Or just keep reading to get to know her better below...
Carlisle: Writing is like gardening. I need to prepare the groundwork first. As I often write alternate history steampunk, this means research. It’s like digging the ground, removing debris, adding compost and manure. It takes time but is worth the effort.
Perkins: What sort of epiphanies have you had while gardening? Does it help you in your creative process in any way?
Carlisle: Gardening has helped me face my contrariness. I like order and control, as seen in the architecture and balance found in Tuscan gardens. Yet I also relish the chaos and serendipity of a rambling English country garden. I feel the need to control my writing. I try to plot. Really, I do. I can plan point A, point B and how I want the story to end. But if I try to plan every single detail, I often find myself getting bogged in the ‘soggy middle’. I take a deep breath, and let the characters take over, steering me into unchartered waters – usually still on course toward specific points. (Though sometimes they do need wrangling.) This is where the groundwork comes in. Research information bubbles up from my subconscious and insets itself as clues or partial plotlines. For example, I couldn’t figure out why I had Inspector Abelline, in Doctor Jack, collect clockwork miniatures. Going back over my notes, I rediscovered he had been a clock maker before becoming a policeman.
Perkins: My gardening skills are mixed at best, so that doesn’t bode so well for me. Much of the seed I plant never even sprouts. Maybe that’s not unlike my writing sometimes?
Carlisle: I let my plants self-seed (like my writing). Seedlings pop up all over the place. Some are in most inconvenient places, like the paving or the gutter. They have to go. Some are given away. Others go in the compost. Favourites are replanted in pride of place. This is how I view editing. Some words just need culling. They are in the wrong place or just don’t work. They must go, no matter how pretty they are. Kill your darlings. If a sentence doesn’t work where it is, it either gets pulled or gets transplanted elsewhere. Mostly I just love getting my hands dirty and see what grows.
Perkins: Is that what inspires you? The anticipation of seeing what your story will bloom into?
Carlisle: I love creating. My husband says I get grumpy when I can’t create something.
Perkins: I do too!
Carlisle: After quitting a long-term career, I searched for ways to reduce my anxiety. My first set of stories was very eye-centric. It was unplanned. I didn’t know why I wrote them that way: an optician, optograms, optics, Magic Lanterns. Was I writing what I knew? I was surprised when, a year later, I realised how cathartic the process had been. Looking back, I had exorcised leftover work issues as my protagonist’s eye was excised. Doctor Jack also helped me begin to understand specific people in my past and what prompted their decisions and behaviour that have affected my life.
Perkins: So is that what you got you into writing?
Carlisle: I love words and creating stories, letting my imagination run riot. At first I wrote for escape. I took on many guises to create characters. I did research (there’s that word again) and began to explore what motivates people. Why do some people do bad things?
Perkins: Exploring the human condition. Is that what a successful story looks like to you? As opposed to someone who's just in it for the money?
Carlisle: Many people talk about money when they measure success. I don’t need to be a best-selling author, like JK Rowling, to be successful. If I can make the average writers’ wage I’d be happy. If I could double or treble that, I’d be ecstatic!
Perkins: So if it’s not money, how do you know when you’ve hit your mark?
Carlisle: When I started writing, I wrote down my goals and a five-year and ten-year plan. I needed some grounding in reality (that’s the organising control freak who loves topiaries and architectural gardens talking again). My goal was to create stories readers will enjoy and possibly come back for more. I love reading and solving puzzles (all those years of Agatha Christie and playing Dungeons & Dragons). If I can create a story that can give a reader the same enjoyment or a challenging story to puzzle out, then I’ll be content. If I can make money at that, then I’ll feel blessed.
Perkins: Let's dig into those stories a little. What sets your main character Viola Stewart apart from other protagonists?
Carlisle: This is possibly the hardest question.
Perkins: Why do you say that?
Carlisle: Every writer thinks their protagonist is unique. In reality they are either just based on an ideal or someone we’ve met.
Carlisle: Viola is the gutsy go-getter I’ve always dreamed to be. She tackles Victorian society at a time when being an independent woman was not encouraged, and often discouraged. She doesn’t let her anxieties control her (much). She has amazing adventures and takes risks, with the bravado I wish I had.
(Plus she started a local trend to wear co-ordinated eyepatches!)
Perkins: How very steampunk of her. Perhaps she shares your fashion sense if your online pictures are any indication. What came first for you, the writing or costumes?
Carlisle: I’ve been a costumer for over three decades. I began with fantasy and graduated into historical recreation. Then I discovered steampunk – I can be historically accurate, if I want to be, and add the fantastical to create an outfit. So for me, it was costumes first. Then came the op-shopped and created accessories, which filled the lounge room and overflowed into the rest of the house. We attended local steampunk events. Then came the books. When I started writing, I had planned to write traditional fantasy. Ha! I soon realised I was writing steampunk and Gaslamp. History, science and fantasy - so much fun!
Perkins: So in what ways has the one influenced the other?
Carlisle: Having done the re-enactment bit, I had done research into the different time periods and their clothing. Wearing a corset and bustle is not like some people write it!
Perkins: You seem like a steampunk matriarch, or maybe evangelist.
Carlisle: I’ve been active in the local steampunk community for over a decade. Originally I was attracted by the costumes, then discovered there were picnics and balls and artists and music…
Now I create stories. I’ve done talks on steampunk, the most recent at the History SA, Dressing Up exhibition. I’m smitten. I’m a stalwart. I attend events (health permitting), do book launches, donate prizes and encourage others to give it a go.
Perkins: Where do you see the direction of the steampunk community going as a whole?
Carlise: We’ve had an influx of members in the local steampunk community. With more members, we have been able to host bigger events – like our Steampunk Pirate Charity Ball. Many have been attracted by the etiquette, the maker-culture and inclusiveness. As a community we need ‘new blood’ – creators with ingenious ideas or splendiferous individuals with good conversation – so we don’t become stale and wither.
Perkins: Do you worry that will change the direction of the sub-culture, then?
Carlisle: For some new members, steampunk appears to be a costume trend. They dress up, have photos taken, but live on social media. In the cosplay community there are some who don’t understand the culture or don’t want to participate. Like voyeurs. They flit in, partake of what they need and melt away. That is their decision, and their loss in my humble opinion. The community has so much to offer – socially and artistically. When the trend subsides, some will leave, some will stay. The community will learn from the experience and embrace those who are willing to give us a go.
Perkins: What is your favourite steampunk "Classic"?
Carlisle: This question sent me scrabbling to my bookshelf. It’s been ages since I’d read my Jules Verne and HG Wells, my two favourite ‘Victorian speculative fiction’ writers. If I had to choose, my favourites (this month) are Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Time Machine. Ask me next month and I’ll likely have another favourite. Coincidentally, at a recent Writers’ Festival, one of the presenters used Jules Verne as an example of getting ideas from the world around you. How is that, you ask?
Perkins: I do ask! Please elaborate.
Carlisle: He wrote about mysterious islands, journeys into the earth or around the world, balloons, even the paranormal – in The Carpathian Castle (my copy is called The Castle in Transylvania), written six years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The speaker said Verne looked at the current events such as Captain Joshua Slocum’s three year journey around the world, starting in 1895 I did some date checking. Around the World in 80 Days was written in 1873, almost twenty years before the solo circumnavigation. However, Captain Slocum had been travelling the world since the early 1870s. So perhaps he had been influenced by his early travels?
Perkins: Well, if we let our current events guide us these days, we should all be writing cyberpunk instead. But that’s only on a literalistic level. What sorts of inspiration do you get from the world we live in today, conceptually, thematically, philosophically or otherwise?
Carlisle: The basic themes, such as love, tragedy, revenge, are universal and timeless. Little things can inspire me – a photo, a comment, even a news item. Those sink holes? There’s a story brewing on that one. Mark my words – watch out for the mole men!
Perkins: I would read that! So you see a lot of steampunk potential from our current events then?
Carlisle: Technology has a dark edge: the world today is fighting to survive – the weather is changing, the seas are warming, people are losing jobs, we have limited resources. On one side, there is a growing maker’s ethic, recycling, renewable energy. On the other is continuing industrialisation and a continuing mentality of the ‘throwaway society’. The conflict is perfectly suited to steampunk. At what price is industrialisation and how will this affect the individual? Recent news items (at least here in Australia) have reminded us of the inequality of women’s wages. Even after one hundred years, women still endure increased rates of violence. I have experienced both. The defiant female bucking the social system is a character commonly found in steampunk stories, and has many stories to tell.
Perkins: You have two story collections out already, (Journal #1 and Journal #2 respectively) and I know you have plans for a third journal. Where can fans expect the series to go from here?
Carlisle: Journal #3 (as yet unnamed) starts with Viola on holiday at the beach, after her ordeal in Eye of the Beholder. She contemplates issues to be resolved and sets off on a jaunt through Europe in a quest to find out the mystery surrounding her sister. Journal #3 will be the last in this series, for now. I may revisit it, if Viola feels the need to go detectiving again. I won’t rule out future short stories.
Perkins: Well that’s a relief! So does that mean you’re moving onto something new?
Carlisle: Next I’ll concentrate on finishing the first book in The Department of Curiosities – a more traditional adventure-type steampunk story, set in the same steampunk world. I still haven’t decided if it will end up as two or three books. Time will tell. There is also a third series in the works, a return to the darker side of my steampunk world, The Wizard of St Giles.
Perkins: Spooky! My last but most important question of all brings me back to gardening, though. Get ready, it's a doozy: Annuals or Perennials?
Carlisle: Perennials – because I’m a lazy gardener. Annuals are more work intensive. I love plants that self-seed and surprise me.
Perkins: Well, there you have it folks. I think you know what to do. Keep the conversation going below!