Surly Questions: Michel Vaillancourt

To kick off Surly Questions for 2012, it’s my privilege to bring you an interview with Michel Vaillancourt, author of The Sauder Diaries: By Any Other Name. Thanks for the terrific interview, Michel!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Hmmm.  Funny question that.

I knew I wanted to -write- around 12 – 14, which is when I was caught up with Anne MccAffery and Robert Heinlein.  I’ve had stories in my head ever since, which is why I was so heavily into table top role-playing games in my youth.  I still am, to a degree.

Want to be a -writer-?  Hmmm.  You know, I still don’t think I’ve made a conscious decision to “be a writer”.  I’m a storyteller at heart, and right now, instead of doing spoken word presentations, I’m writing them down and putting them out in eBooks.

Is writing The Big Calling In My Life, the way I know some writers feel it in theirs?  No.

2. Why steampunk?

Steampunk fascinates me on a few levels.  Something I heard Phil Foglio say at Steamcon was that “Steampunk fiction is about when technology can save humanity.  It isn’t the problem, it is the solution.”

I agree with that.  In my opinion, Steampunk fiction is inherently hopeful.  The right man (or woman) with the right perseverance and the right science at the right place could change the world for the better.  It is about people doing incredibly cool things at a point in time when when no one knew what the boundaries were and they seemed to be on the brink of revolutionizing the world.  Everything was within the realm of possibility; everything was within reach.  That’s pretty empowering.

3. What do you think sets the Sauder Diaries apart from other steampunk fantasy?

**chuckles** This is going to sound odd, but I really can’t comment, because I haven’t read much Steampunk fantasy/ fiction.

Having said that, I’ve tapped into something other than existing books for my creative process here.  I’m a fan of the overall Steampunk movement itself;  two trips to Steamcon in Seattle, spending time with the local Steampunk group in Halifax as I can, listening to the music, following folks on blogs and Twitter who are “living the scene” and such.

I guess what I have done is spent a lot of time researching the Steampunk community and tuning in on what themes seem to resonate within it by being part of the community.  This is a book for Steampunks, by a new member of the group. As opposed to being someone who wrote other stuff first and then that thought this might be a neat setting to try.

4. Any relation to Michel Vaillancourt, the Canadian show jumper born in Saint-Félix-de-Valois, Québec in 1954? Or is that just a coincidence?

Wow, you’ve done your research!  As far as I know, there is no direct relationship.  However, my family only really has its geneology traced as far as when we first arrived in what is now Quebec.  It’s possible that there is a connection on the France side of the trip.  If there is, I am unaware of it.

5. What songs are in your writing soundtrack?

My listening music tends to be based on my mood.  Sometimes, I just want quiet.  I either listen to Steampunk music from groups like Abney Park, Vernian Process and Vagabond Opera, or I listen to trance/ electronica from Tiesto or Armin Van Burren.  Other times, I listen to atmospherics like Brian Eno’s “Music For Airports” or “Music for Films”.

6. I’m told you have a strong military / technical / engineering background. What, if anything, has that brought to your writing?

Well, certainly, it has allowed me to add a level of detail that I might not otherwise have.  My father, for example, ran steam boiler systems on warships as an engineering officer… I spent a lot of nights as a kid sitting at the table watching him with a sliderule working on his training homework.  We’d talk about what he did and he’d explain to me how it all worked.

So, the part where Hans notes that it is possible for the metal of the boiler to catch fire and start burning unstoppably?  Yeah, that’s real.  Spray water onto it, and it burns -hotter-.  My dad has seen what’s left of boiler rooms where that has happened.

7. How big a role does reader feedback play in your writing process? What’s the biggest change you ever made because of something a reader said?

I have re-written entire chapters or moved chapters around based on reader feedback.  Originally, the “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name” was released as episodic fiction, on Scribd, as each portion was written.  So as readers told me what they liked, I did more of that.

One of the most extreme examples is the scene at the lake between Hans and Annika.  That was re-written five times, based on my closed test reader group.

Another example is the good Doctor Koblinski. He was supposed to be essentially a one-scene character who was irrelevant to the long-term plot. His job was to be an authority figure (a medical doctor) that Hans would be able to believe in the face of what Captain Blackheart was telling him.

The fans, however, were enamored with him and insisted he had to stick around.  I had tremendous feedback at the release of Chapter One that everyone loved his wit and clear common-sense.  And again in Chapter two, when he got a bit more air time.  By Chapter 3, the Doctor was around to stay.

8. What’s the single best piece of writing advice you ever received?

“Shut up.  Don’t tell me about your story.  Go write it down.  If you tell me about it, you’ll be satisfied and you won’t need to do anything.”

Thank-you, Nick Jequier.

9. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media and the Internet in general?

A serious amount of “we know you can” gets traded around.  When it feels like I’m on Mission:Impossible, someone I know gets a break, a shot of good news, a great review, or something… they Tweet it, Facebook it, Blog it, whatever… and I get a shot of “whoo-hoo” that helps keep me moving.

So, I try to give back into the “Can Do” pool whenever I am able.

10. Who are the most inspirational people in your life when it comes to your writing?

Well, when I tripped over the works of Anne McCaffery and Robert Heinlein in my ‘tween years, they literally changed my world and got me writing.  I’d say they are my literary heroes.

I’ve been very fortunate to have Chantal Boudreau as a mentor in the process of getting from “story” to “novel”.  She has been wonderfully encouraging as well as open about her own experiences as an author and a trail breaker.  She’s the one that first really got it through to me that The Sauder Diaries was a publishable work.  She’s been there for me to talk to and compare experiences with whenever I just didn’t have answers or direction.

Another person that really got me where I am now was my grade 10 English teacher.  She flatly refused to accept anything but my best effort in my essays and compositions.  That’s carried over in anything I do in writing.  She also gave me a love of Shakespeare;  there is a nod to that and to her in the second book in the works.

11. How close is the second book of the Sauder Diaries to completion?

Another funny question.  It depends how you count it… “The Sauder Diaries – A Bloodier Rose” is currently at about 78300 words, with about two more chapters to write.  Because of the way I write — I edit as I go, because I hate leaving junk behind me — its pretty close to good.

However, it still needs my internal team’s two edits/ revisions before I even show it to my publisher and their editors for a two-pass edit.  My preference would be for mid-May to hit the virtual shelves.

12. What’s next after Sauder Diaries?

Well, as I have said elsewhere, that is partially going to be dictated by the fans.  I figure that after “A Bloodier Rose”, the world of “The Sauder Diaries” has at least four more complete stories in it that bear telling, if the fans want to hear them.

I’m also currently tinkering with a short story tentatively titled “After Three Degrees and One Percent”.  I’ve also got a SF story I’d like to do called “Marshal Station – The Dustpilots of Mars”, and a swords-sorcery called “Revenant”, but both of those are a ways away.

All of that said, one of those quotes that has always stuck with me was by Canadian singer Corey Hart.  During an interview, he made a comment to the effect that if a singer doesn’t have anything to say, they should shut up.  Hence a decade gap between his last two albums.

I sort of feel the same way about my writing.  Once the third “Sauder Diaries” is out, we’ll see if I feel like I still have something to say.

13. And now, the cliched question: your top five “desert island” books?

1.  SAS survival manual for desert islands
2.  “Space Chronicles” by Neil Degrasse Tyson
3.  “The Harper Hall of Pern” compilation by Anne McAffery
4.  “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” by Robert Heinlein
5.  A blank leather bound journal, like the ones my wife makes.  (I’d have to be able to write)


11 Replies to “Surly Questions: Michel Vaillancourt”

  1. “Shut up. Don’t tell me about your story.”

    Love that – I’m starting to think it applies to a lot of life. Go out and create the story, in all its messy glory – don’t be satisfied with a perfect pipe dream.

  2. This interview’s intrigued me enough to buy Vaillancourt’s book. This is the quote that struck me:

    “Steampunk fiction is about when technology can save humanity. It isn’t the problem, it is the solution.”

    The optimism he shows towards technology is refreshing. Yet, I’m not sure I necessarily agree with his statement on Steampunk. So I want to see what Vaillancourt’s take on it looks like. All around, I’m glad to have heard from him!

    1. Okay, replying to my own post because I was a little vague about what I meant by “I’m not sure I necessarily agree with his statement on Steampunk.”

      I will elucidate a little. I think there are at least two very different strains of Steampunk thought. One that perhaps comes from a cross-over from Cyberpunk and more strongly from the literature of the Victorian age itself, and the attitude of the Steampunkers that retroactively view the Victorian age through the lens of advanced technology.

      I’m hip-deep in the Victorians right now (Carlyle, Marx, Tennyson to name a few). I like to call them “unacknowledged steampunkers” because their work is full of machines. They are more than a bit horrified at the mechanicalization of their age. Not necessarily at the machines themselves (well, Carlyle is horrified by everything), but at the the human changes that have come with machines.

      The steampunkers of today (Vaillancourt is a great example of this!) are in a very Positivist scientific vein. They see technological solutions as the way to solve problems wrought by technology.

      The Victorian authors had a wide range of reactions to machines. Carlyle retreated into a fetishization of the Medieval idyll. Little cottages, tradesmen, courtly love and a whole bunch of other bunk about the period that we still believe. Tennyson did some of the same, but his wistfulness about the slaughter, the wildness, and the inability to return to this “simple” time underlied a very complex understanding that machines had changed every.

      Marx saw human solutions, and human reorganization, and the spread of access to production & machinery to all as a way to rectify the horrible abuses of man in the name of industry. His solutions were a bit too radical, but he constantly stressed that ALL needed to have equal access (or ownership) of advanced technology, so that man would not just be cogs in the machine.

      So, in short, I somewhat disagree with Michel because I think that many of these strains of thoughts / feelings towards are still alive today in the Steampunk genre. Of course, I am always happy to explore writers who take the positive road towards technology.

      1. I just wanted to pop over and tell you that I’m glad you disagree. That may sound a bit strange, but I’m a big fan of talking.
        Roughly, you can throw Victorian science-fiction (which is sort of the genesis for Steampunk as a literature) into two camps clearly headed by H.G.Wells (science is the problem) and Jules Verne (science used right is the solution).
        I’m firmly in the Vernian camp. Please note, however, the caveat emptor in the position. You can be as positive as you want, make a bad decision, and have it bite you in the ass. Forcibly.
        The world of the Sauder Diaries is, at its foundation, a dystopia as a result of an “H.G.Wells Moment” in history. The characters in the story are Vernians, working within that framework, to make their own piece of the world better, at least for them.
        I hope you enjoy the story. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it.

  3. Oh, man. If I’m ever going to write a steampunk novel, I’m going to have to do hella research. People with boiler-room life experience are so ahead of me. *sniff*

    Still, very interesting interview.

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