Thursday, September 11, 2014

Interview: Beth Cato and The Clockwork Dagger

All right!  So today y'all are in for a treat - because today, I have the pleasure of interviewing the unrelentingly fabulous Beth Cato, author of... well, here, she can tell it better than I can.  Make sure you're sitting down for this, because it's gonna get real.  Real awesome.

Beth Cato
author of The Clockwork Dagger
High Priestess of Churromancy
and fearless corseteer
TT: So I'm obviously at an advantage cuz I already know a little bit about the book, but just to help get the rest of the world up to speed: how would you describe The Clockwork Dagger to a brand-new listener?

BC: I originally pitched it to my agent as MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS on a airship, with a healer as the lead character, and I think that's still accurate. Just add in espionage, a dash of romance, and a temperamental world tree.

TT: Haha, amen to that - if I had a dollar for every time Yggdrasil got on my case...!  But I'm really interested in this idea of having a healer as the main protagonist - it's definitely not something we see very often.  What inspired you to make Octavia a medician?

BC: Healers/white wizards/clerics have been my Mary Sue since I was 11 years old. I fell in love with Final Fantasy II (now best known as the Japanese FFIV) for Super Nintendo and bonded with Rosa, the white wizard. My grandpa had died of a terminal illness a few months before, and the idea of healing magic hit me in a very profound way. Whatever I wrote--or tried to write--from then on tended to explore that kind of magic. I wanted novels with that kind of lead character and never found them. I wrote the kind of book I wanted for a very long time.

(This is Rosa, but also my love letter to Yoshitaka Amano.)
TT: Oh, man, let's hear it for those of us who had our minds permanently altered by 16-bit epic sagas.  But one thing that really impressed me in reading your chapter 1 is that Octavia would not be mistaken for any kind of "quiet gentle hero's girlfriend" archetype.  It's clear that she cares about people and is dedicated to her profession, but she can also be brusque, fearless and direct - definitely nobody's squishy back-row wallflower.  What was your biggest influence in shaping her personality?

BC: I wanted to defy the healer stereotype that you see in so many games and books: the supportive character. The one you keep in the back row, because if the boss monster hits them, they die in one hit. Octavia needed to be passionate. This is a woman who is 22-years-old, but she's spent the past decade in training as a healer, and most of that as a medician and doctor at the front lines of a war. I was inspired by tales of battlefield nurses and doctors from World War I and II. If you're not strong at the start of that job, by golly, you better find your gumption at some point.

TT: Boy, ain't that the truth!  But the other thing that occurs to me is that in fantasyland, you usually just wave your magic wand and everything's all better - no need to dirty your nice white robes.  I see that's definitely not the case in The Clockwork Dagger: the healing process seems to be as ugly and visceral and real as the wounds themselves.  Was that a big factor for you in crafting your magic system?

BC: Yes. I'm big on realism. My agent and editor can attest to that, as they asked me to tone things down a bit and reduce the details!

TT: Holy mackerel.  If the "puppy misunderstanding" in chapter one is the toned-town version, I'm not sure I could handle the rawness of the original!  And speaking of the editorial process, I was reading about how you nearly followed your beta reader's advice cut out the gremlins - and yet they were ultimately what ended up selling the book!   What do you reckon people love so much about cuss-ugly little flying cat-monsters?

BC: *laughs* People love rex cats and pug dogs and all kinds of critters that are called ugly. I just rolled them all into one, made them green, and added some wings. I think it's how gremlins act, too. Leaf the gremlin chirps, purrs, and says a lot without actual English. He's based in part on my belated cat, Palom, who managed to be obnoxious and endearing all at once.

Ah, memories.
TT: Ahh, so he's got some of that "Toothless" magic in him, then - not a cat, and yet totally cat-like in all the best ways!  (Virtual fist-bump for naming your cats after the FFIV Wonder Twins, BTW.)  Actually, speaking of endearing, I also wanted to ask you about your school visit - I know you were super nervous about it, but ended up having a really great time with the junior high students.   How did the kids' interest in you and your book differ from what you usually get from adults?  Was there anything that especially surprised you?

BC: There was a lot of common ground in the questions asked by these kids, grades 6-8, and adults. They often ask what the book is about and where my ideas come from, and everyone asks if my novel will become a movie. I was very surprised and pleased that the kids connected so strongly with my book cover and my character of Alonzo. No one asked about Octavia. Alonzo is described as having nutmeg skin, and bless the folks at Harper Voyager, but they fully supported having him on the cover exactly as he should be. My son's school has varied demographics and strong Hispanic representation. You could see these kids' eyes light up when they saw Alonzo--he looks strong and positive! They need to see more people of color like that on covers.

TT: Beth, there's not a "Like" button here, but even if there were, I couldn't hammer it hard or fast enough.  That definitely stood out to me too, and I'm so glad to hear that you didn't have any trouble getting a cover that's as forward-looking as the book itself.  One more bookish question, while I'm thinking of it: with both Alonzo and the gremlins, we've touched on this idea that you-the-author can't always know what will resonate with your audience.  But if you were going to make a conjecture, what do you think people will really remember about your book?

BC: If I go by the blurbs thus far, the two stand-out elements are the magical system and the gremlins. The cover gets a lot of reactions, too. At Phoenix Comicon, I had lots of high fives because of it!

Beth's Churro Shortbread Cookies. 
Carbohydrometry at its finest!
TT: AS WELL YOU SHOULD!!  (And I would add that I am definitely looking forward to this new post-World-War-I steampunk world you've devised!)  Last question, cuz it's not every day that I get an audience with the High Priestess of Churromancy herself: did any of your legendary baking passions translate into your book?  Any dirigible donuts or clockwork croissants?

BC: *laughs* Food certainly plays a role. Gremlins love cheese, and that's definitely a projection of one of my great loves. There's also a country named Frengia to the north that's inspired by Canada, and in my kingdom of Caskentia, the Frengian immigrants often manage bakeries that feature maple.

TT:  Oh my gravy.  Well, folks, you heard it here: if you want to see cheese-eating cat-monsters, butt-kicking (and butt-healing!) medicians, airship whodunits and the steampunk answer to Tim Horton's, haste ye forth and pre-order THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER - coming September 16th to a war-torn kingdom near you!


  1. Okay, first it was Big Idea, then MRK got into doing author interviews, and now you? I can't go anywhere without running into books I need to buy!!

    1. #sorrynotsorry! I finally found an excuse for hanging out with fun people on Skype, and now your TBR pile is going to pay the price!

  2. FYI, most WWI era sci-fi is called dieselpunk, not steampunk. Is that how you'd classify Clockwork Dagger? Can't wait to read it! Thanks.

    1. Joanne, it would fit under either moniker, though steampunk is better known as far as marketing. Diesel technology is present in the book, but the kingdom is so behind the times they still rely on a lot of steam and magic-based machinery.

  3. The love of Rosa and FFIV has put this on my TBR list. Well done. :-)