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Interview: June 21, 2017

Last year, A.J. Hartley introduced readers to his steampunk drama, STEEPLEJACK. In this book, readers met Anglet Sutonga, Hartley's fearless heroine, who works as a Steeplejack in the city of Bar-Selehm. When her new apprentice is murdered, Anglet sets off on a harrowing journey to uncover his murderer and expose the unrest rising in the streets of her city. One year later, Hartley has delivered to his readers a sequel to the series, FIREBRAND. Anglet must now use all that she has learned to secretly assist a political leader of Parliament. Her investigation into the government's stolen secret weapon leads her to infiltrate Elitus, the most exclusive social club in the city. But Anglet soon learns that the secrets behind one theft could lead to a whole conspiracy against the most vulnerable in Bar-Selehm. In celebration of the release of Hartley's sequel, our own Matthew Burbridge spoke with Hartley about his thrilling series, including the inspiration behind his writing and the possibility of mapping his imagined world. Read below to find out more! Your Steeplejack series began last year with STEEPLEJACK and now continues with FIREBRAND. Before we dive into this interview, can you give us a brief overview of the series and tell us where you got your initial inspiration?
A.J. Hartley: I had been thinking about two different story ideas. One was about a steeplejack --- someone who works on tall buildings --- in a Victorian city, who would become a kind of detective and use his skills as a climber throughout. The other was a fantasy adventure set in a world which had a lot of African features and centered on a young woman in a marginal community, and involved a mineral which generated its own light. I could see the cover in my head. I was also planning a trip to South Africa and Swaziland. Then I thought how cool it would be to combine elements of both stories to form one: a gas-lit African industrial city, developed to the height of a Northern English city like Manchester and full of factory chimneys, but surrounded by bush haunted by lions and hyenas, and with a history of racial unrest. So STEEPLEJACK was born. That last factor --- the racial component --- was crucial and would define the culture, the core story and a lot of what defined the heroine, Anglet Sutonga. The first book leads her to investigate the death of her new apprentice, working on behalf of a local politician. The case is, like a lot of things in the city of Bar-Selehm, enmeshed in the larger problems and power struggles of the region, though it’s still a very personal journey and, I hope, an intriguing mystery and thrilling adventure story.
TRC:  What new struggles does Anglet have to contend with this time around? What obstacles does she face from within herself and even from her own friends in FIREBRAND?
AJH: While STEEPLEJACK tested Anglet’s skills and ingenuity, FIREBRAND puts her in circumstances that take her well outside her comfort zone, forcing her to learn how to mingle with aristocratic white society in addition to advancing her abilities as an investigator. Along the way she acquires a new mentor and taskmaster who is a bit of an obstacle herself, though that’s nothing compared to the rise of a hardline politician who has sinister plans for the future of the city, particularly for the refugees currently streaming in from war-torn lands in the north. In order to complete her mission and stand up for what she believes, Ang has to figure out her place in the world and where she truly belongs.
TRC: How much of this imagined world (and the characters who inhabit it) came from your own real world experiences, or real world research?  From your Twitter account, it is obvious that you do a lot of traveling, but what elements of your travel or personal life have been added to Anglet’s world?
AJH: Ha. Yes, I do travel a lot. Always have. I love it. And yes, my travel always informs my writing in some ways. Sometimes it’s about physical things about place and geography: architecture, landscape and the things you can’t get from online research, like the smell of a river bank after rain. Sometimes it’s about the people you meet and how they live. And sometimes it’s the unexpected stuff, like when a baboon got into my kitchen in South Africa. There’s no substitute for being indoors and up close to a wild, unafraid animal that doesn’t want to leave! Above all, travel strips you of your assumptions about what’s normal and ordinary, which is really useful for a writer. It reminds you how much people’s sense of the world and their place in it is shaped by their particular culture and environment. I’d also add that much of Anglet’s world is also derived from the English north I grew up in --- the steam-driven industry, railways, the separation of rich and poor. I was in the latter category.
TRC: As a character, Anglet is driven to find answers out regardless of the danger and knowingly refuses to stop until she has the truth and justice she seeks. Do you share any of these qualities with her? What do you hope young readers take away from her actions and choices?
AJH: Wow. I can only hope to show something of Anglet’s courage and convictions in the face of danger, but yes, I feel compelled to write about the things I think are important, and though the books are a kind of fantasy, they are rooted in real world issues. And yes, absolutely; I want young readers to take away a sense that while the world is complex and often oppressive, principled resistance and altruism are vitally important. There is so much corruption and poison in the world, but I honestly believe that young people --- who are of necessity invested in the future --- will save us yet, so long as they do not become discouraged. 
TRC: The relationship between Anglet and her sister, Rahvey, is one that I can relate to very much, as I, too, am a middle child, just like Rahvey. The siblings’ personalities react and interact so believably --- do you have any siblings yourself? If not, where did you get the inspiration for these characters and their relationship?
AJH: I have one brother who is a little younger than me, so I have some family history to draw on, but I also have friends and family members who were part of larger families. One of the things about being a writer is that you are constantly hoarding information and insights overheard from other people. I find myself listening to people’s conversations in restaurants or in the theatre before the show starts, storing away what I hear for those flashes of detail and mood that make a story feel real. Occupational hazard, I suppose. But it’s essential to representing people, their mindsets and their relationships. Sometimes I think that stuff is the heart of writing. Once you have the people, their voices and ideas in your head as well as a sense of story, the rest is just typing.
TRC: If you could spend a day in the world of STEEPLEJACK/FIREBRAND, which of your characters would you spend the most amount of time with? What would you do?
AJH: It’s hard for me to think of Ang as a person outside myself because, though I’m very different from her in lots of ways, she is my eyes and ears, my mind in Bar-Selehm. So when I imagine being in the city I suppose I think of myself as being her, weird though that may sound. Maybe that’s why the person I’d most like to spend time with is Dahria, Willinghouse’s aristocratic sister, who is perpetually bored and funny in a snarky sort of way, smart and, in her own way, irreverent. She’d be good company, particularly if you could get her out of her comfort zone. 
TRC: Although the world you’ve created in your series is similar to ours, there are a few differences, like seemingly centralized city-state, an entire culture of tribes hovering on the outskirts of said city-state, and an Imperial military blockade slowly conquering every inch of the world. Over the course of both books, I’ve become very interested in the surrounding areas of Bar-Selehm. Do you have any maps --- even basic ones --- that you have created to help guide you through these areas? Can we get a sneak peek if you do?
AJH: Yes, I started building maps during the first book and expanded them significantly for the second and third (which I just completed). My earliest plans for the series was that Ang would move around the region, but I rather fell in love with Bar-Selehm and the city began to feel like an essential character I couldn’t be away from for too long. So my sense of the whole world is still evolving slowly, pieces of it coming into focus when the story nods in that direction, while my awareness of the city itself is sharper, harder and more concrete. I actually posted a couple of the maps I built on a special page on my website which has lots of stuff exclusive to the series, including lots of photographs. You can see them here: You can sign up for my newsletter while you are there.
TRC: Although I would probably categorize your series as a historical fantasy/steampunk drama, there are some elements of romance, particularly when it comes to Anglet and Mnenga or Dahria. Do you have a favorite for these developing romances? Were you inspired by any pairings from other works?
AJH: I’m loathe to say too much on this because this strand gets more attention in book three and I don’t want to get ahead of things. I’d rather let the reader see things develop. But yes, I think you’ll find it’s worth the wait. What I will say, and I’ve made this argument when teaching Shakespeare’s comedies, is that if you like, respect or connect to the main character, their love interest has to be worthy of them. If I read a novel when the author wants me to pull for a relationship where I think one of the people involved is clearly problematic or inferior, I’m out.
TRC: While avoiding spoilers I'll just say that FIREBRAND has a spectacular finish but left us off on a subtle cliffhanger surrounding the future of Bar-Selehm and, naturally, I cannot wait to see how Anglet’s story continues. Can you give us a hint as to how many books you have planned for the series, and/or what we can expect from the next installment?
AJH: I’m so glad you’re keen to read more! The original contract with Tor (the publisher) was just for one book, but we added two more later. Whether there will be more kind of depends on how the first three perform. That’s the hard reality of publishing; much as I’d like to tell more stories in this world I can only do that if the readers come with me. The third book, which will be out next year, is tentatively titled GUARDIAN. It builds around some of the political developments at the end of book two but is also, like the previous books, a self-contained case with a beginning, middle and end.
TRC: Many of our Teenreaders are aspiring authors themselves. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Are there any rituals or habits you follow?
AJH: The closest thing to a habit I have is a fierce work ethic. I write constantly, and when I can clear my schedule of other commitments I shoot for about 3000 words a day. That gives me a first draft of most novels in about six or seven weeks, assuming I have a strong sense of where the story is heading. Then I take a break from it, work on other things for a couple of weeks, than come back to it and reread it from page one, aloud. I need to hear it. Then I do the big edits I can see are necessary before sharing it with anybody. When I feel like I have a book I’ll get input from readers I trust, see what they like and don’t like, where I’m getting things wrong. Then it goes to my editor. From that point on I’m actively collaborating to make the book as good as I can.
As to the writing itself, I need silence and privacy. No music. No distractions. Sometimes I use a standing desk, but if I feel myself getting restless or uncomfortable I’ll sit down. I don’t want anything getting in the way of the story. And I talk to myself. The feel of the words in my mouth and ears is important to me. Lastly, when I’m stuck, I walk the dog. And talk to myself some more. The neighbors think I’m a lunatic.
TRC: Last of all, can you recommend any books readers of STEEPLEJACK and FIREBRAND might enjoy while they wait for your next book? Perhaps some young adult author and titles who inspired you as a teen?
AJH: Well, for one thing, they can check out my other YA series, Cathedrals of Glass, a scifi story which I sometimes describe as a fusion of ALIEN and LORD OF THE FLIES. YA fiction as we understand it today wasn’t really around when I was a kid so I tended to read kid-friendly adult fiction. I was a big fan of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea series which still read well to me. And for readers who are thinking of being writers, I recommend mysteries like Agatha Christie which are great studies in plotting. Above all, read constantly and critically, particularly if you want to be a writer. Every time you find yourself caught up in a story or a phrase, ask yourself why. What is the book doing that is keeping you turning the pages? Compare it to others that didn’t and strive to make that difference something that works in your own fiction. There’s a lot of luck in publishing; the only thing you can control is the quality of your own product. Oh, and Shakespeare. Everybody should read Shakespeare. He’s the master of telling gloriously outrageous stories in exquisite language, of raising the most complex and provocative of ideas, the most subtle of character studies while still giving you magic and ghosts and murder. He’s the perfect example of why genre fiction rocks.