Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: My name is Mat McCall, I’m an educationalist specialising in Adult Education, a History and Archaeology lecturer, award winning Steampunk artist and artificer, bulldog fancier, natural philosopher and Fortean.
I am a fifty-something-year-old kid, who enjoys dressing up and doing silly things with silly people. Well, that’s essentially what Steampunk is. I have always had an abiding passion for Science Fiction and Fantasy, only equalled by my passion for Archaeology and History. I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Robert Aspin’s “Thieves World,” and George Martin’s “Game of Thrones.”
I am heavily involved with the local Steampunk community and organise events in Gloucester, UK, my hometown, where I live with my wife, Nikki, and my three mad dogs.
Thanks so much, Mat, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Mat McCall. I am dyslexic and could not read or write until I was 12. But I’ve always loved stories. My Mum read to me nightly from an early age. So, I fell in love with words, the language and how words can create images in your mind. I learnt quite early that although I wasn’t good at reading or writing, I could tell stories to entertain people.
JSC: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
McC. I read all my reviews, carefully. Luckily, I have only had one bad, nasty, in fact, review, and that was from some red-neck Trumpite, who hated that there are gay characters, black characters and a character questioning her gender assignment in The Dandelion Farmer. He was adamant that there were no black people or lesbians in Victorian times, and thus had no place in a Steampunk story. Ah, bless. All the rest have been fair to fantastic.
JSC: Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?
McC. I started a dark age fantasy novel, Annis, 26 years ago, and it was a slog. I wasn’t in the correct mental state to write. I found I could only write when I was deeply depressed, and it became a coping mechanism. But that stalled and writer’s block became a solid wall. One day a friend and fellow author said to me that maybe I should leave it, put it aside and start something else.
I’m a committed member of the British Steampunk Community and I love Sf, books, film and some TV, but found that most of the Steampunk books I’d read, back then, were rubbishy whimsy or soft porn. So, I decided to write something more SF and challenging than the usual cod nonsense. And the Dandelion Farmer was written in two years.
I decided rather than going for an alternative London or whatever, to go for a totally new environment, a world that I could build from the ground up. Victorian and Edwardian SF loved Mars, fired on by the speculation from the astronomers and psychics of the age. One of the first great novels of the age was Hugh MacColl’s Mr Stranger’s Sealed Packet. 1889, which delt with going to Mars. Boroughs, of course, set his John Carter adventures on Mars. And one of the most formative Sf series I watched as a child was the TV version of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.
Mars seemed the ideal place. I teach history, and I know what the reality of conquest and colonialism is.
My Mars was not going to be some quaint little idyl, it was going to be a place where all the worst of colonialism has manifested itself and died in the cold harsh sands. Wars with and conquest of the native and Indigenous populations, industrialisation, the stripping and destruction of the environment, intercolonial warfare, rebellion, and revolution. A ‘new frontier’ and a ‘new manifest destiny,’ and all the horrors that entails. The physical and psychological squaller that we humans create around ourselves every time with ‘discover’ paradise.
This to me is SF’s real meaning, SF should be challenging, should be thought-provoking and should make the reader shudder, it should draw parallels with reality and confront the reader with unpleasant truths.
Against this background is ranged an alien race far more complex and far more powerful than the humans could have ever understood. A race shrouded in mystery. I guess they represent the unknowable and the unconquerable. Powers far beyond the grasping grubby hands of the colonial conquistadors.
JSC: How long have you been writing?
McC. I have been telling stories all my life.
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
McC. This is one of those points that will either get me applauded or shouted down. The Dandelion Farmer is grounded in a neo-Victorian (British mainly – though it expands beyond that) post-colonial frontier world. Although that frontier world is Mars.
As a historian and archaeologist, by trade, I know quite a lot about the realities of that period of Imperial Colonialism, not just what went on, but the politics and social attitudes, and the reality of life not only in the colonies (no matter where they were) but in Britain itself, for all three classes.
In London, always the most densely populated area of the UK, at the beginning of the 18th c the black population was about 1%. Homosexuality was illegal. Lesbianism did not exist according to the law. People were thrown into asylums for everything from being left-handed to depression or getting pregnant out of wedlock.
And so, I cannot represent my world, if set in a pseudo-version of that world as being a cypher for the modern world. Yes, I have characters of non-western Caucasian racial origins that take major roles. Yes, I have an outwardly ‘liberated’ adventuress young lady, Parthena, who has an affair with one of the other female characters, a journalist, no less (in Victorian society, the fact she is a journalist would almost be more shocking than her gender). Yes, the journalist, Charity, is attracted to both the young adventuress and one of the male lead characters (Dear Gods! Sir! What would the Queen say!).
The eponymous Dandelion Farmer himself struggles with an acute stammer. The male lead heroic character is suffering from PDSD and is physically disfigured…and the only remaining Martian in the colony struggles with her identity on several levels. Aelita was given as a hostage at such a young age that she knows and remembers nothing of her culture or language. She also struggles with the issues around the assumed gender role that has been forced upon her by what is essentially a culture and society alien to her (my Martian races are much inspired by the ambisexual Gethens of Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness), and her skin is deep red.
And one of the characters is a bombastic, intolerant, reactionary, army Colonel Blimp like character, with a chest bedecked with medals and a career that is more blood-soaked than an abattoir floor.
But these characters exist in a culture and society close to the reality of the British Victorian era, with its assumptions, prejudices, socio-cultural restrictions, and grim realities. Not in some cypher for our modern world. Parthena and Charity both have had to actively avoid being forced into sham marriages for appearance sake and both feel they are forced to hide who they really are.
I had to hide my bisexuality throughout the 13 years of my first marriage. While Aelita’s awakening, from such a sham marriage and the straight jacket of her environment, will have a fundamental effect on the whole tale.
As a bisexual male, of mixed ethnic background, with both a physical and learning disability, I understand that diversity is not only ‘important,’ it is part of our fundamental nature. I didn’t put these characters in to showcase them, or to score points on some ‘woke’ clap-o-meter, I created these characters because this is who they are, they are heroes and adventurers, good ‘guys’ and bad ‘guys,’ all are various shades of grey– but it is not a story about them and their personal struggles, it’s their individual stories they bring with them.
Who they are makes what they do, how brave they are, and what they achieve so amazing.
JSC: Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
McC. Part-time writer. Full-time lecturer. Full-time Steampunk.
JSC: Do your books spring to life from a character first or an idea?
McC. Most of my characters come to me kind of fully formed.
It’s like meeting them at a party. Some, though growing gradually, take on layers. Aelita for instance. Named for Aelita, Queen of Mars, from The Decline of Mars, a 1923 science fiction novel by Aleksey Tolstoy. Is a mixture of elements; she has deep red skin. Red, green, and yellow-skinned Martians have been a factor in SF since Hugh MacColl’s, Mr Stranger’s Sealed Packet. 1889 (way before Boroughs). The ambisexuality of her race came from my enchantment with Le Guin’s, The Left Hand of Darkness, which left a powerful mark on my imagination, along with my experience with supporting a good friend through her transition. The victimisation and failure of society and the system to comprehend and respond to her needs, in my opinion, cost her her life.
My mother fostered when I was little, and one of the children was Willy, the daughter of a West African nurse working in London. I always remember that one day the racial bullying she received at school got so bad that my mum found Willy in the bath scrubbing at her skin with a nail brush to try to get the colour to come off. As a victim of bullying throughout my own school life, I can understand that kind of desperation, that kind of self-hate, caused through such callous victimisation. I make no apology for making that tale part of Aelita’s story.
Suddenly there Aelita was, this incredibly beautiful spirit, trapped in an unresolved body, trapped in an alien culture and society, with no knowledge of even her own language or history. Spat at in the street. Drugged to pacify her and imprisoned in a house by an overbearing ‘husband’ who sees her as little more than another curiosity in his collection and exhibited like a trophy. And yet, Aelita remains gentle, powerful, and dignified.
JSC: Tell us something we don’t know about your heroes. What makes them tick?
McC. Everyone has their own story in the greater scheme of things.
Edwin, the Dandelion Farmer, is just trying to do the best he can.
Adam’s is a tale of redemption. The Professor is a tale of a man looking for meaning after losing his wife. Aelita’s is a tale of metamorphosis emotional psychological and physical. Charity is a tale of revenge. The Colonel is a tale of a man desperately trying to live up to his reputation.
And that is only a few of a vast cast of characters.
JSC: What character gave you fits and fought against you? Did that character cause trouble because you weren’t listening and missed something important about them?
McC. Colonel Ranolph Carter Jahns. He is a distillation of everything unpleasant about Victorian British Colonialism, yet he is also insanely brave and courageous. He is named for Borough’s John Carter and Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter and is a mix of John Carter’s heroics and David Low’s Colonel Blimp, with a dash of Sherman’s genocidal ‘the only good one is a dead one’ philosophy.
He has been a nightmare to write. In fact, he is deeply unpleasant, and I have had to hold him back. He is what we call an equal opportunities hater; he hates everyone – apart from his men. He clashes verbally with several of the other characters, he’s intolerant, pompous, irascible, foul-mouthed and jingoistic. He is one of those people you would never want to socialise with or call a friend, in fact, you might despise him as much as he you, but in a fight, you want him on your side, rather than have to face such a man.
JSC: Who has been your favourite character to write about and why?
McC. Oh, that’s impossible, I love most of them. They are like my children. I think, though, the one that fascinates me the most is Aelita.
JSC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
McC. I could not read or write until I was at least 12, but I always loved telling stories. My mother engendered a love of literature in me long before I could read, by reading to me from an early age. I also fell in love with the patterns on the page, the way a set of strange marks could create whole worlds of adventure and wonder. I wanted to tell stories. And now I do. I’m an adult education lecturer and an author, and telling stories is what I do.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
McC. Part 3 of the Dandelion Farmer and part 2 of Annis.
And now for Mat’s book: The Dandelion Farmer:
The Dandelion Farmer is a Steampunk-style Science Fiction novel set in the Martian colonies twenty-five years after they threw off the rule of the old Imperial powers.
Scratching a living out of the red earth of the newly independent Martian Colonies, the idealistic young Dandelion Farmer, Edwin Ransom, takes a stand against the powerful and evil industrialist, Eleuthère Du Maurier, who is trying to drive him off his land.
As events spiral out of Edwin’s control he encounters Adam Franklin, a man suffering long term memory loss and haunted by nightmares of his own death.
Edwin and Adam are drawn further into conflict with Du Maurier’s henchmen and are forced to flee to the safety of Edwin’s father-in-law’s protection.
Professor Flammarion, Edwin’s father-in-law, is a man with a vision. Believing that mankind on Mars is on the brink of extinction, he has brought an airship and is preparing to set off in search of what he believes to be the only hope of saving the humans on Mars; the last of the First Martians. The Professor enlists Edwin and Adam to join his eclectic group of scientists and adventurers in his perilous quest.
Set against a background of the looming threat of war between the colonies and pursued by the dark forces unleashed by the evil Du Maurier, Edwin finds himself catapulted into a nightmare adventure on the frontiers of human civilisation and beyond.
Book one of a Steampunked Science Fiction fantasy adventure set on Mars. Starts off almost Western adventure in flavour, but quickly evolves into something more akin to a Verne-like quest, especially as other darker forces come into play. It has all the expected Steampunk ingredients; airships, robots, mad professors, corsets, top hats, Martians, monsters, and Machiavellian evil industrialists.
Book 2, the Hourglass Sea is also available via Amazon.