An Interview with Stephen Minchin from Steam Press

The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse cover imageFor those of you who don’t know, Steam Press is a local (Wellington, but don’t hold that against them) speculative fiction publisher that is, in the words of yours truly, “the kiwi publishers to watch now“.

They’ve already published some truly fantastic titles including The Factory World, Mansfield with Monsters and The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse. I’m not alone in my praise with Steam Press winning several prizes at this year’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards.

I thought it was about time to find out from Steam Press publisher Stephen Minchin a little bit more about how we came to be graced with such treasures from the windy city…

The Factory World cover imageSo, Steam Press. How did it happen? How did it come about?
In 2011 I was studying publishing at Whitireia – their diploma in publishing is the only publishing course in New Zealand, and it’s the main way of breaking into the industry – and we had lots of people from the major publishers coming in to talk to us about publishing here and internationally. It really struck me that while a number of those publishers import science fiction and fantasy from their international divisions, none (if any) publish it locally. This means that New Zealand’s speculative fiction authors all find themselves in the strange situation of sending their work to agents and publishers in New York and London, and when it’s published it’s imported back into New Zealand and much of the time you’d never know that the author was a kiwi.

I figured that there might be a bit of a niche there so while I was still studying I established Steam Press and put up a website. I thought it’d probably be a while before anyone sent me anything, and even longer before I found a novel I was keen to publish. That didn’t end up being the case, and within a few weeks I had three books underway. Which was a little bit terrifying, actually…

The Wind City cover imageHow are you finding such amazing new talent?
Honestly, I don’t know. Luck?

I think the thing is that there are a lot of really talented authors here but not many publishers who are interested in books that are outside of the mainstream, while sending your work overseas is really time-consuming, it’s hard work, and it’s a bit of a miserable, demoralising job. Those two factors combine to create a situation that’s really good for someone looking for talent. It probably also helps that I used to write so I know what it’s like to approach publishers and try to get them to look at your work – I do my best to make this easier for authors by being more than a black hole into which you throw your manuscript and hope to hear back at some stage. When people email me they actually get a response.

Particularly when I first started, it was amazing to find authors who had faith in me. They gave me their babies. That’s a big thing!

Mansfield with monsters coverWhat’s been the highlight in the life of Steam Press so far?
I’d have to say that the highlight has always been cracking open a box of books fresh from the printer and seeing all that work turned into something tangible. A book is probably a couple of years’ work by the author, plus the months that I’ve put in, the work of a cover designer, and everything else. Seeing all of that brought together and made into something gorgeous is just fantastic. I can’t imagine that ever getting old. And most of the authors I’ve worked with haven’t had a book published before so this is huge for them, a culmination of what they’ve been working on for years, maybe dreaming of since they were kids. Seriously – wow. How cool is that?!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also say that having all three of the books we released last year shortlisted for Sir Julius Vogel Awards was pretty amazing, and having two of them go on to win was just spectacular.

Are your titles being stocked widely? (Dear readers – take note and go and buy them!)
Yes! They’re stocked by all New Zealand booksellers, and ebooks are available too. I also sell books directly from the Steam Press website.

Tropic of Skorpeo coverWhat’s the future? Are you feeling optimistic?
It’s definitely tough to make this work, and I’m far from making my fortune – I work full-time on top of this, and it’s all supported by my lovely wife. :D That said, it’s great fun and, I think, a really good thing to be doing. So yes, I am planning to keep Steam Press going for as long as I can.

Frankly, I have plans to take over the world. There’s a lot of potential in selling the books we produce into foreign markets. Working with agents overseas and having Steam Press books represented at the major international book fairs means that the books we’re publishing in New Zealand have a very real chance of being sold into much larger markets (something that we’ve managed to do already for a couple of titles). It’s a tough nut to crack, but my strategy beyond simply selling locally written sci fi and fantasy in New Zealand is to present these brilliantly written and beautifully produced books to publishers in the UK and US. I want the authors I’m publishing here to be huge internationally.

Interview with Hugh Howey, author of Wool, Shift and Dust

Shift cover imageSo I’m reading a fantastic dystopian novel at the moment called Shift by Hugh Howey. It’s part of a trilogy – the first part is Wool (which I haven’t read) and the next book will be Dust.

HIGHLY recommended.

Listen to an interview with the author, from Kendall Forbes. (Thanks for the link Kendall!)

Guest Post: Tim Jones interviews Keith Westwater about Tongues of Ash

Today’s guest post: Tim Jones (author of Men Briefly Explained) interviews Keith Westwater (author of Tongues of Ash). Thanks Keith and Tim!

Tongues of Ash cover1) The publisher of Tongues of Ash, Interactive Publications, has described the collection as ‘travel poetry’. Is that how you see the collection?

I must admit, when I first saw the term I was a little taken aback, as I had not considered the work in that light. My thinking was that the poems as a whole are representative of landscape writing, in the sense that they are to do with place, memories of place, the physical world, and the environment. They also touch on what is meant by ‘home’.

On reflection, I think the publisher has insightfully picked up on the journeys that are also woven into the fabric of the collection   – my personal journey through time and place and my travels within New Zealand and overseas.

2) What led you to choose the rather striking image for the cover of Tongues of Ash?

A lot of serendipity – I met the artist, Turi Park, some years ago shortly after I had written the found poems ‘Camera Obscura Revealed’. The poems are taken from words in two essays used to describe the paintings in an exhibition of Turi’s work. When I was looking for some cover art for Tongues of Ash I went immediately to the exhibition catalogue.

I settled on the painting ‘Dawn Poem for Taranaki’ (see my blog) because it resonated with me on many levels. The title Tongues of Ash is drawn from my poem ‘Navigation point on the Desert Road’, which refers to the colour orange twice and Dawn Poem for Taranaki is vibrant with orange.

‘Navigation point’ is set with a backdrop of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, which the painting depicts in the distance and I thought this was a good metaphor for the time that has elapsed since I lived near those mountains. Finally, and as I found out when seeking permission to use the painting, it is owned by Charles Dawson, who wrote one of the two Camera Obscura descriptive essays.

3) The poems in Tongues of Ash are grouped into five blocks that have their own coherence and unities. How did you settle on this sequencing and order?

The first and third sections generally relate to places I have lived in or travelled to. The second section is mainly to do with the physical world and the fourth is more about landscape, environmental issues, and personal identity. The last section focuses on overseas places and notions of home. (Although if readers see an entirely different logic to the groupings, that’s fine by me.)

Once I had settled on which of my poems belonged in the collection as a whole and I had identified the sub-themes present in the collection, the poems more or less self-selected into these groupings. The sequence of the groupings was based on the need to provide variety and maintain reader interest, as was the sequencing within each group.

4) Who do you see as the main readers/audiences of Tongues of Ash and are your suppositions panning out?

I thought at first that the readers would be other poets and people who know me – friends and relatives, people of about my own age. While this has largely turned out to be the case, I didn’t anticipate – and am rather tickled by –  the interest being shown in the work by my children’s generation.

5) What’s next for you as a writer/poet? More landscape poetry collections, or something else?

I am currently working on poems that are more to do with societal critique (child abuse, domestic violence) and natural violence (earthquakes). I have in mind a next collection that will pull together these poems and some others of a more satirical bent that I have written.

I also want to pick up again a fictionalized memoir that I started some time ago and put down when working on Tongues of Ash.

Ah, if there were only more hours…

Find out more about Tongues of Ash at

Guest Post: Keith Westwater interviews Tim Jones about Men Briefly Explained

Today’s guest post: Keith Westwater (author of Tongues of Ash) interviews Tim Jones (author of Men Briefly Explained). Thanks Tim and Keith!

Men Briefly Explained cover1) Is it possible to explain men, briefly or otherwise?

It would probably take a much longer book than mine to do that job full justice. I guess that Men Briefly Explained attempts to reveal the mysteries of the male from two angles: partly internally, through a report on what it’s been like so far to grow up male, and partly externally, through observing how other men behave. I have tried to look at how men’s biological role affects our behaviour too – although it’s important not to try to push such sociobiological explanations too far.

(That’s a frightfully serious explanation, so I should also add that the book is a great deal less serious than I’ve just made it sound!)

2) Is this really an explanation of men in general, or would it be more accurate to call it an explanation of one particular man, i.e. a Mr T. Jones?

I did observe at a couple of the recent readings on the Men Briefly Explained/Tongues of Ash Book Tour that the title of the book would be even more accurate if the “n” was removed from the first word in the title – in other word, if the book was called “Me Briefly Explained”! So, to the extent that I’m a middle-aged, middle class (well, struggling middle class anyway), straight Pakeha male of English descent, it does less well at explaining men who don’t have those characteristics. Still, even with these restrictions, there are still a lot of us around.

3) When we were on our joint book tour with David Reiter, I noticed as the tour went on that you seemed to settle on a core group of poems to read each night, plus one or two different ones for each venue. How did you decide which poems worked best?

Trial and error! If a poem got a good response from the audience the first time I read it, then I read it again – and if it didn’t, I didn’t.

Mind you, I had a reasonable idea before I started which poems would work best with an audience. Complicated poems don’t work well live; humour does. Complicated, funny poems are a line call!

I think the title poem, Men Briefly Explained itself, was the biggest hit live, which was a nice feeling.

4) What sort of people seem to respond best to Men Briefly Explained – and are they the people you were expecting?

Well, I hoped that both women and men would respond well to the book. It’s not that men have responded badly – or, if they are responding badly, they are doing so in private and not telling me about it – but there’s been a very positive response from women who have bought and read the book – I’ve quoted some of these responses on my blog.

I hope that means that I am providing some enlightenment as well as some entertainment!

5) What are your hopes for Men Briefly Explained?

To sell a decent number of copies – it’s never wise to hold out huge sales expectations for poetry, but when there have been such good reactions from the people who have read the book, that motivates me to try to get the word about it out to more people.

To engage the reader’s emotions and intellect, not to mention the reader’s sense of humour.

To write a set of poems that people will keep coming back to and finding new angles on.

Find out more about Men Briefly Explained (including where to buy) at

Tomorrow’s guest post: Tim Jones (author of Men Briefly Explained) interviews Keith Westwater (author of Tongues of Ash). Yes, they are busy men!


Six Quick Questions with Bestselling Author Cassandra Clare

Author of The Infernal Devices – the prequel trilogy to the bestselling The Mortal Instruments.

All text courtesy of Walker Books.

1. The first book in The Infernal Devices, Clockwork Angel, ended on a cliffhanger as Will went to seek help from Magnus Bane, but we weren’t told why. Can you tell us where Clockwork Prince picks up?

Clockwork Prince picks up about two weeks after the end of Clockwork Angel. We still don’t know why Will went to Magnus, and a Council is being held to determine whether Charlotte should get to keep her position as the head of the Institute after the disastrous events of Clockwork Angel.

2. You mentioned that Will is hiding a big secret that might be revealed in Clockwork Prince. Can you give us any clues as to what this might be?

That would be telling! I can only say that it is a secret that has shaped much of his life, and that it is why he is so unpleasant to everyone. We do find out what it is in Clockwork Prince, and Magnus was definitely the right person to go to for help!

3. In Clockwork Angel, Tessa is torn between moody and mysterious Will and devoted yet drugaddled Jem. Will Tessa be forced to make a decision in Clockwork Prince?

Oh, dear, poor Jem. He isn’t really addled by his drug – he’s more like a diabetic that needs insulin. The real downside is that the drug doesn’t even get him high; it just keeps him alive, poor thing. But I would say that in Clockwork Angel, Tessa is drawn to Will but he pushes her away. She doesn’t really notice Jem. In Clockwork Prince Jem steps up and demands to be noticed. She definitely will be clear on both boys’ feelings by the end of the book.

4. You often carry out real urban explorations and do a lot of research to inspire the settings for your books; for Clockwork Angel you read nothing but Victorian literature for six months. Can you tell us what kind of research or preparation you did for Clockwork Prince, and if there were any particular areas or real-life settings that you used?

Well, for both Clockwork books I traveled to London. For Prince, I also went to Yorkshire, because some key chapters of the book take place there. I took the train to York, as Will, Jem and Tessa do, and explored the city. The Institute in York is based on the Holy Trinity Church just off Goodramgate in the centre of York. I also drove around the area a great deal to get a sense of the countryside and used a particular house, Nunnington Hall in North Yorkshire, as Ravenscar Manor.

5. The Infernal Devices is a prequel trilogy to the bestselling The Mortal Instruments series. Did you set out to do a prequel series to The Mortal Instruments from the start, or was this series a story that became apparent after you’d began writing The Mortal Instruments?

I had the image in my head for a long time of a boy and a girl in period costume, standing in the middle of Blackfriars Bridge on a misty night. From one end of the bridge a group of clockwork automatons was advancing silently. For a long time I didn’t know what the story was with those two, but I played around with it in my head and somewhere between City of Bones and City of Ashes the idea of The Infernal Devices happened.

6. Finally, The Mortal Instruments is set in modern-day New York, and The Infernal Devices is set in Victorian-era London. If you had to choose one of these settings to live in, which would you choose, and why?

Much as I love the Victorian era, I would still choose to live in modern day. One word: antibiotics.

Interview with Gary Corby, Author of The Pericles Commission

Gary CorbyGary Corby, author of The Pericles Commission, spoke to the Bookiemonster Henchperson on writing, strong lady characters and of course, sea battles.

So, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Having your first novel come out is a bit like being exposed as a serial killer.  All your friends and neighbours say, “But he was such a quiet fellow.  Who would have thought?”

I’m really very normal.  I come complete with one very normal family: one wife, two daughters, two budgies, four guinea pigs, and four fish in the backyard pond that I made this summer.  We live in a normal house in a normal suburb.

What inspires you to write? Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

I have no idea why I started writing!  No doubt a psychologist would have a wonderful time analysing me, but then, any writer would probably make good material.  The earliest story of which I still have a record dates to when I was 17 or thereabouts.  As to why I kept writing, well, I had all those stories to tell.  It was only recently that I tried writing a novel, and to my surprise sold it.

Writers tend to be either planners, who work out everything in advance, or else they make it up as they go.  I am very definitely a make-it-up-as-I-go person.  I tried to plan my second novel.  The Pericles Commission was sold and I knew I had to produce the next within a year.  I thought if I planned it all out in advance the writing would go faster.  But it all went wrong!  I was totally bored with the writing because I knew what was going to happen.  So I threw out the plan, even deleted the file from my computer, and began again.  Everything went back to being fun and interesting, and the second came out as good as the first.

The Pericles CommissionYour first novel, The Pericles Commission, is set in ancient Athens. Tell us non-historians what attracts you to that period in time, specifically? (Why not, say, Ancient Rome?)

It was an incredibly exciting time!  Athens went through a golden age of about 50 years, during which the people invented almost everything fundamental to western society.  Here’s a list of what’s happening in 461BC:

The world’s first democracy has begun. It’s only days old. A sovereign state with one man one vote, free speech for every citizen, written laws and equality before the law, with open courts and trial by jury. Sounds very modern, doesn’t it?

Drama as we know it is being invented. Aeschylus is writing his plays; two young men called Sophocles and Euripides are beginning to write their own.

Scientific ideas are about to explode: Anaxagoras is developing a theory of matter in which everything is made of infinitesimal particles. It’s the beginning of atomic theory.

Herodotus is travelling the world, writing his book, and in the process, founding both history and anthropology.

A young kid called Socrates is outside somewhere, playing in the street, and on the island of Kos, a baby called Hippocrates is born to a doctor and his wife.

Nicolaos begins his career right at the start of those 50 golden years. If he survives, he’ll live to see the founding of western civilization.

Before I start writing, I do massive amounts of research.  Because I use a large number of real historical people in the stories, I study their lives in minute detail to make sure I don’t break real history.  I’m very keen on the historical accuracy aspect.  Because I’m plotting by the seat of my pants as I write, the people and the places have to be well embedded in my brain before I start typing.

This is an outrageous name drop, but I was chatting to Ruth Downie about this over email a few weeks ago.  She’s the author of the astoundingly good Ruso mysteries set in Roman Britain.  We both agreed that being immersed so heavily in the ancient world makes you view the modern world in a very different way.

Do you also write fiction set in the now? Why or why not? What’s the difference between then and now, fictionally speaking?

I’ve written some contemporary, but it’s not published.  I seem to have scored a personal sweet spot with mystery puzzles set in the ancient world.

There is a huge, vast, enormous difference in the fiction settings between the modern and ancient worlds.  The ancient world is so long ago, even historically accurate stories can seem to a modern reader like something out of epic fantasy.  That’s adds to the fun.  Yet people don’t change.  Love, fear, ambition, lust, anger, greed, cowardice and valour, intelligence and stupidity… those are the things that drive any society, and they’re a constant, then and now.

From the viewpoint of a mystery author, it’s a freeing experience to write in past times…because there’s no CSI.  The CSI effect is really quite restrictive; contemporary authors have to come up with all sorts of reasons why technical analysis shouldn’t solve the puzzle in the first ten pages, and I suspect some authors have to write around the problem.  Nicolaos and his friends have only their wits to rely on.  I’ve seen The Pericles Commission described as a cozy for that reason, which is lovely, but I think it more accurate to say the book has something in common with the traditional mysteries of the 1950s and 60s: the Christies and Allinghams and Marshes.  I’m a huge fan of Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealand author.  If anyone inspired me in the rigour of tight plotting, it would be her.

Greek potteryHow do you research your work?

I read.  I read lots, mostly classics written in the 5th century BC, which may sound ultra-nerdy, but really is fascinating.  Herodotus was the father of history, and he is researching his great work, which we know as The Histories, at the very moment Nicolaos is solving murders.  So I’ve picked a very decent time to be writing in!  Herodotus feeds me lots of information, and so do all the other great Greeks whose work remains.   (I can absolutely guarantee Herodotus will appear as a character in a later book.)

It’s remarkable how much detail you can pull from extraneous comments in some of the classics.  I try hard to make sure everything that goes into the books is either definitely true, or else can’t be proven to be false.  That last point is very important!  There are some things we know in great detail, such as the politics and, surprisingly, how prostitution worked (useful knowledge since Nico gets into some seriously seedy parts of town).  There are other things about which we know practically nothing, such as what music sounded like, how thieves thieved, and most important of all, what motivated the great men and women of the time, and what they were really like.  It leaves me free to write some really fun stuff, as long as I’m careful not to break known history.  I never knowingly break history.  When I plot my stories, I’m playing a game that I call: What Is The Most Dramatic Thing You Can’t Prove Didn’t Happen.   Now I’ll pause a few minutes while you work your way through the double negative…

It’s surprising how much information about daily life comes from archaeology and not written history.  I get house plans, cooking utensils, boat design, weaponry, clothing pins, bronze mirrors, hair combs, assorted pottery, voting tokens, clothing styles, musical instruments, and all sorts of other stuff from archaeology. The Metropolitan, the Louvre, the British Museum and the National Archaeology Museum of Athens are my friends.

Godward-In the Days of Sappho-1904The Pericles Commission featured a few strong female characters. Who inspires you?

There are certain features of Diotima you’ll find in common with my wife, Helen.  Her prodigious ability to quote long texts from memory for a start, so too her attention to detail!  But none of the characters are based on anyone I know, and in the case of Euterpe, even if she were based on someone I knew, I’d never admit it.

The truth is, the real women of the time supply me with all the inspiration anyone could need.  It’s hard not to look at the historical Diotima, Aspasia, Queen Gorgo, Queen Artemisia, Sappho, Phryne, Hypatia, and plenty of others, and not see that Ancient Greece was well supplied with women you wouldn’t want to mess with.

Does the sequel lead right on from The Pericles Commission, or does it jump to something new?

The next book in the series opens a few months after the close of the first.  The third book in the series opens a few days after the close of the second, so my hero is having a very busy year!   Which in fact is historically accurate.  Because I link the stories to real history, I’m somewhat driven by when things actually happened.  The years 460 to 461 BC were among the most momentous in history: minor events such as the founding of western civilisation.  I’ll have to slow the pace soon though, or at 3 books per story year I’ll need 180 books to get my heroes through the entire Golden Age of Greece.

TriremeCan we expect sea battles in your next novel? If not, why not?

Nico always seems to gravitate to the seediest inns, and you usually find those around ports, so he spends quite a lot of time around ships and sailors, but he’s not the seagoing type.  I think you’re going to enjoy meeting the harbour master of Piraeus in the second book though.  Nico’s adventures will eventually take him around much of the known world, so like it or not, he’ll be doing some ship travel.  In book two Nico will take a trip on Salaminia, the most famous warship of the ancient world, but I’m sorry to say there’s no fighting on board.  Among my notes for future books is a scene involving a naval action; I have no idea yet when it will appear!

I actually have a blog post due to write on Greek trireme tactics.  It was very sophisticated stuff, much more so than the later Romans who were pretty useless at sea.  A trireme was essentially a floating battering ram, and the Greeks turned their use into an art form.
Where to next for you? Will we see more of Nicolas and the gang from The Pericles Commission?

You will indeed.  St Martin’s Press has exercised their option for a third book, and we’re talking about a fourth.  So it seems we have a living series!

The second book in the series is The Ionia Sanction.  Nicolaos must enter the Persian Empire to track down a mystery and meet a military genius.  The province he goes to is called, not surprisingly, Ionia, which these days we would call western Turkey.

Pericles CommissionThe third book takes place at the Olympics, which in those days was called the Sacred Games and will probably be the title.  An unfortunate death sets the Greek city states against each other, and Nico must solve the killing before war breaks out in the middle of the athletics.

I’ve only this week sent off the copyedit review for The Ionia Sanction.  I’m now doing revision of Sacred Games based on early reader feedback. There’ll be a couple more rounds of that, and I’ve begun research for book four.

Anything else you’d like to add??

I’m unbelievably lucky to have a chance to write about these fun people!  One thing I didn’t anticipate about having a book published, was how much fun it would be to meet readers from around the world.  It’s been eye-opening.  There’s a real sense of community among book people.

Thanks, Gary! We’re all looking forward to reading the sequel to the Pericles Commission!

Gary’s website is here. Check it out for more ancient goodies than you can shake a sea battle at!

(Pictures are from Gary’s website, or shamelessly borrowed from the always excellent Wikimedia Commons.)