I was given a signed advance copy of Kady Cross's The Girl in the Steel Corset when I presented at the Canadian
National Steampunk Exhibition in Toronto in 2011. Studying steampunk over the past four years has taught me not to
judge books by their cover or imprint, but Harlequin Teen had me
expecting something generic and insipid. Consequently, since it wasn't an ARC I'd been sent with the express purpose of reviewing, and because I never lack for romance and erotica reading to fill the February schedule, I leftGirl in the Steel Corseton the shelf. I picked it up as my nightly reading to my wife (a tradition we started with Harry Potter over a decade ago) in the lull between books four and five of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate. My low expectations were exceeded in the first chapter, so I adjusted them. Those expectations were exceeded, followed by repeated adjustments, until I can say, without reservation, that Girl in the Steel Corset stands among the best of romantic steampunk adventure, YA or otherwise. In short, don't judge this book by its lovely cover. At no point
in reading Girl in the Steel Corset have I felt like I was reading
Chick-Lit for Teens. The only teen reference that kept coming to mind was DC comics' TheNew Teen Titans in
the 1980s, when George Perez was illustrating it, or X-men from the same
period, done steampunk style. Once again, as with Seleste deLaney's Badlands, I had some burning questions, and Kady Cross was kind enough to take time out of her busy writing schedule to talk to me about the first book in The Steampunk Chronicles.
Mike Perschon: Were you consciously creating a
steampunked Super Team when you went about writing Girl in the Steel Corset? What,
if any, were your comic book inspirations here?
Kady Cross: I pitched the series as 'Teen X-Men meets League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen,' minus the extreme violence. I started reading X-Men when I
was... oh, seven or eight? I remember the first time I saw Dark Phoenix! I remember reading X-Men, the Age of Apocalypse, especially with Chris Bacholo's style,
Sandman, Shade the Changing Man, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen...I don't read comics much these days, but I still love them. I was a
little kid in the 70s, but I watched Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman,
those awful live action Superman and Captain America shows, The Greatest
American Hero... When friends would play 'pretend' I always wanted to
be Jean Grey or Ororo. My uncle used to call me Jamie Summers.
Mike Perschon: I often played as the Six Million Dollar Man, and I know that generation
of TV shows well. You seem to have created a steampunk version of Steve
Austin in Sam. Not the Steve Austin as played by Lee Majors, who always
seemed pretty content to have been brought back from the dead via
technology, but the Steve Austin of the original Cyborg novel Martin
Caidin, where Austin is angry and resentful to the point of attempted
suicide about his bionic second life. Sam's angst and his fight with Finley was what got me thinking Teen
Titans, since DC's Cyborg is another example of a character
whose life is saved by technological prosthetics which he ends up having mixed feelings about.
Kady Cross: Oh my God! You totally figured out my basis for Sam! Actually, in
the Kate Cross romances I've done for Signet I set each hero up as
homages to Steve Austin, Wolverine and Han Solo! You are also right
with the 'Cyborg' reference. Plus, I just love the conflict that comes
from man vs machine -- something you'll see more of in #3 and definitely
in #4. I think Sam is finally coming to terms with what he is, and that
it doesn't make him a monster.
Mike Perschon: I'm interested in knowing how much of this is a fully aware inspiration,
or just years of having this as the playtime foundation of a child. I
know that a number of fictions I played as a child are fully formed in
Kady Cross: I have to think that there is some of that childhood play in
my work. The heroes I loved then definitely make up the heroes I write
now. Han Solo, Steve Austin, Jamie Summers, Wonder Woman, Jean Grey,
Ororo Monroe, Wolverine, Gambit. I can't write a character that doesn't
have at least a bit of sarcasm or smart-ass about them. And I find it
next to impossible to write a weak woman -- not emotionally, but
Mike Perschon: It says you learned one of the foundational concepts of writing, I
suppose - crisis and contrivance! Writers contrive crises for their
characters - even the most realistic writers. It isn't just the ones
riffing off SF and comic books. Even though I've been doing a yearly focus on romance at my blog, I'm
still really new to the genre as a whole. My specialization is
speculative literature. So I expect an SF or fantasy novel to run 400
pages, but I'd not expected that in a Harlequin. The stereotyped image
of the Harlequin romance is the slim little paperback with the formula
plot. How is it that your romance, one specifically targeted to teens no
less, is so long? Is this the result of the mash-up of romance and SF,
with the SF element filling out the pages the romance doesn't occupy and
vice versa, or am I just talking like the neophyte I am?
Kady Cross: The books you are thinking of are the Harlequin romances that
are called 'category' books. They'll have titles such as "Harlequin
Presents" or "Harlequin American" or "Harlequin Intrigue" -- that sets
them up as a particular category. Those books are usually around 70k in
word count (I think), and they are the same as other Harlequin books in that readers know what
kind of story they will get when they pick them up. It's actually kind
of ingenious because the brand is so identifiable. But, Harlequin does
other stuff as well. They also own Mira, which is a big imprint. And
they own the imprint that publishes the Mac Bolan books. Now, to add to
the confusion, each 'category' has its own set of editorial staff,
though editors can edit for all lines.
Now, Harlequin Teen is a imprint owned by Harlequin, but it's
not really under the romance umbrella at all. It is its own division,
for lack of better term. So, it was set up to be more like a traditional
YA press. So, the books have different levels of romance, angst, etc.
And the word count varies as well.
So, to answer your question - my books are long because the
teen line is not modeled after the typical Harlequin category imprints.
Mike Perschon: How about the difficulty of writing within the rumored strict guidelines
of Harlequin? I've been told by romance writers that this is very
challenging, contrary to the popular opinion so many people have that
"they could write a formula romance, no problem." Are those parameters
set for you? Were there restrictions on the world you could build as a
Teen Harlequin writer?
Kady Cross: Yes, writing for Harlequin's lines can pay very well and allow an
author to write a ton of books, but there are parameters for the
categories. The reader wants a particular thing and you have to deliver.
Romance is sort of like that because you HAVE to have that happy
ending. I find some houses very strict in what they want. I used to
write for Avon but I ended up leaving because I didn't want to write
what they wanted -- what they thought they could sell. They do very well
with Regency romance, but I was done with all that.
Harlequin Teen has never told me I couldn't do something.
That's what's great about writing YA -- anything goes. Fiction is
becoming more like that again, romance as well. I know a lot of people
are scared of the industry right now, but I think it's a grand time to
be a writer. These self-pubs that are doing so well are forcing
publishers to take chances they wouldn't have normally taken.
Mike Perschon: I recently talked with Seleste deLaney, the author of Badlands, about
the speed with which characters fall in love in romance. It's like the
hyperbolized action of Mac Bolan (and while it was a surprise that
Harlequin has that imprint, it makes sense - again, those books follow a
very tight formula!) translated into the world of attraction rather
than violence. Yet your characters are very slow burn in their romantic
tension. Is that something endemic to YA romance, or is this a Kady
Kady Cross: I so appreciate that you enjoyed the slow build to
romance. I didn't think it made sense for them to be madly in love by
the end of the book. Or even by the end of Book 2, Girl in the Clockwork Collar, though it's building.
The physical side of their attraction comes out more in Book 3, and so by
the events of Book 4 they will be so involved that Finley will risk her life
to bring Griffin back. That's the end of the spoilers!
Mike Perschon: Those are pretty serious spoilers!
sure you've been asked this before, but I'm curious for myself. Was
there anything of Ali Larter as Niki Sanders on Heroes that ended up in
the construction of Finley Jayne? Or was this a case of having similar
starting points? After all the Incredible Hulk was Stan Lee's answer to
Jekyll and Hyde, and Niki Sanders was the Hulk for Heroes. I should
add that I really appreciated how you made Finley's father's story the
inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, rather than making her the
daughter of Jekyll. Much as I appreciate recursive fantasy, I like that
you're creating your universe whole cloth.
Kady Cross: I didn't have Ally's character from Heroes in mind for Finley. She was
definitely all Jekyll and Hyde for me. The Hulk has never been a
favorite of mine, so I didn't think of that all. However, I will admit
that there's a little Batman in Griffin.
Mike Perschon: What
has the response been from the steampunk community, or is the fan-base
for Girl in the Steel Corset broader than that? I think this first
outing in this series is great, and refused to skim-read it, because I
enjoyed it so much.
Kady Cross: As for the community... Well, the Steampunk folks have been great,
except for a couple of not-worth-mentioning exceptions. However, I've
gotten tons of notes from people who say that Steel Corset was their
first Steampunk book. Plus, I get people who read Cassandra Clare's
books first. So, I'd hazard a guess that maybe 30% of my readership is
from within the Steampunk community -- if that.
Mike Perschon: Well, I love the book, and if most of your readers are outside the steampunk scene, all the better. Steampunk shouldn't be a genre ghetto, and writers and readers from outside the so-called scene are what keeps it fresh. Readers interested in the Steampunk Chronicles series should know that in addition to Girl in the Clockwork Collar, Kady Cross has the third book, Girl with the Iron Touch, coming out this May.