In The Guns Above, the exciting first book in her ongoing Signal Airship series, writer Robyn Bennis not only brought some Master & Commander-esque sensibilities to the steampunk genre, but she did so with a masterful commander who challenged the idea that women can’t be as capable as men. And while she’s continuing the adventure elements in the second Signal Airship book, By Fire Above (hardcover, Kindle), in the following email interview, she explains it’s a different aspect of sexism that’s fueling this new flight of fancy.
To begin, what is By Fire Above about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book in your Signal Airship series, The Guns Above?
Chronologically, it continues from the same moment we left off, and we quickly learn that things are not quite as stable as the last chapter of The Guns Above would have us believe. The battle is over, but its effects — physical and otherwise — linger on. This is in keeping with the theme and narrative of the first book, in which things are usually much worse than they first seem. Josette and Bernat are reminded of this the hard way, when the airship Mistral springs an inflammable air leak, which is exactly as dangerous as it sounds. Then, there’s the fact that Elise — Josette’s mother and Bernat’s possible lover — is caught behind enemy lines with no chance of escape.
Of course, Josette Dupre isn’t the kind of person who believes there’s such a thing as “no chance.” With Bernat’s help on the political side of things, she’s determined that Garnia will liberate her hometown of Durum and free her mother from the Vins. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that she gets her chance.
Where did you get the original idea for the By Fire Above, and how different is the finished novel from that initial concept?
The finished novel is remarkably similar to the initial concept, which surprised the hell out of me. A lot of authors talk about their characters shocking them with unexpected decisions and actions, and my characters certainly shocked me more than a few times in the first book. I must have them figured out now, however, because I managed to get through By Fire Above without having to rewrite my original outline.
Well, without having to rewrite it entirely, that is. There were a few small things that came as a surprise, and required chapter-level rethinks. For example, I hadn’t anticipated that Bernat would hyperventilate from anxiety and require the use of a fainting couch when Josette makes a mess of her audience with the king of Garnia. Though, in hindsight, that seems absolutely obvious.
As for where the original idea came from, you’ve got me. I don’t know where half the stuff in my brain comes from, and the world is probably better off for it.
In writing By Fire Above, were there ever times when you wished you had done something different in The Guns Above?
Only once. The funny thing is, it wasn’t so much changing something as it was changing it back.
You see, in the first draft of The Guns Above, there was a throwaway line about Durum, Josette’s home town, having belonged to the enemy hundreds of years earlier. It was so throwaway, in fact, that I threw it away in the second draft. Which would have been fine if I’d remembered that I’d thrown it away, and if it hadn’t somehow stuck in my head. Instead, I turned that deleted bit of backstory into a major plot point in By Fire Above, then had a heart attack when I realized it was no longer in The Guns Above.
Lucky for me, I realized it was missing while reviewing the copyedits of The Guns Above, so I was able to make a last-minute change, and we managed to get it back in there before the book went to print.
In our previous interview [which you can read here], we talked about how The Guns Above was a steampunk novel, but was inspired by the historical fiction of Patrick O’Brian [Master And Commander]. Is the same true for By Fire Above, or does it encompass elements of some other literary genres?
I would say that its primary influence is still Patrick O’Brian. I’m fortunate that my favorite author dabbled in quite a few genres over the course of the twenty completed books in the Aubrey-Maturin series. So, even as I delve into spycraft and political machinations in By Fire Above, I have ample material to steal from…uh, I mean, to draw on.
Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on By Fire Above, but not on The Guns Above?
I did, ahem, draw onsome of the stories of Bernard Cornwell. Anyone who’s read the Sharpe’s Rifles series recognized a few elements in The Guns Above, and they’ll recognize many more in By Fire Above. In particular, I reread several books in the series to get a visceral sense of the chaos and terror of house-to-house fighting with Napoleonic-era weapons.
Of course, Josette and Bernat will always be their unique selves, even when they’re dodging bullets and bayonets. So you can’t say I haven’t brought my own personal flair to the scenario. At least, I hope not, because Bernard Cornwell is alive and still writing fantastic books, and I bet he has a great lawyer.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; any of them have a big influence on By Fire Above?
Unfortunately, there are few movies and television shows that handle either airships or musketry with enough accuracy to make it worth stealing from them.
As for video games, I haven’t drawn influence from any so far. I will admit, though, that I always keep [the turn-based strategy game] Napoleon: Total War in my back pocket, in case I ever need to map out and visualize a large battle scene.
The Guns Abovedealt with issues of sexism in the fictional universe’s military, and the book even had the tag line. “Lean In. Fire At Will.” Does By Fire Above deal with these issues as well?
Absolutely, though it shifts the perspective a bit. The Guns Above took a hard look at blatant, institutional sexism. By Fire Above examines a more subtle form: the quiet erasure of women’s contributions and accomplishments. Josette will have to learn how to deal with this, and even how to take advantage of it, as she discovers that the woman-dominated resistance movement in Durum has used the veil of invisibility as an aid to spycraft.
As for why I deal with these issues in my writing…well, I can’t bring myself to do otherwise. Many of the sexist elements in both of these books are based on my actual experiences in biotech. This is the kind of stuff I’ve had to endure and fight during my entire career, as have countless other women. I have to write from the heart, so I’m never going to gloss over this stuff in a present or past-like story. That said, the most common complaint among readers of the first book was that the sexism made them uncomfortable. To which I respond: good. If it doesn’t, you’re the problem.
Was the book also all shaped by what’s been going on with the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp?
Due to the long lead times in the publishing industry, I completed the book before those movements gained very much steam, so I can’t say they shaped it. On the other hand, it was certainly shaped by the same issues that drove them. The biotech industry, which I’ve worked in since 2002, is rife with borderline-abusive creepers. In the past, you just had to grin and take it, or else youwere the one who got a reputation as a troublemaker for telling them to stop. Before #MeToo, the most you could do was humiliate them in a novel.
The Guns Above and By Fire Above are both part of your Signal Airship series. What can you tell us about this series? For instance, how many books are thinking it will be?
I don’t have a set number in mind, but I have enough half-formed ideas to write dozens more. Who knows? I might just follow Patrick O’Brian’s example and keep writing them until I drop dead. Then again, I have a certain lifestyle to maintain, so readers will have to keep buying them if they want me to write more. It’s not cheap to hunt people for sport, as you well know.
And will their titles all end in the word Above?
That’s an excellent question, which I’m not sure I have the answer to. I’d like to maintain that as a naming convention, so potential readers will recognize new books at a glance. However, I’m not sure I can keep it up forever. There are only so many good titles that fit the pattern, right? I expect it’s going to be a long day hunched over a blank dry-erase board, when I finally run out.
So has there been any talk of adapting The Guns Above, By Fire Above, or the Signal Airship series as a whole into a movie, TV shows, board game, or video game?
That’s funny, because just yesterday I was talking to Connor Drexler — the author of Mad God Walking, a novel that’s exactly as fun as it sounds, and which may or may not have made me cry at the end — about how we’d turn the Signal Airship series into a dice-based roleplaying game. We were just dreaming, of course, but now you’ve got me wondering if we shouldn’t give it a try.
That’s funny because I had the same thought, that it would work as a board game. Anyway, if someone enjoys The Guns Above and By Fire Above what would you suggest they read while waiting for A Danger Above to come out?
Hold on a second, I need to write that one down…. Okay. Thank you. That’s another year before I’ll have to resort to The Goons Above.
Lucky for readers, there’s a ton of great, thoughtful steampunk and gunpowder fantasy out there to tide you over until the next book in the Signal Airship series. If you’re jonesing for more after By Fire Above, the first thing you should do is pick up Nisi Shawl’s Everfair. Next, I would recommend Megan O’Keefe’s Scorched Continent series [Steal The Sky, Break The Chains, Inherit The Flame]. Then start working your way through The Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler [The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne, The Price Of Valor, The Guns Of Empire, The Infernal Battalion]. Of course, The Ministry Of Peculiar Occurrences series [Phoenix Rising, The Janus Affair, Dawn’s Early Light, The Diamond Conspiracy, The Ghost Rebellion] by Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine is mandatory. Last but not least, be sure to check out the Steeplejack series by A.J. Hartley [Steeplejack, Firebrand, Guardian]. I just managed to score an advanced copy of the third book, Guardian, and I can’t wait to start reading.