Robyn Bennis Talks Military History and Gender Roles in The Guns Above

Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we are sharing an interview with Robyn Bennis, author of the forthcoming steampunk fantasy The Guns Above. Josette Dupre is the first female captain of the Royal Aerial Signal Corps, but her crew just might kill her before the enemy can. The Guns Above will be available on May 2nd. You can sneak a peek of it here!

How did you create the period feel of The Guns Above?

Primarily by way of my characters. This is an adventure story and I wanted to keep it moving at a quick pace, so most of the steampunk period feel comes from how the characters relate to each other. For example, esteem for the aristocracy is beginning to slip, with expertise replacing breeding as an avenue to respect—much to the chagrin and confusion of one of my protagonists, Lord Bernat Hinkal. In the city and aboard Mistral, he’s perturbed by how familiar people are becoming with him, while out in the countryside, where the technological revolution has had less influence on society, he’s treated with more courtesy and deference.

Beyond the characters, I like to slip in some background details that serve as reminders of the period I’ve built. So you’ll see horse-drawn carriages driving in the shadow of an airship, or regiments of Napoleonic-era infantry being transported by locomotive.

What kind of military research did you do for the book?

To give you an idea, here’s a picture of the resources I leaned on the most while writing it:

In addition to those, I drew background material from fiction and non-fiction accounts written by combat veterans, such as Matterhorn, Berry Benson’s Civil War Book, and the works of Ambrose Bierce. I also leaned on friends who are vets, and my grandfather’s old Air Force stories.

How did you choose which gender roles to subvert in a historical military context versus which you kept?

That followed naturally from the assumptions I’d made about Garnian society and the common (but erroneous) belief among the Garnian public that crewing an airship is a largely noncombatant role. Garnia is a fundamentally regressive place, but it’s also running out of young men to fight its wars. So allowing women on airships was sold to the public and the army brass as a way of freeing fighting men for the infantry. Call it equal parts desperation and creeping social change.

How did you pull together all the details of the world in a way that signals that the book takes place in a non-European fantasy world?

You wouldn’t ask that question with a straight face if you saw the first few drafts, because it turns out the answer is, “very badly.” I have my editor, Diana Pho, to thank for sitting down with me and, in a very patient voice that I assume she reserves for ignorant white ladies, helping me to make the book diverse and multicultural. We brainstormed up changes to names, foods, manners of dress, and houses of worship, crafting a Garnia that isn’t just a whitewashed version of 19th Century Europe.

What was your favorite section to write and why?

Without giving any spoilers, there’s a moment about halfway into the book, in which Josette has been brooding about what she considers a disrespectful move from Bernat. She’s been trying to avoid him, but circumstances force them back together, and her raw contempt just about melts his face off. I think readers will know which section I’m referring to, and recognize how much fun I had writing it. Really though, anytime I got Josette and Bernat arguing, it was a joy to write. They’re both proud and sharp-witted, in their own ways. When they butt heads, it’s delightful.

What do you do when you get writer’s block?

Typically, I follow these simple steps:

  1. Self-loathing
  2. Surrender to despair
  3. Give up on writing career
  4. Have great idea in the shower

I’m not sure they’d work for everyone, mind you.

Since you wrote The Guns Above in a coffee shop, what’s your favorite drink?

Call me a West Coast stereotype, but my drink is a soy latte. Really though, I’ll drink anything that keeps me caffeinated. The only major exception is almond milk. Put almond milk in my coffee and we’re going to have words.

If you could spend an afternoon with Bernat and Josette, what would you do?

Above all, I’d try not to piss them off. I’d rather not weather Bernat’s cutting remarks, whereas making Josette angry could be life-threatening. So how about a nice cup of tea and a relaxing trip to the spa?

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Find Robyn Bennis online on Twitter (@According2Robyn), Facebook, or visit her website.