Five Questions with Megan O’Keefe
I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Megan O’Keefe about her debut novel, Steal the Sky, an interesting novel that pits Detan, a high-born conman, against the powers of the oasis city of Aransa. Steal the Sky will be released January 5, 2016.
Bradley P. Beaulieu: STEAL THE SKY features Detan, “a wanted conman of noble birth and ignoble tongue.” I’m a sucker for cons and grifters. What first attracted you to this type of character? How does Detan stand out from the crowd?
Megan E. O’Keefe: There’s a certain doggedness associated with rogues that’s always appealed to me. Their tenacity makes it easy to root for them, even when they’re doing things we know they probably shouldn’t. They’re a determined lot, thieves and cons, they’ve got to hustle to earn their daily bread and stay ahead of whatever law might punish them for their schemes. Whether it be a petty thief, an evangelical building a cult of personality, or your average flimflam man, liminal characters are excellent at revealing both a society’s strong suits, and its weaknesses.
In Detan’s case, he’s functioning on the edge of a society he was once deeply a part of. His heritage lies in the nobility of the region, but he’s eschewed his place in the world due to abuses he’s suffered. Despite turning away from the local aristocracy, he’s still acutely aware of how they operate and leverages this knowledge to snake his way into situations he can manipulate to his advantage.
BPB: I’m also a sucker for airships! Put your tall ship geek hat on, please, and tell us about yours. How do they work? How have they affected the trade and politics of your world?
MEO: Hooray for airships! I fell in love with them the first time I “got” one playing Final Fantasy VII and knew I’d have to create my own story with them someday.
The vast majority of the Valathean air fleet is split between two purposes: trade and war. Some smaller vessels, round about the size of river barges, are used as personal conveyances, but the big ships are primarily relegated to greasing the gears of Valathean trade – and defending the empire’s interests when necessary.
The ships themselves are variations on cargo-carrying seaships. Primarily flat-decked and rectangular, the ships are lifted by the use of buoyancy sacks filled with the Scorched Continent’s most valuable resource: the lighter than air gas, selium. Though they have sails, steering is primarily done with a system of hand-cranked propellers in concert with flight surfaces functioning as ailerons and elevators that extend from the larger ships’ stabilizing wings and empennage. Propulsion is accomplished either by catching the intense native winds in their sails (selium’s presence in the atmosphere causes stronger gusts than you’d find on good ole’ Earth), setting and winding up the propellers as one would a watch, or in emergencies a sel-sensitive can forcefully evacuate selium through venting built into the buoyancy sacks for that purpose.
All the airships are suspended beneath their buoyancy sacks, save one: the Larkspur, the object of my wily conman’s machinations. The Larkspur was commissioned by a very wealthy woman for the purpose of impressing the locals she’s hoping will accept her as their new Warden (a type of governor in-world). The Larkspur bucks convention by hiding its buoyancy sacks in the belly of the ship. This, of course, makes it unstable, and as such the ship requires larger stabilizing wings than the others of the land, and also limits the cargo space. But the speed it gains in increased aerodynamic performance and the sheer aesthetics of it more than make up for finicky flight characteristics.
BPB: The city of Aransa looks to be on the brink of some major changes, due in no small part to Detan and his shenanigans. I’m always curious to know how a region reaches the point where it’s become a tinder box, ready to explode. Without getting too spoilery, how did Aransa reach this point?
MEO: The Scorched continent hasn’t been a particularly stable place since the Valathean empire dropped anchor on its shores, and the city of Aransa is no exception. As outposts go, Aransa is relatively wealthy due to its high-producing selium mine, but it has always been a superstitious city. So, when the city’s Warden turns up dead – and the rumor is he was killed by a doppel, a magic user of local nightmares – the locals hit a boiling point. They may have access to wealth, but any miner knows how fleeting that can be. They crave stability – even if that means electing an exiled commodore of the empire to be their leader.
BPB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in STEAL THE SKY? And I don’t mean here in the real world. I mean in book: what’s the thing you really geek out over when you think back on it?
MEO: I tend to really geek out about worldbuilding, and have an abiding love of geology, so it’s gotta be that. The really deep worldbuilding that doesn’t quite make it on the page, the bulk of the iceberg lurking beneath the tip the reader sees. The actual bones of the world are all worked out, right down to what the planet’s core is made of, where it stands in its solar system – hell, I even know how the little ball of a planet that houses the Scorched Continent is protected from solarwinds stripping its atmosphere.
Figuring out how to get the crustal plates of my planet to move around in just the right way to to create a continent a little smaller than Australia, but riddled with volcanoes? I had a blast doing that. And I haven’t even begun to nerd out about the world’s second “moon,” and how it helps bring about the monsoon season.
BPB: Reaching the point of publishing your first novel is always a unique, interesting journey. Looking back over your budding career, what were some of the main turning points for you, times where you took major leaps forward or had major inspirations that led to advancements in either your writing or your writing career (which aren’t exactly the same thing)?
MEO: My first short story sale was my Writers of the Future winning story, “Another Range of Mountains.” Up until that point, I had been telling stories via role playing games for years, but I’d just begun to really think about telling complete stories rather than “playing” characters. Needless to say, I was still pretty new to writer-land when I went to Hollywood for the workshop that accompanies the award, and that experience was a huge leap forward for both my craft and my professional outlook.
From a career standpoint, it was the first time I realized that this whole writing gig might not just be a pipe dream. From a craft standpoint, I essentially had my head cracked open and the combined knowledge of all the instructors dumped right in. It was a lot to digest all at once – in many ways I’m still processing it all.
Megan E. O’Keefe was raised amongst journalists, and as soon as she was able joined them by crafting a newsletter which chronicled the daily adventures of the local cat population. She has worked in both arts management and graphic design, and spends her free time tinkering with anything she can get her hands on.
Megan lives in the Bay Area of California and makes soap for a living. It’s only a little like Fight Club. She is a first place winner in the Writers of the Future competition and is represented by JABberwocky Literary Agency.