AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Bear

Your presentation of the city of Seattle in 1899 feels very authentic. How much did your research on the real Madam Damnable influence the development of this story?

Hah! It’s not authentic at all. And the real Madame Damnable—who was very little like the woman whom I named after her—was long dead by 1899. Basically, the city I’m presenting is an amalgam of northwestern port cities in the late 1800s, with some completely invented bits thrown in. There are elements of San Francisco and Portland as well as Seattle. So I’m glad they integrated well!

The voice of Karen Memery is one of the most charming features of the story. How important was it in the creation of this story? Did you start with the voice or was that something you found later?

She came with the voice. One of the great things about writing first-person is that ability to just wallow in a good voice when you find one.

You chose to portray the “seamstresses” at Madam Damnable’s with grit, courage, craftiness, wit, and intense loyalty, as exemplified by the narrator, Karen Memery. How did you decide to depict the characters in this way?

As with anything, old west “parlor girls” were human beings, and like all human beings they ran the gamut from heroic to craven, with stops everywhere in between. The ones history remembers were all larger than life, but some—Pearl Starr, the original and real-world Madame Damnable, Jule Bulette—stand out as exceptional. I took them as my models.

With the complex relationship between Madam Damnable and Peter Bantle, the strange power that Bantle controls with his glove, the prostitute-turned-vigilante Merry Lee, and the richness with which you depict the setting, it seems like there is more story here. Can we expect more stories about these characters in the future?

I’m actually at work on a novel featuring these folks. It will be called KAREN MEMORY, and should be out in 2015 from Tor, God willing and the creek don’t rise.

What excited you about writing this story? Seeing the completed work, what are you most proud of?

What excited me most about the writing was Karen herself—her voice, her wit. I’m also pleased that I got to show a little bit of the West that often gets ignored—the social and cultural diversity of a place and time that’s now often presented as being peopled by folks who were all stamped from one mold.

What is the appeal of “weird west” fiction? Why do writers—or you yourself—write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

The Myth of the West is already a myth. What’s a little magic or superscience thrown in on top of that? They’re complementary flavors. *g*

What are some of your favorite examples of weird westerns (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

I’m a big fan of the old Jonah Hex comic books, especially the Joe R. Lansdale/Tim Truman run, which is sarcastic and delightful. And Emma Bull’s absolutely brilliant Territory, which is about the Matter of Tombstone. Her husband, Will Shetterly, has a great short story that’s also about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday: It’s called “Taken He Cannot Be,” and in it Earp and Holliday go looking for John Ringo and find a unicorn. Cherie Priest’s western steampunk novels are also a great deal of fun.