The Waking Engine was released Feb 11, 2014 in the US—we don’t have a UK release date yet.
David Edison was born in Saint Louis, Missouri. In other lives, he has worked in many flavors of journalism and is editor of the LGBTQ video game news site GayGamer.net. He currently divides his time between New York City and San Francisco. You can find him on Twitter.
Tell us a little about the world of the Waking Engine & the City Unspoken
The Waking Engine is the first book in a quartet of books which center around the City Unspoken. If death had a capital city, this would be it: a city older than humanity, built and rebuilt like a palimpsest through the ages.
The world—the metaverse—arose from my dissatisfaction with existing takes on the afterlife: I wanted a premise that would give mortals more time to learn how terribly messed-up we are. 'Way, way too long’ seemed a more promising definition of one’s existence than ‘way, way too short.’ That led me to dismantle deities and see what kind of flawed people might be hiding within, and by that point I had the makings of a book.
One of the strengths of the book is its complexity – did it take a long time to write & edit? What was the path to publication like?
It did indeed take a long time to edit - we went through two major edits after the sale, and one before. I began tinkering with the ideas that would become the book around 2003, but shut them up in a drawer until 2008-2009, when I finally found myself in front of an agent, and she told me to finish the few chapters I had. About 18 months later, I brought back a completed manuscript—my agent told me to cut 100 pages and change the ending, so I did. Then my editor at Tor told me to do the same thing, so I did, again! After the first edit at Tor, my editor, who is wonderful, said, “This is what a book normally looks like when we first buy it.” I got the hint, and know what to shoot for this time around.
How would you describe its genre? If you agree with the New Weird label its getting can you expand on what you think makes a book New Weird?
I absolutely agree with the New Weird label, because labels help books reach their target audience, and most things that fall under New Weird already have a handicap in that regard. I don’t put much stock in the New Weird concept myself, insofar as I don’t think about it when I’m writing—my attitude is, forget about genre while I write. Someone will assign it a genre if they think it will sell.
We live in a world of elevator pitches: I don’t begrudge an industry an umbrella term that catches the interstitial or cross-pollination of genres. My concept of New Weird is that it must have elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and be otherwise immune to categorization. I’m sure there are better definitions!
You’re obviously a big fan of Walt Whitman (no spoilers), which writers would you say influenced you most whilst writing this book?
I really drank deeply from the well of writers I chose to inhabit for the epigraphs—I begin most chapters with a fictional quote from a deceased writer, sort of my chance to be an actor and a writer on the page at once. What might Sylvia Plath have written, had her suicide failed the way it would have in this world? All of them were inspirational and therapeutic. When I couldn’t stand the sound of my own voices anymore, I’d go pretend to be Jack Kerouac for a bit.
British fantasist Storm Constantine is a huge, huge influence on me as a weird writer and a queer writer, both. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that her work was largely responsible for teaching me that I could write the weird, queer things I wanted to write.
If you could be a character from the book who would it be and why?
I spend a lot of my time acting just like Purity Kloo. That’s my wish-fulfillment. I remember Anne Rice talking about how Lestat was her alter-ego—well, Purity might be mine.
What are you working on right now? (apart from this interview of course!)
The next book! I realized early on that this story would not fit into one volume, decided to make it a quartet rather than a trilogy for multiple reasons (mostly I’m bored of them and worry that the middle volume always seems to suffer), and threw myself at the task. I’m about 60,000 words in and am just finding my stride. I love my job.
What are you most proud of about the book?
Its mere existence. I know it’s a cliche, but I suffered so much doubt about the viability of this story that to see readers and reviewers enjoying and responding to it—how much more can I want? To have your work generate conversation, that’s the brass ring, as far as I’m concerned. Also I pulled off those epigraphs.
You are a graduate of Clarion West – how did you find that experience?
Truthfully, I did not even meet another speculative fiction writer until I had finished the novel. I kept myself in seclusion, I was so afraid of losing my nerve. When I finished, and realized that I had a lot more to learn, Clarion West was an absolute oasis: I met 19 soul mates and learned at the feet of giants like Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Ellen Datlow… I had to make peace with the fact that The Waking Engine would not benefit from my Clarion West education, which took some resolve, but now I’m more excited than ever to continue with the work.
Clarion West was six weeks at Hogwarts, Starfleet Academy… It was heaven. Anyone even thinking about applying should do it.
Do you have a set writing process, if so what is it? What did you learn about writing whilst writing the book?
I am a critter of habit, so I have a routine, but it isn’t particularly special. I wake up, write over coffee or tea, then go off and do other things, and then come back to writing in the evening and late at night. I write most days, but when my brain needs to rest, I let it. I always warn the men I date that my job is 60% daydreaming, and I’m protective of that. You can’t sit down with the intent to daydream—you’ve got to create space in your life for daydreams to sprout on their own. Or at least I do. Room of one’s own kinda-sorta thing.
What I learned? Oh, SO MUCH. To stay humble, that perfection is an ever-receding horizon, to listen to criticism especially when it hurts, and to slaughter my darlings left and right.
In one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?
KEEP WRITING. I’ve yet to learn anything half so important as that.
Bristol Book Blog review -
When we die, we don’t cease to exist or turn into shimmering motes of ectoplasm or purple angels or anything else you may have been brought up to believe. We just . . . go on living. Someplace else
When I was offered this as an ARC I said yes because of the cool premise. It is a first book and I didn’t know anything about the author but it does have a cool cover too. After you die you wake up on a new world, and continue to do so forever unless you go to one of the few places in the vast multiverse where Final Death can be obtained. The City Unspoken is one of those places and True Death is controlled by the nobility of that city, in addition it is possible in the City for you to be Body Bound (made so that you cannot die). However the ruler of the city, the Prince, is missing, the undead and their mortal servants The Undertow are becoming ever more powerful and there is a new madness malaise affecting part of the population called the Svarning. Into this world Cooper awakes, an ordinary man from New York, this is his first re-awakening, a really unusual occurrence as people generally spend many many lifetimes before arriving in the City Unspoken. Sesstri & Asher, who find Cooper, hope that he will bring the solution to the city’s problems. Meanwhile In the Dome the nobles have been locked away for several years, unable to leave into the wider city and Purity Kloo, a nobleman’s daughter has tried to escape by killing herself every day for a week but can’t escape her body binding. There is also a killer stalking the Dome. That is a Killer who can Murder (give the Final Death).
The plot summary has taken a while because there is a lot going on in the book (and I’ve over-summarised as there are actually a few more plot strands that I’ve not mentioned, for brevity), it is a complex highly interwoven tale with a host of neat ideas working for it. When it works, it works well and pages go by with me loving some of the world building and ideas. There are some fantastic flights of fantasy with beautiful imagery and poetic writing. For example the Apostery where the ideas of all the many gods are buried, since it’s now proven that there is no afterlife in the heaven/hell sense. Edison also seems to have the knack, like China Mieville (who I see he is being compared to), of taking existing fantasy tropes and putting a new shine on them. Edison’s liches are one example and I enjoyed his descriptions of these (even though undeath doesn’t make much sense in his multiverse?). It’s also refreshing for there to be a prominent gay character in a fantasy book.
However there are some issues here too. The overcomplicated nature of the book sometimes gets away from Edison and in some places it is obscure or incoherent (although perhaps as an ARC these may be tightened up in the final edit?). Edison could have done a little more work integrating the cool ideas. We occasionally cross the line from dark into just plain creepy (not in a good way) for example the whores of the city were Body Bound as a reward in the past, so now can’t die. Therefore there are now a type of whore called Bloodslut who sell their bodies to people who like to torture and kill them and will leave their payment in the dead whore’s mouth knowing that the whore will eventually stop being dead. Or the host of youths called Death Boys and Charnel Girls who are all HIV victims who now worship the undead liches. One of the characters, Nixon in a young boy’s body, seems to be there as a comedy sidekick most of the time but at one point goes off on a racist rant. Is racism supposed to be funny? There are scenes of low comedy (the comedy wasn’t to my taste tbh) and deeply dark episodes, sometimes on the same page.
In such a vast multiverse how come our protagonist seems to mostly meet people from our world? Cleopatra as queen of the whores, or the aforementioned Nixon are only a couple of examples. There is a little bit of telling rather than showing and because of that the personality of Cooper didn’t come across as strongly as it could have. He seems to be heroically nonchalant about dying and never being able to see his friends and family ever again, as well as later in the book on being tortured and losing body parts. There is a lot of nice worldbuilding in here but the city failed to totally come alive for me and I never got a good sense of what is was like. I’m not sure all of the characters make total sense either but don’t want to go into spoilers. It feels to me that Edison should have been given a couple of hundred extra pages to thoroughly explore some of the things that feel a little rushed and incoherent. Perhaps later books in the series will do so? He does display a prodigious imagination and there is a lot to like in the book but for me it was sadly let down a little in execution.
Overall – Flawed but with nice worldbuilding. I was left with too many questions, ones that were integral to understanding.