Guest Blog: Mark Hodder

As you know, I've been intrigued by Mark Hodder's The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Canada, USA, Europe) since I received the ARC a few months back. With my curiosity piqued in such a way, I invited the author to write a guest blog.

In the following post, Mark Hodder tells us why Sir Richard Francis Burton is the perfect steampunk hero.


When I started planning my debut novel, THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK, I knew from the get-go that it would be a tale of detection and adventure, and, after a few seconds of thought, that it would have Sir Richard Francis Burton as the protagonist. Those few seconds went something like this:

"My hero needs to be a 'Sir.' Being a Knight of the Realm straight away implies that, even before the novel begins, he's done something outstanding in life. And he needs some edginess. So what would be a suitably evocative name? Sir Marcus Quarrell? Sir Daniel Bullett? Sir Terence Pride? Sir Lance Thruster? Sir Chopping Cruncher? Sir OhMyGod ThisIsn'tWorkingAtAll?"

One of the techniques I have for naming characters is to scour the indexes of biographies, so I reached for the bookshelves and, inevitably, my hand landed on a biog of Sir Richard Francis Burton. I say inevitably because I have every book about the guy ever published—he's fascinated me ever since my early teens, when I read Philip José Farmer's RIVERWORLD.

Well, that was it: the game changer. In an instant I realised that I was going to follow in Farmer's footsteps and use Burton as my main protagonist—and if I was going to use one real historical figure, then why not use others?

That's when THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK started to come together.
So how about a real-life mystery to investigate, too? I quickly found Spring Heeled Jack—surely the most enigmatic riddle of the age. Unfortunately, the timing wasn't quite right: Jack's campaign of terror began while Burton was still a child. That meant I had to manipulate time in order to engineer a confrontation—adding a sci-fi element to the tale. This was intimidating. First-time novelists should steer clear of time travel; it's excessively complicated and there's a danger that your readers will unravel the whole plot by pointing out that "he just has to hop back an hour and change this one small thing. Simple. Problem solved!"

I like a challenge though, so I dived in and prayed I was up to the job.

It quickly occurred to me that any small alteration in time could have massive consequences, and that realisation gave me the "meat" of the story. It also steered it into the steampunk genre.

Everything clicked into place.

Sir Richard Francis Burton and steampunk—what a fascinating combination! To me, they both exist on the threshold of change. Steam powered machinery, in its day, symbolised strength and hope and a golden future, but it was also the last hooray of visible, comprehensible technology, before it vanished inside itself to become the esoteric, mysterious thing that it is today.

Burton, meanwhile, was regarded by his fellow Victorians as dangerous and eccentric. He was "Ruffian Dick," a man who all too frequently pushed the mores of the age to their limits; a daring adventurer, an outcast, a faulted scholar, and, perhaps, his own worst enemy. One can't help but feel that he was well-aware of his own shortcomings and would, perhaps, have been more content had he been able to observe his life through our eyes, regarding himself as a sort of proto- modern man; a free-thinker who questioned limits and assumptions.

In THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK, one historical event is interfered with, and from this change, ripples spread out. People are presented with challenges and opportunities that they didn't have in the original timeline, and this changes them completely. Technology, too, takes a different path. In my alternate world, I have it developing far too quickly and without any forethought as to how it will change society.

Sir Richard Francis Burton is a great personality to drop into the middle of this chaos, for on the one hand he is just about Victorian enough to fit into British society, while on the other, he's an outsider who can observe it, and comment upon it, dispassionately. In other words, he becomes the reader's eyes.

Employing Burton as my hero also gave me a fantastic opportunity. It has always disturbed me the way the second half of his life didn't live up to the first. Somehow, it seems like circumstances cheated him. In THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK, I was able to give him the opportunity to continue adventuring. No fruitless consulships for my Burton!

He is also perfectly placed for a little political commentary.

Steampunk has as its backdrop the British Empire. Empires, seen from the 21st Century, are not particularly nice things. They suppress, pillage and obliterate. In my opinion, if steampunk is your genre, then you are somewhat obliged to address the issue of imperialism. Burton is a great protagonist through which to explore it. He had witnessed first-hand the damage that so-called "civilisation" could wreak; was very aware that other cultures possessed a validity that his contemporaries refused to acknowledge; but, at the same time, he was very inconsistent in his views, as if he had one foot in his own world and the other in ours.

THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK was my first novel. When I started it, I didn't even know whether I was capable of writing one. The fact that I did, and that it has been well received, is thanks to Sir Richard Francis Burton. For me, he is the perfect steampunk hero!

8 commentaires:

redhead said...

Something I loved about the novel was one of the explanations for all the technology, the genetic manipulation (and omg, the messenger birds? I am still chuckling!). One person makes one offhand comment to one scientist, and a few years later we're living in a steampunk'd world.

Hodder, I'm looking forward to more good stuff from you!

Anonymous said...

The books great. Will it be coming out for the kindle any time soon?

Cecrow said...

I'd never heard of Spring Heeled Jack before, but discovering from your essay that he was a real phenomena (if not person) and doing some googling on him has made your book's subject several times more intriguing. Thanks for guesting!

SQT said...

I bought this a few weeks ago and this reminded me to pull it out and get to it. I was intrigued by the libertine aspect and wanted to see where you went with that. Though I must admit, the cover was a big selling point too!

Anonymous said...

Coupon in hand - off to buy the book. Thanks for guest blogging.

Elfy said...

Looking forward to picking this up. Yeah, that wibbly wobbly timey wimey thing really only works for Gallifreyan Timelords.

Ryan said...

Mr. Hodder, I just finished reading your book, and I thought that it was fantastic. I really couldn't put it down, and made myself look a bit ridiculous by trying to summarize the plot and explain it to my girlfriend. She was intrigued though, and she is not a big fan of anything fantastic. Well done, and I look forward to more.

Anonymous said...

Let me just say that I loved the book. I walked into the bookstore and saw the book on the shelf in a section called "steampunk". I'd never heard of that genre and had to ask at the information desk what it was all about. I love science fiction...magic, wizards, elves, etc. The helper at the desk said it was kind of like science fiction but in the Victorian Era, so I thought what the heck. I have now recommended this book to no less than five people. I hope you plan on writing more. Thanks!