ATUF: One of my favorite aspects of ALL MEN OF GENIUS was the students’ projects. Many steampunk novels have primitive version technologies, but your story creates completely unexpected twists and turns. What was your favorite of all the projects and constructs your characters encountered?
Rosen: This is sort of the best question ever.
I loved coming up with all the experiments, because it was such a fun way to show character. Valentine comes to mind first, with his miniature singing peacock. I thought that the idea of a miniature singing peacock kept in a small bird cage was perhaps one of the most ridiculous, ostentatious things one could imagine in the Victorian era – totally useless, totally gaudy, and with undertones of cruelty – and Valentine is the extreme of Victorian Dandyism, which in may ways celebrated the gaudy and the useless. The fact that his peacock seems sad and wilting to Violet but not to Valentine shows his own blindess – he’s so enamoured of the idea of the thing that the thing itself, even if sad, is still beautiful. Valentine often made me think of Huysmans’ Against Nature. In that book, he gilds and encrusts a tortoise with gems. And that’s without mad science. What would a dandy do with mad science at their disposal?
That said, I don’t know if I’d say the miniature peacock is my favorite. I also loved Jack’s corset tightener, Toby’s hangover cure, and of course, the rabbits. I wanted the rabbits to sort of express how history views the two writers I based the work on, so we have Shakespeare, who is perfect and gold and sort of untouchable and inhuman, but incredibly beautiful, and then we have Oscar, a trouble making, foul-mouthed creature who always says something that seems to be egging the characters into being naughty. I love Oscar, especially. I want Oscar to have a twitter account where he just swears at people. I’d like to think both Wilde and Shakespeare would find their rabbit-y counterparts to be funny. I will also say (because as I said, best question ever) that I loved coming up with Merriman’s gardening device, because I knew I needed something that would lose control and slice off a key bit (no spoilers). That was a really fun problem to work out, and I worked backwards from there to the assignment. So sometimes the assignment came from plot, but more often I wanted something that would really show character, like the peacock, or most especially, like Violet’s final invention.
ATUF: The cast of characters in your book is varied and charming, to the point where the line between main and supporting character really blurred for me. Was there a character that fought their way to a bigger role than you expected? Do you have a favorite?
Rosen: Well, if you look at the deleted scenes, you’ll see that the character that really fought for more page time was Fiona. Sadly, she got cut down, but I think she still managed to make an impression. Fiona always makes an impression.
But one who got bigger than I expected? I don’t know. I don’t think I had many expectations going in – I love creating characters so much, and one of the wonderful things about the Victorian omniscient style is that you’re allowed to go into different peoples minds, even the smaller characters, to flesh them out a bit. Today that sort of thing is usually frowned on, “head hopping,” etc, but keeping it somewhat historical really let me explore; so it let me show all the professors, which was a lot of fun, and link them in exciting ways (did you catch the connection between Valentine and Bracknell? How about Fiona and Curio?). I guess Miriam got a bit bigger than I initially expected. Originally, when I was playing around with the idea, I was basing Miriam mostly on Mary from Twelfth Night, who is Olivia’s maid and causes trouble with Toby and Andrew. Lots of productions imply some sort of relationship between Toby and Mary so I wanted to go with that, but as just a governess, Mary wasn’t working – I needed someone with more daring to really paint a governess willing to risk her job for this man, who was defiant and could live in multiple worlds. It was the idea of multiple worlds that started changing her. First she
became Jewish, because that instantly put her outside the mainstream, and then middle-eastern, partially because I have a good friend who is a middle-eastern Jew and partially because I wanted her to be not white, but a sort of ethnicity that would be difficult for Victorians to categorize on sight. As I did more research she got more interesting, and then I got more interested in her, so it was really the research that pumped her up to what is essentially the literary equivalent of a scene-stealer. I mean, the book is about Violet, everyone knows Violet is the star, but there’s just something about Miriam, right?
ATUF: While the science at Illyria College is just as magical as any day at Hogwarts, your world building explores consequences and unintended impacts in a way that is not the norm in fantasy novels. Was exploring the darker side of your fantastical world an integral part of the story or moral you wanted to tell or a side effect of creating a detailed, believable mythology?
Rosen: I don’t know if I’d say “moral” but I absolutely wanted to show the dark side of the Victorian era. One of the things steampunk often does is glorify the Victorian era – look at all these adventurer scientists having fun adventures, etc. And that’s a long tradition, even before steampunk, and those books can be fun. But the Victorian era was brutal. If you were anything but a wealthy white heterosexual male, you weren’t really a citizen. Wealthy white heterosexual women had their own politics, to be sure, but they were still very much stuck in their assigned roles. The idea that the Victorian world – steampunked or otherwise – was populated solely with wealthy white straight people who had adventures, and in the case of women, who were never punished for nonconformity, struck me as incredibly false. I wanted to show the Victorian era from all its angles – from the off-puttingly accepted animal cruelty and the secondary rights of women to the gay-bashing and death of children. I love the Victorian era as a period – it was a time of such hope and change, but to say it was all about wealthy white adventurer scientists having science adventures wasn’t something I could do. I needed to show it all. Or, as much as I could, because there were a lot of things I didn’t even touch on.
ATUF: As satisfying as ALL MEN OF GENIUS in its own right, I can’t help but want more in this series and world. Is there a particular aspect of book two (or four or five or six) that you are excited about and can share?
Rosen: Ok, so I don’t know how much I’m supposed to be sharing, but here’s the sequel situation: It’s finished. A rough draft. But it is unbought. I didn’t sell it as a multi-book deal. Book 2 is about Cecily and Jack, and Cecily’s father, (who you may recall vanished looking for a lost continent) returns, and he is not the man Cecily remembers. They end up on said lost continent, which is a mechanical floating island, and there are also some troubles for Ernest and Violet, as Ernest still hasn’t told Violet about who his father was, and Violet isn’t feeling great about the whole “Lady” thing, and everything she does reflecting on Illyria’s reputation. Plus, like I said, there are many more characters, like Rafaela, who is briefly discussed by Ernest towards the end of All Men of Genius, and the citizens of the floating island. The book is based on both The Tempest and An Ideal Husband, in keeping with the theme.
Oh, and also… I should warn you, the book takes place 2 years later, and by then one of the couples established in All Men of Genius has split up. I’ll leave you to guess which.
As I also mentioned, I have 200 pages of a third, which I LOVE. It is based on Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in it, Violet and Ernest finally go to the moon. As most of the science in the books is based off what Victorians thought they could do, rather than what we now know can be done, they can breathe on the moon. They take a motley crew with them, and a famous American scientist and his assistant. The American scientist is a notorious womanizer and seducer of wives and has set his sights on Violet, and though Violet loves Ernest, she thinks its awfully unfair that as a man he got to experiment and develop sexually before his wedding night, while she did not, and so part of her is tempted. Plus the huge flowers they find in the cave on the moon seem to be having an odd effect on everyone. I’m especially excited about this one because I got to write more about Humphrey Merriman. He’s fairly minor in All Men,
but I always wanted to expand him.
I also think of it as being very much Ashton’s book, because while Violet and Ernest are away on the moon, Ashton and another character
introduced in book 2 are left to tend to Illyria by themselves, which is especially difficult what with the untimely death of a key donor while he was visiting, a very mysterious new professor and the curious reporter Flora Shaw poking about. The narration goes back and forth between the earth and the moon, though it all comes together in the end.
And the 4th, which I have notes on and a hastily written prologue, involves Miriam solving the Jack the Ripper case. I won’t go into more detail than that.
There are vague plans for more beyond that, no more than 3, with the final book taking place in 1901, the end of the Victorian era.
I love the world and the characters and I’d love to revisit them – honestly, I do revisit them, just not in any way anyone else gets to experience.
Lev AC Rosen is the author of the critically acclaimed All Men of Genius, which was an Amazon Best of the month, on over a dozen best of the year lists, and has been nominated for multiple awards. Publisher’s Weekly says it “puts a steampunk spin on the Victorian comedy of manners while sneakily critiquing the gender biases of both genres.” The Onion’s A.V. Club declares that it “slyly examines the psychology and the aesthetics behind the act of human invention,” and Locus Magazine says it “mixes genres with fearless panache.”
Available on now in paperback from Tor Books
Inspired by two of the most beloved works by literary masters, All Men of Genius takes place in an alternate Steampunk Victorian London, where science makes the impossible possible.
Violet Adams wants to attend Illyria College, a widely renowned school for the most brilliant up-and-coming scientific minds, founded by the late Duke Illyria, the greatest scientist of the Victorian Age. The school is run by his son, Ernest, who continues his father’s policy that the small, exclusive college remain male-only. Violet sees her opportunity when her father departs for America. She disguises herself as her twin brother, Ashton, and gains entry.
But keeping the secret of her sex won’t be easy, not with her friend Jack’s constant habit of pulling pranks, and especially not when the duke’s young ward, Cecily, starts to develop feelings for Violet’s alter ego, “Ashton.” Not to mention blackmail, mysterious killer automata, and the way Violet’s pulse quickens whenever the young duke, Ernest, speaks to her. She soon realizes that it’s not just keeping her secret until the end of the year faire she has to worry about: it’s surviving that long.
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