An interview with Josiah Bancroft
By: Michael Evan
A pre “Arm of the Sphinx” interview I conducted with the incomparable Josiah Bancroft.
Originally published elsewhere
Senlin Ascends was actually self-published a number of years ago along with its sequel Arm of the Sphinx despite now, finally getting the recognition it has always deserved through Orbit publishing. Tell me something about that journey and how it feels to be really out there and receiving so many accolades?
Senlin Ascends (cover)My journey was pretty weird and meandering. I made lots of promotional efforts, most of which were ill-conceived, all of which were unsuccessful. I frittered more money than I care to admit on poorly written ads. I printed up hundreds of full color press releases, which I sent to every bookstore in the region, though it would’ve been just as effective to send them to Santa Claus. I sold my books at comic conventions and dressed up on different occasions as Captain Shakespeare, Hipster Luigi, and Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As silly and strange as my efforts often were, I did try my best to gin up a readership. But it wasn’t until I entered Senlin Ascends in Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO that my books started to get any attention.
It’s been wonderful to see the books find an audience, and really gratifying to read so many enthusiastic reviews. Most of Senlin Ascends’ success is owed to the readers who recommend it to their friends and family. They’re doing what I could not do on my own, and I’m very grateful to them for it.
Who is Thomas Senlin? How would you describe our tour guide through the Tower of Babel? Perhaps you could give us a taste of how his journey begins?
Thomas Senlin comes off as a bit of a prickly pear, especially at first. He’s a headmaster in a small coastal village, and as such, he is accustomed to being (or at least believing himself to be) the smartest person in the room. He’s not unkind, but he is insensitive, and does not fully understand the woman he has recently married. He believes that he is prepared for his honeymoon to the Tower of Babel, but soon after arriving, everything goes horribly wrong. The Tower forces him to face the fact that he is not as clever as he once believed and certainly unprepared for the adventure that lies before him. And yet, he does learn and grow, becoming more resourceful and resilient as he climbs the Tower in search of his wife.
There are clearly elements of high fantasy and steampunk aesthetic throughout the book, but its setting is a truly unique one. How did you come up with The Tower of Babel?
Arm of the Sphinx (cover new)When I first started writing Senlin Ascends, I wasn’t really aware of steampunk as a genre. I based the fashion, the technology, and some of the cultural notes on the Victorian adventure stories I’d read as a boy. When I showed an early draft of Senlin Ascends to a friend, he said, “Oh, this is sort of steampunky, isn’t it?” This was news to me. I ran out and bought several steampunk books to get a sense of the genre, including The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, which I found interesting but unfocused, and Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald Clark, which is sometimes cited as a seminal work, but I found it to be… Well, I don’t want to talk ill of anyone’s work. I’ll just say it wasn’t for me.
The Tower itself was inspired by the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, which is a poetic travel guide to a variety of fantastic, unreal destinations. I was also motivated by Borges’ collection Labyrinths, and by the biblical story, of course, with its themes of hubris and collapse. The ringdoms themselves were individually inspired by a variety of works, including The Plague by Camus, The Castle by Kafka, and Invitation to a Beheading by Nabokov. Really, the origins of the Tower are about as diverse as the levels themselves.
Was there an extensive research process that went in to this or was it mostly creativity guiding the airship?
I really enjoyed researching the history of dirigibles. And I had the help of some wonderful librarians. I read primary sources, including some Royal Air Force documents, and many accounts of early attempts at flight, most of which sounded absolutely harrowing. Half of the time, the hot air balloons were blown hundreds of miles off course. The crews threw everything overboard in a desperate attempt to save themselves. They drank champagne as they sank toward the white-capped sea. They flew too high and froze to death or perished from hypoxia. The early process for producing hydrogen gas was so crude and dangerous, I can hardly believe anyone survived it.
When I concluded my research, I fully intended to take a ride in a hot air balloon myself. I wanted to have that visceral experience of the wind and the height and the calm and the glorious view… but I’m ashamed to admit, I never did it. I really shouldn’t have read all those disastrous accounts first. I made the same mistake as a boy when I learned all about sharks and then refused to swim in the ocean for about a decade. Yes, these fears are irrational, but so am I.
Even after all that research, I still took many liberties with how I presented airships in my books. It’s a fantasy series, after all. If you’re looking for a reliable account of how to design, crew, and fly a dirigible, you’d best look elsewhere.
I’ve noted in comments to you before that the despite the glimmers of hope and Senlin’s inherent optimism there is truly a dream to nightmare phenomenon happening as we read this novel. Did you need to tap in to your own feelings, anxieties, and experiences in any way in order to convey this huge feeling of grief and loss?
I think it’s safe to say, that many of my own dreads and anxieties are reflected in Senlin Ascends. As many writers do, I use my fiction as a way of expressing and exploring certain uncomfortable feelings and fears.
But I’m also very much a student of humanity. A lot of the work I do reflects my efforts to understand other people, their perspective, their experience of things. I think self-knowledge is very important, but there are many interesting people in the world. I don’t want to spend my entire life scrutinizing my navel. I suppose I’m more interested in understanding others than being understood myself. So, while the Tower contains many fantasies and nightmares, not all of them are my own.
Would you say there is a lot of yourself in Thomas?
We share some things in common, yes. We’re both a bit uncomfortable in our own skin. We’ve both spent a lot of time in the classroom. We’re both a little neurotic. But I’m a lot sillier than Tom is, and I don’t share his pride and prudishness. If I was at a party with Tom, I would probably spend half the evening talking to him (probably to his great annoyance) in an attempt to figure him out. I’m always doing that at parties—engaging in soft interrogations. But I think ultimately, rather than discovering what makes him tick, we’d probably just end up arguing over how a line of poetry should be interpreted, or something equally petty, until he got fed up with me and my inquisitions, excused himself, and slipped off into the night.
What were your biggest influences as a writer and how would you say those influences factored in to the world you are creating with The Books of Babel?
Other than the books and authors I mentioned earlier, The Books of Babel are heavily influenced by film. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away are all present in the visual aesthetic of the books. I usually conceive of the scenes I write as a series of camera shots. If I can’t vividly picture the moment in my head, I can’t write it. The result, I hope, is cinematic.
What’s next for Thomas Senlin, and for that matter for Josiah Bancroft?
Well, I’ve recently turned in a draft of the third book in the series, The Hod King, to my editor at Orbit, and I’ve begun working on the fourth and final installation in the series, which is as of yet untitled. So, Senlin has a little bit more adventure ahead of him.
I’m not sure what I will work on when the series is complete. I have a few ideas. I’d like to write a magical realist space adventure. I’ve always been fascinated with astronomy and physics, and I’d like to see what I could make of the genre. Or I might write a story about a philandering traveling salesman, a witch, and a bunch of American urban legends. We’ll see what catches my fancy when the day comes.
I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy your music as well as your writing, and many might not know that you also front an excellent band. So Josiah, plug your band….NOW!
My band is called Dirt Dirt, and you’ve never heard of us because no one has, and we’re all perfectly fine with that. We’re in it for the music and the laughs. I sing and play bass most of the time. My wife, Sharon, plays keys, and two brothers who I’ve known since I was a kid, Will and Benjamin Viss, play lead guitar and drums. We’ve been making noise together for six or seven years now. Our music is a little strange and always evolving.
Dust and Daylight (cover)Our latest EP is called Dust and Daylight, and we’re all very proud of it, even if doesn’t fit very neatly into a particular genre. I think that’s a product of the fact that none of us really like the same music. There’s a little overlap— I think we all agree that Prince is amazing— but our musical backgrounds are very different. We write all the songs collaboratively, so there’s a lot of diversity to them. And the wonderful thing about not having any aspirations of fame or fortune is that we can just chase down our whims and try new things. There’s a lot of freedom in irrelevance.