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Stefan Bachmann Interview

Stefan BachmannLast month I reviewed the outstanding debut steampunk-fantasy novel The Peculiar. After gushing in embarrassing fashion to its author, Stefan Bachmann, about how much I loved it, he was kind enough to agree to an interview!

You started writing The Peculiar when you were 16. What do you remember of that day? What was it that dragged your attention from whatever every other teenager your age might have been doing, and sat you down to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)?

I remember going for a walk in the woods the day I started The Peculiar, and I remember being all disturbed because I didn’t know whether I should keep polishing a previous book, or scrap it and start something new. It was kind of a big deal for me, because the other book was almost done, and maybe almost readable, and I had been working on it for a long time. At some point during the walk I started thinking about creepy fairies and proper Victorians, and how they would get along, or not, and by the time I was home I had decided to quit the old project and write the first chapter to The Peculiar.

What made me want to do that instead of what other teenagers were doing…I dunno, a lot of teenagers write books! A lot of teenagers do much more ambitious things. For me, it just had to do with the environment that I grew up in. Our house was full of books; I was home-schooled and then started studying at the Zürich Conservatory of Music when I was young. Most of my friends are of the ambitious sort. Writing a book didn’t seem like a strange pursuit at all.

What kinds of stories had you written before this point?

Four books and sooo many short stories. Most of them had fantasy elements and the same kind of almost-Victorian prose as The Peculiar. Most of them were probably awful. But they were great practice. I think I learned different things from each book and each short story, and in the end it all kind of came together in The Peculiar.

Are you an avid reader, and, if so, what books and authors do you hold up as providing inspiration for your writing?

I LOVE reading. I’m a huge fan of Tolkien (of course), C.S. Lewis, Francis Hodges Burnett, William Makepeace Thackery, 19th-century Russian writers, and a lot of modern fantasy authors like Phillip Reeve and Catherine Fisher. I think everything I’ve read has influenced or inspired me in one way or another.

It’s funny, though, because I hear a lot that my stuff has been influenced by Harry Potter, Phillip Pullman, and Terry Pratchett, and I honestly haven’t read any of them. Which is a terrible oversight on my part, I know, but I will catch up! They’re all on my TBR pile.

The Peculiar is set in a complex alternate history—one that you paint in exquisite detail for the reader. And despite its fantastical quirks, it feels utterly real. Without wishing to cause offence, how on earth did you go about creating such a rich, believable world at such a young age?

The Peculiar (cover)For me, worldbuilding seems like one of the easier things to write well, regardless of age. I’d say writing characters and emotions is where life experience is a good thing, and for worldbuilding all you really need to do is practice, read a lot, and try to think semi-logically. I also tried to write about things I was genuinely excited about. So steampunk, folklore, Victorian atmospherics, and a little bit of scariness.

Your two main characters are a delight to spend time with, even if they don’t feel the same about each other! Give us an insight into how the heroic changeling Bartholomew Kettle and awkward English politician Mr Arthur Jelliby came into being.

Oh, the characters…I was very plot-oriented with this book. It’s a first book, and first books tend to be a bit weighted in the direction of the author’s favorite things to write. In this case, plot and atmosphere. The characters came along as they were needed, without much forethought, and so I’m very pleased you liked them anyway.

There are two POV characters, and the book jumps back and forth between them until the plot-lines converge toward the end. What I wanted to do was show both sides of this faery/steampunk world—the changeling kid in the creepy ghetto who’s been hidden away his whole life for fear of being killed, and the rich, lazy politician who doesn’t have a care in the world—and then I wanted them both pushed out of their environments and forced to step up to the plate and become heroes against all odds.

Fantasy prologues are often derided, sometimes due to them being convenient ‘info dumps’ that delay the main story. Your exceptional prologue forms an entire backstory to the adventure to come and is about the most brilliant ‘info dump’ I’ve ever read. What made you feel you had to write a prologue and were you ever asked to cut it to jump straight into the story?

It totally is an info-dump. For this book, though, I thought it would be okay and in spirit to start with a prologue, Victorian storybook-style. I wasn’t asked to cut it. I had to tweak it and tighten it, but otherwise it’s the way I wrote it in the beginning.

This is a book that tackles some fairly uncomfortable and dark situations. It is also quite gruesome in places and tense throughout. Yet it’s marketed as a children’s fantasy! Did you write it as such or was this a publishing decision that came later? And what has the feedback been like from your younger fans?

It does get quite dark. I wrote it as a children’s story in the sense that I wrote for my 12-year-old self and for other 12-year-olds who liked scary stories and dark fairy tales. I think it’s up to the parents, and up to the kids themselves, to decide whether the book is for them or not. That being said, when I went on tour in the US I visited a lot of schools and some kids who had read the book were 8 or 9. They didn’t think the book was scary at all.

I think it’s interesting how differently books can strike different readers. One elderly lady I spoke to at a signing the other day thought The Peculiar was so bleak and sad, and a week earlier a kid reader had written an email, and the only adjective he used was “funny”. It’s whatever the reader decides it is, I suppose.

Do you feel that—in a similar vein to how Harry Potter was received before it really took off—adults are potentially missing out on a story they’d actually really enjoy?

Maybe. Bookshops are set up by category, though, and so publishers have to focus their resources. Also, from what I hear crossover is a difficult thing to engineer. It has to happen through word-of-mouth. I’d love for adults to read it, obviously, and I think they might get more out of it than kids, but it’s not something I have any control over.

Talk us through your journey from completing the manuscript to seeing your book in a store.

I totally wasn’t the smartest about querying. I started really soon after I thought the book was finished, because I was impatient and wanted to be published THIS INSTANT. I sent one letter at a time, waited for a rejection, got it, polished the book. So it took about a year, but each rejection made the book a little bit better. Eventually I got two offers of rep and Sara Megibow (of the Nelson Literary Agency) was the best and coolest, so I went with her.

It took much less time to get a book deal than it did to get an agent, which was surreal. Sara had a pre-empt on the table within 24 hours of putting the book on submission. There was an auction and it ended up being won by Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow/HarperCollins. I’m so happy it did. Virginia is such a great, smart editor, and I’m super lucky to be working with her.

Do you enjoy the publicity side of being an author? What’s been your favourite moment of this whole experience?

Sometimes! Just the fact that people spend their money on my book and spend their time reading it or coming to see me at an event, even though there are millions of other books out there and things to spend money on…to me, that’s awesome.

Favorite moments: meeting my publisher and agent, talking to scarily-full auditoriums of high-schoolers and middle-schoolers, meeting booksellers, meeting librarians, meeting readers, meeting Terry Pratchett and signing my book for him at the Harper HQ. (I didn’t tell him I hadn’t read his books yet. Luckily he didn’t ask. I would have died of mortification.)

The highly anticipated sequel, The Whatnot, is on its way. Without spoiling it for anybody who hasn’t read The Peculiar yet, what more can we expect from the adventures of Arthur and Bartholomew?

The Whatnot (cover)I hope the main thing about The Whatnot is that it’s better than the first. I feel like I learned a lot about characters and flow and writing from The Peculiar and I want it to show. The book is a bit wider in scope and a bit darker. We get to see the inside of the faery world, and a minor character in The Peculiar becomes a major one (and was really fun to write).

Also, it’s the last book! The series is done with The Whatnot. I’m so excited for people to read it.

And finally, why fantasy?

Because it’s the BEST. I don’t know. I’d like to try other things. My next book that HarperCollins contracted is really different. It’s kind of a survival YA thriller set in an underground palace. One day I’d like to write a historical book with no fantasy at all. But I love fantasy and I think it will always be my favorite.

It’s a bit funny to me when people talk about fantasy as if it’s super different from literary fiction or realistic fiction. Most books are fantasy in a way. I’ve read “realistic” teenage fiction that is so fake and corny, and I’ve read bizarre mash-up fantasies that make real-life feelings and events really clear. I think it all has to do with the way it’s written and how the writer communicates emotions to the reader, regardless of the trappings.

Many, many thanks to the delightful Stefan for taking the time to answer these questions. If you haven’t read The Peculiar, I can’t recommend it enough—truly one of the great fantasy books. And you better be quick, because next month I’m reviewing the [SPOILER] simply astounding sequel!

You can read more about Stefan’s The Peculiar series on his website or follow him on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar algon 33 says:

    Interesting… He has not read Terry Pratchett, BURN THE HERETIC! In all honesty though, kudos to him. Writing a book doesn’t seem like the hard part, and world building is pretty easy, but having the skill to objectively pick apart your own work shows a great deal off maturity and dedication, which is far more important than mere skill. If he’s supposed to be good now, what will he be like in a decade? I wonder what the heavens will have in store for this golden boy (had to quote Hawk-eye Mihawk, couldn’t resist).

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