunk.

Your protagonist is an interesting, young scamp. Please tell us more about her (without too many spoilers, of course).

It's worth noting that I see the Spire City series as having a sort of ensemble cast, so at various times in the episodes ahead others are central. But Chels is the protagonist of the first episode, and her full arc is really the backbone of the story as a whole. So she is a second-generation immigrant who grew up within a community of immigrants in Spire City. When her mother died a year or two before the series starts, she didn't feel like she belonged there. Her mother never told her the name of her father, but she's always assumed that he wasn't a part of that community, and that's how she's been treated as well. So she tried to make her way on her own. Without much success. But then she found a group of outcasts who had banded together. Most of them are infected with the serum that the scientist Orgood engineered, but when the story begins she is not infected. She's not well educated—most of them in the band aren't—but she's clever, and her position as neither Spire City native nor immigrant herself gives her a unique perspective on things.

What is it about your stories that you feel separates them from the din? How do they stand out from the usual fare we see so much of on the bookstore shelves (real or digital)?

Hmmm. I guess I'll answer with what it is I value in a story, and what people have consistently mentioned in reviewing my stories. I like a high sense of imagination. I want readers to think, “Wow, that was out there, but really cool.” I want each story to be different, to surprise readers, keep them unsure what to expect next, but anxious to discover it. People often comment on the settings of my stories as being almost characters themselves, places that come alive and make the whole story seem to take place in a real place (surreal or bizarre as it may be). I also value writers with a poetic sense, writing that revels in its cadences and sounds. I'm not talking about purple, dense-to-follow prose, but writing that shows care for how it sounds and how it flows. Spire City is meant to read fairly quickly and has a lot of momentum throughout, but I hope readers find that it achieves this without sacrificing at all the beauty of the written word.

What is the big, final message of Spire City? What do you hope we’ll come away with once we’ve read the series?

I'm leery of stating a specific message. I'm currently reading the beautifully illustrated writing book Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer, and it includes an essay by Ursula LeGuin on this very topic. So to quote her, “The complex meanings of a serious story or novel can be understood only be participation in the language of the story itself. To translate them into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them.” In other words, the story is the message, and you have to read it to experience whatever message that is, which will inevitably vary from reader to reader. So what will readers come away from Spire City with? It will be different with each one, but hopefully a sense of the real world around them, a sense of engagement with it on the grounds of this—and in response to this—otherworldly story of steam engines and beetles and mad science infections.

Is diversity something you intentionally planned on or worked towards in your story? If so, how did you accomplish this?

Spire City is intentionally a diverse city. It doesn't correspond one-to-one with any real-world people groups, but it does bring in people from many backgrounds (ethnic, religious, linguistic) living together. The tensions between groups and the ways different people react to such things are an integral part of what makes a setting come alive. Without that you're left with a cardboard backdrop that never seems real.

Really, one of the things that draws me to write about the industrial era (I don't only write steampunk, but I do find it an interesting style to write in), is those very dynamics. The new technology brings together people who might not have interacted before, whether it's the country peasants coming to the city to work in the textile factories or the merchants, aspiring to a higher class, who still live side-by-side with the workers who keep the city boilers running or the people from more distant places who come to the city for its growing reputation as a place to make a living. There's so much going on in such a place that the stories can resonate in surprising ways.

One thing I've done, also, is to make sure that no one person is seen as the ultimate representative of any group. So Chels is not the only one from her mother's people. Another from their group of outcasts, Sairen, is an immigrant himself, one who came at a young age quite recently, and his perspective is very different from hers. And the same goes for the other groups in the band. Women and men, Spire-native and peasant-born, factory worker and born-to-privilege. Each of them is an individual as well as a person who could be grouped in many different ways.

This has been an excellent interview. Thank you so much, Dan. Please check out his link in the beginning of this post.


  1. I admire your imagination, Daniel! Wonderful interview.

  2. Thanks, Sloane!

    And thanks, Nicholas, for the excellent questions.

  3. And thank you for the mention on your blog.