Exclusive Interview: “Esprit de Corpse” Author Ef Deal
With the paranormal steampunk romance novel Esprit de Corpse (paperback, Kindle), writer Ef Deal is presenting the first adventure for twin sisters Jacqueline Duval and Angélique Laforge. Though as Deal says in the following email interview, it probably won’t be their last.
I’d like to start with some background: Who are Jacqueline Duval and Angélique Laforge, what do they do, when and where do they live, and what happens to them in their first adventure, Esprit de Corpse?
I love these girls. They are such rich characters for me. Jacqueline and Angélique, the Twins of Bellesfées, are the daughters of Michel Duval, an international business agent who works with the French government in trade relations. Both women are geniuses in their own fields, engineering sciences and maths for Jacqueline, the fortepiano performance and composition for Angélique. Monsieur Duval bought a petit château in the Loire valley between Orléans and Tours, where the girls were raised and trained.
All that sounds so formal, but these twins were wild terrors as children. When traveling with their father, they made mischief in the market squares of Morocco, played cache-cache on rooftops in India, danced in cathedrals, and once sneaked into a bokor’s hut in Haiti.
Jacqueline might be considered a high-functioning autistic, if such a term existed in 1843; she’s so focused on her mechanical undertakings and plans for new designs that she rarely notices what’s going on around her. She attended an all-male Polytechnique when she was only thirteen, so she’s naive about romance and has rather blunt social skills.
Angélique is the social butterfly. Sigismond Thalberg, the great piano virtuoso before anyone had ever heard of Chopin or Liszt, selected her to be his protégée when she was sixteen, and she toured the European stages, charmed the heads of state, and drew an adoring crowd, one of whom, Toma Draganovich…well, spoilers!
But now, Angélique is a wolf shapeshifter, and for the past five years she’s lived a bohemian life in Paris, hanging out with dissolute characters like Charles Baudelaire and Dumas Père and Heinrich Heine, brawling, seducing, getting into all sorts of trouble with the police, leaving Jacqueline to pick up the pieces after her. The story opens with Jacqueline sneaking Angélique out of Paris on the new Paris-Orléans railroad. A huge bronze automaton stops the train en route, and the source of its power is a mystery since all Jacqueline can find inside it is a skull with cryptic writing engraved on it. She pursues the skull’s significance while Angélique defends the château against invaders seeking the skull to power an army of automatons, igniting a world war.
Where did you get the idea for Esprit de Corpse? And why did you want this story to involve twin sisters as opposed to twin brothers or a twin brother and sister or just siblings who are close but not twins?
Novels come to me in pieces. I first got the idea of the twins from the Schwenke sisters in Brisco County, Jr., a true piece of early steampunk for TV. They were two gorgeous women slinging hammers, working the forge, and looking gorgeous, and that’s when I began to get ideas about my twins, back in the ’90s. So, as that was bubbling on a back burner, my husband and I took a visit to France in 2008 to tour Paris and the Loire Valley, where we stayed in a château that was the perfect setting for a pair of sisters. I could see those girls running around the halls and playing in the fields. A second château stay gave me the ideal grounds for the estate. I began to research periods in the 1800s when French industrialism was making advances in science, and that’s when it occurred to me to place a steampunk novel in the earlier part of the century, and let my girls discover airships and androides for themselves. Most scientific advancement is a matter of accidental discoveries anyway; Madame Curie had no idea she was discovering X-rays, for example. So, in my novel, Jacqueline is the genius who figures things out before anyone else does.
Once I decided on a locale and an era, I went down every rabbit hole I could find in research. I had spent my Junior Year Abroad in Paris and Tours, mostly focused on 19th century literature, so I had a general idea of the period just after the Three Glorious Days, or the July Revolution of 1830 as it was also called. France was a hotbed of geniuses in the early 1800s, in politics, music, theatre, art, medicine, and science. That’s when I decided the twins, rather than being two of a kind, would be polar opposites in their characters.
Bifurcation has always been one of my themes in my writing. My earlier fantasies featured half-human characters or characters searching for something they’re missing in life, some key understanding that someone else has. At that point, I decided Angélique would be one of Thalberg’s protégées, since he was always taking young students on the road with him — apparently to distract the men while their wives fawned all over him. She’d be graceful and lithe and know tout Paris while Jacqueline fiddled with her machines out of the limelight.
Once I had characters and setting and background and the whole milieu, I was able to pinpoint the exact moment to start the novel: the day Eugène Delacroix took the brand spanking new Paris-Orléans railroad to visit Chopin and George Sand in Nohant and noted the trip in his journal as “a blessing to my arthritic bones.” I knew I wanted a huge automaton to stop the train for some reason, and while watching Doctor Who, I got my image from the library episode, with a skull in the facemask of the spacesuit. Boom. The novel wrote itself at that point.
It sounds like Esprit de Corpse is a steampunk supernatural sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I call it a paranormal steampunk romance, but that’s misleading these days. In 19th century France, a romance was any story with highly fanciful elements. We think of Alexander Dumas’ novels as adventures, but they were called romances. Jules Verne’s novels were not just science fiction, they were considered romances. Nowadays, people associate romance novels with bodice-rippers and hot sex scenes, but that’s not Esprit de Corpse. It’s the 1840s, and while Angélique follows a debauched path, Jacqueline is quite proper, when she remembers to be civil. And yes, there is romance, but no bodices get ripped.
Now, Esprit de Corpse is your first novel, but you’ve had stories in such anthologies as Dangerous Waters: Deadly Women Of The Sea and Incubate: A Horror Anthology Of Feminine Power. Are there any writers who had a particularly big influence on Esprit de Corpse, but not on anything else you’ve written?
I think all the writers I read have had an influence in some way, especially the French works I studied in school. For Esprit de Corpse I wanted to turn both George Sand and Jane Austen on their heads a little, and I read — sometimes painfully — all of their canon. Their “influence” was more a cultural portrait for dialogue, language, social behaviors of the period. They made me very aware of language, especially Sand because while she wrote delicate heroines who never dared use the vulgar word “stomach,” she herself swore like a Montmartre whore, smoked cigars, took and abandoned lovers at will, and made the world her own. So, Jacqueline, who works in a forge, has a mouth on her that her housekeeper is always trying to tame, while Angélique is the untamed bohemienne.
They also made me aware that certain words didn’t exist in 1843, so if I wanted to stick with a tight third-person POV, I had to abandon a lot of words I would have liked to use. It’s steampunk, but goggles hadn’t been invented yet, so Jacqueline has to invent her own version of safety spectacles. Monkey wrenches had just been invented in America, so Jaqueline is very excited to receive a set of them. Wonderfully descriptive words like “pong,” “scrunch,” “‘shimmy,” even “subconscious” hadn’t been coined yet, so it took a lot of effort to write around these potholes in the narrative.
I’ve also been highly influenced by Gregory Frost’s use of metaphors that carry such weight to color an entire scene. He also likes to include little Easter eggs on occasion, and Esprit de Corpse is full of those.
You also write poetry, and had a poem in New Jersey Bards: Poetry Review 2022. How do you think writing poetry — and, of course, reading it — may have influenced how you wrote Esprit de Corpse?
I’m laughing because I had this wonderful professor in France who looked like Vincent Price, had a dramatic reading voice, and taught Baudelaire. It was the best course I had over there, where I fell in love with Baudelaire, whose poetry makes Poe look like Mary Poppins. The Baudelaire in my novels is not the esteemed literary figure we all know and love. (Well, maybe not all, but I certainly do.) In 1843, he was a bit of a young dandy who had just returned from the Caribbean with a lover, to the horror and shame of his mother, and he and Dumas and others were about to form the Hashischins, a club for smoking dope. Young Charles plays a significant role in the first two novels; lots of Easter eggs.
I’ve been reading poetry since I was very young. I learned to read at 3, and my parents had a set of The Book Of Knowledge offering classic poetry and children’s poetry (as in, to be read to children, not by children). I loved the sounds of them and the images they evoked. I think one of my favorite lines of poetry is, “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gave a lustre of midday to objects below.” Most kids would focus on the description of Saint Nicholas in that poem, but I loved the image those words painted. I learned very early to play with rhymes and assonance and consonance, sometimes too much. So, yes, poetry is a very much-used tool in my author’s toolbox.
What about non-literary influences; was Esprit de Corpse influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
As I said, Brisco County, Jr. and Doctor Who sparked the foundation. “Costume thingies,” as my husband Jack and I call historical dramas, gave me ideas for descriptions of settings, no one film or show in particular.
And how about your chows? What influence did they have on Esprit de Corpse?
How I wanted to have chows patrolling Bellesfées. Sadly, and here I’m sticking to my guns about anachronisms, chows were introduced to England in 1820 but only kept in a zoo. Not until the 1880s did they come in from China as pets. Now, Book 4 does have a Chinese connection, so I may be able to bring one in…hmmm. Now you’ve given me another piece of a novel…
But our chows are related to my writing. The first novel series I wrote back in my tender years featured a character named Gwynna Lionshadow. You can meet her in Chris Ryan’s Soul Scream Antholozine, in a short piece called “One More Ghost Story.” At that time, a colleague at school who volunteered at a shelter told me about this dog that looked like a lion and was named Shadow. Someone had bought a chow puppy only to find it grew up to be a chow, so they threw him into the yard for three years before dumping him. I had to check him out. He was absolutely majestic, a huge blue chow. He immediately took to being loved and we had him for six years before cancer took him. After Shadow came our puppy Moonlight, a little red we saved from a brutal mill in Georgia. We didn’t realize it was a mill until after she arrived, about 6 weeks old, not even weaned. She suckled food from our fingers, poor little thing. Then along came Lieutenant Kijé, another blue, from the same mill a few years later when the authorities finally shut the guy down for dumping 35 chows on a highway. Georgia Chow Rescue connected with the ChowChow Rescue of Central New York, and we got him there, after four months of being brutalized and cattle-prodded. He’s still very shy of people at twelve years. Finally, we adopted Corbin, a jet-black goofball who is still a puppy at six years. Kijé and Corbin both are from the CCRCNY. The kids in town call them the Fluffy Twins.
As I mentioned earlier, Esprit de Corpse is Jacqueline and Angélique’s first adventure. Though it’s also, you’re hoping, the first in a series. What can you tell us about your plans for these ladies?
I call the book series The Twins Of Bellesfées. I didn’t start out envisioning a series, but I couldn’t let these girls go. The more research I did on the period, the more stories I envisioned. I wrote a few very-shorts for Noir at the Bar, feghoots in a way, all ending with some pun in the iteration of “noir at the bar.”
I had initially wanted to bring a vampire into Esprit de Corpse but it just felt too stuffed. Still, the idea of a vampire up against the twins nagged at me. When I finished Book 1, the next day I started Book 2, Femmes Fatales, a vampire novel. Now the fun I had with this one (and I have to tell you, I have a lot of fun writing these) was that there were no vampire novels solidifying any type of “rules” about vampires before 1872, Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu, an Irishman. Coleridge had dabbled in it, but never finished anything. There had only been Varney the Vampire in the serials (they weren’t called Penny Dreadfuls yet), and he was more a comic figure. Stoker’s Dracula stole the show, and up until vampires sparkled, his rules were the only rules. This meant I could play around as much as I wanted with a variety of vampire lore, but Carmilla’s tale stuck with me, so I decided to retro the story. I finished Femmes Fatals in 29 days flat. It just poured.
In Book 3, Les Fleurs du Malheur (there’s that Baudelaire again), Jacqueline reckons with ghosts haunting a brand new locomotive while Angélique deals with a mad scientist skinning children (offstage) and stealing souls. That story too poured out in three months, and it is one of my favorites.
Book 4 is a zombi (with no final “e,” as it was originally spelled) novel, Bone Appétit, in which poisoned tobacco wreaks havoc in London, and the twins have to save the Queen and prevent not only a zombi invasion but also a war between France and England. That book took over a year to write, mainly because it’s set in 1843 England, and I had tons more arcane research to do.
So now I’m researching for Book 5, La Belle Dormante au Bois, which will feature Gwyn ap Nudd and the Wild Hunt in Wales as Jacqueline deals with crippling injuries and Angélique confronts the hijacked Rebecca movement.
I sure hope there will be more because I have lots more bad French puns for titles.
Earlier I asked if Esprit de Corpse was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Esprit de Corpse could be adapted into a movie, show, or game?
Oh, how I’ve dreamed. You know, Millie Bobby Brown read Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series, and made the movies happen for herself. Now, people are discovering Springer’s works all over again, and she is wonderful, her works so vivid. So, yes, if Millie Bobby Brown or anyone else would like to jump on The Twins Of Bellesfées, I would love it. I think one of those 8-episode Netflix type of shows would fit the complexity of the novels’ plots best. The thing is, the characters, the settings, the politics of the age, the amazing figures of “Athens of Paris,” as the literati called themselves, the boom of industry and arts and science, everything about that era lends itself to so many plot ideas and could easily fill an hour with a lot of fun.
And if Netflix wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Jacqueline, Angélique…or maybe as both Jacqueline and Angélique?
Corinna Everson and Cameo Kneuer, sisters and body builders, played the Schwenke sisters back in the ’90s, and Mike McPhail used Corinna as the model for Jacqueline on the cover — which is so perfectly striking. I’m not up on my stars and starlets these days, so I wouldn’t know how to cast someone (just one actor for both) who can look ravishingly delicate and beautiful in one form and plain and dowdy in the other form. It’s important to the plot later on that they are identical. I’m certainly open to suggestions.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Esprit de Corpse?
People reading this novel will fall in love with my girls. Their sororal affection for one another despite their being at odds is endearing. I hope readers recognize the depth of research and historical detail, but even if they don’t, the action never lets up. Automatons, rogues, kidnapping, the latest iteration of the velocipede. Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, finally gets recognized in her own time period, even if it’s only by Jacqueline, who uses her “poetical science.” Charles Baudelaire gets his inspiration for one of his best known poems while helping Jacqueline find the back door to the Catacombs of Paris. Wolves, war, sorcery, a lone surviving janissary, revenants, skulls, and Paris. I think that’s plenty.
Finally, if someone enjoys Esprit de Corpse, which steampunk novel of someone else’s would you recommend they check out next?
Not a novel, but a web comic, Girl Genius. Phil and Kaja Foglio are brilliant comedy geniuses, and their story is as rich as their comic. Hilarious touches in every panel, like “Did you remember to shut down the experiment?” printed on the risers going up the stairs from the lab. I came to it late, but I was startled to see how much we thought alike, especially with Agatha Heterodyne’s little clanks. I swear I didn’t copy them for Book 4 because I didn’t start reading Girl Genius until after I came up with them. Highly recommend.
The novel I most enjoyed was K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, which folks credit as the first steampunk novel, and there are a few nods to him in my work.
For tone, I recommend Michelle Sonnier’s The Clockwork Witch. Good gender roles in a world where magic is taken for granted but science is not. “When brown-buds bloom, the witching world better watch out!” I like that idea of brown buds blooming. It sort of describes Jacqueline. It’s a very good book.
But mostly, I enjoy short stories, and eSpec Books has a few steampunk anthologies out with punked up fairy-tales, Gaslight And Grimm, and even a steampunk afterlife collection, After Punk. And earlier this year we campaigned on Kickstarter for a sequel fairy-tale anthology called Grimm Machinations, Poe-inspired fiction in A Cast Of Crows, and Grease Monkeys, what’s called “dieselpunk” — focusing on the mechanics who keep the steampunk stuff afloat or aloft. Jessica Lucci, David Lee Summers, Danielle-Ackley McPhail, Michelle Sonnier, all unique in their vision and excellent writers.