Nicholas Diak, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor: What is the primary thing you want to accomplish with Breath of Earth?
Beth Cato: I want to entertain and educate at the same time. People know the San Francisco earthquake happened in 1906, but most aren't aware of the vicious racism that the Chinese endured in California, or the political wrangling that was happening between various world superpowers like Japan and Russia. I want people to read the book and think it's largely exaggerated fiction, then reach the end and the non-fiction facts and have their eyes opened wide.
ND: Do you feel that you have been successful in accomplishing this? What has been the feedback you've gotten so far?
BC: I’ve had a lot of wonderful feedback from people who have appreciated the Author's Note in Breath of Earth. There have been comments of "I had no idea!" or "I knew a little bit, but I had no idea about the Dog Tag law on the Chinese." What I would love to hear is that readers have gone on to buy some of the non-fiction books listed in the bibliography. Some of it makes for hard reading, but it's interesting, necessary stuff. (The bibliographies for both current books in the series can be found online.)
ND: What were some of the newest challenges you faced writing Breath of Earth when compared to writing the Clockwork Dagger books?
BC: Research. So. Much. Research. With that, there are so many more opportunities to mess up, whether it's a historical detail or one involving Chinese culture. The fact that Breath of Earth is alternate history does give me some leeway--there were many conscious decisions involved to tweak the historical timeline--but I know I can't catch everything. I hate using "It's alternate history!" as an excuse, too. If I mess up, I want to own up to it. I include an Author's Note in each book to explain some of the variations from history and to clarify some referenced facts.
ND: How did you go about annotating and collating your work? Any research habits you'd like to share?
BC: The effort is... complex. I have a series of Word documents on different elements of the world, from San Francisco's Chinatown to geomancy to other settings. In those documents, I cite like I'm doing a term paper, using the author's name or title and page number or a website link. I especially rely on those documents for references pulled from eBooks, as they are a lot less convenient for me to find in comparison to the veritable wall of research books stacked by my desk. In those, I keep post-it notes with lists of pages and notes of interest. A lot of data is in my head, too. I often remember what book I pulled a certain fact from, and I will double and triple-check those references as I go through manuscript drafts.
ND: What would you say you had the most fun creating or tinkering with in your alternate San Francisco in your Blood of Earth series?
BC: The magic. I love writing about magic as it might be used in the real world. That means coming up with real, physical consequences for what that kind of power might do to the human body, and also how magic might be applied to business practices with repercussions felt throughout the economy. Magic isn't a hand-wavy shortcut. It involves a lot of world-building all on its own.
ND: Your flavor of the Steampunk genre seems to be more magic-centric rather than tech/mechanical-centric. Why do you focus on this element of the genre?
BC: Well, as I touched on in the previous answer as well, I love magic! It's something that I wish really existed. I find the idea of magic and crude, early tech to be appealing. It's something I first encountered in Final Fantasy VI for Super Nintendo, and it wowed me as a teenager, and it still wows me. And honestly, I write very little hard sci-fi because deep technical writing isn't my thing; I don't even read much in that subgenre.
ND: Focusing on leading female protagonists, what did you learn when writing Octavia's character in the Clockwork Dagger books, and how did you carry that over to Ingrid in Breath of Earth?
BC: Writing Octavia taught me a lot about developing a lead character who is strong, but not because of physical strength or a dominating presence. She's a medician, a magical healer and trained doctor. She exists in a man's world but has an undeniable area of expertise that earns her respect. Ingrid comes from a different place. She's a woman of color who is disregarded and disrespected, and even though she has incredible magical power, she dare not show it. She has had to learn that there is power in being underestimated. I don't think I could have done any justice to Ingrid's terrible predicament without first learning how to write about Octavia.
ND: Multiculturalism and racial diversity seems to be a theme in your works. Is this an important aspect to your writing?
BC: Yes to both. I see the world as a very diverse place, and I try to reflect that in my writing. To do otherwise would feel like a lie. I also write because I want to understand humanity, even in its awfulness. That is especially important when I write historical fiction.
ND: Both the Clockwork Dagger and Breath of Earth books have amazing covers. When their respective book ones came out, did the cover art have any influence on you while composing the series' next entries? If so, how?
BC: For the Blood of Earth series, no. The cover of Clockwork Dagger did influence me as I wrote the sequel, though. The cover shows Octavia wearing a gorgeous green coat--my favorite color! I actually commissioned a friend of mine to make me that coat... and I wrote the coat into Clockwork Crown, too. Therefore, the coat was used on the second cover and actually became part of a green theme in the artwork.
ND: Your Clockwork Dagger universe was explored via auxiliary short stories, such as those collected in the Deep Roots collection. Are there any plans to explore your alternative-history Earth as in the Blood of Earth series in a similar fashion?
BC: I'm not planning another collection of short works set in this world, but that's not to say I'm opposed to the idea, either. I never consider any of my worlds to be "done."
ND: Aside from working on the final book of the Blood of Earth trilogy, what other projects can share that you're working on?
BC: I have a short story and poetry collection out from Fairwood Press this November! It's called Red Dust and Dancing Horses and Other Stories. It's full-novel length and has a diverse range of stories, from Steampunk horses powered by real souls to a game show-loving, cockroach-becoming grandma to ice hockey on an alien space station. It will be in print and eBook. I will release the book at World Fantasy Con in San Antonio, so I hope a lot of people get it there, and I can sign it!
Beth Cato can be found online at BethCato.com. Call of Fire will be released on August 15, 2017.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s. He can be found at nickdiak.com.