We (and by ‘we,’ what I mean is ‘I’) at Atherton’s Magic Vapour do occasionally venture out of our cozy digital manor in order to pay little social calls upon neighbors. Hearing a rumour that one of our acquaintances had actually Written a Book, we, pausing only to don gloves, an elaborate hat, several layers of Sensible Garments (we are sensitive to Cold, and have therefore determined to have No More To Do With It Than We Can Help), and assorted Bits of Nonsense, rushed over to The Old Shelter to ask Many Questions.
We were Warmly Received, and Tea was served. It was of a type we had not previously sampled, and had a Strong Flavour, which we were informed was due to the presence of a substance known as Hooch. It made our head swim slightly, but we found it warming, and we therefore had several cups of it. As we refreshed ourselves, we interrogated Sarah Zama, our kind hostess, who was obliging enough to satisfy our curiosity. Yes, she had written a book. No, she wouldn’t mind at all discussing subjects such as Genre and Creative Process with our humble selves.
As far as we can remember, here is the substance of our discussion:
Atherton: We have heard that your book Give in to the Feeling is rather in the Dieselpunk genre. What exactly is Dieselpunk?
Sarah Zama: Well, you know what? Because Dieselpunk is such a new genre, there is still debate about what it is. I posted my idea on my blog here (http://theoldshelter.com/international-dieselpunk-day-2015/)
The term ‘dieselpunk’ was used the first time in 2001 by Lewes Pollak to describe his game Children of the Sun, which was set in a 1950s alternate universe. Much like Steampunk, Dieselpunk has a very specific kind of setting: not the Victorian world, but the beginning of the XX century. The two World Wars are a very popular setting, as is the beginning of the 1950s, the time of film noir, which has a great influence on this genre.
It is a speculative genre, with a preference (at least at the moment) for the SF slant. This is normally referred to as Retrofuture, because it depicts a world resembling our past, but with the eye of today, inserting a kind of technology that, though clearly inspired by today’s technology, is imagined as if being used in the past. Think of the film “Rocketeer” or “Captain America, the First Avenger”.
Atherton: What got you interested in Dieselpunk?
Sarah Zama: It was really very strange, because when I came across the term Dieselpunk for the first time, I was already writing it without knowing!
I’ve always been fascinated with the interwar years, and I’m not even sure why. It may be that I grew up watching black and white movies on tv, especially mysteries, which my granny was a fan of. Those stories and those settings, the art deco style, the black and white, shadowy looks. It all stayed with me. And I’ve always been a fantasy fan too, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before the two things came together.
It finally happened with my current project, which is a trilogy of stories set in 1926 Chicago… with ghosts.
Atherton: Judging by your splendid 1920s-themed A to Z, and also by your book, you are very interested in the Jazz Age. Why does this era especially captivate you?
Sarah Zama: I’m a very visual person and one of the appeals of the era is its design. I’ve always been into art deco, I like the essentiality of it.
But that was only the beginning. When I truly started researching the era, I discovered so many parallels with our own time. The Twenties were a time of great and fast change. People normally think it was exciting, the world was becoming what it is today, a very different place from the one it used to be. We normally think this is good, but at the time it was scary. The Twenties were in fact a time of great anxiety and scare.
Doesn’t it sound a lot like now?
But there is hope in there too, because as I said, scary as it was at the time – while living the change – it turned out to be good (well, for the most part) in the end. So I hope that, scary as our own times might be, it will turn out good in the end.
Atherton: How do you capture the mood of your era? Do you read the fiction of the era for inspiration?
Sarah Zama: I’ve read a lot of 1920s novels as well as essays about the era. I think you need both, if you want to get as complete a picture as you can have.
Novels of the era are good because they are pictures “taken in real time”, so to say. That’s how people felt and acted back then, told from the point of view of someone living that era.
But just because the authors were living the era, they took a lot of things for granted. There are things you’ll never pick up from novels, if you don’t know where to look.
So you need to read essays as well, because they will prepare you to be sensitive to what you need to know and look for. They are also actual information, which is another thing you need.
I’ve also watched many silent films from the 1920s, and I know you’re thinking “boring!” I’ll tell you the truth, most aren’t. I actually watched films that I really enjoyed and I’d choose over a contemporary film any time.
Films are still another way to capture the era: you actually see it. This allows you to make as objective an idea as you can get. In novels, you have to rely on the author’s descriptions, which is a very subjective matter. True, films are still subjective, but you can actually ‘see’ with your eyes, which is a form of objectivity.
What I then try to do is make details truly live. Because the Twenties weren’t so different a time from us, you may not feel the time if you stay on the surface. As I mentioned, the Twenties had a lot in common with our time, in fact, you’d be surprised how similar to us they were, so, to capture the essence of the time – the similarities but also the differences – you need to go deeper. And details are what allow you to do so.
Atherton: Do you know any really interesting examples of ‘flapper slang’?
Sarah Zama: I came across a piece of slang in a film, Our Dancing Daughters, that I found really funny. After being kissed by the man she’s attracted too, Joan Crawford tells him “What a service station you proved to be”.
But I don’t use a lot of flapper slang in my story, my characters are past that age.
This is something people don’t often realise: flappers were very young women, they were teenagers. Older women weren’t flappers. Though flappers’ attitude did sip out of the specific group, it actually influenced the lives and attitude, even the way of thinking of women of all age groups and walks of life. I think that’s why we still remember them today. They were a youth phenomenon, like many that are born and dead every few years, but their influence went far beyond the specific youth group. It impacted the entirety of society in a very hard way.
We then rose, thanked Sarah Zama for her hospitality, expressed our eagerness to buy her book at the first possible moment, and wandered back home, wondering as we did so why we seemed to be so unsteady on our feet.