I met local author Laurel Anne Hill at the first Horror Addicts reading I went to. Since then, we keep running into each other at our local cons. I’ve been fascinated by her award-winning steampunk novel, The Engine Woman’s Light.
Laurel’s description of it:
Spirits watch over Juanita, but who is she? A mystic in love who holds life sacred? Or a ghost-possessed railroad saboteur?
A mystical vision of an airship appears to fifteen-year-old Juanita. The long-dead captain commands her to prevent California’s thrown-away people—including young children—from boarding trains to an asylum. That institution’s director plots murder to reduce the inmate population. Yet to save innocent lives Juanita must take lives of the corrupt. How can she reconcile her assignment with her belief in the sacredness of all human life? And will she survive to marry her betrothed?
Juanita sets out despite inner trepidation to sabotage the railroad. Her ancestor Billy, the ghost of a steam locomotive engineer, guides her. Bit by bit, she discovers the gut-wrenching truths her ancestors neglected to reveal.
Come visit Juanita’s world—an alternate nineteenth-century California—where spirits meet steampunk, where both love and anger emanate from beyond the grave.
Did something in the real world inspire The Engine Woman’s Light?
A dream in the early 1990s provided my initial inspiration. In that dream, an elderly woman—condemned to euthanasia—escaped from a death train with an abandoned infant girl in her arms. She walked at night toward a distant light and safety. The resulting short story I wrote never worked. Subplots burdened its structure, all of them failing to address the destiny of the rescued child. I had a novel on my hands, a book that would take me twenty years to complete. The fictional world I created in the process reflects a number of my personal experiences.
For example, The Engine Woman’s Light contains two scenes where spirits hide inside of clocks. I own an old wind-up alarm clock that used to belong to my grandmother. I bought Gran a new Baby Ben—which was easier to wind—around 1988 and kept the old one for myself. The old Baby Ben stopped working about the time Gran died in 1989. Regardless, I continued to keep the timepiece on the shelf of my bed’s headboard. A terrible and unknown illness hit me a couple of years later. My back muscles went into non-stop spasm for six weeks. The pain was excruciating. I didn’t know how I was going to cope. Would I spend the rest of my life as an invalid? At my rock-bottom mental low point, the broken Baby Ben started ticking. The minute hand advanced. Encouragement from Gran’s spirit? Several minutes later, the clock stopped, never to run again.
What is your favorite scene in the book—and why?
Probably the second half of Chapter 23, the violent and gritty confrontation between my hero, Juanita, and my antagonist, Antonio. Writing the scene drained me emotionally, but the end product is exactly what I strove to achieve. I’m also particularly pleased with the opening scene in Chapter 20, where a naïve Juanita—guided by a spirit—tries to seduce her current love. Again, I achieved what I wanted to advance the story. That’s all I can reveal without shouting “spoiler alert.”
What was your writing process like as you wrote the book?
All wrong. I’d never written a novel, couldn’t tell a story arc from Noah’s ark. When I finally completed the initial draft, the first third of the manuscript felt disjointed, as if I’d written a series of short stories instead of a novel. In fact, throughout the manuscript, chapters didn’t flow from one to the next. I had too much backstory and an overabundance of point-of-view characters. Plus I failed to keep the fire of purpose lit inside of Juanita’s belly. Juanita had become a secondary character. After twenty-plus drafts, the input of several writing groups, five professional edits, a stack of rejection slips, and the death of the agent I finally procured, I was the not-so-proud owner of a “Frankendraft.” I set the book aside.
Over the ensuing five years I saw my novel Heroes Arise published, along with more short stories. I won some writing awards, as well. But the clock of my husband’s life was ticking toward its finish line. We’d done so much research for the The Engine Woman’s Light together, even learned how to run a steam locomotive! I didn’t want David to die without being able to hold my book. And I didn’t want to die with my literary music still inside of me. I went through the manuscript and brought it up to my current level of craft. I found a fantasy story editor with decent credits to his name—Derek Prior—and shelled out the bucks. Then, months later, when we’d completed the first round, I made a big realization. My protagonist, Juanita, needed to narrate in first person. Any other POV character needed to be in third person close.
By then, I was also in contact with Sand Hill Review Press, who suggested changing the order of a couple of my chapters. The total result was amazing. I ran the result though Derek again, to tidy up odds and ends. Sand Hill Review Press accepted my revised manuscript. Did some more editing. My husband David held my book before he passed. And I read it to him.
The Engine Woman’s Light has won four awards and has been nominated for two more. Never, ever, throw away a failed manuscript.
What is the best thing that happened during the promotion of your book?
I held the launch at the amazing Borderlands Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2017. My beloved husband, David, was able to attend via FaceTime. Nothing, even the subsequent book awards, could ever beat that.
What do you have planned next?
In 2005, I started work on the first draft of a fantasy/magical realism novel set in 1846 in California. After all this time, I’m only 40,000 words into the story, currently titled Plague of Flies. The story is a good one. It’s time to get serious.
Laurel Anne Hill’s Bio
Laurel Anne Hill grew up in San Francisco, California, with more dreams of adventure than good sense or money. Her close brushes with death, love of family, respect for honor and belief in a higher power continue to influence her writing and her life. She has authored two award-winning novels: Heroes Arise (Komenar Publishing, 2007) and The Engine Woman’s Light (Sand Hill Review Press, 2017), a gripping spirits-meet-steampunk tale. The Engine Woman’s Light received the 2017 Independent Press Award (steampunk category) and a Kirkus star. Kirkus has included the novel on its list of the best 100 indie books in 2017 and top six indie teen books. Chanticleer Reviews has shortlisted The Engine Woman’s Light for its Ozma and Dante Rossetti Book Awards.
Laurel’s published short stories and nonfiction pieces total over forty and have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journalistic media. The fans of HorrorAddicts.net elected her “Most Wicked” in 2011 for her steampunk-horror podcast: Flight of Destiny. She is the Literary Stage Manager for the annual San Mateo County Fair in California, a speaker, writing contest judge, and editor. And, by the way, she’s a former underground storage tank operator and has run a steam locomotive. For more about her go to http://www.laurelannehill.com.