Interview at Dragoncon 2014 with Dr. Anthony Francis
Dr. Francis details his thought process in creating the Skindancer series, as well as his upcoming steampunk series.
JMW: Hello. This is Jean Marie Ward for Buzzymag.com. With me today at Dragoncon is Dr. Anthony Francis who’s best known for his [easyazon_link asin=”B008JG8NK6″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”buzmag-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”yes” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Skindancer[/easyazon_link] urban fantasy series featuring Dakota Frost. Welcome, Anthony.
Dr. Anthony Francis: Hey.
JMW: What prompted you to create a magic system based on tats, graffiti and fire spinning?
Dr. Anthony Francis: I love urban fantasy and I love seeing vampires, werewolves and stuff in day to day life. But as I read a lot of the stuff there was a disconnect between the covers of these books and the actual characters. You would have a character that’s covered in tattoos and in the book they don’t have any. Or you would have a character that’s showing all the skin and the character would have jeans and a flannel shirt. And that kind of irritated me. I said, what if I could design a character whose appearance was dictated by her powers? I said, well, what if we had someone that had tattoos and needed to show the tattooed skin in order to do her magic? And that’s how I came up with Dakota Frost’s magical tattoos to start with and I said, well, I don’t want to write about just one thing. I don’t want to have a universe that’s limited to this one magical practice. Somebody said, well, what if all alternative culture practices had a magical version? Magical fire spinning, magical tattooing, magical graffiti and then in my future books I’m going to include things like piercing and as the books go on, I want to introduce more and more to show that if you had a world that had magic then it could be used for anything.
[easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”B008JG8NK6″ cloaking=”yes” layout=”top” localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”buzmag-20″]Skindancer[/easyazon_block]JMW: You really write and seem to enjoy writing very strong women characters. Dakota, all of the women in her immediate environment. These are not shrinking violets. What prompted you to gravitate towards such strong women characters?
Dr. Anthony Francis: That’s a deep question that goes in all sorts of directions. I do specialize in strong female characters. It’s not that I haven’t written strong male leads in stories, but even the Steampunk stuff I do, it’s about a world where women’s liberation happened a hundred years earlier. I’ve always been interested in women’s issues and in promoting women’s rights and that’s led me in that direction in one sense. In another sense, I’m a bisexual man and I identify strongly with people that are outside of the normal realms of society and one of the things that women face is that there’s remnants of a patriarchal culture which sometimes makes it hard for them to do the things they want to do. So that’s also another reason. Something that people have probably also noticed about the Dakota Frost series is that there’s a fair amount of BDSM, fetish and other things that are in the series which are other things that I highlight and that’s something that’s also been an interest for me. I also gravitate towards strong women from that perspective as well, so there’s three or four different reasons.
And with Dakota, in particular. Dakota is a blend of several people I know, including myself, my wife, and so on, and some other people that we know. And so my wife is also a fun and engaging person and I try to put some of that into Dakota.
JMW: How important is the reality of the setting to you?
[easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”B005GMV3GC” cloaking=”yes” layout=”top” localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”buzmag-20″]Skindancer[/easyazon_block]Dr. Anthony Francis: Extremely important. I strongly believe that you have a fantastical element to your story, it should be grounded in a real world environment and, so if you have a vampire and a werewolf and they’re fighting and it’s just in some random, dark alley, it’s not a real thing. It’s a stage play. But when you put that on the Storyteller square in Buckhead or in Underground Atlanta, then suddenly people have something that they can grab onto and that has a context. I try to imagine that all of my stories are based in a real world, that there are real consequences. I don’t like the idea of a story where there’s magic but it’s tacked on. I want that if there are magical things that happen, that they affect every part of the world and to do that, you have to not only think about the magic. You have to think about the mechanics of the magic. You have to think about the mechanics of the real world. You have to research all of them. That doesn’t mean you take the mystery away and I try to make sure that that remains in my books. But I think that it helps people enjoy and appreciate the fantasy if the stuff that is not fantastic is something that they are completely familiar with.
JMW: And you mentioned you’re going to be starting a Steampunk series very soon and I’d like you to talk a little bit about that, but I’d also like to know how you can bring that sense of realism to a completely made up world.
Dr. Anthony Francis: So to bring it to a completely made up world, I think the most important thing is to come up with consistent rules that are not so different from the world that we have that you can’t identify with them. And I have read science fiction stories in which there were flat earths and where the laws of motion were different and so on, but the writer took the time to sell the events that happened so that you believe that these things will happen. You see them in the characters’ day to day life and then when the plot turns on them later, you’re not, like, where did this come from?
So I think for a completely made up world, it’s important to come up with a solid set of rules. And again, just because we live in a modern age of science doesn’t mean that we’ve solved all problems and it’s important to recognize our scientific concepts are constructs that we use to understand the world and they could be wrong. You need to simultaneously build a very strong model in your head of how everything works, but you also need to leave a little bit of openness, especially if you have a magical system. If you’re a hard science fiction writer, this may be a little different. But for a system that has magic, you want it to have that boundary busting element where the magic is always slightly beyond the abilities of the characters to understand and cope with and it’s always challenging them beyond what they’re familiar with.
JMW: What kind of challenges are you bringing to that Steampunk story?
Dr. Anthony Francis: I was inspired to write this story by coming to Dragoncon and seeing all these people with all these gears and stuff and all the stuff on their costumes. I’m like, how would that possibly work? What if that possibly worked? Wait. Could I design a reason why people would be wearing goggles because they have ray guns that have a lot of ultraviolet? Could I design a reason why there’d be all these tubes where they maybe have gas powered things like with compressed air. So I started building this up and I started writing a small amount of story on this. I’m like, but how did they get that in the early 1900’s, slightly after what in our world would be the death of Queen Victoria? Technically Edwardian rather than Victorian, but you’ll have to read the book to see more of that. But it started to bother me. Like, how did they get in this early 1900’s time frame with all this technology that we don’t have and then it occurred to me. What if some of the scientists didn’t die, like Remen (sp?) and if we’d had something like modern antibiotics so he didn’t die. I think he was tuberculosis or pneumonia. I can’t remember which at this time. And then what if other people didn’t die? What if Mary Shelley didn’t die? I was researching feminism at the time and I had found out that there was a feminist movement in the early 1800’s that died out when Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to Mary Shelley and died subsequent to the childbirth and then when her husband published her biography, it had the backfire effect of trashing her reputation so women’s rights were set back about a hundred years.
I thought, well, if we had more than twice as many brains focusing on the problem, all these women scientists, all these non-dead male scientists, all able to work on things, they could be more advanced then. And that gave me this really open thing to say I have a strong female protagonist. She is a third generation woman soldier. Her family even takes male names, so she’s Jeremiah Willstone and she has technology that we would envy today. And that led to a very fruitful, whole adventure which was really fun to write.
JMW: Do you have a publication date for that?
Dr. Anthony Francis: We think it’s coming out in early 2015, possibly mid 2015 given that it’s publishing.
JMW: All of the stuff, the magic systems, the way of ensuring that we actually had a Steampunk universe, and making things work, that’s actually your day job. You have what I think is one of the coolest day jobs around. I mean, I was doing some research on you. I found that, let me get this word straight because, boy, it’s a mouthful, context-sensitive asynchronous memory and what it does is basically help you put in motion and personality models for robotic pets and you’ve been developing artificial intelligence for game characters. What brought you to urban fantasy and Steampunk when you could . . . you know, this is sci-fi.
Dr. Anthony Francis: I love science fiction and I’ve been writing it since I was ten and I’ve always wanted to be a science fiction author, but I also knew I had some kind of academic inclination. I thought it was my responsibility to spend some time doing science before I went off and did writing. I wanted to do the most interesting science that I could and that led me down the path of doing . . . At first, I was doing computer science and physics and then I just focused on the computer science. Context-sensitive asynchronous memory is that thing that you do when you remember the word, you hear the word bank and when you see a river bank, you think of the side of a river. But when you see money, you think of a financial institution. Your brain partitions the knowledge you have based on the context that you have and that’s related to the emotional long term memory for robot pets. They’re not quite connected. They’re two different technologies that I worked on, but that was the interesting thing of my thesis. Part of my thesis was trying to organize information and that got me working for a search engine that starts with a G. You might be able to figure out which one that is.
Then I had the opportunity while on my thesis. My thesis advisor started working on robotic pets and he said would you like to help out and I said, of course. So every time in my career life where I had an opportunity to pursue robotics, I’ve done so because it’s really an awesome and interesting field. I think it’s going to radically change everything from . . . in the positive sense, it’s going to change consumerism. It’s going to empower the elderly. It’s going to empower people, commuters. In a negative sense, we have to be concerned with its implications for warfare and job disruption. It’s a transformational technology for the 21st century in the same way that trains were for the 1800’s and that aircraft travel and television and telephones were for the 1900’s. I think in the 2000’s we’re going to need to really focus on this and I’m glad to be a part of it.
JMW: Are you also part of the conceptualizing from the ethical standpoint?
Dr. Anthony Francis: I am. From a variety of perspectives. First, I’m strongly in favor of the idea that technology can empower people. Technology constantly churns and people lose their jobs as technology churns and that’s really unfortunate and we should be aware of that and not leave people in the lurch as new things are developed. But at the same time, the new technologies have enabled and empowered people to do things so we need to be thinking about how to create jobs as well as eliminate them. We don’t want to just make it more efficient and now we have a whole bunch of people that we want to buy these products coming out of this factory, but they have no jobs to pay for the products. Instead can we empower people with things like 3-D printers, home robotic arms and so on, to have individuals create their own kind of equipment and machinery. That’s what the Steampunk maker culture is really about. One of the fun things I had in Clockwork Time Machine is I had my character go back to get her weapons re-armed at a local artisan that had a 3-D printer and a robotic arm and so on, because they had all that technology and I can back extrapolate it in time.
JMW: Well, we are reaching the end of the interview. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Dr. Anthony Francis: One thing that I’d like to add is if you’re interested in writing or interested in getting involved in technology that you should just pursue it, because I know people in the PhD program that have been former soap salesmen, door to door soap salesmen, that are now PhD’s, professors with dozens of students. Anyone can do this. Anyone can find time to take out and write. My message to everyone is if you believe that you can do it, you can probably find a way to make it possible.
JMW: Cool. And on that note, thank you, Anthony and thank you for BuzzyMag.com.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.