Interview: James P. Blaylock, author of The Aylesford Skull

James P. Blaylock is the author of over 25 novels and is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Steampunk! His brand new book, The Aylesford Skull, just came out in January, and James was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.

**You can also win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull, so be sure to check out those details at the bottom of the post!

Please welcome James to the blog!

James, The Aylesford Skull is your first new steampunk novel in over 20 years! What inspired you to write it?

After publishing Lord Kelvin’s Machine in 1992, I wrote a number of contemporary fantasy novels set in southern California. (In fact, the majority of my books and stories are set in California, where I’ve lived all my life.) It generally takes me a couple of years to write a novel, which explains why so much time passed without my writing anything Steampunk. In around 2007, I read a collection of stories by James Norman Hall, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, titled Dr. Dogbody’s Leg (which I recommend highly). The stories are funny, adventurous seafaring tales set during the Napoleonic Wars; reading them inspired me to write something Steampunk again, and the result was a short novel title The Ebb Tide, which was published in 2009 by Subterranean Press. That one was so much fun that

I followed it up with The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs, also from Subterranean Press. At around that time I found a new agent, a real taskmaster, who suggested that I write a full-length Steampunk adventure, which happily resulted in The Aylesford Skull, my longest novel to date. So it wasn’t quite 20 years between Steampunk books, but very close. I’ve just recently finished another short Steampunk novel titled The Pagan Goddess, a companion to the other two Subterranean Press productions, and I’m working up a proposal for yet another longer Steampunk novel. So I largely owe my own Steampunk resurgence to Dr. Dogbody and to my agent.

Funny how the muses work.

Will you tell us a bit about the book and Professor Langdon St. Ives?

The Aylesford Skull is set in 1883, in Aylesford, Kent, in London, and in the smuggler inhabited Cliffe Marshes. St. Ives has two young children and has decided to give up adventuring in order to become a gentleman farmer, growing hops on his estate and piloting his newly-built dirigible. His sensible wife Alice (an expert fisherman – fisherperson?) is the rock of his existence, and the two are happy to be settled and prospering. A series of terrible events (river piracy, grave robbery, murder, a threat to the family) yank St. Ives and Alice out of their peaceful existence and pitch both of them into the middle of what turns out to be a massive threat not only to London, but to the world. The plot is a sort of mystery thriller, and so I can’t say much about it without giving things away. I can say that it involves the paranormal, trafficking in magically enhanced skulls, explosions, the hidden London rivers, and dozens of other dire, fantastic things.

For readers new to my stories and novels, I’ll say that aside from my previous novels – Homunculus (which won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award in 1986) and Lord Kelvin’s Machine – I’ve also written a number of short stories involving St. Ives, who has been a time traveler, space traveler, jungle explorer, undersea explorer, and all manner of things. He has a tendency toward recklessness and a high sense of honor that as often as not gets him into trouble.

What research did you do for the novel?

At first I read widely as the spirit moved me, looking for odds and ends that would spark further ideas of my own. In that regard I’m a big fan of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, which is loaded with colorful stuff about Victorian England. I also browsed through old books of popular science published in that era, my particular favorite being a big, illustrated volume titled World of Wonders published by the Werner Company. That (and a very vivid dream) led me to an interest in Japanese magic mirrors, which led me to further research, all of this taking several months. Once I had the essential idea for the novel, the research was more focused, and I put together a proposal and wrote a chapter or two. During the year long business of writing the book, I was continually sent back to the research in order to provide verisimilitude and because one element in a scene suggests another, each wanting more research.

Finally, when I write Steampunk (and even when I don’t) I’m a fairly constant reader of Victorian novels and essays, and also of modern books set in that era, all of which tunes my ear to the language. I don’t want the writing to sound inaccessibly antique, but I don’t want it to sound modern, either. In that regard I’m indebted to books like the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published in 1811, and to A Sea of Words, which is a lexicon of naval terminology, which is quite useful whether characters are on a steam launch on the Thames or aloft in a dirigible. There are a heap of good books of that nature. I’m entirely indebted, however, to the Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles, which I check constantly to avoid anachronism, unwanted Americanisms, and to get the precise meanings of words and phrases that are a century out of fashion. The research, in other words, wasn’t finished until I put a period at the end of the last sentence of the novel.

You’re considered a pioneer of the steampunk genre. Why do you think it’s become so popular in the last few years?

I love the language of that era, and I especially love the physical trappings and the colorful (often poverty-stricken, awful, and depressing) manner in which people lived. I’m crazy for the science of the era, too, which was largely imaginary, and which inspired Verne and Wells to write about backyard scientists, lost civilizations, undersea exploration, and other wonderful things in ways that might seem absurd today, given what we’ve come to know. To my mind, all of that stuff is so wonderfully colorful (sorry to repeat the word, but it works too well not to) that it must appeal to a lot of people just as it appeals to me. I’m happy if my stories helped renew its appeal.

What are some of the biggest influences on your writing?

I first read Verne and Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Conan Doyle when I was around ten or eleven years old. I didn’t know it at the time, but that reading monumentally influential. It led to a love of Victorian literature in general. There’s another variety of influence, however, that’s not as easy to pin down. Over my 35 years as a writer, my wife and I have had two sons, we’ve traveled, I’ve become a teacher, I’ve seen the world change, and all of that, of course, has affected my writing. I’m not the same person that I was when my first Steampunk story, “The Ape-box Affair” was published in Unearth magazine in 1978, and my stories and novels have illustrated the changes without my knowing that it was happening.

What’s something that you like to see in a good book?

Good writing. My favorite authors have an unmistakably original voice; they write things that no other writer can write. I read their work and wonder how they do it. I’m also fond of a rich setting. I’m happiest when I have a sense of place in the same way that I have a sense of character.

Is there anything that will make you put a book down without finishing it?

Flat, indifferent, uninteresting writing, regardless of the plot. Thin writing that makes me suspect that the writer isn’t picturing things or doesn’t care much about character.

What are you reading now?

I’ve got three books going: H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O’Brian, The Pickwick Papers, and Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken.

When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?

My wife and I have built theatre sets for local community and children’s theatres for the past 20 years. (Just finished building sets for a Christmas musical written by my son John, which has gone up pre-Christmas six times now.) I travel, often to Hawaii, where we have family and because I’m a lifelong fan of the beach and the ocean, and to New York City, where my sons live or have lived off and on for years.

What’s next for you?

More of the same. A new semester is gearing up at the schools where I teach, I’ve got two books (a sequel to my recent Zeuglodon, which your readers should check out (shameless plug) and a new Steampunk novel) and two stories to write, and I’m looking forward to summer, the beach, and building a new back porch.
Keep up with James: Website

This article was posted as part of the Aylesford Skull Swashbuckling Blog Tour celebrating the release of James P. Blaylock’s first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years.

**For the opportunity to win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull in a jacketed, signed hardcover with a unique jacket design, just tweet “I would like a limited edition of the Aylesford Skull @TitanBooks #Blaylock”.

Details about The Limited Edition (available Feb 2013)

750 signed and numbered editions:
Jacketed, cloth-bound hardcover with ribbon
Signed by James P. Blaylock
Exclusive foreword by K.W. Jeter and introduction by Tim Powers

26 signed and lettered editions:
As above encased in a custom-made traycase

Be the first to find out when The Aylesford Skull (Limited Edition) is available, by signing up to our mailing list here:


  1. awesome interview! I especially appreciate learning more about Aylesford Skull and the character of Langdon St. Ives as my local SF/F book club just chose this for our February read. Looks like I’m in for a fun and wild ride!

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