I thought it would be fun to interview a steampunk fangirl since we haven’t seen this particular fandom represented much on No Man’s Land. I don’t personally know any steampunk enthusiasts, so I asked my social media friends to help me track down a possible interview subject.
In a happy twist of fate, I was introduced — via Facebook Messenger — to R.J. Metcalf, who enjoys rocking her own steampunk style, alongside her husband, Mike. More importantly, she happens to be an independent author about to release her first steampunk fantasy novel, “Renegade Skyfarer,” the first in a series call the “Stones of Terrene Chronicles.”
R.J. is gearing up for the book release, scheduled for July 1, with a Facebook launch party and official countdown beginning June 1.
Meanwhile, she graciously found time to offer her insights into the steampunk genre, her world-building collaboration with Mike, and what it’s like to be an indie writer who subsists on dark chocolate and lots of chai, while geeking out on anime, the Star Wars Expanded Universe, “Voltron: Legendary Defender,” and her family’s epic board game nights.
You can learn more about R.J. and her book series here.
You’re about to publish your first book, the steampunk fantasy novel “Renegade Skyfarer.” That’s a huge accomplishment! How are you feeling about it?
Nervously excited, to be honest. I wrote it over a year ago and have spent this much time editing and polishing it, and it’s about to be ready for the world to see. It’s a nerve-wracking feeling, knowing that it will be visible to the critics.
For those who don’t know, what exactly is “steampunk”?
It’s a genre that started small, and has been gaining steam throughout the years (no pun intended). It takes the “what if” question and directs it at our technology. What if, instead of coal and solar power for electricity, it was all steam-based? What if each home needed boilers and converters to power their lights, their ovens? What if instead of cars running off gasoline, each car has to be fueled with water, with great billows of steam puffing behind it every time someone puts the pedal to the metal?
Steampunk is most recognizable by the clothing. It’s typically classic 1800-early 1900’s Victorian wear, with leather belts and accessories, goggles, and brass buttons. But steampunk also covers Western (think Lindsey Stirling’s “Roundtable Rival” YouTube video), and you can really steampunk anything.
“Ghostbusters” is a popular cult-classic to steampunk, as is Star Wars, and even Disney. In fact, if you Google “steampunk Disney,” you’ll find some fantastic art, and if you add “costumes” to the search, you’ll be able to see the gorgeous cosplays that people have done!
How did you first discover this genre and why does it appeal to you?
I can’t remember when I first learned of steampunk. I’m guessing I first learned about it a Renaissance Faire, or maybe Anime Expo, or maybe it was during high school, many moons ago. I love the style of costuming, the leather, the gears and gizmos, the sepia color scheme that so many aim for.
Personally, my husband and I keep our steampunk on a practical scale — would I need this if I lived in this time? Would this provide sufficient protection for the job I’d have? — but so many others play on the elegant beauty of steampunk, and that’s just as glorious.
I understand your book has an airship in it as well as dragons that are more like dinosaurs. That sounds awesome! Tell me more.
Indeed! “Renegade Skyfarer” has two specific airships in it — the Sapphire and the Phoenix. These airships are a bit different than the steam-powered tech I mentioned previously, as these aren’t “steamy” airships. These are older models that use gravity stones for their lift. Propulsion is steam-based tech, but these two beauties were fashioned in the days where certain materials were available for more streamlined engineering. The newer ship models are steam-based, and those look similar to the airship pictures you’d find if you were to do a Google search.
The world of Terrene that the story takes place in has as much in common with our world as it has different. I’ll highlight the differences, as those are what stand out and make the world interesting.
I’ve already shared about the airships, so we’ll push those aside in favor of the gravity stones. The land and the people of Terrene have a spark of life to them that our world doesn’t have. This magic allows people and certain rocks to absorb or harness elements — like the gravity stones. Other rocks naturally absorb heat, or lightning. Sages or mani-meds (manipulator medics) can infuse specific rocks with healing abilities that speed time on an injury, allowing to heal faster. Or the cold stones, that families use during summer to keep their produce cool. There’s a nation that focuses solely on creating new applications of these stones in the medical field, and it’s pretty impressive to see what they churn out.
Now, just as the people have an ability to manipulate, so do the dinosaurs or, as we call them, dragons. Imagine a pterodactyl with metal-tipped claws that crackle with electricity when it swoops for its prey. That’s a terror in this land. Velociraptors manipulate light to provide natural camouflage, and are aptly named “stalkers.” Plodders would be recognized as stegosaurus in this world. And their plates heat on demand to burn predators — or hunters.
The idea for this book originated with your husband, Mike. How did the concept come to be?
It’s something he’d been dreaming of for years. In our early years of marriage, we’d walk around town and he’d talk about this world, and this tragic story of one character, and how that essentially domino-affected everything else, and of this guy, Ben, who’d arrive to the world, and how he’d meet certain people, and then this would happen, and that, and it would end after this particular thing … I loved the world that he created. And he has a knack for thinking of all the little loose ends and tying them together, finishing a story strong.
So, it’s your husband’s story, but you’re the writer. Describe your collaboration.
Like I said, he’s the one who thinks of all the plot points, how they tie together, how it’s going to end. But character motivations? Character heart? That’s all me. He may say that Ben’s going to do this or that, but I’m the one that looks at that and says, “No, he wouldn’t do this. He’d be going over there instead. If you want him here, he has to have a reason for that.” And then we brainstorm if we’re going to create something to move him where we want, or if we’re going to let him lead the story his own way. (Ben takes over a lot)
So Mike and I will drive places and discuss story points, then Mike will compile it all in a loose 3 to 4 page synopsis for me. From that, I create a loose outline that we look over together and move chapters around to maximize the pacing. After he approves the rough outline, I pre-write all my chapters, then start writing in earnest. He’ll read them as I go and provide feedback, in case I write a chapter with a completely different vision than he’d had, but 95% of the time it matches to what he’d imagined — or it’s better than he’d hoped.
After we finish that first draft, we look it over again, then send it off to our editor. She works her magic on it, and once we get her notes back, we pore over them and after we shed a tear or two for changes that need to be made, we debate back and forth on how we can make things work and then I start editing. It’s a fun process, because we love seeing how the story gets strengthened by her insights, and we love working on the challenge together. It’s been exciting to watch this go from a germ of an idea to a series!
“Renegade Skyfarer” is the first in a planned series, the “Stones of Terrene Chronicles.” I understand you’re already writing the sequel. Would you ultimately like to build an entire franchise around this idea?
An entire franchise? **Gets starry-eyed for a moment.** That would be the most epic dream come true.
You’re a mom of two. How did you ever find time to write a novel, let alone a whole series?
I wonder that myself, sometimes. Um … I don’t sleep. **nervous laughter** Well, I do sleep, just not as much as I used to. When I’m in outlining/pre-writing mode, I can still go to bed around midnight and get up at seven with my boys. When I’m actively writing or editing, I’m afraid to admit that I tend to crash anytime between midnight and three in the morning, then still get up at seven with my boys. Those days I really try to take a cat nap on the couch when my 3-year-old naps.
For the rest of the exhaustion, chai. Lots and lots of chai and dark chocolate.
Can you tell me a little about your writing process?
My process is fairly straightforward. First, I’ll turn on some sort of music. With “Rengade Skyfarer,” I had a YouTube playlist that I listened to almost on repeat. With (the sequel) “Void Born,” I listened to my VB playlist while pre-writing, but listened to several epic soundtracks with an Irish coastline soundscape while actually writing. Sometimes I’ll light a candle or two on my desk, but I’ll almost always have a steaming salted caramel chai. I love my chai. Maybe a bit too much.
You describe yourself as an “indie author.” I understand this can be challenging because other people don’t necessarily take your craft or your self-set deadlines seriously. Would you speak a bit about the specific challenges of doing this kind of work?
I’m going to try to keep this short, and not a multiple-point essay.
Being an indie author means I do all the work. Not only do I do all the writing and editing, but I have to find an excellent editor and a book cover designer. I have to learn how to market, and how to create and run my own website and every social media platform I’m going to be present on. I need to pay out of my own pocket for my editor, my cover designer, my formatter, my proofreader, my publishing costs, my marketing costs, and all the other little things that pop up along the way.
Could I write a book, create a cover myself on Photoshop, then slap it up on Amazon? Of course. But then I’d be vanity publishing, and only giving other indie authors a bad name. It isn’t as easy as so many think it is. And no, authors aren’t rich.
As for deadlines, I can’t even try to count how many times I’ve had people find out I’m an author, then ask why I can’t hang out on this day, or go to that event because, after all, “You’re self-published. You can do whatever you want.” Yes, I am indie-publishing. And if I don’t hold myself to a deadline, I’m never going to have anything to show for what I say is my job! If someone works at home, they still have to get their work done. They may have flexible hours, but only so flexible.
I set many deadlines for myself: have the first draft done by August 1. Have the second draft done by August 23 and send it to my editor. Complete developmental edits by September 16 and send it back to editor. So on and so forth. If I don’t have deadlines, I won’t push myself. If I don’t push myself … I’m just a Mom on the couch, watching Voltron cartoons with her boys.
What do you enjoy most about it?
Telling the story. Watching the reactions of my readers, hearing them talk about the parts they loved or hated, and how they’re excited about this, or fearing that. Knowing that my words have reached someone, and touched their life. That’s amazing.
Tell me your writer’s origin story. When and how did you begin?
Jamie Foley. It’s all Jamie’s fault.
I found Jamie through a series of random circumstances, and became her beta reader. During that time, we started chatting about ourselves, and I mentioned that Mike had this story idea that we wanted to write someday, but we wouldn’t be working on it until after the boys were grown up and out of the house (because who could write and be a parent at the same time?). Jamie wouldn’t hear any of my excuses. She pointed out that she had three books under her belt — as well as a 2-year-old.
If she could do it, I could do it.
So, January 2016, Mike and I started outlining our prequel, “Betrayal by Blood.” By July, I had the manuscript complete and through the first editorial pass. Jamie invited me to Realm Makers, a speculative fiction convention for Christian authors. I’d found my writing tribe, and my fire to write blazed brighter.
I wrote the anthology in November during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and then I was able to set the two manuscripts aside. I had a solid foundation that I could use to write the series on. I knew what happened, when, why, where, how, and with who, so I could accurately reference past events without timeline errors later on.
In short, the only reason I’m here as a writer is because a crazy, awesome Texan author wouldn’t give up on me, and kept pushing me to excel still more.
You took some creative writing classes. What was the most important thing you learned from them?
To write with heart. If there’s nothing connecting the reader to the characters, there’s no reason to care or continue reading.
You also used to write fanfiction. What kind? Tell me more about that.
Oooh, my fanfiction days.
Mike and I used to be really into an anime called “Attack on Titan,” and several years ago there were a couple of fanfiction prompts for two of my favorite ships: Jean Kirschstein and Mikasa Ackerman, and Levi and Hanji. I just had to be involved! So I wrote seven drabbles for JeanKasa based off the seven prompts, and then again for LeviHan with the different prompts provided for them. I’m still pretty pleased with the stories and emotions captured in them, but I cringe to think about what the grammar may be. … I haven’t had the guts to look at them since I started writing.
What are some of your biggest influences in terms of books and authors?
Hmmm. Growing up, I loved anything in the DragonLance series, and even now consider those books among my favorite nostalgic reads. The Yuuzhan Vong New Jedi Order series from the original Star Wars Extended Universe taught me about emotions, plots, and what grabs a reader or not (I’m partial to “Dark Journey” and “Traitor” in that series). I’m also partial to Dee Henderson’s mystery/suspense/romance books. And my husband and I both love Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Great pacing, deep characters, and so very thought provoking. We also love the fun of Percy Jackson.
I love to read. I’m trying to resist adding my next five favorite series and it’s hard to resist the temptation!
You don’t just write steampunk, you also do steampunk cosplay with your husband. How did you get into that?
Honestly, I’ve been thinking about this question and … I really don’t know. I think we saw some pictures of our friends (of whom we based two of our characters off), and they made steampunk look so amazing, that we just had to join in!
I understand you once worked as a seamstress. Do you make your own costumes?
I used to! I’ve discovered that writing and sewing take up the same portion of my brain, so it’s either writing, or sewing. Not both at the same time. Back in the day, I would make our renaissance faire costumes, and then I also made our anime cosplays. Steampunk … we just buy leather goods. Lots of leather. And metal.
Tell me about some of the steampunk cosplays you’ve done.
At this point, we’ve only done two specific steampunk cosplays. Our formal steampunk (which we wore to our church’s Christmas dinner once, just because it was fancy and fun and we could), and our casual, fairy hunting steampunk.
And, actually, we’re working on a different type of steampunk costuming right now, as we’re involved with a group cosplay with our friends that we’ll be wearing at Realm Makers this year. Mike will be a steampunk Captain Hook, and I’ll be a steampunk Gothel. Our cover story is that Hook catches fairies for me, and I make youthful beauty potions out of them. The theme of the convention this year is “dark fairy tales,” so we’re running with it!
What types of events do you go to in costume?
Before we had our boys, Mike and I would go to Anime Expo in Los Angeles, the Renaissance Faire, and Anime Los Angeles. Now that we have kids, we have to be much more selective on how often we’re out, and how we’re going to dedicate our time to our hobbies. Nowadays, we dress up for Ren Faire (And I confess I’m a lazy mom, because I haven’t made the boys costumes for that yet. Every time I make them something, they grow out of it within a week!), and we dress up for Realm Makers. If we can steampunk for both, we do. I’m looking into some local steampunk conventions now that I have a steampunk book out, and I can dress up, sell books, and call it a business trip. Win-win!
How would you describe the steampunk “culture”?
Varied. There’s the sexy steamy side of steampunk, there’s the practical steamy side of steampunk, the pop culture side of steampunk … It’s fun, because anyone who wants to be involved in the style can find a place to call their own. Mike and I tend to be practical in our steampunk costumes. Who are we dressing as? What tools would they have? Yes, that corset looks amazing, but would a mechanic really wear that? What can they afford for gear, or are they scrounging? Someday we’ll throw together an over-the-top crazy fun steampunk cosplay, just because we can.
You’re a self-proclaimed “otaku,” which means you’re obsessed with certain aspects of pop culture, sometimes at the expense of social skills. What would you consider your defining moment as an otaku?
I 100% blame Mike for my love of anime. We met in high school, and that’s when I first learned of anime classics such as Rurouni Kenshi, Full Metal Panic!, Full Metal Alchemist (the original), and TriGun. From there, I learned of Final Fantasy, cosplay, and quite a few other animes. I didn’t think I’d gotten too into it until I told my Mom “thank you” in Japanese at the dinner table. That’s when I realized I may be a “bit” obsessed.
You are into a lot of fandoms! Does your family share your love of geeky things? What are some of the shared and individual activities you enjoy?
Like I said, Mike is the one who got me into anime. So we share that. And we both love video games, though we haven’t had the time to play nearly as much as we once did. Fun fact: our cats and our boys are named from characters in Kingdom Hearts. The boys are just entering the world of video games and have been having a blast with the Lego and Mario games. Only a decade to go until they’ll be old enough to play Halo with their Mom!
Mike and I love board games, and we’ve managed to infect most our friends and quite a bit of our family with the fun. We range from Ticket to Ride to Talisman, Forbidden Desert to Takenoko, Age of War to Seven Wonders, and so many more. Our linen cupboard is full of games, and a literal quarter of our closet has the overflow of games and puzzles that didn’t fit.
In addition to all that, Mike has been playing Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40K for the last …I don’t even know. More than a decade. Fifteen years? Forever. He’s been playing since forever. He assembles his army (dwarves for fantasy, tyranids for 40K), paints them, then puts together army lists and battles them against other nerds. Our kitchen table has witnessed many a fictional slaughter, as has the local friendly game store. He’s also into the tabletop X-Wing game, and while I played it a bit when it first came out, writing is more my thing.
I’ve heard you enjoy hosting game nights. Describe a typical game night at your house.
Food, fun, and chaos.
We’re blessed with several families and many friends who enjoy gaming, so we try to have anywhere from two to nine game nights a month at our place. Typically we have one family at a time, and we’ll eat dinner, then open up the table to play. And, by “open the table,” I should say that we have a custom gaming table. Because we’re nerds like that.
It has a three-inch-deep vault that allows us to set up games in advance (like Settlers of Catan or Arkham Horror), cover the game, eat dinner like normal people do, then open up and start playing. (It’s also great for hordes of Legos or puzzles!) Oftentimes I’ll use our friends as an excuse to bake dessert, because I love to bake, and if I bake when it’s just our family, I will also eat everything myself.
As a woman, is there anything you’d like to see change about the world of fandoms and geek culture?
That not everything be so sexualized. Seriously now, girls can be nerds and, no, we don’t all want to be in Princess Leia bikinis. Give us books with strong females who go through a lot, but come out victorious — and by all means, let her rely on her girl and guy friends during those trials, but don’t let her be a damsel in distress all the time. Give her balance. A dose of reality. Give us video games with kick-butt women who aren’t scantily clad or relying on their feminine wiles or so overly butch that they don’t even fall into the category of “lady.” Give us ladies who are strong. Ladies who are compassionate. Ladies who can cry — and who can fight.
And, I just have to say it. Enough of the boob armor. It’s a great way to get killed. A real chest plate would deflect a sword, not invite it to cleave the breastbone. Give us women who are smart enough to pick the right gear for combat!
Let’s talk about some of your many, many fandoms, beginning with anime and manga. How were you first introduced to these Japanese art forms? What are some of your favorite titles?
Again, I blame Mike. He had a job in high school, so he could afford all the imports. Between him and our church friends (who we affectionately called “the Russians,” as that’s where they were from), I had close to an unending stream of anime at my fingertips.
Classic favorites that I love: Rurouni Kenshin (we have all the manga), Full Metal Alchemist (we have all the manga, the original series, and the new series, Brotherhood), TriGun, Fruits Basket, Madoka Magika … I still love the first two arcs of Bleach, but the story tanked on the final arc, and I’m still not over that disappointment.
As a gamer, you’re into Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. How much time would you say you’ve spent immersed in these worlds?
In my entire lifetime? More time than I should’ve. A culmination that spreads beyond a week? I don’t know. I’m scared to think about it.
You’re a fan of fantasy BFFs C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Who’s your favorite resident of Narnia?
Oh. Whales. That’s a hard one. Lucy? Edmund? Probably Edmund. I love his character development.
Who’s your favorite resident of Middle-Earth?
Aragorn. Hands down.
Which do you love more, Tolkien’s novels or their film adaptations?
Aghhh! How can you ask such a hard question? I don’t know! I really enjoy how the movies streamlined the story, letting go of some of the slower plot points. But I also don’t like the movies because they streamlined the story and left out of some really cool world-building bits. (I’ll just say, as a seamstress and costumer, I still drool over the outfits.) I like the immersion of the books, and the beauty of the movie. I can’t decide.
This is one of those questions that’s going to keep me up at night, you know that?
When it comes to Harry Potter fandom, you’re a SlytherPuff. That’s one I haven’t encountered before. How exactly does that work?
Mike and I have a close group of writer friends that we refer to as “the Paladins” or our “framily,” and they’re the ones that first pointed out my SlytherPuff tendencies. I confess that I have a notebook with pages of notes on people. Likes, dislikes, food allergies (I love to bake and cook and don’t want to accidentally poison someone!), and along with all those innocuous notes, I also have addresses, birthdates, relatives, etc. The framily calls me crazy. I call it detail-oriented. I’m friendly and welcoming to just about everyone. I’m also watching everyone and everything, deducing weaknesses and strengths. I’m a housecat. Fluffy and friendly with claws and teeth.
You’re an aficionado of the Stars Wars Original Expanded Universe. How did you discover it? What are some of your favorite EU storylines or characters?
I think I got my first Star Wars book in third grade. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. I was hooked and had to get my hands on every book that I could find. (My poor parents spent so much money on their book-addict of a daughter’s collection) I mentioned the NJO series already, but that was really formative for me, as it came out during my junior high and high school years.
I really related to Jaina, I cried (spoiler warning!) when Anakin died, and my heart broke for Jacen. Everything after that series, especially in regards to the twins … oh man. So many feels. I remember occasionally having to just set the book down so I could breathe and calm down my raging emotions. I want to make readers feel the same about my series.
So … are you a fan of the new generation of Star Wars films Disney is churning out?
Come to Dark side. We have the old EU.
Honestly, I probably wouldn’t be so bitter about the new Star Wars stuff if they gave it the same treatment they did Marvel. With the Marvel movies, they allowed the comic books and other ongoing things to continue. With the new Star Wars, they axed all the stuff that was planned to come out, then they started discontinuing some of the books. It hurt.
All my Star Wars books are boxed up and in the garage right this moment, because I was too bitter to keep looking at them. (It took over seven boxes to get them all, too.) **deep sigh**
If they had said, “Hey, we’ll finish what we started, wrap it up, just know that these older stories are a different time continuum,” or something like that, I’d be fine. Then we could have our glorious old friends and enjoy the new stuff. But no. They burned that bridge. (I think this is the calmest I’ve discussed the new Star Wars yet)
As for the new movies … The special effects are pretty.
You’re also a “Voltron: Legendary Defender” enthusiast. What do you love about the animated series?
Everything! It’s something we can watch with our kids, and our eldest loves to quote it. The story has been fun, and for the most part, the pacing has been pretty good. Characters are complex enough for us adults, and yet family friendly enough for our boys. It’s tense, yet has laughter.
Our framily cosplayed at Realm Makers last year as the Paladins along with Empress Zarkona and Prince Alluran. Basically, we used Rule 63, which states that for every male character, there’s a female version in another world, and same for female characters. Our group ratio was perfect for that, and we ran with it.
Also … Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir! I confess I’ve seen that on the Netflix queue but am not familiar with it. Sell me on it.
Irony abounds in a love square that will have you agonizing and laughing all at once. Two “average” Parisian kids have magical amulets (earrings for Marinette, a ring for Adrien) that turn them into superheroes. Marinette has a crush on Adrien, but he has a crush on the superhero Ladybug. Adrien’s alter ego, Chat Noir, is constantly flirting with Ladybug, and she’s constantly turning him down. Marinette has no idea that she’s turning down Adrien, and Adrien has no idea that his classmate is Ladybug. It’s painfully ironic while also being funny, super cute, and did I mention ironic?
Yo-ho, yo-ho, Pirates of the Caribbean is another one of your things. Why are you particularly obsessed with this Disney attraction?
The attraction at Disneyland means shade from the burning summer sun. And it could be said the first movie was Mike’s and my first date, so it holds a special place in my heart. Back in high school, we were allowed to hang out together, but I wasn’t allowed to date yet. So when the movie came out, we used his little sister as our chaperone and went out to see the movie in the theater. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
Do you have any other writing projects currently in the works?
Well, I just got “Void Born” (book two) back from my editor, and Mike finished outlining “Traitor’s Crown” (book three) last night. I’m going to be editing “Void Born” first, then diving back into “Betrayal by Blood” (the prequel) to edit that and get that over to my editor, too.
Basically, yes. So many writing projects. Assuming I can stay on top of all my deadlines and we don’t have anything big that hinders progress, I’ll be able to take a breather in summer of 2020.
**laughs, then twitches**
Are there any dream writing projects you’d like to tackle in the future?
I’d say I’m living my writing dream! I just got my ARC’s (Advanced Reader Copy) in the mail today, and holding the physical form of book has been absolutely surreal.
Where can we purchase a copy of “Renegade Skyfarer”?
Amazon! It’ll be available on Kindle (and it can be preordered now), and the paperback will be available on Amazon July 1.